Crunk was dead

Strange as it may seem, crunk may have more staying power than we gave it credit for.

Still, in retrospect, I have to be a little surprised how quickly it disappeared last time. It was huge in 2003, then it just, er, went up in thin air. Strange for a genre that was meant to be the next big thing, that me and a lot of people with me totally believed in at the time. How did a sound become so incredibly tired from 2006, when "Bojangles" by Pitbull was still quite hot, to 2008? I guess a lot of current hip-hop has subsumed little bits of it, from the distorted guitars (where Trick Daddy's "Let's Go" was a bit of a pioneer) to the dramatic build-ups a lot of songs have, but labelling a song crunk today? Hardly. Is it really all Dave Chapelle's fault?

No matter. Everyone involved seems to have moved on, except poor Lil Jon who these days produces frankly embarassing crap. Ying Yang twins are doing seemingly up-to-date stuff I quite like. Mr Collipark, always one step ahead, has gone through at least three different new phases since. And so on.

Which is why it's doubly surprising that I've been hearing the word "crunk" quite so much recently. And in the most unexpected places.

Because it's certainly not in Atlanta the new crunk is being made. How about Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the "creamo" or "crunk screamo" of american band Brokencyde (via)? Apparently huge among the teenies (over a million listens for a song on Myspace is not a piddling matter), and considerably more crunk than screamo to my ears, this seemingly is just bringing the same values to a new audience. That they're also incredibly poncy-looking posers doesn't matter - the genre is clearly not dead in the US Southwest.

Actually, it's not dead among punks in general. Would you really have expected 2008 as the release year of a compilation called "Punk Goes Crunk"? Admittedly it is an awful effort and the majority of the songs covered are not crunk at all (making it fairly egregiously mislabelled), but apparently in the punk world "Put Yo Hood Up" still lives on.

And then there's the apparent huge popularity of the crunk sound in... Ghana. Great African music blog conglomerate Museke (how about a full-text RSS feed guys?) has highlighted that current trend in hiplife, and while some of the stuff listed is fairly generally influenced by southern rap you can totally feel the crunk in some of the videos. Like this one by 4x4 - it's totally mixed into the hiplife but you still get those Lil Jon-ish synth riffs and that spoken-shouted chorus.

It's so interesting how a sound can be totally dead to a core of fans and yet spread on into the rural/foreign periphery. And it's not like I've even brought up eurocrunk...



I've spent my weekend swimming with the hipsters.

I was at this lovely little festival at a traditional folkpark, which had loads of things going for it, not least the fact that it's tried to keep the local folk park alive and up to date. Slightly more troubling was the fact that the local presence was negligible - instead they'd bussed up oodles of hipsters from the big cities, mostly Stockholm, who did hip performance art, ate hip food and listened to hip bands. Quite fun nonetheless.

Two of the artists performing at the festival should strike a familiar note to some readers here: Leif and Rye Rye. Both make music that can be vaguely (though questionably accurately) described as a (re-)americanisation of British grime, filtered through bmore and through the hip dance clubs of New York. Rye Rye, at least, does it very well too. But what I find interesting about these two is that what they do is almost the music of mainstream African-Americans - yet it is the little difference that makes it acceptable to hipsters.

Because hipsters love almost the real thing.

The hipster category of almost has a huge history with wildly veering styles and qualities. It'd include people like Scott Joplin. Paul Whiteman. The early Rolling Stones. Janis Joplin. The entire genre of Jazz-Funk. Bob Marley and the Wailers as produced and marketed by Island Records. The eighties had bands like Was (Not Was) and Pigbag. Today? Well, Bonde De Role, just to take an example.

And before we start pulling up theories about race and minstrelsy here, this certainly doesn't just apply to black acts adopting traits of the hip, white upper-middle-class or vice versa. The festival I was at had a band that was almost rockabilly. (Rockabilly is a strong working-class marker here.) Screamadelica was almost house. And what is the entire genre of alt. country if not almost country?

What's going on here? Obviously hipsters prefer acts that are able to speak their language, act the right way and wear the right clothes to get to them. Was (Not Was) may play fairly conventional electric boogie on that record, but they present the image of a hip post-punk rock band which makes them appealing to hipsters. Leif maybe couldn't rap very well, but he certainly knew how to dress snappily! Quality markers vary greatly from group to group, so obviously hitting the right ones works.

Still, that invisible wall between the acceptable and the unhip can sometimes be very thin indeed. Look at poor MC Gringo, who has earnestly tried to fit in into the Rio baile funk scene - suddenly he's whisked away to hipster pop festivals all over Europe. Yet his music is not amazingly different from that of dozens of acts - it's merely his whiteness that, in hipster eyes, makes him almost baile funk. Meanwhile, his contemporaries without the hipster access are left in the favela, since they really are baile funk, no almost about it.

