Wednesday, September 21, 2005

here's that music overload piece from '95 i did for pulse, doesn't converge too much with nick southall's piece except for weird coincidence of allusion to Astral Weeks, his inert response to which kinda disproves my claim to its time-defying eminence


The other day, I decided to finally clear the backlog. As a rock critic, music floods through my doors; some 100 + CD's had accrued over the course of a year, items I'd never had a chance to play, but had held onto because they looked intriguing. I thought it would be easy to whizz through, sample a few tracks from each and cast the bulk of 'em out; I think of myself as pretty merciless when it comes to aesthetic adjudication. Five hours later, with throbbing ears and aching back, and with two-thirds of the pile still unplayed, I was dismayed by how much stuff seemed 'good', how little was capable of being instantly dismissed. Glumly, I came to a conclusion that'sbeen lurking at the back of my mind for five or six years: that there is simply too much 'valid' music being made for the world to handle. We're drowning, deluged by pernicious adequacy, and as we go under we experience a peculiar new emotion--the boredom of sheer abundance.

One example out of countless: Paths, Prints is one of my favourite albums, but I swear that fucker Jan Garbarek releases some new solo LP or collaborationon ECM every three months. How much piercing, plangent, dawn-rising-over-the-fjords beauty can one human being absorb?

Faced with the MUSIC OVERLOAD, you can respond in two ways: by struggling to keep up with all the diversity on offer, or by narrowing youraural horizons, focussing on one obsession. You can either be a generalist or (to coin a ghastly word) a genre-ist.

Generalists tend to be populists, they believe that the music that matters is the stuff that leaves the ghetto of a particular style and commands the commonground. Genre-ists, by comparison, have come to terms with the postmodern idea that we live in a culture of margins orbiting a collapsed centre. In rock terms, this means that the era of Big Figures who allegedly Speak For Us All, i.e the Dylans, Lennons, Springsteens etc, is over and dead; that this is the age of genres--thrash-metal, industrial, ambient techno, lo-fi, G-funk, swingbeat,trip hop, ad infinitum--styles that speak only to their own. Moreover,genre shave an innate tendency to fragment still further (there's already at least three sub-genres of thrash, four sub-styles of jungle, and so on), with the result that the "we" that each style/scene addresses gets smaller and smaller.

These days, rock that purports to speak for Everybody--bands like U2,REM, Pearl Jam--is just a genre itself, one among many. Call it 'classic rock', in sofar as it's steeped in the same late '60s and early '70s values as the music played on classic rock radio, and because when classic rock stations addcontemporary bands to their playlists it's always only Bands Who SaySomething (like Pearl Jam, U2, REM etc). If you're a genre-ist, though, you don't care a fig for some bygone and probably mythical Unity that rock bands were once supposed to marshal into being.You like the specificity, the genre-icity, of the style you're into (the lo-fi-ness of lo-fi, the junglism of jungle), not its potential to transcend its local audience and reach out to the mass. You dig the fact that it speaks an idiolect (a specialist language, a tribal slang). Artists from a particular scenewho attempt to translate its idiom into mass-speak--Moby with techno, Trent Reznor with industrial--are therefore treated with suspicion by thegenre-ists. By definition, they're not cutting edge, because the edge is what's always pushing the style further out from universality.

Personally, I'm in an odd, unenviable predicament: I believe that the most interesting music is usually made by genre-extremists as opposed to crossover artists. But I can see the point of too many genres, I want to cream off the best each has to offer. Then there's the universe of musicoutside rock and dance..., jazz, classical, Javanese Gamelan, Mongolian throat-singing, musique concrete, space age bachelor pad music-- a legion of genres seem to glare at me reproachfully, beseeching: 'check me out, I've got something to give!' These days, I feel a weird relief when I discover a genre that I simply can't see the point of, like thrash-metal or the New Country. In the age of cultural overload, the invention of new prejudices ,the erection of boundaries and barriers, is vital to one's mental health.

