I D É E S   F O R T E S    Issue 1.03 - July 1995

Beyond the Face

By Mark Fisher

There are two ways of responding to music. For those plugged into Jungle, raggamuffin reggae, Techno and neo-Acid, it is an intensive libidinal pulse made up of bleeps, drones and decontextualised chants. It's immersive, impersonal, clandestine - a matter of heat and energy. For those at the rock-and-roll circus, it's also about guitars, songs, stars and names - and thus almost inevitably about packaging and marketing as well.

Whatever their musical merits, Blur, Elastica, Suede and other traditional rock bands have an overwhelming appeal for the music industry itself. They provide a package it can sell - a band which plays conventional instruments live, a band which can tour, a band which can have its picture on the record cover, a band which can support a fan club. At a time when electronic music is sweeping through youth culture, it's only conspicuously nostalgic rock revivalists who conform to these requirements. Jungle, Techno and hip-hop are not "played" or "performed" but programmed. The new conditions of production have rendered obsolete the very idea of a pop group - four more people, who, like the loveable mop-tops of old, have their own instrument to play. The demise of the group leaves the music industry with nothing - nothing to see, no performance to film, no act to stage and therefore nothing to sell.

The industry has been in allergic reaction to electronic music since the emergence of house at the end of the '80s. Both the music industry and the music media dismissed the advent of Acid house, hip-hop and sample- based music in 1986 and 1987 as a blip which would disappear once musical traditions reasserted themselves. At best, electronic music was thought of as a new style, a new way of doing the same old things. But it's becoming increasingly obvious that 1986 and 1987 mark as significant a shift as the events of 1956 and 1957; a shift not just in musical style but in the paradigms of what music is.

Normal service will not be resumed.

It is more than just a put-down to describe electronic music as "faceless". Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari argue that the idea of face underpins the western ideal of what it is to be human, to be individual.

Outside the West, face is an irrelevance. Voodoo is a big riff in Jungle music (cited in song titles, referenced in film samples) because its pagan emphasis on dis-possession - the loss of face, as opposed to white western self-possession - fits the feral intensities of the new post-humanist universe.

Rock-and-roll flirted with voodoo, too. (Remember Jimi Hendrix playing "Voodoo Chile"?) But unlike rock-and-roll, electronic music really is faceless. It has no stars, and it has a real chance of continuing as facelessly as it has begun. Rock-and-roll started as an eruption of verbal tics, bodily twitches and black idiom. That its mutant energies were eventually captured and brought into the mainstream was largely because the dissemination of music then was utterly dependent upon a whole series of mediating agencies - each of which had an in-built conservative agenda.

What's different about the new electronic musics, what makes them less susceptible to cultural capture, is their relationship to the means of production. New technologies have made every level of music making - from writing through to recording and pressing - far easier and far more widely accessible than they were in the past. So while rock remains staid, dependent upon the old mechanisms of recording, touring, fan clubs and star profiles in the music press, the new electronic musics replicate themselves via independent circuits - pirate radio, specialist shops, clubs. They bypass the mass media altogether. Instead they inhabit a parallel universe, occasionally flickering into the view of the media-scanning system, but mostly developing quietly according to their own immanent rules. In invisibility lies freedom.

The music business has typically operated as a regulatory mechanism, siphoning off the energies of emergent subcultures and repackaging them in terms of existing culture and existing social structures. There can be few sadder sights than a rapper on MTV trying to pretend that he still speaks with the voice of the ghetto. But electronic music is no longer dependent upon the whims of middle men. Direct markets are beginning to replace the machinations of corporate control. With the prospect of music being traded freely on the Net, sidestepping even distribution networks and retailers, things can only get even more runaway.

So-called dance music has always been interactive: a reciprocal exchange between DJs, musicians and dancers (who are often the same people). The dance-floor is a market research experiment, not a performance; an immersive advertisement for itself, not a spectacle. Faces don't matter, only sensations.

In 1976, punk destroyed a whole generation of progressive rock dinosaurs overnight. But the rock dinosaurs so beloved of the British music press today aren't even the obese monstrosities that the punks loathed. These new-old bands are not progressive rock, but what music journalist Simon Reynolds has called "regressive rock".

Now, in 1995, a cyberpunk critical mass is coalescing, preparing to eat regressive rock alive. And it's not only a matter of musical style now: it's about a whole new way of consuming, producing and selling culture. These unnaturally born killers are replacing live music with undead digitalised voodoo, human beings with replicant becomings and stars with impersonal flows of rhythm and information.

They're coming for you. Prepare to lose your face.

Mark Fisher is a student of electronic culture.