I can't help but wonder why this is the case. If the reason hipsters are brushing up to black/third world/working class music is because it's thrilling, why don't they go all the way and book proper hip-hop acts to their little festivals? And if they think that music is actually naff and the people who make it square, why do they keep flirting with it so much? Anyone got a theory for me?

I guess the reasons are not a million miles away from why the hipsters from Stockholm placed their little festival in a folkpark in a little rural village without ever actually meeting the villagers...



Anyone who knows me well will tell you that one of my biggest personal weaknesses is my tendency to be ashamed too often. I can march out in a rut if I'm embarrassed over the slightest thing. It's, er, embarrassing really.

Nevertheless I'd say this makes me a bit of an expert on embarrassment. By my standards the type of material that's ended up in this meme-feature (which I've nicked from, who caught it via, who took it from the source; since Dial M didn't "tag it along" I'm stealing it unbidden) is pathetic. Ridiculous. Practically none of it is shameful, properly shameful.

Let me guide you into the world of real shame. And present my list of guilty listening pleasures.

Every single one of us, except I guess psychopaths and some low-level autists, follow codes. More or less conscious systems of how we understand the world, act and present ourselves to others – moral codes, political ideologies, manners, aesthetic systems of taste. Most of us, I hope, try to keep these codes as logically consistent as we can, and consider it a bit hypocritical if we go about breaking them. We deride the social democratic politician who drives fancy cars. We deride the hell-fire preacher who sleeps with church aides.

That hypocrisy is the sole centre of shame. Because as long as what you do is defensible by your own standards, you've got nothing to be ashamed about. It's only once you start "sinning" (I put it in quotation marks, but to a Christian it really is sinning) against them that you're really doing something embarrassing. So I get embarrassed when, say, I have to be pushy. Or if I get caught breaking a rule. Or something like that.

Songs to be ashamed of are thus indefensible songs. Songs that you like despite the fact that they run against all your principles of what's good and bad music. They're not songs you used to like, but don't any more – as evangelical Christians will tell you, a dirty past is merely a good thing. They're not songs you downloaded for "study purposes" or some friend sent you. They're not songs everyone else thinks are embarrassing but that you justifiability like.

My five embarrassing tunes would go something like this:

The Beatles – Helter Skelter: I've repeatedly and strongly stated my dislike of the White Album and of all music that acts as an ironic pastiche of something else. Here the fab four (on what's actually the oldest MP3 on my hard drive, from 2000) take the mickey out of the harder rock that starts appearing around then, and they do it in a strung-out hippie manner that I find abhorrent. Yet the track is actually really good to my ears, that seem not to care about content as much as my stomach usually does.

Am Adolf Hitler Platz: Sent to me by some idiot once, but it doesn't matter. I defend abhorrent lyrics in songs I like by appealing to the right of expression of oppressed groups, or to veracity in reporting about far-off places, or to allowing people the right to develop without our interference. None of these apply here. This is just total nasty Nazi shit. Catchy though!

Talvin Singh – Butterfly:
What's not wrong with this one? First, it's worldbeat, fu-u-u-using fucking annoying Quawwali, okinawan music, sitars and intelligent drum and bass, which is another pet hate of mine. It's got new age synth pads! Indie people love it! It also happens to be particularly energetic and imaginative, but I simply can't defend loving this one.

Blur – Song 2: Okay, now I'll descend into vitriol for a while. I hate cackling YBAish devil-may-care hipster band Blur. I hate smug obfuscationist Damon Albarn and his Malian cohorts. I hate simply everything about the album Parklife. I also bear a slight dislike of overplayed songs that everyone can sing along to. This is good though, and as someone on the comments thread says: Reminds me of Fifa 98. Which I guess is an embarassing reason for liking a song, too.

Cold Blood – Kissing My Love: Hippies. Tasteful jazz-funk. Screaming white women pretending to be black. I'm totally, utterly, wordlessly embarassed by this one, all the more so for the fact that I just don't like this track, I love it endlessly and sing and dance along as I'm typing this. Dang-EEH-EEH-dang dang!

I tried to find entries I liked from Radiohead, Frank Zappa, Massive Attack, 3 Feet High and Rising-era De La Soul and Sly and the Family Stone, but gave up coz all of their music is S-H-I-T-E. I've also really tried disliking Beans from Antipop Conspiracy, The Grateful Dead and Eric B & Rakim, but it turns out I'm not actually embarassed by them at all.

