Thursday, October 29, 2009

Monument Park, the House of Terror, and Soviet Memory

A web exclusive for Prospect magazine, to commemorate 20 years since Hungarian independence on 23 October 1989.

After the England Writers' Team secured a satisfying 1-1 draw against the Mighty Magyars (match report here), I spent several days wandering around socialist realist theme parks, taking Communist Walking Tours, and accidentally stumbling on neo-fascist paramilitary groups honouring their nationalist heroes.

The red-and-white striped badges worn by the group were the colours of the Árpád dynasty of Hungarian kings; tellingly, the Arrow Cross party were also fond of this flag. Later that night, I returned to the statue, where a candelit vigil had begun for the execution of Count Batthyány and the 13 martyrs of Arad, the rebel generals who died with him. In attendance, along with the tattooed bikers and youths in combat trousers, were smartly-dressed middle classes. After the speeches, as the people dispersed, Árpád flags tucked under their arms, two young men gave out small slips of paper adorned with the names of those 14 icons of Hungarian nationalism.

Hyperdub 5 feature

In Guardian Film & Music on Friday. Acoustic water-cannons, voodoo rituals for Sun journalists, tonal representation of colour, the usual fun from Kode9, Darkstar, Zomby et al..

"There's a history of music, particularly dub and reggae, being described as a virus – Hyperdub is a mutation of British electronic music, infected by Jamaican soundsystem culture: from dub and reggae, through jungle, right up to grime, dubstep and funky. It's a way of thinking about how musical change and evolution takes place."

Friday, October 23, 2009

On the buses: sodcasting and mobile music culture

In response to Wayne Marshall’s excellent series on ‘Mobile Music and Treble Culture’. From the abstract:
Today most people — in the overdeveloped world, that is — have a cellphone, an iPod, a laptop on their person, much of the time. These digital devices have become, for many, the primary interfaces with sound recordings, especially in the form of mp3s, compressed music files that allow for easy circulation and storage by adding a further layer of frequency range constraint (albeit mostly out of the range of human hearing). While some bemoan the social isolation symbolized by Apple’s white earbuds, remarkably, especially among young people, these personal portable technologies also enable the sharing of music in public. It is not uncommon in major cities such as New York or London to observe a crowd of teenagers clustered around a tinny piece of plastic broadcasting a trebly slice of the latest pop hit.
So many of the developments in music technology in the era of web 2.0 is driving it to become a more private experience. While this affects everyone, it has particular resonance for under-18s: people with less private space and income at their disposal, and more of a need and evolutionary drive to be out and about developing their social skills. With a soundtrack.

But the impulse to enjoy music together is innate: it’s an integral part of what human beings are. Barbara Ehrenreich argues that dancing and playing music were vital evolutionary imperatives for early humans – it encouraged them to bond together in groups larger than that of a small family (the optimal size was about 15), and in doing so, be better prepared to ward off predators. Most studies of cave paintings indicate that collective festivity precedes the evolution of speech as a social glue.


In this context, it’s not far-fetched to argue that the public playing of trebly mp3s off mobile phones on British public transport – mostly buses, mostly in London, mostly by teenagers, often non-white teenagers – is a clear and important attempt to correct the drift away from literally millennia of human public festivity. It’s been called ‘sodcasting’ in the press a few times, which is a pretty horrible, New Labour-esque neologism. Generally, the kneejerk reactions of little Englanders have been kept to a minimum, simply because little Englanders don’t use the bus, so they’d never know these out-of-control rowdy teenagers were pissing on everyone else’s metaphorical privet hedge. A couple of socially-constipated thirty-somethings from Enfield felt strongly enough to start a Music Free Bus campaign, however:
"People think they can sit on a bus and blast music out, and when you ask them to turn it down you get the abuse, especially from teenagers. I am not surprised people do not say anything because if I saw a group of seven or eight people playing music I would not go up to them, but if TfL advertised it on the bus, we could point to the sign to show them it is not permitted."
The campaign website now appears to be down: another victory for Broken Britain, eh?

