How The West Lost Its Soul

How The West Lost Its Soul

What does soul mean to you? I’m writing primarily in a musical sense, regarding production and integrity to material and performance, but I feel this may extend into a wider social context. It’s no news to proclaim that money and the market are no friends to creativity, and whilst I am no luddite or enemy of technological progress, the perception of what soul actually is is being continually, maybe intrenchably, undermined.

Why are people listening to ‘old’, ‘classic’ artists so much more than searching out new ones? Because, unless they are desperate trendies who care about the judgement of to whom they are talking than their ears, the old music sounds better. Technological limitations can help for sure – you do the best with what you have. When everything is recorded through the same source, and outputted the same way, you’re fairly sure of where you are, and the one-dimensional, visceral nature of the recording process is paramount. Jack White, for one, knows this well.

Fundamentally, everything in the creative process, when it comes to music, has become too thought through, too much a victim of market-planning, brainstorming; of what-will-sell. Recorded music has lost any sense of breath or mystery, where engineers and producers, if not the artists themselves, are obsessed with ‘proximity to the listener’, and promoting that as much as possible. The result is that we end up feeling in fact too close to the artist, and somewhat nauseous in the process. True, very much in opposition to the original punk ideal of removing the barriers between performer and audience – but 90% of recorded punk is unlistenable tripe anyway.

I’m no trained recording engineer, but having recorded three albums myself throughout numerous recording sessions, with varying and subjective degrees of success, and being fundamentally responsible for the production process, I am very familiar with engineers’ resistance to new ideas and anything against the current ‘industry standard’. This industry standard is the very enemy, the reason for our active-maker and passive-listener creative regression, and the essential reason above others that it can be actually hard to listen to the latest Kanye West or Beady Eye albums.

Soulful integrity and durability come from compression of intention and performance, spontaneity, energy, freshness and a degree of hunger, without too much foresight. The Beatles – very much including their producer George Martin – managed this over a series of albums because they were at the vanguard of things, exploiting technology as it presented itself, and because they were inventing the industry, not responding to it – while also placing creative responsibility in the hands of the maker. Of course their sales enabled their record company to accept their every move too, and this was another bonus of the political atmosphere of the time.

Forty years later, a band like Coldplay, capable of writing very beautiful songs, find themselves signing multiple-album contracts, the label responding to sales figures and choices as leverage against the band themselves. Indeed everyone gets rich except for the listeners, who just feel increasingly sad, album by album, as the creative dearth is unendingly exposed. It’s not like anyone actually blames Chris Martin for endlessly trying to replicate ‘A Rush Of Blood To The Head’, except when they remember he himself signed the contract limiting himself to EMI’s concept of ‘representative music’. Play what you said you would, or your dropped. And then sued.

21st century hip hop, with its acceptance of harsh US capitalism as a beautiful, inescapable reality of life, is as big an enemy of real soul as any other. Get rich or die trying. Thanks for the acquiescence of the status quo; we all saw how Obama struggled with the results of that mentality when he first came to office – while the US first and foremost felt the pain – and accept the responsibility of that mentality. With the mass media’s preoccupation with repeatedly stamping this viewpoint on western society, this aesthetic can become embedded, without some kind of a degree of reflection.

Johnny Marr and Morrissey’s rejection of Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron’s claim that The Smiths were his favourite band is one of the most genuinely punk rock moments I can remember. It’s not that the duo don’t acknowledge that plenty of Tories were and are into their music – their ‘careers’ (another problematic word within creativity) were made by such things – but do not dare inculcate something so real, genuine, impassioned and gracefully acerbic into your cleaned-up, pretentiously baby-carrying and bike-riding public image. Personally I think the presence of soul in The Smiths ouevre is somewhat buried, but their outrage in their music being so misread should be applauded all the same.

