16 April 2008

hot like neon fucking neon

there is a certain kind of music - one of the most definitive and popular kinds of the 2000s, and arguably one of the few truly new ones - which does not have a name. (not unlike the decade itself, come to think of it.) i know, it seems veritably impossible for this to be true, but it is.

sure, people have had to try to come up with things to call it, inevitably sweeping trans-genre portmanteaus like "electro house", "dance rock", "disco-punk," "indie/electronic", "electro-pop" and perhaps most promisingly, but ill-fatedly (too belittled, too late), "new rave." but none of these really come that close to hitting the mark. in each case these terms most properly designate something too specific for them to stand in comfortably for what must by now be accepted as a full-fledged, albeit hybrid and certainly multivalent, genre of its own.

the making time folks - who are the kings of this thing here in small-town philadelphia, end up making up their own endless, goofy, hyper-hyphenated (orjustshovedtogether) descriptors for every new party flyer.

when i've had to call this genre anything i've usually resorted to "hipster dance," which at least seems vague enough not to alienate large swaths of what i mean to talk about - and then there's the recently vogueish "blog house," which is somewhat more imprecise than it maybe suggests (is it actually supposed to refer to house music? not as far as i can tell - it seems to be used in pretty wide-ranging and indiscriminate ways.) but there are some serious problems with defining music in terms of its primary/perceived/intended audience - hipsters; bloggers (each of them more or less a stand-in for "music fans," anyway) - notably that they don't tell you much about the music, and they almost inevitably take on a derogatory tone. see: "teen-pop," "mallpunk," "yacht rock," "handbag house," "bubblegum," and "anorak pop" (if that's a term), (possibly: "backpacker hip-hop," "stoner rock" and "beardo disco." "college rock" on the other hand isn't derogatory, just meaningless.)

"blog house" has the additional problem of being sort of self-defeatingly oxymoronic, um, by which i mean that dance music (which, above all, is what this is) is by definition social music, not intended for sitting around the house (yeah, i know) and listening to on the internet. that sucks!! besides, "blog house" doesn't even have a wikipedia entry (shocka!) so it must not really exist. (i've certainly never heard it!)

anyway, it's pretty clear what the genre is: roughly, the point of intersection between pop, rock, dance, and electronic music. those are all nice broad umbrella terms, perfectly useful for what they are. (though "dance" is often vague nearly to the point of uselessness; it being basically, as i've argued before, a doublespeak substitute for "disco") and it's okay to use three or four of them in combination to describe an artist, as i've found myself doing on numerous occasions recently. but given the large and growing set of artists who are setting up shop in the considerable, roomy overlap between these four ultra-expansive genuses, owing allegiance to no one of them in particular, it would really be handy to have shorthand for the region of that intersection, which could at least serve as a starting point for further hyphenated neologisms.

for starters, you could try to identify which are the artists who trend more to one side or the other: the rapture, phoenix, mgmt and !!! on the rock side; junior senior, the go! team, the tough alliance, and maybe datarock slanting pop; simian mobile disco, mylo, justice and soulwax holding it down for electronic dance, while junior boys, royksöpp, goldfrapp, and the knife kick it electronic pop. whew, that was hard to do, and definitely imprecise, even as an example, and some of these are just the fringe cases; artists towards the outer edges of this territory i'm staking out, though definitely significant contributors to its development. you could also throw in folks with more overt hip-hop elements (m.i.a., spank rock, diplo - certainly very much a part of the same cultural milieu) and go further in the dance-pop vein (annie, robyn, erlend øye, lykke li) or the indie-pop vein (architecture in helsinki, of montreal, los campesinos!), and not forget the scene's immediate electro-clash forebears (felix da housecat, tiga, fischerspooner, adult.) there are the djs (optimo, a-trak, girl talk, dave p), producers (playgroup, maurice fulton, calvin harris, joakim), labels (modular, kitsuné, vice) bands (bonde do role, ladytron, scissor sisters, css, out hud), visionary/iconoclast solo acts (peaches, jamie lidell, muscles.)

