[FEATURE] DREAM BABY DREAM: ADAM CURTIS, PROTEST MUSIC AND SELF EXPRESSIVE ART
Now, if you’re having any problems with mild insomnia, I’d suggest not undertaking any 3am screenings of Adam Curtis’ new documentary Hypernormalisation. Existential crisis doesn’t begin to explain the level of shit and dread you’ll have to face in a semiconscious state, the images and ideas burying deep into your psyche. Just try forgetting the transition from 90s disaster films to footage of the 9/11 attacks, all soundtracked by the beautiful Suicide song Dream Baby Dream.
One thing Curtis has discussed on numerous occasions is the idea of the artist or musician as a figure of protest. Contrary to popular opinion, Curtis has some doubts about the effectiveness of self-expressive art – at least in regards to causing actual social change. We seem to have bought into the idea that the political system is hopeless, therefore we should only pursue the expression of our own identity, this of course playing into the hand of those who are in charge. After all, who does apathy help most but the right? The one man against the world outlook – what Curtis calls a ‘powerful individualism’ – has made huge strides in terms of personal liberties, but little help in regards to widespread social change.
So if the self expressive musician can’t create actual change, then how can art most powerfully articulate the experience of living amidst these conditions – beyond just expressing your own identity? Curtis believes Burial is an artist with a radical anonymity. The absence of the self – in quite a literal sense – lends his music a beauty and universality. The whole faceless side contrasting a great deal of music, which arguably has an unhealthy infatuation with the individual, also contrasting social medias endless encouragement of narcissism.
That’s not to say that Burial’s art is in any way made bland due to his lack of public persona, its power – in Curtis’ terms – comes from ‘the fear, yet the thrill, of giving yourself up to the future’. The music, sounding distinctly modern – despite the noted elements of 90s rave which haunt it – comes with what Simon Reynolds calls a ‘future rush’. This is a fear, but also sense of exhilaration and longing for something which differs from the present.
The music of Shirley Collins, as well as other traditional folk singers, can also be said to be a removal of the self. As the comedian Stewart Lee points out: “she tries to interpret the songs without putting herself into them,” describing them as having an “absence of ego”. Though this does create beautiful and compelling art, the fact that it draws completely from music’s past, inevitably limits it’s capacity for new ideas or visions of a possible future.
In terms of modern genres vaporwave is supposedly a critique of capitalist life, but its mild sense of irony can’t help but feel like tacit approval to me. Unlike your Burials or your Broadcasts, I don’t get that feeling of the past being used to express a longing for the future. Instead it comes across as pretty much an overly privileged and knowing sarcasm.
Then there’s also the issue of how to make radical – even dangerous – music when it’s become such a fixture of the wider establishment. What Frank Turner – and other prats like him – don’t realise, is that the symbol of the the protest singer with an acoustic guitar has been entirely assimilated, becoming about as subversive as a Greg Wallace bakewell tart.
Similarly with punk; the leather jackets, the spitting, torn jeans, this is all a language which has become understood by wider culture. What’s most dangerous and feared is the unknowable and the new. The reason why now, when you see someone with a studded jacket and a mohican, you don’t cower in fear – or think that they’re out on a hell bent mission to destroy the very fabric of society.
Perhaps dance music still offers up the clearest distillation of selfless radicalism. Though critiqued by some as ‘faceless techno bollocks’, The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was actually passed in an attempt to prevent this culture back in 1994. Despite not often being explicitly political, what dance music does succeed at is the idea of giving yourself over to something. For the most part raves were not scenes of self expression, rather collective events where you could become anonymous together.
The culture is not without its faults. A nerdy crate digger sensibility and interest in retro styles prevents new ideas from emerging, and the smoother more placid realms are in danger of being more of a middle class luxury lifestyle choice. But at its most potent, radical and future orientated – see Chicago footwork more recently – it can help create the mindset that you are not a lone island, but part of something much wider.
Funnily enough, one of the artists this year who most powerfully articulates the sense of frustration – a longing for a future not yet realised – features an Adam Curtis monologue on her album. Jenny Hval is an experimental artist from Norway, whose latest Blood Bitch tackles the themes of the female vampire and menstruation. Sonically the impressionistic album flips between lucid pop music, concrete ‘sound diaries’ and expansive drones.
What Hval most succeeds at is acknowledging the contradictions inherent in being an individual artist with desire for collective change. She also articulates the frustration of countercultural practices becoming gradually assimilated by wider culture, noting in an interview for The Wire that capitalism will “absorb avant garde art strategies into itself without ever allowing avant garde art to be considered of any value at all.” The tragedy being that “it sees the value and eats it up and spits it back out as a political strategy for power.” The despair is also where the beauty lies. Within the art, a longing for the future is made interchangeable with that of relationships, realising these goals for something beyond capitalism are as emotionally motivated as they are intellectually.
In the book Inventing The Future – by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams – the left as it stands is critiqued due to their suspicion of hierarchy, meaning their radical ideas are unable to properly come into fruition. The authors believe that a “modern left can neither continue with the current system nor return to an idealised past, but must instead face up to the task of building a new future.” Both music and political commentators seem to be transfixed with this same idea. However fearful and complex the modern world may seem, until we face up to these issues at hand, no positive future can be imagined.
Written by Eden Tizard