There's only two types of music

In my darkest moments I start to think that there's only two types of music. Heck, quite possibly there's really only one type of music that's real. All the rest is a warped and wavy counterform, the dust left behind as the music takes flight.

There's only two types of music. There's rock'n'roll and then there is anti-rock'n'roll. By rock'n'roll I mean all music that's consciously youth-community-oriented popular music. The dominant form of music today. The only remaining vital force since the avantgardists defected to Sound Art.

All other music is reaction.

All other music is played out in conscious opposition to rock'n'roll. And it's all the same. There's no difference between Nashville country and Anton Bruckner (as listened to today). Or retro-oriented Eurovision ballads. All that music is made by its artists and listened to by its listeners expressly as anti-rock'n'roll. Its ontology and its reason for existence lies in it not being rock'n'roll.

Old rock'n'roll that has been rock'n'roll is anti-rock'n'roll as well. Anyone who just listens to old music does so because they don't listen to new music.

I realise this is ridiculous. But nevertheless I watch the Swedish version of Dancing With The Stars and think: this is anti-rock'n'roll. I listen to my teacher talk about 19th-century symphonic forms and think: she's anti-rock'n'roll. And that's all there is to it. And it angers me. And I want to fight it.

I've always enjoyed attempting to categorise music in various experimental ways. What do you think? Do you think it's worthwhile to divide music into very strict, not necessarily true categories in order to see if you can spot something new about them? I'm going to try to do more of these as my blog rolls along.


Fred Stolen: The Torture Playlist

I don't usually do straight linking posts but I thought this was too good to pass up. This is a playlist (via) that lists songs used by interrogators at Guantanamo Bay and other US military bases to "disorient" the prisoners. They certainly seem to be disorienting, considering the range of material (from grindcore to cat food commercials), and if nothing else should at least make the prisoners have "what the fuck" moments, like: "how on earth do they expect me to talk by playing 'Raspberry Beret' by Prince?"

No, seriously, it certainly is interesting that the US Army is experimenting with music as a psychological manipulator, just as marketers and I guess artists and DJs have done for decades. I do sense a certain amateurishness in the choices though, I doubt it is a list sprung from serious research into what is most effective (I'd guess more drone-like or minimalist sounds). Obviously the entire thing is rather macabre and unpleasant as well, and it's hard to think of the Barney theme song the same way ever again...


Switzerland, Hungary, Romania vs. Lithuania, Croatia, Moldova: Do Retro Right

Up until 1998, the Eurovision Song Contest featured a live orchestra to accompany the performers. When you listen to some of the entries this year, it feels as if abolishing the live orchestra might have been a rash decision. A whole raft of entries, largely ballads, sound pretty much exactly like the pre-1998 orchestrated pieces. Here's Switzerland, Hungary and Romania:

Paolo Meneguzzi - Era Stupendo

Csézy - Candlelight

Nico and Vlad Miriţă - Pe-o margine de lume

There's nothing, save perhaps the slight accelerando in the Swiss track (which is a problem, usually), that set these apart from the type of ballad Ireland used to win with consistently in the mid-nineties. Ireland has kept sending bland ballad entries since and consistently lost, because it has felt old hat, but suddenly no less than three countries that usually do fairly well are going for the format. (Plus, in all likelihood, Sweden. Sanna Nielsen's "Empty Room" is hotly tipped to win and sounds like Ireland's 1993 entry.)

Has the orchestrated ballad tipped over from old-fashioned to retro-cool? Or is last year's ballad win a cue for all the schmaltzy songwriters to crawl out from the woodwork? I'm fairly uncomfortable with it, but I still think all three of these entries have a fair chance to go through, Switzerland because of the great energy, Romania because of the strong performance and Hungary for being so formulaic (always a good thing in these contests).

Personally, I much prefer retro done with some sort of a twist. Lithuania's entry may be overblown like hell, with that damned operetta singer bawling away, but it still does something unusual to the traditional ballad.

Jeronimas Milius - Nomads In The Night

Once the distorted guitar creeps in around the 1:35 mark you realise this is going to be something different, and the last minute hits one of this year's strongest trends square on: operatic pop with metal roots. (Cf. Azerbadjan, Turkey, another vigilantly copyright-watched Swedish pre-selection entry in Therese's "When You Need Me". I'll be discussing these later.) I think the progression might be too subtle for Eurovision audiences and having a "grower" as your entry is usually a bad idea, but Lithuania has surprised before. We'll see.

Croatia, on the other hand, has decided to twist it up by going much further back in time.

Kraljevi Ulice and 75 cents - Romanca

Sounding more like the very first Eurovision winner than anything recent, this is certainly a fun song with only a set of badly-tacked-on breakbeat drums distracting from its lively folksy nature. I'm not sure how well it'll do but I like it, especially the cute old men.

A potentially even more interesting retro attempt is Moldova's:

Geta Burlacu - A Century of Love

Going for Retro flavour from completely outside the Eurovision is risky business as Germany certainly showed last year. But I think the vaguely latin-tinged Moldovan cool-jazz type excercise might actually be very much in step with the times - as the successes of bands like nouvelle vague certainly shows. We'll see how well it can do but I think it might be a surprise hit.

