A New Music and a New Criticism: Dissent in the Age of the Internet

If we all have a voice, who’s actually being heard?


“Deep down inside you know, everybody wants to love big companies…” The Fall, ‘New Puritan’ — Peel Session, September 1980.

Scientists say that punk was not ‘a revolution’ in music, and much as I admire science for its ceaseless exploration of the boundaries of understanding, in this case scientists have got it wrong: punk rock isn’t an index of musical data that can be tracked with software in the same way, that say, hip-hop can. Punk rock was a revolution of thought and attitude, about taking the idea of music — in whatever form — out of the hands of the few and putting it into the hands of the many. The trickle and spread of its influence cannot be run like numerical values into a spreadsheet: punk is, at base, a galvanisation of a thought in the mind, a feeling in the chest-bone, a decision about how to interact with others that prefaces the creative act.

Whatever its legacy in the musicological sense, punk was one of pop culture’s most pivotal moments of dissent. I can’t imagine there are many music writers who would disagree on this, since one of the reasons anyone even cares to write about music is because of what punk did to the relationship between the artist and the audience. What it did for bands, it also did for critics: opened the door up wide and gave access. If not for that, music writing now might amount to little more than a series of AA Gill pieces about the new Rod Stewart album. Punk read music culture its last rites, invited it to adapt or die: and so it did. It died to be reborn, over and over.

All of this is historical now, of course. The bigger revolution in our age is the way in which technology has changed how music is consumed and disseminated, let alone how it is created. In a recent interview on the Daily Show with Hillary Clinton, I was struck by Jon Stewart’s observation that “technology has democratised power”. That’s a truism of our times, but the wider point is that technology has democratised everything. Technology has democratised systems that traditionally weren’t even really negotiable points of contact between people, let alone those expressly constructed and managed by small elites on behalf of the many. Culture at large is now owned collectively and semi-anonymously within the buzz of online opinion. If we agree on this, then how should we view the idea of revolution (musical or otherwise), the shift in ideas that were once formed only through word-of-mouth or print, through exclusively human interactions whose inception was insulated from outside influence? Has the idea of revolution now been replaced by something that sits entirely on a bunch of servers in cooled warehouses across the American midwest? Is it now just commodity, an ‘ownable’ bundle of information shared by tech corporations ubiquitous enough to insure themselves against the need to pay tax?

I fear that to an extent, it is. And while I’m the last to argue that the internet has given those without a voice anything but more influence and more of a voice — for that matter, given all of us anything other than more access to knowledge and power — I think I can argue that what it has taken away is the possibility of an abrupt moment of artistic rebellion, of the dismissal and replacement of a prevailing mainstream idea — all things that punk, hip-hop, and acid house were. Right now, we all live in the mainstream, and fringe ideas are parallel to the conversation, like multiple windows open on a desktop. You can either choose to engage with them, or simply let them fade into the ever-scrolling background blur of internet chatter. What this means is that there’s no longer a way to confront the status quo bluntly with a single, traumatically new idea. Creation and consumption have been conflated: there can be no ‘shock of the new’ when an endlessly refreshing ‘new’ loses the ability to shock.

As of music, so this is true of music writing, and for proof we need only look at the announcement that the NME is to go free. At first glance, this looks like a music publication grappling with the realities of the economic model of the internet age: after all, why would anyone want to pay for music writing when both the music itself and any response to it can be accessed instantly and simultaneously, without the traditional pregnant pause of wonder between the music’s creation and its prized unfurling from the grooves of a record? As Neil Kulkarni astutely argues on Collapse Board, the NME has shrunk from the big idea of what music can open up within us, that visceral moment in the heart that will never die. In seeing its influence in counter-culture diluted by the internet’s pick-and-mix of voices, it has second-guessed what it did so well, which was to reach into that fissive moment of discovery and speak to it. The NME is afraid of standing for anything now because it’s been clinging to an outdated model, in much the same way the major record labels have been since Napster appeared, the first signpost to a changing future. Music journalism doesn’t on its own sell papers anymore, but for the last fifteen years NME chased the ever-diminishing sliver of pie that still had the whiff of money to it: in implying “cool” and “edginess” to what in reality had no substance, through the puffed-up preening of the essentially opinionless — it simply became more fodder for brands to pitch at the young without the fear of upsetting their customers. It could have been different for the NME. It could have held on to its voice of dissent and still have been a powerful participant in music culture, but the moment passed.

