Last week I went to see DEVO. It was fun. They were good. I was surrounded by middle aged men wearing 'sensible IT project manager' clothes and the signature three-tiered plastic hat that the band has conceived, promoted and has successfully marketed to its loyal fans. Savvy bunch, Devo.
Devo themselves were as they had always been: mixing the off-kilter with sharp riffs and pointed social commentary, all fed back through a highly developed sense of the ridiculous. This is, after all, a group whose key concept is de-evolution.
Devo didn't end up playing 'We're Through Being Cool', but they needn't have. What was abundantly obvious from their 08 presentation of their 80s material is that they know that their creativity has passed them by, and so, with the 'nothing to prove' comfort of AC DC or Iron Maiden, they belted out classic after classic. The paunches didn't matter - neither the bands nor the audience's - everyone knew the tunes, everyone had a dance, everyone had a gee whiz bang good time.
As electronic music approaches middle age, I can't help but think that a similar thing has happened. Some of the evidence is amorphous and subjective: DJs have always been disproportionately fat and bald... now increasing numbers of their audience are too. iTunes and Traktor aren't the only reason that 'everyone's a DJ' now. And note also the unwholesome insistence on high-fidelity and acoustics in the building of new clubs (I confess this is an annoying bugbear of mine). Soon, people will be demanding floor-side box seats: 'I just don't have the stamina to actually dance anymore.' Like I said, these things are subjective. They might be happening, but then again, it might also be me - my observations just the condensed reflection of my own paranoia, paunch, and absurd insistence on correct speaker placement.
But then there's the actual, material evidence of the shift. To wit: has anyone else noticed the number of high-profile re-mastered re-releases that have appeared in the past few months?
X102, Gas, Basic Channel, Pole, Monolake, the Aphex Twin and Vladislav Delay (Anima) – all these artists are re-issuing re-mastered editions of their works, often with the added incentive (for cashed-up middle-aged people) of boxed sets and extensive sleeve notes.
I remember my dad buying boxed sets of his favourites (Lou Reed, Bob Marley, Tim Buckley, Robert Johnson) in the early 90s. Part of the attraction then, no doubt, was the consolidation of cumbersome, fragile vinyl LPs onto a new format that promised ease-of-use and much greater fidelity. And the fact that, for the most part, the anthologised artists were dead. In 2008, this alone is hardly sufficient, especially when you consider that these were already beautifully recorded CDs when they were released, in the digital era, ten or more years ago. Oh, and the fact that none of the artists are dead. So why is it happening? I tend to think there are a number of factors driving it, but chief among them might be the following:
1) moribund electronica - electronic music, especially groove-based electronic music, appears short on ideas in 08. There was a time in the 90s when I couldn't even describe what I was hearing. When I first heard albums like Tri Repetae, Niun Niggung and the Richard D. James album, it was like... fuck, it was like hearing music from space. What's happened? Well, I got old, of course. But in another sense, there are only so many combinations you can run through before you've exhausted all the possible permutations. To some extent, this is about accepting the limitations of a given formula. The continual reproduction of such formulas might also indicate that the audience has become more conservative, and craves familiarity, golden greats, and 'the good old days'. But this also links to
2) the emergence of the 90s as 'the past' – yes, not one, but several heydays are way, way behind us now. Even post-millenial musical tropes like punk-funk, electroclash, mash-up appear to be from 'there and then' now, with B-more, Baile funk, dubstep and bassline chasing them toward the curvature of the horizon. What kind of horizon? Oblivion, re-release, the past - it's hard to say. The other month, my sister considered having a 90s retro party, and this is only recently something that has become not only thinkable, but appealing as a form of nostalgic remembrance. But maybe it's all to do with
3) what people are willing to buy – the logic of the 'essential purchase'. There are just so many fucking releases vying for the attentions of a shrinking market. If it's average or ephemeral, you just download it, right? 'Cos what's the point of investing in something that will be redundant in a week? But if it's a stone cold classic, something you think you'll be listening to for years... no doubt the producers of such 'classics' realise this on some level. And hey, we all need to eat.
I know that this has also profoundly affected the kinds of records I mail order these days. I've become conservative. I usually sit on an mp3 for a few months before I decide to translate it into a record I own. And it's not like I can go down the local record shop and browse any more - they're all gone. And looking at the records I've bought over the past six months or so, this means that, on the one hand, everything I buy is a fantastic record. I waste less money buying fewer duds, and this is better for the environment and will (hopefully) force labels to lift their game... but maybe not. How many of your favourite records were bought on the off chance? How many of your most cherished records were found by digging, through a process of selection that was exploratory and risky?
People are into electronic music for different reasons. Some like it 'cos they like groove. For others, it's the expression of some kind of weird techno-evangelism: a fetish for 'advancement' and the technology that (re)produces it. Others are part of a social scene. Some people like to party, take drugs, get wasted. But then there are those who like it because it's exploratory – full of possibilities. For those whose interests tend toward experimentation, possibility, and openness to something new, weird and different... what does it mean that we're more interested in buying boxed sets of records from ten, even fifteen years ago, rather than new music (which most people just download, let's be honest)?
A lot of people are happy that the whole dark minimal thing played itself out – people were always jumping out of their skin to disavow minimal, tell you how boring it was, how glad they are it's all over. But for what? Maybe, to throw the current doxa on its head, groove-based electronic music lost its last form of exploratory music with minimal – groups of people who were saying, willy-nilly, how far can we push this, how much can our minds an bodies handle before we crash, or just get bored? Often times the results were, indeed, very boring. But the ideas that lay behind it were committed to exploring possibilities. And now, the same audiences who disavowed it have willingly condemned themselves to the quasi-infinite recapitulation of old forms and golden greats from previous decades. Hey, at least it's 'funky' and 'soulful', right?
Of course, there are some false choices being presented here. We can buy boxed sets and new releases. We can pursue exploratory music and enjoy getting wasted and listening to Oslo. But is this a pattern you tend to see? Are these habits you see people cultivating, markets that you see being generated, scenes you see blosssoming? In fact, if I could characterie 2008, I would say never has there been so much potential, and never has it been so under-realised.
In another sense, potential and possibilities are all about unfulfilled promises. And it's not like there ever was a golden age. But at the same time, the fact that we are awash in re-releases is both a symptom of staleness and an enormous possibility for people to see that for what it might be... and sell merchandise. Either that, or get the fuck out of our comfort zones and engage in some destructive creativity. Time for some errorism. Time for something completely different.