I found it harder than ever this year to know not just what mainstream culture is, but even where to find it. The case of Radio One, the main BBC popular music station in the UK, is instructive: at one point it was where the best known music of the day got played, but today it presents a narrow profile of ruthlessly focus-grouped dance pop. As with numerous media outlets, it has become trapped in its own bubble. It’s one reason why, like many, I now get much of my news outside the mainstream broadcasters. The BBC News strategy of editorial balance – where it tries to address a notional average viewer, who barely exists in these troubled times – now primarily serves merely to maintain the status quo.
Faced with a broken culture, it has been an understandable temptation this year to retreat, perhaps into the past. I’ve spent a good part of the year glued to books by David Toop and John Szwed, on the rise of free music and Billie Holiday respectively; the scholarly rigour of Columbia University’s station WKCR; Bob Brainen’s show on WFMU, an epic sweep of Tin Pan Alley and the golden age of the major label system; and even the etymological curiosities of Kevin Stroud’s monumental History Of English Podcast.
This phenomenon of people living within carefully organised cultural spaces and social media feeds, protected from engaging with dissenting views, has been much discussed this year, especially following the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. And a sense of retreat ripples through some of our writers’ reflections on their year in our Rewind 2016 feature. Marc Masters found solace in music that turned inward; Clive Bell dug into fat history tomes on the Chinese Revolution and two world wars; Phil Freeman dove deep into Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and Johnny Griffin.
But the overall vibe of these reflections is, you might be surprised to learn, positive. Frances Morgan finds solidarity in the shared spaces and experiences of live performances; Bill Meyer locates freedom in the small gestures of guitar stylists; Rob Turner feels the joy at Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival and in the sound collages of Graham Lambkin’s Community. As Louise Gray poignantly observes: “One has to choose how far to fall into the abyss.”
One effect of the disturbing rise of popular nationalism in the US and across Europe is that it can bring what is truly important into sharp relief. Nick Southgate suggests, “The wrench and dislocation of these interesting times may have one virtue – they demand we see the world anew.” And while many of our writers have headed deeper underground, this should be understood not in terms of burying a head in the sand, but building networks and tunnels. “Leaving home to move to Vienna revealed my own mutually supportive, thriving network of musicians and artists,” writes Tristan Bath. “While everybody else seems to see the world falling apart, mine is finally coming together and making sense.”
The title of Michaelangelo Matos’s tome on rave music – The Underground Is Massive – captures this multifaceted nature. Underground cannot be defined solely in terms of musical aesthetics, or demographic or regional groups, but (if at all) through how people communicate, participate and work together: fairly, transparently, responsibly, and without prejudice. “Music continues to make every single day of the 21st century better than the last,” declares Tristan. It’s a bold claim, but one that reflects how much underground culture has to offer a bankrupt socioeconomic system. Whatever else is happening in the world, this is community; it is here. Derek Walmsley
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Issue 395 January 2017 £4.95 ISSN 0952-0686
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Words Jennifer Lucy Allan, Steve Barker, Mike Barnes, Dan Barrow, Robert Barry, Tristan Bath, Clive Bell, Abi Bliss, Marcus Boon, Lottie Brazier, Britt Brown, Nick Cain, Philip Clark, Byron Coley, Lara C Cory, Julian Cowley, Alan Cummings, Erik Davis, Geeta Dayal, Katrina Dixon, Phil England, Kodwo Eshun, Mark Fisher, Phil Freeman, Rory Gibb, Francis Gooding, Kurt Gottschalk, Louise Gray, Andy Hamilton, Adam Harper, Jim Haynes, Ken Hollings, Hua Hsu, Maya Kalev, David Keenan, Kek-W, Biba Kopf, Matt Krefting, Jack Law, Dave Mandl, Howard Mandel, Wayne Marshall, Marc Masters, Bill Meyer, Aurora Mitchell, Keith Moliné, Will Montgomery, Brian Morton, Joe Muggs, Alex Neilson, Daniel Neofetou, Andrew Nosnitsky, Louis Pattison, Ian Penman, Richard Pinnell, Edwin Pouncey, Nina Power, Agata Pyzik, Chal Ravens, Simon Reynolds, Nick Richardson, Bruce Russell, Sukhdev Sandhu, Claire Sawers, Peter Shapiro, Stewart Smith, Nick Southgate, Daniel Spicer, Richard Stacey, David Stubbs, Greg Tate, Dave Tompkins, David Toop, Rob Turner, Val Wilmer, Matt Wuethrich
Images Thomas Brown, Tara Darby, Ronald Dick, Georg Gatsas, Guido Gazzilli, Mikael Gregorsky, Frederike Helwig, Martina Hoogland Ivanow, Mari Kanstad Johnsen, Dawid Laskowski, Miri Matsufuji, Mark Peckmezian, Savage Pencil, Sara Rafael, Michael Schmelling, Eva Vermandel