BBC Killed the Radio Star

This post was written by Guest Post on August 27, 2009
Posted Under: Culture,Music

Guest post by Thom Harrison

‘Suddenly I viddied what I had to do and what I had wanted to do, and that was to do myself in; to snuff it, to blast off forever out of this wicked cruel world. One moment of pain, perhaps, and then sleep forever and ever and ever.’

- Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange

I must be the only one reduced to the wretched fatalism of Burgess’s mind-fucked anti-hero every time a contented plebeian flicks on the wireless. Surely the opposite must be the case? Buried somewhere deep within the BBC vaults there must be some sacred propagandist text which reads: “Thou shalt not play anything remotely interesting, lest thy wish them all go a bit mental.” Heaven forbid a record should inspire more than a tap of the steering wheel and a cathartic ooh I love you baby on some greying weekday afternoon. People-carriers across the country would no doubt begin veering into traffic under the sheer existential strain of it all. “I bloody hate the school-run. Goodbye cruel world!”

Some would argue that it’s all about supply and demand. Well no, not quite – and herein lies the problem. The BBC, as we’re all aware, is a unique institution. Even the passing ease with which it can be described as such says a lot. No sane person could bestow the mantle of ‘institution’ upon something like BskyB. No: The Beeb’s Royal Charter requires it to inform, educate, and entertain – and in that order, thankyouverymuch. And, in everything from polemical journalism to kitchen-sink drama, it’s an ascetic which shines through time and time again. Why, then, should its two premier music stations generally sound as trite and as cliché-ridden as any other?

Chances are the powers-that-be are simply out of touch. Fewer and fewer people actually go out and buy music nowadays, yet the age of the legal internet download remains in its infancy. Former gospels, such as the NME, have become too financially desperate to put their weight behind anything but the most frivolous of teenage fads. Rather than having disappeared, the glib boy bands of the late 90s now seem to have been sneakily assimilated into ‘alternative culture’ to form some sort of irksome pseudo-indie hybrid. These bands don’t rise to fame out of artistic merit; mundanity itself seeks them out to satisfy as many consumer groups as possible in one numbing, tedious sweep.

BBC radio playlists often seem governed by such a tactic. One could be forgiven for assuming that the only reason the prime-time DJ collective turned up to the funeral of the late, great John Peel was to lament the loss of some cuddly old uncle figure. How else do they demonstrate their respect for the man and his achievements? With all the emotional integrity of a green energy advert by Shell, briefly sweet-talking us only to continue pumping out the same noxious sludge with reckless abandon. Every time a record by The Feeling is played, the apocalypse draws closer.

Could this simply be the inevitable echo of a mediocre music scene, or even – dare I say it – the apt reflection of rampant poor taste? With Lady Gaga, McFly and The Ting Tings having descended on to the main V Festival stages last weekend, one might imagine so (though at least these staple Radio 1 artists prove the station is daring enough to be obnoxious). The point, if true, should only heighten the need for superior public service. My complaint isn’t meant as some Daily Mail diatribe over the cost to the bleedin’ taxpayer. The problem is the apparent tacit consent between a supposedly non-commercial entity and the shameless Simon Cowell’s of this world.

The BBC should be striving to justify the renewal of the license-fee in 2013 rather than yielding to the disinterested norms of moneymaking. More than this, we urgently need to start conceiving of popular music as bone fide art – not mere ‘distraction’. Nobody should smother the cultural kernel from which truly great new music could emerge. Only the BBC, it seems sad but true, has carte blanche to be so idealistic.

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Reader Comments

Matt W

True enough of Radio 1 and Radio 2 to an extent I suppose.

But 6Music is the greatest alternative radio station in the UK (including pretty much every genre). As well as that there’s 1Extra and a few decent shows on Radio 2 (Radcliffe & Macconie, Trevor Nelson, Mark Lamaar, Bob Dylan, Janice Long).

On TV, BBC 2 and 4 still have the best documentaries, films and comedy.

If BBC One stopped broadcasting The One Show, Total Wipeout and Strictly Come Dancing wouldn’t support for the licence fee plummet to zero? I think they have to be careful, even if they do only want to broadcast improv. jazz and Ingmar Bergman films.

Good article though – interesting.

