Friday, May 9, 2014

Pop & Non-Pop After The Conceptual Turn: How pop’s appetite for itself has led to a taste for the sacred (with NIck Croggon)


This essay is the second in a semi-regular series of slightly longer pieces exploring some of the ideas and conceptual strategies we think are at the heart of music production and reception today. 

Our last piece, “The Trouble with Contemporary Music Criticism,” was about history. We argued that contemporary music writing often fails to think about history adequately because of its commitment to a mostly unacknowledged ideology of progress. This is particularly problematic, we said, when so much of the strongest music being made today seems to take history itself as its main point of orientation. Musicians keep presenting us with alternatives to this default idea of music as the endless progression of the new, and we keep missing it. The best in contemporary music is often much smarter than we think it is — and much more productive too. 

Contemporary music is often accused of a kind of passivity: of refusing to be sufficiently “political,” of failing to “innovate,” of capitulating to the stultifying forces of retro-culture, of being little more than a composite of historical references. But in order to think that way, you need to commit to a pretty narrow view of “politics” and “innovation”. It is, by contrast, perfectly possible to listen to contemporary music and hear something extremely active: music that, in its best instances, is right in the thick of both questioning and rethinking ideas and hegemonies (like history and progress) that underpin art, culture, and social life. For this reason, it is also robustly political. It really does matter.
But our last essay left a lot of key terms unaccounted for. What did we mean by “contemporary music criticism,” for instance? Or, for that matter, “contemporary music”? If the answers to these questions seem self-evident, or if the questions themselves seem redundant, they shouldn’t. The assumptions we make about each of these key terms are directly bound up with how we write and listen. 

We’ll look at the question of criticism next time. In this essay, we’d like to tackle the question “What is contemporary music?” The answer to this question will unfold in two parts. First, we’re going to argue that the key to this question is the relationship between pop and non-pop: a relationship that contemporary music, with increasing intensity, is actually already investigating itself. And second, we’re going to argue that it is this investigation that has laid the groundwork for some of the most inventive musical experiments in recent years. 

PART 1: POP AND NON-POP

Pop Eats Itself

If you asked yourself what sort of music you tend to listen to and read about on sites like Tiny Mix Tapes, what would you say? Underground music? Experimental music? Terms like these are always either too specific or too vague. Usually, the easiest method is to answer by putting the music we like into dialogue with what it is not — whatever I listen to, it’s predominantly not pop music. This pairing is the most common way that music in the 20th century has been defined — popular vs. serious music, pop vs. experimental, mainstream vs. underground. 

But by defining pop by what it is not, we often ignore the fact that pop music has always had a bit of a knack for defining itself.

In 1957, Chuck Berry released a song called “Rock and Roll Music.” It went, “Just let me hear some of that Rock And Roll Music/ Any old way you choose it/ It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it/ Any old time you use it/ It’s gotta be Rock And Roll Music/ If you want to dance with me/ If you want to dance with me.” The song peaked at #8 in the US charts and, in obvious tribute to an artist and a genre they loved, would go on to be covered by the likes of Bill Haley & The Comets, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys. All of them were making rock & roll about rock & roll.

Without listing endless examples, what we’re suggesting is that, from its very beginnings in the 1950s and 1960s, the modern form of pop music has always had a certain self-reflexive quality. It drew its own boundaries to some extent, defined itself in the process of its own embodiment and production.
What’s most striking, however, is just how much pop seems to have upped the ante in this respect over the last 60 years. 

Let’s take three examples from last year. In September 2013, 14-year-old US pop star Madison Beer released “Melodies.” The video starts with Justin Bieber listening to the song on a set of purple Beats speakers. “You hear that, Ryan?” he asks. “That’s a smash.” He signs a set of matching purple headphones, puts them in a big red box, and we cut to Madison opening said box somewhere in middle America. She takes out her newly Bieber-pimped Beats, puts them on, and hears herself singing. “I hear melodies in my head, hear melodies in my head, hear melodies in my head… My heart is a beating drum, repeating my favorite song.” This, then, is an earworm about the fact that it’s an earworm. This is pop eating itself.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Trouble with Contemporary Music Criticism: Retromania, Retro-historicism, and History (with Nick Croggon)



1
Two hundred years before the release of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, people were losing their shit over a different sort of robot entirely. This one was known as the Mechanical Turk, and it was built at the end of the 18th century by a guy named Wolfgang von Kempelen. The Mechanical Turk comprised a puppet dressed in Turkish robes, sitting on top of a box containing an apparently complex set of mechanics. And it played chess. The Turk was so good at chess, in fact, that it toured the world for the best part of a century before it was finally destroyed in a fire in 1854. It played for Emperor Joseph II, Frederick the Great, Charles Carroll, and Edgar Allen Poe, and it actually beat Napoleon Bonaparte, Benjamin Franklin, and Catherine the Great. On one tour of the UK, it won 45 out of 50 matches, and it played them all with a one-pawn handicap.

