Monday Musings: Canons and Mainstreams

Posted on June 6, 2011


The critic pontificates.

How often does someone say ‘you must listen to/ read/ watch cultural artifact X’? How often is it assumed that you are familiar with a particular album, or does someone express shock that you are unfamiliar with another? This week’s topic concerns the cultural canon, and the idea of a mainstream.

Certain artworks or artists can uncontroversially be described as canonical: in popular music, Elvis, The Beatles, Madonna and a number of others are likely to have made an impact on more or less everybody’s awareness. Many more are borderline cases; still more are so influential on musicians, and the history of music, that you can’t expect to understand contemporary music without a working knowledge of their output. What I find interesting is that, where it was once pretty obvious who the defining artists of an era were, it has become progressively harder to see who it might be that exerts the kind of stylistic influence once enjoyed by David Bowie, for example, or Michael Jackson.

I first noticed this transformation, from a single broad mainstream to a multiplicity of parallel pathways, when looking at the history of jazz. Throughout the history of jazz there were always side alleys and experimental sub-genres, but the trailblazers that pursued them were always grounded in a common awareness of the artists whose work everyone followed: sometimes the experimenters became influential in their own right, but when they did, everybody in jazz heard what they had to say. Everybody knew what Duke was doing, what Bird was doing, what Miles was doing and what Trane was doing.

The jazz mainstream proceeded through a series of style-periods, of the sort by which the history of all arts tended to be classified: there was swing, be-bop, post-bop and eventually fusion. And then what happened, is that instead of everybody jumping onto the fusion train and seeing where it took them next, everyone jumped on different trains and headed off in different directions. Some pursued fusion, refined it, and made a mature style of it; others continued to develop acoustic jazz, and incorporate elements of free playing, and structural openness; some pursued fusions with other, global musics; and crucially, a growing number turned their attention to older styles, and abandoned jazz’s long standing ideology of innovation and originality, in place of a valuation of authenticity and technical facility.

After the early seventies there is no album or artist in jazz that you can point to and say ‘everything comes from this’. Partly this is due to internal forces: innovation has begun to exhaust the music’s capacity for stylistic unity. But it also comes about because more music is being distributed more widely, and more voices are being heard. I would tend to argue that both of these conditions apply to the whole of popular music today, and to a far greater degree: the number of voices being heard in music now was unimaginable, even ten years ago.

Personally, I always hated canons, in any field: it always seemed spurious to suggest that any small sampling could make an exclusive claim on true quality and artistic importance. For every famous artist, there are ten artists as good or better that didn’t happen to get famous, because, let’s face it, it has always been absolutely laughable to suggest that any artform operated as a meritocracy. However, a canon is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if everybody listens to artists A, B and C, then you need to know about those artists to understand where everybody else is coming from. It’s like capitalism: cultural capital, like financial capital, generates monopolies through structural forces analogous to gravity. Sadly, what this means is that nobody casts their net very wide when they are seeking stylistic sources and influences from which to develop new material.

Right now I am discovering so much excellent new music, through completely organic, lateral processes, that I have completely lost interest in ‘famous’ music, with all the creative compromises that fame inevitably imposes. Why bother with it? I mean, I listen to music on the recommendation of friends, but what kind of a reason to listen to something is ‘lots of other people listen to this’? Well, the answer is, because then I might have some clue where everyone else is coming from: what I’m hoping is that things have reached a stage of such complete fragmentation that canons and mainstreams only operate meaningfully at a very specialised level now. Sure, if you like a style such as misanthropic technical death grind, there are certain artists you need to be familiar with (presumably two out of the three practitioners of the genre), and that’s fine with me, but the idea that a field as broad as the whole of popular music can be encompassed by a handful of acts or albums is simply ludicrous.

The evidence that my hopes are justified comes, in my view, in the form of the decline (or complete collapse) of creativity and innovation in the commercial mainstream of popular music. This collapse really hit me in the 90s, when Britpop appeared. This category of music, supposedly a new movement that would reinvigorate the music industry, and reinvest commercial music with authenticity, was for the most part a revivalist movement. Popular music had obviously not run out of new ideas, but the music industry had finally completely lost the will to try and sell them. The mainstream of popular music, as a stylistic wellspring, had dried up.

Of course there is ebb and flow, and some new sounds have made an impact, but conservatism is the vital force in commercial music now. The mainstream is still there, but it is no longer of any relevance. In twenty years, there will be no group of ten noughties acts that we can look back at and say ‘out of these great innovators came the world we live in’: if we want to define a canon, we’ll have to put a thousand acts in it, and that, as far as I’m concerned, is an extremely positive thing.

As usual I have taken on a subject far larger than I can possibly do justice to in a venue like this blog, but I hope I’ve sketched enough of my views to provoke some thought and debate. The reason I think it is important to engage with these ideas is that canons and mainstreams have historically been instruments of cultural hegemony. Cultural elites, which are coterminous with economic and political elites, have controlled the definition of mainstreams and the curation of the canon, and these things have been part of the ideological superstructure through which they maintained their political control. This operates at many levels: at one time, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries these processes were a vital part of the power exerted by particular social classes, and the shift of power from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie was fought out as visibly in the field of culture as it was in Europe’s financial centres and military battlegrounds. More recently the widely recognised canon has been one of the means by which the music industry maintained its mafia-style control over the marketplace, and I would like to believe that the coherence and dominance of a particular limited canon will crumble with the industry’s control over the connections between the artist and their audience.