I now "tag this along" to everyone in the world ever, 'cause I don't like clubs.



One thing I've learnt from feminism is that being a contrarian can sometimes be a good thing.

Last week, for instance, my daily newspaper published a strip of notoriously racist Norwegian goth comic Nemi, in which the lead character claims all male toddlers who get dressed in pink by their parents will turn out homosexual. (I can't find the strip on-line, unfortunately.) My immediate instinct was to rush out and tear down baby-blue children's wear off the shelves, dress my own future man-kids in the pinkest outfits I can find, and if they turn out gay then I'm going to be DAMN PROUD OF IT.

Childish, sure. But somehow I don't think that type of reaction to a social norm is wrong at all. Demonstratively rejecting the status quo is always a powerful statement. Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat in Montgomery, was a contrarian. It can expose the way the world works. Let women take as much room in a debate as men have always traditionally done and watch the hypocrisy on the faces of the patriarchal powerful. Contrarianism can bring out new perspectives you haven't thought of before, it can invigorate and kick-start discussions.

Heartfelt contrarianism, wanting to reject something you dislike or put it in perspective and thus (as a method) embracing its opposite, is way different from wilfully amoral trolling. I hope there's a little bit of this kind of contrarian in all of us.

Contrarianism is clearly present in music, too. Musicians are always out to embrace opposites, trying to find that extreme that no-one, so far, has liked.

I like to think there's a little bit of this kind of sentiment underlying the rejection of much of western musical theory that hip-hop stands for. Out of jazz's relative eurocentric sophistication funk, then hip-hop has removed thematic tranformation, cadences and chord sequences, a whole large part of structure... all changes that are antithetical to "taste" or the status quo's way of measuring quality. The simplest, most child-like hip-hop is then also the most sophisticated in its complete rejection of musical values and seriousness. Or one could embrace other concepts of complexity, contrary to the western tradition, like vocal equilibrism, polyrhythmicality, whatever. Am I wrong in thinking the classicist piano cadence at the beginning of A Milli represents what's left behind?

I think this is a possible reading of Wayne's big post on Orientalism in hip-hop as well. An analogy to the Romanian Roma in manele might be apt here - spurned by their European society they've taken to copying Asian music full scale, even going so far as being inspired by Thai lukthung in some of their tracks. (Discussion in comments thread here.) Could it be that the hip-hop producers' use of Indian music is similarly an attempt to turn their backs on the western tradition? Meanwhile their embrace of belly-dancing traditions could be, just as possibly, an attempt to foster a counter-Eurocentric bloc - we all like partying, and partying together, we reject your oppressive morality. And we reject the rockist/white supremacist/Orientalist notion that the ideal expression of black/Arabic music is an ancient, wise, wizened mississippi bluesman/sufi mystic.

Certainly a lot of us new-generation music bloggers can agree to the above statement, I think. As late as the eighties and nineties, a majority of white, well-off fans of of so-called "world music" and african-american music still believed in authenticity in the sense of rootsiness, ancient traditions, folk music. This seems to have been rejected pretty wholesale by the current generation (starting somewhere around here), who embrace modernity, fruity-loopsiness, hard-edged young styles. Contrarian? You bet. The constant search for new trends in this kind of music, often bemoaned, is probably closely connected to this - look, here are these kids in Angola who are not following the primitive norm they're expected to follow, aren't they breaking the pattern in a great way? (Novelty for a positive purpose, who'd have thunk? More on this below.)

Contrarianism also helps explain one aspect I've puzzled over in my own music blogging within the context of that new generation - why do I embrace communality so much in music, when I carefully cultivate my own individuality in appearance and opinions and refuse to join any subculture? I'm being contrarian! True individuality (i.e. not the market kind) involves going against the status quo, which in this case is the Romantic notion (thanks, Gavin) of the individual genius as the sole purveyor of creativity. I think this, too, is a significant reason why so many of us new-gen bloggers are stoked up about scenes and communities.

There's a danger, though, to this kind of wholesale embrace of a contrarian position. Aren't we building towards another cliché, set in stone? Isn't the little favela scene, creative in its poverty, itself an overused archetype of our western narrative? Aren't we just as sinful as the rockist roots people when we reject heavy metal Thai-Laotians off our list?

Unfortunately, I think this might be how the process works. In order to understand why this is so, I think we need to look at the logic of news journalism and what is probably one of contrarianism's less appealing characteristics.

