In the past month I’ve had three searching conversations with music nut friends of mine. All of them were saying the same thing, more or less. The 2011 house/techno soufflé – it ain’t rising. Weirdly, in a year when electronic music writ large and wild is moving through one of its most fluxed up, interesting, future-facing, future-making phases and terrains, its groove-based relative (let’s call it dance and electronic [d&e for short]) has never been more blando, nor more boring. Next week, a big, fat, juicy post dedicated to everything that’s contributed to my sense of 2011’s being one of the great vintages in – and a real and exciting turning point for – electronic music. This week, it’s time for a d&m about d&e. It’s time to ask: why isn’t the soufflé rising? I offer ten possible explanations, in no order or emphasis, & without trying to force any single one of them as thee reason for our present discotheques’ discontents.
1) the medium is the context is the massage is the message is the messenger is the instrument is the producer: laptops
A primary part of the problem, surely, is the fact that everything is mediated by networked laptops, and now mobile devices with tactile GUIs. The whole thing was about laptops and networking, really. Minimal, I mean. Which was what was interesting about d&e in the 00s, let’s not disavow it. In fact, it is the genius and folly of the leaders of the minimal pack to have understood, enacted and, shit, totally embodied this. Its cold rise and fall - what pulse? - also tells us that, really, we were all just aping silicon valley. We’re all on Steve Jobs’ emaciated dick, one way or another. Jumping up and down and hooting like gibbons. We are all of us, mac monkeys. Some of just make money off it, that’s the difference. But at the same time: gosh it is just so fucking boring these days.
It’s not the technology in itself that’s the problem, but our use and abuse of it, and what motivates that. Have a listen to this and this if you’re interested in following it up, and/or watch this, read this, and definitely make the time to read this if you really wanna get down to brass tacks. Point is: technologies are more than merely technical: they embody certain politics, embed a certain ethos, and shape and constrain action in certain ways. Your controller might be more controlling than you think – and who’s controlling the controller? We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us, and then, somehow, most of us become tools holding tools, tweeting each other about the latest mix tools made on our favourite tools, which we play and send to each other – on our tools. What a bunch of tools. Lonely, needy, compulsive tools. The alternative to this might be about asking ourselves what we’re using how much and why, and why using might just make us all into a bunch of users, and why that might be terminal. There is nothing inherently good about networking, or the internet. This does not it mean it’s not useful and interesing. But it does mean that ‘it’ is not democratizing or liberating shit. Technology will not save us, no matter how many times we hit save.
2) media’s historical/social context (and lack thereof)
This from a Guy (Debord) who was alternately incredibly grumpy, then prescient, and finally killed himself.
“History’s domain was the memorable, the totality of events whose consequences would be lastingly apparent. And thus, inseparably, history was knowledge that should endure and aid in understanding, at least in part, what was to come: “a possession for all time,” according to Thucydides. In this way history was the measure of genuine novelty. It is in the interests of those who sell novelty at any price to eradicate the means of measuring it. When social significance is attributed only to what is immediate, and to what will be immediate immediately afterwards, always replacing another, identical, immediacy, it can be seen that the uses of the media guarantee a kind of eternity of noisy insignificance.”
To some extent this points toward the failure of contemporary d&e to be contemporary, and of our inability to protect the past and our common memories of it from being preyed upon for hack pastiche and cheapo nostalgia. Two recent artefactual examples of this are Andy Stott’s new albumette Passed me By, as well as Games’ Channel Pressure. Each is a release with merits and worth spending some time with. But what’s more interesting is the way each has been treated, framed and ultimately received as an artefact that’s ‘worthy of consideration’. The former, to me, is lazy in its positioning. For what it’s worth, I also think that being muddy and having a black guy on the cover is a failure of creative nerve, actually. And one that no amount of Sherburnizing eloquence can quite cover. Honestly, Philip’s review for Pitchfork is, you know, way too good for this release. Sisyphus?? Maybe he’s just out of ideas...? Maybe it’s a bit boring? Maybe it just doesn’t merit this kind of attention? Maybe that is the real Sisyphean task here, to give attention, imbue worthiness and praise on something that, you know, is 'kinda interesting'. There is a lot of lapping up going on between laptops at the mo’. And the latter, Games - it is beautifully done, but adds nothing: why not just listen to Bill Nelson, Rupert Hine, Heaven 17 or, shit, even Jan Hammer? Taken together, the receptiong of both these releases suggest to ‘us’ – remember, I’m trying to get at our reception of these as artefacts, what we expect to ‘get’ from them – a huge desire to get out of the torpid doldrums of po mo. But neither can, and nor can we. To build a future you need to understand the past, but not repeat it, or flog its corpses. And enjoying doing either is likely a sign of perversity.
