Tuesday, 12 November 2013

(Longer unpublished version) of Article for DUPE Magazine's Dark Side issue: "Pop Goes The Evil"

Pop music, like the Force, has always twinkled with an alluring dark side.

The Devil was there right at the beginning, at the crossroads with Robert Johnson, teaching him the basics of rock’n’roll. Elvis twitched suggestively that he was “All Shook Up” and Western civilisation quivered at the sexual rumble that had waited for this moment. At its core pop reflects the yin of love twinned with the shady yang of desire. And what’s darker than the despair of wanting something you can never have?

The Sixties wasn’t all “All You Need Is Love” and R&B civil rights anthems. The liberating rush of psychotropic experiments troughed into crashes and burns of many a pop meteor – The Stones’ own brand of groovy Satanism (“Sympathy for the Devil”) lost its mojo as the counter culture imploded at Altamont; Syd Barrett moved from the whimsical “Bike” to shining on into his own musical black hole; Lennon went from screaming “Twist & Shout” to just plain primal screaming on his psychoanalytic solo material (“Mother”). The rediscovery of childhood wonder through a psychedelic lens soon darkened with the arrival of half-buried childhood trauma in its wake: the desire to go back proving an expedition into a darker continent than they had planned for.

And there was Lou Reed, writing surging love songs to “Heroin” while other pop writers (and Lou was definitely a writer of pop songs, however distorted) coyly nudged the listener in the direction of cheeky amphetamines. “Venus in Furs” pretty much instantly cornered the market in sado-masochistic kink – although Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” hunts in the same pack a few years later. Lou wrote Bohemian love songs to That Which Should Not Be Loved – with “Perfect Day” being the perfect example – dragging the shattered self-image of the painter or novelist into pop’s Tin Pan Alley and showing us the broken glass on the pavement.

And if we’re talking dark, what gets any darker than metal? None more dark. The West Midland factory of heavy, industrial, Mephistophelean sounds pumped out group after group that glistened with grimy black humour and references to mental illness and The Dark One. “Paranoid” is packed with pop hooks even as it seems to twist them into its own flesh – and it remains the fetid fountainhead of all the metal subgenres in its wake. Though Ozzy’s matter of fact lyrical approach (“Finished with my woman ‘cos she couldn’t help me with my life”) got jettisoned as the genres became more complicated and the imagery more baroque and involved.

Some musicians took the whole devilish business very seriously – although the Norwegian black metal scene still seems undecided whether the murders, suicides and church burnings that took place in the Nineties were to pledge undying allegiance to Beelzebub or boost footfall into Oslo’s Helvete record shop. Slayer threw themselves into the inverted spirit of things with “South of Heaven” and the immensely riffed, Holocaust-referencing of “Angel of Death”.

However, the suspicion remains that all the gory stage shows, corpse-painted faces, fanciful Norse back stories and Cookie Monster growling betray the fact it’s all a dark, energetic Pantomime. Scratch at the rusty paint of Cannibal Corpse, and spy the inner Spinal Tap glint beneath the surface. Lordi won Eurovision, for Satan’s sake!

A couple of eerie, thunder-clapped valleys across from Metal City stands Mount Goth, fringed in broody clouds of funereal black and suburban self-loathing. Sharing some of the heavy rock audience, Goth ramped up the camp side of adolescent alienation, adopting sunken-cheeked, vampiric glamour and BDSM leathers in a more passive aggressive attempt at self-expression. This was indie rock’s sallow attempt to invoke H.P. Lovecraft and J.G. Ballard while metal was still digesting J.R.R. Tolkien.

Joy Division and Siouxsie & The Banshees sowed the dark seeds in the years immediately following Punk’s nuclear assault on popular culture, referencing Nazis bluntly in their early imagery and more obliquely in their lyrics (“Warsaw” and “Metal Postcard (Mittagessen)” for example); but it’s Sisters of Mercy who really take the goth biscuit, all paranoid amphetamine swagger and romantic literary pomp. Wagnerian sing-along anthems like “This Corrosion” and clammy, bombastic hymns to escape like “Temple of Love” underline how much of a warm refuge the music was for its audience. Contemplating death aged nineteen isn’t quite the turgid horror show of a mid-life crisis; it’s more like a kohl-eyed version of a chat line.

Nine Inch Nails flew the flag hardest for Goth’s Industrial cousins, typing the aggressive in bold with albums about serial killers (“The Downward Spiral”), songs about addiction (“Hurt”) and alternative dance floor smashes about shitty relationships (“Head Like A Hole”). Its allure falls somewhere between metal’s obsession with disease and failing bodies and Goth’s paranoid indecision and desire to strap on sexy bits of leather and metal. Nineties sci-fi fantasy movies lapped it up like liquid shorthand for decadent dystopian abandon in strobe-lit clubbing scenes (“The Crow”, “Blade”, “The Matrix”, “Johnny Mnemonic”).

Hip hop is arguably almost all dark side – but its response to urban problems has mutated over time. The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was a disco-based party tune; Afrika Bambataa & The Zulu Nation had formerly been a violent street gang but made records fusing Kraftwerk with Funkadelic and dressed like an intergalactic Village People. Then Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five introduced a more realistic reminder of what they were partying to forget (“The Message”), perhaps partying a little too hard (“White Lines”), and the street had crashed the bash.

