Rip it up and start again

I’ve been doing a lot of walking recently, and it’s been helping me think. When I am sat in front of a screen, things can get stilted pretty quick; physical motion oils my brain as much as my joints. One of the things I’ve been thinking about on my walks is time, and how warped a relationship some humans have developed with it, myself included. Screens, with their addicting glow and infinite-scroll distractions, stretch one’s experience of time into an eternal present: how many days have screens gobbled up, and why is it never enough? I think about what that means for the future, and specifically, what that means for a chance of a future that doesn’t simply replicate the past.

Then, of course, since it’s a field in which I am involved, I think about what that means in terms of the music journalism landscape. In a recent paper about music and gender, Jes Skolnik pointed out that white male critics have “until the last five years or so…been overvalued in the industry and have taken up too much critical space, controlling the dialogue.” The result being that music journalism has been on a treadmill for decades. That who does the gatekeeping has an undeniable impact on which artists get championed, and just as importantly, how they are written about, shouldn’t need an explanation.

The shift of the past few years that Jes references is one that I was privileged to witness from the vantage point of New York’s music and culture publishing world. During my four-year spell in N.Y.C., I saw new and old media alike make hiring decisions that felt like a step toward a more inclusive and incisive future. Thanks in no small part to social media, specifically Black Twitter, the industry began to self-regulate: poor commissioning decisions were called out, and good ones praised; the level to which cultural context fed into criticism was analysed with care; and who did the writing and the editing (and photographing and styling etc) was as much a discussion point as who was written about. That momentum allowed for the kind of internal conversations that push publications to serve their readers better, and pay their contributors more. Taking a step back, the thorough and thoughtful documentation of this particular moment not only signposts a new era, but acts as a map to get us there.

That’s not to say it was all rosy. Publications and websites sometimes failed to retain the black and brown writers and editors they hired because their largely white environments proved too toxic. But in turn, that became part of the discourse: Who does the heavy lifting in cultural criticism and who benefits from it?

I’ve been back in the U.K. two months now, and all I can think is: Britain is caught in a time warp. Where American publications at least project a sense of listening to public opinion, it feels like many British publications have their fingers in their ears. It’s ironic because the British have a way of looking down at America — It’s a mess! The racism! Guns! Trump! — that conveniently allows for denial about the state of the U.K. to flourish, which is reflected in the U.K. media’s own endemic racism, transphobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, and sexism.

If you think that the U.K.’s music and culture media is immune to the above, then you’re also in denial, or part of the problem. White publishers and editors who claim to understand what white privilege is need to put that privilege to work and invite black, brown, and trans writers and editors, as well as those from other marginalised groups, into the spaces they occupy. Representation matters, but presence matters more: you can’t ask questions if you’re not in the room. If U.K. music and culture publications and departments hired black, brown, and trans editors and writers as staff, rather than simply calling on them for (often poorly paid) freelance work, the industry’s future would have a shot at actually being progressive rather than simply posing as that. (For the record: 15 white men, 3 white women, and 1 black woman does not equal a “diverse workplace.”) That said, sometimes it feels like even hiring the right freelancer for the job would be a Radical Act. (This was a missed opportunity.)

At a time when governments and corporations are actively working in favour of the 1%, every aspect of the so-called free press should be in service to the 99%. Art and music have been defunded and devalued in part because they have the ability to encourage reflection and action. That’s why art and music criticism still carries weight, and why we should care about who is authoring and commissioning it. It’s no secret that western history was written by white men. If today’s criticism and journalism is tomorrow’s archive, what kind of progress has really been made if it’s largely written and commissioned by their descendants?

Perhaps the public should ask of the media what it does of politicians: democratically elected media representatives in power for ring-fenced periods of time. I don’t know, I only know there has got to be another way. Just like with walking, if the collective U.K. music media industry takes a different route, we’ll all get someplace new.

Give a word a break

A lot of people, myself included, learnt how to write about music by reading about music. (What evidence do I have for such a huge generalisation? I’ll come back to that in a minute.) When I was in my late teens, I was obsessed with Jockey Slut — a now-defunct U.K.-based dance music magazine — and as in awe of its writers as the artists they wrote about. The language they used felt authoritative, and I took note. Of course, it’s not just media preference that helps shape a person’s perspective on music — personal experience, cultural background, and listening habits all feed into it, too. The more we listen and read, the wider our taste and knowledge grows.