and, of course, there's the james murphy, aka lcd soundsystem, aka 1/2 of DFA (plus tim goldsworthy) - both the remix/production team and the would-be genre-defining record label - pretty much the godfather/figurehead of all of this activity, who fits into every one of the above categories. and just might be the most important/pivotal/whatever, awesome, musical person of the decade.

and those or just the people i know and like. i haven't listened very actively to chromeo, new young pony club, klaxons, ghostland observatory, or the presets. and i'm just starting to digest the most recent crop: teenagers, crystal castles, does it offend you yeah?, hercules and love affair, neon neon.

blah blag blog. okay, so why am i bringing this up? (well, it is pretty interesting isn't it? i mean, i'm sure that this has been discussed before, given the prevalence of these artists in - it cannot be denied - the blogosphere. but i haven't really read an attempt to taxonomize or analyze in an overarching, big-picture way, what's going on here.)

for a couple years now, i've had this section of my cd shelves (er, back when i had cd shelves), which started as a small hodge-podge (le tigre, dopo yume, some dfa stuff, couple of electroclash things, whatever) wedged in somewhere abutting and imprecisely connecting the sections of mainstream dance-pop and dance-oriented electronica of yesteryear and today. as i found myself repeatedly forced to stick things in there that didn't fit anywhere else, it gradually grew into an extremely colorful (lots of pink spines!) and unruly shelf or two which was nevertheless impossible to deny a certain sense of cohesion. at this point i'm experimenting with 'alternative' methods of music storage, and have accepted a stalemate in the ongoing game of arraying my music collection as a visual/physical representation of my mental musicographical organization scheme. but it's still fun to talk about genre.

without feeling any compulsion to make explicit definitions or draw strict boundaries (you can put them wherever you like, but as usual they won't help too much), i'd reflect for a minute on what the specific qualities this music are, apart from the broad strokes of its adjacent mega-genres. certainly pastiche - an accumulation of multiple and various distinct stylistic sources - in a sense, a specific aesthetic of derivativeness - is a central (not quite defining) feature of many of these artists. yknow, yr basic postmodern schtick.

but there was pastiche-pop in the '90s too, if not, maybe, in quite the same way, too too much before that. cornershop, the beastie boys, st. etienne, pizzicato 5, cibo matto, and maybe most especially beck, among others have plenty in common with all of this stuff - dance-focused (or at least beat-based) artists who incorporated pop, rock, hip-hop, electronica and r&b, generally in a sunny, fun-loving vein. i've talked about this milieu before; no need to rehash much here.

in contrast to more recent stuff though: those '90s artists are more cutesy, even "jokey" in a fairly self-aware way. even the campiness of junior senior or the go! team feels unabashed in a way that can't be said for the arty stereolab or dimitri from paris or even shibuya kei (deee-lite is another matter, but they're of a slightly earlier epoch.) which doesn't necessarily mean that one era's music is more authentically fun than another, but there is a straightforwardness to the current stuff, especially in terms of its relationship to danceability (significantly, the culture surrounding this stuff in '90s was not really dance culture - which was more focused instead on somewhat segregated strains of electronica; raves, etc. - but rather alt/rock culture - britpop; the college rock c. the indie revolution; new york "downtown" art music scenes, among other things.)

another distinction of the '00s corpus i'm discussing is that a lot of it rocks, hard, with big stupid guitars. with the exception of garbage (pioneers, as i always maintain), it's hard to think of any '90s groups that fused pop and dance music with real rawk guitars, despite their popularity as sample fodder for big beat artists like fatboy slim and apollo 440. this could certainly be related to my point about straightforwardness, as rock often entails an earnestness and assuredness that doesn't really work aside winking cuteness. (unless it's a wink that specifically references rock, a la electric six or the darkness, who may or may not be that winky anyway.) (something could also be said about 90s and 00s eclecticist dance music in relation to the electronica of its era - trip-hop, IDM and big beat vs. the more unilaterally house-inspired 'minimal,' micro-house, techpop, neodisco and what have you.)

