December 6th, 2007


Fated to revive

This is my song and no one can take it away is the latest Polypunk podcast from Digiki. It begins with the song that provides its title: "My Song" by Labi Siffre:

Now, if you read me a couple of weeks ago talking about my love for croony, melodic, sentimental-yet-spooky numbers like Harry Belafonte's reading of "Try to Remember", you'll know that I'm threatening a 2008 album with some of this feel to it. Siffre's gentle, self-deprecating, tame, humane song (with a "white black sound", as one YouTube commenter calls it; actually the cross-pollinations are much more complex -- Siffre is British, of Nigerian ancestry, and gay) doesn't quite have the inherent brilliance of Belafonte's cover of Tom Jones' musical number (those backing vocals!). To use that now, you'd have to do something quite radical with it.

And that's exactly what Kanye West has done on his Graduation album, where Siffre's "My Song" becomes the backdrop to "I Wonder":

This is my song but actually, yes, someone can take it away after all! Kanye's track brings out mixed feelings in me. There's something great about it -- I love how he's appropriated Siffre's song and put it together with a Kaikai Kiki image -- but there's also something shoddy about it. Siffre's song may be a bit alkaline and tepid in both its sentiment and execution, but it does have great singing and chord changes on it, elements hip hop hasn't even tried to master, except through sampling. And I wonder what it means when an artist who can't sing samples an artist who can -- doesn't that distract from his strengths and draw attention to his weaknesses?

Or could it be that hip hop's weaknesses are also strengths, forcing it to make a clear and crucial break from former ways of working in music? Could hip hop be to pop what the invention of serialism was to classical music ("I have made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years," Schoenberg famously said in response to those who criticized his abandonment of melody)?

At the very least the revival going on in "I Wonder" is a formally bold, postmodern take on the past, one which simultaneously alienates a gentler genre and draws warmth from it. It isn't just Retro Necro rock reverence. I tend to agree with people who say that hip hop is the last new genre popular music produced. The last progressive genre, in the sense that it rewrote the rules rather than revolving, awestruck, around formulae formalised in the 1960s and 70s. "My Song" and "I Wonder" come from different worlds, different eras, in a way that, say, Babyshambles and The Clash don't.

And what about white pop? Even when I like a track like MGMT's "Electric Feel" (download the partly Jordan Fish-produced video for a fully-interactive experience, courtesy of retro-Quicktime and GoLive Studio), I find it doesn't transcend its influences (70s pop filtered through 90s Parisian irony) and is therefore doomed to get sucked into the Retro Necro vortex, just like the Justice remix of The Klaxons' "As Above, So Below", with its too-arch tribute to The Doobie Brothers' "What A Fool Believes":

The difference between these recontextualizations and Kanye West's is the difference between one and two: when West revives 1972, it's two different cultures being melded to produce more than the sum of their parts. When The Klaxons or MGMT do it, they don't bring enough that's really new and current to the table. It's just one culture repeating itself thirty years later. All that's changed is the context and the studio tools, and that isn't really enough to block an impression of creative decline. Or, as MGMT put it in their song "Time To Pretend", "We're fated to pretend".