History through youth cultures and the commodification of ‘genres’

At the moment I’m doing a book review for the book: “Sells like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture and Social Crisis” by Ryan Moore. Since I’m allocated only a few words for the review I’d have to be brief, and clinical in an assessment. For this blog, however, I would like to wax lyrical and passionately on whatever I want to. This is a monograph which is part cultural history and part social analysis. Th narrative of this book begins in the mid-late 1970s. At this time, Punk, Heavy Metal and Hip Hop emerged almost contiguously. I interpret the book as making the claim that it was from the same social conditions that such youth cultural constructions emerged as symbolic responses to the contemporamous situation, and the malaise of the time.

Social History and Youth Cultures

When we look at the late 1970s in the US, there is much of a comparison to today. The time of prosperity is over, the economic ideologies of Keynsianism/Liberalism and Fordism are replaced by Post-Fordism and Neoliberalism. Where Liberalism  represented investment into urban spaces and publically funded projects for social innovation and growth; neoliberalism represented the cutting of the public funds over the presiding priority over the free market. Where Fordism represented an economy comprising of predominantly production and manufacturing based employment which precipitated an economic renaissance and age of upward social mobility; Post-Fordism represented downward social mobility, the decline of production and manufacturing industries and the rise of the service industry.

These aforementioned social changes had far reaching implications: employment became scarce, the public sector was in decline and there was an increase in service-based vocations. Punk and Heavy Metal emerge as thematic responses to these phenomena either through the confused mix of political identification and awareness paired with nonchalant irony of Punk; or through the mysticised and proletarian-friendly imagery of Heavy Metal, which externalises a symbolic ‘other’ that is derided and representative of the lack of oppurtunities of upward social mobility and economic stability, or the authority figures that constructed this situation.

It is far to say that the ideologies of say, Punk or Heavy Metal are consistent, or unitary. Location, or ‘scene’ has a distinct impact upon a genre, and its underlying values. There were distinct conflicts or nuances in the portrayal of how such genres may be historically understood. Much of Punk can veritably be described as a hedonistic endeavour with little social criticism but poseur ironic distance where by contrast there are more politicised circles and offshoots which make distinct ideological statements, such as the Staightedge which eventually became an autonomous subculture.

Heavy Metal in the 1980s

A lot can be said about the chapter on Heavy Metal. Of particular note was Moore’s own personal testimonies (and interviews) that he addresses in this chapter. Moore was admittedly into the Thrash scene, which was a symbolic and musical combination of Hardcore and NWOBHM. The case of Thrash metal represent, in a similar way of the Straightedge movement to apathetical punk, a critique of a genre. Thrash Metal tried to respond to the contemporamous social situation and create a social criticism. Thrash Metal was a critique of the contiguous emergence of Glam Metal’s hedonism and emphasis on ‘rags to riches’ celebrity stardom and the crash and burn of having the rock star life.

Interesting about these metal movements are the inconsistencies of seeing a ‘scene’ as a unified or consistent entity; famous Thrash metal band, Anthrax which emphasised social issues, such as in the song ‘Indians’ [as in Native Americans] had members in a side project ‘Stormtroopers of Death’ which had racialised characterisations. Glam Metal likewise perverted masculinity by the band members dressing in makeup and female clothing. This was percieved as an oppurtunity to attract female fans to a genre which is typically completley male, and to depict aspects of male sensitivity with the iconic archetype of the girlfriend who works while the rock star ‘tries to make it’. This archetype led to the joke (so Moore tells us): “What did the stripper do with her asshole before she went to work? Drop him off to band practice”.

In Penelope Spheeris’ ‘The Decline of Western Civilisation’, fans admit to the homosexual urge of wanting to ‘fuck’ the members of glam metal bands such as poison because of how girlish and attractive they looked, irrespective of identifying with being a homosexual. This kind of masculine brutish sexuality was not too far from the Glam Metal scene, for while bands such as Poison and Twisted Sister dressed like women, they were still patriarchs. The women they dressed as were reminiscent of the Hollywood Strip sex workers. By dressing as women, they promote the symbolic sexual objectification of women as they make themselves the object. By having sex with groupies and feeding financially off of various girlfriends and fans, the Glam Metallers were less of revolutionaries than wasters. In similar irony, the Straightedge movement which emphasised nonconformism had distinctly militaristic and conformist tendencies. Of course, who expects consistency from teenagers.

Heavy Metal after Thrash has an interesting history. Moore’s history is by his own admission a narrative which is predominantly from US fans (his narrative of Punk addresses the emergence of UK Punk following Malcolm McClaren’s importation of the New York style). Heavy Metal is known nowadays to have an emergence in mainland Europe, which has led to very interesting and unique flavourings. The predominance of US culture as culture sui generis or as a global narrative is quite powerful but not a comprehensive story. I am intending in a future post to write about Black Metal as it emerged from Norway in the 1980s and exploded in the 1990s. That story is one which take places in particularly different and perhaps unique socio-historical circumstances.

The folks from Olympia, Washington

The chapter that I’m currently reading is one which personally strikes me the most, even more than Heavy Metal (which I quite like), I have had personal experience of the 1990s, and in my earlier years, lived through many of the records of my older siblings. I’m just a bit too young to be a Generation X-er, but I been close to a few (such as on this blog’s authorship).

Kurt Cobain, like Hendrix before him, or even Joplin (Janis, not Scott [perhaps my love for Ragtime will be in another post]), has been reified and made into a cultural demigod, or saint. So much so that ‘Kurt would be turning in his grave’ is an oft- said response by Sinistre in critical interpretation of ‘Alternative’ music. I’ll try not to dwell too much on the well-trodden story of Nirvana and its famous blonde rogue, but perhaps one detail is very interesting. Cobain was based in Olympia, Washington initially. Rather than the more trendy and commercialised Seattle: home to American cultural exports such as Pearl Jam, Starbucks and Fraser Crane.

