Race and the Novelty Song

When the Spanish Eurovision winner was announced my immediate reaction was a very defensive one. Here was, I thought, a fairly straightforward humorous reggaeton track and it was being dismissed as a novelty song. Of course, once I'd done a bit of rudimentary research it turns out to actually have been a novelty song all along.

But the central problem still remains. As I prepare to write the mega-post on Eurovision novelty entries I promised, I have to face up to precisely the problematic connotations of the term "novelty".

The idea of the novelty song is a western construct, coming out of Tin Pan Alley in the twenties and thirties as one of three major categories of vapid pop. Over time it's come to acquire somewhat negative associations - it's a song that's exploitative of a fad or news item, without much musical substance.

I remember how livid I was when Mundian To Bach Ke was repeatedly reported as a novelty song, since it's actually well-rooted in a bhangra remix tradition going back a decade. But in the context it was being used - mainstream European house clubs - it functioned precisely as a novelty, something fun and throwaway for the moment. Innovation, or the potential integration of new cultural elements, was reduced to the mere temporary entertainment. That sort of thing has been exceedingly common over the years - look at the dance world, where wonderful, fully-formed dance genres like rumba and merengue were reduced to novelty dance crazes, never taken seriously.

I would argue that this happens all too frequently to genres from the third world, and that to some extent the novelty tag is a (rockist?) western master supression technique against other cultures. Look at the features usually associated with novelty music: flamboyant performers, extra-musical effects, innovative and unusual instrumentation and techniques, use of humour, connection to current events or fads. Is it a coincidence that these are way more common in a lot of third world music (and African-American music) than in mainstream rock-pop? (Exception: Metal.)

In any case, treating music as novelty is dangerous because it can often suppress innovation (Dickie Goodman famously presaged sampling), and be used to foster conformity and complacence. Every time I see this clip of Tiny Tim I feel angry at the bullies who feed this self-confident outsider musician into the mill of novelty, denying him the right to be funny on his own terms.

So while I'll sometimes use the word novelty for a deliberately constructed pop song, I'm going to be much more wary of bandying it about in the future. And I'll definitely look at every novelty song deeply and try to understand it on its own musical terms, including its background.


Paul Newman Goes Technopop

The thing I still like more than almost anything about Youtube is the users. The people who spend their life putting up video after video of unusual material that is watched by handfuls, yet provides a treasure trove if you happen to come across it. Today's favourite is, totally, mycub, whose entire channel is devoted to Japanese car ads from the eighties and nineties. Over five hundred of them.

Besides the staggering monomania this feat represents (worthy of priase in itself) they're almost compulsive watching - once you pop you can't stop. They're just thirty seconds long, immensely varied, fast paced, and to a non-japanese speaker mesmerisingly nonsensical. And they're almost all musical in some way - cars are represented by businesscore, folk rock, swing jazz, contemporary rock, classical music etc. etc., often specially written. I spent ages looking for one in a proper japanese technopop style and finally came across this one featuring Paul Newman:

Brilliant track (though not really techno kayokyoku), I've been trying to track it down for days with no success.


The Most Embarrassing Sound In The World

Last week I made a mix CD for a friend of my fiancées who's into disco and electronic music, and I snuck My Game of Loving by White Noise onto there. (Excuse the crap video, it ain't mine.) Apparently they listened to the CD quite a few times and every time that track came on they stopped and giggled in embarassment. If you listen to the track (in public, preferably) you'll probably figure out at what part.

Can anyone think of a sound that's more embarrassing to endure in a public place than energetic, female sexual moaning? There's probably a deeper feminist analysis to be made here, I think.


Doctors Warn Bass Is Putting Health At Risk

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK/STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN (TP) - International superstar Bass is in danger of collapse or even premature death if she continues her current lifestyle, a leading physician claims.

"She's exhibiting distinct symptoms of a workaholic, and she seems unable to say no to offers."

Dr. Johan Palme at the Populärmusikklinik in Stockholm, Sweden warns that the musical superstar might be on the verge of breaking due to stress.

