Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Music & The Internet Part 2. Running Out Of The Past?

Looking back at the broad sweep of twentieth century music, its hard not to notice how fresh and powerful it often was. Think about the dissonance and strange rhythms of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the jazz prodigies who rewrote the rule book, the artistic and cultural impact of the bands of the 1960s. Think about Brian Eno's ambient experiments, Public Enemy's use of samplers, post-punk, Kraftwerk's machine music, Juan Atkin's dystopian hymns to Detroit, Aphex Twin’s other-worldly electronics, the glitch aesthetics of Autechre, Oval and the Mille Plateaux label, the dub techno minimalism of Basic Channel, the rise of the DJ and club culture through disco, house, rave and techno. The twentieth century is full of examples of music that had a powerful artistic and cultural impact that went way beyond the surface level. It seemed reasonable to assume therefore that, catalysed by the digital technologies of the early twenty-first century, the trend wouldn't just continue but actually speed up. Jaron Lanier was surprised at the lack of musical progress in the noughties; “I entered the internet era with extremely high expectations. I eagerly anticipated a chance to experience shock and intensity and new sensations, to be thrust into lush aesthetic wildernesses, and to wake up every morning to a world richer in every detail because my mind had been energised by unforeseeable art” . It came as a surprise to Lanier however, that, at the tail of end of the noughties, this hadn't come to pass. For a while he put this down to a temporary lull, the calm before the storm, but after a while it felt more like a slump. Lanier’s growing suspicion was that the internet, far from facilitating musical evolution, was leading to an unprecedented picking over of pre-internet culture. In his view, “the reinvention of life through music was in retreat”. Culture was now “fixated on the world as it was before the web was born”.

I’d like to clarify that I don't buy into Lanier's argument wholeheartedly, he's more pessimistic than me. My feelings are ambivalent, I have a sense of disquiet that nothing is really “new” in the way it used to be but I also recognise that the noughties were an enjoyable and inventive time for music. Part of me is ok, for example, with the fact that some of of my favorite albums from the last few years were about reworking the past. Similarly, as a music producer, I’ve derived a lot personally (as part of the mashup scene) and professionally (helping to design the soundtrack to DJ Hero) from taking fragments of other people's music and re-working them. I can see the positive impact that mashup culture had and, whilst I’d be the first to recognize that we have long past the point of complete overkill, this stuff had more than mere entertainment value back in the day. It felt genuinely shocking to hear things like Madonna singing over the Sex Pistols as if she was alongside them. It felt weird and full of potential. Mashups were also indicative of what was happening to the wider musical landscape. At pop's peripheries, retro and novelty pastiche were the order of the day and whilst this had clear precedents (the retro/collage-mentality was in evidence in the 1990s), this new wave felt more open-minded, more radical and more pervasive. The problem lay in the fact that, as the decade wore on, this trend went too far and the novelty wore off. These murmurings at the edges of popular culture pre-saged the flood that followed and all of a sudden it felt like everything was either retro or a mashup of the past. As Maddy Costa puts it, “pop's history, not its future [became] the driving force”. Adrian Covert of MOG also puts it well “the specific brand of revivalism I speak of is not just about the sound. It is one that is all-encompassing, one where the sound, the image, and the appeal of a group directly romanticize a bygone era”.

To help illustrate this, here is a list of relatively recent artists. At best the artists artfully mix up old influences to produce something interesting and at worst, they offer a virtual facsimile of an old sound with a few modern flourishes. In all cases however, there is a reverence for the past, a strong sense of “something” that went before it and to which homage is being paid both in the sound and the image.

Franz Ferdinand & The Futureheads – Homages to post-punk

The View & The Fratellis – Influenced by the Libertines a band who themselves were nostalgic for the 1970s.

Fleet Foxes – Crosby Stills & Nash-style Americana.

Mumford & Sons - Folk / folk rock.

Cee Lo, Amy Winehouse, Mayor Hawthorne, VV Brown, Plan B, Duffy – Motown etc

White Stripes – Garage-rock, blues.

As for more electronic music....

La Roux, Little Boots – 80s synth bands.

Lady Gaga – Various 70s and 80s pop references.

LCD Soundsystem, !!!, - Disco, post-disco, post-punk.

Lindstrom, Black Devil Disco Club, Aeroplane, - Disco (Italo, Space, Balearic)

Chromeo – Synth funk.

