Return to a Cancelled Future

Growing up a wannabe rockstar in the UK I had various heroes; I’m sure you can imagine what influences they had on me. From smoking Marlboro reds to skinny jeans and long black emo fringes I was easily swayed by the whole DIY-look. Self cut mullets and ripped jeans made the rock scene accessible to everyone, and if you wanted to be anyone, then you needed a band.

I remember being really angry when I first heard the Arctic Monkeys but I could never work out why. My band could have sounded like that (at least in my head anyway) and they looked more like us than we did. That said with hindsight their music was better, their lyrics more poetic and the style was ‘spot on’. I was angry because what they were doing was achievable (but just not by me). It was a similar feeling with other bands of the time the Libertines, the Paddingtons, Million Dead, Funeral for a Friend, even Oasis and more. They were musicians but not much more. Only a few really stood out for being exceptional like the guitar of Matt Bellamy from Muse or the lyrics of Peter Doherty but most good music was old and never coming back. The Beatles and Nirvana for me, and Led Zeppelin for others, were once in a lifetime events and thankfully even if you missed it you could still experience it via the route of tribute bands and minidisc players. Often when people talked about them it was as if there had been some sort of awakening or reckoning and watching old Beatles documentaries back you can imagine it. The same is to be said for the stadiums filled with bodies for the likes of Cream, Metallica, David Bowie and more. The stadiums are still full but why don’t bands stand out these days? Are we old? Are they crap? Or are the old over-hyped?

Hyperpop and various ancestors of drum and base sound very samey to the strands that came before them. Couldn’t the same be said about many films, TV shows, architecture and fashion? Mark Fisher’s reaction was a little more subdued than mine at the time but probably how I would have reacted to the Arctic Monkeys if they had come out today.

When I first saw the video for the Arctic Monkeys’ 2005 single ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’, I genuinely believed that it was some lost artifact from circa 1980. … Certainly, if one performs a version of the thought experiment I described above, it’s easy to imagine ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ being broadcast on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1980, and producing no sense of disorientation in the audience. Like me, they might have imagined that the references to ‘1984’ in the lyrics referred to the future.

His book Ghosts of my Life came out in 2014 and I want to take another look at one of my favourite essays, The Slow Cancellation of the Future.  

Between their first album in 2006: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and their arguably best album since 2013’s AM, the Arctic Monkeys seemed to be stuck in the realms of their first album and the spirit of I bet you look good on the dancefloor with an added general decline. After AM their music is noticeably different but still not breaking. This is easily compared with the Beatles touring years captured in the documentary 8 Days a Week; then they had what you might call a turn. Sticking with the Beatles, their turn when compared with the Arctic Monkeys’, both are very different. The Beatles was a complete break whilst the Arctic Monkeys still seem anchored in another time, just not our time. The Beatles stopped touring live and also produced Revolver, both of these led to the genre smashing Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club whilst the Arctic Monkeys’ AM, as good as it is, fails to make that final leap. It stays within the confines of what is expected or acceptable even if it is imitating another sound. 

Ronson’s productions might have been designed to illustrate what Fredric Jameson called the ‘nostalgia mode’. Jameson identifies this tendency in his remarkably prescient writings on postmodernism, beginning in the 1980s. What makes ‘Valerie’ and the Arctic Monkeys typical of  retro is the way in which they perform anachronism. … Discrepancies in texture – the results of modern studio and recording techniques – mean that they belong neither to the present nor to the past but to some implied ‘timeless’ era, an eternal 1960s or an eternal 80s. The ‘classic’ sound, its elements now serenely liberated from the pressures of historical becoming, can now be periodically buffed up by new technology. 

It’s what many a post modernist might call a simulacra, a close, but not close enough, copy of something also simultaneously feeding onto the ideology that we live at the ‘end of history’ doomed to keep repeating culture fads from the past: hold on to your old clothes kids when you have your midlife crisis they will be fashionable again!

The same could be said for new old Burger King advertising. They have reverted to the old hamburger with the words in the middle, a kind of flattened logo with the typical 70s cooper typography, that along with bright bloc decor in their restaurants. Whilst it’s meant to represent the original happy Burger King, the reality remains that 70s and 80’s fast food restaurants were brown and cream. The food is just as fast but unhealthier and dearer than ever. It’s a copy of something that never was. A reality that lives in the minds of Ad men and people unhappy with the modern world. The same with the Arctic Monkeys, they are creating music that is essentially a reproduction of a time in another time.

Fisher explains Jameson’s nostalgia mode as “a formal attachment to the techniques and formulas of the past, a consequence of a retreat from the modernist challenge of innovating cultural forms adequate to contemporary experience.”  With this in mind and taking into account Fisher’s Capitalism Realism we can see a pattern forming with bands on their second and third albums and why their first music is more original as they are freed from the ‘chains of the market’, but that would be a bit too easy. 

It seems more that it is less about market pressures and what’s hot and what’s not, but more about the environment one falls into: the ideology you are reproducing. George Harrison and the Beatles were able to go to India; play with experimental drugs; expand their horizons and also spread them for us (and they didn’t have to worry about Instagram). They were allowed to do that despite being one of the biggest bands on the planet at the time. But the places they went and the things they did were not cliché or really been done before. It was authentic.