Written By Matt W on August 27th, 2009 @ 10:15 pm

I suppose there is no great difference between a corporation attempting to appeal to consumers in order to sell products, and a corporation attempting to demonstrate a service they’re providing is worth keeping. I try as hard as possible to to avoid grim acceptance of “meh… people are idiots!” To my mind BBC1+2 often limit the spectrum of genre and style to the same extent something like Fox News limits the spectrum of political discussion. There’s a box people are slowly conditioned not to think outside of.
BBC6 is, as you rightly point out, brilliant. More than that I adore the BBC on the whole. But there’s certainly a duty to educate, or even shock, people, which isn’t being fulfilled.

Written By Thom on August 27th, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

The thing is a balance needs to be struck between the BBC whoring itself out to the ephemmeral demands of a conditioned market, or, on the other hand, using public money to promote what a bunch of illuminati consider t be ‘improving’ and educational.

Written By Reuben on August 27th, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

I guess the frustrated unsigned artist in me owuld tell enlightened consumers to stop relying on the BBC or simon cowell so much. We have an odd situation here. I know that London – and probably other cities – have many brilliant minor culutral entrepruners – promoters and the like working for the satisfaction as much as the money – who are operating on a shoe string. I also know there are swathes of people who declare themselves dissatisfied with mainstream music. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a great upsurge of real, effective, support on the part of the consumers for anything that doesnt get broadcast on the major channels.

Written By Reuben on August 27th, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

excellent article btw!

Written By Reuben on August 27th, 2009 @ 11:07 pm
Matt W

I suppose that the BBC has to compete with them which means they have to imitate, to an extent, their style – X Factor etc.

You’re probably right about people being encouraged to like certain things. Programmes which are educational and accessible like Coast have been really successful though – which makes me think that people have more of an appetite for interesting/thought-provoking telly.

The recently finished serial drama The Street was apparently (my mum said) pretty good too.

I love the BBC too. It’s one of the things that make me proud to be British. They brought back Shooting Stars too!

Written By Matt W on August 27th, 2009 @ 11:15 pm

Reuben, learn to formulate all of your thoughts before clicking post. :P

I agree though, really excellent piece.

Written By Salman Shaheen on August 27th, 2009 @ 11:15 pm

Thanks! More to come..

Written By Thom on August 27th, 2009 @ 11:18 pm

I think that I was with you for most of that until you got to “More than this, we urgently need to start conceiving of popular music as bone fide art – not mere ‘distraction’. Nobody should smother the cultural kernel from which truly great new music could emerge. Only the BBC, it seems sad but true, has carte blanche to be so idealistic.” I mean, I’m probably gonna be accused here of being a crusty old Adornian who thinks that the Princeton Radio Project is the root of all knowledge, but I’m quite interested in quite how you consider popular music to be art – particularly in a context in which musically all this is pretty homogeneous (I say this as someone who has a keen interest in avant-garde music, and who thinks tonality really should have died its death a hundred years ago and it certainly has no place in “new art”, and TBH doesn’t have much to do with new music outside of the sphere of slightly silly minimalists who no-one takes seriously.) In fact, in a world in which the history of popular music has been tied to its progress as a commodity (i.e. fashion), which interestingly has its analogues in bourgeois visions of progress in machinery/capital that truly consolidate and reify the status quo rather than offering anything I would call “progress”, I am struggling to see how popular music has suddenly broken free of this. Anyway, I digress. I think there are maybe more important fights for the BBC, such as the fact that we currently get about 2 hours of new music a week on Radio3 which is broadcast at late on a Saturday night such that no-one with a life can listen, and that Radio3 has been infected with “jazz” and “world” because art music just isn’t salable enough. I think this pretty much outlines the Beeb’s attitude to art.

Written By Jacob on August 28th, 2009 @ 12:27 am
Tom B

Interesting points, but to me this all seems somewhat of a non-issue. As some of the previous contributors have pointed out, the BBC doesn’t begin and end with the flagship stations. Yes they be mainstream, but there’s plenty of alternative content for those who want it. Whether it be through the digital radio stations or specific programs, access isn’t really a problem (within reason).

I guess it all comes down to how you define public service in cultural context, for me objectivity in this regard is synonymous with snobbery. Who are we to educate what people should be listening to? The fact that Lady Gaga and the Ting Tings dominate the playlists is simply an acknowledgement that, as hard as it is to stomach, a lot of people like them.

