I've just written a new song for Kahimi Karie, The Superstars Of Bollywood. It's about two stars of Bombay Hindi musical cinema who have broken off their engagement but still keep getting cast as romantic onscreen partners and have to crack false smiles and do flirtatious dances even when they hate each other.
In my mind, when I wrote the song, four sources probably converged:
1. I often show guests the only satellite channel I actually pay for, a Hindi movie network called Zee TV.
2. A Japanese person mentioned that Bollywood movies are trendy now in Japan.
3. The new Diesel commercial spoofs a sort of Philippino all-singing, all-dancing car commercial.
4. On a recent tour of Taiwan, Trattoria artists Cornelius and Kahimi Karie were slated to appear together in public for the first time since their separation three years ago. Cornelius cancelled at the last moment.
No Meme, No Gain
Of course, on one level I wrote The Superstars Of Bollywood for money. I wrote it because it was commissioned and will form part of an album (due on Polydor KK in May 2000) I've codenamed 'Kahimi Goes Prog'.
I'm reviving Prog Folk out of sheer perversity, really, just because it seems so naughty and inadvisible, and I want to see what people let me get away with. I want to find out if I'm still 'licensed to startle'. But no sooner have I transgressed against all the norms of commercial logic (which usually sees people following trends which peaked about six months ago) than I begin to notice signs that Prog Folk might be commercially viable by next May: a Prog Eclipse Festival in zeitgeisty Hoxton, an article on The New Folk in The Face. In the words of another song I wrote for Kahimi, 'Where it's at is where I am'.
My wish to be playful, ludicrous and laughable, to ignore the kinds of things major label A&R people think are 'commercial' and to go beyond the pale may in fact be the most commercial strategy there is. Nobody knows what people will be listening to early next century, but it's unlikely to be what they were listening to six months ago. They're going to be as bored as I am with Dadrock, Britpop, and Boybands. They're going to reward vision and people who take risks. They're going to give their money to the people who aren't thinking about money.
The Nobility of Fetish
In almost every interview I do I'm asked why I feel such strong affinities for Japanese culture. I always give a different answer. Because Japan and I both peaked in the 80s (joke). Because Japan is the most sexually fetishistic nation in the world. Because in Japan the Middle Ages meets the Far Future.
But another reason may be that the Japanese, like the British, are a canny sea-faring nation who have strong commercial instincts, but who believe that there's more to life than wealth. Something aristocratic in both nations says that a culture dominated by new money would be a very poor culture indeed. The British look at the US and see a nation where many people's spiritual needs seem to be met by Jerry Springer and the Shopping Channel. The Japanese, historically, have thought of the pragmatic, acquisitive Chinese in the same way.
What's so interesting about Japan, though, is the way this 'there's more to life than money' philosophy is expressed. Although they have repositories of non-commercial value like museums and temples, both God and the aristocracy (the powers which legitimise non-commercial values in Britain) are dead in Japan. Instead, it is the commercial itself which is imbued with an 'added value' of sacredness. Watch a shop assistant wrap up a simple purchase or see how much attention young Japanese pay to clothes, and you'll see something very similar to the sexual fetishism which turns into magic the simple pair of schoolgirl panties a Japanese businessman furtively fondles as he reads their legitimising documentation (certificate of authenticity and Polaroid of wearer).
Even the things which exist only because of money would be poor indeed if they expressed their price and nothing more. All the best commodities are made despite the laws of commerce, and transcend their monetary values.
A Japanese person said the other day that I was cunning. I didn't at first accept the adjective, and asked for examples. She couldn't really find any good ones, and in the end we agreed that I might be cunning without even knowing it. I might have an instinctual cunning to, for instance, appear indifferent to the things I really want so that I get them cheaper.
Minutes after this conversation a homeless person sold us each a copy of The Big Issue, which this week has a two-page feature about Stars Forever, and there it was in bold type, right at the top of the page: 'When indie star Momus wrote a song about another musician, he thought it was a charming tribute -- until he got a multi-million dollar law suit. But he had a cunning plan to dodge bankruptcy'. Gosh, I must be cunning. It says so in this magazine. Why, I even told The Times last week that I was the son of a cunning linguist!
