24
Jun
09

On looking back–popularity, obscurity, and: a proposal for moving forward.

As far as music goes, it is a commonly repeated enough point that we tend to heap attention too enthusiastically, too readily at the feet of those who show any hint of promise. The internet and the blog have, among other things, made bands shockingly available, have busted open the doors on a culture that tended to separate taste into camps: the mainstream and the obscure. So, this is my question: what does it now mean to be mainstream or obscure, when it seems that everyone knows about everything and can download it instantly?

A caveat: I will admit that it is entirely possible that I exist in my own niche and as a result will consistently misjudge other niches, even if those niches happen to be large. I live on the internet, I don’t watch MTV (saying this might prove my lack of knowledge about a “mainstream”), I don’t own a radio. I don’t have a single idea what is at the top of the billboard chart right now. If I am to be faulted in any way, it is to assume that my experiences of popularity and obscurity are in any way indicative of a greater trend. I am open to arguments against my logic. I do not think I am alone in this experience, though. If it is not universal, there are at least a few others.

Before, the mainstream was generally defined by popularity, and, some would say conformity, though not necessarily always as a pair. Radiohead, or the Beatles, for instance, managed to achieve a great deal of mainstream success while remaining artistically curious. Conversely, we have all known a band or two that attempts to achieve popularity by aping more popular acts.

The obscure was the difficult to find, the difficult to appreciate, or the niche work. A talented but difficult band that released a single 7″ single at some point in the not-so-distant past of a show they recorded in their mother’s basement might have been legendary to a select group, popular for 15 people. EG- the first Vashti Bunyan record. If you had it, or knew someone who had it, or even knew about it, you were in the know.

I believe that the mainstream as we knew it is no longer, replaced by competing niches with varying degrees of popularity. There will be no mass-cultural events quite like those my parents experienced: walking down the street and hearing Sgt. Pepper’s blasting from every window. The mass-cultural event as such has been destroyed, or fragmented and sped up by the internet. In their place, we have niche cultural events, which are both more available and more mercurial. The blog band. The band on the last episode of Grey’s Anatomy. That rapper who sampled ______’s song. The micro-event is the event sped up and spread out.

Conformity, like this new fragmentary popularity, will remain, but to be experienced in a different way as well. Which brings me back to my original point: we sometimes heap praise too readily, though this is a symptom of a greater problem resulting from a redefinition of the obscure and the popular in the newly fluid environment of taste and media exchange. Now, as opposed to a single mainstream (or a few dominant mainstreams), we have more- or less-popular tastemaking outlets coupled with a general dissemination of certain tastes virally through blogs and the like. Pitchfork, for instance, operates as a tastemaking center. When Pitchfork gives a record “Best New Music,” it starts showing up all over the internet, on probably hundreds of blogs. I don’t know what this does for the album’s sales, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the artist’s popularity or availability.

Popularity and availability are still, to some extent, decided by centers. These centers are dispersed, and we generally assume that they are not centers in the classical sense of the “mainstream” media outlet. This is why we have to pay attention to them. We have, as opposed to a dominant genre, or even a specific television station, micro-genres and small, but connected and powerful centers of tastemaking. Ours is an era where you can program your own radio station, and so we believe our taste is influenced only by its own development. Taste doesn’t work this way, we are still always influenced by the outside. This neither good nor bad but still important to realize.

The important thing that these effects of an imploded sense of popularity (dispersed micro-centers, micro-genres, blog darling bands) have in common is their speed. Everything happens faster. Bands that are hugely popular now for even a moment may never have been noticed 20 or even 10 years ago. Often they need to do little more than record a song in their room and put it up on a blog.

Couple all these factors: fragmented cultural events, viral tastemaking, speed of transmission, and near-universal availability of all music, and we arrive at the reasons for this problem I brought up in the first place. We often heap praise too readily. All of these factors cause us to digest and pass by far too quickly, looking to tastemakers for guidance, which only increases the speed of our digestion. This cycle continually extends its own limits. This is not to say that some of these bands are not deserving of praise, but that the pace of creative expression is different for each artist, and we are burning some out with the way we digest. Or failing to appreciate the depth and breadth of their art. Granted, people may not set out to listen to everything they find on blogs or cokemachineglow, but their tastes are largely defined by which outlets or blogs they pay attention to rather than what is “culturally dominant.”

