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Whither the Experimental and the Popular?

“The Conventional is now Experimental” as the late, great Mark E. Smith put it in 1980, early in The Fall’s long career, on Grotesque’s ‘Stop Mithering’ to be precise, a Smith apercu that continues to be regularly quoted. It’s a typical ambiguously snappy quote from the man (whose head eventually diminished), that can mean anything the critic wants it to, really. In this case, it could mean that the self-consciously avant garde often merely masks an essentially conservative product ‘(miserable songs synthesised’, ‘circles with ‘A’ in the middle’, ‘on-stage false histrionics’  are examples that Smith gives us on ‘Mithering’). Grotesque was released slap bang in the middle of the favourite musical period of another greatly lionised cult figure, the critic Mark Fisher, whose collected essays and blogs, ‘K-Punk’; the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016)’, I am currently ploughing through, and which has occasioned this blog. 

I’m not as big a fan of Fisher’s shtick as many, but there is much to enjoy within the 770 pages of his often abstruse theorising. As with so many cultural studies writers, fairly straightforward ideas tend to be put forward in off-putting neologistic meta-speak, but Fishers best work, for example on mental health and neo-liberalism, is, for me, contained in his more direct reportage. This in itself should come as no surprise, as Fisher suffered from serious mental health ‘issues’ himself,and committed suicide in early 2017, a blunt tool of a fact which gives added heft to work such as ‘Why Mental Health is a Political Issue’ and ‘The Privatisation of Stress’. This collection will be an essential purchase for Fisher’s many devotees, and is also recommended for those, like me, who may find his writing somewhat of a curate’s egg. The argument about ‘straight-speaking’ itself harks back, of course, to the post-punk days of the late 70s/early 80s,, and to the excoriation of Paul Morley and Ian Penman in the pages of the ‘rockist’ NME (the latter was, not coincidentally, a big mate of Fisher’s). It seems bizarre now to remember how important we all thought the writings of Derrida and Foucault were, even though we didn’t understand a word of them. Mark Fisher, on the other hand, did, and went on to co-form an opaque group of academics at my own alma mater, the University of Warwick.

As mentioned, Fisher loved the period of circa 1978-84 (which could also, perhaps,be cast as the ‘Morley and Penman years’?), the era very ably delineated in depth by his fellow-critic and friend, Simon Reynolds, in ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’. This was a period that I considered writing about myself, but Reynolds decisively put that idea to bed - ‘Rip It Up…’ remains as definitive about it’s period as Jon Savage’s ‘England’s Burning’ does of his (i,e, that of ‘punk’ itself). In one interesting essay, which originally came out in Wire 335, Fisher asks (January 2012, page 388) “What has been lost in the transit between experimental and popular culture which characterised earlier eras?” - he clearly though that 1978-84 was a period in which the conventional and the experimental inhabited the same world. I, for one, will never forget PiL performing ‘Death Disco’ on Top of the Pops in July 1979. It seems inconceivable that such a clash of formats could occur in our current times, or that our ‘Tungsten-coated’ (a favourite Fisher term) palates could find anything as radical to digest while casually surfing the net. Fisher was 13 years younger than me, so even his undoubted love for the period was surely retrospective? I ran a record shop for the 1978-81 period, and remember it equally fondly, but it gives me pause to think that this now-forty years old brief time span is still seen as perhaps the ‘golden age’ for the meeting of avant and commercial minds.

Fisher has much, much to say about  his idea of ‘capitalist realism’, i’e.  that, after the Thatcherera and the subsequent triumph of neo-liberalism, people are no longer able to think of an alternative to the capitalist model; and the effect that this might have had had on experimentalism in popular culture. He holds up examples such as the EDM genre as a whole, and the work of individual pioneers like Burial, as witnesses for the defence of experimental populism (in the broadest possible sense), but it seems like the times are basically no longer conducive to artistic risk-talking. This is surely ironic in the extreme, given that Fisher’s essays were written before our neo-liberal masters decided to embark on the greatest risk-taking project of them all, Brexit, and the eventual appointment of Boris the Spider as MC and mischief-maker-in-chief for the whole monster rave organised by the real loony party..

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