Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The glittering metropolis towards which Paulie and Kylie are driving in Words and Music—“the capital city of Pleasure”, “the concrete city of information”—always struck me as no place I’d really care to visit. I imagined it as being something like an unimaginably vast and shinily sterile music megastore. That, or like the interior of an iPod, an impossibly dense, coldly seething non-space of sound transubstantiated into data. At one point Morley describes it as “a city of lists”, which make me wonder if he actually knew about iPods when he wrote the book, or even more intriguingly, somehow sensed they were coming, that the logic of music in the digital era dictated that a device like that would come into existence.

Well what do you know, Apple, or their ad agency, appear to have read W & M, whose subtitle, lest we forget, is A History Of Pop In The Shape Of A City. Just look at their new iPod/I-Tunes TV commercial. “Frantic City" is the spot’s title and it shows a frenetically self-assembling cityscape of skyscrapers and apartment blocks built out of CD covers, which collapse like houses of cards and deliquesce into a dazzling stream of audio-visual data that's then decanted at a furious bit-rate into, you guessed it, an iPod. Advertising Age comments, “Well, yes, an iPod loaded with a thousand or so songs from iTunes is something of a city of music” , and singles out for special praise the commercial's soundtrack, "Cubicle" by Rinocerose.” A Pro-Tooled and techno-turbocharged version of Jet/Vines-style garage punk, the tune’s chorus sneers “you spend all your time/in a little cubicle/a cubicle”. The implication seems to be that I-Tunes can free you up into a world of hearing outside the box, a brave new multiverse of shattered genre-barriers and listening-without-prejudice. Which is intriguing in light of the emerging critique of open-mindedness. Might there not be a sense in which Kapital wants and requires omnivorous consumers, non-partisan and promiscuously eclectic? And that conversely, obsession and fidelity are fundamentally opposed to its interests. Obsession, after all, asserts the irreplaceableness of the object of desire, its singularity and pre-eminence over all the other goods on the market; it rejects the idea of "plenty more fish in the sea". Devout fans of a particular band take themselves out of the market: at a certain point, there are simply no more things to buy (although the industry has tried to exploit the fixated and loyal by encouraging reconsumption—all those Deluxe Expanded double-disc versions of albums you already own, endless live DVDs, and so forth—a case perhaps of the corporate music biz imitating the black market of bootlegs and foreign-TV-appearance video-comps that has served fandom for so long). The ultimate example of fanaticism’s anti-consumerist logic is the diehard who arrests pop time at the lost golden age—the Teddy Boy or old skool raver, the period fetishist or genre patriot who only plays the golden oldies, over and over and over again. True believers and keep-the-faithers like these are no use to Kapital because they have opted out of its endless cycles of neophilia and obsolescence, the turnover that ensures a healthy turnover.

A few weeks ago I referred to Words and Music as Pop-ism’s Mein Kampf but I should really have said Das Kapital—what the book imparts is actually surprisingly non-egocentric, much closer to a structuralist diagram of how pop works, where its logic is leading. The City is a place where “all that’s solid melts into air.” Music becomes insubstantial—in the sense that it sheds all those various forms of “substance” prized by rockism, unburdening itself of the ponderous encumbrances of social context and biographical input that tether it to the Real, the freight of content and intent that keep it weighted down with Weightiness. Near the end of the book, Morley writes of pop’s role in a transition “from rooted reality dwelling into a rootless post-reality heaven and hell, where desires can be satisfied instantly, where pleasure can be constant… where our lives are run by remote companies in remote control of our needs and wants, where everything that has ever happened is available, all at once, all around us, in the universe in the shape of a city mashed into a room slipped inside our head.” That passage is the only wrinkle of ambivalence in the odd closing chapter, which is disconcerting because it doesn’t read like Morley but like something out of an early 90s edition of Mondo 2000 or Wired: techno-utopian verging on capitalist-mystical. The city where “everything that has ever happened is available” sounds bizarrely similar to the loony notion of a Universal Library written about recently by Kevin Kelly in a New York Times Magazine cover article—he envisages every book and every magazine article ever written, in all languages, and eventually every movie/TV program/cultural artifact EVER, being gathered into one vast database accessible to all—which glorious prospect isn’t enough for Kelly, who then imagines the Universal Library getting miniaturized and compressed into an iPod-size device that everyone of us will carry around wherever we go (presumably because on the subway to work you might just need to refer to an editorial from an 1865 editorial in the Brattleboro Reformer, or a Sanskrit scroll, or...). Where Morley writes about how in his city of sonic information every item on every (play)list leads to another set of lists, Kelley drools about the prospect of hyperlinks that connects the concepts and key words in any given text to myriad other instances, a
paper(less) chase of endlessly receding references and footnotes, a dementia of reading lists and annotations (share your margin-scribblings with your friends!). Both, intriguingly, allude to the immortal nature of these edifices of data, a hint of that extropian hope that it’s possible to cheat death. Kelley’s pocket-portable micro-cosmopolis, Morley/Apple’s “city of music” that fits into a cigarette packet-sized memory box---these are the latest versions of the Singularity that all West Coast techno-utopians seem to believe is nigh, the point where the exponenential curve of Progress reaches vertical: a smiley-face version of the Apocalypse, in which the accumulation of all Knowledge = Enlightenment = World Unity aka the Global Village/Love’s Body/the BwO/etc. A fantasy of Total Connectivity as the End of Difference and the End of History. What’s repressed in this scenario is the fact of finitude—the finitude of resources, of an individual’s time; the limits to the sensorium’s ability to process information (there’s a speed at which stuff isn’t even experienced as such). The liquefaction of culture is actually the liquidation of culture......