As you may know, I work at a newspaper over the summer, as a subeditor, writing headlines and putting together pretty pages. I'm a journalist by training, and one of the first things we learn in that course is a fairly complex system of news evaluation and valuation, for deciding quickly on a daily basis what news are better and more relevant. Needless to say I use this system, or my honed instinct of how it works, every day when constructing pages.

And of course this news logic has built-in support for contrarianism. "Man Bites Dog" everyone has heard of as the ideal measure of a news story - the unexpected overturning of the normal way the world works. This kind of opposition is generally considered high-quality news, if not in the sharpest category then in the type of human-interest material that a regional newspaper like the one I work for fills most of its pages with. You can notice, over time, that it's these contrarian stories that the big national newspapers pick up from us: the ten-year-old kid who wrote to the prime minister and got a personally worded reply, the shop owner who found the person who vandalised his shop himself because the police were doing nothing.

On the other hand, daily news journalism relishes and revels in pre-made narrative clichés. (Bourdieu would agree.) The thing is, these supposedly "unexpected" stories are actually the most expected of all - their form is set right from the beginning. "Man Bites Dog" happens to be an extremely tired cliché, whatever its value in describing good news stories. All the veterans around me in the newsroom sighed when the story of the kid who wrote to the prime minister came up - apparently the same thing happens every other year or so, and the newspaper always reports about it. They know, by their own logic and by their own system, that it's always a good news story. Just like those kids in that favela with that pirated copy of fruity loops fits into our narrative, our worldview.

In this way, contrarianism can lead to conformity. (How Anton LaVey!) Perhaps blogging's relatively fast-moving world (compared to traditional academia and publishing) is destined to produce similar cookie-cutter stories out of the desire to be different? Certainly, while the younger, harder type of genre is still in a minority, every new one is still a news surprise... but even a cursory look at a blog like Museke shows how wide-spread the hip-hop oriented aethetic is becoming around the world. Are we helping to create cookie-cutter genres?

Music journalism has its share of seemingly contrarian, yet ultimately clichéd news stories. Hands up anyone who hasn't heard of Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson and his commercial pilot licence? Here we've got the classic contrarian news story (heavy metal singer taking on square, everyday job for fun) yet it's been told over and over again so many times that it's no longer remotely shocking. Still it sneaks in every time Bruce Dickinson is mentioned in the news. Because it's still a good story.

Last time I saw it was in conjunction with the fact that Dickinson was flying his own band around on their current world tour. You have to think of how such a decision came about. Sure, he could have elected to do it for fun. Or it could be a calculated move, understanding how news media works, counting on someone asking him about it and then watching it spread across the pages of the world's newspapers. There's a name for this phenomenon, using "good stories" to get publicised in the media without letting anyone know it's actually a marketing move: murketing.

Murketing originally just referred, if I read the blog right, to marketing exercises that are disguised as art. Since then it has come to include anything that doesn't publicly reveal itself as marketing - no press releases, no official sponsorship - yet totally understands and exploits news logic to get written about anyway. The (now apparently old-fashioned) "guerilla marketing" way to get noticed in the blog world was to pay an influential blog to support your product. The murketing approach is to create a cookie-cutter story that the blog's internal news logic can't help but propagate, not realising it's all fake.

I guess we're used to fake, record company created bands like The Bravery (supposedly!) by now. But as record companies become better at understanding what makes blogs tick, expect to see lots more surreptitiously planted bands, genres, and stories that fit into what blogs think is contrarian news logic.

While we're on the subject of contrarianism and economics, I thought I'd bring up one final way to look at contrarianism, supposedly where the term originates from. Contrarian investing is the buying of stock that's currently out of favour with the market, in the hope that there's nothing really wrong with it and that it'll bounce back, earning a profit. It exploits the phenomenon of trendiness - certain stocks simply aren't trendy, yet can still be good investments in the long term.

See any flashbacks to the trendy nature of some types of news stories here? Picking the genres and stories that fall outside the pattern can often be beneficial, if not in the short term. Maybe by posting about Thai-Laotian metal hybrids or Bhutanese pop I'm simply hedging my bets on this kind of music gaining popularity in the future - an investment in potential future popularity if not in actual stocks. No-one remembers your predictive failures, but if you start a trend you can bet your "stocks" will rise.

One thing I've learned from feminism is that contrarianism can often be a good thing. But I guess not always. And you do have to keep an eye on your behaviour to avoid the worst excesses of groupthink and avoid falling for the insiduous methods of the large corporations.

Heck, maybe make sure just to be yourself. As if that was an easy thing to do.


Communal vinyl is back!

