Cosmopolitan Sophisticates

I once wrote a song called 'I Was A Maoist Intellectual (In The Music Industry)'. It wasn't actually about rock critics, but it could have been. At least one British reviewer identified it as being about 'our game'.

The joke was, of course, that Maoist intellectuals like the students Godard portrayed in 'La Chinoise' are the people with the lowest self-esteem in the world, since they side with an ideology which demands their own elimination (or proletarianisation). Step one: study a lot of books. Step two: burn them and sing cheery work songs as you get transported to a people's farm far away from the metropolitan centres, with their dangerous cosmopolitan sophistication.

Gee, Uh, I Guess...

Rock critics -- and here I'm talking only about the best, the top one percent, the creme de la creme of the profession -- are in a difficult position. They write for ultra-sophisticated bourgeois publications, but, unlike the Classical and Art sections, the rock section of the paper is meant to be a window into a genuinely populist artform. It's meant to be part criticism, part anthropology.

Rock critics like to think there are two kinds of records: disks made by people like themselves (the new Momus, the new Auteurs, the new Moby or Magnetic Fields), and disks that 'the people' like (the new Celine Dion, the new Eminem).

You might think, at first glance, that the smartest critics would root for the smartest records. Sometimes they do. But that fails to take into account the low self-esteem of the anti-intellectual intellectual. Confronted by intelligence equal to their own, such people experience, at the very least, an ambivalence, a sense of 'I could do that' or 'There but for the grace of God goes another rock critic'.

This ambivalence is one reason why the very cleverest artists always pretend to be stupid. Think of Beck, Bob Dylan or Andy Warhol. Intellectuals all, each one an avid student of the mannerisms of yokels, hobos and morons. ('Gee, uh, I guess...')

You could say that the ambition these artists all had to become national heroes made them into cunning Zeligs, ready to assume any form the United States required its icons to be. (Look at Bob Dylan's early imitation of James Dean.) And, although intelligence is generally a prime requirement of success, appearing smart in public is not (imagine Dylan in spectacles... career disaster!)


A couple of articles have recently been brought to my attention. Both are editorials on the state of pop music by extremely smart critics, both based in New York. Simon Reynolds' 'Overrated of 1998' has been up on his website since January, but was only recently pointed out to me by a journalist in Berlin. And Eric Weisbard's article for the New York Times, entitled 'Smart, Lyrical, Even Genteel, But Is It Rock?' appeared in their online edition on August 1st. Both cite me briefly, and both mourn the breakup of the mainstream and its replacement by a fragmentary scene made up of cults.

Both writers express discomfort with the genre term 'Intelligent Dance Music'. Simon Reynolds has a less flattering term: Geektronica. 'This international network of home-studio-made, pressing-of-500 electronic music is basically the new lo-fi rock,' he says.

'I call it geektronica because the people into it have the same trainspotter obsessive-compulsive collector mentality as lo-fi nerds, and because musically, it's deliberately enfeebled or impaired sounding. Just as the demographic constituency/class-base for lo-fi doesn't like rock that's too rockin' and rhythmically muscular, similarly the geektronica audience prefers dance music that isn't danceable... this music's strongest trait isn't rhythm but melody.'

Reynolds continues: 'Nothing against obscurity (that would really be the pot calling the kettle black I suppose) or unusual formats/packaging, or coveting rare records. But a lot of this geektronica stuff has crossed the line into wilful obscurantism. With records coming out in pressings of 250 or even fifty (with handpainted covers etc), you have to wonder what's the threshold below which music ceases to be a "cultural practice" and becomes mere hobbyism? As the phenomenon of music distributed through the Internet, downloaded and CD-burned continues to develop, this global geektronic network may well devolve into a barter economy, with bedroom producers trading their music with other artists through the Net. Momus recently suggested that rather than everybody being famous for 15 minutes, in the future everybody will be famous for 15 people. That's what it's getting like, and that's why we should be getting worried.'

Now that's obviously not a dig against me, and I'm of course delighted to be quoted. Reynolds is also honest enough to point out that obscurity is not something he has ever avoided, and that he loves a lot of the artists (Aphex Twin, Luke Vibert) he groups in the Geektronica category along with Moby and Squarepusher.

My Struggle With The Cosmopolitan Sophisticates

What worries me is the implicit attack in both pieces on pluralism, intelligence and cosmopolitanism. My line about everyone being famous for fifteen people comes from an essay I wrote in 1991 about how new technology, by allowing us to record cheaply, liberates us from the music industry with its gatekeepers and its monopoly over the distribution networks. The reason people are talking about this eight years later is that I was right, and the music industry is now waking up to the fact that it may no longer have a role. Artists can now own the means of production (I mastered my new album at home on my Mac) and can control the global distribution of their work thanks to the internet. To me, this is all to the good.

What worries the critics about The Momus Scenario, though, is that there will no longer be any shared reference points. You will not be able to talk in the New York Times about Eminem in a world where there are a thousand Eminems. My 1991 essay began 'The king is dead, long live the peoples!', a theme echoed in my 1999 album title Stars Forever, which proposes thirty unknown people as 'stars' and references Aleister Crowley's dictum that 'every man and every woman is a star'.

