Wednesday, May 19, 2021
Thursday, May 13, 2021
Pop Journalism: Write or Wrong?
Melody Maker, May 24th 1986
So you want to be a pop journalist? Free records, free tickets, the occasional trip abroad and the chance to tell your favourite rock star what was wrong with his last album. But you don't want to be a hack, I hear you say. Neither do you want to be a media brat or vacuous lifestyle sociologist sussing out every pose. You want to shine but you also want credibility. A difficult one that.
In the absence of a strong street style like punk you're not going to make your reputation jumping on to the latest bandwagon. Pop music these days is a culture of fragments and you're going to have to reflect that in your writing. You're also going to have to come to terms with the fact that pop as counter-culture, as radical disruption, is long since dead.
Unlike the editor of the NME who still believes in the rebellious spirit of the paper, and unlike the bimbo from MTV who, on the BBC's recent history of the pop video, proclaimed that "MTV was for the rebels", pop is now fake resistance and there are few sights more pathetic than a pop writer selling you some dodgy new band under the guise that they're going to bring about the downfall of Western capitalism as we know it.
I know what you want to be. You want to be what Jon Savage calls "a post-modern pop journalist".
HOW TO BE A POSTMODERN POP JOURNALIST
ONE OF THE most interesting commentators on pop writing is Jon Savage, a one-time writer for this paper and now a regular contributor to The Face and New Society. Though there's been a massive increase in the sheer volume of pop writing (about a third of the magazines in your local newsagent will be advertising some sort of pop tie-in), Savage believes that most of it is merely a consumer guide to attract a certain market. This lack of critical perspective afflicts even the likes of The Guardian and The Observer whose increases in pop coverage have been brought about by the realisation that pop is no longer kids' music and is the perfect vehicle for catching that 25-35 audience. Savage feels that the inkie pop papers fare little better.
"You can't write good stuff if you're on a weekly deadline," he said. "Journalists who have to meet weekly deadlines soon get into the burnout syndrome. In my experience, a monthly deadline is ideal. The other problem on the weekly papers is the ego syndrome — the rock journalist as star. Writers should take great care not to become stars.
"I started writing about pop music firstly because of punk but mainly because I always wanted to be a writer. That's very important. I didn't want to be a publicist, I didn't want to form a record company, I didn't want to be a rock star, I wanted to write. I'm very serious about writing."
Savage believes in a postmodern approach to pop writing — a writing across disciplines that refuses musical authenticity and the attempt by the old pop writing to identify this with political radicalism. But, having got rid of the old politics of pop writing with its bogus dualism between rootsy "real" music and synthetic "unreal" music, Savage believes that the postmodern approach has failed to develop a new politics, often descending into incoherent solipsism. The blame for this he rests squarely on the shoulders of Paul Morley and his "I, Rebel Executive" posturing.
"I have liked Morley's writing in the past. But his problem nowadays is that his credibility as an independent observer — which every good writer should have — is severely undermined by the nature of his involvement with ZTT. Of course we've all got our hands dirty to some extent but not to the extent that he has. To me, his influence is one of the reasons why rock writing is so bad. He should go away for a couple of years."
THE LAST PUNK IN TOWN
CLEVER SIMON Reynolds in the next edition of Monitor (a fanzine with a severe case of discourse fever) writes an excellent article on the recent punk retrospectives commenting that "far from being 'like punk never happened', our music scene is massively overdetermined by punk... It seems to me that the music scene is still fatally hung up on punk and, at this moment, every possible construction of those events... is being lived out, carried on, by someone."
None more so than Paul Morley. At a recent Eugenie Arrowsmith bash that Ten Records threw atop the Kensington Roof Gardens, Morley commented after viewing the assembled hordes of liggers, music industry sycophants and has-been punk stars (John Lydon was there), "I'm the only real punk here".
After having his fingers burnt with FGTH ("slags", as he refers to them now), Morley is back with the NME and is about to release a collection of his interviews under the auspices of Faber And Faber called Ask — The Chatter Of Pop. Whether you love or loathe his writing, there's no denying that Morley is one of the most imitated writers around. Though some would say that his posing as the only journalist left writing with any credibility — "The Last Punk In Town" — is becoming increasingly tedious. Mind you, he can still talk a good interview. Here he is slagging off the new generation of "boy journalists" and their bogus authenticity.
