December 2020 – January 2021

Arts & Letters

Ready steady gone

By Anwen Crawford

Toots Hibbert, 1976 © Richard E. Aaron / Redferns / Getty Images

The passing of its figureheads underscores pop music’s waning influence on personal identity

Astrid Kirchherr, who photographed The Beatles in Hamburg when she was a 22-year-old art student, died this May, of cancer, aged 81. Her black-and-white photographs, taken in 1960, before anyone cared about The Beatles, bear an inevitable poignancy, given that we know what would come: the ’60s as an era – which hadn’t quite begun in 1960 – and everything that era still denotes in terms of hope and youth and upheaval, which The Beatles helped to catalyse. And given that a photograph, like a sound recording, is a remnant of the past as soon as it is made, and thus a proof of our mortality. The young in a photograph will always be young. We – who might also be they, who were photographed – grow older.

It’s been my mounting conviction that pop music is increasingly a field of ageing, not of youth. I heard the English music critic Paul Morley make this observation in 2016, which was the year that Prince, David Bowie and George Michael died, though none of those three was especially old. It stuck with me, and each year since, the lengthening lists of death notices of popular musicians has only strengthened my sense that Morley was right. 

Popular music has always had a complex relationship with the fact of death, not least because it has been the premier art form of the young, and not least because extraordinary fame has been a means by which deceased musicians – especially those who die young – linger in the afterlife of our collective memory. John Lennon may be dead, but he will always be John Lennon: the one whose fraying voice on “Twist and Shout” remains as sore and as vital as the day it was recorded; the one who, in Kirchherr’s photographs, is still a short-haired greaser. My grandfather looked like this too, back then – I’ve seen the pictures.

Despite their indelible association with the baby boomers, people like Kirchherr were a generation older, born during or even before World War Two. Consider this small selection of 2020’s musical deceased: Bill Withers, 81; Tony Allen, 79; Little Richard, 87; Toots Hibbert, 77; Helen Reddy, 78. A couple of prominent musicians who died this year could be classed among the oldest of the baby boomers, such as singer-songwriter John Prine and Kraftwerk member Florian Schneider, who were both 73. My point here isn’t to quibble over generational boundaries but to indicate a pattern. The baby boomers are ageing, but the musicians who entertained them are now elderly, and dying. 

Of the deaths mentioned above, only Prine’s and Hibbert’s have been attributed to coronavirus. Still, the pattern feels stark, nearly cruel, in a year when the elderly have been so vulnerable, and when the prospect of geronticide – let the old die, in order to keep production moving – has been openly, shamelessly discussed. Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings is reported to have said, back in February, that the British government’s priority in the face of COVID-19 should be to “protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.

Popular music – and I have made this point before – is an art form wholly bound up with capitalism (“the economy”). More specifically, it is tied in both material and ideological ways to the mode of consumer capitalism that emerged in the middle of the 20th century. Pop music as we have known it would not have been possible without mass manufacturing, mass marketing or the long and complex process, which began in the 19th century, of folk culture and folk musics being transformed into mass culture. The exponential spread of pop music throughout the 1950s and ’60s could not have happened outside a specific set of material circumstances, including the relative strength of an organised labour force, that existed after World War Two, and which will never be repeated.

Despite its frequent thematic emphasis on loneliness, heartbreak and other pessimisms, pop music is an intrinsically optimistic form, tied in the moment of its postwar ascension to specifically postwar hopes of social progress and improving material circumstances among working people. At times it has even seemed possible that pop music could inform, and to some degree foment, a set of social movements, from civil rights to the counterculture, through which radical demands could be posed – demands beyond the capacity of capitalism to ameliorate. Revolution at a pop tempo! What a beautiful, impossible dream – I mean the bit about pop music lasting beyond the capitalist mode of production that makes the form possible. As another pop critic, Simon Reynolds, once wrote, in a line that has haunted me for years: “It’s pop music or a better world: the choice is yours.”

Funky Kingston, by Toots & The Maytals, was first released in the United Kingdom in 1973. (A second, more commercially successful version of the album, with a rejigged track list, would be released in 1975 in the United States.) This was also the year of Bill Withers’ Live at Carnegie Hall, Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and Betty Davis’s self-titled debut. Despite the punks’ claim, advanced later in the decade, that the first half of the ’70s was bloated by prog rock, this was a time of innovation across multiple genres. (Then again, 1973 was also year zero for a thousand ponderous concept albums to come, thanks to the release of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, so maybe the punks had a point.)

