On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

The decade in popular music

In art, history, music on October 16, 2009 at 10:23 am

Apart from the material, social and technical reasons for change pointed out in this blog, I would like to take this opportunity for venturing further into what might constitute a zeitgeist in contemporary music.

This posting has a twin posting on the mp3 blog Solid Bond In Your Heart, where I am listing my 100 favourite tunes of the last 10 years.

Materially, we can already conclude that the last ten years have seen the partial death of the album, the definitive death of the CD single, the rebirth of the individual song, an increase in the sheer loudness of music (“loudness war,” effectively decreasing the dynamic range of music), and the birth of new, Internet-based music communities and distribution platforms often bypassing traditional record industry modes of manufacturing, marketing and “plugging” records. But we have also seen a range of stylistic and aesthetic formations during these last ten years. Here are some of them.

1. The injection of Daft
The cross-pollination and osmosis of filtered French house into the mainstream and the underground, especially the reappropriation of Daft Punk in hip-hop and R’n’B, from Slum Village’s “Raise It Up” to Kanye West to Jazmine Sullivan’s “Dream Big”, alongside a whirlwind of dancefloor moments, as endless remixes of “Around The World” and “Harder Better Faster Stronger” made their way into popular culture. Seeing an artist like Flying Lotus – who essentially comes out of a black jazz continuum – twisting and curling semi-baroque, Gallic and yes – very white, very Euro – music into his own freeform DJ sets was a defining moment of the last ten years’ music culture.

And for those of you keen to read this post towards the end, this was at least one instance of musical miscegenation in the last ten years and for once, it was cross-pollination which did not restrict itself only to the underground but made waves in those highest echelons of the mainstream that we call “the charts”.

2. Wonky
…or, the creative evolution of a post-Dilla aesthetic.

This is a tricky subject on my behalf, as the level of awe and salutation that James Yancey received after his death is, like the posthumous of other groundbreaking artists like Jim Morrison or John Coltrane, a big hindrance as well as a boon to true artistic creativity. Yes, he was a genius. Yes, he created an entirely new template for music production. But when this template becomes regarded as a stylistic end point in its own right, it actually means that a lot of creative young music producers become content with merely making a banging beat while forgetting that other element to hip-hop, which is songwriting. That old verse-chorus-verse. Telling a story, you know.

That being said, wonky has generated a lot of creative psychoacoustic exploration over the last five years: Artists like Flying Lotus, Zomby and others will be remembered for pushing the envelope and expanding boundaries while hundreds of lesser talented producers will be forgotten, albeit having been part of a really significant movement and an aesthetic that has and will keep defining the sound of underground hip-hop and dance music.

3. Autotune
This is almost too obvious an observation, and this aspect of contemporary music is as much still-ongoing as the observations above and below. The funny thing is that it generated instant critique and dissent, already in the years around the millennium and that Cher song that helped disguising her age as well as her singing abilities, by a software plugin that actually comes in many shapes but is generally known by the name of Autotune (which is a plugin developed by music production tools manufacturer Antares).

T-Pain, together with Kanye West, then made it all ridiculous towards the end of the decade, prompting giants like Jay-Z to write entire songs slating the use of Autotune, which by this point had become exaggerated to say the least. For those listening to mainstream radio, it was everywhere: in euro dance, mainstream rock, R’n’B. For a while, it seemed as if anything that was sanctioned by the record industry had to have it. 
Gay fish!

4. ‘Nuum
The hardcore continuum is a term coined by British music journo Simon Reynolds, for pinpointing the very flux that genres like UK garage, grime, dubstep and UK funky all form part of:

I call it a ‘continuum’ because that’s what it is: a musical tradition/subcultural tribe that’s managed to hold it together for nearly 20 years now, negotiating drastic stylistic shifts and significant changes in technology, drugs, and the social/racial composition of its own population. … And I call it ‘Hardcore’ because the tradition started to take shape circa 1990 with what people called Hardcore Techno or Hardcore Rave, or sometimes simply Ardkore.

This is an interesting and, I think, rewarding way of historicing music. Especially for forms of dance music that are so rapidly evolving that they meld together into a maelstrom of club music, so quickly mutating that it is hard – and not always entirely fair – to sum up certain formations of it in “frozen”, easily pidgeonholed instantiations. While a group like Horsepower Productions and related labels like Big Apple Records were forming the genesis of dubstep in 2001-2002, that was soon a distinguishable sound in itself, which then quickly mutated into various sub-formations:

Soon we saw insanely sawtoothed, Big Beat-like cohorts of producers like Rusko, Caspa and 16bit turning dubstep into a de-sexualised, preposterous and ridiculous artform to the same degree as drum’n’bass became once it passed its No U Turn and became all darkcore.

We have also seen the foundation of a new, deep house influenced sound in the shape of people like TRG and Joy Orbison. In my own book, the genesis of this was when dubstep stalwart Benga’s “Emotions” dropped, perhaps partly overshadowed by the current mega-success of his and Coki’s “Night”. Interestingly, in 2009 you can drop tunes like “Hyph Mngo” in a club and it easily mixes with tunes from the hottest artist in the trance continuum right now, Deadmau5 (the beat of his “Faxing Berlin” could be lifted from Air Frog’s “Bon Voyage”, while its side-chained melodic bliss is very 2009, very “Hyph Mngo”). We can make another parallel to drum’n’bass here: Alex Reece. Another example is Data & Cell’s “Doors of Perception”, which seems to do for dubstep what LTJ Bukem did for drum ‘n’ bass. Whether this is all coincidence, or the possible opening of a new direction in club music, only the future will show. (And whether there is such a “trance continuum” I am not capable of saying, nor am I personally able to point out any similarly “hot” artists in that particular genre ; -)

And, perhaps more importantly, we have seen the re-birth of UK garage in the last years, making a re-entry into the mainstream under the new guise of UK funky. But UK funky is a slippery concept to define; it’s essentially soca music, often indistinguishable from Sly & Robbie productions or even certain elements of the Mediterranean “funky house” sound.

5. “Manifest destiny” hip-hop
The most chilling pop music parody in the last years was the Lonely Island video featuring T-Pain, “I’m On A Boat”. Why? It’s so close to reality. In fact, it could just as well have been an official T-Pain pop hit. The video might appear plain silly, but it captures the state of mainstream pop music today – which is, of course, a synonym for mainstream rap music. As the music historian Peter Shapiro points out, hip-hop is the “lingua franca of American pop music”. And, like Starship and Van Halen in the 1980s, this form of musical expression is one that is steeped in a go-getter, ruthlessly capitalist ethos that is – essentially – Republican. “We Built This City” was the theme for Manifest Destiny unilateralism in the 1980s. Today, it is 50 Cent who is the black Donald Trump.

What’s the problem with all this, then? Well, from a purely musical viewpoint, it makes for a form of music that leaves very little room for any expressions of weakness and fragility. Or rather, it assigns those parts of the human emotional spectrum only to the female sex, as R’n’B seems to be the only modus of this American vernacular where the obligatory hucksterism is replaced for acknowledgement of one’s own weaknesses and shortcomings. (And if contemporary R’n’B is to be regarded as a marriage of Soul and hip-hop, it has always been considered more feminine than rap – even when sung by male artists!)

An alternative way of seeing this narrowing of the emotional spectrum is to look at the beats alone. Apart from Kanye West’s and 9th Wonder’s soul sampladelica in the early 00s, where aching soul crooning and horn arrangements allowed for some warmth to glimpse through the supercompressed sheen of today’s entirely digital sonics, the sound of later artists like T.I. and Soulja Boy is all too often caught in merely one vibe: That of shock and awe. The sound of raw power, pure mechanics, of goosebumps-inducing grandeur.

Surely, there is wit and novelty to be found within Manifest Destiny hip-hop; certain rappers do have a turn of phrase where they comment and twist the formula. But it is a formula that is all too well known, and most sadly of all, a form of limitation of expression. It is not the sound of fun, it is a sound of survival.

Peter Shapiro is otherwise perhaps best known as one of the most interesting chroniclers of that often-misunderstood, often-overlooked thing called disco, and in his “Turn The Beat Around” he laments the demise of disco in the 1980s and the rapid ascendancy of hip-hop becoming the key form of mainstream American pop music. Disco’s death happened in three stages: Sure, it died because its mainstream incarnation did become washed out, rinsed of authenticity and musical quality in the late 1970s. Its underground afterlife – the equally misunderstood, and not as much “overlooked” as in fact unknown thing called garage – died in the wake of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. And ultimately, the overall cause, Shapiro argues, was that disco’s pluralist, integration-friendly, communitarian aesthetic became outmoded in Reagan’s America:

Hip-hop is wholly about individuality, about distinguishing oneself from the crowd with the dopest lyrics, the flyest threads, the freshest kicks; it’s a culture solely concerned with competition and, at times, a brazen, mercenary go-for-mine capitalism. Hip-hop came of age at the exact time America was abandoning whatever pretenses it had of being a social democracy – it was the soundtrack to the birth of the corporate state.

Perhaps the only thing that today’s popular culture has kept virtually intact since the days of disco is the hedonistic, devil-may-care charge that disco was the first cultural movement to really break into mainstream society. The coke, cristal and celebrity awe is what remains of that glitzy era. Sure, we have metrosexuality and Obamapolitics, but the gender-bending feminization of mainstream America and the inclusive communitarianism of the civil rights, gay, lesbian and working class movements that was so central to disco culture is hardly there on MTV, is it?