"We call it the disco syndrome. The patient is taken out of her social context and pushed to perform at many different levels at once, interacting with different groups and audiences. There's a risk of spreading oneself too thin, and the potential rejection the patient faces may send her over the edge."

Disco syndrome typically hits after an upsurge in his career leaves the patient feeling too confident of his abilities.

"You can't be everywhere at once," warns Dr. Palme. "Sometimes there need to be periods of rest."

The illustrious career of Bass as a major leading performer spans 43 years, mostly in the underground and with huge popularity in some subcultures, but the past year has seen her make enormous strides in popularity.

"She started to get invited to these big, cocaine-fuelled parties in New York where hipsters would fawn over her," says a long-time friend who only wants to be identified as "Birdseed". "Then before we knew it she was performing at malls and at commercial radio stations all over the world. Frankly, we're worried about her health."

Bass has faced crises before in her life, "Birdseed" tells us, notably receding in for periods of the eighties and nineties. But this time it's different.

"I've never seen her so bright and confident, but at the same time I'm worried she's working too hard," he says. "She's taken up company with all sorts of characters that I'm worrying will abandon her as soon as they find something else to play with."

Dr Palme claims that this sort of abandonment, while dangerous in the short term, may actually be positive for the patient in the end.

"The kind of life-crisis that Bass is facing is a distinct phase of disco syndrome that may in fact help the patient in the long run. Look at Disco himself, who after being summarily rejected came back stronger than ever before."


Finland and Turkey: Feels like rocking's over

Very much unlike last year's contest, this year Eurovision is almost entirely bereft of proper rock entries. Maybe the trend boiled over completely last year (when there were like ten, all of which bombed), or maybe it's all more integrated this year (as you'd expect) and pop-with-metal-guitars entries like Azerbaijan and Lithuania are the new black. Whatever. Essentially, there are only two rock entries proper this year.

Teräsbetoni - Missä Miehet Ratsastaa

This year the Finnish entry has dug even deeper into metal history - after 2006's GWAR-Kiss-Alice Cooper ripoffs Lordi (who won the whole thing) and last year's dour pop-metal exercise this year they're sending Manowar-style power metal. It's considerably less funny than the trend-driving Lordi entry (despite the probably unintentional analogue to Dschingis Khan) but there's something about it that's stuck with me. Maybe the neatly-produced Melodeathish drums, maybe the little close-harmony embellishments. Or maybe just the fact that the band is unironically named after a building material. I don't think they're going anywhere in any case, maybe low-end final.

Mor ve Ötesi - Deli

This radio-friendly alternative rock band is apparently huge in Turkey and has been going on for a decade and a half. I think it shows - although some of their other songs scream "hit!" a lot more this is the type of solid, professional product we've been able to expect from Turkey's highly-evolved music industry. I like the slight oriental touch to the melody, less thrilled by the evenly thick production treacle; it feels a bit like a half-baked album track. Pity, I usually enjoy it when Turkey sends band entries.

Anyway, if this was the fate of last year's big trend maybe all the crap novelty entries (see forthcoming, reluctant post) will go away for 2009. Here's hoping.


The Melbourne Shuffle

Wow - this is a fascinating street dance. Not just because the obvious parallels to tektonik and jumpstyle in the rise to internet fame (see futher last post) but because it's actually dynamic and skillful and innovative.

But perhaps even more interesting from my viewpoint is its apparently huge popularity in Malaysia, which has a surprisingly big hardstyle scene. Relatively, it's even bigger there than in Australia, with competitions, big clubs and even more dance videos. Lots more dance videos.

Besides the hardstyle Melbourne shuffle (how did that type of music get from Holland to Australia to Malaysia?) there's apparently also a "softstyle shuffle" which is danced to (what I hear with my limited ear is) more funky trance music and seems stepped a tad more conventionally. Wikipedia also suggests a possibly less ground-based variant called stomping, seemingly featured here. But honestly, I'm fumbling my way in the dark here - this calls for a lot more web research.