With reggae’s rise to global notice – a rise spearheaded by Bob Marley but reinforced by groups like Toots & The Maytals – it also seemed that pop’s centre might be shifting, from Western powers such as the US and the UK to those powers’ former colonies, in this case Jamaica. That shift wouldn’t last: the US and UK reasserted their dominance over pop production during the 1980s. But one can see a similar dynamic at work today, in the rise of K-pop, the renewed popularity of Jamaican dancehall and the growing prominence of Spanish-language pop musicians, among other currents. This time, I suspect the shift will endure.

If Bob Marley is reggae’s saint – and The Wailers’ commercial breakthrough, Catch a Fire, was also released in 1973 – then Toots Hibbert, who led the Maytals, was its greatest and most ebullient preacher. I can think of few other singers as soulful as Hibbert, few other groups whose music acts like a shot of pure exultation. 

“For today, today / Today is a happy day”, Hibbert sang on “Pomps and Pride”, as if addressing a congregation. Drums, bass and organ all work to create a distinctive reggae lilt – one-two-three-four – upon which Hibbert can hang his performance, which dips into counsel (“Everybody just calm down, calm down”) and then rises up again. “Do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-dohhhhh!”, he exclaims, several times, ascending through the scale. Though a Maytals song can evoke social detail – the newlyweds of “Sweet and Dandy”, or the arrestee of “54-46 That’s My Number”, which was based on Hibbert’s own 1966 arrest and imprisonment for marijuana possession – they are not so much stories as moods, unadulterated.

In a profile published this August, not long before he died, Rolling Stone called Hibbert “one of the greatest soul singers of all time, in a lineage with Sam, Ray, and Otis”. This is absolutely true: like Otis Redding, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, Toots Hibbert was gifted with a voice in which grain and glow, smoke and sweetness, were perfectly combined. These are voices that wrench the heart as soon as they enter the ear, because their yearning is so palpable. 

But given Hibbert’s ecstatic tendencies, his penchant for phrases that, in his singing of them (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-dohhhhh!), transcend the syllabic and become glossolalic, the other vocalist with whom he compares, apart from James Brown, is Little Richard. Hibbert died in September. Little Richard, a decade older, passed away in May. The two men embodied a performance tradition through which gospel’s religious fervency could be made to thrive in pop, because pop also promised liberation. I think of Little Richard’s brazen challenge to rigid categories of gender and sexuality, a challenge that was apparent both in his appearance – the make-up, the curling pompadour, the thin and meticulous moustache – and in his vocal demeanour, especially those falsetto “ooooooohs!” that The Beatles transplanted into their own performances. I think of Astrid Kirchherr’s role in transforming the short-haired Beatles into mop-top androgynes. 

A more literal critique of patriarchy would arrive around the same time as Funky Kingston, with Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman”, first recorded by Reddy in 1971, then re-recorded in 1972, when it became a massive hit. I’ve always found the song a bit too musically moderate to be thrilling, notwithstanding the baldness of the lyrics. But its cultural impact is undeniable: a message song released at just the right moment to articulate, in the pop charts, the hopes of a social movement – in this case, second-wave feminism.

That may be putting it too generally. Scrolling through the YouTube comments on Reddy videos, especially comments left in the wake of her death this September, what’s clear is the song’s epiphanic power in the lives of individual listeners, including men, who may have been distant in time or circumstances from the women’s movement but found in “I Am Woman” a new way to conceive of themselves. At least since its explosion in the 1950s, pop music has helped listeners to configure – and to reconfigure – their personal identity. Identity mediated by consumerism, and not only because pop music is a commercial art form, but because it takes its place in a matrix of commodities, the self being the most useful commodity of all.

But precisely because of its enmeshment with a 20th century mode of consumer identity, I think that pop music, in the 21st century, has been permanently displaced from its formerly significant role in creating the self, especially the youthful self. It’s not that the imperative to understand ourselves through the things we consume is any less strong in 2020 than it might have been in 1960, or 1973. Quite the opposite, I suspect. But the locus of identity formation in consumer capitalism has shifted from an art form, pop music, to a technology form, social media. 

