What happened to the goths? (and other questions of musical ideology)

Please forgive my descent into crudity towards the end of this post, during the first draft I’d made a start on my duty-free Stolychnaya (only 10 euros for a litre of the good stuff – quite a bargain) and the results are there for all to see. Nobody’s paying me for this crap so my standards are purely my own (and – as always – I grossly overuse closed brackets).  I hope you enjoy the read – there’s even some pictures and embedded YouTube videos and everything.  

Sweeping generalisations about goth kids

Disclaimer: everything that follows in this section is unfair, generalising and is likely to be entirely wrong.  Of course goths still exist, I saw three of them sat smoking in a park in Southampton just a couple of weeks ago but they were clearly all adults and therefore exempt from the next paragraph. Basically I’m not one to let a little contrary evidence get in the way of a rant. With that in mind let’s proceed… 

Living close to a 6th form college* and a train station, I have to negotiate a path through a horde of fresh-faced (and/or unjustifiably moody) teenage blighters on an almost daily basis as I’m making my way to/from work. Being the premature curmudgeon that I am, I noticed that something’s changed about this age group since the heady days when I was counted amongst their ranks but it took me quite a while to figure out what it was – there’s no more goths or punks. Okay, okay, that sounds like a pretty stupid and inconsequential observation to make but bear with me here; maybe this isn’t the case where you are or amongst people of your own age group, and it’s not like there were ever many goths to begin with**, but I’m talking about the kind of deeply middle-class area which is typically a fertile breeding ground for the angst-and-alienation driven, somewhat elitist goth subcultural union of fashion and musical taste.

Fashions, tastes, pop-cultural movements are ceaselessly changing, driven by an unconscious desire for the new (and the culture industry’s commercial imperative to provide it to that 16-24 demographic with their almost-entirely disposable incomes) but the goths have been hanging around with very little change in style since the 1980s, growing out of a stylistic fusion of the glam, punk, nu-wave and (early) metal aesthetics (as well as some other influence I’ve doubtlessly missed). Much like the heavy metal genres of music most closely associated with being goth^, once these influences coalesced into a codified form they effectively became their own self-referential closed circuit; metal bands influenced exclusively by predecessor metal bands and goth fashion taking its cues from goth fashion. It suggests that the secret of metal and goth’s longevity seems to be rooted in its deliberate separation, an aesthetic/genre island amidst the swirling currents of the pop-cultural sea which has implicitly positioned itself outside of and against the fluid mainstream. And this was a baton that’s been passed continuously down a line of teenagers that’s 30 years long. So how could a youth subculture so remarkably enduring shrink so quickly?

In a word: internet. Actually I suspect its a lot more (or maybe a lot less) complicated than that but in the borderless world of the internet, where subcultures and identity can spring up, mutate and die off within a matter of months and popular culture influences can spread virally at the speed of a ‘like’ or ‘share button’ click, the kind of insular stasis typical of the goth seems awfully luddite. Which isn’t to say that the flames of metal and/or punk music are extinguished (they keep burning away in their corner somewhere over there) or even that the various elements of goth’s cultivated image have disappeared from popular culture; those tastes and the fashion signifiers of the goth are now incorporated as part of an infinitely broad continuum of style and artistic consumption instead. Sprawling tattoos, interestingly located piercings, spacers,  black make-up, black dyed hair, neon hair, desired paleness, distorted riffs, double-pedal bass drums, unsustainable screamy vocals, a tendency toward fantasy or monster (vampire, wearwolf, witches, whatever) genre fiction, black lace, fishnets, and [insert any other attributes you care to name here] have all been absorbed to some degree by the people who make up our contemporary Western monoculture, each of us uniform in our cultivated individuality, and walking down the streets of any British town you’ll see these formerly-goth signifiers scattered liberally throughout the crowds of non-goths around you.