Obscurity is, then, no longer a matter of availability, but a matter of attention. Something is now more obscure if we fail to notice it, or pass it by too quickly. I recognize and agree with a certain level of valorization of the obscure. It is not, for some fundamental reason, better than the status quo, but there is, I believe, some value in doing something different. So: slow it down, pay attention to something for a bit longer. It is good, yes, to have all these things available, but do we really need to have 10k mp3s on our hard drives? The career artist may be a dinosaur, and some may say good riddance. And there is surely something thrilling about the speed of artistic development we can achieve now. But am I the only one who feels fatigued by it all, who feels that things pass a little too quickly?

Our extended engagement is on the way out. The side effect of the ease of finding a record that would never have been available before the internet is our loss of the experience, the joy, and enthusiasm for the rarity of that object. There is something special about a truly rare record, or now, simply waiting until the release date of a record to hear it. Finding something on a whim or half-heartedly listening to a leaked record robs of it’s aura.

It is good, to a certain extent, that the aura is leaving consumption of media. Though, since the aura has begun to dissipate, media consumption is still a game of self-conscious production of taste, but much less an engagement with a thing over time by a person who changes over time. These functions of consumption have been inherent to it all along, but now the ratio has tipped too far. Consumption, especially in this manner, often becomes momentum for its own sake. An empire collapses, often, precisely as it pushes its own borders too far out.

All too often we have assumed the thrill newness can and will replace the familiarity of time spent. I would simply like to recommend that we risk losing something special unless we make some more time to engage. To think about it at all is the first step. Newness may fade, but intimacy and appreciation may deepen with time. Take a chance, fall in love with something and stick with it. There will always be something new if it doesn’t work out.

PROPOSAL-

I propose that we at GhostIsland start reviewing old favorites. Call them something other than reviews, if you’d like. Write essays about them, if you want. Explain why you love what you love. Let’s emphasize the things we’ve grown to appreciate and not the things we’ve read about, chewed up, and spit out. Let’s write criticism of books, movies, or music that are too old, that came out six months, a year, 6 years, 60 years ago. Time and circumstance will often give a love or hatred of a thing a perspective that only deepens our engagement.

If no one else does this, I still will.

Also, try buying a turntable. Who cares if it “sounds better.” You would perhaps be surprised how much more engaged you are with a record that you actually have to select and physically handle before you can listen to it.

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15 Responses to “On looking back–popularity, obscurity, and: a proposal for moving forward.”


  1. 1 johuat
    June 24, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    I have a few comments -

    It seems like what you are asking has a lot to do with the downfall of the old mainstream types of events. You focus on popular music of the past 40 years or so and you point out what does seem like an obvious trend in the decline in one of its qualities – a quality that sounds a lot like “market saturation.”
    The internet turns up not only because it has accelerated this decline but also that it’s probably something like a replacement. I think the internet is, and probably is going to become more-so, a new mass cultural event that changes as it (and we, still the first generation of users) gets older. Look at World of Warcraft. The short half-life of recent music as an example of taste is just an artifact of the new system for acquiring music. And hitting level 50 first makes you feel like a rock star.

  2. 2 butttub
    June 25, 2009 at 5:02 am

    the internet is creating a whole new category of non-monetarizable vital labor. the artist in late capitalism becomes the 50s housewife– indispensable but not valued by the economic system.

