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CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH!
By Phil Thornton
When did the Red Coat revolution happen? When did music critics stop distancing themselves from the artists and become mere reporters? When the likes of Nick Cohn and Lester Bangs offered their highly personal, subjective yet analytical critiques of the music industry as it was in the 60s and 70s, they did so as mavericks, as writers who were unafraid of upsetting the apple-cart. Yes they were vain and egocentric, speed addled, alcohol soaked and self-mythologizing, but they were outsiders, they told the truth as they saw it. They remained detached from their subject matter, or as detached as possible, even from artists who they admired, worshipped even. They realised that once you were ‘in‘, once you became part of the inner circle and became friends, then you were fatally compromised. You could earn more, you could sell your memoirs, you could pen hagiographies and fly on the wall accounts of hell raisin’ and all that boring rock n’ roll caper but it came with an ’officially approved by the band’ stamp of (in)authenticity‘.
Some music journalists of course love nothing more than to be an insider, a band mate, an acolyte and propagandist; think Nick Kent with the Stones, Paolo Hewitt with The Jam/Style Council or Paul Moody with Oasis. The pet hack is useful for a band, for a manager, for a label. It’s the same in football, the journalist’s employer, the paper requires access and the way to get access is to tow the party line, to bow to club demands and become little more than a glorified PR mouthpiece or press officer. It’s up to fanzines and websites to bring balance and although they too can also be either overly negative or overly supportive, at least there is a forum for dissent and alternative opinion, critical or otherwise.
In the 1990s the music press somehow lost sight of its primary critical function and became little more than Pravdas for the majors. Access was key, access to the stars, the cover stars it needed access to in order to sell copies and, more importantly, to drag in advertising. The same faces recycled over and over and over again. Bankable sellers. Recognised brands. How many times did Liam and Noel appear on the covers of NME and Melody Maker from say 95-2005? Even when there was little or no interview inside, just an LP review or a ‘special edition’ or a convoluted news item; ‘Liam flies home from tour/Liam gets twatted by ‘gangsters’/Liam punches photographer etc.
Of course there were some outspoken voices, writers who refused to kowtow to the economic and editorial climate, who not only criticised but provoked. People like Steven Wells, perhaps the last of the truly incendiary journalists who found himself out-of-step with the new ’pragmatic’ regime at the once fearless NME. A man out of time perhaps, a former punk in a post-modern ironic age where nothing was treated truly seriously and every traditional rock band came with an arched eyebrow and a boil-in-the-bag microwaved set of influences.
With weekly music papers and magazines folding or being amalgamated and monthlies becoming increasingly fragmented into niche publications or geared towards middle-of-the-road or retro demographics, the music press became very competitive and narrowly focused. IPC and EMAP dominated the market and swallowed up successful independent titles. Editorial appointments became more about sales than content and, in such a climate of economic pressure to deliver results, the art of criticism became reduced to an industry appeasing cheerleader for bland, manufactured bands and artists with little musical or aesthetic merit.
Take Oasis for example. Anyone with an ounce of musical knowledge and a half-active critical mind could see right through their second-hand Beatles meet The Roses regurgitation. Sure, they had a bit of swagger and Manc attitude but come on, the music itself was Blue Circle League Baggy revivalism that made even the likes of Northside seem innovative and avant-garde. Yet, the critics lapped them up, the NME and Melody Maker, Q and Select couldn’t get enough of the Brothers Gallagher and their cut n’ paste ’rock n’ roll’ shtick. What would once have been derided as ludicrously retrogressive, dull and banal suddenly became ‘The Future.‘ Union Jack Guitars and an all-too-predictable sloppy anti-intellectualism flicked the middle class journalists’ switch; here were another set of unruly, uncouth northern guttersnipes to uphold the grand tradition of prole-art-theatre. A cabaret of used car mannerisms and postures. Lad Rock. White Rock. Cock Rock. Tooo-niii-iiight they’re rock n’ stars!
The nadir was reached when that glorified Butlins Red Coat ‘family entertainer’ Robbie Williams was elevated to a position of importance. Never mind his ear cancer inducing brand of watery cabaret, the man himself, the failed boy-band puppet who turned into a real boy, became a symbol of 21st century cod-cool. He ‘lived the dream’; he had it all; women on tap, millions of admiring fans, huge sums of money at his disposal and, most tellingly, critical acceptance. His records and his statements were treated seriously by people who should have known better.
Ofcourse the music press can always claim that they were simply reflecting the buying tastes of the public and there’s no doubt that Williams and Oasis were hugely popular but so were Mussolini and Mantovani. It’s almost as if the critical community (turn left at the dissenting crossroads and we’re right next to the cynical high-rises) had a collective Diana-esque moment of madness. Just as the Glastonbury masses joined in with ’The Robster’ as he emoted the nauseating lyrics of ’Angels’ in a communal act of sentimental hara-kiri, so the critics hailed Oasis’s 1996 Knebworth concert as era-defining in the same way as The Stones at Hyde Park or The Roses at Spike Island. This is fucking OASIS we’re talking about. Mass delusion has a long history and culturally the 90s seems almost an aberration, a decade so confused and lost that it placed its faith in any number of dream manufacturers, hologram icons of faith and hope in a faithless, hopeless world; Diana, Blair, Robbie.
Now another decade or so on, the landscape has changed once more and non-conformity is the new conformity. Modern day, media-savvy dissenters and agent provocateurs such as Beth Ditto and Pete Doherty ply a cartoon vision of rock classicism, a knowingly contrived image of alienation and debauchery. Beth’s brand of 80s rad-fem Grrrl Powa is only interesting contrasted to the Stepford colonisation of modern pop. As for Pete, his speedball stereotype act cuts no mustard with those who remember the be bop and soul greats who got on with their addictions out of the public eye, away from super-models and easily pleased sub-editors and a sorry army of mini-methadone malcontents, glugging up all the phoney mystique and wasted elegance. As for Amy, Amy’s soooo Janis, soooo Billie, soooo doooooooomed. And maybe she is but somehow none of it feels real. She feels as fake as her music. Yes, she’s interesting compared to all the KT, Katie and Kates, but then so is Kirsty Wark.
Do we get the music and the music press we deserve? In the insta-digital age is there room in our chew-faster, breath deeper, remember-to-put-the-cat-out lives for context, for analysis and for passion or can anything and everything be boiled down to a fifty word LP review, a one page interview half taken up by a colour photo, a nostalgia driven golden oldie romanticism of previous glories and an endless parade of all-singing-all-dancing mutant karaoke bands? How will we judge today’s critical infatuation for say The Killers or The Cribs or LCD Soundsystem or Hot Chip in five, ten, twenty years time? Will have a Cohn or a Bangs or even a Steven Wells or a Simon Reynolds to make sense of it, dissect and examine its entrails or snarl and spit and shoot it to smithereens? When the NME’s awards are sponsored by hair gel products and most titles throw up the same old faces in self-congratulatory, backslapping awards ceremonies, maybe not.
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