Pop(ping) Bubbles #2
An intriguing final episode of Pop Britannia last night, this time focusing on the years 1975-2008 (approximately). As always, the massive over-simplification the BBC music documentary department seems prone to - classifying the early '70s as a total wasteland, missing the connection between glam's identity-warping and punk, excluding the entirety of non-New Pop post-punk (PiL and Joy Division, despite being on national television at that time, were seemingly not allowed) and disco (GAH! 'I Feel Love' was a Number One! How dare you!) - was present and correct. But at least this time they acknowledged the massive role punk played in the genesis of New Pop - whilst they left out massive chunks regarding NP's intellectual backing (Scritti, Penman and Derrida; ABC, ZTT and Paul Morley), they admitted that the likes of ABC, The Human League and Frankie Goes To Hollywood "couldn't have happened without punk" - that punk's re-routing of musical priorities from technique to the experience presented to the listener, the look, sound and ideas, was at least as regenerative for pop as it was for rock. Which is to say, that prime punk, opposed to New Pop and disco by its post-'77 fans, actually had more to do with them than its ostensible source, rock music; and they, in turn, had more in common with punk than the dreck they legitimated - Duran Duran, Stock-Aitken-Waterman, T'Pau, all the rest. And it's quite frightening to think that this is considered a threatening narrative - that rock music is still considered so much of a sacred cow by the popular mindset that saying this sort of thing remains necessary.
It seems to me that Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up And Start Again was, to no small extent, the catalyst for allowing this sort of narrative to be told; but that also, like it or not, the retro-ist music magazines (Mojo, Q, Uncut, The Word, etc.) are at least partially responsible. Despite the essentially reactionary nature of the endless retelling of rock history - their main activity, perfunctory reviewing notwithstanding - of canonisation, museum-fication, the historical process occasionally unearths variables that set the whole edifice of these received histories crumbling. I say 'histories', because everyone seems to have their own: for the most people my age, music ceases to exist before Britpop, except as an embarrasment (of course nothing happened in the '80s except for Jason & Kylie, and The A-Team); for the majority of the public, the last fifty-plus years of pop music exists as one undifferentiated mass, with certain 'classics' - Abba, U2, Bon Jovi, choose your poison - rearing their heads above the mediocre masses; for the balding Clash fans who read the above-mentioned magazines, the past is a series of Top 50 of [insert genre] list and linear historical narratives worthy of Fukuyama and his cronies. For example, in their version, the 1970s goes: 1970-1975=total cultural wasteland, with everything (from Mud to ELP to Donna Summer) tending toward creating resentment that leads to punk; 1976-1980=punk, which is then betrayed, and followed by its inheritors (Sham 69, etc.) and effeminate, wimpy, corporate pop. Any and all of these histories is immediately thrown into doubt by something like The Normal's 'Warm Leatherette' - which draws lines between punk and disco, between Conrad Schnitzler and The Human League's Dare, between J.G. Ballard and the top of the charts (via Giorgio Moroder and, latterly, Grace Jones) - and which I first came into contact with through Jon Savage's 'Post-Punk C90' feature in Mojo #122.
Thought about in this manner, history becomes less narrative, and more buzzing mass of free radicals - and hence infinitely more entertaining. And, of course, the analogy isn't complete without applying Copenhagen theory: history is changed by the very fact of its observation. This isn't to say that there is one, true history that merely gets distorted by people looking at it (in this case, people writing their own narratives of history), but that pop history is, really, what you make it. What was so exciting about Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces, for me, wasn't the sense of unearthing a 'secret history' - I knew about Dada, Lettrism, the SI and the Sex Pistols already - but of making previously unheard-of connections, of rewriting history into a better shape, a shape that, just looking at it, felt liberatory. It's precisely this, I think, that makes historical revisionism such an attractive tactic (especially for leftist intellectuals, who have no other means of making things look even vaguely promising these days - note the amount of time spent by the SI, in Internationale Situationiste, and The Society Of The Spectacle, in reinterpreting the past in order to find a way out of the present. The rock-school graduates who populate the NME (and, lest we forget, the bleeding charts), and ceaselessly worship the past, could do with a bit of a reminder that the past was once the future, unstable, inspiring, and it can be again. All it needs is a closer look...