"This endless search for authenticity is like a perverted campaign for real ale. The boy journalists have to cling to the notion that pop is rebellious and a confrontation against mediocrity. The new pop writers are a series of boy Arthur Neguses who constantly search for an echo of Pete Shelley or the Velvet Underground. That's why the market for the inkies is shrinking.
"The inkies are completely out of date and that's why they are attempting to become multimedia magazines, incorporating sport, to stave off their inevitable fate. But even when they cover sport they, by and large, look for authenticity, so they choose Pat Nevin because he likes U2.
"The industry doesn't care about the black and white papers any more because those papers know nothing about the pop process. The black and white papers know nothing about how the phenomenon of A-Ha is constructed, for example. They think they're above all that. It's like when I had Kim Wilde on the front cover of the NME, there were all these people running around and saying 'How dare this happen! This is the end of the NME'.
"For me, pop music is a glamorous confusion of self-consciousnesses and you can write interestingly about it. The critical perspective should be absolutely glamorous."
If Morley is unimpressed by the New Authentics, he's also critical of the style-over-content school of pop journalism represented by the likes of Peter York and Robert Elms. In the face of these writers' consumerist frivolity, Morley intends to instigate a campaign for "the return of seriousness".
"I'm a very serious person," he says. But if neither Peter York nor Stephen Wells are suitable models for the pop writing of the future, what should young writers be writing about. Monitor suggests that writers should be addressing the materiality of music, "writing that attends to the surfaces of sound, the madness of rhythm, the allure of spectacle, the possibility of surprise."
Less fancifully, I would suggest that we need to insert the body back into music — the skin-thrilling effectivity of a piece of pop, the bass-body interface, the way a certain piece of music can literally change the way you walk through the world.
Morley again: "All those things you're talking about like the sensuality of language and the body, I was at the forefront of doing that. But can you make it accessible in the face of the ubiquitous chatter of pop? That's the problem.
"The best theoreticians of the 20th Century, from Walter Benjamin to Roland Barthes, were entertainers. But perhaps more importantly than the materiality of pop, is initiating a discussion on the history of how we got to this point so that we are able to have this conversation. That's what should be discussed in the music papers every week."
What about the criticism that Morley is unable to have a proper critical perspective because his presence looms so large in the interviews he does — the ego syndrome again? What about the i-D philosophy of the hardly mediated interview? You'd hardly expect Morley to support that and he doesn't.
"It's a nice idea in theory but if Dylan Jones (assistant editor of i-D) really wanted that idea to work he wouldn't put his name at the bottom."
A DIFFERENT KIND OF JOURNALISM
PEOPLE OFTEN slag off i-D for being trendy. This is rather like accusing the sky of being blue. Of course i-D is trendy but it's not the sort of obnoxious "someone, somewhere is having a better time than you" trendiness of some of its glossier rivals who are engaged in the sordid business of substituting envy for desire. Dylan Jones believes this is due to the fact that i-D has a very different set of journalistic ethics than its rivals.
"In general, the i-D philosophy behind the writing is to express ideas without editorial opinion — our interviews are meant to be probing and investigative without being sycophantic or vitriolic. The question and answer interviews are done in such a way so as to expose as much as possible about the interviewee, and not the interviewer... and to be pertinent, unlike the Ritz style which can be entirely conversational.
"If we don't like something, then we don't mention it, because we want to be positive. If it's no good then why should we tell our readers about it, when there are so many things out there worth talking about? We don't condemn anyone... we haven't got the room in a monthly magazine anyway. Objective criticism yes, slagging no."
While I would question the possibility of objectivity in these relativist times, it is refreshing to read a magazine that has none of the thorough-going misanthropy that writers on the inkies often indulge themselves with. But perhaps more importantly i-D is one of the few magazines that's willing to give space to things that fall outside the press release circuit. The sheer eccentricity of some of its coverage (half-completed books, bands that are not only unsigned but probably haven't even had a rehearsal yet, etc.) is what saves i-D from the creeping South Molton-streetitis that afflicts all of its cousins.
