"So much that is familiar is being declared the 'new' thing by the record industry, the advertising industry and the mainstream media, anything that is truly unfamiliar and moving forward is more neglected than ever before," laments Paul Morley in Maddy Costa's article in today's Guardian about the seeming exhaustion of contemporary pop music. We're in a world, Costa concludes, where "originality is viewed with suspicion, radicalism has been subsumed by the mainstream, and bands are happy to churn out facsimiles of facsimiles of original pop" for a conservative public.
Critic Jon Savage agrees: "Music has lost its futuristic edge," he says. Paul Morley thinks the collapse of confidence in originality and the future happened during the Britpop era. "Instead of music having an idealistic need to create a future, to change things and have enough optimism to believe that could happen, it has ground to a halt."
Where this article ends (with directions to the internet) is where I begin. I've basically stopped expecting the mainstream media -- the music press, newspapers, or whatever -- to give me any good leads whatsoever on music. And to some extent, I must admit, this has led to me paying less attention to pop music, which seems to have become a conservative "repertoire" medium relying increasingly on interpretation of its canon, just like classical music.
This is why I talk so much about the art world these days. The kind of originality I once got from people's albums I now only get from art shows. That's where I get a sense of daring, of creative risk-taking, of freshness.
I still love some music. Last night I went to see Fan Club Orchestra at Zentrale Randlage. The last time I saw this Belgian "orchestre philharmonok" I was amazed how few people came. "I looked around," I wrote in late 2005. "There were only about thirty people... I reflected again on the paradox that I both enjoy and deplore this kind of emptiness and deadness, the failure of the public to respond to things I think are utterly wonderful. On the one hand I like to be in a big empty theatre with my favourite band. On the other, I wonder why on earth they provoke so little interest."
Well, this time things had got worse. Or better. There were about ten people in the audience, including the band's label (Sonig) and labelmates (Jason Forrest). It was great to be able to lounge on comfy sofas and have an unrestricted view of the stage, but you couldn't help wondering where the Berlin music fans were -- the people in this city who know stuff, who love originality, who seek out the fresh and the new.
I came away from the show with a treasure-bag of new records by the (somewhat estranged, since the split of Scratch Pet Land) brothers Baudoux: some vinyl of the last Fan Club Orchestra record, and CDs of the new solo records by Sun OK Papi KO (that's Laurent, leader of Fan Club Orchestra, the one in the picture with me) and DJ Elephant Power (that's Nicolas, seen scratching au naturel in the video below).
These records sound like cartoon electronic African tribal music, Sun Ra with a Gameboy. They sound original to me. That's why I love them. They sketch out a possible future in which music sounds jumpy and warm, a kind of new jazz made of improvisation and editing, and in which a kind of wrongness gradually charms us into thinking it's right.
The thing about the truly new is that it initially sounds ugly and wrong, and only later begins to make sense to us -- not because it gets less radical, but because it changes our criteria of what "right" is by the fact of its energy and charm.
Less and less music sounds charmingly ugly and wrong in this sense (the Guardian rightly mentions Grime), and even the idea that it could be important to sound ugly and wrong doesn't seem to occur to musicians. They're more interested in copying the already-legitimated sounds of the past, and taking shortcuts to pre-established forms of "rightness".
What's most worrying is that we don't hear musicians saying what Thomas Hirschhorn said in the video interview I linked to yesterday: "Sometimes I feel ridiculous or stupid facing my own work. But I think I have to stand out this ridiculousness." I think he means "ride it out", or go with it, or accept it as a condition of originality; energy might take us towards the new, whereas quality will only return us to established values.
It was also interesting to hear Justin Lieberman quoting Jean Cocteau: "Art produces ugly things which occasionally become beautiful with time, whereas fashion produces beautiful things which inevitably become ugly with time". It's the crucial importance of the future-oriented energy of awkwardness -- the ugly duckling syndrome -- which musicians and their audiences seem (and it's worrying for the medium) to have forgotten, for the moment.
Whilst few would disagree that mainstream music has lost its forward motion ( file under progressive indeed) this idea that you keep promoting that somehow the artworld is better is jsut laughable. Being relaively new to it you are like a child in a new toy shop, not yet perhpas wise enough to see how much of it has all been done before; how much just as with contemporary popular music is a re-hash. Artforum and Frieze are hardly challenging or marginal, these are the Q Magazines of the artworld, funded by the big gallery advertising, themsleves kept afloat by the mega rich, be it old money from dubious sources or fat city bonusses.
great post! short, sweet, and bang-on. I understand the Hirschorn quote today (didn't quite get it yesterday).
I love Laurent's t-shirt! I hate to run right back to fashion right away, but that nifty little garment is brilliant: it highlights the backward marginality of Canada's tourist icons (maple leaves, beavers, cowichan sweater stitching) and simultaneously makes them look fresh, young and international. (I'm Canadian, by the way).