No, this City doesn't sound like a place I'd enjoy living at all.
Thinking about that Greil Marcus quote that got uTopianTurtleTop riled up--

“I think Anita Baker is ridiculous. Any time you hear somebody bringing back this kind of genteel, effete black music--the same number the Pointer Sisters pulled in the early '70s when they gave concerts with ‘Black Tie Recommended’ printed on the tickets--it's an incident in class politics that has nothing to do with music”

--it struck me that, regardless of its truth value, this is strong writing (even though actually speech, of course, from an 1986 interview, and off the cuff)... pithy, punchy, acerbic, provocative. The same applies to the summary dismissals and caustic expressions of indifference towards various other critically sanctioned or popular artists from 1986 that interviewer Phil Dellio lines up for Marcus’s target practice: Jesus & Mary Chain (disdained for their coldness), Robert Cray (for the retro-combo of selfconsciousness and obsolescence), REM (for dull-as-dishwateriness). If he’d paused to reflect and had come up with a considered and “understanding” approach, one that responded to the artists “on their own terms” (examining how the contrivance and premeditation of the J&MC signified in its UK post-postpunk context, working out what college rock meant to its US middle-class audience)... well, he' d most likely have generated some prose that was altogether gut-less (lacking any visceral element; not taking a stance). I’d much rather have more strong, sweeping statements of this sort in the world, as opposed to the even-handed neutrality that one strand of Pop-ism leads to (the generalist professional doling out appreciation equitably across the spectrum of contemporary music.)

This idea of "strength" relates to Nietzche’s idea of cultures being at their most vigorous in their youth, before they become sagacious, suppleminded, over-civilised to the point of losing touch with their instinctive responses and will-to-power. K-punk glossed it well in an old Dissensus thread, talking about the malaise of self-relativising:

"There's a Nietzschean Last Man-type quality about historicizing analysis; one of Nietzsche's most prescient points about postmodern culture was that it would be killed by an obsession with the past, with its own 'positioning'. Such contextualization can only lead to the melancholy conclusion that all things pass, that everything that people once invested so much in is now dust etc. By contrast, Roman and Greek cultures were indifferent to history. They thought they were the only cultures.”

We all know better than the discophobes now, don't we... we know that they were wrong, and are totally confident that we, the enlightened ones, wouldn't have been among their number (just as none of us would haved been prog fans). But the culture that produced Comiskey Park also produced Led Zep IV and The Ramones.

A taste of where all this self-relativising is heading can be gleaned from two of the presentations at this year’s EMP. Example one: Nate Patrin’s critique of rockist snobbery towards blue-eyed soul (ie. Boz Scaggs, Hall & Oates, etc), an antipathy echoed in the Marcus interview where he takes a swipe at Ace’s “How Long” as representing the nadir of 70s radio (and didn't the singer in Ace end up singing Squeeze's "Tempted" and "Black Coffee in Bed"?) Beyond the
now-deemed-suspect distaste for blandness and emollient warmth, there are perfectly sensible reasons not to rate it that high (blue-eyed soul’s straightforward emulation of its source music makes it pretty redundant given the vast amount of the brown-eyed stuff already extant in the world). The EMP conference was dedicated to deconstructing the concept of Guilty Pleasures (these days it seems the only thing you should feel guilty about is your own feelings of guilt about liking anything--or worse, guilt-tripping others with your value judgements and taste-stances; anti-rockism is the attempt to remove an aesthetico-moral framework from music discussion). Now Carl Wilson of Zoilus is taking it to the next level with his the notion of the guilty displeasure , as presented at EMP and the subject of a future book. The idea here is that, actually, there is one thing to possibly feel guilty about, and that is your own dislikes and distastes, which seem involuntary but have ideological underpinnings and socially determined perspectives. This new frontier of fretful self-cancellation is being opened via the oeuvre of Celine Dion, which disgusts Carl but which reaction he intends to question or at least situate, Bourdieu-style. Seems to me "Celine = shite" is a truth we'd do well to continue to hold self-evident, an assumption worth leaving unexamined, and that at the end of his investigation Carl might find himself back where he started: repelled by Dion's music and, despite his better intentions, thinking less of her fans.

All of this has a slight air of the Maoist self–criticism session about it, party members and low-level bureaucrats calling themselves and others out for their crypto-bourgeois tendencies. So uTopianTurtletop drags Marcus’ Ranters and Crowdpleasers aka In the Fascist Bathroom collection of punk-related writings up before the tribunal for its meagre black-music content.