In Olympia was a distinctly Do-it-yourself scene. This DIY approach to promoting music was also a forum for raising social issues, particularly for young women. I was genuinely surprised to discover that in the same place where Cobain started out, was where the Riot Grrrl (sic) movement also proliferated. Cobain was sympathetic to the aims and feminist sensibilities of the movement and was friends with key figures in the Riot Grrrl scene (I had to look these people up as I am completely ignorant) such as Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hanna.

Reading about the Riot Grrrl movement upset me in the nature of the issues that they addressed. Through zines, self-defence courses and other such fora of organisation, the Riot Grrrl represented a truly grassroots movement where young girls could find expression and raise the consciousness of issues that affected them, which included abuse, sexuality and mental health. Distinct themes were established which created solidarity in terms of shared experience, such as sexual abuse and experiencing self esteem issues/eating disorders. I’ve yet to discover the music of the Riot, I must admit. This is a case of where the scene is so much more than the music that comprises it. Of course, a musicological analysis never hurts. One has to use his music theory education at some point doesn’t he?

Back to Grunge. The story of Grunge can be encapsulated in the commercial success of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ at the end of 1991. In a sense, the ‘real’ Grunge music was the music that culminated in Nirvana’s success, and very much came before in the lesser known bands such as Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone. The so-called commercial ‘big four’ of Grunge are in many ways an artificial grouping: Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were more of a Hard Rock band and Alice in Chains are now recognised as a Heavy Metal band. The cultural influences behind Cobain’s Nirvana were quite diverse, and much overlooked, such as Pavement or the Pixies. This in itself was the story of Nirvana’s success. The story of Grunge’s immediate implosion came from the commercial apprehension of the brand grunge, and the branding of generation x.

Advertisers learned to take advantage of the nonchalant generation x audience, and some caught on and saw its fakeness. Moore cites Sprite’s slogan ‘Image is Nothing’ as an example. The female deoderant ‘Teen Spirit’ (from which the song ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was named) was marketed with the implication that everyone knew the song with slogans that tried to capture ‘a scent of a generation’ and such. Nirvana and so-called grunge ceased to become an underground genre of authenticity, but became a category in the local Tower Records or HMV. ‘Alternative’ as a genre took a commercial degree of success in trying to make formulaic what was once organic in an underground scene; to replicate the ‘grunge’ sound effectively became the thing that destroyed its meaning. Perhaps this is the best and clearest example of how a marketing of a genre’s ‘authenticity’ is the formula for it’s demise. It is for this reason that I don’t see how ‘folk’ can be a musical scene but a genre.

A thought on authenticity

Authenticity is a category or concept that seems elusive to me in popular music (I use this term in a broad sense). For some genres, maintaining a connection with the grassroots and the core fanbase is crucial to authenticity. Indie fans are often derided for boasting some special knowledge or claim to a band, it is often derided of indie fans that they boast ‘I knew x before they were cool’, and the Joke by Guardian columnist (so-called indie professor) Wendy Fonarow: ‘(Q): How many indie bands does it take to change a lightbulb? (A): Oh, you don’t know?’.

Authenticity seems to be like one of those concepts Wittgenstein described as a family resemblance. Perhaps there is no unified notion of authenticity, but it should be said that the varying notions of authenticity whether between musical genre or geographical scene WILL have an impact on other genres. Classical music, for instance, has many considerations of an ‘authenticity’ of a recording which I think very much draw from the categories of popular music. Perhaps it is in this way that ‘classical music’ becomes as a commercialised medium in continuum with popular music (and therefore, perhaps there is no such thing as classical music as we knew it; in the tradition going back from Gregorian Chant to Mozart to Schoenberg).

How classical music becomes youth-culturalised

Classical music autheniticity have emerged as a result of various factors: new technologies in recording, as well as restorations. In the late 20thC, organ restorations have allowed for instruments from the 18thC and even before, to be played. One can now enjoy Bach recordings played by organs from Bavaria; or Gabrielli played by period instruments. Recording technologies also play a complicated role in authenticity. On the one hand, there is the old story of how recordings have commodified music away from live performances. This discourse is quite well worn in popular music so I will not go further into this. There is also another sense of technological authenticity, where the ‘flaws’ of a piano piece are seen as perfections: Glenn Gould’s piano works often are quite low quality by today’s digital standards (his humming during piano playing is notorious as well); Performances where ‘bum notes’ or mistakes are seen as ‘interpretative uniqenesss’ characteristic of the likes of Vladimir Horowitz or Sviatostav Richter. Classical music afficionados have become spoiled by numerous recordings and it has become an art to ‘interpret’ the same piece by different recordings and record label publications. This is no different than how one might compare listening to ‘Heart Shaped Box’ between ‘In Utero’ and its recording on ‘MTV Unplugged’ (note to readership: persons of a certain age know see how tired and repetitive it is to make Nirvana comparisons – that’s exactly how tired it is to talk about Sviatostav Richter compared with Evgeny Kissin for many piano music afficionados).

Glenn Gould himself acknowledged the difficult place of technology in the social role of classical performance. Gould saw recording technologies as the ‘death’ of live music, but also an oppurtunity to portray the perfection of a musical performance. Countless takes so that a recording is right on every note, and rigorous studio processes can make an allegro more pronounced (play the tape faster) or gives a fortissimo more oomph! (up the volume). As social changes affect popular music scenes, so too do discourses of authenticity and technology affect all music as a whole.

Michael

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