also, the reference points for '90s artists tended to be the 1960s, and especially what i like to talk about as an 'internationalist lounge aesthetic,' if you glean my meaning. (though straight-up '60s pop/rock too, though girl-group and motown would have to wait a bit longer for true resuscitation.) these days, on the other hand, it's all about the '80s - mostly, as mr. murphy said and i love to quote, "borrowed nostalgia for [an] unremembered" probably reductionist version of that decade - post-punk, new wave, synthpop, fringy/mannerist disco excess, etc. in the '90s, apart from obviously being too recenet to revive, one might argue that some of it was still feeling the brunt of disco backlash, a couple decades on. the 60s>90s/80s>00s dichotomy is evident all over the place, in pop culture, politics, american society in general, and this isn't the place to get into that (it's been discussed before too, for sure.) (what happened to the '70s? well, lots of things. mostly that people get that confused with the '60s a lot. also punk.)

to be honest, "pastiche" isn't all that good a word for talking about '00s hipster dance music and culture. it skews appropriationist, to be sure, but the synthesis is smoother than that (the collage aesthetic of mashups and quick cuts and endless remixes notwithstanding), and plenty of groups stick within one relatively defined style or sound (even if its a hybrid one), rather than flaunting their eclecticism. in fact, the primacy of sound and style, over compositional/lyrical content - beats, grooves, riffs, and hooks (easily snatched and recontextualized for a bit o' the ol' thrill of recognition) over memorable songs or even melody per se - is a rather curiously defining feature of 00s dance music. consider the canon: "house of jealous lovers," "losing my edge," "galang," "let's make love..." "d.a.n.c.e," "hustler," even "move your feet" and "over and over." who are the songwriters in this scene? you might point to james murphy, again, but we can't really expect the man to do everything for us, now can we?)

finally, there is truly a recognizable "scene" surrounding all of this, which i'm not sure (i guess i wouldn't know?) can really be said about that '90s stuff. there was a lot of bellyaching in the late 90s and early 00s about kids not dancing - something that has surely changed (tho, i dunno, the rapture were still whining about it two years ago in "wayuh," but who cares about the rapture anyway.) there's just critical mass. these artists are constantly remixing one another, touring together, putting each other on their curated mix compilations, etc. etc. in philly, anyway, most of them play dance parties rather than proper concerts - new rave, indeed! and sure, there's plenty to dismiss and dislike about the spazzy/dayglo myspace aesthetic, the rampant disposability of plenty of this output (many of those aforementioned remixes, to be sure), the hyperactive, compulsive download/messageboard culture, and the weirdly unconvincing brand of hedonism that accompanies a lot of it. also, who asked for an '80s revival in the first place?

thing is, stuff gets tagged eighties-throwback so often these days that it's become all-but-meaningless, if not inaccurate. i don't pretend to really remember the eighties very well (much less do i feign nostalgia), or even the earliest nineties (though i probably should.) but if it sounds like it's from the eighties, it's probably going to sound like the 2000s. and, somehow or other, that's still managing to sound pretty good. more on this to come...

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

this is so off the mark and obviously coming from a pretty isolated place. that, plus the bizarre need to delineate and classify everything is offputting to say the least.

Ross said...

jeez, dude. that's great if you disagree with me, but could you say something substantive so i at least know where you're coming from?

where am i off the mark? sure, i'm making a lot of (speculative) generalizations about vague and varied terrain, which is inevitably going to be somewhat limited/limiting. but in what sense am i isolated?

as i said, i'm definitely not interested in drawing boundaries and forcing music into abstractly defined categories - far from it - but i do feel that there are some common elements resonating throughout this body of music i'm discussing which are worth teasing out.

and please, if you're going to post borderline abusive comments, don't do it anonymously.

i'm eager to hear what you have to say.