Which reminded me of a post I had meant to write a while back on, er, Pete Frampton and the Clash! This by way of one of Marcus’ several Clash pieces in Ranters. VH1 Classic had been playing those three Frampton videos taken from some superbowl arena circa 1976, and boggling at Frampton’s unctuous charisma (that eerily Tony Blair-like grin, that golden sun-child mane…. there’s something to be written about the Soft Male in American radio rock of the Seventies, e.g. Walter Egan ... Todd Rundgren’s sickening “Hello It’s Me” ... Lindsey Buckingham on the image level... others.... ) .... well it did strike me that this—the vacuous, rabbit-punching-the-air anthemicness of “Do You Feel Like We Do”, the sickly pandering mush of “Show Me the Way” and “Baby I Love Your Way”—really was the absolute pits for Seventies rock. Pursuing some other line of enquiry around that time, I strayed across Marcus’s Ranters profile of the Clash circa Give ‘Em Enough Rope and was surprised to find Frampton bookending the article (originally published in New West, September 1978). It starts with a quote on the making of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club movie, which starred Frampton and the Bee Gees, all about how the films ends with a huge no-expenses-spared party for rock royalty – “first-class transportation to Los Angeles, limousines, luxurious hotels, the finest champagne and food”. This decadence Marcus then juxtaposes with the image of Joe Strummer, as reported in ZigZag, attempting to tear down with his bare hands a huge barbed wire fence separating the band and the audience at a concert the Clash played in Belgium. Marcus ends the Clash piece with an anecdote that circles back to Frampton and the Sgt Pepper’s movie: Strummer and Jones recalling how, killing time in between recording sessions on the second album, they ended up at a movie theater watching the film, utterly grossed out by the final spectacle of “every ligger in LA” and coming away with an idea for the Give Em Enough Rope cover:

“These are the people who’ve made rock’n’roll what is it today,” Jones said, “and I think we owe them some sort of tribute. We’ll put every one of them on the sleeve of our record, just like the faces on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, every one hanging from---“

“Gallows,” offered Strummer.

“No,” said Jones thoughtfully. “Lampposts.

The choice was not without meaning: gallows are a sign of authority. Lampposts are what the kids in the Clash’s streets would use, if they had the chance, or took it.

The stance taken in this piece of writing—the fantasy scenario of popular justice* exacting retribution against a corrupt and parasitical rockstar ruling class; the conviction that a war for the soul of rock’n’roll was underway, the sense of absolute urgent necessity to take sides NOW… it seems a million years ago, seriously overblown, faintly ridiculous. It’s hard to recover a sense of what was at stake then that would warrant this murderous animosity towards such innocuous (in the grand scheme of things) sorts as Frampton & co. Yet there’s no doubt it’s a very strong piece of writing (there’s much more in between the start and the finish, including a startling assertion that the early Clash sound owes a huge amount to Trout Mask Replica – a bracingly unusual claim, if not quite convincing). In the end I would say-- although not a Clash-fan by any stretch and slightly bemused that anyone ever invested so much belief in the group--that I am on the side of writing like this....

* there is a distant relationship between the "tribunal" in Marcus's fantasy and the tribunal of anti-rockism--the latter is a way of creating sides and taking sides at a time when there isn't much going on in music to warrant such a polarisation. The heat of the argument has provided, I think, a surrogate for the urgency that in better times would come from the music itself. C.f. Nietzche's "in times of peace, the warlike man attacks himself".
Bunch of folk emailed to enlighten re. who the fuck Isis are. The album in question, Oceanic, represented “a real moment when the direction in metal shifted”, says John Darnielle, even though he personally is “lukewarm on the whole Big Painterly Gesture school of metal that Isis represents”. Far more enthused is Baal of Erase the World fame: “Isis are post-metal, really: no silliness, no solos, just awesome, gut-wrenching tidal riffs, surges of relentless power… Like MBV meets Black Sabbath via Neurosis 'Through Silver in Blood'…. a new kind of metallic wonder… utter majesty.” Sam Macklin takes a quite different view—“Isis are a not-very-good post-metal band”—but avers that the Low album that is getting the onstage-and-in-sequence recreation treatment—Things We Lost in the Fire--is verily their masterpiece (and flippineck, a second Low show has been added in response to “overwhelming demand” sez a new press release from the Don't Look Back people!*)

Still, the merits of the albums in question or even their genre-local epochal-ness wasn’t my point, which was simply to register bemusement that recordings that were relatively obscure and relatively recent—Oceanic only came out in 2002 ferfucksake!!--had so swiftly become grist for the retro mill.

Still I sense that I’m already moving out of the “this is deplorable” stage vis-a-vis all this anachronesis bizniz and am starting to feel more “bring it on!”… Like, why not see how grotesque and weird retromania can get... it feels like we’re getting close to some kind of brink, a total implosion of culture.