Read in the newspaper the other day that there's been a trend towards vinyl surging in popularity again and that part of it (according to an EMI exec) is due to the re-appearance of social listening by kids after decades of increasing headphone-oriented seclusion. Perhaps it seems like a strange thing to be happening just as DJs are seemingly giving it up, but it strangely mirrors my own experience.

I was given a 60s portable vinyl player for Christmas 2006 (thank you, dear) and I've since become a total vinyl junkie, while CDs are starting to feel very cheap, flimsy and hard to use by comparison. Vinyl has a greater range of music available, it's much less a strain on the wallet and it's real fun to go hunting for in bargain bins, this weekend so far I've bought 25 of them. And I've totally latched onto the communal listening thing - me and my friends have been listening and discussing records, we've used it as an ice-breaker at parties, and currently it's set up at work where it's the source of much (mostly positive) discussion and the strange vagaries of peoples' tastes in music is readily made apparent. (How can anyone find old-school Tommy Boy hip-hop from 1985 grating?)

In general, though. If indeed kids have gone back to sitting in their teenage rooms listening to records together, fifties style, what kind of an impact will this have on the music? That kind of thing is a bit of an obsession of mine.

First, is it a coincidence we're seeing this in conjunction with a renewed interest in the music of the early-to-mid eighties, like Latin freestyle? By far the easiest-to-access quality music in vinyl bargain bins is stuff from that period - earlier decades have been picked out, leaving largely crap, and in the nineties Vinyl became a DJ-aimed luxury. Cheap, quality goods with a bit of an attitude have always managed to be made cool by the kids, and here we have music that kids can find and be inspired by ready at hand. I'm hoping for a decent Hi-NRG and Italo revival too, but I'm not holding my breath - they may be a tad too square in the end.

Of course, music for listening to together also requires fairly different qualities to those we've been used to in the internet age. The devolution from the album to the single to the 10-second listening experience (which, let's face it, is about the amount of time we judge new music by these days before clicking on) is likely to take a different route. In particular, weak spots, overly harsh contrasts and boring tracks ought to be more stringently punished, as it's no longer just a single instance that has to be interesting and tracks get changed if just one person complains. But mostly continuity probably gets stronger again. I've certainly heard more whole albums recently (as background music at work) than I have for many years.

Music as a conversation starter or a conversation piece places special demands on it, too. Will it have to be relatively mainstream so that everyone can relate to it, or should it be unusual and obscure to promote storytelling? Lyrics could become less important if people talk over the music more. Short songs over long songs is definitely a possiblity too, I think - go in, raise interest, don't let it slide.

In any case, I'm sure there'll be some effect - music history shows how vital a new medium and a new usage can be for changing music. And since vinyl isn't new, nor social listening to records, maybe history can tell us something of what we can expect from this development, too.


Insane Musicians and the Proper Attitude Towards Disease

"Mentally warped". "Completely bonkers". "Insane and weird".

No, they're not insults. They're positive judgements of music, in this case the musical output of hip-hop producer Shondrae "Bangladesh" Crawford. The thing with Bangladesh is, I wouldn't be totally surprised if he actually turned out to be mentally ill somehow. I've looked at some video interviews, and he got this great weirdness about him: slow, deliberate diction, looks away from the camera, half-closed eyes with really long eyelashes.

Probably it's nothing, but if it was, would it matter? If his musical output was indeed a sign of mental illness, should we really be encouraging him by buying his records?

I once listened to a radio documentary about a schizophrenic woman in the sixties who painted pictures as part of her therapy. The reporter told the story of how she'd been moved around through different institutions, how her foresighted therapists had managed to secure funding for the then-controversial painting therapy, about her life and eventual death.

What they deliberately did not talk about was her art. I think that's a fairly sympathetic attitude towards the mentally ill - obviously allow them to express themselves, but don't say positive things about output that, to them, obviously represents their horror and angst at their disease. Don't encourage the disease, encourage their recovery from it.

In that light, the way the record-buying public has treated some mentally ill people is completely shameful. Take depression. For Ian Curtis and Nick Drake, their mental illnesses were ultimately fatal, yet here were people all along their way, encouraging their behaviour, applauding their depressiveness. I would definitely say that the audience of Joy Division especially was complicit in the eventual suicide of Curtis - they should have done everything they could to try to make him not make as depressive music, yet instead they were just standing there, lapping it up.

And what about drug addiction? Only tangentially a mental illness, but how many musicians haven't been encouraged (again often fatally) by the success of their drug-romantic records? DJ Screw made records about taking drugs and people bought into it big-time, and there he was a few years later, dead from a codeine "syrup" overdose. How much haven't people (of all social groups) been celebrating records made under the influence of such horrendous drugs as cocaine, heroin, amphetamines?