3) the socio-dynamics of the album review: of peer acceptance, boot lickers and boosters
This point builds upon ones Chris has made before, but bear re-saying, if only because we appear to be forgetful (I know I am). Once upon a time, there were journalists. These near mythical creatures expressed talents creative, critical, crafted and vocational. They developed their chops over many years. And they understood the difference between editorial and advertising. They thought advertorial was something disgusting, something glocal, something grownups expressed quietly on the toilet. Perhaps it was always a big ask for d&e to produce a culture of journalists and journalism, let alone a milieu that fostered, cherished, loved and respected proper journalists. You know, the kind of people who asked tough questions, did research, brooked no bullshit, and got to the bottom of things, even if it broke them. These days, almost without exception, what we have is a bunch of wannabes who are so starry-eyed from getting tweet highfives from the artists that they love, and so addicted to the promo .zip files they receive, and so utterly compromised through their cosy relations with promo, that they either cannot and/or do not ever say anything critical. The surface effects of this are subtle, but the long term implications might be profound: no critical horizon, no contextual frame, just one big anus that a bunch of invested boosters are morris dancing around, alternating between circle jerks and high fives, waiting for the next ‘release’. As Shed so aptly put it in his LWE interview, which bears close, repeated reading (especially for the way the inane questions provoke him to interestingly grumpy responses): I think it’s spam. And Philip Sherburne and Simon Reynolds, as the two journalist/exceptions to this, cannot save us on their own. Nor should they have to.
4) promo: pervasive churnalism
Promo has its fair share of responsibility for this, too. This is no ‘one’ agent’s fault, as Chris pointed out in the piece linked above, it’s a systemic issue, but at the same time, the cottage industry that is, and the cosy cottaging (by proxy) that they support, has contributed to the pervasion and entrenchment of a distro system (and culture, and entourage of profiting beneficiaries) that has progressively eroded the boundary between information and PR, between journalism and advertising. The best example of this is boomkat, and by extension Modern Love. Read me carefully: it is not ‘their fault’ – boomkat are in the business of selling music, mostly excellent music that they are genuinely passionate about. I support them, and think you should too. But I choose them deliberately, as to some extent they are the dudes servicing the ‘aficionados’, the geeks, the maniacs (us). Thing is, get this right: they are trying to sell you things. And, you know, they are Modern Love, more or less. We know this, but keep forgetting it. It reminds me a bit of the 14 year old girls on the school bus, reading Cosmopolitan. Trying thereby to somehow be cosmopolitan. They were all smart girls from a selective high school, and read it ‘critically’ together, brutally taking the piss... But they also, without fail, bought it each month. And they also, quietly, internalised the sex tips and expressed the overall effect of the magazine through their bodies, mostly via bulimia. Cosmopolitan is evil, boomkat is emphatically not – clearly. And yet, and yet... how do we read them, and how/what do we need them as we do?
5) churning and churning in the widening gyre (the falconer can’t be bothered listening to falcon podcast [#197])
But, you know, the rats will have their charlie, will they not? I think we’re all in on this. This gross hunger for novelty, and the rate at which we churn through podcasts, and the horrible hangovers. Which is surpassed only by the thumping rate at which podcasts are released. And you’re still expected to have appetite enough to buy some music? A friend of mine confided: he can now no longer be bothered pirating. The very thought of it fills him with an unspeakable ennui. It’s so weird, isn’t it? It’s almost as if we don’t know how to operate outside an ‘economy’; without scarcity, how do you build evaluative hierarchies? And why cherish anything? This strange proliferation of simulacra, a veritable free for all... and yet, almost totally unappetizing – while it also tends to make people go on horrible binges, orgy without appetite, after which they become wracked with guilt, and feel the need to buy merchandise and attend live shows to atone for their sins...
