September 19th, 2008

operesque

Style betrayal

Last week I got a nice mail from Aurélien Estager, who works for the Sonore record label in Paris, and alerted me to an exhibition by the excellent Daisuke Ichiba which has just opened at Paris gallery-bookshop Le Monte-en-l'air (6 Rue des Panoyaux in Menilmontant). Daisuke -- whose sexy, perverse work I first stumbled across last June in a Koenji junkshop called Animal Yoko -- is presenting his own drawings in Paris alongside four other Japanese artists he makes common cause with: Norihiro Sekitani, Takashi Nemoto, Daisuke Tamano and Ayano.



Aurélien also wanted to send me a record Sonore have just released by Akane Hosaka, a Tokyo-based laptop musician whose first album -- Niko Niko Denki Muzic -- Sonore released in June. It seems they sent a bunch of promos out to the french press and got pretty much zero response. Since I'd mentioned Italian designer Bruno Munari and Manhattan Research electronic pioneer Raymond Scott on Click Opera -- and since these guys are apparently the main influence on Akane Hosaka -- it seemed I'd be the perfect audience for the CD. A mention on Click Opera might well be the only "press" the album would get.



In fact, Patrick at Chipple has already given the album a plug, calling it "a must for those who love Popcorn and Baroque Hoedown (Disney's Electrical Parade)". I must say that when I got the CD yesterday I was dismayed by the sleeve, which looks like one of Holger and Marcus' less impressive Bungalow sleeves from 1998.

In fact, the whole thing has a 1998 feel -- it must've been in 1998 that Kahimi Karie referenced Bruno Munari on one of her sleeves, about 1998 that Raymond Scott records started getting re-releases, 1998 that we were all listening to Popcorn and library Moog records, 1998 when Perry and Kingsley's Baroque Hoedown fed into the style I called Analog Baroque. I think one or even two of these influences, mixed with something else, would be fine. But put them all together and the matrix says "1998" just a little too strongly, and put that together with a sleeve which looks teleported in from 1998 (that retro-70s orange! Those rounded boxes Quark XPress introduced so you could do 70s-retro shapes!) and the whole thing feels uncomfortable. (Tujiko Noriko was so far ahead of the curve that she was able to parody crappy late-90s graphic design on her 2007 album Solo. At least I think that's what she was up to.)



Sonore's press release doesn't help, either: "With her lunging rhythms and deliciously retro melodies, Akane Hosaka catapults us into a world of gleeful wallabies and drummer-boy monkeys. Her discovery of music came through song, and only later led to instrumental experimentation. References to her early influences, the 60s and 70s precursors of electropop, are deliberate, there for all to see: Raymond Scott, Perrey & Kingsley or Yellow Magic Orchestra. Nevertheless her true inspiration is from the visual world and lies in graphic forms and architectural fantasy: Keiji Ito, Archigram or Bruno Munari. For her, these images evoke music that she then sets about transcribing. Naturally reserved, she’s a perfectionist in her work. Seeing her in the studio is like watching a blacksmith in the smithy, as she bends her music into the required shapes. Her compositions are like pastel-coloured soap bubbles in extra-bright Super 8."



Archigram! Super 8 film! Casio Baroque! It's all stuff that would have made Hosaka my favourite artist ten years ago, but now troubles me. And the fact that it troubles me troubles me too. If this stuff was good in 1998, why can't it be good in 2008 too? Surely fashion has nothing to do with the inherent qualities of a work of art? Aren't you just being a snobby hipster, like bitchy Lou Reed screaming in Hanging Round "you're still doing things that I gave up years ago"?

Actually, Akane's record is better than I'm making it sound. She's a good composer, and every time you're starting to feel overwhelmed with 90s references (Stereolab, Plone, Broadcast, Le Tone) she'll drop in some YMO or even some -- ahem! -- weird Wendy Carlos tunings which get you interested again. Here's an mp3 of one of my favourite tracks on the album:

Banshuu (mp3 file, stereo, 3.4MB)

If I recommend this album to you -- and I do! -- perhaps I can avoid the sense that I'm betraying Akane and Sonore by invoking 1998 so much. But I'd feel I was betraying myself if I didn't mark my doubts. And I find them interesting, these doubts. I think I can answer the question about why something that was so right in 1998 might be wrong by 2008 if I say that pop music -- and the cat's cradle matrix of influences it bounces about in -- is something ephemeral, not timeless. It really matters what year something was created in, not just because technology changes, but because fashion does too. Pop music is a product of fashion, technology, sex, sensibility, context, hot memes and, oh yes, musical skill too.