It's a shame because the musical output of the mentally ill and drug addicts can often be very good and artistically of a high standard, and certainly gets celebrated a lot in pop culture. Just in the sixties not buying into "diseased records" would have to mean, among other things, not buying most records produced by Phil Spector. And probably also not buying Pet Sounds. But could it be worth it if we were actually saving lives?

For my part, I certainly hope Bangladesh's "insane beats" are not, per se, the output of a mentally ill person. If they were, I'm not sure I could quite look at them the same way again.


Bugger me! I'm a folkie

I've had a chance to look back over some of the stuff I've written in this blog over the past months recently, and it struck me that a lot of the material has a common theme. From this very early post to this rather recent one, I've fairly consistently argued for community, community, community in music, prefferably working only with and for itself. Boima commented on the last post: "Is this what you mean by no outside influence?! ;) Your perfect genre?" and I think he might be totally right.

I do like musical isolates too much. It's dawned on me that I might have become some sort of folkie. And thinking about it, this modern age might well have brought out a bit of the folkie in all of us.

Well, let's not get too hasty. Obviously there's loads of aspects of the folk revival I don't sympathise much with (to the extent of having hated plenty on folkies in my time) and that seemingly are slowly dissapearing as important musical values. "Rootsiness", the virtue of traditionalism for traditionalism's sake, might have been a big thing as late as a decade ago but you have to feel it's on the wane and relegated to the blues rock of old men. The Nu Whirl crowd aren't buying the roots argument, nor the opposition to mechanical reproduction (what aura of originality?) or the dogged opposition to commercialism.

But we are buying the village. Sure, today the idealised village of "merrie england" is a favela somewhere, but the same basic principles still apply: we want to be outsiders, we want to observe a homogenous, tightly-knit group from outside, we want to be the ones in charge of the story. We're all folkies, trying to escape from information overload and globalisation by embracing the easily identifiable and readily categorisable, and possibly the real.

I can already hear the disagreement, but consider how despised "inauthentic" acts like Bonde De Role are, however close their music is to the one produced "in the village". Also consider the fact that working-class groups that attach themselves to the wrong large world-wide trends aren't nearly as loved. I think whatever we say it cannot be denied that we're very fond of "scenes", today's new villages.

Maybe it's time I admitted this connection openly. I generally think music is produced better in communities, feeding off each other and creating music for each other with no second thought. I also think traditional "world music", that strange outcrop of the folk revival that has cast away its most central aspect and makes ethnic music without an ethnos, is generally a really bad idea with loads of problems attached.

It is said, often by self-help specialists, that what we most despise is what we're denying and supressing in ourselves. So maybe, despite how much crap I've heaped on the folk revival myself over the years, I'm a folkie myself at heart.


Who gets to decide?

Music and the music business is a damn complex thing. Trying to rule over it is never going to be easy, no matter who you are. And it sure as hell is never going to be good.

I picked up this article from Washington Post-owned The Root, and you just have to marvel at just how naïve it is. Whatever you think of the central issue involved, and I'm really in no position to judge in my privileged, distant cocoon, handing over power to consumer groups is clearly a big mistake. Consumer groups are profoundly evil. They're the kind of philistines who vandalise modern art, support ridiculous, small-minded censorship, bowdlerise movies and start racist campaigns against hip-hop. She's jawdroppingly arguing for this group rather than against it.
But, I mean, who else could you possibly give power to? Well, she's also arguing for the positive influence of corporations. Corporations! You want GM's marketing department to decide over your music? Media strategists at corporations can't think beyond statistical groups and established patterns, and are never going to want music to be edgy or interesting or forward-thinking because of the risk involved. Plus of course they're hegemonistically ideology-establishing, or whatever.

On the other hand, you wouldn't want the TV channel itself to be in power. TV channels are just as conservative and statistically oriented, really, plus usually very short-sighted (fifteen-second judgements of tracks are not unusual) and sacrifice every thought of a unified profile at the altar of whatever song happens to be popular a given moment.

But what about the critics? We couldn't possibly have us ruling over the music business either. We're way too trend-oriented and anxious to please, or else we're just controversial for controversy's sake. Can you imagine music TV filled with ghastly critic-genres like post-rock? The kids are another no-no. If we let high school kids decide over their own entertainment then pretty soon they'll be setting fire to the homeless. Then there's the artists themselves who're conceited and run off to do vanity projects as soon as they don't have to worry about money.