Decisions around word choice, however, sometimes seem caught in a cul-de-sac. In the mp3 blog years, for example, you could barely move for breathless posts describing grime as “dark” and “alien.” Even the “real” journalists seemed to fish for adjectives to describe the black London sound from the same pond. Either they were all coincidentally arriving at the very same sonic description — informed by both what they had and hadn’t listened to previously — or they were all reading one another.

Fast-forward to my time at The FADER in the mid-2010s. One of my responsibilities as managing editor was to oversee the internship programme, which I saw as an honour: an opportunity to help train the next generation of music journalists. Something I always tried to instil was the importance of finding your own voice. The simplest way of kickstarting that journey was sending them a press kit for a new song release and asking them to write a post about it. More often than not, they borrowed descriptors from the press release. When your writing voice has yet to crystallise and you’re presented with “official” information, it can seem like there is a “right” and “wrong” way to talk about something. “Take the facts from the press release, and throw out the language,” I would say. “Listen again. What do you think it sounds like?” Without fail, they’d always come back with something fresh and exciting — they just needed the encouragement to trust their own opinion.

I continue to remind myself to do the same. I’m still learning how to be a better writer, and I hope I keep learning until the day I die. Writing for me is mainly editing. Constant editing. Writing a sentence, looking at it, thinking about what the words mean and what they symbolise, changing the words, rewriting a paragraph, starting again. I’ve had to intentionally develop this practice because it is easy to word-vomit — and, as it happens, more profitable, given the quick turnarounds required on a lot of music “content.” But as with actual vomit, what you throw up on the page often reflects, in part, what you’ve digested. (In that regard, what makes matters trickier is that the internet tends to direct more love — and more hits — towards an exclusive interview with an artist over an in-depth piece of criticism about their work. But that’s a whole other rant.)

After I got laid-off from The FADER earlier this year, I realised I didn’t have a website to speak of, and so slowly started to update this decade-old blog. Pulling together a portfolio of sorts meant reading a lot of my very early work. Bits of it I liked, but a lot of it felt unsure of itself. The same words would pop up, illustrating that I used to cover insecurities about my musical knowledge with language that had been given a tick elsewhere. I was reminded that it wasn’t until a couple of years into my time at Dummy Mag that I realised it wasn’t my musical knowledge that was the problem; I’d been bamboozled by the swaggering confidence of a lot of the white male journalists I’d met and read, and made the foolish mistake of seeing my opinions and insights as less than.

It took time and effort to find my own voice, but I still slip into music journalism’s equivalent of legalese now and then. Despite what they say, first thought isn’t always the best thought. More recently, I have started to interrogate my word choices once again. What are the implications of the repetition of certain words used in relation to artists making the same kind of music? How do those descriptors relate to the cultural contexts of those musics? Are those descriptors in fact reinforcing the status quo? What does it mean when artists of the same gender, race, or sexuality are continually compared and contrasted when the music they make has nothing in common? Do music journalists have a responsibility to help decolonise language? (The short answer: yes. Especially because music is youth culture, and music blogging often a young writer’s entry point into journalism.) Music journalism by definition involves symbolism: one must conjure up an image or an idea of a sound using a bunch of letters. It follows that the way in which different kinds of music are written about often communicates more than just the words on the page.

With that in mind, below is a non-exhaustive list of words that I started making a couple of weeks ago, and have been thinking about ever since. All of them I have worn thin in my own writing about electronic music over the years. I’m going to try to avoid them from now on. After all, as the Fade To Mind artist Leonce recently tweeted, “Music writers always quick to say when a established artist isn’t innovating but I haven’t been seeing any innovation in music writing.”

Words I’m giving a break

Abrasive
Aggressive
Alien
Cold
Dark
Experimental
Explosive
Hard
Jagged
Sensual
Serrated
Soft
Thrilling

 

The xx essay

I wrote this essay on the success and relevance of The xx for Dummy in September 2010. My editor Charlie and I holed up in the tiny Dummy office one night in Hackney, waiting for the results of the Mercury Prize so we could tailor the intro accordingly. The photo above was taken by Mikael Gregorsky to go with my 2009 interview with The xx

What have The xx ever done for us?

It’s been just over a year since The xx released ‘xx’, a year that’s seen them graduate from night time crafting in a West London studio to packing out venues on a seemingly endless global tour. They’re an intensely private band who’ve quietly stacked up 650,000 album sales worldwide. They were nominated for tonight’s Mercury Music Prize, and won it. This is why we believe it was deserved.

