A Broken Record That Keeps On Spinning
I'd like to direct any unaware readers to Tom May's masterly and thorough analysis of the UK Top 40 (and a bit more) (no satisfactory perma-link, but it probably hasn't moved from the top of the page) - it shows, perhaps, that one can no longer think of the mediocrity that fills the charts as a kind of systemic corruption, but as a structural problem, so deeply rooted that almost nothing can get into the charts that isn't hopelessly dull, naff or rote. This is an area fraught with problems for me, as an experimental music fan: the standard line for avant-music enthusiasts is that popular music, as such, will always be crap, because of its being engineered to suit 'popular tastes' (this latter term left conveniently vague, but with the implication that, in order to appeal to the widest possible audience, music must be as aesthetically watered-down and unadventurous as possible); but this, as far as I'm concerned, caricatures the notion of 'public taste' in a distinctly unlikeable way. The notion that people essentially can't be trusted to pick their own music is the kind of misanthropic cultural scare-mongering I gave up quite a while ago. In either case, it's contradicted by a vast swathe of evidence: the fact that many of Timbaland's best productions - possibly the most conceptually and musically exciting and experimental the Nineties produced - got into the top echelons of the chart (Aaliyah's 'More Than A Woman' hitting No. 1, Missy Elliott's 'Get Ur Freak On' reaching No. 4), and that considerably more people bought those records than buy the emissions of whichever identikit balladeer has come to the top this week, gives the lie to the entire notion.
Neither does cultural theorist and jazz hater Ted Adorno's notion of the 'culture industry' wherein, to quote wikipedia, "society was controlled though a top-down creation of standardized culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression", entirely help - it denies agency to cultural creators in a way that seems both incorrect and almost dangerous: even within the major label system (to say nothing of international independent labels), there are people working to make music their way, and often coming out with very good, not to mention popular, results. There isn't any apparent 'standardisation' of culture in this chart; looking at it, it's a desperately mixed grab bag full of nothing: a bit of R&B-peppered trance, some overenthusiastic pub-rock, dumb (and dull) as dirt synthy rap, a lot of earnest balladry with OTT inflections and soft-rock guitars, apparent 'soul' (Lord knows that's what Winehouse and Ronson pretend to), ghastly white-as-the-pure-snow 'indie' - the only standardised factor is the level of dullness and mediocrity involved. The obvious parallel would be with the 'traditional' image of music in the early '70s - the 'salad mix' albums produced by the likes of Mud and 10CC: some cod-reggae here, a bit of flat country, a saxophone solo, all over the same plodding beat, with the same ghastly vocals; casting about desperately for novelty, drowning in a drought. (An aside: this 'traditional' image of the early 70s is of course, a minor fiction - there was a lot of exciting stuff happening (roots reggae, dub, the gender- and genre-bending power of glam, the avant-fringe that followed in the wake of Captain Beefheart and the Canterbury scene, the continued explorations of free improvisation); the parallel to now would be the continuing flow of exciting stuff produced by the international experimental underground.) It seems, as I've said, to be not so much any kind of mass stupidity or hesitancy on the part of the public, but a structural problem: the economic and artistic structure of the industry is such that it produces a universal mindset pathologically incapable of producing or accepting anything new or exciting.
I say 'new' in addition, because accompanying this tendency towards total bland-out is an endemic reliance both on the music of the past, and from the work of other bands. The Ronson-Winehouse cover of 'Valerie' and the new Duffy album (both of which are in constant rotation at work) are cases in point: Jools Hootenanny knees-up atmosphere, cloying reverence (to objects which, actually, were rather crap in the first place - and this is me, speaking as a Phil Spector fan), disgusting petit-bourgeois self-satisfaction. Acknowledgement of the past is unavoidable in the production of music, to the extent that the constituent language of any art-form is determined by its historical development, but it doesn't necessarily mean producing music that is simply derivative: free improv, experimental noise, hip-hop, experimental folk (such as that put out by the Bo'Weavil and Language Of Stone labels) and the profusion of electronic musics show that it's possible to create and sustain living traditions that can still produce original, exciting music. There's certainly no dearth of interesting ideas floating around, and no lack of interesting ideas from the past to build on (and I use that phrase deliberately). Perhaps then, what we are seeing is a collective and individual failure of will to do so, the music being, as May puts it, "fundamentally handicapped in that those behind it or performing it impose limits on themselves and what they will give to their audience": they are not prepared to try new things in the hope that it will attract more listeners. Maybe what we're seeing at the moment is not so much the very bottom of music history's innovational barrel, but an ultimately transitional phase between the major-label era and one in which DIY labels, enabled by the Internet, music production software, and the easy accessibility of CD manufacturing equipment, will essentially rule the music landscape; one drained and battered by compromise.