Monday, 11 January 2010

the centre cannot hold


by samuel breen.

The brilliant Alan Rusbridger speaking in 2006 about the effect of the internet on print media offered a simple analogy. Without the limitations of print i.e. page space, word count, the job of the editor would be to cherry pick work from a bouquet of writers and articles, reduce the word count, then allow sub-editors and proof-readers to massacre what remains*. He compared their role to that of a funnel (at the time I imagined a coffee filter) where topical articles are forced through a condenser and the most significant news, reviews, features etc. got printed.

Now with the internet there are no such editing decisions. Everything is plastered up live against the website wall for the world to see, the media now resembles a city being turned over 27/7 by an armies of fly-poster’ers. Each competing for attention but as a result of their number nothing gets across. Articles still get edited, but instead of having 10 reviews of an album, there are 100. Instead of one critic, there are 1,000,000. Instead of having the choice of say a Berliner’s contents we have the world’s press at our disposal.

Furthermore (I am aware I am mixing metaphors) without any coffee filters there’s no coffee hit. To explain, there is no moment, no event, no realisation just a continually lengthening novel with no ending. There is no moment when our eyes are peeled awake by Kenco’s finest reminding us that we are alive. We consume media eternally, you’re doing it now, it’s our window to society.

With no coffee hit we struggle to pinpoint media events. A simple example of this can be seen in Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe end of year review in which a ‘moment’ in Noel’s HQ is deconstructed to devastating effect. The problem is that this ‘moment’ took place on Sky One to a diminutive audience. As people are drawn to this ‘moment’ as friends link to it on Youtube, or read about it in a TV column, see it on a TV critic’s show or other. When we talk about that ‘moment’ we are actually talking about the media’s treatment of the event after it has happened. The same can be argued about the complaints received following the Sachsgate affair where it became obvious that people were complaining having not heard the show but rather having read pull quotes in a red-top headline. We no longer argue, “did you listen/see to ‘x’ last week?” but rather, “did you hear about ‘x’?”

The Mainstream - Pop music…more like pop media!

With no defining moments and unedited drivel flooding the internet, (hypocrite? Me? Never) it has become increasingly hard to identify any music mainstream. Critics (in and out of the industry) spent much of the Decade bleating on about the demise of the single format. However contrary to their belief single sales went up over the course of the decade thanks to legal downloads. Their real complaint was that the singles market rarely reflected any cultural movement - put simply, commentators and the industry just weren’t down with the kids enough, nothing new there, and they weren’t going to admit it either, ditto – in order to identify let alone understand the market. The livelihoods of culture vultures just got hard. Simple questions like, “What’s the best gig to go to? What’s the best album out this week? What’s the hip new single?” are rendered impossible to answer. Everyone was out of touch becoming entrenched by their own, self-edited media domain.

With so many possible responses and infinite tribes defending their territory it is increasingly hard to identify an event. The idea, and please correct me if I’m wrong, was that with Web 2.0 all popstars would be forged from ‘word of mouth’. However, terms such as buzz, hype and ‘going viral’ are not used by the oi polloi, they are used by the PR agent, the ever trying radio presenter, the achingly hip blogger. This revolutionary yet brief blueprint for how to cast a star was inevitably exploited by the record industry. Few stars have survived the hype and the ‘viral’ attention, Lily Allen was the last to go as both critics and fans sidelined her follow-up album, she later announced her departure from the job.

"Shit, you only do two days no how, is the day you go in and the day you come out"- Avon Barksdale, The Wire

We don’t see an artist get big, we watch them turn into a celebrity overnight. Amy Winehouse became more famous for her constant media attention than her music – despite the fact that Back To Black is arguably the album of the Decade. Before the brawls and the crack, when it was just wine and pills she had Radio 2 listeners under her thumb. A flurry of headlines later and she went stratospheric; everyone got interested, along with my Nan.

The X-Factor winner’s song is not the work of genius in the studio, not the zenith of artistic creation but the product of an extensive campaign for media attention. On to BGT, Susan Boyle’s ‘moment’ wasn’t defined by her singing but rather the media treatment and attention. Her initial performance was her Big Brother audition, her concession of victory was her inglorious exit and her No#1 record was her underwhelming return. At best, she will only be a popstar as Big Brother winner Craig is a TV handyman; a has-been riding the comet tail of their media limelight.

What I’m trying to say - in a very roundabout way – is that mainstream music is not about the sound, it’s not about whether we like it or not, it’s about the media covering it to the extent that we are required to opine over how the media behaves around it. Because it is the media that is everywhere, not the music, not the event. The centre cannot hold because the music, the glue to it all, is wholly irrelevant.

So how does this affect us? How does this affect our taste?

We frequently invest in art in order for it to say something about us, I am the product of my interests. I showcase my interests on my online profiles. In truncated lists we attempt, usually in vein, to define ourselves. For fans of Amy Winehouse and Susan Boyle to list them on myspace or wherever is to show that they have no taste. To proudly announce that they like the white noise of the media, the hysteria and the pandemonium. Because to like them is to admit that they like all the media attention/treatment/call it what you will. Their only alternative is to argue that it is just the music that they like, which is utter shit because no matter how loud and frequently you play their records you won’t be able to avoid le bruit of the media. How can you hear Rehab and think of yourself and your own defiance against people’s advise? You can only picture the time she went to rehab and left. To hear “I dreamed a dream…” part from Susan Boyle’s mouth, you can only picture her standing out side her West Lothian bungalow talking to BBC Breakfast knowing that her dream had been realised, the lucky bitch. There is nothing mourning or sadness to the lyric, no melancholia, Boyle is no longer lamenting an unfulfilled moment but rather announcing the arrival of notoriety and success, presumably that which she so dreamt of. If you like the music you are a philistine, because the media behaving as it does, is as disgusting as it is vile, like a criminal puking on your breakfast. Your only response, “This is lovely this!” being formed out of intimidation and fear of social seclusion.

The ubiquity of the media has removed music from Popmusic. All that is left is popular topics and Twitter trends.

This isn’t a new concept however. Public hysteria and blanket media attention have often shrouded the music. Imagine the screaming at a David Essex concert being so loud that the music was inaudible. The ‘Jackie’ era of pop fans coincidentally are one of the key markets for reality entertainment shows. Like brain dead zombies traipsing the globe, feeding off HRT and pop nostalgia. Swooning over pre-pubescent twinks or fallen divas in the dailies, TV guides and gossip rags. The 70’s child now confined to Saturday night telly lusting after some nubile teen. Each year they pick their new-model Jimmy Osmond and vote like the lines were never rigged.

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