As my old PhD supervisor has observed, the end is different from an ending, and for a while now I’ve been thinking about endings in popular music and the literal end of a broader popular music culture.
In my thinking here, the first idea of endings in popular music can be explained in terms of the manner in which popular music – its songs, scenes and critical literature, has often been occupied with the mortality of pop itself.
There are endless examples in song by which this trope might be illustrated although Don McLean’s mournful American Pie strikes me as a key example. While one should be cautious about looking for literalness in pop lyrics, in my reading of the song MacLean links a boyhood memory of the death of Buddy Holly (who died with the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, lest we forget) to what I hear as a lament for the decline of popular music in general:
Now for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone
Interestingly, this song has become one of the stock of resources that lazy programmers and researchers across media forms reach for when they wish to underlay any reference to pop deaths in their features. Death is always recyclable.
To be clear here, I’m not thinking of songs with a mere mention of ‘the end’, as in The Doors’ interminable song of that name. I’m thinking of songs that are, in some specific or general sense, about the end of popular music itself. One example here is John Lennon’s God in which the very personal perspective translates to a broader pronouncement:
The dream is over,
what can I say?
the dream is over.
I was the dreamweaver
But now I’m reborn.
I was the walrus,
But now I’m John.
And so dear friends,
you’ll just have to carry on:
the dream is over.
Both songs are useful here in that they illustrate aspects of how the idea of the end has figured in the broader practices of popular music culture.
McLean’s approach is indicative of a repeated sense that the end of pop is a protracted one: what was once good is now in terminal decline if one examines the bright shining past in comparison with the debased present. This is an idea expressed at length in by the concluding section of Ian MacDonald’s book on The Beatles Revolution in the Head. In a final polemic MacDonald suggests that:
the difference between Sixties pop and what came after it are epitomised by the loss of one vital element: the unexpected. From functional drum-and-bass dance grooves to histrionic Heavy Metal ballads, the lack of melodic/harmonic surprise in Nineties music is numbing. Indeed, in terms of form, pop has almost come to a halt, displaying few originalities in structure, metre or melody over the last ten years.(MacDonald, 1995: 340).
Lennon’s song illustrates an aspect of popular music that my colleague Tim Wall has written about concerning the way in which the development of sounds, scenes, individuals and so on, is often narrated as a series of ruptures between old and new, between exhaustion and reinvigoration. Thus, Elvis and rock n’ roll ‘appear’ in the 1950s and ‘change’ music and the world; in the 60s, the Beatles likewise, change music and lead young people into generational rebellion; in turn, Lennon splits from his epoch-defining band and is reborn as a shaven-headed radical: the dream is over. Lennon’s scorched-earth reinvention in the ‘Year Zero’ manifesto of God prefigures the terms upon which which punk is habitually narrated. Here, the characteristic schism of past and (no) future in punk was established from the outset in song - ‘No Beatles, no Elvis, no Rolling Stones’, and in the critical literature – for instance, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons’ The Boy Looked at Johnny (1978) is subtitled The Obituary of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
In continuing, it is important to consider the way that ‘the end’ (sometimes expressed as a new beginning) is signalled not only in lyrical content (as if that can be isolated in any meaningful way) but in the tones and arrangements of the sound of pop music too. While MacLean’s tune achieves a jauntiness at times, the lamenting tone underlines the loss it evokes. Lennon’s song is funereal in its pace and textures – layered with a gospel piano courtesy of Billy Preston. In punk, some of the iconic songs were presented as an antidote to the overblown and virtuoso rock of the 70s: rough and ready, playing down musical dexterity, stripping down the aesthetic as an aural rebuttal of the pomposity of over-produced stadium bands.
Discussion of the end of pop is a familiar topic amongst consumers, as a survey of online forums will demonstrate. Discussion of genres such as jazz seem to be permanently focussed upon the autopsy table. The terms of fan discussions (and those of fan critics in the press) are rich with evidence about the various ways in which we collectively construct the meanings of popular music culture in terms of decline, rupture and reinvigoration.
While I intend to pick up this point in more detail in developing this work elsewhere, I want to suggest that endings are a familiar and productive feature of popular music culture: one of its constituent parts. To talk about the literal end of popular music culture is a different matter and relates to the condition that we find ourselves in at the moment as a result of the ‘digital age’.
More able people than me have written about the impact of ‘digital’ for the music industries in recent years but the focus for my theme here concerns the fact that we seem to be amidst a shift in the terms upon which popular music culture as a historical phenomenon has been constructed. These terms relate to the way in which familiar organising principles, e.g. singles, albums, b-sides and so on – mean less and less. Likewise, the role of labels and the wider industries as cultural intermediaries between musicians and consumers are challenged by new modes of communication, distribution and consumption. Everywhere I go of late, I see the empty ruins of record shops. Just last week I was on a work trip to London and passed the now closed Mole Jazz while this week, in Manchester, I stood on Bridge Street before Vinyl Exchange’s old premises.
