Monday, April 25, 2011

Nothing From Nothing

Deep in the dunes of time, when the first caveman bashed two sticks together in a rhythmic fashion, music was born. When a second caveman bashed two sticks together in a rhythmic fashion, I imagine his tribesmen scoffed derisively, "Eh, that's fine, Grom, but it's just a rehash of Grog's stick-noise, innit?"

Complaining that music has become derivative is as old as music itself - and why not? To one extent or another, all music concedes the influence of its antecedents. But new frontiers of frustration over secondhand sounds have unfolded, thanks to the omnivorous archive of the internet and what Tony Herrington calls "pop culture’s own acquiescence to the illusion of neo-liberal ‘end of history’ propaganda." The latest entry in the derivation debate comes thanks to Simon Reynolds' less-than-flattering profile of L.A.-based content-generators Not Not Fun. There's a lot to unpack in NNF's cherry-picked pastiche, and so several different conversations have developed. Marc Hogan, Mike Barthel, and Eric Harvey have all toyed with the idea of "underground music" as consumer niche (with Harvey in particular refusing the very notion that music can exist external to capitalism). Herrington's blog posts for The Wire have dissected NNF's libidinal affectations. Elsewhere, The Impostume's Carl has pulled back to the broader question of aesthetic mutability, which to me is where the rubber meets the road:
The problem with hybridization of this kind (ie affirmative hybridization: this cool thing plus this cool thing equals new cool thing) is that it misunderstands much of the original hybridizing impulse which was to “correct” the racist or sexist or regressive elements of traditional rock and its representations...
In characterizing progressive hybridization as "corrective," Carl rightly recognizes that musical evolution - like biological evolution - is fundamentally subtractive. Even when music was embellished structurally or timbrally, the motivation was to liberate the art from some hindrance or reactionary element.

Following centuries of parochial tunings plagued by wolves, the establishment of "well temperament" excised tonal anarchy & miscommunication from European music, providing a universal language for composition & performance. Only later, when this system became ossified dogma, did composers begin ridding themselves of its restrictions. And yet in the 1970s, some experimental composers, such as Krzystof Penderecki and Cornelius Cardew, abandoned the avant-garde, suggesting that it "gave one an illusion of universalism" which, as such, could arguably serve imperialism.

Over the twentieth century, music has repeated this adoption-then-abandonment of pedantry in ever-accelerating cycles, yet each oscillation has been an effort to shed the perceived misapplications of the previous generation of music. Bebop, an elitist reaction against the populist sloth of big band, was in turn countered by more meditative & minimalist styles like cool & modal. Meanwhile, rock spent the first thirty years of its life vacillating wildly between extremes of simplicity (e.g. rhythm 'n' blues, punk à la Ramones) and ostentation (e.g. acid rock, progressive rock).

Since the early '80s, the central conversation within anti-authoritarian styles of music (in contradistinction to Pop) has been about "authenticity": is punk better defined stylistically or by D.I.Y. business practices? Has an artist "sold out," regardless of how unconventional their music is, once they sign to a major label? Are music videos an extension or a perversion of an artist's expression? What's real hip-hop? Underlying all of these questions is the subtractive impulse: artistic purity has less to do with aesthetic specifics than with erasing the corruptions inflicted by the culture industry. This is why a debut album is so often considered a given artist's pinnacle, or why so many musicians speak of getting back to a genre's "roots": their sense is that the time elapsed between inception and present has served only to distort or deteriorate.

The subtractive impulse is immaterial because it is just that - an impulse, a motive, an intent. However, the physical means of composing, performing, and reproducing music have multiplied over the years because technology is almost (but not quite) exclusively additive. The toolbox only gets bigger; implements are never discarded, only updated & improved. One generation plows a dirt road across hostile & uncharted terrain; the next speeds effortlessly along an asphalt-paved highway.

Technology has been the engine of every major aesthetic shift, every stylistic warp, every timbral weft. The temporal limits of physical formats first dictated, then liberated conventional song structure. Amplification allowed small ensembles of amateur musicians to become icons. Voltage-controlled oscillators and tape-based effects modules produced physically-impossible sounds. Turntables and samplers turned compositions into instruments, folding music Moebius-style back upon itself. Without barely an exception, any time a new noise has been born, it's been midwifed by machine.

But stop to consider the most recent technological developments: have any of them been appropriate to producing sound, or merely reproducing it? The last great leap forward in music production was non-destructive and non-linear editing, and the shine was already off by the 2001 release of N*Sync's "Pop" single. Most new tools for composers & producers are meant only to emulate older analog equipment minus any of their mechanical failings (or character, for that matter) and with greater ease of use. It seems sadly appropriate to me that the best-selling effects units are looping pedals: contemporary musicians seem more than happy to shackle themselves to endless, high-resolution reiterations of the same.

Meanwhile, the technology with the single greatest impact upon music as an art-form, the internet, offers no new means of crafting sound, no new compositional methods. Its sole capabilities are storage and transmission - not unlike handing a megaphone to everyone inside the world's biggest library.

This presents a real problem to those whose primary exposure to music happens online. In ye olden days, even if you were distant from an artist's immediate context, you could infer something about the artist's politics, class, and sociogeography from the medium via which you were exposed to the band. You'd make radically different assumptions about a band profiled in Touch And Go if they'd instead received a write-up in Rolling Stone. An artist getting airplay on Hot 97 occupies a very different frame than anyone being broadcast by WFMU. But the internet fails to offer even this referential silhouette. Between the infinite interchangeability of blogs and the pandemic speed with which hype feeding-frenzies spread, you often only find a artist after they've become ubiquitous and, thus, utterly divorced of context. All that is visible is the aesthetic surface, delicately draped over a void. Artists like NNF's Amanda Brown, who hybridize other artists' eggshell personae, are building their artistic identities like Russian dolls, each layer a pretty mask atop nullity.

As I said at the open, derivation is a necessary factor in making music. But borrowing another artist's ideas, their politics, their motives, their frustrations & passions at least provides the possibility articulating the same inspiration in a different way. Borrowing another artist's style, their pose, their inflections, their gestures isn't making music - it's acting. And only the most gullible & stupid among the audience ever confuse the actor for the character they're playing.


Jeffrey said...

That's way too many word written about something that was best characterized by legions of teenagers on American Bandstand decades ago: "It's got a good beat and I can dance to it."

And before that, Cab Calloway was saying essentially the same thing; "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

Seb said...

Yeah, but see, the whole "good beat/danceable" reductio ad absurdum argument never held much sway with me, because I am a terrible dancer.

I've also managed to find meaning despite obvious paucities of swing.

flspectro said...

As the Gaga fiasco recently demonstrated: "You shall know them by their results".

And as Robbie Williams taught us: "act like a pop star 100% of the time and you will end being one"

So, that's what you get when you pay attention to people that smells like D&G instead of sweat.

But I have always wondered what's Jennifer Lopez smell, since she "out Selenaed" Selena in the film.

Seb said...

And indeed, how much more vile is the scent of expensive perfume that plain ol' human pheromones.

For sure, one of the problems with "underground" culture is that indie musicians are emulating pop stars, whose prime function has always been product & persona before art. Certainly, pop culture has managed to make genuine works of great art once in a while, but it's almost always been by accident & coincidence.