It is a wonder that the brothers Badoux are so underexposed. Not sexy enough for the magazine scene, I suppose -- even the little ones. They're too cute and friendly for modern electro-pop fans who like edgy provocateurs like CSS and MIA, not serious enough for drone or noise or electro-acoustic fans, not hip-hop enough for beat savants, and the rock crowd (even as miscegenated as it is) is just out of the picture. They're also a little too prickly and European for people who dig the watery digital psychedelia of Animal Collective and their recent solo projects (or The Boredoms, for that matter). So...art crowd only!
i feel like in a way i am to close to this music to properly comment on the post here, but yeah i agree that a) dj elephant power &co are fantastic, and b) that the most interesting or vital music seems to be far away from mass marketed pop mainstream land.
although, i do think it is too easy to say that interesting music is from the past only - sure the raincoats are a recent discovery for me, and i think only made sense to me after being into maher shalal hash baz. but part of the allure of "old" music is that it is easily defined, you know the story already. i was fascinated a while back when nick blogged about disques d'crepescule because the whole history of the scene was so accessable through the design history.
which is in a way too neat, i think it is healthy that there are (eg) noise bands out there carefully making their own massive discographies and weird ephemera available in tiny editions to their friends. famous for 15 people...
in the same way that art student crews might be similar the world over, but can still be a whole world for those involved. if you have loads of friends having shows, maybe you don't need to frieze magazine. i think hype is less likely to lead to interesting art/music than personal exchanges and enthusiasms.
there are a few times i've been travelling etc, and from only knowing what's going on through outsider idea's of there being a particular scene there, i've totally ignored loads of other interesting stuff (only to belatedly find out about it and curse) in search of some quasi-mythical scene...
"The thing about the truly new is that it initially sounds ugly and wrong, and only later begins to make sense to us -- not because it gets less radical, but because it changes our criteria of what "right" is by the fact of its energy and charm".
Yes, although I hate turntablism the video was nice. But I still hate baseball hats, so the cover artwork of that cd is not so "fresh"...to me. All of this post-pre-post-ironic stuff is not new to me or all that wow inspiring (irony being simply irony in the end), if that is what is happenning with that; although I don't know what I am talking about maybe, or do I? On a truly serious note: Nick, I would love to still make more new colorful musicalia with you if you promise not to pull out your turntables for anything other than listenning to an album. Not too serious afterall, but let's make anew. NOW. love, John FF
We've currently used up all the potential novelty of our available technology. The last thing we had was digital editing (stuttering, micro-editing) which we could argue was explored fully by 2000 or 2001. It was just so much easier back in the 60s, 70s and 80s. You went from 4-24+ tracks in that period. You had a steady stream of new effects pedals, synthesizers, drum machines, samplers, digital reverb. We've left the period of originality and entered the period of democracy. The technology focus is now exclusively on bringing formerly high dollar items to bedroom-bound teenagers.
Since im studying digital processing in grad school right now, I can say that you are kind of right about digital techniques, most were developed during the 60-70s. Processing techniques that are originally just in avant-garde electronic music take a while to get into pop music (like 5-10 years) and the avant-garde electronic music of today is developing SOME new techniques, but there is less ground-breaking innovation.
since im pretty detail orientated - while writing music i tend to make sure everything is smoothed over and there's no mistakes, and it makes my music sterile and without energy - it completely loses the energy during inital sketches / rough drafts. I like the idea of accepting things that sound wrong at first. Miles Davis' genius was by playing completely wrong notes (as in any note he damn well pleased without much consideration for key) but each with intense feeling.
"You'd find challenging, even absurd music by PiL and The Pop Group being championed. You'd find a necessary spleen and contempt for large parts of the music of the past, and large parts of the taste of the public. These are essential parts of a "new broom" mindset that complements and facilitates original creators."
When I was 16 The Pop group were part of my extended family. What I remember about them most was that they were very brave. The good side of punk rock rock was that it inspired bravery in people. Bravery isn't valued in the current age. For bravery to be valued again people have to be brave first, and seen to be brave later.
I think Momus is mostly right about the state of pop music. But I'd caution against the idea that forward-thinking music has to be ugly, confrontational and "listener-hostile". In classical music, Debussy was at least as much of an innovator as Schoenberg was. But his sound was so sensual and seductive, listeners didn't realize what was being done to them. Music can have a friendly face and still be radical.
The idea that forward-thinking music has to be "ugly" is itself a dated way of looking at things, and reinforces the regurgitation cycle. Seems to me that to follow that dictum isn't very radical at all, given the current cultural climate that demands that everything be "in your face". In fact, I think that attitude is part of the whole rockist mindset.
I think someone had mentioned Antony and the Johnsons upthread, which is a case in point--there's little but unabashed prettiness there, and in these times that can be startling. It's Antony's strangeness, not his ugliness, that makes him a marginal creature in the "kickass" music press. Likewise, "Summerisle," one of the most beautiful albums I own, was one of the most interesting albums Nick was ever involved with. It was exhilaratingly new, but in no way ugly--and that was in part why it felt so fresh.
