MY POMPOMS ARE TOO DROOPY: some thoughts on Alex Turner, the music press, and moving on.
By Neil Kulkarni (republished with permission from the totally kick-ass F.U.N.K.)
Is this the place to be? What am I doing here? Hey, I’m not glad, no triumph here, it’s always sad to lose an enemy. You are way more defined by what you don’t like than what you do. Don’t make me paranoid. I know I’m not writing into a mirror, ever. I’m writing for you.
Avoid the mirror mostly these days. Look miserable mostly. Problem at the moment is that I can’t plaster on the fake smile needed to meaningfully contribute to the media anymore. I can’t pretend that things are ok here, that something as ephemeral and essential as a record, isn’t connected with everything else, the shitmare of life under this govt., I can’t write about music unless it’s in terms of how it offers furious escape, or horrified reflection, unless the music or the writing about it, lets something out, taps the bile, releases things a little because there’s a determination, whether in attack or retreat, to its intent. Music that could only be made now is all that interests me. That eliminates a lot. In the case of rock, it eliminates all that isn’t noisy. All I listen guitarwise is metal, doom, sludge, female punk, angry fukkers y’know? Writing about anything else while we’re being torn apart on all fronts just seems wrong somehow, seems like just adding to the ads, rah-rahing for shitheads and the shit art they push our way. It’s tough pretending. It’s tough writing with the mindless ‘hey, things are ok here’s some more art to consume’ chipperness mandatory to being allowed to write at the moment.
Summoning a smile you can’t fake, a smile you can’t afford not to have anymore. Especially when the worse music has that same chipperness: heard the guitarist from Peace on 5Live a few Sundays ago saying the way music is political now is ‘less about messages, and more about bringing people together to have a good time’ (We’re the young generation, and we’ve got nothing to say). See those blinkers are itchy. No matter how much +ve botox I inject into my face my grin keeps cracking. I’ve always attempted to write not as if ‘music is my whole life’, but according to how music fits in with life. Because for fans, that’s how it works, it’s only the marketeers and money-men who want to push the idea that ‘music can be your whole life’, just as the same kind of demoniac wankers wished to push the idea that football fans are obsessional, insanely dedicated to the point where they don’t mind being exploited at every turn. At the moment, criticism is encouraged to live in a bubble, a sententious place where theory is allowed but politics isn’t, the wittering/chortling debate of fanboys about ratings and filing strategies. Critique needs to be weaponised in times like these. Needs to point out how the fuck all this formatted compressed data called pop might actually help us survive, rather than just forget the facts of our demise and listicle our brains into oblivion. I can’t cheerlead no more. My pompoms are too droopy.
Thus, award ceremonies necessitate a split in my house. The missus watches them, I can’t abide them, we go our separate ways, I ask for the goss/fashion-critique at the end. Wednesday night and the downstairs stillnesss is shattered. “NEEEEIIIILLLLLL” she shouts down the stairs. Getting v. bored of Arsenal v. Bayern, I mute it and holler back “WHAAAAT?”. “PRINCE IS ON THE BRITS. PRINCE IS ON THE BRITS”.
At infa-red speed I change over and mahgawd there he is, that little smile playing over his lips which always makes it worth it, announcing an award. Kind of worth it, cos of course, you get sucke/re/d in to the vortex of shite, the Mastercarded maelstrom of manure. It was best UK female, Ellie ‘The Sound Of Piss” Goulding winning and not Laura Mvula. And James “Don’t Deny This Wankstain The Oxygen Of Publicity, Just Deny Him Normal Oxygen Thanks” Corden getting a selfie with Prince. All I need to know. Back with a grunt and a growl and a hasty buttonpush to the safe sanctuary of Storage Hunters. I fucking love Storage Hunters.
Anyhoo, turns out I did wrong to comittedly Live Ignore the Brits this year. I missed out on a turning point, a significant moment in pop history. Don’t just take my word for it. Diggit the EDITOR of the NME thinks so too. THE EDITOR. A tastemaker. An influential voice, no lickspittle, intern or slave-waged mere contributor, THE EDITOR. The Editor’s the one responsible for what hits the stands every week, yeah? Motherfucker gots to KNOW.
“Alex Turner’s Brits acceptance speech was everything that rock’n’roll is meant to be: unpredictable, dumb, funny, exciting and attention-grabbing. But it was so much more than that. It was a call to arms.“
Holy shit. This I have to watch. Youtube it. Thirty seven frenzied, then bored, then faintly embarrassed seconds later, I have. Wow. A call to arms indeed. Shit, funkless Mastercard-validated trad-rock will never die. What a ‘legend’. Check the piece again thinking like all music-press readers always do – WAS HE EVEN AT THE SAME GIG?
“As Turner stood at the lectern in the centre of the O2 and delivered his sermon in front of a worldwide audience of millions, declaring that rock’n’roll “will never die. And there’s nothing that you can do about it,” he drew a line in the sand right there and then, asking every single person watching which side of it they were standing.“
Small point, and its sad that style or its lack becomes a small point, but my god that is one of the most inept, ungainly sentences I think I’ve ever read. Wider point, I know where I stand on that divide. I’m over here, as far the fuck away as I can get to be honest. It’s a smart move by Williams, gets the boys back in the barracks. It’s smartly put as well, vague as Turner’s speech, vague enough to not matter to most, pull in those indie-loyal readers doubting the staff’s solidarity with their own bigotry and snobbery. Last round of ABCs weren’t great for anyone,as if it matters. As if anything matters. I feel foolish even engaging with this as a bit of text. Doesn’t matter how bad it is, the brand’s fine. It’s on NME.COM for chrissakes, what does anyone expect from that? The brand’s fine. Big traffic stats & it’s not about words, or rather, words really don’t matter anymore, the brand’s fine. The ABCs are down? Doesn’t matter. Ad revenues up. Print ad revenues up 49%. Digital ad revenues up 72%. The words . . . who cares? The brand’s fine. All about subscriptions and multiple-platform identities now, look at Rolling Stone’s poxy newstand sales. The brand’s fine. The more a magazine’s interests can be spread out like that, further than print and out into the endless binary diffusions of the interweb’s retinal stimulation & narcosis, the more mere words are of no importance. People still buy vinyl. People will still buy print mags. The fiction, the ‘heritage’, remains intact. A heritage partly built on the kind of writing the NME wouldn’t allow, wouldn’t think of anymore but what the hey, the brand’s fine. This editorial could’ve read ‘Alex Turner jagaroona fizzlefuck Brits cliha;osughdsiguhd Arctic Monkeys sgiuahdsogi uahsdf indie” and it’d fulfill pretty much the same function as all NME copy. Keeps SEO optimizers happy, fills space, ‘entertains’ (because we say so) and informs (because we say so) the brand’s fine (because we say so). What’s sadder, the black/white ratios of the covers, or the fact I counted? Whether the writing, and the music, could only come from NOW, or the fact anyone would even care about such an old-fashioned concept as the future anymore? Ad-revenues up. “72% YoY”. 3 million unique visitors a year. The brand’s fine.
So long as the NME continues to make this kind of ‘commercial sense’, the writing can be as specious as you like, which handily coincides with r’n’r and its critique being taken over by the witterers and flitterers. Rock’n’roll, and writing about it, is now a hobby for everyone involved, Turner’s speech coming off like someone proud to defend his minority interest, his proudly arcane and, to his perception, much-maligned trivial pursuit. As a strategy, for the NME to focus on that niche, to stop trying to write about pop and just become a major-label indie-rock weekly – I’d say that’s the smart way to go, just as I recall a few years ago saying the Tories (post-Howard/Hague/IDS) just needed someone slicker to sell a lurch to the right to a receptive Great British Public. If the NME were smart they’d listen to what readership they have left, and eliminate anything that wasn’t indie-rock from the paper. Everytime the NME prints anything about music that isn’t white indie rock the readers bleat about ‘pop shit’, ‘r’n’b shit’ – that’s what happens when you talk dumb for so long that only the slow kids stick around. So their ossified racism and conservatism remains appealed to, worked around, remains unconfronted even as the figures tumble and fall as they have been for more than 20 years. Because a music-press equivalent of the Daily Mail is the one that’s gonna have the least risk. Because the brand’s fine. Praps I’m dumb to assume writers want more than this from music writing. But reading the NME I wonder how enjoyable that endless kowtowing can be. It sounds exhausting and joyless. It reads the same. Williams, and everyone else at the NME, have to play a delicate balancing act between their own avowed poptimist eclecticism and the reactionary, snob nature of many of their indie-rock readership. Turner’s speech, as Williams knew, was the ideal chance to shore up the NME’s constituency, make sure they were in the tent pissing out. For all Williams’ rather pointless ass-covering about Turner’s speech not being about ‘genre-elitism’ a whole load of rights-for-whites-rocknrollers were in no doubt. In the FB thread we got pearls like “Without a doubt the most sensible thing Williams has written since taking over. Turners speech was inspired and necessary. Now the NME need to act. Stop writing about RnB and Hip Hop, it’s dull and tedious. Indie/Alternative music is where the NME is strongest. Promote it, embrace it.” Every NME thread has variants of this. The english-rock defence league.
