On We

On We

Last time we met I was wittering on at some length about Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, an assessment of pop music’s obsession with its own history. Throughout the book, Reynolds expresses some discomfort about purveyors of music – and their listeners’ –  constant peering back over the shoulder towards times past.

My own assessment was, upon reading it, something along the lines of “hey, leave ‘em alone. If people want to celebrate bygone eras and beg, borrow or steal from pop’s rich archive, leave them to it.”

And, being as this was about a week ago, I generally stick by that point of view. I’m not that fickle. But a week can be a long time in the life of a bibliophile and something else has cropped up in the meantime.

I’ve just finished reading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, a dystopian novel that paved the way for the likes of Brave New World and 1984. Written in 1920-21 by Russian, it serves as a metaphor for Zamyatin’s concerns about the rise of the (relatively) newly formed USSR.

There is very little in the way of garage rock or retro-80s sounding synths in it.

Nevertheless, it did get me thinking – and re-thinking about what I’d recently written. (I’d also re-read the piece I wrote about David Hepworth’s 1971 and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle in which it looks like, at the time, I actually shared Reynold’s concern about an over-reliance on retrospection in rock – retrockspection, if you will.

We is, at its heart, a critique of tyrannical political regimes. OneState is  ruled over by The Benefactor who is regularly re-elected in sham plebiscites where the outcome is accepted – welcomed even – as a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, individuals are reduced to the status of reference numbers: D-503, O-90, I-330. They are, in fact, the opposite of individuals. They are a collective. They are we.

But it also serves as a commentary on mass production – of efficiency vs. creativity. In order to become the slickest, most efficient servants of OneState, the citizens willingly sacrifice freedom and even – for the most part – welcome the prospect of having their imaginations surgically removed.

The logic is – kind of – faultless. If you willingly offer up your freedom you will, most likely, be more productive in carrying out whatever menial chores you are given. Put it this way: who would you better trust to clean your house, fix your car, carry out a routine operation: someone entirely focussed on what they are doing or a daydreamer who interrupts their duties to consider all manner of other pursuits?

The aim – mostly unquestioned – is to become as close in temperament to a machine as possible. It’s an ambition explained through the recounting of a macabre experiment in which three “Numbers” are “given leave from work for a whole month”:

“Do as you like, go where you like. The poor things hung around the place where they usually worked and kept on looking inside with starved eyes. They would dawdle around the square and for hours at a stretch they would go through the motions that their organisms had begun to require every day at certain times…After ten days of this, they finally couldn’t take it any longer. They all joined hands, went into the water, and, in step with the March, went in deeper and deeper until the water put an end to their torment.”

Having read Retromania so recently, it made me think about attitudes towards creativity. In We, “numbers” find comfort in repetitive activity. Newness is positively discouraged. Productivity is increased the less thought goes into an activity.

Which might explain the production line approach to music that has been with us from the days of Tin Pan Alley, through Stock, Aitkin and Waterman right through to the BRIT School.

It reminds me of an art lesson I had at school once. The usual art teacher, Mr Lockey wasn’t around, so we had the technology teacher, Mr Preece sit in on the lesson. He simply asked us to draw anything. Let your imagination have complete free reign. Draw something completely original and exciting.

He was, unsurprisingly, rather disappointed with our paltry efforts.

We find comfort in looking back. And it’s very often a fantastic way of gaining an insight into the present and – potentially – how the future might pan out. Which is why I stand by my thoughts in my previous piece.

But, having read We, I’m reminded that the past is a foreign country. And maybe we should do things differently sometimes.

Towards the end of the short novel, one character – a rebel opposed to the status quo – says this:

“If throughout the universe all bodies are equally warm, or equally cool… You’ve got to smash them into each other – so there’ll be fire, explosions, inferno. And we – we’re going to smash them.”

The problem is, that smashing and exploding things requires much in the way of both inspiration and perspiration – and a lot of guts to go with it.

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