“Capital is the ‘unnameable Thing’, the abomination, which primitive and feudal societies ‘warded off in advance’”
This description of capitalism as a ‘dark potentiality which has haunted all previous social systems’ conjured up some pretty grotesque impressions within my mind. Amongst them was a rather large and brooding depiction of John Carpenter’s the Thing rampaging through a ‘Blade Runner-esque’ city to the soundtrack of Meshuggah’s ‘obZen’. I was not surprised when reading through Mark Fisher’s chapter in ‘Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?’ that the author also made the same comparison, albeit more eloquently. I have always loved the way Mark Fisher writes and especially appreciated his critiques on the music industry in books such as ‘Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures’ and through his influential ‘K-Punk Blog’. The more I read and reflect upon concepts relating to music and its sociocultural relevance and significance, the more it grieves me to see this same ‘unnameable Thing’ bare its snarling teeth (or frenetic tendrils oozing dark acidic sludge that reeks of forgotten dreams). It becomes even more apparent through the interactions and conversations I share with the younger generation as a music teacher. It worries me to see how music is understood now (or isn’t), how it functions within our lives (or doesn’t) and how it determines what is important to us (or what was).
The music industry (or at least the one propagated by mainstream media) runs parallel to the capitalist paradigm in that it does not necessarily advocate or encourage the individualistic exploration of alternative musical choices, products and tastes. The pure oversaturation of music available in the 21st century lends itself to an illusion of choice. Audiences of the public are bombarded by radio programmes proclaiming to play only the ‘greatest music of the 80’s, 90’s and today’, CDs promising a collection of the ‘top hits from your favourite artists’ and playlists detailing selections of the latest trending music suitable for any occasion at the click of a button. Not only has this form of distribution exerted a profuse amount of pressure upon the general public, it has (in its inability to acknowledge music beyond a narrowly defined scope) instated a normalized form of listening that promotes a false sense of security and comfort. Mainstream media does not deny that there is an abundance of music available; however it simultaneously refuses to promote music that it does not deem as commercial. Spoon-fed our daily dose of sonic medicine, we are told what to like, when to like it and why. When the system is working for you, why invite instability through individualistic choice when convenience and dependability upon the familiar keep the unknown at bay. The shackles of capitalism inadvertently become the only thing that keeps us anchored in friendly waters; the horizon within sailing distance, yet the effort confines this endeavour to a place of dreams. I do not mean to disregard those that become bored with a culturally perceived vernacular music; rather I commend anyone who is brave enough to challenge their listening habits through the process of exploration and critical thinking.
With the advent of technology, the Internet and now streaming platforms such as Spotify, it becomes tempting for audiences to become lulled into a sense of complacency. Even if one is able to reach an expanded viewpoint (listening-point) and venture outside of the prescribed musical condition, capitalistic ideologies pursue with a ravenous hunger that is perpetually developing and adapting new methods of subjugation. Who’s to say that upon leaving one musical paradigm the same mind-set won’t be reinstated in the next? One needs only to distance themselves just enough to feel different, yet remain close enough to still feel connected and safe; never truly committed to embracing the unknown. Music has become so incredulously infused with people’s identities to the point where we can no longer discern them from one another. Unable to differentiate the music from one’s own ego and recognize it for its actual existential self, one can no longer separate criticism directed at one’s musical tastes from criticism of one’s own self-expression. Treated as a commodity or object for consumption such as alcohol and clothing, music sells itself through the appropriation of already established tropes and ideologies within existing sociocultural experiences. In order to survive on the marketplace, music must draw inspiration from that which gives it life. We yearn to hear ourselves reflected within the music we consume. If it makes us feel something, if we can relate to it in our everyday lives, it can be sold. Just as capitalism has desacralized culture, so too has music succumbed to its malignant grasp.
When Mark Fisher describes Katy Perry’s hit song ‘Last Friday Night’ as serving as a simple celebration of pleasure, he is frighteningly accurate in observing that it is possible to ‘Hear something Sisyphean, something purgatorial, in the song’s evocation of a (not so) merry-go-round of pleasure that Perry and her friends can never get off’. It is also possible to recognize this same conundrum mirrored within the music industry. Are we in a state of wilful stagnation, content in staying on the ride that gives us so much pleasure? Have we forgotten that where we were going cannot be reached when seated on an inert and ephemeral carnival attraction? We celebrate certain pre-eminent figures that excel at illustrating how we feel (as if we need constant reminding and reassurance that our experiences are real and matter) only to abandon them for the next relatable sensation on an ad hoc basis. True innovation is certainly occurring within music though it always approaches popular culture from the outside in; influencing an audience just enough to make them think progress has been made while capitalism is still waiting patiently for the next pastiche to sell to the music industry. Obviously music is subjective. However, has this slogan just become an excuse to prevent self-reflective and critical thinking or, heaven forbid, to avert any suffering coming to our precious egos? Self-expression seems to be the mask that music eternally maintains in order for its true nature not to be harmed by ways of critical engagement. Resorting to justification by means of self-expression is a sure fire way of saving even the most (subjectively) horrific music from (excuse the pun) facing the music. Has subjectivity erased the bar, condemning connotations of good and bad to the realm of artifacts? Who or what is music even for anymore? It must serve a purpose beyond that of individualistic consumption and gratification, of superficial adornment and ‘vibe’ setting, of complacent self-expression through collective identification. Does music even know what it wants anymore?