IF WE'RE TALKING about postmodern pop journalism, then we've got to mention the maverick talents of the extraordinary husband and wife team of Fred and Judy Vermorel, the writers behind the book Starlust and ace theorists of what they call "Ubiquitous Pop". In case you hadn't noticed, pop music is everywhere. From Wogan to Women's Own, from Labour Party political broadcasts to Absolute Beginners, from the TV Times to beer adverts — seen the Heineken advert's appropriation of the Einsturzende Neubauten school of metal-banging yet?
Pop saturation and the pop tie-in is the order of the day. Pop is the media air we breath. Pop is no longer an option but a massively expanded network of communication that everyone feels he or she must occupy a place in.
"These days, post-Band Aid, everyone has to run," say the Vermorels.
What they're running to (whether it's Norman Tebbit at the BPI Awards or Charles and Di at Live Aid) is the rhythm of what the Vermorels call "Planet Pop" — pop as a moral imperative, pop as bourgeois charity that reinforces the myth of universal brotherhood, 'We Are The World'. As Greil Marcus has remarked, you used to hear in pop music an eagerness to reach other people. In Planet Pop all you hear is the confidence that people will be reached.
But what of the role of writers in the seemless ubiquity of Planet Pop. According to Judy, writers nowadays are "freelance market consultants.
"Writers like Paul Morley have been fully integrated into a marketing function where they once used to have a critical function. Fred and I refer to this as consensus terrorism — the process whereby writers, artists, management, etc., work together as a team in order to conscript emotions as part of these huge worldwide marketing strategies."
In the face of this situation, a retreat to the margins and to avant-gardism is no solution. As Fred points out, all that hot and spicy rhetoric about challenge and provocation, tactics of shock, breaking down resistances, is merely more grist for the consumerist mill. Pop is the key medium for the dissemination of avant-garde attitudes to the masses, is the major process by which "avant-garde mythology becomes teenage rampage."
As Fred wrote last year in an article on The Face in Creative Camera: "First come the art ultra-mags. Like ZC, ostensibly about theoretical discourse and all that atonal jazz, but equally, and more importantly, ransacking specialist and scholarly journals and rarefied avant-gardism for desirable slogans, attitudes, associations, moods... all then filtered, cleaned up and rounded out (often by the same writers and illustrators) into art/fashion glossies like The Face and Blitz.
"At which point the ideas — gestures, pictures, stories, manifestos — are available to aspiring pop stars, boutique owners, A&R and ad men, pop managers, publicists, rock journalists... and the next stage is to try out these ideas on potential consumers through independent releases and interview features in the rock press.
"If the idea then takes, the majors then move in with production bucks and you will next see so-and-so's dissertation on sidelights in reification in the philosophy of Surrealism on Top Of The Pops."
If the margins aren't a refuge, neither is the flocking of journalists like Robert Elms and Paolo Hewitt to the Red Wedge cause going to change much.
Fred again: "The politics that people like Billy Bragg and Red Wedge are involved in is the politics of celebrity and they're trying to evade that point. When me and Judy were on The Tube with him we tried to engage him on that point. But he wasn't interested. He was there to sell the Labour Party and we were there to sell our book."
All that indignant fuss about Robert Elms operating an elitist door policy at a recent Red Wedge bash is pompous nonsense. Old Bobby may be a bit vacuous but he is sussed enough to know that the politics of fashionable youth subcultures is not about party politics but about exclusion — separating the hip from the unhip. Socialist fraternity and clubland culture are uneasy bedfellows at the best of times.
WE ARE THE MONITOR CREW
IN SEARCH OF a post-modern pop journalism, it would be unfair to finish without a brief look at the fanzine scene. Frankly, only two are worth any consideration, Vague and Monitor. It's no coincidence that neither of them actually look like fanzines. Monitor is the more interesting in this context being a magazine set up by a bunch of Oxbridge graduates with a strong interest in using sexy French theorists like Baudrillard and Foucault to talk about pop.