I think I've always practised "style betrayal". That is, I've abandoned certain styles not despite having embraced them in their prime, but because of it. I lived that Casio Baroque meme pretty intensely ten years ago (here's an old Scotsman interview, for a taste of it), which is why it'll always remind me of that particular year, with wonderful pinpoint accuracy. To be more precise, the period 1996 -- the year I first heard Ariel Wizman DJing Perrey and Kingsley at some party attended by Sparks -- to 1998. (Toog, who became my best friend during that period, has recently completed a documentary about Jean-Jacques Perrey. I look forward to seeing it.)

It's worth remembering that memes that seem anchored in the past for you -- precisely because you lived them so passionately, like a brief, intense love affair -- might still be relevant to people unaware of them. Talking to my cousin Justin in Glasgow a couple of months ago, I was reminded what different worlds we live in when he stopped me to ask what Loungecore was. ("Remember when the Mike Flowers pops covered Oasis?" I said. "That was loungecore. Ironic Easy Listening music in the 90s.") I'd sort of assumed that anyone in the music industry, and anyone who lived through the trends of the 90s, would know the term loungecore. But Justin didn't, and -- who knows? -- perhaps he'd be a lot less judgemental, as a result, of someone tangled up in a matrix of 1998 references today. "It's all good!"

Hell, yes! Well, no. Hisae and I talked about it over lunch. How does it happen that cultural workers -- like the legendary Japanese loyalists on Pacific islands, unaware that World War II has ended -- soldier on in styles that aren't new enough to be fresh, or old enough to be revived? Look at the reviews Stereolab have been getting for the last decade: basically, every single reviewer demands to know how come no-one's told Stereolab that the war they're fighting is over. They won! And then the world moved on. Yet if Stereolab persist long enough they might become like The Fall: the mountain that Mohammed comes to, rather than the Mohammed who runs after every style bandwaggon.

There's a hint of embarrassment in the Sonore press release: Hosaka's early musical influences "are there for all to see", but her real influence comes from the visual world of Archigram and Bruno Munari. So might it be that memes are cancelled -- or become embarrassing -- more quickly in the pop world than they do in the design world? Might that be a sort of "preservative bubble" for old styles? And what about the bubble of exile? Is exile a way of encountering new memes, or keeping old ones in aspic? Hisae thought that the internet kept us all in touch with our homeland these days. I wasn't quite sure if you could be socialised by the internet.

"What," I asked her, "if there are basically two types of artist, Van Gogh and Picasso? Van Gogh arrives at a style and stays with it. Picasso changes his style every five years to keep people interested. Of course, neither style is immune to fashion, or more authentic than the other. It's just that one artist can change, the other can't. It doesn't make one better than the other."

Perhaps my need to embrace styles intensely and then abandon them is inconstancy, superficiality, lack of backbone, gadfly-ism, butterfly-ism. Perhaps it's the corrosive influence of my gadfly mentor, David Bowie. Perhaps it's the ideology of conspicuous consumption -- use then discard. But perhaps also the need to abandon is a mark of the intensity of your encounter with something, of your awareness of living inside society and inside history, and of a certain detachment, an awareness of the healthy side of forgetting (which is that it clears the decks for new experiences, and makes new discoveries possible).

Quite early on -- when I read Roland Barthes' Inaugural Lecture to the College de France -- I discovered there were intellectual justifications for abjuring, repudiating and betraying too. As a man who'd shifted from semi-scientific textual analyses to meditations on pleasure, Barthes claimed, in this lecture (one of his last, delivered in 1977) the right "to abjure what you have written (but not necessarily what you have thought) when gregarious power uses and subjugates it". It's a valuable reminder that the meanings of things are constantly shifting because context shifts, and that ideas, like styles, are subject to exhaustion, to mutation, and even -- yes, and for that very reason! -- to revitalisation.