February 9th, 2009


Playground column: Tan mal que está bien -- so wrong it's right

Too many of my columns here at Playground may have seemed to give the impression that pop music is over. Today I want to talk about what can save the medium and give it a future. It's slightly paradoxical, but I believe that pop can be saved by sounding broken. Pop can be saved by sounding wrong. Too much pop sounds too right too soon. The reason it sounds right is that it reminds us of something we've heard and accepted before. And the reason pop sounds initially wrong is that it's like nothing we've ever heard before. This "shock of the wrong" is incredibly important, because it's the most immediate indicator of a search for a new grammar and a new syntax in pop music. That search must go forward if pop is to remain vital.

Music has become so right it's wrong; it must become so wrong it's right. When I say "so right it's wrong" I mean that professionalism and production technology have made it very easy to achieve a certain kind of gloss and power -- I call it "easy power". There are rock and pop colleges now where students learn the accepted and acceptable way to engineer and produce and play and sing on records. YouTube is full of musical experts teaching guitar and drum technique. These people are all so right they're wrong. Their advice must be ignored. Instead, we need to listen to people so wrong they're right.

Finding those so-wrong-they're-right people happens so rarely that it leaves pungent memories. One came when I heard Public Image Limited for the first time. The sound of the bass, the drums, the guitar, the synth, the singing -- everything was "wrong", and yet it all came together to produce a music I learned to love. PiL had a habit of locking engineers out of the studio and promoting junior tape operators like Nick Launay to work at the mixing desk. Mediocrity comes from the habits of professionals; sometimes it's better, as John Lydon did on the Flowers of Romance sessions, simply to lock the professionals out of the studio when they go for a pee.

David Cavanagh's book about Creation Records notes that when My Bloody Valentine's Glider EP came out, people in the Creation office thought the tremolo arm and feedback effects were the result of warped vinyl. Then they noticed that the sound was coming from a tape. My Bloody Valentine were so dissatisfied with the professionals at various London recording studios that they constantly changed them while recording their Loveless album, using nineteen in all. When label boss Alan McGee heard To Here Knows Where for the first time he told Kevin Shields: "There's something wrong with the tape." Shields replied: "No, that's the record."

When the artist thinks all the studios sound wrong and the record label thinks the finished record sounds wrong, you can be fairly sure that something is going right. My Bloody Valentine's Loveless is now remembered as one of the era's masterpieces. The records that sounded too quickly "right" back in 1991 have mostly been forgotten. Meanwhile, 90s artists who started out interestingly wrong (Tricky comes to mind) have lost their edge this decade by embracing the "easy power" of formula. They seem to have forgotten how to make interesting mistakes. In other cases, mistakes have been neutered by repetition. Certain mistakes have become clichés and orthodoxies in their own right.

My most recent impressions of interesting wrongness have come from the Japanese artists I've called Matsuri-kei. Another revelation came when I heard a London band called No Bra. The song doherfuckher is all out of time, shoddily recorded, uses an auto-accompaniment keyboard with cheap sounds, has odd lyrics and random-sounding backing vocals. And yet all these "errors" somehow become assets; the voice has something vulnerable and intimate about it, and the failure to develop the arrangement only adds to the track's authenticity and emotional directness. Here's No Bra's She Was A Butcher -- less shockingly wrong than doherfuckher, but still startling. Check the abrupt ending, which sounds like a mistake:

The wrongness of popular music isn't confined to unprofessional or startling sound; it also has to include the personal morals of its creators and distributors. Malcolm McLaren has spoken often of the importance of delinquency and crime in rock's history; rock was the music of gangs and hooligans, distributed by underground cabals of business criminals and mafiosi. When that history of illegitimacy gets replaced by rock colleges and meetings with prime ministers, everything is upside down.

You can hear McLaren talking about the criminal rackets behind the Juke Box networks of the 1950s in this radio documentary. But be aware that I'm encouraging you to do something "wrong" here -- to download an illegal torrent via a dubious file-sharing service. And that brings us to the criminal prosecutions by the RIAA of music fans in America who are caught file sharing. You can see these prosecutions in two ways. Either the RIAA, in their over-zealous attempts to enforce copyright and protect music industry professionals, are doing something so right it's wrong -- criminalizing the very people the music industry depends upon, its audience -- or they're doing something so wrong it's right: restoring a life-giving illegitimacy and danger to a medium which has become, in recent years, far too legitimate and far too safe for its own good.

(The Spanish version of this, the monthly Momus column for Madrid music site Playground, is here.)