Music Without Culture

There is a fundamental paradox of tourism: as soon as someone finds somewhere nice to go, we all go there and ruin it. Venice might still be very beautiful, but imagine if the gondolas were full of people going about their everyday business, rather than Japanese couples looking listless and waiting for something romantic to happen, or snakes of school kids wearing matching T-shirts. It still looks pretty much the same, but you just know in the back of your mind that it’s slowly sinking under the weight of passive observation.

I think the same thing can happen to culture. The holiday destination/cultural movement ceases to evolve according to its own rules and becomes pickled, shark-like, in formaldehyde. Take dubstep. South London is the cultural destination and its must-have souvenirs are recordings of “dubstep” as the locals call it. (“darling it was so enlightening, you’ve no idea how these people live, and now I’m trying to go carbon neutral so I can’t use a plane…”). You might be thinking that the idea of going on holiday to South London’s tower blocks isn’t exotic enough to justify the name, but I’ve got about as much to with South London as I do with Venice and I bet you do too.

Without trying to accuse anyone of liking dubstep for the sake of cool; I’m just saying it might be another example of a trend for musical cradle snatching. Obviously people have always been influenced by other people’s music, and I do understand that a lot of great music is the result of someone appropriating someone else’s style, maybe all of it. Despite the fact that dubstep is a relatively recent development, there are plenty of people who have a totally disconnected background but are involved in the scene. Once a new sound might have had many years of being exclusively the preserve of the people who invented it, all the time being imbued with the culture of its creators. But now fresh creative output can go from someone’s computer to anyone who cares to listen. It’s not just technological; there has been a shift in attitudes to different music. That’s why no one knows what to say to “what sort of thing are you into then?”

“I’m pretty eclectic actually man.”

Of course you are, everybody is. There are the means and the motive to find out about new tunes, not just from the genre of music you already know or associated your self with, but any genre.

What does this matter? I’m not saying that it’s here now, but in the future a lot of music might simply not be associated with a place or a type of person. The prospect looms on the horizon like global warming and death, with the same remoteness and inevitability. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little. But musical genres might cease to be associated with people who have many social links. Possibly similar views more generally, or a shared internet forum, but that’s a poor substitute. You could be looking at some pretty soulless music, with none of the references or quirks that make different genres more than a way of categorizing similar sounding music. If you ask some one what rock n’ roll is they’re just as likely to describe a life style as a style of music, but in the future there won’t be any novel social norms for followers to conform to. Of course there will be in-jokes between the internet aficionados or (maybe) associated styles of dress, but that lacks authenticity, like a local dance performed by natives shipped into your resort hotel.

Don’t forget how culturally sensitive music is. It not quite the same as visual art, which speaks a universal language. You may not know about the ancient Greek references of the Elgin marbles, but you can tell they look nice. However, as close to home as Scotland we have an instrument which is unable to produce a sound that is pleasing to our untrained ears (don’t try to tell me you like them). If you have ever been to Turkey you will know they prefer pop music with vocals that sound like a man being shown live footage of his vasectomy, having just overheard that the surgeon will need more whiskey if he’s going to stop shaking like that. Even within the same society there are barriers: when my parents hear Jungle it is qualitatively different from the music I hear. For them it’s just the noise that precedes a phone call to the police. Music is, fundamentally, a collective creation.

You can’t survey the music of the world and say which genres you appreciate because, for starters, you have to listen to something for some time before starting to understand it. Secondly, a genre has a whole internal system of references and traditions, which are unavailable to the casual listener. This is why the whole concept of “world music” is ridiculous. For the same reason it is possible to have sophisticated opinions on pop music. It does have the necessary internal structure, and let’s face it, for a lot of people it’s the music which they are most familiar.

The kind of music that you like, to the point of going out to see it or knowing details of its proponents lives, unsurprisingly, is also the music your friends like. It is a collective event. If you wish to go out and see music, then you must also like a genre of music with sufficient support to fuel a live scene. Waves of musical preference slowly pulse across the different strata of our society, as we collectively shift our musical taste.

However in a world where music is transmitted through the omnipresent internet, what criteria will decide which type of music you or your group opts for? The old mechanism of transmission-gigs, recordings purchased from shops, word of mouth- is short circuited. As opposed to gentle pulsation of preference there will be a chaotic and random interest in all of the internet’s arrayed musical sub-types.

Dubstep does have social norms, a vernacular, all the hall marks of a real slice of culture. Interestingly, dubstep does have something of a technological bulwark against the process: there are still only a few clubs in the country with sound systems to sufficient to really satisfy the desire for bass. Dubstep seems to exemplify this for me, because it’s the first time I’ve really come across the growth of a new genre while the internet’s been so ubiquitous.

When a fresh idea can travel from a myspace page to the whole world before it even acquires a name, let alone a scene, what comes next? We could lose something important about music, about ourselves, if this happens. We may become musical tourists, ever searching for that next Goa, so we can turn up there, and make it just like everywhere else.

Jimmy Tidey

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