Monitor tends to read like it was written by a bunch of disillusioned NME readers. Mind you, disillusionment with the NME is not necessarily a bad thing. At its best Monitor occupies a fertile ground between journalism and that Left tradition of critical theory. A common occurrence in other countries but a difficult position to maintain in a country notoriously resistant to new fangled ideas from the Continent.
At its worst, it gives Steve Sutherland a headache and makes me wonder they allow the intellectual hardman posturing of Chris Scott to go unchallenged. But with great writers like our own Simon Reynolds and David Stubbs ("the Mick Jagger of post-rock incandescent/apocalyptic journalism") it's well worth the 60p they demand every three months.
Simon Frith has suggested that Monitor is struggling towards a new pop aesthetic. I hope so, we certainly need one.
by David Stubbs
The last thing I want to do, of course, is say they're wretched.
That would be too easy. Go West are an easy target. They are significant and reviled, as the first perennial chart band of the Eighties to drop from nowhere into the charts. Prior to Go West, the vigorous chart-gloss was made up of the likes of The Thompson Twins, Heaven 17, Spandau, Wham!, bands that, at one point, had in some way or another, paid their dues, played the toilets, run themselves by "us". Even Duran Duran were heralded, if not initiated, by two-page spreads in the music press. Go West, by contrast, did not run in from the left under some vague pretext of a revolt into style and colourmotion, had no pretensions to irony or spike.
"We were both in rehearsal bands, never did any gigs. We played material with an American feel, like Kenny Loggins, or Michael MacDonald, at a time when that sort of thing was completely unfashionable. When we did become fashionable – five years on – and were signed, the record company had the advantage of being able to get everything together at the same time – the video, the single."
Go West's tale of chart success is one that pop strategists such as ABC might have been excused for imagining had been dispensed with forever; drop a demo tape in the fruit machine and come up trumps. Go West are what happens when A&R men learn how to ignore the music press, ignore the live circuit, the indie dirtbox, cut corners and construct their own (notion of) "Celebrities". Go West were suitable because they looked like Wham! – and played like Phil Collins. Go West's muso globalism, clipped by funk and compensated with passion was, at once, a pleasing return to the old values – a major language, the rewardable virtue of competence – and also conducive to the demand for boys and lager-funk. Go West were Proper Musicians but also lads on the make. The perfect combination! After them come Wet Wet Wet and Living In A Box – a pop hell, in which "our" bands no longer have a hand at all.
But the last thing I want to do is say that Go West are wretched. I want to hear them speak. So I'm driven out to their hideaway, an estate in Chessington with rehearsal facilities, to meet these hounds from hell in their natural habitat. I want to make being Go West seem like the most reasonable thing in the world, just to show that it could happen to you or me.
It's a long journey and there is time to listen to the new album. As I expected, Songs From The Couch, finally available after delays due to technical difficulties and illness, is not a masterpiece. There are things in our culture that exceed it – the paintings of Tintoretti and Botticelli, for example or the singles of Racey. 'Crossfire' is akin to being made to eat a travel brochure dipped in honey. 'Chinese Whispers' and 'True Colours' are pasted pastiches of Level 42 so uncanny in places as to be worthy of the late Max Beerbohm. 'From Baltimore To Paris' is a song about Edward and Mrs Simpson. 'Masque Of Love' is good, and boasts a riff that has become as familiar to me as a brother.
'I Want To Hear It From You' is a song that I should like to have played at my funeral, but not before. It's glutinous, over-produced state-of-the-art stuff, with a grossly overstated voice deployed to compete, loudly, against the technological over-determination. That's what always galls about these records; it's not that they are flashy but that they are fleshy. It's not that they are too busy playing with metal to know what's going on but that they are well-meaning, reluctant to lose themselves in the callous jouissance and impersonality of pop.
Having said all that, I'm not expecting Go West to be friendly and well-meaning to me. Their rehearsal schedule is tight and, what's more, they know my sort. Time and patience are short. Peter Cox, however, is affable and, like all these coves who have Ruined Pop As We Knew And Loved It, is likeable and open, with nary a hint of Antichrist, nor any suggestion in his demeanour that he ever burnt down an orphanage in his life. He's one more good bloke.
