Signs ‘O’ The Times

This is the conclusion of Heroes – a three part piece considering Music today. Read part one, Heroes, and part two, Threads.

In May, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds released Black Star Dancing. Acknowledging the Bowie influence, Gallagher’s new single is a dramatic change in expression from the rock stalwart. It is a track that yours truly found eminently listenable, also representing the first time I’ve been able to ‘enjoy’ anything by either – or both – of the Gallagher brothers. A couple of months later, I’m less enamoured by the track, but it spoke to a broader point I’ve been ruminating on for some time now, because there are other examples:

In June, Thom Yorke completely re-defined the Music Video for the Internet era with the release of his Anima short film on Netflix. This married unprecedented audience reach with some of the greatest living contemporary music and film talent out there, in a superlative piece of artistic output. And yet, unless you were paying attention, who cared? A decade ago, this would have been in every piece of Music press out there, and we’d be discussing its ramifications for months later. Not in 2019. And yet, mark my words, more artists will do this – it’s the new MTV.

A similar thing happened with Tame Impala’s Borderline. Tame Impala is probably the most hyped artist of 2019 – rightfully so – as legions of us wait for his next album or see him live this summer, and yet where are we, in reality? On the streets, out with friends, or commuting; where are the Tame Impala t-shirts, or the magazines festooned with his portrait, full of rumours or tidbits about the impending LP’s wondrous aural delights? It’s all in the intangible ether of the Internet, on the one hand a permanent digital record of hype, but on the other hand commanding only fleeting, momentary attention.

Let’s put it in context: major contemporary artists are releasing outstanding work and yet these feats barely register beyond some excited headlines on the day of release. This is troubling. A major single can be released today and forgotten the next; listeners have already moved onto something new, or reverted to inadvertent, passive listening by putting on a vacuously-titled “Thursday Vibes” playlist, or some other pathetic excuse for a music experience.

Lest you should think all I do is whine, I am not the only one to have noticed this: Liz Pelly, Christopher Pierznik, Cherie Hu and Rhian Jones – amongst many others – have all begun to ponder this disconcerting ‘macro-musonomic’ trend.

It’s happening all the time: Thom Yorke, Crazy P, Nine Inch Nails, The Chemical Brothers; all these artists have put out excellent material recently. Who noticed, beyond their most loyal fans? Then there’s Janelle Monáe, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar and Solange – these artists are cementing the establishment of better equality for those who are not straight, white males (although Bowie, Prince, and other icons experimented with gender and race, so there’s some weird nuance in the Music industry). They are also putting out some of the most culturally-assertive and brilliant pop music today (Rap is Pop), and yet it’s Old Town Road that is breaking records for the longest-ever Number One single. This is a fucked up situation.

The playlist that accompanies this post is meant to be listened to. It contains a selection of contemporary artists – one of whom sadly passed away recently – who merit listening to, as all are compelling artists that you should be aware of today, and a handful may yet prove to be global, culture-changing heroes.

We music fans truly live in an exceptional period of creative output – we could be approaching a new 1960s in terms of artistic creativity, this time marrying with the Internet era’s cultural diversity and reach. There’s also, for better or worse, venomous outrage now. Unifying, iconic artistic expression matters. but the recognition and accolades that transcended hype or vogue of the past are now drowned out by the cacophony of Social Media. Finding good music by artists that matter is paradoxically harder than ever in this world of infinite choice and instant feedback. 

Janelle Monáe’s ‘Dirty Computers’ (her fans, analogous to Prince’s ‘fams’) support her as much for what she represents as for her music, and it is because her message is unifying and self-expressive. Monáe encourages the best of individualism, without deviating from a uniquely optimistic overarching message – Positivity: “have u had ur plus sign 2day?” – this is analogous to the rising voices of music-led counter-culture over 1960 to 1964. 1968 is coming, and some amazing acts will be born over the years to come.

