Monday, June 29, 2009

Pop culture: popular or populist? An unpopular view.

In a recent interview Fergal Sharkey, erstwhile Northern Ireland pop singer, lamented the fact that most recording artists receive only very low royalty incomes. Now the intention behind the production and release of a pop song, one might have thought, is to achieve sales. No doubt fans and mere observers alike can trot out lists of millions sold by The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Madonna, Britney Spears or Michael Jackson. 
To quote a figure would be to use spurious accuracy, but it is certainly true that the majority of pop music releases do not in fact create profit for either the performer or the record company. In the world of books, Jeffrey Archer, Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling, Sidney Sheldon and John Grisham might both spring to mind and also crowd out bookshop shelves. But, according to a recent assessment, amazon’s bookstore was offering several million titles, while the average bookshop stocks less than five thousand. My own two novels, Mission and A Fool’s Knot, briefly made the shelves of one retail chain but, like most books that achieve publication, my novels sell only in ones and twos, despite many hours spent promoting and marketing them via the internet. It is disappointing, but this fact neither belittles the books’ significance nor reduces my commitment to them. My motivation to write them stemmed from a desire to communicate, to examine relationships between certain social and political issues. I thus deal with subjects that would never appeal to a mass market and so I never expected sales to be high. The fact that they started low and stayed there, however, says much about what the books are not.

It was in a discussion about music that a friend asserted, without apparent doubt or question, that pop was merely an abbreviation for ‘popular’. Thus pop music is short for popular music. Pop culture similarly equates to popular culture. But this apparent platitude represents a position which, on inspection, is neither theoretically true nor even accurate. If most pop music doesn’t sell, isn’t played, certainly isn’t listened to, then the genre cannot be described as ‘popular’. If well over ninety per cent of published books never even make it into a bookshop, then again the pop culture to which they might aspire is not itself popular. Some pop music becomes popular, but very little, and most published material seems to lose money, rather than make it. 

Popularity is thus revealed to be an aspiration, not a reality or a property of so-called popular culture. This leads directly to a conclusion that using the term ‘popular’ to imply ‘widely experienced’ is a misnomer. The correct term, linguistically, would be ‘populist’. The only sense in which ‘popular’ might be accurate is to imply that popular culture is easily comprehended, suitable for common people, thus suggesting a commodity that seeks a lowest common denominator, thus eschewing both passion and commitment, a position that would surely be rejected by those who produce or consume pop culture.

If we label it populist, however, to indicate that as a commodity it is produced with an aspiration to popularity, then it adopts a position along an axis between pure commerce on the one hand and political posturing on the other. Richard Dawkins’s concept of the meme, a social virus spread by promotion, publicity and conformity then comes into play, revealing populist culture’s ability to create, assert and perpetuate normative behaviour.

A consequence of this analysis is to give the lie to any notion that equates quality or worth with popularity, or, vice-versa, uses the latter as an indicator of the former. ‘It has sold this many copies, therefore it must be good’ only holds if the song behind a Coca Cola advertisement is the best pop music ever created, Ronald MacDonald is the highest acclaimed dramatic character or a yellow scallop Shell represents mankind’s highest artistic achievement. Attempts to locate quality via achievement in the marketplace are thus undermined by their own validity. ‘I think therefore I am’ may be reinterpreted for a new age as ‘I sell therefore I excel’. Even a post-modernist who might eschew all consideration of critical worth would balk at the endpoint to which this false logic leads. 

The phenomenal recent success of Susan Boyle on the ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ television show leads to another question. Irrespective of the quality of her voice, the improbability of her television appearance and, especially, the apparent surprise at her failure to win the competition, it seems fair to ask whether, via the potential of the internet, a social virus, a Dawkins meme, can be initiated and then successfully promulgated by design. Note here that this is not in itself an artistic endeavour, a piece of music, a book, a film or indeed anything that even approaches any concept of creativity, despite advertisers’ frequently claimed self-hype about the profusion of the talent within their profession. The question thus is whether it is possible to create an advertisement that is designed to propagate like a virus via the internet.

