‘They were obliged to have him with them,’ the Mock Turtle said: ‘no wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.’
‘Wouldn’t it really?’ said Alice in a tone of great surprise.
‘Of course not,’ said the Mock Turtle: ‘why, if a fish came to me, and told me he was going a journey, I should say “With what porpoise?”’
‘Don’t you mean “purpose”?’ said Alice.
‘I mean what I say,’ the Mock Turtle replied in an offended tone.
After Chris and I decided on not doing EoY lists this year (at least until it was too late to matter), my first instinct was to do a list ranking all the published lists. But, like the much applauded James Ferraro album, it was probably best left in the concept stage. And might come off looking smug. So I gave myself three point five stars – then promptly forgot who I was (ie: what I was googling for). Because I was so distracted, you know, managing my downloads folder. I mean: you have to check out all those links your friends send you of ‘album of teh year, IMHO’, don’t you? Do you? Really? Why the urgency? Would you listen to any of them come January 1? As a friend emailed only this morning: ‘a bunch of shit people having shit conversations about shit records.’ The various number ones were mostly a bunch of number twos. Shit. I replied that I thought the lists were fascinating overall, and contained a staggering variety of titles: with almost no overlap! But yes, the number ones did seem marked by the cumulative blanding effect of a Keynesian beauty contest. We really have given ourselves the third degree:
‘where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what cool expects cool to be’.
But somehow, in spite of I See a Blandness, the re-release of Moby’s Play to rapt audiences (figuratively speaking), and the sound of a bunch of bad listeners ‘getting it wrong’ on nearly everything (which is what nearly everyone I’ve spoken to has accused everyone else of doing), the EoY lists were great this year, worth thinking about: for the tale they tell about us; the way we listen in 2011; the meaning music carries; and the power of stories.
1) our |virtually| common
What’s the context of music listening in 2011? The starting point has to be: not this.
“I believe that the way most of us experience music is not in a system of weights and measures and lists, but in a way that is red-blooded and vibrant and vital: we feel it in our bones and our bodies, in our hearts and our hips; we feel it dancing on a Friday night, charging right up from our stockinged feet.”It’s not just that I don’t wear stockings; it’s just that this is a romantic phantasm. I wish it were true. But it isn’t. But as Papa Freud would have told you: the wish tells you a lot. But the wish is not the truth. That would be wishful thinking. The truth, the everyday truth, is a downloaded truth. A streamed truth. A mediated truth. Why?
Overwhelmingly, most listening is done via the internet. Not just the streaming, downloading, podcasting, pirating, but also the sharing, discussing, and evaluating. I mean: it’s 2011, not 1911. Ah, the good old days. Ani: “People used to make records/ As in a record of an event/ The event of people playing music in a room/ Now everything is cross-marketing/ It’s about sunglasses and shoes/ Or guns and drugs.” It is nice to go out and have a dance on a Friday, but what makes this more authentic and meaningful than the internet, given that, overwhelmingly, this is where all the ‘community’ is present? Ours is an era in which, mostly, we make a musical home for ourselves from the recorded traces of what was, once, Ani DiFranco's nostalgic 'people in a room'. But the people are gone now, dispersed. A lesson of Occupy is: dispersed is just how the authorities want us to be. All there is, mostly, is simulacra. I’m not saying that we don’t go out dancing on a Friday night. Some of us do. And we should. Lesson from dispersal: we should assemble! And some of us travel around the world for festivals, hankering after presence. The difference is all the difference in the world, and in that sense, what Laura Barton says in the linked article is true. But the point is that it’s not what’s common, which is... virtual. What’s virtually common is that nearly everything is mediated. I can see why you’d have the nostalgic wish for ‘Dancing Pete’, but when was the last time any of you people saw him? Hint: his photo on the guardian website. This is how we know him. Baudrillard was... mostly right.
2) practice makes imperfect
We live in a world of names. This is how we hold a place for ourselves in the virtual common.
‘Have you heard of Porpoises into the Past?’
