Monday, 30 November 2009

Feeling listless? If only...

As the year draws to an end, so polls of the "best" albums, films, books etc. of the last twelve months appear in newspapers and magazines; as the decade draws to an end (allegedly), so polls of the "best" albums, films, books etc. of the last ten years appear in newspapers and magazines. These are disparagingly but inaccurately called "lists", presumably by those who think that election results are just meaningless itemizations of random people's names. Such critics' polls are especially common in those cultural forms where academia hold little sway, like rock and pop, or where consumer opinion is noisily heard, like film: you don't get many polls about the "best" Greek tragedies or Victorian poems. Consequently, the results are to a certain extent canon-making, in the absence of professionals thought to possess the socio-cultural capital (the authorityl) to create them. The recurring "best albums of all time" polls found in the NME, Rolling Stone, Q etc have wound up by establishing a sense that certain texts - Revolver, Astral Weeks, etc. - are of an exceptional quality regardless of how many copies they sell or what the punters may think.

Texts of the year polls, on the other hand, come too early to be worthwhile. The NME chose "Heroes" as its album of the year in 1977, a verdict surely nobody would today wish to endorse (even Bowie). On the other hand, they sum up a mood among critics, which has a certain interest in itself. The fact that in 1989 the NME plumped for De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, although four years later they chose the first Stone Roses album as the greatest of all time let alone of the year of its release, reminds me of the critical popularity at the end of the 80s of postmodernist theories of pastiche and intertextuality, and therefore the modishness of sampling. It brings back an era, regardless of whether it's "true" or not.

So what have I learned from the current glut of lists, sorry, polls?

(1) That the transformation of American and consequently world popular cinema into a form of children's entertainment continues apace, and that although some of its manifestations are cynically sterile (Transformers 2: etc etc), many of them are brilliantly original (Up, Fantastic Mr Fox. I expect that the Christmas Radio Times which will be out in a fortnight will be packed to the rafters again with "children's films". What these have replaced is not, as some drearily and disingenuously moan, towering works of film art like 2001 and Taxi Driver; instead, they have superseded earlier forms of popular entertainment. Thirty years ago the Christmas Radio Times was a litany of MGM musicals, 1930s slapstick comedies, and war movies. Some of these were brilliantly original too, but tastes change.

(2) That the rock/pop album is dead. The results of the various albums of the decade polls that I've seen have been truly pitiful. Kid A, a very good record that pales in comparison with its predecessor in Radiohead's oeuvre, as the best album of the past 3600 days? Or The Streets, the only artist in the history of rock to provide its own devastasting parody at the same time and in the same place as its music? Some ancient rocker, I forget who, once complained that critics were so lazy that, were they to review a record called "I'm Completely Crap", they would just write "You said it, mate" even if it sounded like "Good Vibrations". Bearing this in mind I don't quite know how to respond to the fact that NME chose Is This It? as the best long-player of the noughties. Is that it? (Sorry.) That slab of diet Coke Marquee Mooning? The best we can come up with? You might as well have listed the "best" music hall artists of the decade. The point is, of course, that a poll of the best downloads would yield far more impressive results, since that is now the format in which rock and pop achievement comes.

(3) That TV drama and comedy has been, across the decade, of an extraordinarily high standard. They have, I think, culturally outpaced their film equivalents. The advent of "box-setting", whereby TV shows are written and structured largely with a view to being watched at home in a self-scheduled and intensive run analagous to the reading of a novel, has vastly improved these genres, especially American drama. This is important to note, because just switching on your set every night and flicking through the channels you can get the impression (a) that TV is crap, and (b) that TV is nothing but wall to wall docusoaps, reality TV, and futile "challenges". The point is, of course (to repeat myself) that box-setting takes shows outside the economy of television: they're deprived or freed of the advertising that bankrolled them. Fantastic for the viewer, tough on the networks.

(4) Somebody writing on Wikipedia called my "The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond" an "entirely pessimistic" take on 2000s culture. Since writing it in 2006, I've come to the conclusion that my negativity about the quality of contemporary culture owed too much to a backward-looking conventionality (the same that causes critics to cling to notions of "best albums"). The real achievement of the decade hasn't been the appearance of great works in established formats so much as the emergence of new formats of expression. I shouldn't therefore have been looking so much for terrific new novels, plays, films etc., as exploring the new kind of textuality that has emerged. If I were invited on to a show discussing the drift of culture in the 2000s that's what I would emphasize: the extraordinary flowering of new avenues and economies of expression, rather than sensational new instances within long-established forms.

Mea culpa? Yes, all right; but 2006 was, in digimodernist terms, a very very long time ago.

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