A while back I might have said that these indie-lad prejudices that bubble up whenever NME dare to step out of the ‘real music’ compound need to be taken on, and need changing by convincing writing. I might even have said until then ‘rock n roll’ remains trapped in this eternal teddyboy age, waiting for the mods who’ll never come, cos the teds simply don’t like ‘chav music’, will only accept black music, if at all, from a time of segregation, black music without the arrogance that only rock’n’roll can rightfully play with. Now, for its survival, I just think the NME should keep those numbnuts happy. Turner’s speech was all about having it both ways, winning an industry award, turning up, accepting it (and the new stickers that can go on the album of course, which is what it’s ALL about) while still drearily insisting that you’re still on the edge (cos as Oasis proved, you just have to repeatedly and tediously SAY you’re rock and roll to BE rock and roll these days). Consequently, Williams memo-to-Turner also tries the same double-talk move, communicating both the supposed ‘thrill’ of history AND his desperation to hit 300 words with equally vacuous BPI-style brochure-talk:
“On this side of the line stand the rest of us, inspired by the words of a man who understands that rock’n’roll isn’t about an antiquated idea of “guitar music”, or about any level of genre elitism, but spirit and ethos, excitement and unpredictability; The traits that British music was always renowned for.“
And of course, you know whose British music that is, what side of Britain is being talked about. 160 people’s faces have been on the cover of the NME in the past year. 7 of those faces were not white. At least a quarter of those covers were bands/artists that have been going for well over a decade, all of whom were involved in pastiche of 60s and 70s music or were 60-70 year olds, nearly all of it was schmindiebollox. You’ll find hardly any of the music made by the vast majority of young people in the UK in the pages of the NME. Grime, metal , dubstep, hardcore punk, rap, d’n’b, r’n’b – these only get allowed in when someone already famous and/or American does them. The music the mainstream press features is almost universally retrograde, apolitical, as deliberately empty as you’d expect from many folk who don’t really have a stake in music beyond their individual careers and their progress towards comfort, the Moran/Brooker/Harris/Sawyer safe dotages they all dream of. Yes, it’s dumb of me to expect anything more, and perhaps dumb of me to judge any mag by its commentators or its covers or even its content anymore, but for the editor of the NME to so credulously rotate the lie that Turner’s idea of ‘rock’n’roll’ isn’t about elitism, or ‘antiquated ideas’ is an act of disingenuity scarcely to be credited, a crooked double-talk as dimly half-witted as the Turners and Gallaghers the NME routinely parades as ‘godlike’ wits and genii.
‘For the frontman of the UK’s biggest band, upon collecting the biggest prize in British mainstream music, to end the night looking like an outsider is madness, brilliance and poetic irony all in one. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. And for those of us standing on this side of the line, neither would we. The challenge has been set by Alex Turner, and now it’s up to us to act upon it. “That rock’n’roll, eh?”
