The phrase ‘Music and Nationalism’ appears on the front cover of this issue because, by coincidence, several of the articles within provide (or imply) perspectives on the subject. This was not planned – although I welcome it – and I daren’t say too much about the matter because I don’t want to get in the way of Patrick Zuk’s erudite essay on page 5. But while we are in the domain of passionate causes, I would like to draw readers’ attention to a recent Hot Press interview with Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo – the book that is termed ‘the bible for anti-corporate militancy’. It is a well documented fact that Irish culture is feeling the pressure of the free market – and often succumbing – but on reading No Logo you could feel that we haven’t even begun to see the half of it.
Anyone who has read or is aware of this book must be impressed at how it is sitting at the top of the bestseller lists and being stacked high in bookshops. Sit on trains and see students reading it, call to bookshops and witness shop assistants loaded down with copies. It is a notable sign of the disdain that is growing for the ideologues and policy makers who have abetted the implementation world-wide of a narrow economic definition of the human being. The detail into which Klein goes to expose the consumption of our public and mental space is astounding. We never realised we had it so bad.
Klein was born in 1970 in Montreal, Canada, and she says she can ‘remember a time where ads were hitching a ride on our culture, were interrupting our culture. And now, we’re brand content. We are inside the brand. And I feel like I was, you know, [aged] 18, 19, 20, 21 when that shift happened. And that’s why I wanted to write the book… because I knew that it was a really amorphous shift….’ Klein outlined what she sees as the result of this change:
Branding is based not on the idea that we want these products so badly, it’s based on the idea that we want more than them. We want meaning. We want poetry, we want philosophy. We want all these things that we can’t get from these products. And they’re things that we used to get elsewhere… we used to get them from having more of an intellectual, artistic, public life, where philosophers and artists and intellectuals and politicians and religious leaders did speak to us in the language of ideas and meaning in our lives. And brands are opportunists. They fill that vacuum… You know, to live in a culture like ours is to live in a constant state of longing. There’s the promise everywhere of transcendence. And then you get home, and all you have is the stuff.
Is this not intriguing? It may be old news to many, but we need people like Klein who can articulate it so as to be astonished by this situation anew. Recently I was reminded of these comments when in a second-hand bookstore. I picked up a 1986 copy of the Irish journal Studies and in large bold print on the front cover was the theme of the issue: ‘Towards a New Irish Identity’, it read. Hah! Who would be so naive as to engage in such a debate these days when we could simply have some prattle about the economy!
But what happened – if Klein’s instincts are correct – when she was aged ‘18, 19, 20, 21…’, i.e. late 1980s, early 90s, such that our ‘intellectual, artistic, public life’ died. The end of the Cold War? The rise of turbo-capitalism? I was much the same age myself at the time so I am not the objective observer who could explain all this, but the signs of this change are widely noted.
The success of Klein’s book is alluring. As one of the review quotes inside reads, ‘it seems unbelievable that No Logo was written before the “Battle of Seattle”’ People sense the new claustrophobia and identify with its critics. It occurred to me after reading the Klein interview that one other curious success story of the last few years could equally be as a result of the situation Klein documents. The Welsh-born singer/songwriter David Gray (also born in 1970) has often been my companion late into the night when trying to finish off an issue of JMI. His first album, Century’s End (1992), was picked up by a couple of discerning Irish DJs in the early 1990s and by the end of the decade he was filling the Point Depot in Dublin solo. This is only curious when you consider that there was little or no major label promotion behind him. His success in Ireland has been essentially driven by word of mouth. There is an anger in Gray’s singing, but he has no simple solutions, no airtight conclusions – he just seems to articulate the struggle. It seems that, for a generation who grew up thinking that Dylan and the Beatles said it all and that they would have to continually borrow their parents’ heroes, the appeal of people like Klein and Gray who, it could be said, are capturing in music and words something distinctive about this particular era, is huge.
The ‘No Logo’ struggle is one in which music and art are important elements. In theHot Press interview Klein articulates just one of the dilemmas facing artists:
What bothers me most is the lack of bargaining. I think that almost all artists go to sponsors with cap in hand, with a feeling of: we couldn’t do what we do without you. Instead of recognising that they, the companies, couldn’t do what they wanna do, without YOU. Right? It’s a two-way street. Instead, there’s a powerful sense that you have to roll over for whatsoever the demands are, which is why the brand becomes the infrastructure, and then the art, the music, whatever, is the brand content.
Since reading No Logo I can find myself taking a deep breath when I hear a corporate sponsor fawned over at an event, musical or otherwise. Indeed, I nearly choked on my mince pie when I saw a picture of bright-faced young musicians in the papers over Christmas. A caption underneath said they were members of the ‘Toyota National Youth Orchestra of Ireland’, which is not its title as far as I know, but such is the pervasiveness of Toyota’s sponsorship programme, obviously, that the photographer taking down notes could not even tell the difference.
‘No Logo’ says it all.