Perspective: Counterculture and Socialist Strategy
Alex Niven is a lecturer and writer based in Newcastle. With the Labour Party’s leftwing leader Jeremy Corbyn receiving widespread support in the UK, here Niven wonders if progressive music can regain its countercultural potency.
I spent a lot of time in the noughties writing blogposts about the sad decline of the NME in those years – its embrace of the Topshop lifestyle ethic, its love of landfill indie, its obsession with Doherty and Borrell. But even so, the magazine’s latest incarnation came as a shock.
As I was handed a copy of the new, free edition in Newcastle city centre last autumn and realised that the entire front cover was now literally a mobile phone app advert, the content now indistinguishable from that of an in-store Topshop magazine, I thought: the bastards have finally won. If the NME’s evolution from countercultural Kabbalah to consumerist wrapping-paper is anything to go by, I felt, pop music is now pure product in a way that even the most hopeful capitalist ideologues wouldn’t have dared dream forty, thirty, even twenty years ago.
But witnessing the final nail in the coffin of a once proud independent institution like the NME should also lead us to reflect on how these sorts of corporate takeovers happen, and to think more positively about how they might be prevented in future. Put crudely, the bastards might have won this particular battle, but they haven’t yet won the war.
The key lesson to draw from the slow death of the NME since the millennium is that it was far from inevitable. It happened because a specific group of people got into specific positions of power and made specific decisions based on a specific (and very narrow) view of what pop music is. Out went counterculture, in came whiter-than-white guitar pop and gossip about indie celebrities. People who accepted what the critic Mark Fisher has called ‘capitalist realism’—the belief that there is no alternative to Western capitalism and its cult of money and shallowness—were able to win the argument about how the NME should be run as an institution.
“Pop music is now pure product in a way that even the most hopeful capitalist ideologues wouldn’t have dared dream forty, thirty, even twenty years ago.”
But if another group of people had been able to organise in opposition to the capitalist realists at NME, they might just as easily have assumed power, halted its moral decline and even revived it as a mouthpiece for new forms of artistic and political radicalism.
We are now entering a period in which strategic thinking about the control of cultural organisations – magazines, websites, political parties, publishers, venues – will become increasingly central to the survival of vital, oppositional art in the UK and throughout the world. For too long, people involved in the culture industry have wearily accepted that music will become increasingly regulated by market systems and practices, that the internet has eroded collective sensibilities and undermined musical community.
Yet as recent political developments show, when an alternative to capitalism emerges as a viable organisational force, it can turn the notion that success equals corporate compromise on its head very quickly. One of the reasons Jeremy Corbyn’s rise was so astronomical in 2015 was because the British Labour Party reached a point at which collusion with the market and with neo-conservative ideology had completely destroyed its ability to function properly as an institution. The Labour Party pre-Corbyn was dying because the people controlling it had simply stopped presenting plausible arguments for its existence. At moments like this, a window of opportunity opens for someone like Corbyn and his new army of radicalising Labour members to intervene and take control.
"There are obvious parallels between the decline of Labour post-Blair and the decline of once-leftfield musical institutions like the NME post-Britpop.”
What would the Corbyn narrative look like if transferred to pop music? There are obvious parallels between the decline of Labour post-Blair and the decline of once-leftfield musical institutions like the NME post-Britpop. But unlike Labour under Corbyn, so much of the pop establishment—the remains of the countercultural infrastructure that persisted from the mid 60s to the millennium—seems beyond repair. Gig venues have been transformed into mobile-phone network outlets, music festivals into summer camps for the bourgeoisie, ‘indie’ record labels into dusty archives of past glories.
But countercultural revival is still very much up for grabs. The landscape of musical production is now so vast and so densely populated that it will daily throw up individual examples of creative rebellion and ingenuity, any one of which might provide the spark for a new musical movement. The great question facing the current generation is: how can we actually, practically help those movements to grow? How can we secure control over the sorts of institutions that will support individuals making original, innovative and oppositional music rather than merely puffing-up lifestyle chatter and corporate marketing? How can we build-up viable cultural organisations that will provide enfranchisement, payment and long-term stability for musicians, music writers and music fans? How can we wrest control from the capitalist realists in music in the same way that the Corbynistas have wrested control from the lingering Blairites in British politics?
There’s an unfortunate tendency in pop music to celebrate the spontaneous, the anarchistic, the free-wheeling, acts of individual rebellion, fits and bursts of emotion. But as we look to reconstruct a musical culture that will do justice to the increasingly dynamic, polarising socio-political climate of the late 2010s, we need to shift emphasis away from rebellious lifestyle and onto the realisable dream of the powerful, well-structured alternative organisation. To paraphrase the late Tony Wilson, the Hacienda must be re-built.
More of Alex Niven’s writing can be found at thefantastichope.blogspot.com