Darkness came from all angles: Public Enemy’s feverish paranoid fantasies of crucifixion and global conspiracies on “Welcome to the Terrordome”; cartoon gothic weed-infused nightmares from Cypress Hill and Wu-Tang Clan; murderous beefs between Biggie Smalls and Tupac plus their entourages; Ice Cube and Ice T depicting themselves as actual Menaces II Society on “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” and “Cop Killer” respectively, turning the moral panic of white, suburban America into gold discs.

Once menace and genuine tales of gangster hardship and chicanery became a commodity to market, the whole game changed. Now the threat to civilisation is almost completely gone, and businessmen like Jay-Z and Kanye sit on thrones on top of global corporations; they are society, and high society at that. Perhaps these lofty, coke-streaked towers are where the real darkness dwells?

So, in short, there is a lot of dark music out there. But this is all the obvious stuff: skinny dudes and chicks trying too hard to convince us of their evil, having too much fun with leather and drugs, quoting too much Aleister Crowley, rocking out too hard, spitting too fiercely about the drugs they bought and sold. There is another darkness, a black hole duller than these other sinners could possibly have imagined…

Picture the scene. It’s the Millennium and popular music is all about partying - hedonism is firmly on top.
The curiously bland is all.  There’s no danger or rebellion to be found in rock, in hip hop, in dance music. Every revolution has failed. The dominance of chill out compilations and Dido and Moby's "Play" album underline the fact that the world had no cares in the world. It is coffee table music piped in directly from Sunday supplements.

This was a darkness of sorts, a cultural dead-space: a gap between the End of History that the Berlin Wall’s collapse had granted us and the neo-conservative machine of perpetual war coming back into focus after 9/11. A pop culture gap year, just chilling out and planning to enjoy the twenty-first century.

Even the most crepuscular of genres was getting into the festive frame. Rock’s adolescent angst had mutated into the frat boy “sports metal” of Blink 182 or Limp Bizkit – all nob jokes and stamping. Hip hop had followed the advice of KRS-One and largely quashed all beef in favour of making some serious cheddar:  the non-threatening, hook-laden party jams of Mystikal (“Shake Ya Ass”) and Pharoah Monche’s “Simon Says”; the show business sleaze of Puff Daddy and Bad Boy Entertainment; and, of course, Will "Willenium" Smith. Hip hop was full of gents with bristling portfolios looking to entertain, not to threaten or educate. With the notable exception of Eminem, a hip hop Elvis who shocked and delighted tens of millions by melding white frat boy attitude and black beats into one enormously successful package.

Dance music sums up the changes best, because not many pay attention to what dance music says. The earlier, darker, more complicated Nineties had given us the dark brew of drum & bass but when Old Father Time rattled around the Y2K it had slumped into UK Garage - music to sip champagne and eye up girls to. It was all dancing and twirling and Craig David going "Boing". It was about money.

But it was a happy time, wasn’t it? It was “Sweet Like Chocolate”. It was about dancing and enjoying yourself – Modjo and Cassius and Daft Punk telling us it was all that mattered. Kylie didn’t sing of love like she did back in the Eighties; she’d put her creative struggles in the Nineties behind her. She was now a disco machine with music stuck in her head, singing about the tune stuck in her head; just “Spinning Around”. It was empty, but it wasn’t dark.

So, what do we have now; now that we’ve an Orwellian War on Terror still raging to focus our attentions? UK Garage warped into Grime, which is pretty dark – but in a familiar, urban stories kind of way - and Dubstep, the drop into the k-hole: the sound of Salvia crushing the air out of our brains. Music that you less dance to than stagger underneath.

Dido dropped an octave and within a dozen years became Lana del Ray singing about “What Makes Us Girls” - a pin up for the numb. Metal has disappeared underground almost entirely; indie music now seems the preserve of rich kids; and chart pop is being run by Simon Cowell and the Brit Academy. Neither Simon nor the Academy graduates seem to be enjoying it very much.

"Bulletproof", "Titanium", "Diamonds": these chart-topping tunes are about being watched on the dance floor rather than actually just dancing, about surviving rather than partying - as though stranded in some apocalyptic nightclub. They are about commodities and war and dance music as obliteration rather than community.

Recent research has shown that pop music has got slower and sadder over the last fifty years - almost 60% of hit American tunes now in a minor key - and its lyrics more and more narcissistic and anti-social. “We” has become “I” and “our” “mine”. Black music in the US and Caribbean built up a musical momentum in tandem with their civil rights and independence movements which has gradually dissipated into individualism and apathy. Rock and pop music in the UK reflected and amplified the social mobility of the times until these forces also ran out of steam and working class artists are increasingly dependent on the patronage of rich businessmen and institutions.

This is cultural entropy - the musical Big Bangs of jazz and pop and reggae and hip hop and house music running out of energy as they diversify and dissolve into a thousand different sub-genres. Pop is about the release of energy: the death of energy is its dark side, its deathly shadow.

For a year or two we actually thought we'd broken through into the future and were partying like it was 1999 Recurring. Now, the hangover has us in its teeth - and what a skull-crushing comedown it is.


The Rolling Stones – ”Sympathy for the Devil”
Siouxsie & The Banshees – “Metal Postcard (Mittagessen)”
Nine Inch Nails – “Hurt”
Sisters of Mercy – “This Corrosion”
Public Enemy – “Welcome to the Terrordome”
Lana del Ray – “What Makes Us Girls”
Body Count – “Cop Killer”
Slayer – “Angel of Death”
The Velvet Underground – “Venus in Furs”
John Lennon – “Mother”

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