Crystallised the sound of 21st century London

Places are not fixed. An x might mark a spot but that location is not fixed, static. It is molded, shaped and shifted by the lives swirling around and within it. The London of the 50s was a distinctly different place to the London of the 70s, just as the landscape of 1989 – the year in which all three of The xx were born – is very different to our London now.

In the 21 years since the latter half of the second summer of love, the UK has been in a state of ever-quickening to-and-fro flux that’s been at its most concentrated in our capital: economically from boom to bust twice over; politically from right to left to centre-left to a new, muddied hyper-right; and socially from a relatively buoyant public consciousness to one of increasing paranoia, born from events both tragically real and media constructed. Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack to those two decades also took an undulating back-and-forth course between guitar-based and electronic music, between past dreams and imagined futures.

The xx grew up amidst this flux. Born to the rave generation, their South London school years saw grunge, Britpop, US R&B, UK garage, Eurodance, commercial pop and grime each take their star turn on Top Of The Pops: a richly textured set of influences to later draw on. Then as The xx came of age in the mid 2000s, so did pop: recast as an elastic notion with room for all those different forms, sounds and ideologies and more. Yet this new idea of pop still largely existed in waking hours, in the public spaces of daytime radio and after-dinner telly. It took the more recent blurring of the lines between public and private spaces to set the stage for The xx. Previously private spaces – our homes, the night – are now places where we conduct our public life and where new pop stars are born thanks to the internet. Previously public spaces – our streets, the day – can now be private by listening to music on our headphones.

The xx exist in and draw strength from this tension. Their music found its voice at night and brings that darkness and pace into the day. What’s more, their emotional timbre is ambiguity: nothing is fixed or has to be. Their strength lies in giving validity to that uncertainty, in allowing those suspended moments. They present a vision of London that offers refuge and breathing space from the suffocating march of daytime realities.

A couple of weeks ago Skream tweeted that The xx are “like Burial but with a face”. There are many truths in that: like Burial, The xx have mapped midnight landscapes awash with the many overlapping emotions that slip and slide into our consciousness at night; both have painted a picture of that London we all recognise, one bathed in twin desires to belong and to escape; and both talk to the level of clarity that day hides and night reveals.

While Burial chose to remain in darkness, The xx have brought their night time into the day. Through their re-imagining, the London that they’ve dreamt up is taking root: a group of artists including but not limited to Mount Kimbie,Darkstar, Kwes, Sampha and Pariah (download his remix of Basic Space above) are all helping to build it. All know the importance of silence, of confident uncertainty, of creating landscapes with room to breathe. Through their eyes, our eyes can adjust to the dark of this new night/day too.

Given voice to a new youth

When the BBC wanted to paint a picture of the confused mood of Britain during the 2009 general election, they chose The xx to do it for them. A clip of Intro, the opener to ‘xx’, soundtracked the BBC’s election coverage advert in which urban scenes were rendered stagnant by a heavy mist. The music was muffled until a giant fan cleared the mist, and Romy and Oliver were freed to sing. But they had no words – instead it was their ‘ahhh’s that signified movement and a reawakened clarity of thought.

It’s an entirely new idea of youth that The xx represent – one that is more serious, questioning, introverted and undeniably quieter than previous generations. Since the birth of the teenager in the 50s (as BBC4 music documentaries often like to remind us), our idea of teenage-ness has barely shifted. From rockers to hippies, punks to ravers, lads/ladettes to hoodies, each odiously labelled incarnation might have appeared alien to its predecessor but their voices all took the same shape – deliberate, disruptive and loud.

The impact of this two-dimensional concept of youth can be felt in every attempt to communicate to a teenage audience: brash, neon television programming; cartoon-like radio personalities; movies that reduce genre to parody; lazy social media strategies; and hilariously off-point brand campaigns. Every action, every message is communicated in cap locks, in text speak – desperate attempts to score points.

