A decade ago it was fashionable to be concerned that the future was on hold. Where were the flying cars and gleaming cities we had been promised? People worried that culture was increasingly trapped in its own past, awash with reissues and remakes. In contrast to most of the 20th century, very little in the world of music or cinema felt radically new. We seemed to have lost the will even to imagine any challenging way forward.
But this wasn’t because the future had stopped. Technology was simply delivering it in a shape that seemed undramatic. We have come to think of the instant availability of nearly everything as an inevitability, yet what streaming platforms such as Spotify offer, with YouTube as vast, scrappy backup, is historically remarkable. And of course it feels liberating. But aren’t there downsides to a centralised omni-archive? And, post-pandemic, where might pop culture – all culture – end up? Will it still be recycling the past, or will we once more be assailed with styles, sounds and visions hitherto undreamed of?
One problem is that revenue streams have cratered for individual artists: even before Covid, uselessly tiny slices of the royalty pie were all most creators received. We saw musicians falling back, when they could, on all year-tours, reunions and album recreations (until the year of the pandemic, when live performance also vanished). The market for the new remains grim. The pandemic may be beaten back, but a great cultural die-off threatens, targeting not just musicians but standups, actors, poets and more.
But if the arts are struggling, they’ve also never been in such demand. Mental comfort has mattered greatly of late, the safest past always the more soothing option. And so we spent 2020 joining LP listening parties or streaming old classics late into the night. As the algorithms clatter they can now and then nudge you into the more unexpected reaches of the familiar. But algorithmic curation is also so very limiting: each new pass through the already popular nudges you back towards the safely mainstream.
The culture industry is pretty happy with this as the status quo. In a glut, all prices fall – and the cultural past is a glut that can’t run out. It’s paid for, it’s easy to harvest, and the streaming machines can feed off it forever. Its size fills out the attention space and its solid hum reduces novelty to a sterile squeak. Once upon a time, self-respecting avant garde artists, such as those within dada and punk, could just walk away from consensus practice, the better to plot to one day overthrow it (maybe). But refusing to cooperate with the culture industry, as musician-activist Terre Thaemlitz has long urged, can risk artists being wiped completely from its platforms and, therefore, from memory.
So what should those who want to break away from the past do? One option is for them to self-fund via subscription, to become the curators and bosses of their own individual sound-empires, via Bandcamp, Patreon, GoFundMe, OnlyFans and more. The punter stumps up directly and the creator promises to remain at once productive and different. The price is a pitiless schedule, siloed away from peers and foes. No engagement with rivals, no community.
But cultural communities matter. Creative collision is the spur for new sounds and shapes. The bars, the venues, the letters-pages of defunct music magazines such as Jockey Slut or Terrorizer are all gone – yet one thing the future has always fostered is curious new species of community. There are Twitch streams where professional and amateur gamers play to publics and pals, with spectators populating the comment threads. The money still flows in gaming, and so do the user-led arguments: “Update any good? Why this dumb song here?” The music is mostly soundtrack – cartoon sound effects, moods borrowed from movies – but any characteristic that commenters can identify is one that can become a lively joke or meme.
And here, working from home at the core of the everything-machine, is an energised mass of bolshie millennial screenworkers, militantly unproductive, some now two decades online and always pranking. Sometimes there’s been a politics to what they do and sometimes it’s an evil politics – but as often it’s just coping with a world of “bullshit jobs”, tech dystopia and climate catastrophe. Into such corners of the internet crept an inspired new art form: Weird Twitter, so-called, from @horse_ebooks, with its charming spam poetry, to @dril, the great comic character of our age, confused, belligerent, ever-thwarted, never edited. It’s as if the algorithms have come alive and are poking fun at us in a language we don’t quite get.
The music that intensifies this evolves in the same collective space. Recall April 2020, and that delirious TikTok video of the dancing Ghanaian pallbearers, now forever yoked to the Russian EDM track Astronomia – a mocking invocation of death that’s also a celebration of life, an unexpected ambush of an emotion at once complex and cathartic and proliferating.
TikTok’s freedoms may not last, and any one meme can be monetised and ruined as copyright laws smother creative conversation, yet the thriving energy of these myriad unpaid collisions remains. Every pre-existing fragment is multiply repurposed to be extremely weird – this was the future that was being overlooked in 2010. Of course we can’t know what the 2020s will bring. But as long as every app’s update renders the internet more broken, all this too will survive, as glitching parasites in the flow. And so – as long as the machines remain connected – will we, exhausted and baffled and unbowed.