But such bigotries offer only slight relief, because the wealth of the past is beckoning, thanks to the CD reissue explosion, and its knock-on effect, the glut of used vinyl. So many eras, so many styles to check out: Southern boogie, Krautrock, mid-70s dub, Sixties garage punk, British folk-rock....Each could easily absorb a lifetime's worth of obsessiveness. Which brings me to another realisation: how I'd hate to be 16 now and getting into music for the first time. Not only would you have the contemporary deluge to filter, you'd have to catch up with the past. Let's say that approximately the same amount of great music is produced each year (averaging out the fluctuations within specific genres);that means that each new year's harvest of brilliance must compete with thepast's ever more mountainous heap of greatness. How many records released in 1995 are gonna be as worthwhile an acquisition, for that hypothetical 16 yearold, as Van Morrison's Astral Weeks?

For a rock critic, the problem of TOO MUCH MUSIC is an occupational hazard. But sometimes I wonder if it'd would actually be much different if I wasn't a professional fan (an interesting oxymoron). I vaguely remember thatI was verging on my current predicament even before I started getting paid to listen to music. Ten years ago, I was buying records thatonly got listened to once; I was taping albums off friends and acquaintances, or from libraries, for future reference, or "just in case"; there's a few acquisitions that I still haven't gotten round to removingfrom the shrinkwrap. Thank the Lord that I've never been able to see the point of bootlegs.

Sometimes I wonder what psychic hole I'm filling with this neuroticstockpiling of sound. But my real concern is the way that stockpiling and skimming affect the depth of my listening experience. It's the old opposition of quantity versus quality. Inundated with music, how is it possible to have a relationship with a record? There are albums from when I was 16, when my collection was still in single figures, that I know inside out; records like The Slits' Cut, whose every rhythm guitar tic andpunky-dread inflection is engraved on my heart, albums like PiL's Metal Box or (a bit later) The Smiths that I lived inside for months. Music overload destroys the conditions that allow music to weave itself in andaround the fabric of your life, to MEAN something.

Of course, as you grow older, you find it harder to get fixated, anyway; you have less dead time on your hands, you don't tend to have the same emotional voids to fill. Nonetheless, I still feel that the adolescent mode of engaging with music, i.e. obsession, is the "true" way. Strangely enough, in amongst my hyper-eclectic attempts to keep up with the gamut of modern musics, I have also developed an obsession, whose adolescent urgency I cherish: jungle, a UK-specific post-rave mutant that deliriously blends hiphop's rhythm-science with techno's futuristic textures.

Like any obsession, jungle is literally an addiction. I want that buzz that even a mediocre jungle track gives me, and that eclipses the appeal ofalmost everything but the very best from other genres. 'Cos if you're a genre-ist, it's the sound (the distinctive production aura of ECM, the groove of '70s dub, and so on), that you're after, not 'songs'. Obsession destroys perspective. To a non-convert, it all sounds the same; that's how I feel about styles that donothing for me, like thrash--to me, an undifferentiated blur of flagellatingchords, tempo gear-changes and vomitous vocals. But the thrash partisan listens from a different vantage point, can track the microscopicpermutations and evolutions of the genre. As a junglist, I too thrill tothe play of sameness and difference, the way that the style bends and contorts as it absorbs external influences yet still remain JUNGLE. Ifyou're obsessed, there's no such thing as overload: too much is never enough.

As a music journalist, I'm in the frontlines of what may be a crisis for the post-industrial West in the 21st Century: cultural overproduction. For it's not just music, it's the entire mediascape that (with the cable revolution, on-line, desk-top publishing etc) is afflicted by an excess ofaccess. There's gonna be too many creators, not enough consumers. I can imaginea future World Government doing something similar to what the European Community, faced by surplus 'food mountains', does when it subsidises farmers to leave their fields fallow, i.e. pay people to be uncreative.

The punk ethos of anyone-can-do-it lives large in music, from lo-fi indie to home-made techno, and that's fine. But when you move from amateur music-making to putting out a record, you're staking a claim on people's time. So my message to music-makers is: think hard before you put it on disc and out into themarketplace. And to music-lovers:: if you're lucky enough to get obsessed with something, go with flow, forget about the rest. Music should be precious, not something you channel-surf through.

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