The shuffle culture adopted by much of the music-buying public has become so entrenched that the barriers between music genres have dissipated, leaving a polyhydric hotchpotch where anything goes but nothing remains. If the erosion of genre boundaries is so coveted by mainstream record companies, then what does this mean for the future of UK pop music – and what hazards does it present? Poet Stephen Watt investigates.
Shuffle – Personal Quest
I was born a Disco Baby in the final few days of the 1970s when Earth, Wind & Fire, Chic, Donna Summer, and Sister Sledge were among the biggest selling artists ruling the radio airwaves. It is not a genre I have ever identified with although, like any true music lover, I have my favourites from that era. Since then, post-punk, indie, baggy, Britpop, trip-hop, hip-hop, jungle, trance, garage rock and grime have all been prevalent in the mainstream charts, each owning a corner of the market for anything between twelve months and three years. By the time I reached my late-twenties, the music was no longer reverberating the way that it once had. I was attending gigs where there was no great movement evident, delving into a partiality for underground electronic acts playing to semi-empty venues – Delphic, Union of Knives, Telepathe, IAMX, and RBRBR spring to mind – whilst more established acts such as Mylo and Hot Chip were successful to a degree, enjoying daytime radio coverage and occasional performances inside some of Scotland’s grander venues. However, electronica was not the dominant niche market – even when Lady Gaga was crowned Queen of Electro Pop in 2008 – with a far more generic demographic present at mainstream pop shows across the country.
Shuffle – Identity
Identity was paramount to Teddys, Hippies, Mods and Punk Rockers during the preceding decades but now a hybrid zeitgeist consisting of rap, rock, soul, pop, hip-hop, and dance threatened to orphan the listener from belonging to any one philosophy, culture, or movement. Fashion once spewed out masses of gig-goers adorning safety pins, flares, neon cosmetics (on men), corded trousers, parka jackets, etc. Look at a queue outside any gig across the UK and you will likely be faced with a conga-line leading from the closest Primark store to the front door of the venue, devoid of any self-expression or radical individuality. So, has the popcorn turned stale and the movie just one more remake off a worn-out conveyor belt? This may have been how it looked to the survivors of the Madchester era when Britpop arrived wherein feather-cut fans of The Seahorses and The Bluetones were the younger siblings of the bowl-cut followers of Mock Turtles and Inspiral Carpets six years previously. The haircuts were similar, the attitude was on a par, the drugs were harsher but quintessentially, hadn’t this movement already been done before?
Shuffle – Melting Pot
According to record label ‘Last Night from Glasgow’ co-founder Murray Easton, the current melting pot of styles in the contemporary music scene is considered a positive step in the right direction: “Merging pop with electro and hip-hop probably makes sense to a lot of kids, with technology allowing that to happen easily. So long as it’s done correctly and doesn’t sound rubbish”. This positive outlook is reinforced by heralded Glaswegian “Djancer” David Blair of cult pop band Colonel Mustard and the Dijon-5: “There’s a cultural revolution going on at the moment. It’s tangible, palpable and exciting being in amongst it. It’s bringing people together to share musical experiences, form community, make new friends and embrace diversity in the understanding that other music styles can be cool as well. Diversity creates acceptance and exposes division and separation for the illusion they are. The world needs more unity”.
Shuffle – Yellow Movement
It is through Blair’s band and the creation of the ‘Yellow Movement’ across Scotland that one of the most interesting coalitions of music fans have appeared over a number of years. The YM manifesto begs its supporters to “Laugh until you no longer know what it is to hate, release your soul, determine your own fate, lose your self-consciousness, find anonymous awesomeness……” and many more messages of positive, poetic reinforcement. Encouraging followers to embrace yellow garb at their gigs, Colonel Mustard, along with friends in a number of other talented Glasgow bands (The Twistettes, Girobabies, Jamie & Shoony, and Have Mercy Las Vegas) have recaptured a glimmer of what it meant to belong to one sect, albeit distancing themselves from the fanaticism attached by ardent, diehard supporters of the scenes which went before them. “The Yellow Movement transcends any specific music genre”, Blair provides – “(It is) an attempt in many ways to adopt the festival vibe of peace, love and music out of our green and pleasant land and tap into the Jungian collective unconscious in society as a whole. It is simply an idea whose time has come.