Music journalism is doing a feckless job in terms of recognising these trends, espousing pathetic variations of “there will never be another Bowie because the Internet’s basically made it impossible to achieve that now”. This is just lazy. Finding good music was called ‘crate-digging’ for a reason. Bowie took a good few albums to achieve the status he enjoyed in the ‘80s, and then continued to earn his reputation through to his death. Artists that change history do not happen overnight, contrary to what media headlines today would have you believe.

A&R people are, in parallel, signing artists through Social Media channels and friends, but too often in search of the next potential streaming hit. Average song durations are trending down as the Majors optimise for – instead of instruct – the beloved algorithm. Just take this quote as one example:

“There is so much music out and so much access to it all that I think the biggest change has been the fact that everyone can essentially act as a plug for new music, whether you like what they’re posting or not. We’ve all become, seemingly, more tapped in than our favorite music sites, allowing friends and community to become the blogs, playlist curators, and writers in an unfiltered way. Experts are now sharing the music they’re listening to on Instagram stories, posting artwork on their feeds with reasons why they like what they’re listening to, and telling their followers about it on Twitter. You can easily scroll down any social media feed and come across half a dozen artists that you may not have been familiar with prior.” 

– Brandon Payano, A&R and curator for Colors, via Complex.

This is not entirely true – I would argue this very same behaviour is driving people to hear new music all the time, but not listen to it. What’s more, too many ‘music people’ simply don’t have an opinion today. They brainlessly merge with the hashtag perspective and daren’t step out of line. It is not their fault. Society is doing this. Nor is this uniformly true – labels do help great artists become great, although the relationship with truly special artists is changing, as artists are equally becoming far savvier. Monae’s Wondaland is an example, and I suspect this is what Prince was truly mentoring her on, given his past experience with labels. Own your art and your message; own yourself.

Trent Reznor, an enormously talented artist with extremely thought-provoking perspective, has voiced related concerns multiple times over the past year with regards to attention spans and the recognition of great music – here’s just one example (seriously, watch this interview), but there are many. In his latter years, Prince often gave shout-outs to Electric Fetus, his local record store – in fact, as fans know, he actively encouraged any audience he had to buy albums. This was not for the income – he didn’t need it (although who doesn’t think artists are underpaid today? – the majors can surely swallow some margin). 

The commonality between Prince and Reznor is that they both want(ed) fans to listen to the artist, and we should listen to them: two mammoth musicians – Heroes – lamenting not the state of music taste today, as was often the case during the 1990s (“that’s manufactured pop”), but rather music consumption today; it’s not a throwaway good – often, it’s someone’s heart and soul, but streaming would have you consume it like popcorn.

It is also important to note that no one is criticising listeners, nor even the Industry – more often, it is an exercise in pointing at the Internet and shrugging at one’s complete impotence. The parallel with the political situation much of the Western world finds itself in is no coincidence. It is the same thing.

Artists, Industry and Media should not depend on the Internet, they should leverage the Internet and use it to create, not the engagement-optimising Cthulu we are haplessly addicted to today, but what Bowie foresaw:

One cannot fail to note the irony of this lament’s message when compared to Bowie’s thoughts on the lack of then-contemporary iconic artists.

Bowie’s observations on the burgeoning rise of commercial optimisation for engagement over artistic expression in a pre-Internet era remains incredibly astute. In the Internet era, the importance of defining your substance is vital.

The simple fact is that – now that anyone can listen to anything, anytime – listening to good music is hard.

Discovering the greatest artists of the past often meant finding your favourite artist’s influences and, in turn, theirs – following Threads. That’s just one path to learning about some of the iconic artists out there. There are many others and it takes a lot of time. It takes hours. 

For contemporary music, it requires a meaningful step-up in effort and self-belief (in one’s own taste): identifying good, new music is equally – if not more – challenging. If you work in A&R, having an opinion is vital. Take a chance. Know a Freddie Mercury when you see one and bet the house on it. Genius speaks for itself and, like Pornography, you know it when you see it. 

This is why we Snobs exist. We realised people need to be told, because no one is telling anyone anymore. Music is about to get Great Again and yet there’s no signal amidst all the noise. Except for, of course, your dear Snobs.

Define your substance, defy the algorithm – you may yet defy Gravity.