Richard Drummie's initial politeness does soon give way to broody suspicion. He stares at me throughout the interview with what seems to be utter loathing. His grim, gimlet eye appears to be conducting a silent narrative of its own. Something like: "Why do you people bother us? What is it we're supposed to have done wrong? Become Pop? But it's perfectly obvious that we don't want to be that plastic or ephemeral. But then, we don't want to be revolutionaries either. It would be nice to occupy that middle ground. It would be nice just to get some respect. Oh, that bloody word, we're stuck with it – respectable! Level 42? That name always crops up, as if we both came out of the same box! Yes, we're musos. Why should we be ashamed of that? All we want to do is carry on as we are and get a bit of money for it. Is that unreasonable? I would have thought that was universal. We're not rich. Taking a band like this out on the road costs a bleedin' fortune, and we have to pay for it. What will I be doing in 30 years' time? That has to be the stupidest question I've ever heard."
Peter, when you look at pop, do you dislike what you see?
"Gimmick records do so well. Americans can't believe our charts. I saw Top Of The Pops last night and you had a sequence of Spurs scoring a goal. I couldn't believe that. There are musicians, like, one rung below who are denied a chart place because of Hoddle and Waddle. It's no big deal, I suppose, but, in a perfect world, the music charts would be full of music."
"You have to fight to be uncontrived. Every circumstance is un-natural, photograph sessions, videos, but (giant sigh) you have to give it the time. Chrysalis don't give us money because they like us. But we never quite succeed in coming across as we'd like to, you never do. Personally, I don't feel that I benefit in any way from that image side of things. We have a low public profile and we prefer it that way. The song 'Let's Build A Boat' is about escape and that's how we like to work – away from it all. In Denmark. In The Isle Of Man."
It seems to me that you want to have your cake and eat it to enjoy the remuneration of pop without fulfilling any of the responsibilities.
"What, like going out and smashing things up, or going out nobbing some dodgy personality?"
That would do for a start. But then there is the glamorous, the tragic... "We have our feet more or less Super-Glued to the ground. We enjoy ourselves but not riotously. We don't want to be boring people but we think you can be interesting without being shiny."
Richard: "When you talk about 'pop', we don't know what your tag is."
Go West, I'm saying, are too heavy and soulful to be considered pop.
"Well, yes, we'd rather be considered a soul band than a pop band."
Steady on, that wasn't meant as a compliment.
Do you feel that you have any kind of duty to your fans?
"Yes, if fans don't understand something about the music, then interviews are a good opportunity of clarifying matters."
Do you feel you have any kind of duty to the people who are most definitely not your fans?
"What do you mean?"
That even if you sell two million LPs, that still means that the vast majority of people don't like you; to them you are an irritation, on the radio, the TV. This is often forgotten.
"But they're not interested in us, are they?"
Richard: "How is this responsibility supposed to manifest itself? As an apology?"
That would do nicely.
"No, I'm sorry, if they haven't the intelligence to switch off the radio then I can't feel sorry."
What about jukeboxes? You see it really is very difficult to get away from you. We get pop whether we like it or not.
"Well, I must admit we don't lose sleep over that one. I suppose at one point we ourselves went into pubs and said to ourselves: 'We're fed up of all these dodgy records, let's make some of our own dodgy records,' ha ha!"
Go West are fugitives from pop. Like all "mature" pop, their "seriousness" consists in abstaining from the spectacle rather than engaging with it. Instead of ambiguity, mischief and front, they offer us biography, anxiety and accomplishment, all apologies for pop. Genesis to Exodus – Go West are forever on retreat. But who can blame them?
Out there in the real world, it's raining Wet Wet Wet and posters advertising Songs From The Couchare bursting out like boils all over the West End. I'd rather be on their side than our side. This is a nice place they've got here. I am the only interruption.
In fact, by the end of the interview, I want nothing more than to join Go West, join them in their green seclusion, flee with them away from pop's reckless claustrophobia, get a bit of peace and do my own thing. I could learn rhythm guitar, or acquire basic keyboard skills, or maybe just start off as a roadie. Well, why not? After all, like Go West, I'm a reasonable bloke, I'm only human.