Why did Susan Boyle, a competitor on a light entertainment talent show, generate tens of millions of internet hits, feature worldwide on television news broadcasts and occupy the front pages of countless newspapers, thus dislodging minor stories such as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, elections in Iran, nuclear ambitions in Iran and North Korea, scandals over British MPs’ expenses or even elections to the European parliament? The interesting point here is not the phenomenon itself, but how it arose. Like other fodder fed to all-consuming pop culture, Susan Boyle will have her moment, minute or hour if she is lucky, be digested and, again if she has the good fortune, for this happens only rarely, will reappear via some future orifice to be granted nostalgia status, her achievements forgotten, her existence beatified, a state that can last only as long as the consumers of nostalgia – those who had the original experience – maintain their capacity to consume. The suggestion, obviously, is that pop culture dies with its audience.

And this is no mere side issue, no mere detail. Pop culture, because of its overtly economic and political role is, despite its apparently global presence, remarkably constrained in its penetration. It remains highly targeted, both geographically and demographically, and always wholly ephemeral. It’s the music that counts, we are often told, alongside a claim for quality on the grounds of popularity as indicated by sales. But ask an English speaker who is their favourite Russian band or what performer in Arabic comes to mind and one tends to be presented with an expression of complete incomprehension, as if the question were somehow invalid. This leads, unfortunately, to the conclusion that in fact the music is almost irrelevant, with the verses of songs, especially those relating to an inability to express personal feelings, being the most important element. 

It is thus revealed as a genre that trades in self-identification and empathy, and can thus only operate in the consumer’s own language. When, for example, was the last time that a fully instrumental piece was an international commercial success? Can today’s pop culture generate another Tornado’s Telstar, a tune on an electric organ to celebrate a communications satellite launch? When might a song about death, having no drumbeat and accompanied by string quartet, top the charts? Would Franz Schubert be a hit today? Yes, if he, like Paul McCartney, had written Eleanor Rigby, a song whose quality might undermine my entire argument, if it were not for the existence, in the same era, of successes called Remember You’re A Womble and The Birdie Song. 

This line of argument takes us into interesting territory. On the face of things, pop culture claims popularity. But most of the offerings in its genre are largely not popular, so it may only be described as populist, in that it aspires to the achievement of popularity. This renders a commodity that is already expressly designed to be commercial to adopt also an essentially political role, in that it can be a means of canalizing taste and opinion in an attempt to keep its market predictable. It also therefore must canalize its own means of expression, both in form and content. It claims universality, but all but a tiny fraction of its products are both language and culture confined. It constantly claims originality but, in both form and content, styles and themes remain narrowly defined. Exceptions, such as Eleanor Rigby, Telstar, or even Stranger On The Shore, merely confirm the general rule. Like novelty acts in a variety show, they provide variety, but they can usually happen only once, their novelty hardly outliving the show. 

Meanwhile, within the necessary repetition of both form and content, elements usually not directly related to the artistic endeavour orbit the fringes to both create and endow identity, alternative personas to which consumers voluntarily adhere. Titles come and go, such as rock’n’roll, soul, dance, techno, disco, hip hop, indie, punk, heavy metal, rap, new age, urban, R&B, blues, country even jazz. There is even something absurdly called ‘world music’, apparently to define music that is not in English, but implying that pop in English must arise on Mars, or at least not in this world. Each year or two a new label is added, apparently to allow each new subset of consumers to experience an illusory ownership of a culture they are effectively being force-fed. Then the names will disappear, perhaps to reappear briefly as nostalgia when their original consumers are old enough to lament their lost youth. 

I have concentrated my examples in the genre of pop music, but writing, drama, television and film would have worked equally well, but only if consideration is limited to those aspects which appeal to mass consumption. The consequent canalization of both form and content thus breeds a sense of social and cultural conformity which might be the exact opposite of originality, experience or artistic expression. 

A couple of years ago I was prompted to write an article on the internet’s potential to democratise access to expression. I argued specifically that the internet might democratise publishing, but the point could also be made in relation to any endeavour aiming to communicate. I, like others fired by the enthusiasm of publication, and in my case in traditional book form, not via the internet, attempted to publicise my work in cyberspace and, indeed, achieved some of my goals. 

But two years on, and even with a second book published, the project can hardly be described as a success, unlike the books themselves, of course, which remain as they began, excellent. I was never so na├»ve to believe that books about personal and community identity being challenged by social change and economic development in rural Africa would be overnight best sellers. Quite the contrary: I was always aware of their specialism. But I did write them hoping that they would be read, however. Now, in the light of my own failure in the very shadow of viral marketing’s obvious potential for success, I find myself questioning whether the internet might be fast degenerating into a tool to promote normative populism. 