The Death Of Bohemia
Last November I gave a lecture about my work at Maidstone College of Art. The head of Time Based Media told me in the bar before the talk that she'd aggressively turned her department around, changing the emphasis from self-expression to something much more commercial and reality-oriented. She seemed to be on a personal mission to purge a plague of self-indulgent super 8 movies and boring performance video, encouraging her students to think more about how they could be creative within the world of advertising in a couple of years.
I'm sure she was simply describing a global shift towards more commercial emphasis in art education. But it made me worried, because I rather like the idea that there are places where people make self-indulgent performance art (so long as I don't have to watch too much of it). I like the idea that there are places where money doesn't matter, and I think money likes that idea too.
I began my lecture by telling the students that I'd always regretted not going to art school myself, and, on visits to colleges where friends were enrolled, had been impressed by the art school emphasis on what humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow calls 'self-actualisation'.
Then I asked anyone who considered him or herself a 'bohemian' to raise a hand. Not a single person did. It seemed that the purge had been successful. Art education here was simply an induction into the commercial world. It dawned on me that I'd been invited because I was a successful creative person working without state subsidy, a kind of freelance advertising man working in the 'time based medium' of pop music, up to my elbows in commercial compromise, and happy as a pig in muck.
At the end of the lecture I played a song I wrote at the age of 8, I Can See Japan. A young guy in the front row raised his hand and asked 'Is that the last time you wrote a song without doing it for money?' It was a rude question, but a good one. Maybe there were some bohemians in the audience after all.
I Never Think About Money (All The Time)
A couple of months later, I confirmed the school's image of me as a calculating commercial animal by offering to write thirty songs for money. All the time I was making Stars Forever that art student's question kept ringing in my mind. Remember, I told interviewers, Shakespeare and Dickens wrote for money. But it wouldn't go away. When WAS the last time I did something without thinking of money? Do I really think about money when I make music? Am I compromising my art, or art in general?
The odd thing is, I never think about money. Honestly. Right now, I couldn't tell you to the nearest thousand how much is in my various bank accounts. I don't even know if I'm in credit or debt. I know that I have as much money as I need to live as I wish to. I don't particularily want to earn any more. There's nothing I really long to buy, except possibly the new albums by Plone and The All-Seeing I. (Oh, and an orange Apple iBook.) Money zooms in and out of my account by itself -- royalties come in, bills are paid by direct debit, it all seems to take care of itself. As far as I know, I've been treated well by the music industry, but it's perfectly possible, given my indifference to the sums involved, that I've been ripped off and just not noticed. Who knows, and who cares? I'd rather be everyone's friend than get wrapped up in stressful legal wrangles. I do fine.
Get Rich Slow
'You can ignore the stomach by giving it neither too much nor too little' said the young Paul Klee in his diary. It's a good rule of thumb for money too. When I have money, I get nervous thinking about how I'm going to spend it. I boast to my friends, making them feel jealous and inadequate, and waste time shopping, complaining about tradespeople, or planning to erect follies and monuments to each passing whim. When I'm in debt I get nervous too, selling cherished vinyl for pathetic sums, firing off manic letters to the bank manager telling him how rich I'll be in a month and hoping he feels petty for punishing me when I've only gone a couple of hundred over my overdraft limit.
Most of the time, though, what I like best is having no money, or rather having a whispering flow of money just going in and out by itself, like the tide.
Ironically, not thinking terribly urgently about money seems to be the best way to make it. My friend Anthony Reynolds from the band Jack is always telling me he's writing 'shit songs for the charts' to make money to finance his more noble artistic pursuits. But I never actually see these 'shit songs' in the charts, for the simple reason that if nobody loved them when they were conceived, why should anyone love them when they're launched into the world? Anthony's contempt is inscribed all the way through them, like rings in a tree stump. Who would choose to be a dupe in someone else's money-making scheme?
I don't think I'm cunning, but I'm not naive either. I think my indifference to money keeps me young and keeps me productive. Rather than having to worry about money right now, I have the luxury of doing what I want most of the time, letting a subliminal, almost unconscious money-making instinct guide me when I have to decide which projects to take on and which to pass over. I can do things like writing this essay, which I don't do for money but because I feel strongly that the net should be more than just a lot of dead corporate websites, or putting out records by Toog and Stereo Total because Britain needs (but doesn't want) them.
You know, some people say we're entering an information economy in which the really scarce resource will be attention. And I've got yours right now. It's better than money.
Momus, London, September 1999