And though one can, and does, display one’s consumption of pop music across social media platforms, pop is only a thread upon the loom. The work of displaying one’s consumption through social media is meant to confirm who one “is” in both depth and appearance; morality and taste become the same. But taste, when elided with morality, can never be refined enough: there is always further improvement to be made, more work to be done, the better to display one’s true self. Whereas pop music, in the second half of the 20th century, created strong yet changeable identities (today you might be a rock’n’roller, tomorrow you will be a long-haired child of psychedelia), social media creates a mode of personal identity through which one must become more insistently and perfectly oneself. That goes for pop musicians too – everyone trapped in their own closed circuit of solipsism, which is mistaken for authenticity. 

This shift in identity formation, from the progressions of pop to the deferred self-realisation of social media – deferred because impossible – is connected to the loss of progress itself as a social goal. To illustrate what I mean by this, let me return to the early 1970s, and with it, another of this year’s pop deaths. 

Kraftwerk’s breakthrough album, Autobahn, was released in 1974. It lasts 42 minutes, the length of two sides of long-playing vinyl, but its internal sense of time is galactic, unbounded by material limits. 

The entire first side of Autobahn is taken up by the title track, composed by Kraftwerk founders Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider; the latter died in April. “Autobahn” is a wonderful contradiction in terms: a piece of music long celebrated for its circular qualities, and yet one that evokes, in several distinct sections, the linear progression of a car trip.

Made with synthesisers, electronic drum pads and vocoder, “Autobahn” is a modern pastoral. The Minimoog, in particular, has a beguiling tonal quality that puts me in mind of green fields as much as of motorways – an impression strengthened by what sounds like a processed flute in some sections of the song. (Schneider was also a flute player.) Kraftwerk would have known that the autobahn had a historic association with the Nazi regime – the first autobahns were first constructed in 1930s, when they were known as Reichsautobahn – but, as children of the postwar period, they reclaimed the motorway for a new age. Their autobahn was headed for outer space. 

Listened to today, “Autobahn” has a double poignancy. Not only is the space age further away than ever – alas that we are not cavorting on the Moon – but the car age has been poison. It may be happenstance that among this year’s deceased pop musicians are several who made their most significant work in the 1970s, but it’s not a coincidence that the ’70s was a pivotal era for pop, given the shifts that began then, from postwar Keynesianism to free-market economics, and the social consequences that have entailed.

Pop music was made possible in the 20th century by an economic system that created an incalculable number of consumer commodities and, in doing so, has jeopardised the very possibility of human survival on this planet. Progress is built into pop: both the artistic progress of the art form itself, and hopes of material progress and abundance that were made possible only in a particular set of historical circumstances, for a limited amount of time. Given the choice, I will take a better world, sans pop music, over a burning world of fossil fuels and cars. But any world we stand to inherit, should humanity outlast capitalism – and on bad days that feels unlikely – will be a world of depleted natural resources, of damaged and dying ecosystems.

Let me be clear: pop music is not finished as an art form, not yet. But as each ageing pop figurehead passes away, what has become obvious is that the modernity expressed through and partly made possible by 20thcentury pop will not return – cannot return, if we are to inhabit a future that is better than a living hell. Today’s pop youth, both musicians and audiences, are marginalised by pop’s own displacement as the reigning site of consumer identity construction, and by the fact that the form was birthed in an era that is gone. 

In one of Kirchherr’s Hamburg photographs, five Beatles are perched in a line at the fun fair, with the struts of a wooden roller-coaster behind them. Apart from Lennon the greaser, Pete Best is doing his best Elvis, while Paul McCartney looks like a 12-year-old member of Buddy Holly and The Crickets. Stuart Sutcliffe, in shades, is the Velvet Underground half a decade in advance, and George Harrison, with a tufty, scruffy haircut, winklepickers and a leather jacket, is an out-and-out punk, teleported from a future that has yet to become the past. With a couple of possible exceptions, we will not mourn our contemporary pop musicians in the way that we commemorate those already passed, which include most of the people in Kirchherr’s photograph. Not only have pop stars proved mortal. The pop era was finite, too.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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