The previously-mentioned Jack White appears to be an anomaly, an eccentric quirk in the whole story. Such bloody-minded insistence on spontaneity is appreciated – but on a ‘listened’ scale, he looks pretty lonely. There are others determinedly following a resolute path, but to be quite honest they are all becoming of a certain age (Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Queens Of The Stone Age, Billy Childish, Radiohead, Björk, The Roots, PJ Harvey), and their sales are massively eclipsed by business people-posing-as-artists (Muse, Placebo, Arctic Monkeys, Jake Bugg…and I’m not even entering the Cowell-pop-world here).

Musicians, writers, apparently almost all creatives-who-mean-it are all stuck within a politically marketed situation between quality of product and various breeds of publishers who already have a market-strategy of what will or will not get through. Between the 60s and the 80s, DJs and quality publications had pretty much the power in dictating taste, as the market for cultural production was in the process of understanding itself. Do you really think Jimi Hendrix, Brian Eno, The Fall, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Television, Butthole Surfers or even Happy Mondays would have been anywhere on the radar without the screaming of critics and reviewers? Individuality, idiosyncrasy, and unique perspectives need support and encouragement in this regulated, marketed world, or soon enough it will be 30 Seconds To Mars for all of us, with no chance of a Lightning Bolt.
  1. I blame a lot of this on what i call the fragmentation of music and the death of the mixed mainstream. i’m actually writing a whole book about it, which will be serialised part by part on GIITTV when its finished! I agree with all of these points.

    1. What I mean is that in the 90’s we had the most diverse singles chart you could ever find. Now it’s ridiculously generic. In the UK during the 90’s there were a lot less radio stations around than there are today, so because there were no specialist stations where people could hear their preferred type of music, everyone had to listen to the same thing, meaning that the main stations had to cater for everyone. This meant that as well as the main pop hits, they’d also have to pick a number of indie, dance and other tracks. Everyone from different walks of life would all be tuned into the same thing, and therefore were given the chance to hear the music that would be played.

      Because you’d have to sit through stuff you didn’t like, it would always be more satisfying when one of “your” songs came on the radio, so you’d grow even fonder of those particular songs. Hearing these tracks next to pop and dance meant that indie fans (as well as anyone who hated pop or dance) would find them even more appealing. And because those songs in comparison were the only indie tracks being played regularly, the indie fans would focus on those songs more. Plus the fact indie music was played on mainstream radio meant that the neutrals had a chance to hear it alongside everything else and it even meant that some pop fans were converted to indie. Now the mainstream only contains pop. Some of the reasons for that are even more complex than some think, while some other reasons are surprisingly simple. Too much to expand on here, you’ll have to wait for the book!

      1. That’s a really good point and is true for the 70s and 80s as well.

        The thing that got me into “proper” indie of the John Peel type was the sheer variety of musical styles that were in the Chart Show “Indie Week” top 20s which seemed to totally ignore the fashions of the day and provide something much more exciting.

        There wasn’t much of an Indie scene in Edinburgh before it became “cool” post-trainspotting, and so I was in a network of penpals who would make mix tapes for each other in case one of us missed an episode of Peel where he played something outstanding that you had to hear.

        You’d read the reviews of singled in the Meloday maker / Sounds / NME and if something sounded interesting you had to wait – sometimes for weeks until it came up on Radio or someone sent you it on a mix tape, or occasionally the review would make it sound so interesting you’d buy it on spec!

        I’ve always said that abundance dillutes appreciation – and in the modern age where you can watch and listen to a song with one click after reading the review, narrow focus radio stations where you can avoid anything outside your comfort zone and Spotify where you can listen to just about anything ever recorded without having to save up patiently to buy the CD has really taken the exitement out of music.

        Let me know when the book comes out, sounds like a cracking read!

  2. I think you make some good points about the mainstream, commercialism and the artists you mentioned(most of whom bore the arse off me) see also the slew of new ‘guitar bands’ in the mainstream seemingly designed by a marketing team Jake Bugg, Kodaline, Tom Odell . However I’m not sure ‘soul’ per say is the right word, it’s more artistry that is missing from the mainstream but that is as much a major label/music media issue as it is a specific artist issue.

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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.