We’re young, not deaf – Casely-Hayford know it, Press Free Press know it, Jayne Helliwell knew it, and The xx know it. They are part of a generation that understands the strength of silence and the power of whispering – that if you say something quietly, people have to lean in closer. Their music has become shorthand on TV shows, idents and events for a very specific kind of brooding, worried youth. When you consider the twists and turns of our recent history, it’s no wonder – a cacophony of irresponsible decisions, destructive actions and ‘lapses of judgment’ have forced a collective unease that’s had a profound affect on our country’s psyche. The music of The xx provides a counterbalance to the insanity. Theirs is a very serious music. That’s not to say it’s joyless, quite the opposite. What I mean is that they convey every shade of emotion – there’s honesty there, a truthful 3D portrayal of human experience. Dressed in their trademark black, they provide a sobering opportunity to digest, to reflect, to wonder. While previous youth cultures have proclaimed to have the answers, the generation that The xx hint at are taking their time with the questions.

Capitalising on the critical and public acclaim of ‘xx’, their label Young Turks/XL ran a shrewdly simple, ‘guerrilla’ ad campaign at the beginning of 2010. A stark black background with nothing but a single, white, sans-serif, block bold, lower case ‘x’. It made for a thoroughly distracting poster campaign on the tube (how many phones store photos of those ads I wonder?) but it was even more striking on the telly. That ‘x’ was beamed into UK living rooms for 10 silent seconds during a Skins ad break on E4 in February: quite literally cutting through the noise of the increasingly schizophrenic (by turns patronising and parodying) yoof programming. In a wonderful coincidence (perhaps?), it was preceded by an advert for Biffy Clyro’s new album, a classic piece of old guard music advertising: cue Radio 1 personality voiceover (in this case Edith Bowman) and heavyweight press quotes over brooding music video clip.

For fans, this bold approach served as a message of inclusiveness: we understand, we are part of this. For those yet to discover the band, it was the ultimate dangling carrot: a clue in the landscape waiting to be cracked. Certainly, The xx are not the first band to harness the power of logo but what makes theirs so powerful is its inherent rich symbolism. Instead of attempting to assimilate a new symbol-logo into an already overcrowded public consciousness (Prince could share a few tips on that), they appropriated one already rich in meaning. And it worked: people started spotting ‘x’s everywhere and ‘seeing’ The xx in their surroundings. Who needs adverts? The ‘x’ acts as a tag – both a signature and a shortcut to an identity, to a message. By creating an emotional attachment to that tag, the fans do the work – any naturally occurring ‘x’ in the world provides a mental shortcut to, and reminder of, The xx.

And who’s steering the helm of this ship? Sure, the label and management had their hand in the channels of communication but the idea is straight and direct from the band. “We chose the name purely aesthetically. It’s just really strong and bold. There’s so much you can do with it, pattern-wise,” said Oliver when I spoke to them back in early summer 2009. All too aware of the possible multiple meanings in their album title, Romy said: “It’s silly really. I realised that xx meant 20 and when it comes out we’ll all be 20.” Plus: “they’re like kisses”, which has to be my favourite reading of their ‘x’s. A new sound, a new voice and a new way of doing things, sealed with an x.

Created a new language of British music

The xx have garage in their blood. You don’t need to second-guess their record collections (you can grab any of Jamie’s superlative mixes for that) – it’s there, in the sumptuous loneliness of VCR, the coiled epic space of Intro, the grinding delicacy ofIslands. They’re the most important British band of our times, because they understand instinctively to the codes, expressions and sonic spaces of urban Britain and spontaneously create a new language. Their heritage is the anonymous broadcasts of pirate radio and unsigned whites, but they don’t just react – they move it on, they take it out, take it deep.

Take gender as an example. In the ‘hardcore continuum’, Simon Reynolds’ theory of British electronic music since 1989 (that year again), he talks of a series of repeated threads that bind the lineage together: there’s the respective soul and style of imported Chicago house and New York hip hop that kick(drum)-started it all; there’s the texture and irreverence of the multicultural British identity; and there’s an underlying “feminine pressure” that runs all the way throughout.

Reynolds goes on to talk of the female voice as holding a “privileged representation of bliss” and yet it’s a position that is very much man-made. Female vocals are processed, chopped and resequenced so as to become simply another texture in the sound, in the journey. But The xx’s representations of gender are neither fixed nor static. Romy’s femininity is not an effect that can be controlled; it is active, not passive. Oliver and Jamie both digress from the ‘natural’ masculine roles within the continuum: Oliver is not an MC, he sings, he emotes; Jamie’s production creates a third emotive ‘voice’ and he rejects a faceless position. In fact, Skream was half right: The xx present not one but three faces, each as visible as each other. There is no front person, no larger than life leader, no sun around which the others orbit. Instead the three young Londoners stand at three corners of an equilateral triangle, as in Saam Farahmand’s 3D video sculpture exhibited in January this year, each with their crucial role to play.