The amazing Mechanical Turk turned out to be an elaborate hoax of course. The machine’s interior was an ingenious system of smoke and mirrors, expertly designed by Von Kempelmen to conceal the chess master, a small hunchback nestled snugly inside.

2
In the realm of contemporary music criticism, there is an equivalent of Von Kempelen’s Turk, a criticism machine that is making the rounds of contemporary music circuits, amazing a largely unquestioning audience. 

The contemporary music critic machine plays its game by confronting and demystifying any and all contemporary music as nothing but a series of historical references — well-known dance outfits from the 1990s, not so well-known German synthesizer duos from the 1970s, and totally obscure British sound recordings from the 1960s. We read this criticism and are impressed at its apparent rigor and erudition — never realizing that, concealed within the box, something else is pulling the strings. 

3
In 2011, Simon Reynolds introduced the world of music criticism to the notion of “retromania.” The idea was that, more than ever before, contemporary music is concerned with being “retro,” with repeating its own very recent past. In justifying this central claim, Reynolds detailed numerous examples, both pop and experimental, that referred either explicitly or implicitly to music of bygone eras: the eternal return of 60s- and 70s-era garage rock, Amy Winehouse and Adele’s ludicrously successful neo-soul, the onslaught of 90s Eurodance recently unleashed by David Guetta et al. on the world’s charts. And in the global underground: chillwave, hypnagogic pop, hauntology, hipster house. In each case, Reynolds’ diagnosis was almost entirely negative. For Reynolds, retromania is a sickness, a form of cultural malaise. With each passing year, he worried, the pulse of the present is growing increasingly faint.

Reynolds’ book struck such a chord both with the public and in critical circles, because his account married perfectly with a way of thinking that has dominated critical discourse about music since at least the 1960s. This approach is premised on the twin ideas of “novelty,” on the one hand, and “historical progress,” on the other. 

In Retromania, as in so much of the music critical tradition, including Reynolds’ own previous work, music is at its best — indeed, achieves its core social function — when it confronts the listener with the shock of the “new”: the exhilaration of experiencing a soundworld totally unlike anything they have heard before: the thrill of having ‘been there’ at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, techno, or rave. Moreover, this shock, this experience of radical novelty, is not only a historical experience, but also an experience of history as such — albeit a specific type of history. In Reynolds’ terms, the excitement of new music is the experience of being on the very edge of the present as it hurtles into the future: it is the experience of the essential truth of human historical existence as constant progress and change. 

The retromania of contemporary music, characterized so astutely by Reynolds, fundamentally challenges this way of relating to music. Its contemporaneity consists precisely in its repudiation of progress, its refusal to create new sounds: in some cases by shamelessly or irreverently copying or reframing, and in other cases by carefully paying tribute to or unarchiving the music of the past. Either way, a denial of the inevitability or desirability of change. And this is why Reynolds condemns it.

4
In the wake of Retromania, the world of music criticism has undeniably become increasingly “retro-sensitive.” The contemporary music critic hears retro everywhere.

Of course, with the likes of YouTube, Wikipedia, Spotify, The Pirate Bay, Discogs, and a vast data-sea of blogs at their disposal, it is increasingly easy for them to do so. Struggling for a reference? Google it! Wondering which precise Ash Ra Tempel record the new Emeralds record sounds like? Spend just a few minutes surfing YouTube! 

The result is a now almost ubiquitous form of music criticism which we call “retro-historicism.” It can be found in the printed music press of The Wire, NME, and Rolling Stone, and most predominantly, of course, on the web. In essence, its critical project is the reduction of music criticism to a form a historical list-making: a mechanical exercise in influence fishing, the mere identification and cataloging of historical reference points before moving on to pass judgment, as if that were in any way sufficient. 