‘Yeah, but I’m more on the Slain Impala tip, you know?’
'Yeah, it’s the synth project from the guy from Lambs Casino...’
‘Oh yeah, right...’ ‘
It’s based on Sokurov’s Power Tetralogy. He set up three old cathode ray TV screens, made degraded VHS copies of each, then looped them out of sync, like, all at different speeds and shit, and stayed up for days with his synth and a whole bunch of drugs – all the shit that Michael Jackson was on when he died.'
'Yeah man... It took him eight months to set it up, mostly to find all the drugs, but in terms of the music, he reckons that it all came together in like, eight hours or something... he said the hardest bit was remembering to turn the cassette over... ’
‘Yeah, he’s doing it live at Saccharine Valley - are you going...?’
‘When’s it on again?’
‘Oh, it’s in April, but tickets have already sold out...’
‘I heard they were really hard to get and expensive?’
'Yeah, but I know someone, so...’
It’s true we listen because we’re curious, and we love music. But listening habits are also strongly driven by cool. Never mind if it’s good: is it cool? Weirdly, Top Gear’s cool wall has been telling us about the age we live in. Never mind that Top Gear isn’t cool and that Jeremy Clarkson is a fucker, as Stewart Lee captured perfectly. It’s a matter of social capital, social competence. Cool is a scarce resource. Accumulate, accumulate, then deploy, and destroy. Winner (cool) takes all. You can’t horde it though: cool has a definite shelf life. It's like milk... So there is a very special timing to ‘deploy and destroy’. Cool is a cow who must be milked, and a milk that must be ingested/squirted before it turns sour and makes you vomity sick. This is, of course, why the EoY lists must be deployed before the end of the year. None of this knowledge is worth anything – online – in January. It’s valueless and meaningless. This also means that people I know – and no doubt people you know – are currently in a Mr Creosote-level linkswapping and download binge. From a market perspective, the real winners of this pervasive binge are not the artists – though they will accumulate some cool, guaranteeing slots at festivals for the next few months – but google, the internet providers, touring and promotion companies, and the various one-click download sites. And probably those ambulance-chasing IP lawyers, if they catch up with you. You know it’s true. And all this, in part, because of our deep, deep need to be cool and stay cool. Apart from your curiosity, and love of music. Of course...
Music is a social thing, and being social means being stuck in sticky situations (which makes mp3 make you incredibly sluttly and glutty). Social competence also creates social adherence. Which creates the semblance of coherence. Cool only works if the others you talk to – the ones who count, the cool ones and the loved ones – either know the name in question, or know that they should no the name in question and are deficient for not doing so. Nobody bothered to ask granddad what he thought of Ravedeath, 1972.
It's all about the ~herence: friends stick together. The glue of friendship is trust, loyalty, love and gifts. As a teenager, liking a band could be grounds for a whole romance. At the time I never would have admitted that I had crushes on girls because they liked Nine Inch Nails or the Pixies (showing my age!). But... now that the bulldust and hormonally-induced stupidity has (hopefully) settled, I must concede: it couldn’t have been their looks, personality, or wisdom. Love runs the gauntlet of friendship’s gamut of juicy, squeezy crushes and globs: sex and money are social glue-brication. The milk of human kindness is... viscous... We are more about the social contractions than the social contract... But so is music. This is so essential, and we know it, but are constantly forgetting. We exchange. We crush. We squeeze, hold tightly to, clench against: disseminating our favourites all over our others, and excreting all the rest. The lists are an artefect of this form of juicy symbolic exchange, presented as an evaluative hierarchy. This year, most of them provoked in me a bemused, low-level alienation. Because, you know, I was off in my little globular bubble. Dirty Harry rule. Peering out, but mostly feeling cosy. It’s a matter of degrees between snug and smug. And even happy cosy can turn smothery claustrophobic.