Neon Neon – 80s electro

Azari & III – Late 80s / early 90s Chicago house,

Interestingly, Paul Morley, a man who helped make an art form from plundering the past (with "The Art of Noise"), came up with a term to sum up our present condition. “We now live in The Aftermath, where all pop music is either actually from the past, freed from its imprisoned context by the internet, where everything recorded can happen at once, or is a mutant, intoxicating transformation of the past, randomly, attentively mixing up genres, eras, instruments, styles, beats, fashions. The Aftermath is where the past gets gossiped about; it's a series of colliding echoes about the past; it's a gathering of rumors about what happened to pop music up to and including and beyond the vinyl era”. Is the pot calling the kettle black here, doesn't this definition apply to The Art Of Noise too? My answer would be no. The Art of Noise were more like a sound art project with pop sensibilities; they were post-punk in attitude i.e. non-reverential. Bands of The Aftermath reference and sample the past because they are in love with it, because they're awed by it, because they're weighed down by it. They want to be part of a tradition, to create a simulacra of another era or to transplant it into the present and stick it onto something else. This is so ubiquitous that people don't really notice it any more, everything is very blurry. For example, in what other era could Amy Winehouse be presented as anything other than heavily retro in sound and image? I understand that lyrically she's modern, she's not doing cover versions, but the past weighs very heavily indeed on everything she does and the whole thing feels very..... nostalgic. The fact that this could be sold as fresh shows how mangled notions of retro and nostalgia have become. Also, you have to ask the question, “why”? Why reference the past like this? Amy Winehouse is not really an example of post-modernism as The Art of Noise were for example. It's not about witty parody, the retro aspects are a “blank parody”, imitation for the sake of it and referential without particular meaning, humour or subversion. Basically it's fun and it sounds good. The retro part also has an inherent cool factor so it provides the music with an immediate hook. More cynically this provides the music with an easy selling point, why take risks when you can plunder a well-loved sound, especially in today's grim music industry climate?

The knowledge we have about pop history has to be one of the root causes of this over-referencing. More than ever, pop music is canonised and positioned in pop history. Music books are more plentiful than ever, music commentary is rife in print media and every shade of musical categorization and critique is available online. Again, this is partly a good thing, a culture as diffuse and vast as music needs critics and bloggers to make something out of the chaos and to give shape to the culture. Is it possible however, that one of the effects of this glut of musical knowledge is to weigh people down and make them cowardly or overly reverential? Paul Morley thinks so, he says, "groups have a sense of something happening in the 50s, in the 60s, in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and they tend to get overwhelmed.” Most of all however, we are overwhelmed by the quantity of music itself, by the vast scale of our immersion in the entirety of recorded music. Music went from being a scarce resource, often hard to track down, to an infinite resource where any whim could be indulged in an instant. How else did Italo Disco become such a big deal in the noughties, a previously obscure genre that (apparently anyway, I'm too young to remember) never really had much of a following the first time around? Put simply, it'd be very hard for more than a small group of collectors to build an interest in something like this before the internet. It might have been exotic to express in interest in Italo Disco ten or fifteen years ago but now such pronouncements are commonplace. The expense and time-commitment involved in digging for records before the internet made it a full time occupation. Now you can indulge yourself with ease with the result that, serious music fans at least, have a new universe of old music to explore.

It was fun for a while gazing back at the past and putting new spins on old styles. The problem is that, taken too far this can become a dead end and we risk building mere echoes of the past, interesting echoes sometimes, but echoes nevertheless. The most interesting of these echoes aren't retro in any conventional sense. A lot of this more interesting music is often a clever hybrid of styles, a weird Frankenstein-like fusion of unlikely bedfellows or a self-consciously surreal re-imagining of another era. Looking at the end of year lists from 2010 for example, those artists that weren't overtly referencing another era or retreading a well-worn path often fell into this category (off the top of my head Ariel Pink, Games, Emeralds and Forest Swords). Again, The Aftermath applies; music that isn't directly derivative, a slightly evolved retread or mashed up is probably a mutated transformation of the past. Perhaps one of the few semi-exceptions of the last 10 years is Dubstep (i'm thinking Hyperdub et al, not the naff kid's stuff) Its mixing up of genres, its rapid mutations, the largely internet-based grassroots, the moodiness, the (sometimes) dread and detachment is very twenty-first century. It echoes the way the internet has fragmented music and its mood seems well-suited to our times. Its part of a continuum but the way it sounds, the way it evolved and its restless mutations are relevant and respresentative of the times. Dubstep aside however, there are few examples of large and uniquely "21st century" genres. We're either left with nostalgia, retro or fragmented micro-genres.

Despite the mixed effects that the internet has had on popular culture it feels like these effects are still where the next revolution will emanate from. I think that this freeing of music from all notions of era and genre is going to yield the "next thing". How can such a crazy, rampantly cross-breeding gene pool, not throw up exotic mutations that sound like nothing we've heard before? It would be nice to think that we could still be as shocked as people were when they rioted over Stravinsky's premiere of Rite of Spring or as awe-inspired as when they danced to Acid House for the first time or heard a Miles Davis album. It would be disappointing if, in ten years time, there isn't a genre of music, or at the very least a good few artists out there that're making music which couldn't conceivably be made today. I'll still be happy if I carry on hearing interesting, inventive music largely retreading the same sounds, scales, beats albeit in mutant form but i'll be even happier if I hear something revolutionary.
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