April 20th, 2007


The energy of awkwardness

"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.