If I had to point to a single moment in music ‘history’ that sums up the two-way cross pollination of ‘alternative’ subculture with the mainstream then I’d point to the drum and bass group Pendulum’s breakthrough album Hold Your Colour^*

In the summer of 2005 Colour exploded amongst fans of rock/metal music, broadening their horizons by showing first-hand that the raw, frenetic energy of mosh-able music could be captured – nay, surpassed – by electronic dance and physically bringing the in-vogue D&B music into rock festivals and ‘alternative’ venues. It certainly helped that D&B could get us dancing in a limb-bungling style that was easy for us ‘too cool to dance’ alt-kids to adopt beyond the voluntary ugliness of the pit. Pendulum’s most interesting quality was their love of rock/metal, including their manner of dress (lots of black, ear-spacers, other piercings, tats, etc), and their second major album In Silico (2008) went even further by explicitly fusing structural and  elements of these styles with D&B, going on to be an even greater success with sections of the rock crowd. Metal kids going to raves, mingling with the ravers, inviting the ‘alternative’ to come in from the cold; the genie’s out of the bottle, the cultural sea level rises, the continuum continues.

* for non-UK readers that’s an optional post-high school education establishment for kids aged 16 to 18.

** which I suppose was the whole point of actually being a goth really… every one of us likes to think that we’re a special snowflake. Also I suppose I should make it clear that I’m specifically referring to goths in this spiel, not “people who like heavy metal and/or punk” because there’s plenty of them still around (but not so obviously demarcated by appearance as they were in the recent past).

^ You know what I mean: the heavy heavy metal and its subsequent evolutionary offshoots/branches (of which there are far too many to make it worth listing, many of those defined by characteristics which are very esoteric to outsiders).

^* The significance of the album format, with its individually structured tracks (including choruses) that stood on their own almost as ‘songs’, shouldn’t be understated. D&B fans and other ravers typically listened to mixes with the emphasis on the performed ebb and flow of the live set over individual tracks. The album form both suited Pendulum’s rock influences and commodified their music in a form that was immediately intelligible to the rock/punk/metal kids (like me) at the time. When I went to Pendulum “gigs” I expected to hear them play Tarantula and Voodoo People. Hell, many of their fans still refer to them as “a band”.

Punk’s emotional prison

Continuing with this post’s theme of stuff that was relevant to my specific and subjective experience of being a teenager in the early 2000’s, I’m going to talk about Green Day and The Offspring. “Oh fuck no, please don’t do that… I’m going to stop reading” I hear you say (and you’d probably be right to do so) but I promise you it (hopefully) won’t be as horrific a reading experience as you might expect.

Once again I should hasten to point out that everything that follows in this section is unfair and unbalanced. For the sake of weaving together a convenient oppositional story I omitted Blink 182’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket and all of Greenday’s grungy 1990s material (i.e. that time when they were really very good). Feel free to skip to the next bit.

Amongst people who enjoyed these two bands, back at their commercial peak in the early 2000s, there was often a debate around which of the two bands was “best”*. While these debates were utterly futile since (being young and stupid) we lacked any sort of critical faculty beyond “I like this one the most”, there was one clear winner in terms of popularity and is was their work which went on to have the undeniably greater influence on the commercially ascendant emo/pop-punk/screamo scene music that was to come in the next few years. That winner was Greenday with their album American Idiot**. and of course the assertion implicit in the voices of those who sang along to the album’s eponymous single was “I am better than those others, I am a special child”  a notion that was continually reasserted throughout an album which made a nominal pretence of social conscience but mainly focused on the emotional turmoil of getting dumped. Their “Jesus of suburbia” concept spoke directly to the experience of their target audience, suburban white kids undergoing hormonal awkwardness, but did little to take them beyond that known space in the way that The Offspring sought to with Ixnay on the HombreSmash and roughly 60% of Americana.