  3. 3 Luckycloud
    June 25, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Jim,

    This is exactly the point I was trying to make, that in the place of market saturation, we are left with the internet, which is defined less by saturation than by lots of micro-saturations, that is, smaller, saturated niche markets. As a result of this, though, I find we are swinging too much toward one end of a ratio: what we used to value for it being “different” from the mainstream is now exactly what causes us to fixate on the consumption of a thing for its own sake. It used to be hard to find certain kinds of records, and the fixation was rewarded if one did manage to find them, but now we can find them quite easily and the fixation has turned into one for massing things. It is the same impulse, but met with the speed and availability of records, it takes on a different character. The music-collecting impulse which may have led us to discover new things in the past now leads us to download or buy music faster than we can reasonably hope to appreciate or parse them.

    As (I think) Ben was saying, the artist essentially becomes a producer of something we generally find so slight and common that we aren’t willing to assign it any value.

    The short half-life of recent music is, no doubt, an artifact of this new system for acquiring music. This is also the point I was trying to make. But it also doesn’t mean we need to go quietly. I just mean that we should question it. Not that it is bad to have all these things available, but our record-collecting impulses, once calibrated to deal with the relative obscurity of the things we wanted, now know very little in the way of boundaries of availability or speed of transfer. I think, basically, that we are getting a little ahead of ourselves and should try to remember why it was that we wanted all this music in the first place. Not that everyone should buy a turntable and stop listening to mp3s.

  4. 4 Luckycloud
    June 25, 2009 at 11:46 am

    Also-

    I think it is the nature of the internet that it cannot be a mass-cultural event, because it lacks total saturation, and even though there may still be some centers of power, the power is spread out and different in kind. The mass culturual event is usually centered. The nature of networks is that centers are dispersed and localized power is more difficult to assert.

    As a system of transfer, or a technological development, maybe it’s an event, but as an event itself, I don’t think so.

  5. 5 johuat
    June 26, 2009 at 2:53 am

    Sean,

    I don’t understand your point about “micro-saturation” – the internet may not have complete saturation right now but I bet it is closing in on it fast. I think the “music-collecting impulse” is broader behavior and is being satisfied in other ways now – take for instance WOW players who spend time researching “rare” items and probably much more time trying to acquire them (i.e. by “camping.”) For a while you couldn’t even buy items on eBay. The mass culture here no longer has the same meaning of proximity – it doesn’t make sense to look for “localized power” of “mass cultural” events on the internet. It’s just that the means is the phenomenon here, not the content.

  6. June 26, 2009 at 4:12 am

    shigs higs,

    in the 60s, for example, someone like Vashti Bunyan, wasn’t necessarily as obscure as I think you imply; I believe she was a friend of the Rolling Stones, or some like, was thought of as amazing, only her record never achieved the commercial success of a Mick Jagger– what I want to point at is that, within a certain mainstream, there was a relationship with avant-garde practices: Mick Jagger starring in the film Performance, by Donald Cammell, who’s best friend was Michel Auder who married Viva, a Chelsea Girl– or john lennon marrying Yoko–the artistic mainstream had a more signal relationship with the the left guard

    i think the modes of production and dissemination of artistic content have changed–so, often, it’s hard to distinguish, in terms of cultural apparatus set to work in the creation of the art work, studios, software, instruments, of hit records– I distinguish the sonic quality of a Jay-Z record or even Pitchfork darlings, isn’t Phoenix a new one?, in terms of production “exchange-value”, which can be quantified in terms of hardware, software and the variable labor of cultural workers that help create it, (like Eno producing U2 and Coldplay),

    the means of distribution is embedded within the production process of hit records, or even Kitschfork records–

    so much of the music I find interesting engages its own production in a a more reflexive way and creates new sounds, this work is more experimental and obscure, and also self-enclosing: Home Production. I find its centers of distribution to be off the beaten track labels that share music of interest for free. Difficult music, music that requires the mind to purchase on it in some way, still requires multiple listens–it also, hides itself, in its production, as valueless labor, from the “cultural mainstream”

    I went to a 7 hour tape concert recently at LaMonte Young’s loft where he played ragas by Pandit Prah Nath. The “obscurity” of this work and performance, sets itself in advance to defuse its potential co-optation.