It’s a trend that reflects how the strains of dissent in music have faded over the same period. These questions have percolated since the mid-80s, when punk’s fire appeared dowsed to the ashes of bland pop music, its fiercest voices found crooning over slick, dead coffee-table production. Back then, beneath the veneer, a heartbeat was still pounding in rough-edged, do-it-yourself voices that kept the alternative agenda alive. Thirty years later, one has to wonder why the sheer democracy of access that punk opened up — those many avenues of creative freedom and inspiration — haven’t been transformed in turn by the real, practical democracy of the internet into a new revolution within music and music writing. Is it because the idea of “revolution” relies on the portrayal of a top-down model that’s just old-hat now? Isn’t it de rigueur to declare that we’re all sharing culture and access and power equally these days? Well, ask yourself this: do you feel represented by those who ultimately have the power, who decide the rules you live by? Aside from whether you have access to the forums of debate, do your leaders actually speak for you? And if not, does the music you listen to echo that sense of discontent in your heart? And most importantly, why isn’t anyone asking why nobody is singing about this? One of scant few bands that actually does is Sleaford Mods, and it’s no coincidence that as forty-somethings, they’re old enough to know what it was like to have to stand in opposition, to raise your voice to be heard in order to speak for those who couldn’t. The internet gives us the illusion that we all have a voice, when in fact it increasingly resembles a padded quarry: we’re all shouting down into it, but nothing seems to ring out. In these austere times, the mass point of view — the collective voice — tends automatically towards some conservative dream-of-the-past, despite the futurism of technology. Our embrace of Facebook’s casually pernicious belief in the absence of privacy, our wholehearted alignment to the faux-belonging of its limited model, are analogous to a vote for Conservative government, for ‘Big Society’. By drawing ourselves and our identities so meagrely in such a narrow version of the online world, we’re voting for the status quo.

Of course the internet is the most powerful tool of communication we’ve ever had, the ultimate connecting forum for the democracy of ideas. Anyone who doubts this should look at how the Anonymous movement has motivated a generation of hackers and bedroom idealists to band together in truly crowd-sourced ideas, disrupting outmoded, monocratic media and moving a real message of dissent and freedom across social networks. In the sheer power of such concentrated collective acts, it’s now impossible to imagine a dissenting generation turning its back on the internet and somehow trying to dream up a version of our lives which would exclude it. It’s now a matter of fact, since in every pocket lies an instant gateway from the self to the world, one whose inbuilt camera and microphone make transmitting evidence of an idea tantamount to conceiving that idea. But my belief is we can imagine and build a new internet which is not planted in the footprints of the current model, which does not come pre-ordained from the top down, built by an elite of technopreneurs second-guessing the trends of mass usage through an ultimately for-profit model. The model is there to be torn down. Only this month, the Greek people took an unprecedented opportunity to voice opposition to the status quo, to the prevailing economic position: the referendum result seemed to me a refusal to align to the conservative, negative, punitive agenda of our times. The positive outcome of that particular piece of dissent remains moot at best, but just as the Greeks have dared to believe in a different world than that forged in austerity, so can we all dare to believe in an internet that is genuinely written, accessed and shaped by the people who use it — one where we all become coders, using our knowledge and understanding of it as a tool for breaking and reforming it to represent not only the creation but also the utter rejection of ideas, movements and systems. When it comes specifically to music, I’d urge this: don’t live in the status quo. Start over, using music as a starting point, a refuge from the hegemony of conformity, instead of the bare badge of belonging it currently seems to represent. Don’t make what they want you to make: don’t buy into the scrum of collective noise. The first step starts with a moment of silence, with a negation of what’s gone before, and that silence will grow into an idea louder than the loudest roar of a million online comments, into a genuine democracy through dissent: a true revolution.