Not that The Offspring are remotely guiltless when it comes to the growth of navel-gazing in punk. Their most contemporaneous albums to American Idiot were Splinter, which wasn’t any good and mainly focused on a narrow range of emotional states, and their Greatest Hits (which was doesn’t really count) but their slide towards the self-important emotional prison of 21st century punk was well under-way with Conspiracy of One^, the follow-up to Americana (and you could argue that all the warning signs were present in that album too, with the likes of No Brakes and the woeful Feelings). Its singles, Original Prankster (a best-forgotten sequel to Pretty Fly), Want You Bad (a humorous love song) and Million Miles Away (a standard-issue homesickness ditty with a cool guitar riff and somewhat catchy chorus, at least to a 15 year old’s mindset), neatly illustrate the start of the band’s downhill lyrical trajectory.

Once pop-punk and its audience mutated into emo, a genre that’s essentially all about you and your precious feelings, you’d have a real struggle to find anything by the MTV-approved bands with the social conscience of these tracks:

or self-effacing humour like this:

And so, after the Offspring’s peak, came American Idiot.

And after that came My Chemical Romance.

And that’s when the punk in me died.

* The correct answer is “The Offspring”.

** Remember those? They used to come on something call a “compact disc”. #oldman #getoffmylawn #youknownothingJohnSnow

^  Conspiracy was commercially stunted by The Offspring’s dispute with Columbia Records over Napster (the band wanted to use the first wave file-sharing phenomenon to give the album away for free – a move you’d never see from the likes of Greenday and it preceded Radiohead’s widely praised “innovation” with In Rainbows by the better part of a decade). As a consequence they never again got the kind of marketing push that Greenday or Blink 182 later enjoyed, though its probably for the best as they had evidently started to run out of chords in their later years. 

Mumford and class

Fucking hell… did any of you see the results of the Brit Awards? If this is the best that British guitar-music can achieve today (it isn’t) then the industry as it exists might as well give up*. Here’s a challenge for you: listen to the (award winning) Mumford & Sons track below and then think up at least three things that are distinctive or inspirational about it. I’ve probably heard loads of their music on the radio but I must have quickly forgotten about it because – honestly – I’m struggling to remember anything about this song, even the chorus, and I listened to it immediately before writing this paragraph.

Actually that last sentence was probably a little unfair of me. I remember the banjos and banjos are generally okay by me… but “okay” is the defining characteristic of that song. It’s all so safe; so patronisingly, stultifyingly safe**. The whole thing is crying out for a coked-up lunatic or born-angry young rapscallion^, possibly fresh from reading K-Punk’s Capitalist Realism, to stomp on stage with swagger and actual balls, kicking over something expensive on the way and screaming “SOMETHING INCOHERENT” before slamming out a killer riff and dying young.  

Matters of taste aside, it does look like there’s been a disappearance of the British working class from guitar music. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to go ranting about some elusive ephemeral bullshit like “authenticity” and claim that middle class kids (or really posh kids, in the case of Somethingorother & Sons) are incapable of producing “real” rock or anything stupid like that (especially since there’s a mountain of evidence to the contrary) but I do think it’s sad that there’s seemingly a diminished diversity of voices being represented by the (traditionally broad) rock-pop genre. Music can be many things, mostly fun things, but because it taps directly into our psyches, bypassing the rational software and reverberating the mammalian core of our mostly-simian brain hardware, it also has a unique potential to offer a subtle broadening of the social consciences of its audience. It disappoints me to think that there might be no new Libertines, no Arctic Monkeys, no young Manic Street Preachers, no Verve breaking into the head-space of young chart-listeners and rearranging the mental furniture… just the likes of Mffffnnn & Suhh doing their twee and unchallenging pseudo-charm for the kind of kids who shop in Jack Wills and are well-behaved enough to sit with their parents through entire episodes of Downton Abbey.

* Yes, I’m aware that award shows like the Brits serve little purpose beyond showing us what trends within the industry it thinks is most relevant to itself (and the all-important self-congratulation of its moguls). 

