Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Sell Out? Kiss off!

I am young enough to be excited by new music, but old enough to be irritated by stupidity. This week, I am in a massive temper about an article by Kissy Sell Out in that tabloid version of the Independent – you know, that one that has articles about itself as “the best loved tabloid broadsheet”, sells for 20p and has bad haikus instead of news.

I am pretty naive about popular music – last week, My Producer Harry shouted at me for playing The Swedish House Mafia on our radio show, since they have been hyped by Radio 1 – but Kissy Sell Out might become my nemesis. I had better listen to his show sometime. Although he has debated at the Cambridge Union – against Stephen Fry, whose tweets about having a shit having been mistaken for some kind of contemporary philosophy – I doubt Kissy is best represented by his article in the paper. He is trying to make some point about classical music having had its day. Apparently, because he noticed that The Farm – a dodgy Liverpudlian boys band that somehow got tangled in the arse hair of the Madchester scene – used a melody from Pachelbel, classical music is exposed as elitist. He goes on to say that the act of “writing music down” isn’t as vibrant as recording it. Because classical music is notated, it isn’t as good as Kissy’s radio show.

I’ll be talking about Kissy’s Cambridge debate in another article – coming soon, and it might actually mention The Kronos Quartet, who are the putative subject of this week’s gay ramble. In the meantime, I’ll just rant about a few of Kissy’s Big Ideas. One is that classical music is elitist, while youth culture is all about inclusion.  Another is his belief that recorded sound is more authentic than the music made from a score. He doesn’t consider live performance at all. Being the sort of person who thinks the name Kissy Sell Out is cool, his grasp of language is pretty weak, too. For the record, I was born Vile, and when my sentences get out of control, I haven’t taken my medication.

My Producer Harry and I are trying to resolve our playlist struggles on the Vile Arts Radio Hour. I want to cover gigs that are happening around Glasgow, but this has left our selections uneven. And it doesn’t help that I play stuff without always listening to it first. Into this combustible mixture comes Perfecting Sound Forever, a history of recording that Harry has been reading, and I stole from him while he was trying to fix the sound on an interview I messed up. Although this is a very practical conversation – we are trying to develop a radio show that our listeners might enjoy – it quickly gets into me showing off about having read Plato once, and blood being spilt over the exact relationship between musical fashion and technological advance.

Two interesting points did emerge, right into Kissy’s theses. One is that recorded sound is frequently fraudulent, imitating the sound of a band but made by musicians playing at separate times, and multi-tracked beyond any chance of live replication, and that various sound tests, right back to Edison’s day, were about as scientifically valid as homeopathy.  The other is that any musical choice we make – say, including tonnes of stuff that is connected to Winning Sperm Party or Cry Parrot, or my insistence on working a regular dubstep track into the Hour – has to involve consideration of what audience we are including or excluding. The irony is that one of the show’s foundations is inclusion, that opera and classical bump alongside electronica and new Glasgow bands like the wonderful Holy Mountain. The show is all about widening the remit, crossing over into new scenes, and making connections. It’s why I play doom cabaret songs about book burning by the Creative Martyrs over Steve Reich’s Different Trains or the dialect poetry of Martin O’Connor over MC Lars. That, and I am unsteady on the cross-fader.

But as someone who supports eclecticism and diversity, I can’t buy Kissy’s idea that youth cultures have always been about inclusion – or, as he suggests “music scenes that transcend social boundaries should surely be of the utmost importance in youth culture”.  Optimistically citing jazz halls as the foundations of ant-racism in the 1920s and the importance of Live Aid, music has, for Kissy, “quite literally changed the world”.
If you are a social worker, then yes, transcending social boundaries is important. If, on the other hand, you actually belong to a youth culture, those who are excluded are as important as those included. Once upon a time, before the music business became a career choice, rock’n’roll was about pissing off parents, rebelling. Mods and Rockers didn’t ruck down Brighton beach to transcend social boundaries. And NWA didn’t bang on about being gangsters to develop a community. Ideas like cool and exclusivity have high value in music. And the rave culture Kissy praises was not all about high-minded social mobility. It was about taking shitloads of drugs until you thought everyone was cool, except for the police who kicked the shit out of us when we protested for our “right to party”.

Kissy praises the web-culture that has made music accessible – and has encouraged the sort of eclecticism we can agree to love. But he has that annoying ahistoricity of the Sunshine Generation  - of the sort that doesn’t understand why Pearl Jam weren’t as good as Nirvana for anyone actually around during The Grunge Years  -  with a Wikipedia entry in place of research, and optimistic platitude in place of considered opinion.  He ignores what he cannot accommodate – that youth culture is fierce and exclusive – and aims to transcend boundaries by making fatuous divisions between elitist classical and popular chart tunes. Yet Kissy celebrates those acts who have used classical music as a motif. Sadly, he includes Malcolm Maclaren’s Fans, which misappropriated both opera and hip-hop. It’s a shame he doesn’t include the follow up, which tried to match funk and waltz, despite their different time signatures, and lyrics about women’s tits. His argument against classical music seems to be based on identifying its influences on pop.

As for his emphasis on the “visceral power of a sound recording”... I just give up. I honestly don’t understand what he is talking about. He appears to be saying that listening to a recording is better than reading the notes on a page. Kissy’s argument is a bit like saying that looking at dirty Polaroid of an ex isn’t as intimate as having sex with your girlfriend, so feminism is a bad thing. It takes something obvious and spuriously links it to another idea.

Harry and I have at least read a book about this, and I’ll pretend I know what compression means. We are a bit suspicious about the hegemony of recorded sound, and I am trying to connect this to my various conspiracy theories about late consumerism and the removal of choice. In short, the recording is an artefact, ready for sale and consumption. I don’t like art being reduced to a commodity, especially when the commodification is hidden. Before I get as tangled in language as he does, I’ll conclude that Kissy’s advocacy of recorded sound is a typical example of how late capitalism uses the rhetoric of romanticism to sell us crap. That’ll be why he is on Radio 1 and in the national papers, and I write a blog. He’s a shill for corporate interests. And in an act of anti-consumerist fervour, I am going to listen to Radio 3.

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