Furthermore, if music itself is tailored to match popular tastes, what right do we have to dismiss its worth? The music industry can never truly manufacture its own market, otherwise Gary Barlow would be on his nineteenth solo album by now. The music industry is far more democratic than it first appears, reflecting rather than dictating popular culture. If the British public go out and buy the latest X factor offering every year, then who are we to say Simon Cowell has no cultural value when his output clearly means something to so many

The point is, to try to educate the masses on cultural matters is at best problematic at worst morally dubious, when the whole issue is so inherently subjective. Better to provide a diveristy of content and let people vote with their ears. If banality rules the day so be it, it doesn’t change the fact in a democratic society to deem something culturally barren in the first place can only ever be our opinion, nothing more. By definition, public service is serving the public interest, a collected rather than a singular viewpoint and the BBC must (and indeed does in my opinion) reflect this.

Written By Tom B on August 28th, 2009 @ 2:00 am

It’s interesting when it comes to music, people dodge around discussing it as if it’s akin religious conviction, or as if everyone has suddenly appropriated Nietzschean views on subjectivity. Someone could argue they prefer a Big Mac to lobster thermidor. And they’d be perfectly entitled to say so. But then a person who prefers lobster thermidor could say, well, the ingredients are quality, sustainably sourced and fresh, it’s been cooked by a chef who takes food seriously and artistically, for a small family restaurant, whereas the Big Mac is prepacked from trash ingredients, for corporate gain, stuffed with all the cheap salts and sugars that do the trick.

Anybody who wishes to argue certain music is bad, just as with food or religion, should be perfectly entitled and encouraged to do so, if they can give proper reasons. Otherwise it begins a regressive chain reaction, a big dumbing-down process.

Regarding Adorno, I’ve always found his perspective rather hypocritical, closely linked to the fact his own preference for classical music clearly precedes his theorising, and that he died before pop music really got started. On the one hand he lambasts pop, which has undoubtedly served as a source of working class/youth expression and rebellion even if it is commodified, and on the other, he prefers instead those classics which are so much more blatantly bourgeois, and I would say so much more firmly situated up in the superstructure. Making a comparison which Adorno could not have made, for instance, between Stockhausen and Aphex Twin, or between Wagner and The Clash, I think it’s perfectly obvious which artist is the more bourgeois! My view is more in line with Benjamin’s on aesthetic reproduction – there are dangers, but at the same time popular movies and arts might be the only things transient enough to keep up with modernity and therefore represent its oppressed subjects. The article is idealistic, but I’d rather encourage others to conclude “this is shit, turn it over” than myself say “people are idiots, democracy doesn’t work!”

Written By Thom on August 28th, 2009 @ 10:46 am

Aha.. just noticed you ARE actually a fan of Wagner, Jacob! I find the argument over which is actually-the-more-bourgeois, classical or pop, quite difficult to reconcile. Perhaps you have some thoughts.

Written By Thom on August 28th, 2009 @ 11:00 am

Well Adorno is pretty explicit about the relationship between bourgeois culture and art – that is, that art as we know it is an explicitly bourgeois thing, and ultimately it relies on a bourgeois version of subjectivity. The way Adorno paints it, there is this period in which both the bourgeoisie and their subjectivity persisted (throughout the late 18th and early 19th century.) Despite this art being inescapably bourgeois, Adorno sees some value in it in terms of the expression of history in material terms (he calls this truth content – and it’s pretty close to what Hegel calls objective spirit) and because of this I think we need to read Adorno as a historian as well as a theorist. And yes, there is a rather depressing conclusion that art as we know it is no longer really possible. Adorno doesn’t offer much in the way of possibilities for the future, but one can imagine his influence on the Darmstadt school as being at the very least significant if not utterly futile.

We have a similar cutting critique of Enlightenment in general. The fact that he announces “all enlightenment reverts to myth”, and considers the holocaust to be the endpoint of enlightenment thought, does not straightforwardly mean that for Adorno we should simply reject the enlightenment and all that it stood for, rather we should approach it critically (and dialectically.) The point of dialectical thought in cases such as these is to expose the contradictions inherent in what is presented as a monolith, but most certainly not to simply negate them as monoliths.

I think that you’re probably wrong on “the fact his own preference for classical music clearly precedes his theorising” – there is in fact only a single time in which I consider Adorno to write like this, and that’s the opening chapter of the Wagner book, on the social context of Wagner. At other times Adorno is more committed than pretty much anyone to examining the musical material and its relation to ideology – I am thinking here of the detailed analyses in the Mahler book, the Berg book, maybe less so in Philosophy of Modern Music. But nonetheless the one thing that this sort of musical thinking is not is frivolous or disengaged with the cultural objects.

