“All I can tell you is that it completely and utterly changed my life. I was a white hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles out of the backs of two people I knew. Two of the four people who were killed, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, were my friends. We were all running our asses off from these motherfuckers. It was total, utter bullshit. Live ammunition and gasmasks – none of us knew, none of us could have imagined… They shot into a crowd that was running away from them! I stopped being a hippie and I started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.”
Gerald “Jerry” Casale, founding member of Devo, interviewed in 2005 about his memories of the Kent State University shootings of 1970, and how those events led directly to the formation of the band.
“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands… In the post-historical period, there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed.”
Francis Fukuyama, from ‘The End of History?’ (1989)
My partner and I have a long-standing disagreement about the lack of rebellion and danger in modern music. In response to my regular harangues that these qualities are now almost entirely absent from the work of kids with guitars and laptops, for a variety of unoriginal reasons relating to the workings of the internet, the machinations of global capital and the post-ideological consensus manufactured by neoliberal hegemony, she argues that I’m actually just too old and uncool to know which abandoned warehouse the avant-garde plays at these days. Or which SoundCloud page it uploads to. Or which blogs are keeping tabs on it. And graciously, I’m prepared to concede she could be right. Or rather, I’d be happy to be proved wrong, and not feel compelled to extrapolate Steve Kilbey’s withering assessment of the recent Triple J Hottest 100 into a grand unified theory of musical shitness.
But in the avalanche of mediated grief and necrophilia that crashed down on all of us following David Bowie’s death, I came across something that only reinforced my feelings about the depressingly safe and neutered state of music today. In a 1999 Newsnight interview with a hilariously smug and complacent Jeremy Paxman (a clip that popped up numerous times in my feed during the week Facebook became “Bowiebook”), Bowie, the great pop seer, had some startlingly prescient stuff to say about the coming impact of the internet on both music and cultural production in general, to the point where you could argue he was personally envisioning social media. But more pointedly, he told Paxman at one point that if he was 19 again today (i.e. in 1999), he wouldn’t have become a musician, as he felt music was no longer the vehicle for disruption and unique social communication that it once was:
“I wanted to be a musician because it seemed rebellious, it seemed subversive. It felt like one could effect change to a form. It was very hard to hear music when I was younger… there was no MTV and wall-to-wall, blanket music, so therefore it had a kind of call to arms feeling to it. [It felt like] this is the thing that will change things, this is still a dead dodgy occupation to have… Now it’s a career opportunity.”
Bowie is far from the first 1960s-germinated muso to voice this kind of disillusionment. And his point about music’s numbing ubiquity, and how its subversive currency has been devalued due to the fact it now saturates everything in our lives from male skincare ads and home renovation show soundtracks to shopping centres, buses and bars, has long since become axiomatic. But the spontaneous tidal wave of digital grief that followed Bowie’s death, driven largely by people under 40, whose experience of his career proper would’ve been decades removed from contemporaneity with it, speaks to Fukuyama’s notion of our collective “nostalgia for a time when history existed”: a time when art forms like music seemed vitally important, and weren’t just corporate window dressing but a reflection of, and a response to the vivid clash of ideas and competing utopic visions still playing out in the public sphere.
Despite the post-9/11 tumult, which in many ways has only served to bolster neoliberalism’s intellectual self-belief, we now live with the depressing sense that we are indeed, in Fukuyama’s words, merely “caretakers of the museum of human history”. And it’s this subliminal, depressing understanding which has turned many of us into amateur cultural historians, and has driven a ceaseless mining of the postwar period for ever-more-obscure connections to this vital period of “history” (e.g. documentaries about clubs, recording studios, music managers and backing bands).
The experience of Devo strikes me as instructive here. Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, the twin creative dynamos of that remarkable band, have spoken at length about how their artistic consciousness was indelibly shaped by the horror of what happened at Kent State University in May 1970, when National Guard troops shot and killed four student protestors at a campus demonstration against Nixon’s decision to extend the Vietnam War into Cambodia. As laid out in the recent PBS documentary “The Day the ‘60s Died”, this incident can be seen as marking the beginning of the political world order we live with today, as Nixon exploited anxieties about supposed radical influences on college campuses to peel away traditional blue-collar voters from the Democratic centre-left.
As Casale says in the trailer to an as-yet-unreleased documentary on the band:
“Propganda about progress and man moving upward and outward, and life getting better, we saw no evidence of that; we didn’t think it was true. Empirically, it seemed like people were getting dumber and uglier … We were doing something aggressive to keep ourselves sane. The more the idiots who were our peers didn’t like what we were doing, the more we felt like we were doing something right.”
“We thought that the things we’d seen would’ve justified a whole new generation of Bob Dylans and Woodie Guthries, and it wasn’t happening,” remarks Mothersbaugh in the same compilation. “Instead we were getting disco and concert rock – Foreigner and Stixx – and nobody was really talking about the issues in the arts. We thought it was time for us to say something, and that’s how [Devo] began.”
Any of this sound familiar or resonant? Trying to choose an equally asinine substitute for “disco” or “Journey” today seems both overwhelming and self-defeating, due to the sheer tonnage of aural yoghurt in the world. And despite the manifest examples of “devolution” all around us, from the GFC and bank bailouts to the treatment of refugees, the sclerosis and dysfunction of liberal democratic systems everywhere, and the twin horrors of terrorism and its manipulation for political ends, it’s hard to imagine any act in the Hottest 100 – or any young band anywhere, frankly – making statements, or music, like Casale and Mothersbaugh. Or indeed, even thinking that music would be an appropriate vehicle for disruptive expression. As the broader discourse has become neutered and reduced to series of ‘natural’, unchallenged axioms – Fukuyama’s “end of history” – so, it seems, has post-jazz popular music.
But there will always be those who hold out hope of renewal. As The Church’s Steve Kilbey wrote on his Facebook page in response to being slammed as an irrelevance for criticising the Hottest 100’s beige-ness:
“Its not because i am old that i don’t like [The Rubens et al], its because i came to review rocknroll and i found limp bland pop … People have been making this bland tripe ever since i can remember. yes the fifties and the sixties and the seventies were full of it. it will always exist and there will always be people like me railing against it. Because rocknroll is capable of making statements that no other artform can make … its sexiness. its rage. its revolution. its anger. its otherworldiness. its dissociation. its preposterousness. its glory. its tragedy. etc etc etc. I find none of these qualities in the people in the top ten … I find many of the artists in the top ten indistinguishable from what are generally known as “boy bands”. In that they sing dopey little songs in their “little boy” voices to some little girl who (shame upon shame) broke their little heart. good for them.”