Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mass Self-Deception at the C*cks*ck*rs' Ball

At the risk of crossing the number-of-mentions-per-month threshold into scuzzball stalker territory, one reason I enjoy 30 Rock is I find a certain emotional resonance with Liz Lemon (Tina Fey's onscreen alter-ego), and no, it's not just because of the glasses, pointy beak, and addiction to crap snacks. It's her wastrel, dimwit boyfriend, Dennis.

I mean this metaphorically, of course, lest my wife acquaint my face with a frying pan. The preamble proceeds: in the episode "The Break-Up" (duh), Liz' good instincts to cast off this gel-haired goon are thwarted by her peers' insistence that he's eminently likable, a go-getter, or at worst a slight dunce with the noblest of intentions. Naturally, Liz knows the truth about this selfish, stagey, table-turning, tumid, semi-literate simian with a double-digit IQ - yet she can't deny there's something mawkishly irresistible about him. (Speaking of "hate sex"...)

So it is, ladies & gentlemen, with how I regard, am repusled by, yet invariably attentive towards the contemporary pop underground.

"Oh boy," you say. "Thar he blows again..." Well, if you're familiar enough with my tendency towards muckraking cult-crit that it's become eye-rollingly predictable, what are you hanging around for? Fuck off, go back to reading the Gawker subsidiary that matches your wardrobe and feeling intellectually smug, dig?

Anyway... it's very easy to adopt a Shopenhauerian stance regarding both politics and pop culture: things began badly and are only getting worse. Most people convince themselves there came nothing new under the sun past the time they turned 30. This self-conscious narrowing of scope is as conservative as creationism: there was a divine genesis from which all current forms came and have since remain unchanged, or at least unimproved. Certainly, almost everything has its antecedents, but to reduce recent artists to second-hand reiterations (Burial of Massive Attack, Scratch Acid of Johnny Cash, etc.) betrays an incredibly coarse, glaucomal "appreciation" of the arts.

Yet, measured against the fossil record, there's very little to suggest any quantifiable evolution going on. I don't mean there's a creative permafrost (there ain't even a tundral permafrost these days) and nothing is happening. But tweaks, updates, variations, imitations, and minor refinements have taken the place of face-slapping flashes of genius - and this is most obvious when we look at how far from the center the "fringe" currently extends.

Devendra Banhart, for example, is the closest candidate to filling the scuffed leather shoes of Captain Beefheart: king of the madcap primitivists, a mercurial shaman born of some Martian swamp. But compared to the junkyard tornadoes Beefheart used to conjure, Banhart sounds as straight as John Denver. There's a similar dearth of new ideas amongst highbrow bohemians: whereas fashion-conscious dandies of the past (Jacques Dutronc, Paul Weller, etc.) polished their edge to a stainless steel gleam, current fops like Amanda Palmer or Jeremy Jay affect antique poses so preciously they gut their inspirations of the reckless fervor that made them bold in the first place.

The worst consequence of Pop gaining an -ism is rhythmic & diatonic conservatism, lumping listeners with unreconstructed mediocrity like the Arcade Fire, Spoon, and (yeah, I don't like the Beach Boys) Panda Bear. The Brooklyn duo High Places make for a concise case study: while taking advantage of digitech convenience and flexing their musical literacy (from twee no-wavers Ponytail to metal mathlete Mick Barr), their trifecta of musical perfection is Joni Mitchell, Canned Heat, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. That's right, folks, the vanguard is Dad Rock. Fukuyama was right, there was no one to fool us again after the Who; I'm going to put on The Idiot and find a bit of rope.

And what of the ruckus-bringers, the riot-starters like Les Savy Fav, Jay Reatard, or Team Robespierre? They're the musical equivalent of Dane Cook: so much energy is spent gurning and swinging the microphone about, they all but forget to, y'know, practice their craft. Is it asking too much that musicians take the time to sculpt songs and hone their instrumental skills? I get that the vibe is more party than Berklee, and there's similarly little to enjoy attending one of The Mars Volta's finger-sports decathlons. But remember how awesome At The Drive-In were? Or Fishbone? Fu-fuckin'-gazi?

The worst consequence of Rock gaining an -ism is that its symbolic ossification was contingent on physical signifiers (amps, guitars, long faces, bottles of Jack) yet somehow not on its sole ideological constant: anti-authoritarian rebellion. As tiresome and often empty as flipping the bird may be, it's still a more noble gesture than simply gettin' fucked up and trolling for tail. (Of course, even Dionysian dissolution is a kick to the crotch of pedantic moralism.) More enervating than the lack of a hook to hang your trucker hat on is the cottonweight frivolity of bands like the DeathSet and Crystal Antlers. It's all Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs and Saturday morning, which is great if you've succumbed to the Peter Pan syndrome epizootic. But for we who actually enjoy adulthood & thematic complexity, the kindergarten giddiness give us glucose gut-rot.