There is no straightforward answer to these issues of popular music being either music for or music of the proletariat, but I do agree with Adorno that any mimetic content is not only undercut but informed by the form of commodity. So in answer to your question of who is more bourgeois out of Stockhausen and Aphex Twin, or Wagner and The Clash, the answer is of course the former in each case but that does not mean that the latter in any way do a good service to the proletariat, or that the former is useless in terms of informing our knowledge of society, history, or indeed future. If we are truly revolutionary in our thinking we cannot afford to fetishise the culture of the proletariat in their position within capitalist society, rather we must understand it in many cases to signify their bondage.

Written By Jacob on August 28th, 2009 @ 11:45 am

I can’t think of a more bourgeois band than the Clash, despite their protestations….

Written By MATT on August 28th, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

What about Busted? Conservative voting Surrey rich kids. Come on. You might not think the Clash are working class heroes, but let’s not slip into hyperbole.

Written By Salman Shaheen on August 28th, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

As far as I’m aware, Busted never pretended to be anything that they weren’t. Except American. Sonovadiplomat Joe Strummer banging on about white riots and knowing your rights etc then sending his kid to private school – classic bourgeois behaviour, surely? ;)

Written By Matt on August 28th, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

I don’t think it’s fair when people have a go at leftists for coming from wealthy backgrounds or having received private educations, etc, when it’s apparent people won’t generally know about those ideas unless they come from those backgrounds (which Marxists wouldn’t themselves be rubbished for ‘being bourgeois’ in that sense?! Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, a couple of others who came from humble backgrounds, but very few). If Marxists have dispelled with the material dialectic there’s no reason why they shouldn’t openly accept their position is largely moral/utopian rather than scientific… and in that sense an upper class toff may be as true a socialist as anyone – just as any chav may extremely right-wing: gangster rap, perhaps the most pro-capitalist and misogynist genre, coming from the poorest subcultures.
Busted also pretended to be cool, interesting, and talented, btw!!

Written By Thom on August 28th, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

I agree with Thom regarding having a go at leftists for coming from a wealthy background, though it’s not necessarily true that a privileged background is the only way to get access to these ideas. For generations now sections of the Labour movement have taught the traditions and ideas of Marxism to one another, and I know countless working class activists who are knowledgable about the ideas of Marx based on a non-formal education. Also, I don’t think this has much to do with materialism (which we shouldn’t dispense with!!!). You don’t have to reduce socialism to a purely moral doctrine just cos some toffs are revolutionaries and some workers are reactionary (Marx does have some stuff to say about this).
On Joe Strummer, perhaps the lyrics of (for example) White Riot, Career Opportunities and White Man in Hammersmith Palais, as well as the role he played in Rock Against Racism, are a bit more useful when judging his credentials than who his dad is.

Written By Dan on August 29th, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

my point was more about hypocrisy (and the rather odd choice of aphex twin and the clash as examples of ‘proletarian music’) than whether inherited wealth precludes a belief in socialism, because it obviously doesnt. Although i would say that it’s very easy for an upper class toff to take a ‘moral’ socialist position that doesnt actually require them to do anything about their own rather lovely status in society.

Also, i find the description of gangster rap as extremely right wing a bit weird – i certainly take your point about misogynism, but didn’t gangster rap’s emergence in the late 80s have a lot to do with the development of a non-apologetic identity and with people in the projects or wherever creating a cultural space that could not be ignored? And wasnt the obsession with money etc a result of being pretty much excluded from dominant industries (in as far as being able to make money from them) and therefore setting up alternate channels, before crossing over (like Jay Z or P Diddy) once having made the money? I suppose in the end that is right wing, but defining it like that sits oddly with me for some reason

Written By MATT on August 29th, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

(the hypocrisy being Strummer sending his kids to private school btw)

Written By MATT on August 29th, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

I wasn’t necessarily selecting Aphex Twin and The Clash as particularly proletarian artists, rather just picking two bands I like at random and weighing them up against pretty much any classical composer.
I think the gangster rap thing is down to a mixture of racial labelling and commodification. African-American culture had always, until recently, possessed firm anti-capitalist and peaceful themes. Maybe today it’s down to the middle-class white kids buying the records that, through some sort of backwards escapism, African-American culture has been reified into the violent stereotype white society once wanted it to be.

Written By Thom on August 29th, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

Certainly that conclusion doesn’t sit very well with me, either.

Written By Thom on August 29th, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

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