Jamie is the enabler; he creates the space in which Romy and Oliver can tell their separate stories. “What she sings she’s written and what I’ve written I sing,” said Oliver last year in my interview with them, and Romy has remarked in a Youtube interview that neither of them has questioned the other one on their lyrics. Traditional pop structure has it that a male and female presence in the same space equals call-and-response, means a duet or a conversation. But as Romy pointed out (again, in last year’s interview): “We’re best friends so it’s not like love songs to one another, it’s too an outside subject.” Male and female are neither wooing one another or in competition in The xx’s world, instead they exist without conflict, without question – each letting the other one simply be. There’s much hope in that.

Come on in, the water’s lovely

Boiler Room tonight was the epitome of why I love London’s music scene: a bunch of people huddled in a little room, leaning into the music, thrilled by the closeness and ready to be surprised. It’s those little conversations, those little smiles, those little nods: they are the layers on layers that bind and remind me why I hold it dear. Damn – and who was that girl singing over Micachu’s scruffy funk beats? She was something else.

Then I sit in a cab on the drive back to Brixton and I know I’m done. I see the place I told my old boss in another life that I wasn’t long for that job, I pass the record shop that is no longer a record shop, and I trace my old bike ride home when I was first learning this new life route. All these memories in all these streets, concrete drenched in days gone by. And Pure X are in my ears, singing ” all of the future, all of the past” and I feel what they mean more than ever.

Are you receiving me?

We seek signal. Every new object – and everything is now object, to be passed around – is an opportunity for opinion; staged with provocation, desperate for response. To be heard is to exist. But what is more valued: an echo or an opposition? Or are we simply all hiding in our own corners, talking to ourselves?

A tickertape machine

“Technology may make it possible to have a continuous feedback to ourselves of information. But at the moment I think we are starved of information. I think that the biggest need of the painter or writer today is information. I’d love to have a tickertape machine in my study constantly churning out material: abstracts from scientific journals, the latest Hollywood gossip, the passenger list of  a 707 that crashed in the Andes, the colour mixes of a new automobile varnish.”

This is J.G. Ballard being prescient again in conversation with the artist Eduardo Paolozzi in 1971 (Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967-2008). I prefer Ballard’s vision to today’s reality. He saw an endless stream of information as a feast to gorge on, fuel for his imagination and the landscape of his novels. Today the stream is two-way and, ironically, we’ve lost our way, caught in a cul-de-sac of ego. We don’t leap at the stream, thirsty to absorb it but let it wash over us as we focus instead on building a picture of ourselves in our own heads. 

Spit it out

“Just say what you want to say.” I overheard a school kid say this on the phone to his mum a few weeks back. Least his tone suggested it was his mum. He couldn’t have been more than 10 years old and already he knows when people are talking but not communicating.

Sounds Of…Stretching

I do a monthly radio show with my friend Ele on NTS, an internet radio station based in Dalston. (Some words on why you should get to know NTS if you don’t already.) Our show is called Sounds Of… and we have a different theme every month. It was just me on the last one cos Ele couldn’t make it. Sounds Of…Stretching is all about reaching – for love, for life, for something different. Tracklist below.

Sensations’ Fix – Acudreaming
Majical Cloudz – Turns Turns Turns
Future Islands – Tomorrow
The Roches – Hammond Song
TOPS – She’s So Bad
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Baby
Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland – Track 2
The xx – Fiction
1991 – Open To The Dark
Lukid – Lonely At The Top
Dam Mantle – Blueberry
Holy Other – Held
Kindness – Gee Wiz
Lemonade – Neptune
Marques Toliver – Magic Look
How To Dress Well – Cold Nites
Blood Orange – Champagne Coast
Heart Streets – Nonchalant
Main Attrakionz – On Tour (Produced by Uptown Greg)
LV – Spitting Cobra (feat. Okmalumkoolkat)
FRIENDZONE – LOVE U
Egyptian Hip Hop – SYH
Prince – The Cross
Cold Pumas – Fog Cutter
Petite Noir – Till We Ghost
Japan – Ghosts
Arthur Russell – That’s Us/Wild Combination