So what can artists do now? It’s hard to say. An interesting example of someone breaking this barrier is Billie Eilish. Her music first landed in 2015, but it wasn’t till 2017 when the songs Ocean Eyes and Six Feet Under brought her fame. In 2019 her album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? went straight to number one and was an instant hit with teens of all ages. Eilish appeals to the young for several reasons, her dark but sarcastic lyrics vibe with the youth without a future, and her Pac-man soundtrack meets a drug-trip gone bad inspired rhymes all fit with the bleak horizon for the zoomers of today. 

Yet, unlike her generational siblings, Eilish was schooled at home by her two musical parents where she was also encouraged to express herself creatively. It’s also clear that her direct contact with fans; her openness around mental health and her body positive attitude are both freshly authentic in an age of beauty filters, manufactured drama and auto-tuned pop.  And whilst there are artists that continue to play with old forms and even try to fuse various concepts, there is proof that returning to the old skool can still work. Kendrick Lamar has proven this with his jazz injected, offbeat hip hop. It’s the meaning and intention behind the music that compels us to listen and drives a connection. So does that mean there is hope of a new future where shit won’t get repeated and we can break free of this postmodern simulation? Fisher wrote that “Berardi’s phrase ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ is so apt because it captures the gradual yet relentless way in which the future has been eroded over the last thirty years.”  — Has that been reversed today ?

We are essentially fighting against the barriers of capital and reproducing it’s ideology, no matter how talented we are. Can that be redefined within the confines of capital? Some would argue yes just look at the Beatles, whilst other artists may launch their own record label.  But this then puts them into competition with the creatively suffocating companies they are trying to get away from.

Fisher speculated on the reasons why we reproduce and consume the culture of capitalism. “Could it be that neoliberal capitalism’s destruction of solidarity and security brought about a compensatory hungering for the well-established and the familiar?…The combination of precarious work and digital communications leads to a besieging of attention. … desperately short of time, energy and attention, we demand quick fixes.

This is arguably why Fisher’s blogging itself hit a nerve. He was able to fit into the technological life whilst having little restrictions in the emerging world of blogging. Can the same be achieved on Instagram’s screen swiping stories today? Unless you are Donald Trump on Twitter then no, and not even he could break the internet. As for consumption of culture, with the platform subscription based markets emerging even the BBC is going towards this individualistic freedom of choice in an era of paltry wages and liquid time. The fight against this? Do-it-yourself collective theatre and art  and a leap of faith into the arms of other humans and not your sofa. 

But good intentions won’t be enough to give birth to a new proletariat culture: 

“Despite all its rhetoric of novelty and innovation, neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new. … The subsequent ideological and practical attack on public services meant that one of the spaces where artists could be sheltered from the pressure to produce something that was immediately successful was severely circumscribed. As public service broadcasting became ‘marketized’, there was an increased tendency to turn out cultural productions that resembled what was already successful. The result of all of this is that the social time available for withdrawing from work and immersing oneself in cultural production drastically declined. If there’s one factor above all else which contributes to cultural conservatism, it is the vast inflation in the cost of rent and mortgages.”

Mixing this premonition with Netflix, Marvel films, and the identically dead high streets of today, it’s fair to say that Fisher connects the hammer and nail. Yet, the very foundation of these networks have allowed for greater diffusion of culture. You can self publish a book, produce a song and upload it to Spotify, record a podcast and even produce your own stand up routine for your YouTube channel. But will this be enough to grow a culture that is not based on individuals and more around collectives. As Marx said  “The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and intellectual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men which determines their existence; it is on the contrary their social existence which determines their consciousness.” 

At the moment hussle culture, fitness influencers and only fans rule western cyberspace. We all have the same 24 hours in a day according to one British influencer. If you buy the products that I’m selling you then you can be like me and eventually we will probably get to the point where everybody is selling each other products. What’s it called when Avon and Tupperware representatives go to each other’s meetings? Whilst we may not be able to interrupt this one person show culture we can formulate and offer an alternative. 

This culture of individuality is also represented in our politics which has its foundations in collective politics whether it be from capital or the working class. Populism is a by-product of a society that wants quick results. What is more, the fallout following the defeat of a populist movement is also individual in its manner. Whether it be the individual denouncing of the movement for not meeting one’s ideological expectations or various attempts to clear the name of the revered figurehead of the populus. Whether it’s criticisms of Corbyn or general ambivalence towards new political projects, class solidarity and the minimization of egos are still something that the left struggles with no matter what the approach.

I’ll let Mark Fisher end this essay as he finished his. But before I do, it’s worth noting that whilst we may remain in the same position as when Mark wrote this in 2014, we are also stronger in numbers. If COVID has done anything it has shown both the good and bad things the state can do but also what civil society can achieve. People were here before capitalism, if only I could say that we will be here after it.

“Producing the new depends upon certain kinds of withdrawal – from, for instance, sociality as much as from pre-existing cultural forms – but the currently dominant form of socially networked cyberspace, with its endless opportunities for micro-contact and its deluge of YouTube links, has made withdrawal more difficult than ever before. Or, as Simon Reynolds so pithily put it, in recent years, everyday life has sped up, but culture has slowed down. No matter what the causes for this temporal pathology are, it is clear that no area of Western culture is immune from them….Music culture is in many ways paradigmatic of the fate of culture under post-Fordist capitalism. At the level of form, music is locked into pastiche and repetition. But its infrastructure has been subject to massive, unpredictable change: the old paradigms of consumption, retail and distribution are disintegrating”

All quotes (except Karl Marx) come from Mark Fisher’s 2014 Ghosts of My Life 

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