Mass media culture produces all forms of dilemmas: politically, economically and morally. Timothy Mitchell is of the opinion that mass democratic movements were only really ever possible because of and formulated through the production of coal. The designs behind the age of oil are exactly what has inhibited democratic culture and movements so successfully from the 1940s onwards, and likely what new social movements worked to subvert. I don’t bring this up to display my political theory bona fides as much as to suggest how easily we absorb the dictates of the world around us that even someone truly questions their predicates, the most staunch communists, atheists and nihilists can’t but help to at least initially reject them.
I woke up this morning to do some research, and found myself with a desire to listen to The Band, before quickly becoming distracted by the idea of listening to Prince’s original recording of Purple Rain – a classic, which is shockingly hard to find on the internet. I’ve been getting more and more into Prince’s back catalogue as of late, and beyond Purple Rain, 1999 and Dirty Mind there are some absolute classics. Maybe this is displaying my relative naivety, as Prince has always been an incredibly popular act with many successful records, but it still is a shock to listen to Controversy for the first time. It need not necessarily all be fantastic, but the raw energy, musicality and idealism behind Prince’s music is still staggering.
Is this even saying very much? Prince is a great artist and has sold many records; he’s one of the biggest names in American music and influenced almost everybody alive in R&B. He has a lot of records behind his name and many more under protégés and pseudonyms, one could spend a lifetime trying to discover all there is behind the enigma of the Purple One.
Yet this is precisely the point: one could easily do that, but is this a life worth living? At what point do we have to reconsider the forces of the posterity and the internet and reconsider precisely how we consume our art, media and entertainment? Visual arts and philosophy have long been lampooned (although predominantly celebrated) in their worshipping of the works of dead white men, and to a fair extent we do attempt to deal with the works of the present: there exist countless contemporary art galleries (which don’t only deal with abstractionist art but do actually feature ‘normal’ visual arts like paintings), and given the somewhat personal nature of philosophy, it is inevitable that we discuss the works of living authors: see Žižek, Butler, or even somebody like Hilary Putnam. Can the same really be said for music? What precisely is there to stop me going through Prince’s entire discography, in some vain effort to achieve true Princiosity?
Of course for many of the young this is precisely what must be avoided: we can certainly dig the albums of our parents but we shouldn’t let them define us. This is certainly true on the surface, but I find that in practice this is often too newly focused. Of course the music charts-based radio stations are hardly anybody’s idea of culture, but one also worries if there is a particular cult of the new in ‘youth’ radio stations. In attempting to be open-minded, they often discursively cultivate a particular form of sound, one which new acts themselves undoubtedly reproduce. There’s no panacea of the new, no point at which we really cut off the influences of the past.
Yet is this not exactly what the creators of these past masters would have been consuming? I recall a moment, likely four years ago by now, in which my drum teacher, discussing his idol Tony Williams, confessed that it is very likely he’s listened to more music than Williams ever did in his lifetime, probably several times over. Yet the man is no slave to Williams, condemned to endlessly repeat Emergency! over and over in his brain, in his sticks. (For the record, Emergency! would be a terribly trippy way to conduct one’s self.)
Perhaps this speaks to the power of creativity over pure consumption. Many of us are ‘fans’ of music without being musicians, or at least active ones, and perhaps it’s in the act of synthesisation that we can truly transcend these differing narratives and trends of music. We often forget that creativity begets creativity more than style begets style. And when we create, we do create new pathways, capabilities and conceptions of the world. It’s somewhat unrelated, but this is brilliantly captured in this Young Turks video, by Karl Rove of all people.
Of course we’re not all songwriters, and one needn’t necessarily pick between two modes of consumption. It’s very easy to leave the radio on during the day and put a record or a CD on at night. We can even listen to Prince on the way to a gig featuring live, local music. While there is so much music surrounding us at every moment, there is seemingly no choice but to follow Simone de Beauvoir: acknowledge the ambiguity, understand that the world will never quite make sense to you and then proceed to act anyway. At the end of the day, music is going to change in ways we can’t even begin to appreciate it. We will never be able to understand all of it, and any attempt to do so will end up marginalising those forms we don’t consider music – rap, electronic, metal, jazz and classical all particularly suffer in this vein. If I like Purple Rain, I like Purple Rain. As long as I don’t fool myself by pretending that it’s anything more, maybe that’s winning.