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The energy of awkwardness - click opera
February 2010
 
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Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 10:03 am
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.

55CommentReply

stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 08:23 am (UTC)

I'm with you on this but I still sense some longing to "succeed," which I think is poison. But we can still hug.


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dzima
dzima
ralf dziminski
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 10:01 am (UTC)

I think you should write a short story in which Brit Pop has actually happened in the 50's.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 08:43 am (UTC)
art is just as stuck in a rut

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.


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 10:13 am (UTC)
Re: art is just as stuck in a rut

I think Momus is right about music, but anonymous has a good point here. Art is no less guilty than pop.


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twoheaded_boy
twoheaded_boy
Saelan
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 08:48 am (UTC)

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!


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 05:23 pm (UTC)

Yeah, that shirt distracted me from the whole topic at hand.
--fellow canook


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 10:16 am (UTC)

Channel U is the most interesting and refreshing music TV out there at the monent. Every time I turn over to the "alternative" channel MTV2, I hear a band that sound like they're from 1982.


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intergalactim
intergalactim
intergalactim
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 10:32 am (UTC)

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...


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intergalactim
intergalactim
intergalactim
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 10:37 am (UTC)

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...


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 11:23 am (UTC)

TRUCKER HATS

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 11:27 am (UTC)

"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".

Beautifully summed up. Elegantly stated.

Hat off.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 12:05 pm (UTC)

This warm and charming ugliness that turns into beauty later I found in a some of your later songs.
And I love the process of this. And I love that it only works once per song.

And here's a quote fitting the article (I forgot by whom it is, though, sorry):
"I can be a great musician even if my music sounds shitty"


Robert


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 12:08 pm (UTC)

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


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 12:29 pm (UTC)

Don't sound so depserate, mate. Momus is getting bored with music. Let him get on with his life.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

(Anonymous)
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 12:11 pm (UTC)

I read that guardian piece this morning. It could have been written at anytime within the last 30 years. Or the last hundred years, even...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGlVnOGhdaI

If you get too messed up in these arguments - radicality V conventionality, the established V the new. You miss out on the real thrill of music, which itself stands outside of time.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 12:26 pm (UTC)

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.


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freesurfboards
freesurfboards
freesurfboards
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 12:43 pm (UTC)

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.


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freesurfboards
freesurfboards
freesurfboards
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 12:38 pm (UTC)

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.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 12:41 pm (UTC)

"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.


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georgesdelatour
georgesdelatour
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 12:56 pm (UTC)

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.


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Lucky Dragons!!! - (Anonymous) Expand

(Anonymous)
Fri, Apr. 20th, 2007 01:51 pm (UTC)

"We've currently used up all the potential novelty of our available technology. "

That's only true if you believe the medium is the message. (which, if it were true, would pretty much makes you a Thing).

No wonder Guy Debord described McLuhan as the global village's first idiot.


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