This question is rendered more significant by recent search engine developments, where algorithms that weight connectivity and popularity claim to deliver more relevant search results. Surely this can only mean more normative and populist pressure and thus question further the internet’s claim to openness and freedom of expression. I must state here, to avoid any possible confusion, that I have no problem with democracy, no difficulty whatsoever with the idea that people should have what they want. It is force-feeding that is wrong, not the content of the feed. 

Equally, just as ‘might’ cannot automatically be right, ‘majority’ must never equate to dictatorship or domination, and ‘popularity’ must impose no norm. But perhaps this tendency has been there from the start. The internet may have grown out of an expression of academic freedom, but its origins, as ARPANET, lay in a desire to improve the efficiency of the defence and weapons research in the United States, and, at the height of the Cold War, that was a fairly normative area. So maybe there is still hope for freedom of expression as long as we retain the right to go beyond page three of our query results. Be wary of the day, however, that sees a restriction of search engine hits being justified by an increase in relevance. There may be more at stake than unread books, or unpopular pop.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Master by Colm Toibin

In The Master, Colm Toibin offers the reader a style and content quite different from his other novels. In a sense, the book is an act of homage to Henry James, a recognition of a creative debt, perhaps, owed by Colm Toibin to the great American writer. On another level, like Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, it is an attempt to enter an iconic writer’s own creativity to highlight its insecurity and doubt. Current writers know full well that their offerings are rightly subject to critical analysis and comparison, with some critics apparently taking delight in automatically belittling contemporary efforts. But when we read a book that has achieved ‘classic’ status, we often forget that in its own time it was treated no more reverently than current new issues.

In The Master Colm Toibin manages to penetrate the creativity of Henry James, bringing his character to life via the creative process that seems to be at his very core. Thus The Master is part biography, part family history, part observation of late nineteenth century society in England, America and in expatriate enclaves in Europe. It remains a novel, however, and its main character a fiction, despite the historical reality of both the setting and the achievement.

And this becomes one of the book’s strengths. The story is a series of reflections from the past married with often apparently mundane family or personal events. Chapters are dated, beginning in 1895 and ending in 1899, but there is no linearity of plot, no story, as such, apart from the development of the writer as he responds to reflections on his family, life and relationships. At the start, a play of his has just failed. Oscar Wilde’s trial is in the news, commented upon alongside reports of London society and its opinions. It is here that Henry James laments the death of his sister, before soon describing his brother’s participation in the American Civil War, a war that he, himself, declined to fight.

A suicide, that of a fellow writer, Constance Fennimore Woolson, has a profound effect on him. She was in Venice, a city that James then visits to assist her relatives with the necessary details. As ever, he is less than effective. In a later encounter with a sculptor called Andersen, James again comes close to standing idly by as events run past him. The author is always on the outside, it seems, an apparently uninvolved, disinterested observer, always apart from experience he could potentially share. He prefers to retain this role, the observer, the listener, making as few comments as possible. He sees life as a mystery, with only sentences capable of beauty. Ultimately, Henry James is cast as a selfish absorber of other’s experience, the raw material he stores to regurgitate later as plot and content. He lives his own rather self-centered life through the recording and later embroidery of other’s experience, others’ emotion. His psyche is a writer’s notebook, with human contacts neatly entered and filed for later literary use, his own emotions not revealed, or perhaps suppressed, his presence predatory. The Master is a remarkable achievement, a book whose writing mimics Henry James’s own literal but complex style, itself a discipline. View this book on amazon The Master

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

In his Booker Prize winning novel, The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga has achieved success where other illustrious writers have fallen short in recent years. Kiran Desai, Monica Ali and Salman Rushdie have all entered the fray and achieved considerable success of their own around themes rooted in the ramshackle, disorganised, free-for-all, cost-cutter basement of globalisation. Characters in their novels might live in New York or London, but their thoughts continue to live in rural south Asia. They might, through their labour, service the desires of the First World rich, but their personal priorities might remain rooted in the concerns of Third World poor. I accept that the grouping of these authors is unfair, since Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar The Clown is an overtly political book, whereas Monica Ali’s is largely domestic and Kiran Desai’s is familiar. But they do all share an overt interest in characters who have left their humble, Third World origins for a First World status that is less than desirable, though their motives might be diverse.