6. Hipster
The dead end of Western civilisation?

Among college-educated, rock-biased young adults, pretention was back in fashion. The sad thing was when this however meant that, for styles socio-culturally alien to the college kids’ own sphere, specialization and deeper artistic reflection wasn’t deemed equally necessary. The hipster, in its worst manifestation, is entirely sedate and meticulous when it comes to the “dos and don’ts” of shoe lengths, quiff shapes or post-punk chord rearrangments, but blissfully ignorant of the fact that hip-hop’s gamut – despite outward appearances – spans the whole spectrum between 50 Cent and Prefuse 73, and can be equally meticulously adhered to. This hipster is anal when it comes to his and his friends’ fashion styles, but all too often gullible when it comes to anything that is less instantly recognisable. And although it always goes both ways, for white middle class kids that carelessly appropriated “Other” often meant black music.

The very term “hipster” hints at all this. It is to do with a combination of being totally discerning towards one’s own aesthetic and constantly being reflexive and aware of pop culture, which means that styles alien to this aesthetic essentially tend to be appropriated ironically – either as a way to disarm these alien styles and incorporate them, or to be able to casually dismiss them as lightweight or, worse, “uncool”.

At its most cynical, the workings of hipsterdom are, put bluntly, tory. They are deeply reactionary. As someone said recently, the above combination of ironic cultural appropriation with an almost Machiavellian drive to meticulously assemble one’s own bricolage for maximum “coolness” effect amounts to “taking everything well-meaning about contemporary underground/youth culture and finally repackage it as business in its drabbest, most tedious extreme”.

Further, given the “manifest destiny” observation above, there is an uncanny observation that can be made here, especially when looking at the US music industry: It appears as if the commercial audience is in many ways segmented into a mainstream (i.e. charts) that is predominantly black, “urban” and futuristic in its musical aesthetic (while fatally marred by its no-holds-barred appropriation of self-interest and profane values) and a whiter, more college educated, liberal “hipster” market where the audience is more expected to be “in the know” and thus divulge into much more “indie” fractions of sound, as long as they are sanctioned by Vice Magazine or Pitchfork as officially “cool”. This market has generally been much more retro in its aesthetic; notably so with bands like Fleet Foxes, Arcade Fire or Dirty Projectors. Sure, there is a lot of experimentation and eclecticism here – pretension is allowed, perhaps even the key requirement – but given that “rock” music is more exhausted as a form of expression than the historically more recent dance and hip-hop continuums, the parameters appear quite limited. Exactly how much did the sales of skinny jeans go up during this decade, and why did the word “the” in front of a band name remain so economically significant in UK pop music? And why are today’s college students longing so much for the last century, and those forms of expression that were originally forms of rebellion on their parents’ part but now seem streamlined to fit smugly into TV formats like Later With Jools Holland?

Of course there is novelty and creative progress in rock music as well, and the often minute details and re-appropriations of musical inspirations and influences make for some really interesting acts, from Vampire Weekend’s own little aesthetic universe to Electrelane’s or The Dirty Projectors’ novel approach to musical structure. But is there any real blending going on here? Not only in a purely aesthetical sense, I mean, but both ethically and materially as well? All too often I have read record reviews in the last ten years where the journalists swear that certain bands’ influences are stretching “really far, incorporating both Timbaland and early rave” – only to discover that The Klaxons were as conventional and predictable as any pub rock band.

Sasha Frere-Jones reminds us that there is little musical miscegenation going on these days, and that the most important reason for this, paradoxically, is social progress:

Black musicians are now as visible and as influential as white ones. They are granted the same media coverage, recording contracts, and concert bookings, a development that the Internet, along with dozens of new magazines and cable shows devoted to celebrities, has abetted by keeping pop stars constantly in the public eye. Even unheralded musicians don’t need Led Zeppelin to bring their songs to the masses anymore: an obscure artist can find an audience simply by posting an MP3 on MySpace. The Internet, by democratizing access to music—anybody, anywhere can post or download a song on MySpace—has also made individual genres less significant. Pop music is no longer made of just a few musical traditions; it’s a profusion of strands, most of which don’t intersect, except, perhaps, when listeners click “shuffle” on their iPods.

Why even try competing with Beyoncé when she does her thing so bloody well and you might as well be doing something much more left-of-field, skewed and cheaply produced and still get a decently large, exalted local audience in every city? Today, for most cultural producers, it is often good enough to do something which remains almost exclusively embraced by small circles of indie fans that one is more closely surrounded by. Few song writers have the ambition to write crossover hits. And maybe that’s a good thing.

The uneasy, and sometimes inappropriate, borrowings and imitations that set rock and roll in motion gave popular music a heat and an intensity that can’t be duplicated today, and the loss isn’t just musical; it’s also about risk. Rock and roll was never a synonym for a polite handshake.

  1. […] Jonas Andersson, October 2009 ::::::::::::::::::::: inspired by nollnolltalet.se […]

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