Where the seed finds fertile ground and takes root is not up to us. We are very much in the Dr Timothy Leary camp where people are asked to “think for yourselves and question authority”. It’s evident that those who it resonates with are, to go all Scottish here, sound cunts. The world needs more sound cunts. We’re talking about bringing out The Cunt EP someday. Expect the unexpected in the Dijonverse”. Blair’s testimony about the Yellow Movement takes a leaf out of Splash One’s book. In the mid-1980s, Splash happenings introduced itself in Glasgow to a number of like-minded musicians including BMX Bandits, The Pastels, Strawberry Switchblade and Orange Juice, using the aesthetics of the punk movement and giving it a highly Scottish slant. It was an affection towards discovering new sounds, styles, opinions, and sharing these visions with other bands, friends, and strangers. It was a characteristic which would last little over a year, but ultimately stamp its theory into the attitudes of Glaswegian bands for decades to come.
Enter poet and rising star Declan Welsh, a gifted young musician from East Kilbride whose recent support slots for Glasvegas and Ocean Colour Scene have rocketed the worth of his own stock. “I think that our commonality, what unites us, isn’t discussed enough. Most protest music is exactly that – it’s anti something. But the real aim, surely, is to build a world where we understand one another’s differences and come together on the basic premise that, as human beings, we need each other. That is very difficult to communicate in song without being overly sentimental, and it isn’t as cool as saying “Fuck the Tories”. Absolutely fuck the Tories, but I’m trying very hard to move into saying something on top of that. Something more constructive”.
Shuffle – Attitudes
With groupings and divisions now defunct, then where do music fans attach themselves and by what means? Frontman and songwriter of Dumbarton rock band The Foz Mark Joyce ripostes that “No genre exists anymore – it should be a positive trend, but sadly interesting new music makes no ripples in the mainstream now”. It’s a point – it’s a perspective. Attitudes modify in each generation. Consider the evolution of the peace-loving hippies content with love and anti-war demonstrations in comparison to the hard-edged insurrection of the punks, refusing to bow down to its overlords without at least once using their arms as a sling-shot towards oncoming riot shields and batons. The part which lyrics had to play in this transfiguration was frequently accountable for the ideologies and practises which youth culture adopted to make their point. Joyce continues “Punk is the most relevant genre with the same problems which existed in the 1970s still prevalent in this futuristic, digital age. That said, kids don’t seem to be angry anymore. Songs with a message can add so much to a composition but the current pop music market is only interested in making a quick buck”.
Or as Blair reminds us, “MC Dave ‘Solareye’ Hook (from Glasgow hip-hop outfit Stanley Odd) raps “Where’s the agitators?”. The KLF wrote the manual on anarchic mischief and agitation. If ‘real life’ wants to continue on its race to the bottom and turn up the absurdity, then we can shine a mirror right back on it”. Welsh advocates this opinion, renowned for his own ranting and raving which lends itself towards stalking political prey rather than a wayward, scattergun effect. “As someone who loves the specific, almost mundane detail in lyrics, I realise I’m in the minority. Most people aren’t obsessive about music so a simple, broad message gets stuck in your head. Not ambiguous like Radiohead, but just very general”. It’s a smart observation, if not a little troubling for the future of rock n’roll; revolution. Welsh continues, “There is always a place for social and political commentary. Even huge stars like Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar have elements of that to varying degrees. As always, black music leads the way in this. Especially in the current climate, people need to speak up. Art plays a huge role in winning hearts and minds and I feel we have a responsibility to say something”.
Shuffle – Contemporary Pop Music
Easton is also on board with this sentiment, somewhat perturbed by the direction that music classifications currently lean towards. “No genre is standing out more than any other. Music falls into two camps – good and bad”. I love a good pop tune, whether that’s Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift or my own era, Kylie Minogue – but some bands think sticking a synth on a tune means it’s pop, forgetting they need a melody and a hook (and ideally a chorus you can sing on first listen). Good pop always stands out; whether it is mainstream or alternative. However, there’s less pop to be enjoyed now – consider how few truly brilliant pop songs there were in 2016. The genre that probably stands out most is disposable music made by disposable bands/artists – the X Factor style acts” (At point of writing this, Honey G’s debut single is number 149 in the charts) As one of the exciting acts emerging from Glasgow, Welsh stands with one foot in both the pop and rock camps – blending the boundaries: “Some of our stuff is pure pop. We have a tune “Things You Do” that’s hugely inspired by Motown – the greatest pop music of all time. I think because this generation doesn’t have a movement, it means that we can understand the worth of all the different kinds of music. As much as I love punk, disco music is fucking brilliant so I think that if you care about your art, you need to be willing to take it into different directions. That entails the merging of styles”.