Maybe this blog will provide a good start - so far it seems well-researched and with a worldwide reach. I'm especially intrigued, so far, by the enormous post on the "phats", the special trousers you'll see a lot of those dancers wearing.

Esoteric Research Methods #3: Google Trends

#1 #2

I love Google trends, Google's shoddy beta pop-statistical tool. It's unreliable, worthless for actually measuring anything, fails to pick up small things... and absolutely marvellous.

Just like with the last two ERMs, its mainly useful for discovering new scenes. How you do that, though, tends to be a tad different.

Being a geek I'm a bit mesmerised by graphs and tables. Maybe that's why I like this service so much - I get stuck for hours putting in words to see what sticks. See The White Stripes' popularity slowly decline, intermittedly punctured by ever-diminishing album releases. Watch Bing Crosby, reduced to nothing more than his seasonal material. See the popular comebacks, the very brief trends, where international artists are most popular (Austria?).

Closer to the topic of this blog, it's brilliant to see exactly when trends and genres first explode. Take, I dunno, novelty dances. Or little regional genres. See the January spike in interest in Baile Funk? Or the seasonal nature of Manele interest? Investigate! I suspect they're both false alarms, but it's this kind of thing that can provide a good road towards a story or idea.

But the area I like most is the country table below the main chart. It's great at picking up regional scenes where you don't expect them. Do a search for hardstyle, for instance, and you can go on to search for the Estonian scene or the Malaysian one (see next post). And I must say I'm quite intrigued by the interest in electro house from Morocco. Wow.

This is exactly the kind of thing to get you kick-started. In fact, I just found this genre I simply just need to look up...


Hi Fi Lo Fum

I smell the blood of a slightly perplexing trend.

This entry
on the "official blog" of a major Swedish newspaper highlights the high-fidelity production values of new swedish band Days (which is quite good and probably named after the Kinks song). And links them with a potential backlash against the rather more lo-fi, rough-played Gothenburg aesthetic that has dominated the Swedish indie scene for ages. I guess it's part of the same international indie trend towards (anti-punk) well-playedness that gave us critical darling Feist last year.

Coming from outside the normal indie circle I find it a tad confusing, I must say. Because it's never going to be as easy as lo-fi music for lo-fi systems and hi-fi music for hi-fi systems.

Historically, I think, the two approaches that mix up playback and recording fidelity have been just as common.

There's plenty of producers that have used excellent-quality high fidelity recording equipment but with bad, lo-fidelity playback in mind, often resorting to tricks to make the audio sound better than it is. Berry Gordy at Motown famously test-played all new singles at the lowest-end machines possible before they would be pressed. The bass-heavy aesthetic of rocksteady (and later Jamaican music) developed in part because low frequencies reached further out from under-powered speakers at sound systems. Today, the swooping, mid-range bass lines of niche house are designed to sound good even on crappy laptop speakers.

And of course the fourth possibility is plenty alive too - there's tons of examples of music that's been made to sound "worse-recorded" than it actually is, lo-fi recordings for people with hi-fi systems. Using strange EQ filters or mixed in vinyl crackle to make a record sound older than it is is an old trick, in the past fifteen years used by Portishead and perhaps more clumsily Missy Elliott, among many others. Then there's the whole tradition of destroying or messing up perfectly good equipment to make it sound better (ie. worse), from Dave Davies punching holes in an amplifier with a screwdriver, via Dub misusing studio equipment in all sorts of ways, to Glitch. Don't get me started on Glitch.

I certainly wouldn't be surprised if these two approaches were more common than the (sonically fairly unpleasant and monetarily elitist) crisp high-end-audio-only aesthetic or the (sometimes unforgivably sloppy) grungey DIY crust-punkish sound. Perhaps caring only about clarity of sonic detail or giving it up altogether aren't really good ideas, either way.


Pseudo-science and pseudo-art

A theory can be scientific at one time but pseudoscientific at another. [...] Astrology was not simply a perverse sideline for Ptolemy and Kepler, but part of their scientific activity.

-- Paul Thagard, 1978

"Why Astrology is a Pseudoscience" by Paul Thagard is a classic of the philosophy of science, and not just because it's mercifully short and easy to grasp. Rather than go into the depths of epistemological fineries or find characteristics and psychological traits of pseudoscience, he carefully sorts away all sorts of possible criteria and comes up with a simple formula, one that's still a standard widely used today. Well, at least in philosophy departments.

The other day it struck me how similar his defintion of bad science was to the stuff I don't like in music. And that while obviously the fields are very different, maybe it would be possible to extend the idea of pseudo-science into pseudo-art.

After a fair bit of discussion, Thagard comes up with the following criterion of demarcation:
A theory or discipline which purports to be scientific is pseudoscientific if and only if:

1) it has been less progressive than alternative theories over a long period of time, and faces many unsolved problems; but

2) the community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problems, shows no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory in relation to others, and is selective in considering confirmations and disconfirmations.
In other words, it's not any qualities of the science itself that decides it's status as a pseudoscience but how it compares to others. If there's another shiny new theory or discipline that is better at explaining the world, and our subject doesn't even attempt to approach or answer it for a long time, then it's pseudoscience. It's lost its touch with the contemporary world and is just recycling its own material without getting anywhere.

There's plenty of music (and other arts) like that too, I think: retro and revivalist movements, "classical" music concerts, jazz or whatever that's been unchanged since the fifties (or the twenties). In my own circles, I usually pull this sort of argument when explaining why I don't like Jill Scott (but do like Lucy Pearl) - I've got huge difficulty with music that doesn't address its contemporary world in any way. Maybe you could even say that trying to progress and engaging your surroundings are kinda what makes something art in the first place, making reactionary material like this some sort of pseudo-art (by analogy of the above).

Of course, art is hardly linear in progress (nor is Science, really) and sometimes a step back is necessary before going forward, but there's plenty of music that has no intention of going forward or catching up in the first place - just as with Thagard's theory above. Another thing I like about this type of theory is that it's linked to history as per the first quote above - Boogaloo was brilliant and forward looking in the sixties, but anyone doing that sort of music now? Crap! Pseudo-art!

I for one can't see the reason why anyone would want to make music that's not trying to be at the forefront. But maybe they're caught up in the mysticism of it all?


Genre of the Week: Skacid

I'm just about to engage in the worst kind of lazy, contentless link-blogging - I simply haven't been able to find any info that's not on the first page of Google. But some genres are just too cool to pass up, especially those in the juncture between hip-hop, house and reggae, and this is quite possibly the first genre to join together all three - very briefly back in 1989. Yes, I'm doing the internet a disservice by decreasing the content-to-hyperlink ratio but come on, it's...


Double Trouble & Rebel MC - Just Keep Rockin'

(Wikipedia page)
(Visualisations-based Youtube "video" of another song)
(Well-made little genre page) [edited link title 2008-04-12]
(Revival attempt that I got the name from)
(Only published album, I'll keep a look out for it at record stores)
(Podcast of about four tracks)
(Largely unrelated hip-house video that I think Wayne might get a kick out of)


Uncertain about Universality

I had a very nice lunch of Hanoi Chicken today at a prize-winning Vietnamese restaurant in Stockholm. It's one of half a dozen Vietnamese places in the city, catering almost exclusively to an ethnically Swedish clientele (there's just over 13 000 Vietnamese people in the whole country). Now if on the other hand I would want to buy Vietnamese music it's highly unlikely I'd find any at all anywhere in Stockholm, whether popular, traditional or classical. Maybe one CD at best at the nasty world music store with the caricature of a name.

I know marketability is a bad measure of appeal, and I know food culture is equally beset with post-colonial problems as any other expression. But I still think some cultural manifestations are much more translatable, even universal than others. And that makes me wonder what gives the quality of universality, and perhaps take issue with the idea of music being a universal language.

My measure of universality is probably my mother-in-law, a tiny finnish woman who left school at 16 and spent most of her life as a cleaning lady. If I gave her a record of music outside her own cultural sphere of Elvis, Finnish tango and Ricky Martin she'd have no idea what to do with it. But she loves foreign food (she exchanges spices with a Sri Lankan friend and is open to all sorts of cuisines). And I'm sure if I gave her a craft item from a far-off culture she'd readily accept it and even display it around her home, maybe even learn the appropriate technique.

Expanding a bit to people who read books and attend classes, I'd say appropriately translated literature (especially folk-tales filled with Jungian archetypes) is fairly universal. So's dance - there's a great deal of interest in and classes of African, South Asian and South American readily available in this city, and they're also very popular. Chinese theatre goes down very well. In fact, I'm not sure the actual question is what expressions are universally appealing, but why music doesn't work the same way. The "world music" market is inappreciably small as a proportion of all music made, and most music never comes close to making it across.

(That applies to time just as much as place, by the way. It's been fascinating during my history of music course to see how the aesthetic ideals of each time period is completely overthrown by the next (cf. Ars Subtilior) and how each era has so specific criteria for what constitutes a potential hit.)

It's all very strange 'cause there's this myth (going back to Immanuel Kant, I guess) that music somehow is a language that transcends all boundaries. But for all its supposed openness to hermeneutic interpretation from every angle there's a cruel specificity to music, where something as elusive as production sound can mean the difference between success and failure. Compared to the basal human instincts of eating and dancing, and to the representational arts with their rich interconnections and possibilities for comparison, music is a language that works expressly within a cultural context. The wrong tonality, the wrong song structure, the wrong thematics, the wrong application and music is at risk of being ignored or dismissed as very dull.

I can freely confess to not understanding the qualities of Vietnamese music the way I appreciate the qualities of Vietnamese food. And that, perhaps, is part of what musicology such an interesting subject to study.


Portugal: If only...

Damn, Portugal, damn. I really want to like this - it's a jazzier version of the Balkan ballad, over-the-top emotional, hugely built up, sung by a huge-bodied and huge-voiced senhora.

Vânia Fernandes - Senhora do mar

If only. I know it's a well-known tasks of musicologists to identify plagiarisms and melodic copying, and though I generally very lenient with this sort of thing this is going to run into huge problems. Because, essentially, the chorus has been lifted melodically and rhythmically from "Crucified" by Army of Lovers. Which happens to be one of the strongest tracks from a brilliant album. Like I said, it's a pity.


Veera Ha by J-12

I've not done so much MP3 blogging so far, mainly because my physical music collection has no way to get into my computer (it's mostly on vinyl and packed-down CDs). Here, though, is a track I like a lot and that I think never got the attention it deserved when it was released.

British bhangra has seen brighter days. Listen to the top list at the BBC Asian Network and the sound is still pretty much the same as it was ten years ago. Top new artists like Tigerstyle and Diljit are not bad, but hardly groundbreaking, and it almost feels like the stuff from five years ago was more forward-looking. (Here's an interesting exception.) I recently came across (through Stumble upon, strangely) this Tigerstyle mixtape, which actually shows excellent taste and a will to innovate, but even they seem to have trouble finding bhangra material to mix in that's as interesting as the more garagey stuff. Actually, the most innovative Punjabi-language track in the mix ends up being from Bollywood.

Which is why I think J-12 should give Bhangra production another shot. J-12 and his album Born To Nach was an attempt by Garage DJ/Promoter J-Sweet to branch into the Asian market and it apparently bombed and has not been heard from since. For good reason, I guess - it's largely instrumental and fairly experimental, goes off into all sorts of directions and probably is too out-there for the general desi audience.

Plus the most interesting track is in Kannada rather than Punjabi and not bhangra at all. Veera Ha is a brilliant track and way ahead of its time - the first and quite probably the best fusion to date of dubstep and asian dance music. And remember, this is 2004 when these sounds were way more strange sounding than they seem today. Veera Ha was actually deleted on subsequent releases of Born To Nach...

J12 - Veera Ha (Full On Vocal Mix) (Zshare)