** Listening to Mediocre & Sons again while proof-reading this post and adding the footnotes actually made me feel as though all British culture is turning to shades of Tory and Ukip. Pah. Fuck ’em and their prematurely middle-aged fans. They can all go read the Daily Heil and watch Top Gear like their dads; collectively pretending that Jeremy Clarkson’s patriarchal provocations are somehow “rebellious” rather than merely being another example of the ancient traditions of triumphant selfishness, xenophobia and parochialism that represents so much of the worst of my country’s culture and history.

In all seriousness I’m not saying you’re a total shit for liking Mumble & Slog but – because I believe most people are fundamentally decent at heart – I know you’re capable of doing so much better. Please don’t let me down again.

^ Either that or Prince with his screaming hyper-phallus of musical electro-joy

whywerehere

Yes, let’s remember why we’re here. It’s time to talk about something good…

musicismagicmusicismagicmusicismagicmusicismagic

There’s this graphic novel* called Phonogram: The Singles Club (by writer Kieron Gillen, artist Jamie McKelvie), it’s all about music and it’s bloody brilliant. Imagine a world where music is literally magical (not so different from our own then) and in that world there’s a night club in Bristol, a special/ordinary night of special/ordinary music where various young/less-young folks go for various known/unknown reasons. That’s surely the vaguest and least effective summary of a story I’ve ever written but forget about that because The Singles Club is not so much about events as it is about people’s perception. The art is beautiful in its precision and confidence, with McKelvie producing a masterfully subtle range of expression in his characters, and Gillen’s ideas and themes should resonate with anyone who enjoys music (meaning you, obviously). It seeks to explore the way music works to construct our identities yet also enables us to transcend or escape from our sense of self, utilising the refracted lens of seven diverse characters who are all occupying the same small space and short time to bring different ideas, emotional states and interpretations of music into focus. I guarantee you’ll find yourself identifying with at least one of the kids in the story or you’ll know people just like them. Click play on the embedded song below and take a look through the images that follow**. The rest should speak for itself.

longblondes

* Well it’s a comic really (they’re all comics, even that one you think it’s socially acceptable to admit to liking) but if I start by saying that it’s a comic you’ll think “what like Spider-Man? lol stfu” and you wont read it, regardless of its brilliance.

** You’ve probably noticed that all the images from elsewhere in this post are from the same comic. This is totally deliberate^.

^ It was not deliberate. Not at first anyway.

Of course the inherent irony of the kind of ‘music writing’ in this article is that most of it is wrong (except for the bit about Phonogram, I really do know what I’m talking about when it comes to comics). There could be millions of goth kids hanging around the bike sheds of this world, sneaking cigarettes and feeling their emotions; it’s true that The Offspring’s guitar riffs were often infuriatingly same-y while many of their songs were just plain bad; Mumford & Sons probably mean something significant to somebody out there, maybe even you; and most of you won’t bother to read Phonogram or even listen to the tracks I so very thoughtfully embedded here.

The point, if really there is a point to be found, is that music matters beyond the immediate pleasures of its sounds; it is not trite or banal to say that music forms the soundtrack to our lives, informing the patchily recollected lived stories which become the basis of our shared experiences, individual identities and sense of self. Stories matter and the music which underscores our stories is more important to us than any of us can ever really know, exerting a subtle yet significant influence on our momentary existence and how we reconstruct that daily life into something far greater than its accreted facts.  And that’s (possibly) why I wrote all that stuff you just read.

“PHEW! SO IT’S ALL OVER THEN? CAN I GET BACK TO MY LIFE NOW?”

Not quite. Finally, here’s a little bonus for any masochists who made it this far through my torrent of garbage and bile; it’s Chvrches with their live cover of Prince’s I Would Die for U (hey that’s two Prince links in one webpage!) and if YouTube takes this video down for copyright infringement again I’ll be… I’ll be a little bit miffed:

(There’s actually some much better audio quality recordings of this on youtube that I’d recommend you check out but I wanted to use one with live footage because golly-gee crikey their singer is really rather lovely.)