And then: what do we use music for? Ssg readers will know my thoughts on this: for work. While commuting. While doing desk work. While at the gym. While friends are over. While seducing someone. While coming down, after a whole night dancing... maybe with Dancing Pete. To dull the pain and boredom of existence. This really, really affects the names we nominate. In my view, a lot of the best recordings this year were demanding, exhausting – they were not do-while accompanists. I hear more stories from friends (re)discovering the joys of undivided attention and close listening, but really (and me too! mea culpa!) most of the time, music is merely there, in the background. It’s not only that Kompakt were the Ikea of techno; most music, to most people, most of the time – it is just lifestyle equipment. It's all Eno, really. This is the only way I can fathom the massive popularity of Nicholas Jaar. You put it on – for mother or lover or other – and (I guess), people say, ‘oh, this is niiice – what’s this?’ Actually, Jaar, Bon Iver and James Ferraro (the respective number ones of RA, Pitchfork and the Wire) have more in common than you might think on first listen... the difference would merely be the relation to shallowness and ‘niceness’ being expressed. It’s enough to make you smash your face with an iPad, while listening to Cut Hands or Prurient. Dirty Harry rules.
3) ‘A man could lose his bearings in weather like this.’ (what is the meaning of this)?
Practice tells you a lot about the lists. But more than anything, the lists make meaning. ‘What is meaning?’ ‘What is the meaning of meaning?’ You tell me, Derriger! I mean it. But I’d also have to be listening to hear it, or even get a sense of what you're trying to say. Which makes all the difference. In English? Telling stories is one way of making things meaningful. Friendship gives us glue-brication, which helps the ~herence to go along and get along, which, potentially, opens our ears to listening to one another. As one of my favourite storytellers said: stories have no point if they don’t absorb our terror. And our fascination. We have to suspend our disbelief (analyse the grammar of that phrase, it’ll do your head in). A world told as a story is a world rendered meaningful via a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are agents, there are actions, there are intentions. There is a point. Which is not a bit like ‘reality’, such as it is. But that is the point. Reality is terrifying - and boring. Hence why we need stories, to absorb that terror.
But stories are not information. Arrangement aside, the sheer fucking genius of the Beatles’ Day in the Life is the way it tracks that: ‘10,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire...’ before turning to the other truth (I’d love to tuuuuuuuuuurn yoooooooooou oooon). Shudder to think. Whenever I log out of my webmail, I’m confronted by the psychotic juxtapositions inherent to the online presentation of information in 2011:
‘Sex Fiend Killer Loose’ ‘Britney Spears to Wed’, ‘30,000 feared dead’, ‘Justin Bieber: what has he been doing?’ ‘Man Attacks Baby with Hammer’ ‘Panda baby walks on hind legs’.And so on, and so on, and so on. So fucking meaningless. So fucking much. So fucking endless. In the same year as the Arab Spring, and Fukushima, and the London Riots, and Occupy... I feel like Thom Yorke, singing ‘It wears me out...’. And you know, like most things Radiohead: that’s depressing. Actually, it's really nice to have a year without 'a serious discussion of the substantial merit of the new Radiohead album'.
So: stories give us a way of ordering the incoherence, the mad fucking babble of this incessant information. As I said at the begining (bringing us to the end of the story, after the baggy middle) what’s was striking about the End of Year lists this year, in an amazing vintage for music, was their diversity – there were virtually no consensus albums. Perhaps Kanye wrote the last one in 2010. Good riddance to bad narcissists (yes, the beats were amazing, I still don't care). Perhaps 2010 was the last year that any kind of consensus was possible; maybe the EU is set to ‘prove’ that theory on a much more consequential stage. Lou Reed, who charted this year with Metallica (WTF?!) once wrote:
‘oh common ground/ is common ground a word, or just a sound?’One from the other, Lou - ground from sound. We will build the ground from the sound. Because the craving – for music, for love and friendship, for stories, for meaning – that never goes away. Not while we're still contracting, at least. All of which is why, strange as they seem, annoying and alienating as they may appear, the End of Year lists can tell us the story of who we are, as music lovers, music friends, in 2011. True story. Happy Birthday, Jesus, Happy Birthday, ssgs. Thank you for listening.