I would replace "ugly" with "suspicious". Ugliness no longer raises suspicion--it's been co-opted by mainstream culture.
It's that classic adventurous personality that constantly needs new experiences and challenges - most people are uhhhh, not like that. If we all were, nobody would be having children and working ye olde gears of society.
And doesn't it make you feel special you're one of the few who can appreciate these "out there" things?
<< It's that classic adventurous personality that constantly needs new experiences and challenges - most people are uhhhh, not like that. If we all were, nobody would be having children and working ye olde gears of society >>
If it weren't for the change-seekers, the stodgies would have no gears
Interesting. I feel ridiculous facing the music I make much of the time. Actually, no, loathing! Particularly when it's the kind of stuff I know other people would really like. I'm only sort of satisfied when it comes out weird and new and maybe ugly.
The problem of making new forms of music is one that occupies me, painfully, but I sometimes wonder how much it should be an intellectual problem. Probably should. I mean, Bartok and Coltrane (to mention two of my favorite - and now canonised! - b-boys) had to figure out, design and build a new home for their muse or primal creativity or whatever to operate in, before they could say 'relax, you've got the run of the house, now enjoy yourself' to it.
While it's unspeakably tedious to ape 'pre-established forms of rightness', it is of course unavoidable - leaves and branches don't sprout out of thin air - but goodness, I wish people wouldn't always go for the nearest to hand!
I've been thinking about your Japanther screed and the more I think about it the more I disagree.
First of all, I like all the stuff you mention and link to today, but it's music by and for older people who are interested in calm formal experimentation. I like it, but you and I are the intended audience.
Where is the Thanatos? And why is Thanatos always bad?
You know Thanatos is mainly the province of the young and the people who-are-not-young almost always hate it. THAT, I think, is the real basis of the Whitney Incident with Japanther. Thanatos driven music has ALWAYS pissed off people who-are-not-young and always will.
For that matter, there are plenty of formally inventive musics that are ruled by Thanatos - Jason Forrest's for a clear example. Kiiiii for another. I can go on and on. You can drink a cup of tea to DJ Elephant Power's music (and you can imagine it IN Taste of Tea) but you can't do the same to DJ Donna Summer. If you try, you'll spill tea all over yourself.
That's the power of Thanatos. And Japanther have it, regardless of what you think about them. They also sound ugly and wrong because of what they try. And formally they're pushing themselves as hard as they can. Remember that they are also playing in galleries and making art with art luminaries like Tony Oursler and Rodney Graham. You hate them because of their aggression, but isn't there a place for aggression, and doesn't it always close off access to not-young audiences?
BTW, I hate Hirschorn's writings and lectures. He's an amazing artist but he sounds stupid when he talks or writes. He not good at text, and he's a horrible critic, but he's a very good visual artist (and a very poor conceptual artist).
Paradooxically, I feel much less depressed about the state of music now than I did a few years ago. Back then, I'd almost given iup listening to new stuff as I just couldn't seem to get hold of anything interesting. Thanks to the internet (myspace - fast proving it does actually have a function other than virtual air kissing medium, youtube, limewire et al). Nowadays, there's an infinity of sounds at your fingertips (I'm steadily building up a collection of Ghanian hiplife which ranges from the cheesy to the sublime and that I'd never have been able to access a few years ago). There are a lot of rumblings at the moment albeit on a very small scale. It's true that not much of this is filtering into the mainstream because of how stitlted the music business and press has become (though there are a few notble exceptions, from Dizzee Rascal to CSS).
I agree with the diagnoses made so far apart from the one about technology - there was this new gizmo in 2005 that everyone was using, something that allows you to repeat vocal samples. I remember going to a festival that year where avery musician offered their take on playing around with this device, including Mark E Smith who used it to get out of singing and just glared cantankerously at the mike as his voice boomed out over and over. I have to admit that this new toy was quicly discarded though, and hasn't produced much of note except for a French performance artist called Khalid K who did mad things with this and a track called Cold by Namosh where these sounds are used to depict wild yet soulless sex in a truly beguiling way.
However, I'm surprised no-one's mentioned marketing as killer of mainstream music. Since record labels decided you could shift CDs like you sell catfood there hasn't really been any long lasting contribution to pop music. This may seem in contradiction to chat i wrote before, but what surprises me is how short lived most musical projects are. It seems that either you come up with a pale imitation of your last release or you're out of the door, and chillingly, a lot of indie labels now think this way too. Great 'overground' pop music happens at the intersection of forward looking, 'difficult' sounds with musicianship and a great ear for melodies. At the moment, well if you're making 'difficult' music you'll never get anywhere so who's to know if you'll acquire the skills and maturity to write something great . If you make old fashioned melodic pastiche, well you know you'll get the axe the day you try something different which isn't much of an encouragement to be more creative.