Then of course there's neolib reliance on "the market". Which, if I understand the idea correctly, is what the music department at BET thinks the marketing department at GM believes the nasty vagrant-burning teenagers would want to listen to in such a way as to want to buy more cars. Which is just an ungodly mess of out-of-the-arse statistical second-guessing.

It'd be tempting to replace it all by some organically growing anarchy, but the truth is that all of these groups are probably influencing music a little bit. It's a wonder anything good makes it through at all.


100 posts

There, I've made 100 posts in my blog. Now it would be nice for you to do something for me.

I realise others have thousands and that it's not so much to celebrate really. But I'm fairly happy that I've carried through with this project long enough to reach a century, plus I want to take this opportunity to ask for a bit of general feedback.

See, I've played around a bit with the blog in that unsettled way that everything has as a start, and I'm not sure what works and what doesn't. I was hoping you guys would tell me.

The blog is doing fairly well in general. I've got a decent amount of readers, good subscription numbers and a growing Technorati rating. I seem to have settled into a format (mid-length posts mostly) and I've gotten into the habit of posting regularly.

One thing that does bother me a bit is how few comments I get, comparatively, to other similar-size/age blogs. I put myself totally in the blame for this one - I obviously don't make "commentable" enough posts. My last post is a good example. I actually got a comment there but all it did was tell me they liked what I was writing; for someone like me whose background is in the forum world and whose express intention was to create threads that's pretty much a failure. I want discussion, I just don't know how.

So, please, tell me what you've liked and what you haven't in my blog so far. Do it anonymously if you like. But even better, tell me what a blog needs for you to want to comment on it. MP3's? Controversy? Lists?

I probably worry too much, but sometimes I think I just throw stuff randomly into cyberspace.


Derrida, Dub and the Retirement of Beauty

I've been catching up on blogs after my break lately and I seem to have caught the end of a debate about beauty in music, which is cool, because I'm trying to structure myself up to write an essay that's on a really closely tangential topic. I thought I'd post an outline of what I'm thinking and let it be my contribution to the beauty debate.

People seem generally opposed to continuing evaluating music based on if it's beautiful or not. That's good. But while it seems we're getting little hints of why beauty needs to be retired as a concept I've yet to see a good how, which is where the philosophy of Jacques Derrida and the musical advances of Jamaican dub come in.

Jacques Derrida is an Algerian-French philosopher most famous for launching the concept of Deconstruction, which has wildly outgrown whatever he originally intended by it. His philosophy is quite interesting and makes loads of startling claims, but I'm picking out one particular aspect that's relevant to 20th century music: his work on dichotomies.

Derrida claims western thought rests on unequal dichotomies where one term dominates hierachically over another, one beautiful, one ugly. In music, this would be something like the sound/silence dichotomy - sound is defined as something positive, beautiful, while silence is considered derivative, almost parasitical, an absence. Other similar dichotomies that tend to crop up in 20th century music (especially experimental music) are pure sound/noise and composition/indeterminacy. I guess tonality/atonality is another one really.

Derrida would claim that these dichotomies are very deeply ingrained in the very basic meaning of words and that merely ignoring them is futile. For instance, there's no point in going down the route of Schönberg or Russolo and try to redefine the ugly (atonality, noise) as beautiful, because that would be mere wordplay. Likewise, the attempts of experimental composers like Cage and Schaeffer to ignore the dichotomies entirely and focus on the opressed aspects are probably futile, becuase in making "noise music" and "indeterminate music" and "silent compositions" they're still acknowledging the existence of the dichotomy, in effect (if not in intent) being wilfully negative.

The solution instead must involve the dissolution of the categories, or as Derrida would say their deconstruction, finding the flaws of the dichotomy, its internal logical problems. In order to deconstruct a dichotomy one needs essentially to move beyond it. (This is both the why and the how of why we need to retire beauty.)

Which is where it links up to dub - I think this might be the key as to why dub is so popular with latter-day experimental musicians, the kind that read The Wire. Dub plays around freely with all the categories, focusing on thier combinatronics and how to use them in interesting ways. Effectively, it's got deconstructive properties, and most of all it provides a new alternative to the traditional categories in where the intellectual effort goes. It's where we can derive a lot of producer-oriented music, where "interesting" and "unusual" and "exciting" has replaced "beautiful".

Paradigm-shift or not? I guess these kinds of valuations probably precede dub in popular music. Plus, obviously "interesting" is itself open to deconstruction (in relation to the parasitic "boring"). But that's pretty much how far I've got - I'd love to have someone pick at holes in the thought if they can.