Given that the world woke up last week to the biggest financial crisis in history, this may sound like sniping over the tune Nero's fiddling. Well, Jane Dark recently asked, "What will be the soundtrack of capital's auto-da-fé?" She suggested M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," but its "bona-fide hustla" braggardy about taking money at gunpoint sounds to me like the ethos of the former Masters of the Universe whose stock-born clout has swiftly deflated like a flan in the cupboard. Alternately, Owen offered Disco Inferno's "Summer's Last Sound," whereas I personally have been spinning the Fall's "Hexen Definitive - Strife Knot." But those songs are respectively 17 and 25 years old; who among the current crop have captured the zeitgeist in song?

No one. There's no contemporary update of "What's Going On" or "Fight the Power," no Sign O' the Times. Instead, we've got "A Milli," the Louis Vuitton Don, models with guitars in flagrante inferno, and 18 records worth of black-matte dinner music by Trent Reznor. As refreshing as wading into a "warm spot" in a public swimming pool.

And it won't get any better in the forseeable future. Now that the internet is the matrix through which all music is mediated, word-of-mouth and performance residencies have been replaced by blog chatter and webcasts, chewed & spit out by the gears of multinational media conglomerates. Even the most dick-swinging party banter about bands is more vital & provocative than anything aggregated by the Hype Machine. (Seriously, did you see the Pitchfork review of the new Mogwai LP? Someone shat on a thesaurus and left it aflame on Stuart Braithwaite's front porch.) Not that the contemporary "counterculture" has any interest in disentangling themselves from the cultural-industrial complex. Quite the opposite, in fact, given how gleefully they weave themselves amongst the cogs.

As quaint & potentially archaic as the Sell-Out = Bad dogma may appear, it's still applicable within the digital paradigm. Market your music via MySpace or A&M - Vivendi still owns your ass. Build schools in Liberia with your corporate-party paycheck - your good deed was funded by profits stolen from Southeast Asian sweatshop labourers. The MSM doesn't care if your appearance represents some ironic exploitation of capital's mouthpiece - they only care that they sell more advertising space. You can't shake the Devil's hand and say you're only kidding.

(For a far more eloquent examination of the entertainment industry's corrosive assimilation & capitalist brainwashing, please read Theodor Adorno's genius essay "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception", of which I was reminded last week by Offnotesnotes and really would've done well to remember more about during the discussion about Music Industry 2.0's gluttony for cut-rate adequacy - man, my memory is for shit.)

My one hope is that My Bloody Valentine's live reintroduction will ingnite a few epiphanies. Perhaps some people with put down the laptops and eschew softsynth code-topiary, turning their focus to an intimacy with hardware and air sculpture. Perhaps people will finally tire of that delay-pedal patchwork-pillow ambience, cranking up the volume not as an end unto itself but as tool of sensual engagement. Perhaps TV On the Radio will finally stop fucking around and get their live act together, given that Shields & Co. have no trouble translating three years & a quarter-million quid worth of studio-time in concert.

Or who knows, maybe we'll get a bunch of dull pedal-junkie somanauts (because Slowdive wasn't boring enough the first time around), a growing legion of tone-deaf amplitude-obsessives (because why should A Place To Bury Strangers be the only ones not to learn from Lightning Bolt's mistakes), and retentive tech-heads who sap any jouissance out of live performance painstakingly reproducing their studio creations. Fuckin' hell, make me deaf now.

On that note, here's the misanthropic MP3 mix, as promised last week. Click on the title to download, and get to mean-muggin'.

We Are Not Your Friends

1. The Clovers - "The Rotten Cocksucker's Ball" (00:00)
2. Drive Like Jehu - "Caress" (01:16)
3. Rapeman - "Steak and Black Onions" (04:32)
4. Cody Chesnutt - "War Between the Sexes" (07:17)
5. Mu - "Jealous Kids" (08:53)
6. The Monks - "I Hate You" (14:17)
8. Pissed Jeans - "People Person" (17:47)
9. PJ Harvey - "Is That All There Is?" (22:42)
10. Brian Eno - "Baby's On Fire" (27:41)
11. The Birthday Party - "6 Inch Gold Blade" (32:57)
12. Ministry - "So What" (36:08)
13. Electric Wizard - "We Hate You" (41:23)
14. N.W.A. - "Straight Outta Compton" (46:15)
15. Guns 'N' Roses - "Doubletalkin' Jive" (50:26)
16. The Velvet Underground - "Who Loves the Sun" (52:58)
17. The Billy Nayer Show - "Billy's" (55:46)
18. Frank Zappa - "Broken Hearts Are For Assholes" (58:45)
19. The Brainbombs - "Stupid and Weak" (01:02:27)
20. The Fall - "Hexen Definitive - Strife Knot" (01:07:08)
21. The Jesus & Mary Chain - "I Hate Rock 'n' Roll" (01:13:59)

1 comment:

Drew said...

Hey, thanks for the link. Any tie to my blog via the word "crap" in a post whose title features the word "cocksucker" is enough to get my attention.

Too bad I jumped on this one late, because it looks like I can't download any of these songs anymore. Any chance you'd consider making it downloadable again?