And it’s here where I start to feel idiotic for caring anymore, or even prodding this for meaning, let alone wondering what the ‘ethos’ and ‘spirit’ are exactly. The point I have to apprehend is that there’s no point anymore beyond looking busy, feeling superior, looking like an outsider while obediently accepting the trinkets and protocol of the business called show. And pushing Turner’s root idea – for the NME and the music it covers, it’s OK TO BE NOT AT ALL GOOD AT ANY OF THE THINGS SO LONG AS YOU ARE SEEN TO BE DOING THE THINGS. The challenge? Act upon it? I can’t wait. I suspect ‘acting on it’ means more posturing, more dumbkopfs pretending to be smart, more repetitions of what the Roses/Primals/Oasis have always taught us – talk like a renegade, play like a reactionary and rock’n’roll is yours to claim. But I won’t be there, and nor will most of us. We need more, and this centre-ground, where the best of rock and all genres is marginalised in preference of entirely conservative conformist music that laboriously insists on its ‘independence’ – there’s too much going on out here where those blinkers don’t reach to even get annoyed by such myopia and mendacity anymore. It’s sad to lose an enemy but in these end-times, we simply have no choice. Now is the time, for this anti-friendship to end – I’m starting, with no small sense of sadness (I started off in this malarkey by slagging off the music press), to feel that the enforced delusions of mainstream music writing have become unhealthy, terminal, something to just steer clear of for my own health. We, this side of the tracks, espy Turner and his acolytes as if sat in a bored train carriage, goggling at the Tupperware sarnies and bewildering sartorial choices of the trainspotters at the end of the platform, wondering what England it is they come from, how hard it must be to so fervently wish the past back, to be so scared of the present as to attempt to live as if nothing has happened for twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty years. Inevitably the Editor doesn’t quote perhaps the most mind-boggling of Turner’s blatherings: “But it’s always waiting there, just around the corner, ready to make its way back through the sludge, and smash through the glass ceiling, looking better than ever” I know. I had to re-read it a few times myself. The r”n’r Kraken awakes and wants to combat all that prejudice it faces, all those hurdles and obstacles white-male guitar music has to face in getting radio play, tv time, front covers, exposure so it can combat all that horrible pop music, all that mindless chaff that doesn’t just appeal to white kids, all that.
It’s in this moment, this transcendentally deluded moment, that I realise me and the NME are best off avoiding each other from here on in. They’re not for me. Their writers write things like this. They’re not for me or my kind. ‘Through the sludge’. ‘Smash through the glass ceiling’. Sorry, but what the fuck was that smirking prick sneering about? Even when white male guitar music doesn’t fucking sell (Miles Kane) it makes no difference as to how much media attention it gets, so strapped are the press to the formulaic template of gobby frontman and muscle-memory rock. Its one of the most obscenely privileged fucking types of music out there, and certainly has a hell of a lot LESS of a right to complain about industry inattentiveness than a lot of other British music. ‘Rock n roll’ i.e lots of white guys standing around smirking holding awards, doesn’t need to smash a glass ceiling it fucking IS the glass ceiling and only the most deluded fuckhead could turn such entitlement and opportunity into such rank self-pity and aggrandizement. The news continues to be good – I’m sure the NME and Turner will be glad that his speech echoes the thoughts of Radio One’s Head Of Music. But I feel a faint sadness that the music press, which changed my life, have decided to simply derelict their responsibilities towards vast swathes of British culture and British life, have decided to follow so asininely this rancid, reactionary corner of label-sanctioned rock, perhaps because, heartbreakingly, there IS something the NME could do to stop the rot. It will do fuck all for sales but will help their souls. Focus on thenew. Banish the dadrock coverstars forever. The other day, I read the NME’s 50 New Bands feature and followed up some of the names mentioned. Stumbled across the sublime Perfect Pussy & their sublimely confrontational ‘I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling’, See – the NME can still point towards good stuff, but so long as these jewels are buried deep within an overwhelmingly conservative editorial line, the purpose and power and possibility of the music press will eternally be dying on the vine. Never mind a quick 50-words for this stuff , stick Perfect Pussy on the cover, send someone with ideas to interview them, make like they’re the future, give us a future worth staying alive for and tell us WHY a band matters, don’t just stack-up-the-numbers and present a band’s ‘quality’ as consisting entirely of incontrovertible commercial facts. Never mind coming up through the sludge. Go down in flames.
Christ, listen to me. Silly auld fucker. A music press that’s exciting? A music press as diverse and contradictory as music itself? A music press that gives you new things to hear and new ways to hear them? What a stupid dream, what a busted flush. It’s been fun NME, but here we go our separate ways. Best of luck. Seriously. The best of luck. We’re all, now we’ve all been broken, have given up fighting, back to a pre-industrial state in music and the writing about it. Caps on ground. Begging. Doing the only thing we know how. I have a donate button. You have 60 years of heritage to trade on, multiple-platform reach and brand connectivity. No, I’m not sure what those mean either, am kind of horrified that a writer could ever give a fuck about any of them, but seriously. The best of luck. Hope you reach ever more. You’ll never reach me again.