All this is not a tribute to or a continuance of Reynolds’ project, but a depressing performance of precisely the approach to music he condemned. Contemporary music criticism has become infected by its own version of retromania — in other words, its own obsession with the past. Although, rhetorically, such criticism’s appeal to history projects a certain kind of critical rigor, it is our belief that retro-historicism involves nothing less than the abandonment of the critical task. 

Read on at TMT

Sunday, October 20, 2013

oneohtrix point never: r plus seven (warp)


R Plus Seven is Daniel Lopatin’s fourth full-length release under the Oneohtrix Point Never moniker, and his first for the pioneering Warp Records. It’s a perfect home for him. There are few artists currently working whose output has been as restlessly forward thinking: even as it is also heavily referential and thoroughly postmodern. Pulling off that balance has been Oneohtrix Point Never’s greatest trick: to make music that is at once overtly conceptual and yet thoroughly listenable.

Slowly but surely over the course of the last 5 years, Lopatin has increasingly moved away from his roots in ambience and noise. Whereas 2011’s Replica was an unsettling collage of vocal fragments, fractured loops and hazy half-memories, R Plus Seven finds Lopatin working primarily with ‘generic’ synth-sounds and presets. From the canned pipe-organ that opens the record, to the ready-made strings and choirs, arpeggiators and e-pianos that feature throughout, somehow Lopatin is able to carve out something strange and exquisite. As if to say, these distinctions we like to make between generic and authentic, prefab and original, banal and transcendent are less clear cut than we often imagine. There is real beauty even in the apparently mundane, just as the unique and soulful quickly resolves itself into monotonous convention. Even Mozart used presets, after all. It’s just that he called his an orchestra.

Originally posted at PBS106.7fm

Friday, October 11, 2013

sky needle: end games (bruit direct disques)



Man, oh man, it’s been a great few weeks for videos. First came Oneohtrix Point Never’s amazing (and sadly temporarily non-existent) collaborative techno-erotic exploration with Jon Rafman. Next came Tim Hecker’s exquisitely warped and washed-out gothic video for “Black Refraction,” a track from his forthcoming album Virgins. Now, viewers are presented with this little bit of genius from Brisbane’s Sky Needle.

So simple and yet so totally intense and absolutely effective, like some sort of primitive psychedelia, build, build, building to its demented Dionysian climax.

ME AH BOY THE STAR OF THE HEAD BORN A STAR YOU THAT STYLE THE FLOOR FLAWED WE ARE VILE THE GASSED OF DOOR PLAN BORED IS BY THE WAR RYE KNOW EYE WE ARE BY THE GUEST OF THE HEAD BORE A PIE THE BOAR HIGH RISE HORSE BEER OR MILES THROUGH OUT THE N I G H T BUY BILE STARTS SKY ONE WHY WHALES BE BEE OUT SIDE WALK THE…

And what are these words now but squawks of sound and passion: phlegm, lungs, loud, wind, whine, throat, thrust?

(UNINTELLIGIBLE) WE ARE SO HOT SO SOLAR…

In promotion of their latest album, Debased Shapes (out NOW on Bruit Direct Disques), Sky Needle just finished a European tour alongside Melbourne skuzz-rock act Mad Nanna. If you dig Debased Shapes, make sure you check out 2012’s Rave Cave. It’s similarly fucked up, but in the best possible way, of course.

on tmt

gil michell: no friends (this thing)


I want to call this footwork. I mean, just check that percussion. But if this is footwork, it’s certainly not a strain we’ve heard before. This particular mutation — the latest offering from Melbourne label This Thing — is deep and mellow. Beats like this have never sounded so cool, so totally chill. Seriously, this is what it’d sound like if you gave Traxman’s “Footworkin on Air” a couch, a couple of brews, and a Valium.

“No Friends” is the first single to surface from a new collaborative project between This Thing stalwarts Galapagoose (Gil) and Wooshie (Michell). And it sees them trading in their wonky, disjointed hip-hop for a much more ambient, contemplative sound. For now, the vinyl’s only available to pre-order, but I’ve already copped a listen, and man it’s good: #forserious. New territory for both artists, no doubt about it. Or maybe even just straight up new territory. New ground being — oh so cooly — trod…

on TMT

friendships: i'm an impressionist, you're dumb: a compilation of bass tracks


friendships entered the room. [1:22 AM]
tmtcrew entered the room.
squirrell_nuts entered the room.

*Type /help for a list of commands.

Friend_ships: DAMN [1:22 AM]
M I S H A: LOL [1:22 AM]
CliffOrd //M//: Hi! [1:22 AM]
Friend_ships: waaaaaaaaaa? [1:22 AM]

M I S H A: I’m an impressionist [1:23 AM]
Friend_ships: You’re dumb [1:23 AM]
JP∆rk: Ur a Drag [1:23 AM]
JP∆rk: Drop that B A A S S S S [1:23 AM]
Skinimin: word [1:23 AM]

M R P: 1am (slow release) is tiiiiiight [1:23 AM]
CliffOrd //M//: mmdammmmmnnn [1:24 AM]
RaRakin: represent [1:24 PM]
Friend_ships: who the hell is squirrel_nuts!? [1:24 AM]

TMT

Sunday, February 3, 2013

scissor lock - churn (self released)


Let’s begin with that cover. Because it’s not so much a cover as a framing device. A freeze frame actually. Taken from the exuberant video to JB’s “Beauty and the Beat” just as a drop of water partly blurs his face. 

What is captured here? A number of different things, I think. In stillness, movement. In intimacy, distance. In celebrity, a void. And in the familiarity and pleasure of pop, a strangeness: a distortion.

It’s the last of these pairs that seems to interest Marcus Whale. As one half of Collarbones, and in particular on the remarkable “Hypothermia” from their second full-length Die Young, he’s been responsible for some of the freshest sounding “pop” these ears have heard in a long while. Which is to say a kind of mutant strain of it: at once totally reverent of the mainstream and, at the same time, actively subversive of it. As if to say: yes, yes, I LOVE the Biebster’s “One Time,” I really do; I love its energy and its sincere enthusiasm, but wouldn’t it be better if it sounded like this? Wouldn’t it be better if experimentalism and pop hadn’t become so antithetical? You know, like back in the day when Aaliyah and Timbaland were kicking it? Or like some of Yasutaka Nakata’s recent production work for J-Pop sensations Perfume?

Churn (free download here) is Whale’s first solo release as Scissor Lock, following an excellent early-2012 collaboration with Thomas William. It’s less direct, less upbeat than his stuff with Collarbones, but it’s no less potent. Heavily processed voices drift over slippery synths and gently skittering beats on “Outer Space.” And the sparkling, metallic drones on “Churn” and “I guess” recall Oneohtrix Point Never’s Returnal. Except, with the distant and heavily treated vocals added in for good measure, perhaps this is closer to Laurel Halo’s phenomenal Quarantine (TMT Review), yet another experiment in the sonics of posthumanity, the experience of being always already mediated. Nowhere is this clearer than on the appropriately titled “None”: a near total effacement of self, the pop mainstream’s obsession with Auto-Tune taken to its logical conclusion. 

It’s as if with Collarbones Whale was trying to show how pop could be otherwise — more interesting, more experimental. And with Scissor Lock, he’s trying to re-imagine the experimental underground through the lens of pop. Which is to say we could read the cover image to Churn exactly the other way round. Not as a distorted take on pop. Rather, the focus here is precisely on the splash of water, the distortion. That’s where our attention is being directed. And what we’re being invited to see/hear is the pop that was always latent behind it, waiting to peak through.


Originally posted on TMT here

Friday, January 25, 2013

ECO VIRTUAL: VIRTUAL大気中分析 ( Advanced Climate Research & Analysis)


Vaporwave is dead. Long live vaporwave! What does it mean when a genre reaches its maximum saturation and influence to date long after its obituary has been written? Especially when that genre is so closely related to hauntology? And when its methods are so easily replicable? Or appear to be? At what point is a replica of a genre entirely premised on the logic of the replica (which is also to say its impossibility) no longer good enough? Which of vaporwave’s many afterlives will endure? And which will fade into the ether?

By pushing the genre’s techniques in new and interesting directions, Vektroid has already begun to answer some of these questions. With ECO VIRTUAL, things are less clear. On one level, this is total vwave boilerplate, a perfect clone. And yet there’s something really nice about the conceptual integrity here (the videos, courtesy of EcoVirtualTV work particularly well). Not so much innovative as a perfect realization of the genre’s already extant associations with weather: both its corporate soundtrack and the connotations of climate, ambiance, mood alteration, biomanagement, and perhaps even the stratospheric or transcendent.


naps - 7" (self-released)


A bit behind on the ball on this one. Sorry folks. I blame the holidays. But it’s too good to miss! Melbourne producer naps first caught my attention last year with a quality little EP called earthsea on This Thing. Watery, degraded, tropical, new age… and probably other words too; it was a genuinely intriguing proposition. Well, the follow-up is even better. The territory is similar sonically: still pretty chill, but with slightly more emphasis on the loping, disjointed beats. And there’s a definite weirdness here, something slightly uncanny about the lounge-y sample (is it even a sample? does it matter? maybe!) on “kids” and both the choice and treatment of the vocal on “squai.”

I’m struggling to think of comparisons actually. Daniel Lopatin by way of Dolphins into the Future maybe? Except that there’s a definite hip-hop element here too. I’d suggest you file it alongside TMT fave ahnnu, who (not coincidentally) turns up with a whacked-out remix here. Both artists are doing exciting things in what seems to be a particularly fertile backwater of the global beat-making community that has apparently made Soundcloud its home. It’s here evidently that, as 2012 becomes 2013, new territory is being carved. But you knew that already…

Played a killer set recently for BoilerRoomTV too. Was rad.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

emeralds: just to feel anything (editions mego)


Emeralds are doubly anachronistic. It’s not just that they’re retro. They aren’t even retro in a particularly contemporary way. With vaporwave, 2012 saw the culmination of a logic that had partly begun in the mid noughties with hauntology and hypnagogic pop. Ariel Pink, Burial, Oneohtrix Point Never, James Ferraro, Ghost Box, Not Not Fun. This sort of music always had a certain “aboutness” to it. Burial wasn’t reproducing rave; he was mourning it. Ariel Pink wasn’t just resurrecting the pop of yesteryear; he was remembering it. On “Artifact” from 2005’s tellingly entitled Worn Copy, he sings through a fog of hypnagogic fuzz “Never forget the Golden Age… This is an artifact of that.” Both lyrically and sonically, this was music about other music. And that was a large part of what made it interesting.

This was the logic that vaporwave took up this year and radicalized. In doing so, it introduced a different regime of art-practice to the musical avant-underground: the readymade. Unlike seapunk with which it was regularly and erroneously lumped, vaporwave was always more than just a “sound,” a shared archive or set of production techniques. At its most radical, what it did was interrupt the logic of modernism. By dramatically foregrounding the act of appropriation, precisely by refusing to be “original” in the conventional sense of the term, it made the listening experience all about that original; maybe even about the discourse of originality itself. Either way, it seemed to be adopting some sort of critical position. And the impossibility of ever determining once and for all whether this amounted to endorsement or disavowal was a crucial part of the intrigue.

In other words, vaporwave did for music what Duchamp, Warhol, and Koons had done before in visual art. But it also did something else, something more. Vaporwave wasn’t simply derivative of a familiar logic; it extended and deepened it. In its musicality, its sonority, vaporwave had a fleshiness, a sensuality to it that even the biggest, brightest Koons never managed. Vaporwave was always more than just a conceptual gesture, in other words, a mere staging of the undecidability of the critical task. It enfolded you in the experience of that undecidability, held you in it, really forced you to feel it: to notice your attention coming in and out of focus as the album unfolded, at turns indifferent, the sound just washing over you, genuinely compelled and occasionally, yes, disgusted.

Emeralds’ relationship with the past is of a different brand entirely. What’s more, after vaporwave, it feels outdated and, to these ears anyway, uninteresting. Having originally made a name for themselves as a drone outfit, Emeralds officially “crossed over” with 2010’s Does It Look Like I’m Here (TMT Review). For the first time, there were melodies, song structures, and a distinctly “pop” sensibility to add to the neo-kosmiche new age vibes. Mark McGuire’s guitar noodlings took a distinctly proggy turn, and it all started to sound a lot like mid-to late-70s Klaus Schulze and Manuel Göttsching. These weren’t exactly slavish recreations. It was as if Emeralds had simply decided to pick up and continue to explore a genre that had last touched base with the zeitgeist some 30 or so years previously.

Nothing has changed on their most recent outing.