Täbb: What the internet age means for subculture

I love having a 15 year old nephew-in-law - he clues me in on all sorts of youth culture stuff I'm too old to catch spontaneously. (Oh, and Wayne, he claims that it is indeed Ludacris.) Last month I indirectly got the heads-up from him on a new subculture that's big around where he lives in an affluent suburb of Stockholm: the täbb.

Apparently coming to wide attention just a couple of months ago via a now deleted Facebook group, it's got a lot of the trappings of a traditional subculture. There's the group-identifying name (possibly derived from Täby, the suburb where they first appeared, and possibly derogatory). Obviously, there's the look (via):

Which is seemingly based on the style ideal of Swedish Idol 2006 contestant Danny Saucedo, and consists of, among other things, hair gel (not wax), 96 brand jeans from G-Star, visibly orange-looking fake tan and lip gloss, rubber bands around the ankles, Open shirts with folded-up collars and tacky souvenir necklaces. It it, as yet, exclusively male. Nor does it seem to have a musical style attached, beyond normal-ish post-electro house - but of course music is uaully no more than an accessory among others in these cases, so I'm sure a specific set of artists will soon develop.

Still, somehow, somewhere, it all feels slightly wrong. It's like it's almost a play at, or a superifical gesture towards a subculture rather than a real one. At the end of their lives, subcultures are reduced to clichés - people have "70's parties" over them. Here it's almost like all other stages are bypassed in the subcultural process, and people are dressing up as täbb instead of being täbb. Even the original practitioners.

A subculture rising meteorically in popularity is hardly a new phenomenon but here it's as if there's just the rise, nothing before. Again, it seems like a mere surface, an ironic joke of a subculture which no-one takes seriously. Does this kind of thing say something about the internet? There's been a lot of play towards cultural detachment on the internet in the past few years. Sites like Discobelle, that post a little of everything, are clearly not out to be subcultural at all. (Ironically leading to their output being labeled blog house, but that's another story.)

Maybe täbb is what happens when kids are totally uprooted - they believe the surface is the content. Much like, I think, Discobelle. Or the entire Global Ghettotech thing. It's subculture construed as a non-cultural phenomenon - a community without a community.

Which, I think, is bloody confusing.


How different is Capitalism from Communism, Really?

Well, very different, obviously. But when you get right down to results?

My Hungary pictures aren't here yet, so I thought I'd post a more general, music-political post first, which I've come to think about a lot during my stay in Hungary. I even asked my mum about life in the eighties but since we only lived peripherally in Budapest, my dad being a diplomat, she wasn't sure. Still, she did give me some pointers and I've thought a lot about the conditions that produced the records I've bought.

The thing is, the records of the era are not terribly different or worse than contemporary records from the west. And it's fairly interesting, I think, to consider why.

The Hungarian elites have always been quite disdainful of pop music. Just listen to its name in Hungarian: könnyűzene, "light music". As opposed to "serious music". The pop music recorded during the communist era was not let through because of its quality or artistic merit - it was more or less purely engineered to pacify the young and the proletariat.

There you have a first, obvious similarity to capitalist pop music - not just if you listen to Adorno - in that there's a definite sense of this "youth-pacification" in commercial western pop too. It's not meant to be challenging. It goes for fairly low common denominators. In fact, in order to spread the music widely, the regime tried to keep on its toes and be trendy so as not lose its grip, and often went straight for the commercial western stuff as a model. There's a Hungarian hip-hop record made in 1984, which is quite early by European standards! This kind of trend-jumping is another similarity to western pop, too - just look at how many "crazes" have been jumped at by marketeers on major labels.

In practice, the situation in Hungary was very much like there was only one "major label" - Hungaroton and its subsidiaries - and it behaved startlingly like a western major. It censored what material was let through, and was often behind the times - much like a western major. It relied on a very small set of commercially successful songwriters and musicians, and mostly avoided real bands - much like a western major. Sure, you were never going to get through any properly edgy material - but it really doesn't matter if your counterpart is one hulking behemoth or four. If you succeed, you're considered a sell-out in both cases.

But of course, there were no indie releases in Hungary. There were no samizdat recordings in Hungary in any large quantities. No metal, no punk. And there's the big difference in the end - not in the products of the capitalist and communist churning machines, but in the commercially less viable material that happens to be an unfortunate side product of freedom of expression. The so-called "market" may think similarly to a communist regime, but it allows less viable music to flourish underneath. The dictatorship, of course, didn't.

The Hungarian elites have always been disdainful of pop music. More than ever today. Pop and rock, to them, is heavily mired in the Communist era, and they prefer to listen to "world music" and "ethno-jazz" as my journalist friend told me. And according to my mum, what anyone with taste listened to in the eighties was jazz anyway...