The era of stars (as in Hollywood, as in Spin and Rolling Stone) is over, and that worries the critics.

Eric Weisbard, in the New York Times, says this:

'When those on the rock fringe do reach out now, it's to people like themselves, who just happen to live in other countries. Nouveau cabaret acts like Momus in London, Kahimi Karie in Tokyo and the French-singing April March in Los Angeles use their sophistication to make common cause across national boundaries... Such alliances supersede the need for a local scene and offer an alternative, albeit a deliberately small one, to the planetwide media presence of a Celine Dion or Puff Daddy. Yet the worldliness these performers manifest inevitably promotes an ideal of affluent cosmopolitanism.'

I don't want to underline this too heavily, but doesn't this argument remind you of something disturbing? Rootless cosmopolitans, intellectuals with international connections with like-minded outsiders, minorities who collaborate across national and racial divides... isn't this exactly how Hitler characterises the international Jewish conspiracy in 'Mein Kampf'?

Weisbard ends his article by saying that the spiritual 'parents' of the new sophistication are Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart rather than the Rolling Stones and Green Day. Like Reynolds, he is not against sophistication per se, just unsettled by the collapse of mainstream musics that expressed the anger of disaffected working class youth.

As a counterbalance to the invasion of the geeks, Reynolds cites with apparent approval Gabba, the ultrafast Dutch fascist variant of techno, and Weisbard cites white rappers Eminem and Kid Rock.

It must have been reassuring for critics to have been able, back in the days of credible mainstream artists like Nirvana, to make intelligent arguments for why millions of people were buying records like 'Nevermind'. Like Maoists, they could be both smart and seem to have 'the people' on their side. They could ignore the fact that there is an IQ gap, and that most of the people buying Nirvana were not reading the New York Times.

Return To The Valley Of The Titans

If you need more evidence that the age of credible mainstream art is dead, turn to the Art section of the same day's New York Times. Their critic says:

'We might define the 90s as a decade that has rejected the sort of encompassing movements that used to characterize modern art and that declared its revolutionary bona fides... A great deal of work these days is quirky, accessible and out to please in a low-key way... It's work that fits with the tune of the time, according to which anything, in any medium, is now acceptable, and nothing is particularly essential.'

Behind this wistful tone lurks something more sinister: the suggestion that there are no titans any more, that we need macho and authoritative 'kings of art' like Jackson Pollock to dominate a sissy and disparate modern scene in which 'anything goes'. And perhaps there's a parallel desire for 'critic kings' like Clement Greenberg to legitimate the titanic 'artist kings'. It must be terrifying to think that, in a world where everybody can be an artist, anybody can be a critic too.

But in a fragmentary age of cults, we need trained, experienced critics more than ever, especially intelligent ones. We need them to tell us where to go on the internet, how to pinpoint needles in the great digital haystack, where to get great MP3 files. We are in a wilderness, and we need guides. Yes, it's going to be more difficult for critics to stay hip. Much more difficult. No press officer is going to call up and bike round a CD of the latest and best stuff. Great music isn't going to fall into your lap when you shake the tree. Shake the internet and you'll be buried alive.

But we need you, smart critics! We narrowcasting artists need you to get the message out that we exist. We want you to embrace pluralism, not yearn for the lost era of national unity. We need you to own up to being the rootless cosmopolitan intellectuals you really are, and join us in the struggle against the nationalists, the idiots, the gatekeepers... and the homophobes.

Straight Rough Trade

One subgroup of critics who never have to be reminded of the value of pluralism is gay writers. The third and final reference to Momus this week occurs in British electronica magazine The Wire in a review of Kris Kirk's posthumous collection of essays, 'A Boy Called Mary'.

Andy Medhurst's review says of Kris (who died of AIDS in 1993): 'The confluence of his pink socialist politics with the emerging likes of Boy George, Bronski Beat and The Pet Shop Boys make for fascinating and historic reading, but he wasn't only interested in those involved in perverting the Top Ten. Sitting alongside the pieces on those acts are encounters with artists who moved away from a pop starting point towards less mainstream zones (Marc Almond, Marianne Faithfull) and still further offshore from the pop coastline, the likes of Diamanda Galas, Momus and the musically and sexually hardcore dance collective Tongueman.'

Kris would never have championed gangsta rap or gabba because he would have been all too aware that these are musics enjoyed by homophobes. To a gay man, there is nothing reassuring about The Mainstream, which is, of course, heterosexual and which often asserts its identity by destroying those who think differently.

At the very worst Kris, had he lived, might have followed Morrissey, Derek Jarman and Pasolini down the steep, masochistic path which leads to straight rough trade and the sexual desire for one's own nemesis. A rocky route to destruction known also to the small percentage of jews who are anti-semitic, and 100% of Maoist intellectuals.

Momus, London, August 1999

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