To paraphrase the immortal Withnail, who ‘went on holiday by mistake’… I found myself watching ten minutes of X Factor- by mistake- the other night (while waiting for Atlantis) and was therefore exposed to more ‘popular culture’ than is either healthy, or desirable. Let’s leave aside the manipulative emotional slaughter of the innocents, both contestants and audience, for once… what really stood out for me was the apparently faultless ‘reasoning’ given for the sacking of some contestants.
One’s voice was ‘too weak’, she was told; another, witheringly, that she was ‘too niche’… and another that she ‘lacked charisma’, even though her voice was exactly as required – full-on soul diva, in exactly the only style the show will recognise as ‘singing’, apparently. If a contestant doesn’t look like, and sound like, an amalgam of all the most cliched visual and vocal tics of every current pop star on the planet – then…. goodbye, and can we make sure we get some shots of you crying, please ?
Yes, well, what did I expect, a thumbs up for today’s equivalent of Captain Beefheart [" clip rejected by MTV USA as "too weird" upon release"] ? Well… maybe not, but then again, why not ? Why is emoting to the point of absurdity, with at least five notes per syllable, deemed to be the only acceptable form of singing, these days, for mainstream consumption ?
This tendency to homogenisation and ‘photocopy culture’ – a steady stream of artists and artworks, each one a copy of an existing artist or existing artwork, each iteration slightly worse and less interesting than the previous version – is everywhere. I’ve recently heard top ranking film composer James Horner (on BBC Radio 3′s Sound of the Cinema season) lamenting the use of ‘temp tracks’ – temporary use of existing film music scores as guides during film editing- and how they’re forcing composers to conform to a pre-existing template of ‘film music’ that allows no room for originality, or anything other than the accepted ‘norm’ for any particular style. You could easily replace any Hollywood score from the past five years with another, within the same film genre, and never know the difference. Each score is a photocopy of the temp track, and then that score becomes the temp track for another photocopy score which then becomes the temp track for …
Hollywood has gone over entirely to blockbusters and sequels of blockbusters, leaving TV to make ‘drama’ (and that’s just about the only place there is still some real innovation) but otherwise most mainstream music and film is an endless re-tread of something you’ve seen or heard before. Major labels offer artists who sound like other artists who sound like other artists, and even their productions are full of samples of old records, often ones that used the samples from older records. Even if you think you haven’t heard it before … you probably have. But the original was better, wasn’t it ?
So what happens to anything really new these days ? Anything that doesn’t fit the exact dimensions of a pre-existing template for whatever is considered ‘commercially viable’ for mainstream consumption ? We all know – and are no doubt truly bored with – the issues of piracy, the democratisation of production and distribution, and multiplicity of channels, which have reduced the value of any individual digitised ‘artwork’ to the point of financial invisibility, mostly, and the effect this has had on creators’ incomes- but what is this silencing of truly original voices in mainstream media actually doing to our culture ? Does it matter that an artist who displayed as much deviation from the norm, as, say, David Bowie did, when he emerged, wouldn’t now, without considerable luck, ever get a chance to emerge at all ?
Well, there’s always online … and yes, it happens. But Gangnam Style doesn’t seem to have spearheaded any major new cultural movement, as far as I can see. For all the hyping of the new ‘models’, only the first on the block for any particular innovation (social media-> Arctic Monkeys, crowd-funding->Amanda Palmer) really get any major traction, and only then because the medium is, if briefly, the ‘story’- in the mainstream - not the music. Even Bob Lefsetz, the veteran music blogger who has often championed the DIY ethic, is now saying that if you’re not mainstream … you’re nowhere.
It would seem that new ideas are no longer welcome because those who provide the content that feeds mainstream media can no longer afford to take the financial risk in investing in them. The same technology that created a free distribution system for every maverick artist on the planet (and a free source of their work, for the consumer) has at the same time denied them any real chance of getting their ideas across to any audience larger than their Facebook friend list, and very little chance of earning enough money out of it to do it at any level beyond an expensive hobby- because the mainstream won’t touch them. And the network of independent companies who might previously have chanced it has been decimated by the steady reduction in the commercial viability of anything that isn’t ‘mainstream’- there’s some help there, still, but not much.
Yet it’s always been the mavericks who have moved things on, shaken things up, and prevented cultures from ossification and decay. The irony is that at the very time when communication technology has facilitated an explosion of creativity of all kinds, we’re seeing the entrenchment of an increasingly narrow set of ideas within mainstream culture- because the mavericks aren’t being heard. They get heard by a few but rarely further – and often their light burns very briefly, financial starvation soon puts them out.
It was always said about the ‘old model’ that only those who got through ‘the gate’ got heard, whereas now, in our new internet model, everyone can get heard. Surely that’s better ?
Well, that’s the theory – but your chances of getting heard, out there in internet-land, are now not really that much higher than in the days of passing cassettes of your ideas round a few friends, as we used to to do in the 80s, or printing off a few white labels and giving them to DJs, as we did in the 90s. Then – if you managed to get your music out to a few thousand people- you could just about scratch some kind of living from it, get a little interest, and with any luck and a John Peel play or two, hop through that gate and take your maverick ideas to the mainstream. The old gate was wide enough, now and then, to let something truly new get heard by enough people that it changed mainstream culture, permanently.
That’s far less likely to happen now. To get any kind of traction that might guarantee a chance of a real financial return on your investment of cash and creativity, you have to get through that gate. But the gate is really narrow, these days- it’s guarded by money men whose idea of a good investment is something like the thing that made them money last year, which was itself very like something they made money out of the year before that. They’re unlikely to be investing in something like Kris Weston’s (as of the mighty The Orb some years ago) new project – a maverick enterprise if ever there was one – even though his previous work has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, because hundreds of thousands is no longer enough. You need millions upon millions of ‘sales’ (streams, clicks) to please the money men, and they’re convinced you’ll only do that if you sound like last year’s soul diva. And lick sledgehammers in your videos.
There was only one Withnail, and definitely only one Captain Beefheart. Yet the chances of their current equivalents becoming part of our cultural lexicon- and changing it forever- are decreasing by the day.
Welcome to Photocopy Culture.