6) studio time, headspace – and lack thereof
...but little wonder, when, really, so much of the music that is released appears thin, underdeveloped, in need of some slow time in the oven. Creativity takes time and headspace, lots of it. And unique creative sounds, embedded in scenes with their own non-generic locality, that likewise takes years to be able to make and support healthy young’uns. What we have now is a system that eats its young instead. Because production is now ‘worthless’, in a market sense. So producers have to be touring perfomers, constantly in long-haul motion, moving between endless stages in evermore bigbox festivals, where they gyrate for your pleasure. Some might like this, but I think it’s a bum deal: it’s bad for the environment, it’s extremely tiring, and, ultimately, it burns people out. Maybe the stupidist thing musicians ever agreed to was letting people record their shit. See the movie Diva for a full working out of this. And the second stupidist thing was the embrace of mp3. But, you know, we all prefer convenience, don’t we? ‘Ennui, and anomie/goes together in perfect harmony/side by side on my midi keyboard, oh motherboard/ why can’t we?’
7) hype bubbles, or: the temporality of microfame in the public sphericules
Pervasive promo, morbid appetites for novelty, and a lack of quiet space for reflection and creativity also mean that the hype bubbles are blowing bigger and popping faster than ever before. I hope they prove me wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we never hear from Mount Kimbie again. And what about Kyle Hall? Kyle who...? Or, for that matter, most of the younger post-dubstep producers? Or people who appear to have been claimed by soul sucking combos of scene vampires and their own egos, which, being invested in and supported by aforesaid hype bubbles, are both massive and fragile, ready to (release) pop at any moment. You need a very steady grip on yourself and the world not to fall into this trap in 2011, especially if you live in Berlin, where the fantasybubblediscoball is vaguely supportable. You certainly need more grip than most vulnerable, attention-and-recognition-craving people (and who isn’t?) possess. And who cares for the trainwrecks? Red Bull Trainwreck Academy/Grouphome, now there’s an idea.... for some reason I think it won’t fly...
8) whither the audacity?
Years ago, a famous German DJ, drunk and confessional in a Tokyo nightclub, confided to a friend of mine something about his countrymen. ‘Most German DJs... they do not dare. They do not DARE!’ Now, this isn’t a German-specific issue, I don’t think (we love you guys). It is about a general lack of audacity. I’m happy to call it balls, provided it be known that they do not inhere in (or adhere to) the male of the species. Back to Shed:
“I think that some other artists think they don’t have any freedoms, and they keep themselves inside of some borders, I dunno. They don’t want to have these freedoms, because they feel safe within these strict lines. They can do more, but they don’t. They think too much about it. They can do more than they are doing. They think that anybody out there wants… ah, forget it [stops himself]. They can do more, but they think they are not in the right position to do something free, something new. Because other DJs are doing the same thing, so they have to do things the same as the others.”
Why? I’m not sure. But I am pretty certain that a fair portion of what’s getting put out really lacks the fundamental audacity that is the mark of creative brilliance. In order to ask ourselves about what’s possible, we have to think to the edges of the impossible. And then just fucking relax. And stop being so fucking normative about the way we make music. Yoda it: ‘do or do not, there is no try.’ What I see is a lot of vague ‘ought’ and ‘should’ floating about, but not much do, not much WILL. Kraftwerk built their own synthesizers. Kraftwerk built their own synthesizers. Or: ask yourself why Mika Vainio, Sasu Ripatti or Sam Shackleton are so incredibly creative and prolific, and why their music is not and will never be confused with anyone else’s. They don’t inhabit this stupid frame. But you don’t have to either. We are freer than we often imagine.
9) But the real problem is ‘us’: we’re not listening
The common relay point in this whole clusterfuck of relations is us, the audience, the receptors. How receptive are we? And, well, how well are we listening? My sense is: most of us = not very well at all. When was the last time you really sat down and gave your undivided attention to a recording? When was the last time you got a bunch of people together and gave yourself to the unhurried sharing of some great music? I’m not talking about using music as a ‘do while’ noise filter for commuting, mac monkeying, internetting, helping you relax and circle jerk w/ your online homies. I mean music taken out of its relation as an audible beta blocker for the viccissitudes of contemporary capitalist work patterns. Fact is most of us ‘use’ music, and at the moment, because of convenience and overwork, we do so in an aesthetically, haptically and, moreover socially impoverished way. I think we’re all responsible for this to some extent. I know I feel it. And I also think it is a fucking waste of one of the most incredible things we’re capable of, flawed though interesting (and somehow sexy, some of us) monkeys that we are. It’s time for us to try to learn to pay attention. Wake up. And pay attention. The music we make between us can be the most wonderful thing, if we let it, if we make it. So let’s.
10) add your own reason, fellow ssgs... I beseech thee; and please disagree with me...
But please do me the courtesy of reading me carefully. If you read this on your way to work, hastily, on a device, and are now ready to type angry, that would be both tragic irony and strong evidence... so please: your best fire, but no flaming...