On the London buses

From my haphazard gathering of anecdotal evidence on sodcasting (if we must call it that), the comments on Wayne's blog, and my own experience of hearing everything from minimal techno to South American pop on London's buses, I’ve heard it's common on public transport from Coventry, to Bristol, to Aberdeen – though there is less evidence of the practice outside the UK, so far. It’s two joyful examples from friends in London which stand out, illustrating sodcasting as much more than just sonic territorial pissings:

Alex Macpherson on Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’, on the 277
It was years ago, on the 277, in the middle of the afternoon. Three schoolgirls obviously skiving school (hurrah), playing it off their phone, and singing it in rounds: two singing the looped sample while one did the rap, and switching for each verse. Interspersed with giggles, obviously. It was an incredible moment.
Tom Lea on Fire Camp’s ‘Forward 2’, route unclear
I was quite drunk on a night bus in north London – couldn't tell you the number for the life of me- two girls playing ‘Forward 2’ off a phone (the one with Bruza, Kano and JME on it), and I sung the Bruza verse with one of them. In case you had any doubt, its not just a London ting, in fact it was more prevalent up north when I was at uni, but because it's Scotland they played hard house, bonkers, trance et al.

Recently I was on the overland from Cambridge Heath to Seven Sisters, and some girl played Donaeo’s ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ off her phone, to which someone who I think was her little brother exclaimed 'this song makes me want to dance right here!'. That was just quite cute.
No Bass?

Anecdotal tales of London bus-music have long pointed towards the ever-growing popularity of road-rap: Giggs’ infamous ‘Track 9’ freestyle is possibly the most sodcasted track ever (this is more guesswork on my part, do please suggest alternatives for the title). Either way, it's not really contentious to moot Giggs as the first crossover star who owes their success largely to plays on mobile phone speakers. While road-rap may hold sway on the buses now, it's grime which has the best fit for the context – clear in grime's low-bitrate, badly-mastered early incarnations, which carryied that rawness and DIY energy of punk, as Alex Bok Bok and I argued in our Bloggariddims post:
Tracks like the insane, taut Ruff Sqwad anthem R U Double F – one of the few vocal tracks we've included [in the mix] – is a 64kbps, straight-off-Limewire, never-released work of genius. It's an mp3 dubplate, and the grooves have been battered into submission by repeated compression: we've included many low-bitrate tracks in this mix, because for us fucked-up sounding mp3s were a massive part of listening to music from this era.
Grime suits mobile phone speaker technology, or lack thereof, perfectly. The glorification of treble culture in grime reached a peak of forthrightness with the Slix Riddim 'No Bass', rinsed by the likes of Ruff Sqwad, Bossman, and scores of mobile phone DJs throughout 2005/6. Does grime need bass weight to back its beef? Let’s ask Chronik about that:

Chronik - No Bass riddim

Sodcasting may 'fucking annoy' more private souls, but it’s so much more than anti-social territorialism. The Metropolitan Police have just announced that actually, yes, they will be unashamedly, explicitly targeting black music in London, leaving its fans marginalised into the private sphere by technology on the one hand, and the authorities on the other. In this context, sodcasting represents a vital, politicised re-socialisation of public culture, through the collective enjoyment of music; an agency of human interaction so ancient that it predates speech.

Edit: In my haste to post this, I forgot to mention Owen Hatherley's post on the subject from last year. He lauds this same idea of young people attempting to recover the public space that they've been alienated from - a strike back against privatisation which also comes up in the conclusion to Hatherley's 'Militant Modernism'. I missed the Militant Dysphoria event, and haven't read The Cold World yet, so I've only a few blog posts to go on, but isn't this assertive re-engagement with the public sphere, this flag-planting in the increasingly private terrain of public transport... isn't this entirely contrary to the idealised retreat-from-view of militant dysphoria? This comes back to my confusion about how dysphoria can be rendered militant in the first place, I need a good explanation of why the phrase is not oxymoronic. Any links gratefully appreciated.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Panic on the streets of Dalston; cardiac arrest on the streets of Boro

Dalston Sainsbury's were giving away free panic alarms to all of their customers today.

I feel like maybe there's a point to be made there about the inextricable and mutually self-propelling drivers of fear and consumerism in late capitalist society.

But it's almost too easy, really.

On Teesside dysphoria is medicated with protein:

'The parmo goes national' on the Observer food blog

The 'Meat Feast Parmo' I ordered for £6.50 consisted of a chicken escalope marginally smaller than a satellite dish, deep fried in breadcrumbs, covered in béchamel sauce and melted cheddar cheese, and then topped with pepperoni, bacon, more cheese, and ladles of creamy garlic sauce. The one bit of protein the parmo does not seem to contain is parmesan.

This extraordinary beast of a late-night 'snack' is served with a mountain of chips and the most sarcastic portion of salad you've ever seen in your life. I ate a third of it with gusto, paused, came up for air, and suddenly felt quite ill.