Once again someone with a relatively high profile in the music world bemoans the lack of ‘political’ artists in pop music. Usually it is an artist who makes the claim, which is disheartening enough but at least they have good intentions.
But this time it was Krissi Murison, editor of NME, writing not in her own paper but in The Guardian. Now I admire Murison’s editorship of the paper; I think she’s the best chief NME has had in over a decade. She has brought structure and good – sometimes great – writing back to a magazine that lacked it for too long.
But what she wrote is problematic, simply because she herself is such a powerful gatekeeper; bemoaning the lack of people in a room, while choosing who is allowed in. I scarcely need tell you, it’s not remotely true: as ever, there is a great pile of high quality, openly political, socially radical and progressive UK artists of all genres, banging on the door. They’re also well marketed, with better tunes and more savvy than the generations before – they’re not crusty losers. Any creative across any art form will tell you, these are fecund times for radical, polarised art.
Ms Murison, it is the arts critics and their editors who suppress the political, radical, or truth-speak in modern culture, not a mysterious lack of people doing it. In your case, it is the writing of your critics and your own editorial decisions that have been unable to lift the post-Bragg exclusion zone around radical music in the UK. Not for party-political reasons, nor even for the often rolled out stuff about image being everything (plenty of sexy pop singers are socially conscious too). But simply because the relentlessly corporate energies that drive papers like NME (and many others, as well as review sections in tabloid and broadsheet), find sincerity, optimism, commitment and opinion so unattractive, unnerving, that they instinctively force to the periphery people who edge into those areas.
What these machines are comfortable with is schtick.
Modern pop cultural critics like style, form and rendering much more than they like content, intent or layers of meaning. They do so because it’s immediately apparent: you know what a show looks like long before you unpack what it’s trying to say. It’s quicker and easier, so you filled up your notebooks with vivid experiential fluff long before any actual meaning began to sink in.
Worse, meaning itself is always debatable – and there’s nothing critics fear worse than being made to take a position that might isolate them from their peers. The deepest, darkest fear in the arts critic’s heart is that he or she will get a review ‘wrong’; flying against everyone else’s deeper understanding of a piece.
So shrug off intent and write up the hats.
Meanwhile, the editors are so busy worrying about the business, they forgot what they wanted to say in the first place. Even as newspapers diminish and music splinters, even as blogs dominate, the NME remains a powerful voice in the music industry. If you get the NME vocally onside, you will likely break your band – or at least give them a workable shot. I don’t mean reviews per se; I mean a slightly grander sort of feature-led coverage, alongside regular referencing in the news and other sections, that places a band firmly at the heart of the reader’s perceived ‘scheme of things’. NME support also powerfully encourages Radio 1 to commit; which in turn is still perhaps the UK’s most powerful method of kicking an act into the mainstream.
These decision-makers are not the faceless business types that artists, especially struggling bands, might believe. They do love music and they work in the music world for that reason. However, at key moments their assessment inevitably has less to do with music and more to do with judging how much money is being invested and who is doing the investing. And here is a truth long established by such organisations as Media Lens: the nearer you get to the top of any profit-making heirachy, the more the views will be concentrated in pragmatic, non-confrontational centrism.
So the radicals sit where they are perceived to be best suited, where their meaning doesn’t need too much unpacking: outside the door.
Ms Murison, let them in, or shut the hell up moaning. Don’t go to a broadsheet and gripe; run a ‘new reds’ special and radicalise your own charge.