* in that same press release: a new night has been added to the Don’t Look Back season--John Martyn performing Solid Air, September 11th at the Barbican!!!!! Now that is something I would pay to see …

Friday, May 26, 2006

Next two instalments of footnotes at the Rip It Up site:

Chapter One on John Lydon and PiL's first year

Chapter Two (UK edition only) on Howard Devoto and Vic Godard

Big up to Nalin Taneja for doing such nice job with the design and structuring


and a profile of Green in the Guardian by me around the glorious new Scritti Politti album

(the director's cut of this is a lot more thickly detailed, I'll be putting it up on the Rip site shortly)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A Past Gone Mad #4

July 18th to July 26, London: the second annual Don't Look Back gig series--bands recreating onstage, in the original track sequence, one of their "classic" albums. Last time it was The Stooges and Patti Smith, this time the line-up is:

Ennio Morricone--Film Soundtracks (fair enuff, living legend)
Teenage Fanclub -- Bandwagonesque (hmmm, reasonably well loved, i spose)
Tortoise--Millions Now Living Will Never Die (weeeell)
Green On Red--Gas Food Lodging (wuh?!)
Girls Against Boys--Venus Luxure No 1 Baby (cmon!)
Nightmares On Wax--Smokers Delight (strickly supine stupor slippers'n'spliff sofa-listening surely?!?!)
Low--Things We Lost In The Fire (ferfuck'sfuckingsake!!!!@*@!???)
Isis--Oceanic (who the fuck are they even?!!?)


A Past Gone Mad #5

From the current issue of The Wire's 'Bitstream' news section:

London's Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) has awarded 10 thousand pounds to artist Jo Mitchell to stage a reenactment of a notorious 1984 ICA performance involving members of Einsturzende Neubauten and Fad Gadget's Frank Tovey, among others. Called Concerto for Voice and Machine, the event was legendarily chaotic, with members of the group attacking the wooden stage with pneumatic drills, purportedly in order to reach secret tunnels rumoured to run between government departments and Buckingham Palace underneath the Mall, and the audience joining in by tossing glasses into a cement mixer. It ended when ICA staff turned the power off. The reenactment is scheduled to take place in February 2007.

Does that mean ticket holders are allowed, or expected, to riot, smash up the stage, etc? Or will the mayhem all be enacted by performers, garbed in painstakingly authentic circa-1984/Immaculate Consumptive-type clothes and hair, like one of those fake Medieval villages you can visit with blacksmiths hammering at the anvil, milkmaids tugging teats and lugging pails, miscreants in the stocks, and so forth?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Peanut Butter gets started on the deconstruction of open-mindedness. I like the writing-as-prism analogy-- self as stained glass window versus unself as translucent plane. Especially cos of the submerged religious undercurrent (cueing ancient polarity of fanantix vs dilettantes, this-is-my-truth-tell-me-yours believers versus pleasure-principled agnostics). Neat too how the polarity slots onto the two different meanings of the word "catholic".
Woebot's post on Johnny Too Dark made me think, "Blimey, in a year's time, it'll be ten years since speed garage".

His latest post shows that in fact the UKG decade anniversary is already upon us--if you date the ignition point from Tina Moore's 1996 "Never Gonna Let You Go" , whence spawned diva-lick-as-siren vocal science (via "Ripgroove" et al) and the 2step rhythm (via Kelly G's Bump-N-Go rmx of "Never Gonna").

How the time flies...
Vivien Goldman's splendid The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers' Album of the Century is out now and she is having anreading/discussion/signing event in New York tomorrow Thursday 25th at 7PM---location is McNally Robinson, 50 Prince St.(between Lafayette and Mulberry).
video of Kode9 & Spaceape's "Audio Addiction"
link courtesy of jon wozencroft, two of whose students are responsible for the video

pedigree chum


a large-size jar of bovril

Friday, May 19, 2006

Crackergate has legs--the story reaches the pages of the New York Times. (The idea of anybody having accused Merritt of "rockism' is quite deeeeelicious... )

Link courtesy of uTopianTurtleTop, who throws more oil on the fire first here and then here and finally here

What I think of the Greil Marcus quote he's exhumed... Well firstly i blanch at the thought of some of the pronouncement i've made on music way back when being dug up and presented before the tribunal of today ( the thing to remember is these are all historically situated stances, stages on a journey to enlightenment....) But specifically re. Marcus ragging on Anita Baker's gentility as nothing to do with music but just an incident in "class politics". It' s not that he dislikes softer black music per se or in toto (look at all the love in Mystery Train for early '70s soul albeit with the rockism-legitimised element of the political anguish running through "Backstabbers"/"Papa Was A Rolling Stone" et al), what repelled him was Eighties quiet storm ... presumably for its quietism and complacency as much as the bourgie-bourgie black-tie respectability.... and the white equivalents of such anodyne self-absorption and slickness would have been just as repugnant/non-compelling to him. And me, at that point; I could imagine having made a similar remark about Anita Baker-type music and quite probably did. I always think of that kind of post-R&B soul as being like really nice furniture--a beautiful leather sofa or something. You can't really expect people to go against their gut tastes to the extent of embracing its antithesis, cos then you get writing that literally lacks a visceral element. Although, you can certainly acquire tastes and decondition prejudices. IIndeed 've actually developed a taste for that more emollient kind of R&B, bizarrely through the use of R&B diva licks in jungle and in UK garage. Indeed there's one specific Anita Baker song that has been utterly ransacked, there's about five different vocal licks in it that have been used over and over again all across the hardcore nuum. (Another factor: being older and more domesticity-oriented I can appreciate the desirability of a really nice sofa more now).

All these issues raised by Merrittgate (and this Marcus quote) dovetail beautifully with the P-ism/R-ism debate because they relate to this idea you get on the loony fringe of P-ism which is that listeners should step outside their own tastes/biases/preconceptions and achieve an impartial state in which things get understood "on their own terms." I don't think that is possible--not completely anyway--and I'm not sure it's particularly desirable, in terms of its effects of music writing. Oh, open-mindedness is good (although there's more to that statement to be unpacked, a lot more, but later for that; and as an ideal, catholicity tends to keep receding beyond one's grasp, given the dizzying multitude of kinds of music and sheer mass of sound) . But empty-mindedness, which is what a certain sort of "rid thyself of all preconceptions" strand of P-ism seems to propose, is not good. What are we, in the end, but our partialities (in both sense of the word)? Strong writing comes from a situated self, a self with preferences and history, but also blindspots. A piece of music (or any other cultural artefact) doesn't just happen to a listener; the person happens back. Experience is the chemical reaction between a cultural artifact and a self that carries plenty baggage with it. So this idea of achieving a self-erased and
de-valued subject position from which an ideologically "clear" experience of music X or genre Y can take place is an illusion. And not even a useful illusion.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Crackergate Pt 296: The Momus take, including witty use of the “a certain ratio” concept

Peanut Butter Words chips in re. P-ism, R-ism, etc
Profile of Joe Boyd by me in Time Out

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Rip It Up and Start Again compilation is out now on V2 Records--and here's a piece by me on it in the Guardian.
Further, and different, expressions of fatigue and/or exasperation with the popism vs rockism debate: Jeff Chang at his blog and Rob Horning at Marginal Utility (the blog of Pop Matters, which very name is anti-poptimistic in tone--Frithy not frothy!)

It's a pity they're called "rockism" and "popism" really, because if you start calling yourself a rockist (or a nu-rockist), people understandably think you're talking about electric guitars and rock being innately superior to other genres, whereas the fact is that the vast majority of electric-guitar based music of the last ooh maybe 20 years fails the nu-rockist's stringent criteria by its dearth of ambition/surprise/edge/shock-of-the-now/whatever axis of intensity one might wish to measure upon. And similarly if you say you're anti-popist, people assume that means you don't like any music in the charts, are a snob about popular culture, only listen to hideous harrowing noise, etc. (Topic for a future thesis: the absolute terror people have of being seen as a snob-- another sign of how culture has become the battleground for blocked egalitarian impulses that in another age would have found expression in actual you know politics) . So although it's true as Jeff argues that a certain kind of rockist a long time ago would have dismissed rap (along with disco, house, techno etc) as not proper music, in a more fundamental sense, hip hop (and this is in part the basis for Merritt's distaste for the music) is riddled with rockism--ideas and ideals to do with authenticity, street credibility, realness, the underground, rebellion, cameraderie. The whole genre is underwritten by the metaphor of music as war/cause/movement/crusade, fueled by the rhetoric of keep-the-faith etc. Most germane to the recent discussion: MCs are mos definitely meant to write their own rhymes (although there is a kept-on-the-downlow phenomenon of ghost-writing in rap) and if they write about being a gangsta it's supposed to be based on true experience. One of my problems with popism is that it cannot explain the persistence and potency of this discourse of the real that you find in rap, grime, dancehall (but also in metal and, I imagine, in country). It can only condescend to it, or recoil from it, embarrassed and squeamish (ick, "authentic"). Or there'll be the gesture of pointedly preferring the commercialized or glossed-up pop version to "the real thing".

A bunch of people have emailed to point out that I do in fact live in a rarified world and that the rockists are out there; they're particularly rife on university campuses apparently. And I'm sure that's right: students have always tended to be a bit middlebrow, in the main, and I imagine the "they write their own songs" notion might still have this perennial, self-reconstituting appeal as a way of positioning oneself above the commercial pablum zone, kids music. This sort of primitive and quaint (and naff) rockism is very much an adolescent attitude, really (whereas the pop-ist sensibilty has always struck me as a post-adolescent reaction against the opinions/tastes formed during sixth form/high school and university years. Unfortunately the reaction often takes the form of a dis-intensification--adolescence is nothing if not a time of urgency and intense emotional investments, whereas in the phase of post-adolescent young adulthood (which lasts until late thirties or beyond these days) that dimension to musical cathexis usually disappears, especially as the onset of relative affluence encourages a music-as-smorgasbord eclecticism. Although these days perhaps downloading has made us all equally "rich," whatever our age or income). But anyways, yeah, I'm aware the general populace has more truck with this kind of thing, but the popism vs rockism dispute is really, if we're honest, overwhelmingly the concern of the commentariat (professional critics but also bloggerati, academics, and maybe a smattering of hipster opinionator types. Really, nobody else gives a shit! And that's what I was addressing: within that internicine zone, I'm really hard pressed to think of a rock critic today who'd be likely to say, as a point of principle, singers must always write their own songs. Even going back to the grand days of High Rockism, e.g the cast of critics who contributed to Stranded, I seriously doubt you'd find anyone among them who didn't think the Spector or Motown assembly lines didn't produce fantastic results that were as much part of the pantheon as Dylan or Van Morrison.

