The absence of intros
Writing from somewhere in the middle
The Welsh punk band Surreal Kinnock opened their 2019 track Tribal Fusion in the most austere terms possible. A spoken-word voice twice repeats the phrase ‘this is just an intro’. I’ve wondered if this is a knowing nod to the listener. In the context of streaming platforms intros are thought to get in the way of retaining the easily-distracted listener. The delay of the intro is both a luxury and a risk. Amongst the abundance of choice, the intro is something to be bypassed in order to manage the attention of the streaming consumer. Surreal Kinnock are highlighting, maybe inadvertently, the absence of intros.
Having said that, the shortening of intro’s as a result of the imperatives of streaming has been talked about for some time. The reduction of the opening of a track to no more than 5 seconds is one idea that has been circulating for at least 4 or 5 years. Amongst the music industry and musicians it is commonly conceded that streaming has led to the shortening or even the complete removal of intros. The song that goes straight into a chorus is the archetypal product of the structures and logic of streaming.
You can see why. Pop music has always been about hooks and it has always adapted to formats. The three minute pop song being suited to one the side of a 7” record is one obvious illustration that usually gets a mention, there are others - at one time I remember songs being designed to work as polyphonic ring-tones when such a thing was a fashion and when the music industry was particularly driven to replace its lost revenues. The adaptation of music to the format is likely to be taken to its extremes when the listener can easily switch between so many options. The auto-play of the next song is always there. And so the intro is likely to be seen as an obstacle - it's destiny might be solely as a marker of resistance or an overt countercultural statement.
If you listen to discussions with musicians on podcasts, of which there are many that seek to uncover the details of the music business and the experiences of being a musician, it is often the case that they notice this type of pressure to shorten their intros but will indicate that they try to resist that temptation or just simply choose to make their own styles of music irrelevant of the conditions. Whatever their position they will nearly always acknowledge that, despite their own practices, there is a general trend away from the intro. In an attention economy the intro is something to be avoided. The intro is regarded as a nothing space, an attention-void, in which the risk of a click-away is heightened. There is a constant sense of risk that is brought about by the abundance of culture and its ready accessibility. There is always more culture instantly at hand. On-demand culture brings a fear of losing the consumer if they have to wait for something gripping. In TV the placing of credits several minutes into the episode and accompanying it with an option to skip is probably part of the same reflex.
This change is often difficult to detect for the listener. Pop music has long tried to get into the meat of the song fairly quickly. The intro served as a bridge into the track, and that bridge was often quite short anyway. More footbridge than suspension. The footbridge is shortening further, at least that is the suggestion.
Beyond music, this absence of intros can be applied to writing too, but in very different forms and in surprising places. The London Review of Books is usually understood to be a beacon of slow culture, quite different from the music that might seek to shorten its intros to get more listens. Steady, considered, not afraid to allow space for lengthy and detailed reflection. The LRB could even be thought of as the opposite of such cultural trends toward instantaneity. Yet the absence of intros can perhaps be found there too, just for very different reasons.
Listening to one discussion between members of the LRB editorial team, there was some reflection on how opening paragraphs might be cut. This came up after a question from the floor was asked about Frank Kermode's approach to introductions (the question came at 59 minutes into the podcast). The questioner noticed that it felt like Kermode assumed the reader knew what was going-on and so dropped them straight into the discussion, leaving out any exteraneous pathways into the review. In response to the question, you can hear the panel slightly hesitate in their response. They are clearly taken with the idea that the introduction can be bypassed and that Kermode opened his reviews without the need to set-things up. The question leads to some genuine off-the-cuff reflection on the practice of avoiding an intro.
These are clearly very different currents, but the absence of the intro can be found under discussion here too. It would seem that its absence does not, necessarily, equate with a speeding-up of culture, with managing attention or with a loss or subtraction of content. It can be a productive thing.
This is not the only exploration of writing minus introductions. Picking up on a point made by Perry Anderson in a review of his books, Adam Tooze reflects on his own lack of intros. In that review Anderson concludes that Tooze writes “in medias res”. Tooze responds:
‘Anderson is right. I generally prefer a narrative mode that plunges you in to the middle of things, rather than beginning at the beginning. The in medias res approach is more engaging. It catches the reader’s attention from the start because they have to scramble to orientate themselves. It is also more transparent in its artifice.’
The question is where to start to make the most of the narrative and to frame its presence. Like the musician going straight into the song, Tooze acknowledges this is a mechanism aimed at capturing the reader's attention. Yet it doesn't seem to come from the fears of being exposed to the rapid circulation of the attention economy. It is more about the provocation of the imagination through leaving out an easy opening and because the reader then has to find their own orientation. Landing a song in a chorus doesn’t necessarily do the same thing, it might do the opposite, it might provide an immediate and predetermined orientation.
The absence of intros is not a trend I’m pointing toward, this is more a reflection on the role that intros perform and the tactics that might be behind their inclusion, exclusion or length. I ended up writing this piece as I struggle to write the introduction to a book chapter. The intro was spiralling, almost to the extent of being a stand-alone piece in its own right. I seem to have done the opposite of writing in media res, I’m starting before the beginning. Can I perhaps cut out the introduction all together and write from somewhere in the middle? The music industry, the LRB (and Frank Kermode) and Adam Tooze might encourage me to do so, but for very different reasons.
Recently I was interviewed by Jay Lloyd for the The Ongoing Transformation podcast. The interview went live this week - it’s available from this link and on the usual podcast apps. We discussed the power of classification, algorithms, streaming and social media memories. We also close with some thoughts on researching platforms and social media.