  7. 7 Luckycloud
    June 27, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Jim,

    Yes, the collecting impulse is a broader behavior, and I’m not arguing that this impulse isn’t being satisfied by other means as well, but that we tend to satisfy it just by getting MORE stuff. And I am also, like you, saying that with the internet, nothing is centralized, at least not in the way things were before. This is my argument about micro-saturation: it isn’t a full saturation of the apparatus, but something more like micro-climates or small complementary ecosystems. Power and centrality still exists in a network culture, but they are dissipated rather than concentrated.

    And the content is never the phenomenon, so I’m with you on that one. This is what McLuhan meant (*groan*, I know) when he said the medium is the message. I’m just trying to engage, maybe at an overly simplistic level, with the way that a shifting concept of obscurity affects our need to collect, or our drive to enjoy cultural production. It seems that too often we are now driven toward quantity and I am trying to think of the ways that one may balance it out a bit better, so that while simultaneously taking advantage of these new means of distribution, we use it carefully, and not strictly as a market for subcultural capital. (Which is a term that Dick Hebdige liked to use–an easy example would be “hip points”).

    And yes, I agree with your points about WOW, but I would rather discuss less centralized market. Items in WOW may be rare, people may camp, they sell them on Ebay, but they’re still all programmed by Blizzard. WOW represents something a great deal less dissipated than I was trying to get at. It constitutes its own market, as far as I can figure.

    Avi,

    I agree. Yes, maybe Vashti was a bad example. But it holds, I think that certain music used to be obscure in a way it isn’t now. It was probably championed by people in the know, but not easily available to them. People used to have to dig through bins at who knows how many record stores to find what they want. I think this constitutes what I mean by the record-collecting impulse. I think we got used to this rarity comprising some of a things value (also, we were accustomed to a more physical artifact, not a (physical nonetheless) easily copied, highly transferrable artifact). Or this is how I’m trying to reason through why we collect indiscriminately now that things are so readily available.

    I am trying to focus more on this sort of music (difficult music) and am finding it difficult as a result of the near-absolute availability of everything and the short attention span I have. I am trying to find a way to appreciate pop music AND the “valueless music” you champion (which, I agree, has a lot of value). I do believe in the production of sound and music for its own sake. I know there are different modes of listening for different sorts of music, and I think this is always informed by our conceptions of its value.

    I would argue the mode of listening to music is now often defined by tastemakers rather than a “mainstream”. I think as a result of the rise of these small centers (kitschfork, etc.), music is more than before, as you say, produced with its exchange value or subcultural capital in mind, that is, the music is produced and then listened to on the merit of its value in the subcultural sense. But it seems that there is no SUBculture anymore, because I wonder if there can be a dominant one in a network culture. So perhaps this measurement of value is a relic from a previous system? It is unfit for the current one.

    So I think our modes of listening are often too fast and too superficial for the things to which we are listening. I guess what I’m arguing is that we should maybe stop being so giddy with the speed and availability of recorded music, and slow the fuck down for a bit, then maybe we can re-engage with music and culture that has value beyond it sub-cultural cool points and rediscover the value of culture on its own terms. Late capitalism can either be a boon or an unfortunate problem. I think we can turn it back toward boon. At least some of us. In my view, there is room for Phoenix and LaMonte Young. Just buy a record, see a live show. Engage with it a bit more.

    Perhaps this was all poorly phrased, but I hope you guys get my point.

    As a side note: when people look at the music you champion from the recorded angle, it often leads to a mis-understanding of it. eg – Nadja records are quite numerous. Blogs posting experimental music post as much as those posting indie-darling music. What are we to make of this? A show may defuse potential co-optation, but it seems that the recorded aspect of so much of this music (not only music experimenting with recording-technology, eg Tim Hecker) makes it difficult to engage on the level you are talking about. I mean, how many of us can go see LaMonte Young in his loft?

    To listen to this sort of music, we still need to consider our relationship to recorded sound. You would understand more about him by listening to one recording over and over than by listening to 10 of his recordings in a row, I would say. This is all to say that I think it’s a tricky endeavor.

    Thanks for the responses, dudes. I hope mine is coherent enough.

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