The one rockist bias that does endure within the commentariat (as well as much of the general populace) and that is worth challenging is the fixation on Content, the lit-rock syndrome (Stranded being a perfect example--there's an essay in there by Paul Nelson on Jackson Browne's The Pretender that literally doesn't mention the music once; the record is treated as though it were a novel or series of linked poems, as a font of life-wisdom). Again, though it's worth noting that the "lit-rock" bias is applied equally to the valuation and validation of hip hop: OutKast and Goodie Mob valorized over the base inanities of crunk (and within crunk, David Banner endorsed for having more to say, deeper and more nuanced emotions...). Dance music suffers worse at the hands of this content-bias, seems it's deemed not to have any but to be "merely" functional (the function actually is the content, of course, but to expect critics to go out and be ethnologists is a tall order, apparently). Rather than reject "content" altogether and in a spirit of inverted snobbery set up a new hierarchy that values music in ratio to its contentlessness, deracination, artificiality, lack of depth or substance, etc, the way to go is to recognise the value and the efficacy (past, present, future) of the older notion of content and its related apparatus (the auteur, the album, etc) while also expanding one's net to catch all the instances of intensity that bypass content in that traditional restricted sense of the word. An approach that treats "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Chime", "One In A Million", "Who Am I?", "___", as equally exceptional--flashes of form that may or may not carry content in the traditionally valorized sense as part of their arsenal of impact, but that always create content through the audio-social ripples and cultural shockwaves they trigger.

I need to come up with a snappy name for this approach, this sensibility...
Crackergate latest: Zoilus spots an Oedipal subtext to Merritt's rebellion against "Real"-ism
feeling postscript


Excepter, Alternation (5 Rue Christine)

Not like the other stuff I've heard by them; kinda like when Royal Trux would do the odd tune that was their stab at Cabaret Voltaire/Suicide

almost feeling

Panic! At the Disco, "I Write Sins Not Tragedies"

The Associates of emo?* Can't decide if that would make them even worse than regular emo, or much, much better, but leaning ever so slightly towards the latter. Swoony, bruised-fruity, over-ripe, over-arranged, verbose, etc. Enjoyed the lyric that goes on about
"poisoned rationality" and really quite disappointed to realise on the sixth viewing of the video that it's actually "poise and rationality."

* Panic! at the Disco actually sounds like an Associates-type emotion/mise-en-scene., doesn't it? Or song title c.f. "Party Fears Two". Or even an imaginary genre --panic-disco. That's a perfect descriptive for "Club Country", "Nude Spoons", "Skipping" et al. The fact that they're obviously Smiths fans is even better if you think about what "William It Was Really Nothing" is supposedly about. And blimey their album's called A Fever You Can't Sweat Out and they're on a label called Decaydance--how Billy McKenzoid is that.
Glad somebody said this, that "Touch It" single is perfectly ghastly

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Luka, original grime believer, asks a painful question, and gets some good replies.

Horrendous thought that London's pirate airwaves are over-run with funky house!

That was what struck me last year on my two visits to London: first, that you couldn't hear grime on the streets coming out of cars, and second, that it was really hard to find a grime station on the FM dial. Whereas back in 1999, when 2-step was bubbling on the underground, seething but yet to break into the pop mainstream, there were dozens and dozens of UK garage stations.

Perhaps this prefigures the long-overdue paradigm shift* from the 'Nuum. Alternatively,it could be the final sputtering out of that narrative.

* Don't think dubstep is it, a/ cos it's been around for almost six years already, and b/ the analogy is much more c.f. drum'n'bass breaking off from jungle, i.e. dubstep breaks off from UKgarage and becomes something totally different--techy, instrumental, abstract and thus having far more potential appeal globally,
precisely because it's de-localised, stripped of grime's parochial character (and characters). It's city music, sure, but not London music to anything like the same degree that grime is.

Slate writer pitches in on the Merritt controversy, further tweaked here and here

Slate's Jody Rosen also has piece on popism/rockism, a hint perhaps of a drift towards sanity on this vexed subject (see also Frank Kogan's murmurmings about trying to understand what was valuable about rockism before it gets chucked out, anti-rockists as teacher's pets, etc). I did wonder though about this bit in Jody's piece:

The question, for those of us who make our living at this, is how to talk about the music we love, and hate, intelligently and non-ideologically.”

What does " non-ideologically" mean? Is it possible, or desirable? I'm not sure you can even experience something (a cultural artifact, that is) without ideology coming into play. But I've riffed on this before. All I would add is that anti-rockism is exactly like deconstruction (or maybe simply is deconstruction?), useful in its historical moment, or as a stage in an individual's personal history, as an anti-schlerotic of thought... but very much about the elimination of reasons to value, care, feel passionate, get worked up, etc. Its logic is one of discrediting ie. eroding the basis of beliefs, and indeed of belief itself, in favour of a pleasure-principled agnosticism. The net effect tends to be a kind of negative egalitarianism: not that all things become equally valued/valid, but that all things become equally trivial. (And that logic dovetails with aspects of late capitalism, digital culture, mp3/ipod/etc etc).

I also had to wonder again about where all these reactionaries actually are. Maybe I live in a rarified world, but I don't know anyone who thinks albums are intrinsically superior to singles. I'm not sure I've ever met a person who espouses that much-pilloried view about singers not having written the songs they sing being inauthentic and thereby lesser. (Surely anybody who ever loved "Reach Out I'll Be There" or "You Keep Me Hanging On" or "I Feel Love" or "Are You That Somebody" or ___ ... which I assume is everybody in earshot, is in the camp of the righteous already by definition....).
Mike Powell offers a refreshingly contrary position on The Drift--an alarmingly persuasive take actually
the missus on the "extreme ethnography" of splendid Discovery channel show Going Tribal

Monday, May 08, 2006

haven’t done one of these for ages


Various, Get Physical Vol II--4th Anniversary Label Comp (Get Physical)

Rihanna, that Schaeffel’n’B mashup of “Tainted Love”

Audion, Suckfish (Spectral Sound)

Various Artists, mixed by Kode 9, Dubstep Allstars Vol 3 (Tempa)

Tod Dockstader, Aerial #2 (ReR)

Takagi Masakatsu, Journal For People (Carpark)

Xylitol, Perogi I to IX (unreleased)

Booka Shade, Movements (Get Physical)

AFX, Chosen Lords (Rephlex)

Hot Chip, The Warning (Astralwerks)

really feeling

Matmos, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of A Beast (Matador)

First Nation, s/t (Paw Tracks) *

Burial, s/t (Hyperdub)

Scott Walker, The Drift (4AD) **

really really feeling

Scritti Politti, “The Boom Boom Bap” b/w ”Last Time I Looked” (Rough Trade)
Scritti Politti, White Bread, Black Beer (Rough Trade) ***

retro-feeling (reissued)

Various, Greek Electronic Music (Creel Pone)
Various, Hungarian Electronic Music (Creel Pone)
Conrad Schnitzler, Conrad & Sohn (Creel Pone)

Isolee, Western Store (Playhouse)

Delta 5, Singles and Sessions 1979-81 (Kill Rock Stars)

Various, White Bicyles: The Joe Boyd Story (Fledgling)

retro-really-feeling (reissued)

Faust, IV

Brian Eno and David Byrne, My Life In the Bush of Ghosts

retro-really-feeling (un-reissued)

Ivor Cutler, Dandruff
Ivor Cutler, Jammy Smears
Ivor Cutler, Velvet Donkey
Ivor Cutler, Privilege

retro-really-really feeling (reissued)

Jake Thackray, Jake in A Box: The EMI Recordings, 1967 to 1976 (EMI)****

* Postpunk influenced but not the usual suspect-sources worn-threadbare by everybody else under the sun—for this (all?) female outfit, the coordinates really do appear to be Return of the Giant Slits and Odyshape, with maybe a bit of Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and Abelarde and Heloise thrown in.

** Astonishing, at points terrifying (that track with the ungodly, subhuman, gargoyle-gloating howls), but I fear it's the kind of record one admires but seldom actually pulls out to play.

*** His best material since Cupid? Indisputably. His best album, ever? Looking more likely with every listen (the DIY stuff being EPs and Early not counting as an album-as-work)

**** I remember this guy as a saturnine, gangly figure who'd do turns on BBC light entertainment shows with his witty and slightly risque (for the 70s) songs. Listening with grown-up ears, I was surprised how incredibly--ecstatically--musical this Yorkshire Dales troubadour's songbook was--the twisty-turny melodies, his guitar playing, his sinuous singing. Something like Jacques Brel meets Jarvis Cocker.


I’m in broad agreement with Woebot's recent survey of the wan soundscape of contemporary musicking. (And most people I know seem to be dealing with the drought either by trawling the past intensively or by bunkering down in one genre and pretending it's the size of the universe). Oh, there's always good records; that’s not the point. What’s missing is surprise*. Even the people who've delivered colossally this season—Scott and Green—are people from whom you expect greatness, and who are delivering it in more or less the form you expect it. Having been around for decades, they know what they’re about now, and so do we.

