Pop has substituted 'newness' for innovation

Just because an artist is newly signed or newly promoted on the radio, it doesn’t mean that their music is reaching beyond formulas that are already in place.

Retromania is easy to spot. Simon Reynolds coined the term to lambast the current state of popular music. He claims that "Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once".
 
Evidence is all around us. The NME is now promoting the ‘1990s Renaissance’, while this year’s biggest two hits have gone beyond retro and into the world of homage: Daft Punk’s 'Get Lucky' wears its debt to Chic in the most obvious manner, while Robin Thicke’s 'Blurred Lines' is caught up in a copyright infringement case with Marvin Gaye’s estate. One recent example that stood out to me came in the review of the latest Arctic Monkeys album AM in Q magazine. They praised Alex Turner for "citing relatively modern influences: Dr Dre and the processed 'ex-girlfriend' R&B of Aaliyah".
 
Relatively modern? Aaliyah died in 2001 and Dr Dre blueprinted his production techniques with The Chronic, an album that was released in 1992. If sounds made 20 years ago are still considered up-to-date, this is as damning for R&B as it is for indie music. And there is evidence that the rate of progress is slowing down. The 20-year time period from 1953-1973 encompassed a whole cycle of popular music, from the rock ‘n’ roll of Sun Records to the post-modernism of Roxy Music. The period from 1973-1993 saw another turn of the wheel, encompassing punk, post-punk, hip-hop, synth-pop, house music, drum and bass, et al. The period from 1993-2013 has encompassed, well, what exactly?
 
There’s certainly been much talk of newness. As a consequence, innovation and originality should also be easy to spot. Unfortunately, 'new' has become one of the most loosely and overused words in popular music. The term is most problematic when used to justify programming policies or the supposed altruism of the music industry. BBC Radio 1 uses the banner "in new music we trust", and I’ve heard its DJs state that they are fans of 'new music', as though this were a genre. Meanwhile, record companies have used the fact that they are investing money in ‘new’ music as a means of justifying punitive recording contracts and (in a previous life) the high cost of CDs.
 
The difficulty with all of this, as Simon Reynolds is well aware, is that just because an artist is newly signed or newly promoted on the radio, it doesn’t mean that their music is reaching beyond formulas that are already in place. In fact, it is the backward-looking nature of so many newly signed acts that makes retromania seem such a virulent strain. Although it wouldn’t necessarily win them any listeners, a more admirable slogan for Radio 1 would be 'in modernism we trust'. Record companies, too, would be more likely to win sympathy if they were to apply modernist criteria: to search for artists who push boundaries, who play with form, who might even dare to be unpopular.
 
Instead, what radio and record labels are excelling at is nowness. Like any dominant ideology this can be hard to detect when you are living in its midst. And yet every pop era has it – a way of producing records, a way of singing songs, a lyrical focus, an adoption of technology – that is absolutely its own. Although I agree with Simon Reynolds' thesis that this is an era in which retro abounds, I don’t agree with him when he says that "the pop present [has become] ever more crowded out by the past". 2013 might not be bursting with radical innovation, but it certainly has a prevailing aesthetic.
 
Or, rather, it has a number of prevailing aesthetics. It also has something that helps us to spot these different types of nowness: market segmentation. This is an era in which different tastes are identified and catered for. In an earlier post I mentioned the changing demographics of popular music consumption: in the UK in 1976 over 75% of all records were bought by 12-20 year olds; this can be contrasted with last year when 13-19 year olds accounted for just 13.8% of the music purchased on the internet. In 2012 the largest market share belonged to 35-44 year olds, but each age bracket between 13 and 64 was fairly similar, ranging between 11% and 20% of the market. One effect of this is that to have a truly big hit you have to appeal to each of these age groups, hence the success of an album such Adele’s 21 or the pan-generational dancing that 'Gangnam Style' occasioned. The reverse is that each age group is segmented, targeted and marketed.
 
This can be witnessed most clearly at the BBC. Back in the 1970s, when record buying was dominated by the tastes of teenagers, radio followed suit. Simon Frith has written of the oddity that, although the majority of Radio 1’s daytime listeners were older people, tuning in in "factories and shops, on building sites and motorways", what they were listening to was chart music centred on teenage consumption. The compromise reached by the BBC was that, although their playlist was based on the charts, they would "select from within each genre the easiest-to-listen-to sounds: […] easy listening punk, easy listening disco, easy listening rock".
 
Things are different now. Radio 1 has a brief to alienate older listeners. In the words of the station’s music policy director, Nigel Harding, they do this by analysing "the age of the artist’s primary audience. We always try our best to select tracks that are truly relevant to our core demographic of 15-29 year-olds".
 
They are successful at it too. I am now safely outside Radio 1’s demographic and I find most of its broadcasting unlistenable. It’s not that I don’t like the songs; it’s the overall sound of the station that is ill-matched with my taste. To tune is to receive the shock of the now.
 
Richard Osborne is a lecturer in Popular Music at Middlesex University. His book Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record was published by Ashgate in 2012. His music blog is available at http://richardosbornevinyl.blogspot.co.uk/
Daft Punk arrive at the MTV Video Music Awards August 25, 2013 at the Barclays Center in New York. Photograph: Getty Images.
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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge