6/24/2007

My Finger, Not on the Pulse

I've long maintained to folks who somehow think that I go to a lot of shows that, in fact, with the exception of annual sojourns to Irving Plaza to see Built to Spill for 20-odd dollars, I pretty much make a point of seeing two bands exclusively. No, seriously. I really don't go to shows. I don't know a thing about music these days. If you don't believe me, you can take a look at my purchases on iTunes and see how much they've been played. (This might also tell you something about my relationship to music of late -- I love a proper music store, but I'm incredibly lazy and just end up downloading stuff from the comfort of my bed. I'm a terrible person.) One of the first things I purchased when I got this laptop 18 months ago was Bloc Party. My most recent download was "Freedom," the great Wham song from their first album, Make it Big; I was walking through Burbank Airport a few weeks ago, heard it on the soundsystem (no joke!) and had to buy it on the spot. I've listened to "Freedom" 17 times in the past two weeks. I still don't know what Bloc Party sound like. I'm not trying to claim some weird nostalgia-cred here, or to say that I'm some sort of post-scenester who's beyond all music trends or something. To be sure, part of it has to do with the fact that I'm more willing to devote more of my curiosity, time, and energy on food. I mean, I already have a lot of music -- but I'm always going to need more food. But I think most of it is sheer exhaustion: I seriously can't keep up with what the kids are listening to. I get most of my current-music-updates via late-night viewings of MTV2's Subterranean, and beyond being deeply baffled by the state of music videos, I spend much of that viewing hour with a furrowed brow, trying to keep all the names straight. What's more, half the time I can't seem to tell the bands apart, musically-speaking. I mean, they already look the same (4 or 5 scruffy-haired fellas, one or two usually bespectacled, all wearing ironic t-shirts with an occasional sweater vest), and then on top of that they all just converge as a sonic blur in my head. (Don't get me started on the ridiculousness/sameness of their names; it took me a couple of minutes during tonight's Subterranean viewing to remember that Cold War Kids was not the same as Fall Out Boy.) Even the bands I once quite enjoyed, and kept up with, are now popping up on Subterranean hawking their wares with such a strangely low level of actual creativity. (I'm talking to you, Modest Mouse. I don't care if Johnny Marr is playing in the band now. What happened to you?) I'm not producing any grand new theory of culture in suggesting that there seems to be such an emphasis on the next new thing that newness overshadows the thing that should matter: the music itself. I'm not naive enough to suggest that good bands are free of image or shtick; I understand that even only marginally 'popular' music requires a certain degree of packaging. But newness seems to amount to sameness, when it comes right down to it. And these days, what with these crazy internets and all, there seems to be such an emphasis on being the blog to first discover some new, unknown upstart band, in order to get bragging rights -- to the detriment of, well ... actually enjoying the music? I'm also not suggesting that there aren't some lovely bands out there, making interesting music that is, in fact, unique, challenging, and still accessible. But it feels like it's getting harder and harder to separate wheat from the chaff. This is probably why I'm comforted every Sunday afternoon, when I watch the DVRed episode of 120 Minutes that airs at some ungodly hour on VH1 Classics the night before. It's not like music from 20 years ago was any more or less original or shticky; but it's music with which I feel an actual connection. Part of it is nostalgia, sure. But part of it is also a very palpable sense of pleasure. Actual enjoyment. Have you listened recently to Alphaville's "Forever Young"? It's an amazing song, full of earnest keyboarded energy and heartfelt, emote-y vocals. (And hell, there are synthesized trumpets in the outro!) Lead singer Marian Gold (real name: Hartwig Schierbaum) sings it like he means it. My god, he really wants to be forever young. After listening to the song, I want to be forever young. Indie rock is so goddamn self-aware and self-referential these days that all of that smartness seems to have drained the music of a certain human quality. I'm not going to go so far as to suggest that it's lacking heart, but I will say that it might want to reconsider that layer of affect it puts on every morning. Such a move might do wonders for its creative output, and its ability to stand out in an otherwise pretty unremarkable, nondescript crowd; you know, wheat, chaff, that whole thing. Hell, maybe then I'd be able to keep up.

6 comments:

more mad said...

that's o.k. i was chastised by someone born in 1981 awhile back for not knowing who the roots were. to be fair i was aware of them, just not that interested. this was coming from the same girl who had never heard of wham so go figure...

social epidemiology said...

even though I don't share your propensity to listen to the same song over and over, I have the same problem keeping up with/track of contemporary indie rock. Actually, i thought it might just be that I wasn't getting all my music tips from you like I did a couple of years ago, so its sort of a relief that you can't deal either. But there is this to consider....maybe the music isn't really changing. Its probably always been difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, and always easier in retrospect, when its been presorted by what survived. Perhaps our problem is not that the music has become nondescript, but that we no longer have the social sources to tap into that help us keep track. In other words, we are experiencing the common alienation from pop culture that happens to people who get old enough that said culture is no longer marketed in their direction. I like to think I have a chance of staying "forever young" in spirit if not in body (by the way, I bought that song of itunes not two weeks ago), but I'm beginning to wonder.

ht said...

Digging through my files, I just found this oldish piece of writing on Benjamin and the notion/experience of newness:

In his Expose of 1935, a preliminary articulation of the main components of the Passagenwerk, Benjamin writes that, “[n]ewness is a quality independent of the use value of the commodity. It is the origin of the illusory appearance that belongs inalienably to images produced by the collective unconscious.” Benjamin situates this newness and its correlative ‘images’ in the 19th century, with the manifestation of those images in commodity forms. The newness of particular commodity forms in a given temporal moment masks the sameness of those forms with previous ones. It is, for Benjamin, the ‘eternal return of the same’: forms altered only superficially but with each incarnation, praised and promoted in similar ways. [...] Such newness is materialized most transparently with fashion and the ideology and changing ‘styles’ and trends; newness is “the source of that illusion of which fashion is the tireless purveyor.” Benjamin argues that through our position in the present, we are able to see how those past valorizations of ‘the new’ are and were problematic and shortsighted – and how, ultimately, ‘the new’ operates as an empty category into which different, everchanging forms are inserted.

um. anyway. I think that a forum such as MySpace exemplifies the strange ways that music is at once more accessible (even if it's not directed at our age group specifically) and completely about packaging so as to feel new/different/unique/whathaveyou. And there are so many music profiles out there ... how to distinguish? Technology gives us more ways to separate wheat from chaff, but it doesn't make that work any easier, it seems.

Carson said...

I don't know if newness is at the heart of your (our) indie music woes. The problem is: Indie has become mainstream - such that any new 'indie' band popping up immediately enters the commercial. This has more than a little to do with the prevalence of 'quirk' and the otherwise unfathomable appearance of cephalopods in design. The idiosyncratic is what the market desires.

It seems much more subversive to like Beyonce or Britney, no? They, at least, posses more identity than any 'Cold War Kid' or 'Fall Out Boy' combined.

Michael said...

i don't know, despite the fact that i'm growing older, i still can't shake the feeling that music is just simply not changing/progressing as much/as fast as it used to. a few months back, i was struck by the fact that "sgt. pepper" and "never mind the bollocks" are separated by less than *ten* years. ten frickin' years. consider for a second the whole series of revolutions/innovations between the two. now consider what has happened since 1997 (pick your favorite indie album from 1997, i don't feel like looking stuff up right now...the shins' first album is already *six years old*). and it's not just indie music of course. yesterday i was listening to notorious b.i.g.'s "ready to die" (don't ask) from 1993, around the same time as "slanted and enchanted" i think, and basically nothing's changed in hip-hop (or indie music) besides a series of retro-nostalgic revivals. that's 14 years and the same amount of time separating "anarchy in the uk" from "love me do". what's happening?

you might think these are unfair choices and in some ways they are, but i think the point remains. and it's a really fun game to play with yourself...

ht said...

i don't want to reduce any of this discussion, or my own thoughts, to simple formulas or platitudes, but i do think that to a great extent, the new isn't really about the new but about the next. and that doesn't address the entire problem of what's happened to music, but i do think the market has conflated new and next to the point that it's not about what hasn't been seen/heard before in an originality context, but what hasn't been seen/heard before in a purely heretofore-unseen/heard context.

1997: ok computer, either/or (elliott smith), i can hear the heart beating as one. sigh.