In The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga tries a different tack, and achieves much. The scenario is unlikely, deliberately comic. The book presents a narrative – apparently constructed in just seven evenings at a personal computer – by one Belram, a man with origins in a poor area of an Indian countryside he calls Darkness. Essentially, there are seven blogs or emails addressed to Wen Jiabao via the Premier’s Office, Beijing, China in which the first person narrator tells his story. Belram, presumably, believes that the Chinese people, via their leader, need advice on how to succeed in the globalised twenty-first century. Since Belram has indeed succeeded, he wants to share his experience as potential assistance to the most populous nation on earth. Belram’s rise can be listed without jeopardising the potential reader’s interest or involvement with the book. He was of utterly poor rural origin, but luckily – and also perhaps rather deviously – secured a job as a driver for the middle-class, urban Mr Ashok.

By the end of the tale Belram has his own business in Bangalore, a place as far from his own origins as any international destination. He now owns a taxi fleet that services the anti-social working hours of the growing city’s relocated call centres, whose First World cost-cutter owners provide the financial umbrella-shade in which budding entrepreneurs like Belram may shelter and prosper. Thus he eases himself a rung or two up the social and economic ladder. If only the elevation might have happened without treading on others… The White Tiger is a delightful and engaging book. The narrator’s humour and world-outlook are both entertaining and stimulating. The book’s improbable structure presents no problem whatsoever once Belram’s engaging style is established. His story is simple, devious, credible and incredible in one, and perhaps as close to a truth as one might ever approach. Literature is full of schemers and opportunists. Anti-heroes, however, rarely convince. Belram, on the other hand, almost demands we share his success via emulation, and I encourage all readers to enter his world on his terms. View this book on amazon The White Tiger

The Last Testament Of Oscar Wilde by Peter Ackroyd

A journal is being written by a lonely man in a Paris hotel room. It starts, for its sins, on 9 August 1900. There was nothing auspicious about the date, no connection to former grandeur or glory. But there has been a chance encounter, on a rare excursion outdoors, with three young Englishmen. They recognise the journal’s author, one Oscar Wilde, and they refer to him as “she”. It is an event worth recording, an event that prompts recollection and reflection on a life. Oscar Wilde’s life was lived in public. Through exploration, then success and fame, and finally via notoriety and disgrace the author occupied a public mind.

His talent was immense, his desire to exploit it almost single-minded and his success phenomenal. In an era when stardom in the modern sense was being invented, Oscar Wilde played the stage, published, courted society and self-promoted. He pushed at boundaries, sometimes not for reasons of art, but merely because they existed. He was, after all, an outsider, an Irishman of questionable parentage, but dressed elegantly in a frock coat and mingling with the highest. He thus became a star for a while, a centre of attention, a media figure.

This was nothing less than celebrity in the modern sense, except, of course, that in his case there actually was some talent and ability in the equation. He was famous primarily for what he did, not for whom he became. But then there was a change. The fame was rendered infamy by publicity he could no longer control. And that downfall killed him. A final journal entry on 30 November 1900, recorded from the author’s mumblings by a friend, Maurice Gilbert, records the event. Oscar Wilde had fallen while in prison, and had sustained an injury to an ear, an injury that festered. Early on in his recollections, Oscar Wilde recalls George Bernard Shaw saying that, “An Englishman will do whatever in the name of principle.”

Wilde’s qualification was that the principle was inevitably self-interest. It is a beautiful metaphor, because as a talented – even gifted – young Irish writer, Wilde was promoted and enjoyed success while ever he bolstered others’ positions. The moment he sought an assertion of his own right, however, he was disowned. Celebrity can thus rub shoulders with the rich and powerful, but only on their terms. And it was their terms that eventually killed him. The sybaritic Bosie encountered, the desire for things Greek aroused, Wilde found himself drawn into a society he could not resist.

But he remained a self-confessed voyeur, and never became a participant. He thus remained forever the outsider, on the periphery of even his own vices. But he was eventually pilloried for what he became in the public eye to stand for. It remained only a state to which he aspired, if, that is, we believe him. The Last Testament Of Oscar Wilde thus hops repeatedly across the boundary that separates a public and a private life. Eventually the two distinct existences become blurred. Because one is always trying to be the other, with neither predominating. Peter Ackroyd’s book is a masterpiece with much to say about thoroughly modern concepts such as populism, celebrity, fame and identity. View this book on amazon The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde