Thursday, July 14, 2011

Looking For a Spectrum Within a Singularity

Since Ariel Pink loudly shat himself onstage earlier this year, the hipoisie have turned their attention to his former collaborator (and philosophy prof - bonus points!) John Maus. It came as no surprise that Pitchfork yawped and I yawned at Maus' latest release for more or less the same reasons: coyly blurring the borders between "Top 40 cheese [and] ironic cool"; using his academic stature to silhouette otherwise vague & swampy songwriting; and an album title that sounds like a try-hard undergrad thesis that would prompt derisive laughter before being suffocated in red ink.

Like so many of his '80s-pop-pilfering peers, Maus' reviews are peppered with allusions - which is unavoidable, given how openly derivative Maus' music is. For example, both the song & video for his "Believer" single are basically Spectrum's "How You Satisfy Me" if Pete Kember had handed vocal duties off to Ian McCulloch. But as Adam Harper has pointed out, Maus is not only apologetic but proud of resurrecting bygone sounds:
I don't see this as a returning, I see this as a palette that we have to work with. These sounds are part of the vernacular. I resist this idea that we somehow move on to 'better' sounds. It's not about nostalgia or some kind of remembering, at least not consciously for me; it's what the work necessitates.

...I think it's supremely contemporary to use these so called 'nostalgic' effects, in the sense of the contemporary being out of joint with the moment in some way.
Which begs the question of when the contemporary has been anything other than "out of joint." This is one of problems I have with the hauntology "movement" (I suppose "stasis" would be a more appropriate term): it's indistinguishable from stock post-modernism in its cherry-picked anachronism, and suggests that the march of history was, until recently, a linear narrative untroubled by cataclysm, disruption, sudden exits, and unexpected entrances. Time is more wrinkled than Rupert Murdoch's brow; history is a slapdash patchwork of unmatched epochs; the contemporary has always been out of joint. The difference is that now we've the time, access, and materials to retreat from the future's shock-&-awe into the warm embrace of nostalgia.

But I agree wholeheartedly that we don't necessarily "move on to 'better' sounds" and that the past bequeaths artifacts & ideas that "warrant exploration right now, here, today." But Maus is being too generous in describing '80s synth-pop as a "palette." Imagining an Alesis drum machine & Yamaha DX-7 constitute a "palette" is as coarse and reductive as remembering the 1950s as America's Golden Age while conveniently forgetting segregation, patriarchy, the Korean War, and McCarthyism. It's not a palette, it's a colour.

If Maus and others wished to be heard as anything other than nostalgic tribute acts, they'll have to far less conservative in their pillage of the past. There have been musicians (e.g. Public Enemy or Amon Tobin) whose music has been constructed solely of samples, of existent material, of second-hand semiotics, yet has sounded ferociously and utterly contemporary. This is because they imposed no limits upon their source material: if it sounded good, it was fair game. Panning for gold across every decade and genre, then melting it down into a single white-hot mass - that is what made their music so unmistakably immediate: a total implosion of temporality. However, once too much attention or emphasis is put upon any particular source of antiquated inspiration, the trap of retro-referentiality has sunken its teeth into you.

Man, I'd better post something about music I enjoy soon, otherwise everyone's going to think my sole preoccupation is shitting on other people's enthusiasm.


:-p said...

As far as I can tell, there is only one "benefit" to self-censorship and relentless positivity: improved social relations with superficial people.

Keep shitting if you want. As long as the writing remains intelligent. I enjoy the break from the hype!

flspectro said...

I'm not ashamed to say that I find some parts of hauntology very interesting. You're right when you say that it's day-glo-happy-alterna-capitalism is boring to the extreme of tears. But I believe that it can be a valid creative starting point when done backwards: "what if the mighty DX7 were The Undisputed Official Synth Of The Empire?". You could exploit all the encrusted memories of pathos and repression of the people that were toddlers in the 1980's, for instance... Hell Yeah! I would buy a friggin' box set o' that material if it included a rusted metal faceplate with the face of Brooke Shields. Call me a perv, but that's the hauntology I like ;) But to do that you must exercise a little creativity and that's what hipsters avoid by all means, the want to be "curators" of their retro-boutique-sound-gallery... phew...

Maybe the fans of this guy like those sounds because remember them of a kindergarden crush in an ice cream parlor... there are people that had priviliged infancies... I am told ;)

by the way, we all know that The Undisputed Synth of the Empire today is an iPad :D

Anonymous said...

we must become the pitiless censors of these pompous album titles

we must become the pitiless censors of crappy 80's ironic nostalgia

john maus is the andrew eldritch who loves puppies and rom coms

honestly, these guys think that if they sing like goths we won't notice the Howard Jones tunes underneath