Peace out yo.

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Reflections on ‘Zeitgeist: Moving Forward’

Having just watched the newly released documentary film Zeitgeist: Moving Forward I feel compelled to write some kind of a response. For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with the Zeitgeist documentaries, the film-maker Peter Joseph or the web-based ‘movement’ I shall also attempt to provide a (hopefully) brief introduction/overview to it all.

For the sake of clearing up any misconceptions you may have about this article:

  1. This is not an attempt to debunk or dismiss the documentary, there are plenty of people who are better qualified to dispute the veracity of Joseph’s films than I am.
  2. Neither is it an endorsement of the documentary or the associated organisation known as the ‘Zeitgeist Movement’.
  3. I am not a member of the ‘movement’, although I sometimes read their fortnightly newsletter because I’m genuinely interested in seeing what they’re up to.

So what’s it all about then?

Film-maker Peter Joseph

Zeitgeist: Moving Forward is the third in a series of documentary films by Peter Joseph. The original film Zeitgeist was released in 2007 and was immensely popular, attracting millions of online views, although Joseph has supposedly distanced himself from a great deal of its content (particularly part 2, which was essentially a repackaged collection of 9/11 conspiracy theories) since then. It is easy to dismiss Zeitgeist as just another conspiracy theorist’s fevered dream, especially when you consider that the film adopts the standard tone and techniques of a 21st century conspiracy-movie and apparently fails to entertain the possibility that it may, in any way, be wrong (which is usually a bad sign) or that its evidence might be flawed.

A little over a year later Joseph finished work on Zeitgeist: Addendum then founded the ‘Zeitgeist Movement‘, a web-based organisation which uses the movie content as its ideological basis. It is at this point that things really get interesting because the focus of Z:A has shifted away from the kind of specific conspiracies perceived by the film-maker seen in to a far broader structural/social analysis. Again the film is divided into three sections with parts one and two exploring the monetary system and the USA’s foreign policy, while part three introduces Jacques Fresco, founder of the ‘Venus Project’.  The Venus Project is an organisation that attempts to visualise an alternative economic reality as an example for the ordinary public, as well as advocating a social philosophy generally based on the principles of the scientific method – we’ll discuss this group later on. I found the critique of fractional reserve banking provided in part one to the be most interesting and personally significant section of the film as it investigates the structure of our contemporary economic system and explains how this directly affects you and I. To Joseph’s credit, the source material for the second film seems to be much better researched and unlike its predecessor Z:A includes face-to-face interviews, which makes for a superior documentary.

the opening eye is a recurring motif in 'Moving Forward' and 'Addendum'

Which roughly brings us up to date, so: its February 2011, Zeitgeist: Moving Forward been screened in 346 cinemas around the world at the time of writing (though most viewers will watch it on YouTube, where it is now freely available), and I’ve already expended far too many words and wasted too much of your time on a prelude.

Science

The film begins by posing the question “what is the nature of human nature?” to a selection of leading academics which including neurologists, sociologists and a criminal psychologist who specializes in studying the most violent offenders. The film seeks to correct a popular misconception about genetics, namely that human behaviour is somehow encoded or ‘hard-wired’ and thus implicitly unalterable. What unites all of the interviewees in this section is that their studies show a person’s environment is more important to their behavioural and physiological development than genetic predispositions. The film also shows that the only ‘pre-programmed’ part of our nature is a set of fundamental ‘human needs’ (water, nutrition, love, touch, etc) and it is to the extent that our environment provides or denies us these ‘needs’ that decides how we as human beings develop. Based on these observations the film then goes further, arguing that the social environment created by post-industrial capitalism is not conducive to satisfying these human needs.

I was impressed by the interviewees featured in Z:MF, who all appear to be leading experts in their fields, and I’d argue that this is a significant improvement over the previous films. The most crucial difference between Joseph’s Zeitgeist movement and other ideologies is that it is grounded in up-to-date scientific knowledge (instead of having its origins in superstition* like the prevalent political ideologies of today) and interviews such as these help to emphasise this difference.

*(I could spend a long time demonstrating how modern Conservatism, Liberalism, Fascism and Socialism all have their philosophical roots in some thoroughly discredited Christian metaphysics, but that would require an entire essay I don’t have time to write. You’ll have to take my word for it. Or not.)

The films also argue that all improvements to our standard of living, going all the way back to the foundations of human civilisation, are the result of technological improvements (think: the plough, mass production, steam power, the internet, etc) and have nothing to do with politics, religion or economics. This could be a particularly contentious issue for some, as it is commonly accepted in contemporary public discourse that free market economics and democratic politics have improved our lives and such assertions routinely go unchallenged. . Personally I find it hard to believe that today’s spin-doctored professional politicians and multi-billionaire investment bankers have any concern for my interests or well-being. See the film and decide for yourself.

No money, no politics

The Zeitgeist films are nothing if not ambitious. The ultimate goal of the movement is clearly stated as being the total redesign/reconstruction of human society, and they see their current activities as being the first steps towards achieving this aim. At the moment the ZGM seems primarily to be concerned with raising awareness of their cause, either through various forms of media or by directly encouraging people to watch the films.

This new form of society is based on two key priciples: firstly, that the essential ‘human needs’ established earlier on (such as nutrition, familial love, social integration, etc) must be universally satisfied; and second, that we live on a planet of finite resources which must be conserved in order for humankind to endure. This means that the economy is entirely based on the availability of resources and the satisfaction of human needs. It sounds simplistic but the implications are far-reaching: it means a total abandonment of wasteful consumerism (no more Coca-Cola, no more fashion, no more iPads and no more cars), shared/communal property, global free energy which must be drawn entirely from renewable and sustainable sources, and no more money. Sounds implausible right?

Perhaps, not so long ago, it would have been. In both Zeitgeist: Addedum and Zeitgeist: Moving Forward the argument is put forward that what has changed is the technology and scientific expertise which has become available to humankind and, as I mentioned earlier, it is the scientific method that is to act as the final arbiter of what works and what doesn’t in the Zeitgeist society.

All of the above is hardly sufficient for describing the ZGM’s alternative society but hopefully serves to give you a rough idea about what they are proposing.

Jacques Fresco's 'circular city' concept

A rational future or a hopeless utopian dream?

I have come to believe that the Zeitgeist films are genuinely important. If nothing else they are useful cultural artefacts which signify a major change in how many people now see the world, their place in it and their relationship to each other and, whilst I remain highly sceptical about the predictions made in the latter stages of Z:MF (as I am towards any kind of ‘futurist’ predictions about the development of technology), the socio-economic critique which forms most of the documentary is compelling and feels particularly valid during this period of economic and environmental crises.

Many people will dismiss the Zeitgeist documentaries and movement as being ‘conspiracy theorists and their usual insane garbage’ but I would rather engage with their views than pretend they are irrelevant or don’t exist. Zeitgeist: Addendum and Moving Forward are effectively a manifesto for a global anti-capitalist organisation that is quietly amassing quite a large following and I suspect that we are going to see a corresponding growth in their public profile sooner or later. The global recession triggered by the ‘sub-prime’ mortgage crisis has proved to be something of a catalyst for progressive political thought and it seems inevitable (to me) that disenfranchised young people will look to alternative ideologies or belief-systems for answers at a time when all previous economic doctrines (Neoliberalism, Communism, John Maynard Keynes, Hayek, the Chicago School of Economics & the rest) have failed to deliver us from the notorious boom-bust cycle, let alone enable us to create a better world.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do is watch Z:MF and decide for yourself. I hope that these reflections haven’t prejudiced you for or against the film and instead merely served to pique your interest, though if you’ve already seen the film and have anything that you’d like to add, please feel free to leave a comment. One thing’s for certain: these are interesting times in which we are living.