Shuffle – Record Labels, Media and Outlets
With extensive reporting that labels and employed teams of specialists seek out the appeal of intended audiences more frequently, it begs the question whether record companies guide the styles and sounds of new acts or if the artists are the ones in control these days. Easton suggests a bit of both guide the direction of the music: “Labels with their ear to the ground pick up on something unique then push it out to the wider world. Consider how the Beatles ushered in the beat explosion. Others imitate the style and sound, guiding it only so far as they can, before the labels help stretch that exposure across the world”.
It’s a point only too prevalent between the pages of music magazines who cotton on to their newest indie darlings (see The Libertines, The Arctic Monkeys, and Franz Ferdinand as cases in example over the previous decade) and then seek out a hundred further watered-down copycat acts (see Towers of London, The Kooks, and The 1990s) before ripping each of these bands from limb to limb three weeks later. Can any band survive such ruthless behaviour and retain a faithful following? “Bands/artists should never sell themselves short”, Easton asserts, “Labels will ask them to do things in terms of 360 deals seeking a cut of everything. By funding releases through shows or crowdfunding platforms like Pledge Music, artists are increasingly needed to work at their own marketing and promotion, not just focus on the song-writing aspect”. With countrywide publicity dwindling in the form of NME now effectively a free paper, does it leave the music fan unshackled to explore new inventive ways of celebrating bands and ideologies or is it having a detrimental effect on young persons, severed from the guiding hand of the music press which had led their elder siblings and parents through their formative years? Welsh is still optimistic about what music is available. “This generation belongs to hip hop, and there’s a stupid amount of amazing, weird, creative artists in that genre. I think in terms of guitar music, there’s a lot of anarchic, dark, exciting bands kicking about. Stuff like Fat White Family, And Yet It Moves, Cabbage, that kinda thing. And there is a strong social conscience behind the nihilistic front, which I really like”.
Having something tangible was key to any movement. Record stores were once considered gang huts for music lovers, but the permanent closure of stores such as Avalanche in Edinburgh or Fopp in Glasgow left many a reveller homeless, clawing online in a netherworld for new sounds and bands. Even Scotland’s biggest music festival T in the Park has succumbed to a number of issues plaguing music lovers’ need to explore and discover; potentially to the benefit of smaller bands playing at more intimate festivals across the country. Time will be the judge of whether or not this is a positive trend. To re-quote Joyce, “in this futuristic, digital age”, the advent of social media sites such as Myspace opened doors to a number of rising bands eager to share their music with the world, triggering a bedroom sanctuary which had once been hailed for its private studios of creativity but were now applied as advertising sanctums where anyone could plug their most inner thoughts and sounds. It would be unreasonable to brand this phenomenon as a damaging upshot in the story of music, but this did subsequently lead to a detached approach which continues to haunt the contemporary indie music scene. Instead of finger-walking through spines of CD cases or vinyl in stores filled with likeminded fans, there was no longer a need – the hunt was over and the choice was colossal.
Shuffle – The Future
So where, in essence, does that leave movements and sub-cultures? Is it wholly a generic music market where music exists only in laptops or headphones? Easton rejects this notion. “They still exist. The likes of Nightschool Records (Glasgow) are focused on discovering and releasing fantastic alternative pop music. They couldn’t care less about the charts, X Factor, and all that stuff. By releasing the likes of Happy Meals and Molly Nilsson, they have created a little movement. Clubs and certain pubs will always have a movement or sub-culture around them; DJ’s, bands, writers/bloggers, music and art fans hanging out together will always create something special. It might be a dozen people, it might be for a month, it might be for a year. But there will always be something, somewhere. You just need to look below the surface”.
That is an astute point to finish on; below the surface. Look towards Sauchiehall Street’s basement bars, Kelvingrove’s underground raves, and the Glasgow Subway transport system couriering its faithful followers to and from their homes. Music is a chameleon in a permanent form of transmutation. Its colours may not be quite as bright as they had been once before but when least expected, it will attach itself to the unlikeliest crowd of shoe-gazers or Pokemon-chasers and reveal itself.
Rich thanks to David Blair (Colonel Mustard & The Dijon-5), Mark Joyce (The Foz), Declan Welsh, and Murray Easton (Last Night from Glasgow) for their input during this piece.
Stephen Watt is the Dumbarton FC Poet-in-Residence, a crime poet, one half of gothic spoken word experimental act Neon Poltergeist, and author of the poetry collections “Spit” and “Optograms”. You can follow more of his writing on his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/StephenWattSpit/ or his Twitter handle @StephenWattSpit.