POP STARS? NEIN DANKE!
In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen people...
(This essay, written by Momus in 1991, was published by the Swedish fanzine Grimsby Fishmarket in 1992 then in the daily paper Svenske Dagblatt in 1994. Obviously a hardy perennial, it was then broadly paraphrased by trendy French magazine Citizen K in 1996).
THE BEST NEW BAND IN BRITAIN
Imagine Elvis never happened. Imagine Elvis Presley recording all his music for a dollar in the little booth where he cut that first 78 for his mother's birthday. And imagine a music industry which, instead of investing in a single massive star called Elvis, distributed ten thousand stars, all recording for a dollar, in totally different styles, all appealing to small, highly self-conscious cults in a fragmented society. A society in a state of fabulous confusion, exploding into fragments. Our society, now.
The music industry is changing organically, adapting to this new world of 'cults' -- tribes discovered one by one by the pioneering independent labels of the 70s and 80s. But many major labels still operate in the old way, investing huge sums in relatively few groups which they then try to bludgeon us into accepting as stars on the old model, acts which must cross over to the 'mainstream' or be dropped.
Why not spend less on more groups and market them more selectively than in the old monopoly days, when there was literally only the choice between Omo and Daz, or between the Beatles and the Stones? But the old ways die hard.
Look at Suede. They have just signed to Sony for over a million pounds, largely on the strength of a Melody Maker cover which dubbed them' The Best New Band in Britain' . The rhetoric of unity leading to an advance which can only be recouped if Suede can cross over to the mainstream, and somehow sum up all our aspirations. But what if there is no mainstream any more? What if we all subscribe to different aspirations?
Suede are good at what they do. But what they do is only worth a fig if you subscribe to the following creed.
-That pop music should be played on guitars, bass and drums.
-That pop music is young, white, and in awe of the past.
-That pop should use a style which is retro and revivalist.
-That pop is sung in English yet consumed all over the world.
These are articles of faith held by the readers and writers of the British weekly music press and summed up in the term 'Indie'. But the biggest leap of faith is the belief that Indie is not simply a cult (appealing to few people beyond the readership of the MM and NME) but that it can universalise its idioms. That the most ambitious young Indie bands can cross over into the 'mainstream', if only they are brushed up and made a bit more glamorous. So that when an indie band, its appeal duly extended, its idiom duly diluted, does hit the high end of the charts it is not just seen as a cult which has swollen to the modest size required these days to register in the charts. No, the business tells us, it is because the band now has mass, mainstream appeal. It has gone to the number one. Just like the Beatles.
But Morrissey going to number one in 1988 with ‘Viva Hate’ was very different from the Beatles going to number one in 1965. Not only are the sales involved much smaller, post-baby boom, post-mainstream, post popular pop. Your granny isn't aware of Morrissey. Morrissey is hardly played on Radio 1 and MTV. Morrissey is, no matter how he may lament the fact, not part of the 'fabric of national life' in the way the Beatles were. 'The fabric of national life' is unchartably complex and can't be encompassed in any single pop style any more. Morrissey is simply the figurehead of a very large cult audience. Pop must learn to accept that it is now doomed to be a related network of unpopular musics.
Let's return to 'The Best New Band in Britain', a nostalgic piece of rhetoric which hides several concepts which heave simply been Overtaken By Events. 'The Best': implies than you can actually compare the merit of groups working in totally different idioms, for totally different audiences, and come up with a ranking. Are Suede better than LFO? It's a meaningless question.
'New Band': Should we call 'new' a band whose sound and technology wouldn't have ruffled many feathers in 1974? In Britain': Melody Maker's vision of Britain, which is white, Indie, middle class, college-oriented. The music weeklies know Indie is just a cult, but they still hope to see Indie values 'cross over' to become the values of the 'mainstream'. Well, why should they? Clearly Soul Underground's 'Best New Band in Britain' would be black. For their readers something different would be meant by the word 'Britain'.
There never was a single, monolithic 'Britain', but in the supposedly 'classless' 60s it may have looked possible. A crude media and a bludgeoning, patronising monopoly capitalism ensured that a synthetic unity, the unity of a complete lack of real choice, was foisted on us. The old capitalism gave us two very similar products, often owned by one company, with advertising providing the illusion of choice, but actually merely fetishising and whipping up desire for products we were doomed to choose from anyway. Omo and Daz, the Beatles and the Stones: the point was that at least one of them would go 'mainstream' and unite and fulfil us all. And nobody was supposed even to imagine wanting other kinds of soap powder, other kinds of pop music.
In the seventies things improved: you had the 'mainstream' then you had an 'alternative', which was weird and left-field, perhaps European when the mainstream was American (Gong, Can or Faust). But somehow this notion of 'the alternative' bolstered the idea that, for most people, there was only one kind of popular culture, and it mostly involved dreams of Texas and California (denim, The Eagles, Hollywood).
In the eighties new consumer sophistication and new electronics began to explode that model. Minorities (especially American blacks) became more radical and militant. Computerised stock tracking showed whole new micro-audiences to whom products could be targeted, including the 'aspirational' products of art. Even Hollywood had to start making films for blacks and feminists, thereby admitting that there was more than one American dream. Meanwhile it became easier to see non-American films, or discover other musics than white rock and pop.
So why is the music industry's rhetoric taking so long to catch up with the new reality? Why must we launch bands with the unrealistic expectation that they will 'cross over' to the 'mainstream'? Clearly 'The Best New Band in Britain' is a sexier headline than 'Some Young Exponents Of Retro Indie Guitar Rock For Students'. But it paints a false picture of a changed Britain.
Look at the BBC, in crisis, with Michael Grade quoting Alan Bennet's nostalgia for the days when everyone at work was talking about the same TV programme. Cable and satellite have exploded that model, and now TV is structured to minority interests: foreign languages, sports, sex, all have their cult audiences paying to hook up. The music industry is already like this, at least in the independent sector: the music fan pays to subscribe to the work of his unpopular pop artist, an act which records cheaply enough to break even at 5000 sales, and aims its work at a carefully-targeted cult audience: in a way we're seeing a return to the earlier media systems, like the subscription publishing of the 18th century. It's all to do with economies of scale: the old Beatles model led record companies to overcapitalise bands: lawyers negotiated ever bigger advances and more advantageous contracts for their clients, unconcerned about the ever slimmer chances of the bands earning back these fabulous sums: eventually all you could do was sign for a telephone number sum, inevitably fail to become the Beatles, fail even to recoup, and got dropped. So in the 80s we saw a procession of Curiosity Killed the Cats and Johnny Hates Jazzes.
In the nineties things are very different. Society is fragmenting, the economy is contracting - - and computers are exploding the old order at several crucial points of the music business.
Making music: computers and samplers make it possible for anyone to make music. User Friendly MIDI computer systems are now cheaper than electric guitars, and you can record 16 bit digital sound at home. The results don't have to sound like Gary Numan either - - advances in hard disc recording technology now allow you to store up to 8 tracks of entirely acoustic sound in memory, monkey around with them, redraw them on screen, then master your CD directly from the computer: recording budget precisely zero.
Distribution: whereas in the old days shop managers could only hold general trends and blunt maxims in their heads; (' The Jackson 5 are good sellers'), now detailed computer stocktracking TELLS the chain that they can always sell two Ofra Hazel records in Stornoway. Small fluctuations in taste are the important thing. Benetton have pioneered this, changing product lines in each retail site according to sophisticated information on what's selling where. Benetton also showed that consumer responsiveness goes hand in hand with an advertising celebration of the pluralism of their market. Gays and blacks became visible in Benetton ads because they were visible in their stock tracking technology. No matter that the rhetoric is one of unity . The 'United Colours of Benetton' are not united by having only one style of jersey to choose from. They are united because their very different tastes can be catered to by one chain. The new capitalism is based on the customising of products and the differentiation of markets. In other words, on the recognition of 'cults'. Where can I get a woolly hat like the one the guitarist in the Red Hot Chilli Peppers wears in the ‘Under the Bridge’ video'?
Consumer choice: computerised digital media are replacing the 'shop window' function of radio and TV music coverage. The French music chain FNAC already has a digital listening post service which gives a forty second sound snapshot of every piece of music in stock, along with a digitised view of the cover artwork. It won't be long before this service will be available on your domestic TV. And the middlemen, the radio producers with their A lists and B lists, the store managers who decide from a wealth of experience (or prejudice) what the public would like, and how many copies would sell, will disappear. Music will be sold as digital information passed down optical cable directly to the home. People will become aware that there are musics much closer to their own needs and dreams than they had been allowed to believe.
Meanwhile CD ROM and desktop publishing are providing ways for ever-smaller musical tribes to beat their talking drums, to establish networks.
THE WOOD BETWEEN THE WORLDS
The feeling I get when I walk into a record shop is not that there is a battle of titans 'clashing for the number one spot'. That is the model of the old monopoly capitalism. Entering a record shop now, a good one like Tower or the Virgin Megastore, is like standing in C.S. Lewis's Wood Between the Worlds, where you can pick a pond and enter one of an infinite number of worlds at different stages of their evolution.
In the Wood Between the Worlds I can pick up someone's personal universe, take it home, swim about in it. How do the artists dress? What do they believe? What political utopia can we project from their sound, their lyrics? Where do they live, and what's it like to live there? Do they accept their original social role, or are they pretending to be something different? Do I admire them, straight up? Or are they charismatically raffish, low and immoral? What would they be like as sexual partners? Have they built an original world or are they just sitting tenants in someone else's prefabricated dreamscape? Will my Muslim girlfriend like them? Will I be tempted to sample their rhythms and pass them off as my own?
But the least interesting question, a question by now ridiculous and boring, is whether this group will be the new Beatles, whether they will 'cross over' and 'hit the number one spot'. Of what possible interest is it to me whether this group sells more than some different group working in a different style, supported by different music publications and appealing to a different cult?
Japanese record shops are the best in the world, because they are the most culty. The Japanese music consumer loves to discover the most obscure little groups, the smaller the better. This, surely, is the delight of shopping as a form of 'becoming': the discovery of something exclusive and rare, something which speaks to you as an individual in all your difference, or your aspirations to be different. Young Japanese, particularily, feel the need to become individuals in this way. Nothing could be more subversive in one of the few cultures which still believes in its 'national dream', in fact an oppressively normative core of prescribed values.
In America, Britain, Europe there is no longer any such core. We still have the charts, but no-one seeing Snap cheek-by jowl with Genesis could imagine them to be playing anything like the same game. The sales which rocket them into apparent competition represent the scattered purchases of countless unrelated tribal subcultures of all ages and classes: rave kids, accountants, grannies, African students, indie/dance cross converts... No wonder poor old Top of the Pops, still clinging to a Reithian, pre-cable notion of One Nation, one 'pop' audience, is in such trouble. How do you show the same studio audience bopping to Mariah Carey and Altern 8? It's ridiculous even to try. That's why even the Chart Show can't succeed. And why radio is doomed. Will Prodigy fans sit quietly through Belinda Carlyle's new epic waiting for their cult hero's latest 185 BPM offering? At the moment they have no choice. But the new technology will shortly spare them their boredom.
It's not only essential to see that there are other racial and cultural realities in Britain, and that none prevails with unchallenged legitimacy, posing as some spurious 'mainstream'. It's also crucial to see that just because someone is black, it doesn't follow that they will produce or consume pop in a 'black' idiom. The new tribes or cults operate by what you could call 'elective affinities '. There is room for freedom and play in our decision to try one cult, with its attendant lifestyle, rather than another.
We all feel the pinch in the toe of our social roles sometimes. Rob Gallagher of Galliano propounds a black worldview. He is a white Londoner of Irish extraction. Barry Adamson, a black Mancunian, writes in the style of John Barry, the white film composer. His record label, Mute, run by the British-Jewish Daniel Miller, is often called 'Teutonic'. We live in an age where we can design our own cults, and, if we wish, narrow our minorities down to one. 'I think I’ll be the first white reggae artist to record in Japanese.' 'I think I’ll be the first Finnish indie rock crossover fan to get into Johnny Clegg.'
Morrissey is undoubtedly right that there will be no more 'famous international playboys', although he's wrong think himself one. Morrissey is rather one of the first of the new breed of figureheads for small, culty, fragmented audiences. Your Granny liked The Beatles, she didn't like The Smiths. The Beatles were 'mainstream', then lived through the explosion of that world of synthetic unity. You can hear it dying on the ‘White Album’. How could the mainstream contain both 'Blackbird' and 'Revolution No 9'?
The future will be a lot of musical shrapnel all travelling in different in directions away from the sixties. It will be acts like Morrissey and Nirvana and Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, each at the helm of autonomous little cults (or big cults). 'What music do you like?' will become a delightfully divisive and dangerous question. And the old unifying stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson will be seen as the last of their kind, global monoliths, relics of an age of monopoly capitalism which has been smashed to smithereens.
I don't think we're going to miss the big stars. Look at the things they had to do to court the mainstream. Elvis Presley hijacked the forms of black music and took them to the white audience. (In our time Vanilla Ice tried to do the same thing with rap but couldn't. Rap is too militant, and white music - increasingly retrenching in the US into its most racial form, country - can no longer claim to be the all-absorbing mainstream now that whites are just another minority).
Elvis publicly joined the army, made awful Hollywood films, couldn't face stardom and died a bloated mess. Is it hard to see the pressures which have made Jacko 'whacko'? Stars aspiring to 'mainstream' appeal have had to resort to increasingly ridiculous tactics. Michael Jackson has to be both black and white, and has become increasingly implausible to both races. Madonna was on a winner while her 80s 'material girl' values seemed universal, but in the 90s has had to return ('ironically' of course) to the old Hollywood culture of Dean and Monroe. While I admire her current espousal of gay culture (she knows which way the wind is blowing), I think getting 'culty' will inevitably spell the end of Madonna's mass appeal. And a good thing too. Perhaps she'll be the first of the big stars to survive the transition to little audiences.
Jackson and Madonna are the last of their kind. Nobody will be able to say; 'It doesn't matter if you're black or white' in an America riven by semi-civil war between those races. No tired old Hollywood glamour will bridge the linguistic and cultural gaps between the Hispanics, Jews, blacks, whites, all now competing minorities in a culture without a centre. The American flag is now meaningless, just as the 'Union' Jack is. What 'union' can be or should there be between the mutually incomprehensible tribes who now make up Britain? Morrissey is quite free to reappropriate the flag on behalf of his own cult of radical vegetarianism. It's up for grabs.
How many more performers must be sacrificed on the altar of our nostalgic wish to see 'one nation under a groove'? To stay sane, to stay plausible, pop artists must drop their claims to universal stardom. Let's abandon the nostalgia, let's drop the rhetoric, let's restructure the music industry. We now have a democratic technology, a technology which can help us all to produce and consume the new, 'unpopular' pop musics, each perfectly customised to our elective cults.
The King is dead. Long live the peoples!