* well Burial i guess is unexpected... but in a way that's kinda context-dependent. More on this later.
RIP Grant McLennan
New bloggs of note

Francois K's blogg

Dissensus mischief-maker Buick6's The Goldblog

Thoughtful new blogg the Existence Machine

nougat supreme

Friday, May 05, 2006

Of course the fact that straight guys like Eno and Pete 'n' Bob from Saint Et and Momus (who I forgot to mention but fits totally: his critiques of "pseudo-primal" in rock i.e. nick cave, pj harvey; his valorisation of the "fake" aesthetic, his whole empire-of-signs decorative-not-expressive japanophile shtick), the fact that their sensibility can intersect with Merritt's at various points (and some of these guys aren't just heterosexual, they're rampantly heterosexual), well that would suggests that the anti-authenticity/"sincerity = bad art" sensibility is not indexed to a particular sexuality, that there are other forces behind its emergence as a potentially hegemonic mode of relating to culture. And, conversely, there's plenty of gay men who have absolutely no problem with rocking un-ironically, indeed go about it in deadly earnestness--Bob Mould and Rob Halford spring immediately to mind. (Wasn't it kinda sweet when Halford did that "experimental" solo album on Nothing back in the 90s, Reznor/Manson-ed up his whole image?)


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

In an otherwise dormant blogscape, a flurry of controversy over some allegedly off-color (boom boom) remarks by Stephen Merritt at this year's EMP Conference in Seattle--you can read about it here and here and it's picked up and developed here and here again (those two with numerous links to other outcroppings of debate).

Well, for what it's worth, Merritt's been consistent in his self-awareness about these cultural biases of his (but equally unembarrassed and unapologetic about them) for a good decade or more now, viz. this profile I did of him for Mojo in 1995 around the first Sixths album, specifically the last paragraph:

These days, Merritt is more of an anti-rockist than ever. "Rock should have consisted of only the Paul McCartney branch, not the Lennon/Jagger/Richards one," he mourns archly. Detesting the very idea of white blues ("it’s fundamentally racist"), he admits that his own aesthetic universe–from Nordic synthipop to redneck C&W–is "so darn white!" "I’m not so concerned with rhythm or syncopation, which are the main concerns of black music after Duke Ellington," he says. "I think my records could be listened to by the Ku Klux Klan!"


Solet's unpack this, translate it into in cult-studs jargon: Being fervently anti-rockist entails, for Merritt, resisting rock’s long-running privileging of/emulation of black music: there's a history of projection towards blackness-as-authentic that's tangled up with white heterosexist "identifications" with/distortions of black masculinity (or at least theatricalized representations thereof, from blues to rap), and this entire apparatus is something that Merritt, as a gay man, has an interest in challenging (hence the disparaging of the raw-and-rasping, swagger-and-snarl Lennon/Jagger/Richards lineage* in favour of the melodious/dulcet-toned/arrangement-oriented/decorative McCartney one). Indeed authenticity itself is something he wants to discredit (from the same Mojo piece: "Music isn’t about pouring out your soul... It’s about making pretty objects you can treasure forever**" and "in 1995, every gesture has quotation marks around it whether we like it or not. It’s strange that a few heterosexuals continue to delude themselves that this is not the case." It just so happens that almost the entirety of black popular music is bound up with these very ideas of authenticity.

But Merritt also (and this is the area--personal taste***--where the tribunal of political correctness' ability to legislate these preferences and aversions gets hazy) simply likes a good tune; his own talents as a melodist of a particular kind banish him from the rhythm-dominated pop mainstream.

My head is starting to ache…

* and **
Cconnections to be made here between Merritt's object-ive approach and two hetero but non-masculinist English artists: Eno's audio-decor, his distrust of ideas of catharsis and torn-from-the-soul expression, and his sense of himself as a rebel-against-rebellion (specifically singling out Keith Richards as his polar opposite); Saint Etienne as practitioners of a form of sonic antiquing, delectating over old French girl-pop singles found in Camden Market etc, plus I recall them listing for me all the music they abhorred and one of the things was funk, especially Parliament-Funkadelic: "too messy". Is it any wonder that England figures as gaytopia in the American non-hetero maginary?

*** then again it's the impersonality of "personal taste", its structural underpinnings, that is the real issue, the nub of dissension here, right?
Cable-endowed New Yorkers should tune in to New York Noise on Channel 25 this week where I'm hosting the show which has a theme of, erm, Postpunk Haircuts. Now, nobody would say I have a bright future in broadcasting, but in compensation there's some really cool videos, including some ultra-obscure promos ("Simply Thrilled Honey" by Orange Juice, except it's the post-purge, Zeke-on-drums incarnation of the band; Raincoats doing "Fairytale in the Supermarket"; Josef K and A Certain Ratio bits borrowed from LTM's splendid Umbrellas In the Sun DVD, etc). The initial airing was last night but it's repeated on Friday the 5th at 9PM and Sunday the 7th at 10 PM.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"forced, lifeless, wearing, and flat"--Nick Southall* at Stylus proves that modern music sounds shit. The principal culprit is "dynamic range compression", record biz weapon #1 in the loudness wars. At the first EMP conference, Douglas Wolk did a presentation on this very topic, demonstrating the pernicious effects of DRC by playing Led Zep's "Trampled Underfoot" with successive and escalating levels of compression applied to it: you could literally hear all the breath and space being gradually squeezed out of the music.

* an aside to one of Nick's asides: i'm nowhere near him in terms of audiophilia, but it has amazed over the years how many rock critics have really lousy stereos. it's like being a film reviewer and forgetting to wear your glasses before heading out to the screening.