Thursday, June 18, 2009
Post Post Mortem on Minimal: undead (and loving it!)
(NB: fast forward to the bottom and hit play on the embedded clip for the PC-preferred soundtrack).
In 2002, Alex Petridis made his Twain-like report of dance music’s death to the bemused readers of the Guardian. By 2006, minimal itself had become greatly exaggerated, colonising the consciousness of House Nation and the dancefloors of Eye-Beef-Uh and forcing almost everyone I was interviewing at the time to say ‘something’ about the dreaded schminimal. Even Alexis Petridis went to Berlin to have a crack. But mostly, if you were making/playing/remixing/discoursing about minimal at the time, being minimal amounted to disavowing it. Never in all those years did I actually ever interview any minimal artist who openly avowed minimal. It was so reliable, but so weird – weird ‘cos it would seem ridiculous in the context of any other genre: ‘No, we don’t play drum’n’bass.’ ‘House? Nup, never did, don’t know what you’re talking about…’ ‘…Blues musicians?! Not us…’ Etc.
2009: now we know minimal blew up, then blew over the cuckoo’s nest – but not before everybody denied being in the midst of it. The rhetorical after-effect has been a triple ‘nothing’: a movement with no adherents, a genre with no claimants, a sound with no landmarks, no legacy, and no mourners. Minimal… any takers? Going, going, gone… never was.
But no! This is only for those who are over it. What remains is much, much weirder. In 2009, not only is everybody who was never into minimal over minimal; not only was nobody ever minimal (the most minimal least of all). In 2009, for the others, for those who must have missed that twitter… minimal is also more popular than ever before.
For those stalwart, still excited boom-click/plip-plop devotees, minimal isn’t dead, it’s undead. Undead and loving it. And how.
Indeed, how? Why for the love of god? And yet it is so. But before I tell you about why this is undeniably, enjoyably, profitably so, we need to ask: just what the fuck was/is minimal? Because to throw down a smokebomb of obfuscation before drawing a cape of disavowal across our minimal selves (before vanishing) would be to repeat what was already an extremely irritating gesture – so I’ll spare you.
So: minimal, in the sense in which I am going to talk about it - which is not the sense of minimal qua Studio Eins, Minimal Nation, or Plastikman – is music predominantly made on laptops using software sequencers, based on the structures of house, but with its sound palette drawn from the loops, synthesizers and (above all) the effects units of said software suites. Statistically, it is Ableton music, and sociologically, it is made by geeky boys in the first half of their probable adult existence in order to win recognition, label-mating, gigs and remix opportunities from other geeky boys who have the names, labels, and releases to justify (or at least prove) the extraordinary amount of hours they’ve spent looking at LCD screens and occasionally touching USB-connected knob-articulated control surfaces (all of which their pets, and even girlfriends, find enduringly inscrutable). If you subtract the content of what they are making, it is an activity that has more in common with World of Warcrack than with the Summer of Love.
In the early 00s, in the wake of clicks, cuts, and glitches, minimal was new, and fun. It was digital, it was networked, it was young, free and full of the devil, Pluggo, and its own importance, especially after the collective bandwagon decided, for combinations of the above reasons, that it was also… cool. And anyone could play. Trust me, the Warcraft parallel holds true right the way down.
Minimal was a subtractive synthesis, not least of all because it removed the history-bound, sex, drugs, colour and identity-obsessed genres of the 90s: house as house couldn’t, wouldn’t stop being black and gay (Terre, shhh, no more AIDS talk and Madge bashing, okay… ); while techno couldn’t, wouldn’t stop getting all paranoid-schizoid – am I black, am I white? Do I originate from Detroit, Berlin, Roland, Poland, or just amphetamine abuse…?! Golly, the confusion was enough to make you attack people with layer upon layer of snare loops… minimal's response was to wiggle its bassline-driven skinny boygirl ass out of this impasse by borrowing ‘as little as necessary’ from both: the boom click, the bassline (thank you, house), the sci-fi, and the mainroom dancefloor (thank you, techno/Richie). It was newly minted, fresh-faced, exciting: eighteen year old kids with laptops who didn’t know (or care) who DJ Derrick Jackmaster Levant was could send clubbers on down, down, down! past Fred Schneider and the Rock Lobster, right down into the k-hole, the coked hell, the e wasteland, right back into the emptiness of Berlin bliss, Tuesday 4pm: you could move to Berlin, get a Hitler Youth inspired haircut (vicious fade on the sides, long, asymmetrical fringe in front), start a label, print t-shirts, and be cool.
But the zeitgeist, followed by the bandwagooneers, hearts all aflutter, moved on: ‘cos there was a soul revival going on - somebody black/authentic said so - and dubstep was cooler. So was funky house. And bassline. ‘Cos the kids were even younger. And knew/cared even less about DJ Derrick Jackmaster Levant; either that, or they were now religiously collecting and possessively cherishing his Levant's records, and every DJ who played them. DJs no longer even felt the need to disavow minimal anymore. Now it was:‘I’m just so glad that, you know, people are listening to music that’s just much more soulful and funky than a few years ago… yeah, that was a bad period…’
But meanwhile, far below the Desolat planes of the commercial takeover of minimal by prog house, a fertile, stable community of laptops had taken hold of the imaginations of our impressionable youth… and, without ever strictly avowing minimal, they, now that those cool clouds had passed over, established a commitment to Rave Unto the Plip-Plop Fantastic - for as long as it took, by all beats necessary.
The plug outlet for this kind of minimal in Melbourne have been the Lab boys, who’ve been putting on small, well-organised parties in diverse locations in Melbourne for the last couple of years. A few things strike you about Lab: they know how to throw a party (in a good venue); they care about the sound quality; they recognise their own kind (and routinely book the acts that are the best reflection of their sound); and they couldn’t give a fuck about what’s happening outside their own network.
One side of this is excellent, ‘cos it means you can be guaranteed that if it’s a Lab party, you know exactly what you’re going to get: minimal, minimal, and more fucking minimal – with no alibis, no apologies, and no concessions to the fickle winds of fashion. The Lab guys that I’ve met are all excellent people, and they’re doing a great job at representing the sound they believe in: in other words, they’re dogmatists for all the right reasons.
Having said all that, they are dogmatists: and the sound they’re pimping is exactly the sound they were pimping three years ago. It barely changes, not over the course of an evening, nor over the course of years. And the impression I’m left with from going to these parties recently and speaking to the fans who dig it is that they’re actively, even aggressively, un-curious about the broader currents going around. It’s almost an anti-curiousity.
I’m not laying all this at the feet of Lab. This isn’t Lab’s problem, and I’m not here to diss one of the few crews that just gets on with doing what they’re doing with passion and commitment.
~ SSGs and other quiet grumblings from party-goers in NYC, London, Berlin, and Tokyo all report same or similar goings on, going on and on ~
Point is, it was bound to happen to anyone who was going to invest, and stay invested, in minimal as I’ve defined it above. This is minimal’s problem.
Why is it a problem? Well, maybe it’s not. Maybe, like goa trance, what we have here is a stable set of formulas that perfectly suits a dedicated community. Party on, partly people. So let’s be more specific and just say: I, personally, have a purely subjective/partisan beef with all this, which is that, when a group of people close in on themselves and stop being open to the possibility of opening themselves to new modes and forms of sound, they suffocate themselves and the music. What we have here is something between a choke hold and a cul-de-sac (which can be a form of foreplay, if you, like the person gripped by your sac, is also a likeminded pervert). Jiu Jitsu, performed with a full Brazilian. Great, if you like that kinda thing.
I’m not going to say I’m not a pervert in my own way – everyone who is passionate about particular, peculiar styles (as SSGS most definitely are) is practicing, as well as preaching, to the perverted.
But I’m going be even more partisan and particular and say, I don’t like minimal. So maybe that’s it. No, that’s wrong. I like it, I’ll dance to it, but I can’t love it. It’s not beautiful. It doesn’t quicken my spirit, stir my soul. It’s functional – it makes me nod my head, and if I’m off my face, it also makes me shake my arse. It does this, but that’s all it does. ‘Cos it’s one dimensional – and here’s the nub of the sac.
What was great about minimal is also what killed it, which is also what is keeping it undead. Minimal can’t die, because it can’t get old. And it can’t get old because it has no sense of history, no sense of (or desire for) movement, for transformation. It is, in the truest sense of the word, repetitive. And also, therefore, boring. Which is why everyone else got bored, and moved on. Except everyone who’s into it. Who’ll still be into it in five years: undead - and loving it.