INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian OCTOBER 20, 1995 - by Pat Kane
JINGLE THE OTHER ONE
Brian Eno can do no wrong. He's revered as a guru of music and art. But Pat Kane isn't taken in. To him he's the world's smoothest and most insidious chancer.
You can't lay a finger on Brian Eno. As a producer and musician, not only has he worked with the musical firmament - from Pavarotti to Bowie, from U2 to Laurie Anderson, From Bryan Ferry to David Byrne. But Eno also has his own distinct celebrity: as ideas-king of popular music. His highly-vaunted intellect is like a force-field thrown around his work, protecting it from any serious critical damage: although, as Bowie revealed in a recent interview, He cheats, you see - he often will do something and qualify it with a concept afterwards.
But it's high time Eno's ideas were taken seriously, rather than always genuflected to for their mere coherence. And when you put Eno in his context (the advice he dispenses both to right-eyed young painters, and dried-up old rockers), you discover one of the world's smoothest but most insidious chancers. For Eno's project is to provide the soundtrack, and perhaps even the logic, for 21st-century techno-capitalism; to be chief jingle-writer for the cybernetic society, soothing our resistance to the future. He's already in there, at its very heart. Tap through the icons of Windows 95 to the Sounds file, and you'll get nothing less than The Microsoft Sound by Brian Eno. Never mind the sweaty, fleshy lurchings of The Rolling Stones on the Microsoft TV campaign. This noise - like the waking murmur of an unimaginable machine intelligence; bloodless, precise, ending with a discord that hints of different menace - is what Bill Gates wants the future to sound like. To these ears, it sounds scary and inhuman.
Brian Eno might reply, No, it's ambient. Yet ambient music - the Pop Prof's undoubted contribution to modern sonic sensibilities, a genuinely influential genre - is at the core of my opposition to Eno's argument. Ambient aims to make you passive, to surrender to your surroundings, envelops you in a womb of sound. And, true to form, Eno had his justification for such nerveless stuff: I'm interested in the idea of feeling like a young child but I'm not interested in feeling like a teenager... I want experiences and art that put me in the position of innocence.
Typical egg-head bad faith: over-burdened with rational explanations for the world's workings, they yearn for blissful stupidity and the non-rational. This was part of Eno's early artistic training in the '60s and '70s, that systems and process were more important than people within them. Nowadays, in an economic system which is more than happy to encourage us to be such soft machines, manipulable and flexible to business imperatives, you'd think that smart heads would have their suspicions. But Eno is still trying to feed us this line, endlessly looking for ways to constrain his mighty intellect (and ours).
A recent Wired interview trotted out a whole litany of them, So Eno wants an electronic box that can make our cultural decisions on our behalf - offload that burden of choice-making (which is no doubt music to Microsoft's R&D department). So Eno bemoans the fact that computers don't have enough Africa in them... they use so little of my body... no African would stand for a computer like that (which sounds like - and is - the worst kind of noble savage stereotyping by fastidious white intellectuals: Eno even admits that this sounds sort of inversely racist to say).
So enough, Eno. All his ostentatious loathing of the rational intellect and its oppressiveness is totally self-contradictory: for no one's theories about what they're doing are as perfect, certain and rational as Brian Eno's. Look at the sleeve notes on his Passengers project: the very first of Eno's credits is listed as strategies, before we even get to synthesizers and mixing.
Of course, we've all heard the tales from the Bowie and U2 albums about Brian's notorious studio technique - musicians given flash cards and told to play in the style of disgruntled South American musicians, fairground barkers or neurotic ballerinas; songs constructed entirely in the studio, from sheer experimentation with sound, or the most arbitrary playing. Yet for all the seeming chaos of Eno's strategising, he always brings his projects in on time. To not meet a deadline for me is sort of an internal failure of the whole work, Eno once confessed in Wire magazine. I feel I haven't done it right. And I really expect everyone I work with to meet deadlines.
Are you beginning to see what Brian Eno is? He's actually pop culture's very own management guru: the Tom Peters of the digital sampler. Eno's attitudes to the bands he works with is a little like those fearsome re-engineering consultants that downsize large organisations. Throw out those old riffs! Make the intro the chorus! Dump those beloved instruments! Read some new theories! Asked by Wired's Kevin Kelly what advice he would give to young musicians today, Eno recommended that they work less on the internal details of what they're doing - ie trying to make timeless songs - and concentrate more on ways of positioning it in the world... thinking of where it could go and where it fits in the cultural picture - what else does it relate to? Which means, effectively, music as a string of software in an multi-media package: this is George Michael's lament, and still a relevant one for those who are more Romantic than Cybernetic about their pop music.
I doubt very much that the idea of positioning inspires very many boys and girls in their bedrooms, conditions transcended and hearts lifted by the sounds they're making. But it makes Eno very attractive to business heads in the entertainment industry. He talks the language of continuous customer research and intellectual copyright, lectures to businessmen in Brussels and plans Japanese virtual-reality theme parks. He invokes American post-political philosophers like Richard Rorty, employing his usual tactless imagery: The real Gulf war is the gulf between absolutes and relativism ... That's the real Gulf crisis (tell that to the bodies on the road to Basra). Eno is a global huckster of the most skilful kind: using art-values to shroud his deeply commercial intent. But does he produce good records?
Everytime I hear the drone of his synths, the predictably-unpredictable noises and disturbances, the sleek randomness of what he does, I just hear the elevator music of late capitalism. And wherever the rest of us are heading, be assured: Eno is always Going Up.
Ha ha ha! It would look really bad if I did.