Of course, and as the example of Vinyl Exchange demonstrates, some of these places have moved off the high street to other locations and, if they have not otherwise gone out of business, this means moving into online retail. For consumers this means that the very fact of being in a record shop (which, in their various ways, are spaces that have defined the meanings of pop and how we encounter it), is not only an increasingly niche pursuit, it often appears to be something that those who grew up before the digital age cling to in spite of the availability of more ‘efficient’ and generally more economically viable means of shopping. I should mention that this broad sector and the challenges it faces is is dealt with in Graham Jones’ interesting book Last Shop Standing. Closer to home, some of these changes and their implications are outlined in this impressive audio slideshow produced by my colleague Sam Coley which explores the history of the Birmingham record shop The Diskery (no link, they are emphatically not online):
What is happening in retail then is indicative a range of changes affecting the material make-up of the music business and impacting upon the wider culture and its various practices. As critic Sean O’Hagan has suggested, this seems to be a qualitatively different moment to those that have come before in which pronouncements have prematurely heralded the ‘end’ of popular music. As he has written, in an obsequy for, amongst other things mix-tapes and album covers:
In the past few months, I have read several articles about the demise of vinyl and the accompanying death of the record shop. It seemed to be that I had read these articles, or variation of them, several times in the past couple of decades. I had read them when the Sony Walkman was supposed to sweep all before it in the early Eighties and when the CD was almost certainly going to sound the death knell of the album and the single later in the same decade. This time around, though, the context is dramatically different.
(Sean O’Hagan, ‘Wear your heart on your sleeves’, Observer, 28 Jan 2007: pp.8-9).
The context here is the digitisation presented by the MP3 format, the organising principle of the digital library and the interface of the I-Pod (or less iconic variations thereof), and online libraries – personal or shared such as Spotify or Last FM. O’Hagan suggests that this conjunction, manifest in the artefact of the I-Pod specifically ‘has made experts and collectors of us all. Everything can be tracked down and disseminated in mere moments … we are finally free to listen to whatever we want whenever we want wherever we want. Utterly, blissfully, emptily free of everything but the music, itself ghostly, dismembered, intangible.’(Ibid, p.9).
I don’t wish to make myself a hostage to fortune and to offer some objective statement about the totality of this sense of ending, or the utopian paradigm shift indicated by O’Hagan. Instead, I would make the very idea of this ending the object of scrutiny and mapping for what it has to say about how we make sense of the changes wrought by digital production, distribution and consumption.
The ideas of the great British cultural theorist Raymond Williams offer one means of making sense of this moment – whether for popular culture or more broader claims about the social in with the advent of the ‘digital’.
In Marxism and Literature (1977) Williams develops ideas that had long been present in his work about power relations and how we might map social history in productive ways. For instance, after Marx, Williams found it useful to understand historical periods in relation to their defining modes of production – feudal, capitalist and so on, but such labels lacked nuance for dealing with the transitions between eras and how one mode or organisation and thought gave way to another. In this way, and in dealing with cultural ideas in particular – encompassing concepts of ideology and the material practices of everyday life, he introduced the formulation of the dominant, residual and emergent. At any time, dynamic change, conservatism and contradiction is what characterises social organisation and culture in general and in specific areas, event though they might seem way below the lens of class politics and struggle.
Thus, it is possible to employ Williams’ framework for thinking of those consumers in places like The Diskery as evidence of popular music’s residual practices, although some of what happens in music label practice and organisation can be considered in this way.
While contemporary commentators are hyperbolic in their statements about what we are ‘all’ doing nowadays with ‘our’ I-Pods and websites, the practices of digital consumption – as technological processes and a field of related cultural conventions, are not quite ‘dominant’ but rather ‘emergent’.
So then, instead of taking on a position from ‘within’ popular music culture and lamenting the passing of vinyl, Mr Sifter’s, B-sides et al, I am interested in how we can make sense of a particular ‘moment’. This refers to a historically defined period in which popular culture was defined and defined around a particular set of practices that, once dominant and integral to its understanding, are disappearing and giving way to new ones.
As Brian Eno has suggested:
I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last, and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate – history’s moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it.
(Paul Morely, ‘On gospel, Abba and the death of the record: an audience with Brian Eno’, Observer, 17 January 2010, pp. 7-8).
Whatever the ‘new’ practices of popular music culture are, they are imbued with familiar tropes such as ‘authenticity’, ‘margins’ and ‘mainstream’, concepts which, I would argue, have no objective meaning. Nonetheless, they are constitutive of the meanings and pleasures of pop. In turn, and however much the ‘new’ is trumpeted, I feel that it too, in all of its variety, is also already imbued with a sense of mortality. As some one else has surely said: ‘Pop is dead! Long live pop!’
A blog by author Paul Long.