So, in summary, I think the staple Eurovision ballads might be making a comeback this year, hopefully (but probably not) to be shot down straight away. I, myself, prefer slightly more piquant retro, but I doubt it'll do all that well. Well, that's the way it turns sometimes. Next time I'll look at some decidedly more modern music.


Genre of the Week: Turkish Bubbling

Ever since I first read about Dutch/Aruban/Surinamese Bubbling I've been trying to keep the genre in mind, occasionally searching for it on the 'Tubes and stuff. Most recently today a post about hip-hop/eurotechno hybrids on a trendy Swedish blog reminded me of it and I did a new search.

Only to discover a whole new offshoot of the genre.

In Turkey.

It's quite fascinating. The whole genre has seemingly leaped from Holland to Istanbul and Izmir without making a mark anywhere along the way (because I've yet to hear any from anywhere else in Europe). But there it is, well-formed and complete with quite a few artists, a living remix culture and even the occasional dance video.

I'm especially fond (as you can tell above) of the hardcore bubbling sounds of DJ Kantik from Izmir who I definately think I could dance the night away to. (He seems to have developed a decent fan following too.) I like his (and others) remixes of turkish pop material too, reminds me a bit of Bollywood remix. One thing both types have in common is that they seem a lot further removed from the Caribbean than most of the Dutch material (which is probably only natural).

And how did the music make this journey across the continent? I think that the presence of a large Turkish minority in Holland explains a great deal. The hardcore end of bubbling (an interesting genre hybrid in itself) seems to be dominated by obviously Turkish-descended people like DJ Zeki and DJ Yildrim, and the line seems to blur as to who is Dutch and who is Turkish in many cases. Turkey is of course a prime holiday destination too and I guess it could have spread that way, like Garage to Ayia Napa. But it doesn't quite have the inuitive feel of an implanted genre...

I've not found any writing on this scene nor any proper videos, so I guess it's still got a ways to develop. But it does seem lively enough. If anyone has any information or linkage on it I'd be glad to receive it, this genre is definitely showing promise!


Are reviews necessary anymore?

I've been thinking of doing record reviews on these pages along with the other material. But I'm beginning to wonder if there's any point. Isn't the very concept of the record review outdated?

I realise I'm probably retreading comfortable ground here, but it used to be that customers had access to a limited number of records at relatively high cost, and needed a guiding hand as to what records were good enough to buy. Then the number of releases grew to the point where reviews also singled out what was important and worthwhile to look at, and evaluation became less important. Now we're able to access a staggering number of records for free at the click of a button - and music journalism has shaped itself accordingly.

Today, the chief function of the music journalist is to suggest music for you to get hold of and (hopefully) to contextualise it, rather than tell you if it's any good. The infinite column space of the Internet makes blogs and feature articles (possibly hidden in blog form) a much more natural medium to do this in. With the consumer information aspect dead and the larger tasks of cultural criticism and tastemaking taken over by other forms, what role does the review actually have left?

Note that this is not at all the case in, say, video games, where reviews are still very much relevant. But console games are, of course, still relatively few in number and difficult to get hold of for free.


Cyprus and Malta: balance those verses

Okay. Cyprus is not going to win this competition.

Here's why. You don't win the Eurovision with a song that varies significantly in tempo and has very different sections. It doesn't matter if it's otherwise a good song - look at Israel crashing and burning last year. You simply can't win with a song with very different meter sections.

I could make tedious lists of winners to try to prove that point but for the sake of brevity just look at the most popular song contest entries of all time: the one exception to the "steady tempo" rule is "Volare", which (besides obviously not winning) is from an era before the format settled and before the 3-minute rule, allowing Domenico to build it up properly.

The question is obviously why this trend continues rather than establishing its existence. Part of it is obviously the drop in energy but there's another aspect to it, at least in this entry: the overburdened verses. The verses are simply too long and the chorus too weak to work, and the expected punch-dip-punch of a normal pop song never happens. And that means it never gels together as a proper Eurovision song.

I'll explain what I mean. When it comes to Eurovision, The Manual pretty much had it nailed: start by establishing your hook, then sneak in any old rubbish as a verse, before jabbing your hook in again and again. Cynical? Look at all those "Congratulations" entries - the vast majority use the "hook, verse, chorus with hook" approach as their starting point. Some start with a chorus but the best ones are slightly more subtle, suggesting the hook with an instrument, or part of it or a variation of it, or even just the rhytm of the vocals or the harmonic progression and beat. I think Malta does it very well this year:

"Vodka" is my pick of the bunch to win it so far and it conforms perfectly with the rules - it establishes a hook/progression that runs under the chorus and comes back again at perfectly timed intervals. I've not seen anyone tip this but I'd be surprised if it didn't finish quite high in the rankings.

One interesting thing about verse balances is that while you can have too heavy verses like "Femme Fatal" does, where the chorus essentially is just a variant of the verse, you can also go too heavy on the chorus. In the Swedish pre-selection semifinals this weekend the media tipped huge stars Carola and Andreas Johnson to win it comfortably, yet they only finished third... With a song that's basically an extended chorus with some bare slivers of verse and a couple of bridges joining it together.

It seems if you're going to compete in the Eurovision you've got to understand the format.


This video is not available in your country

Dammit. As you all know I use a lot of YouTube videos in my posts. Well, about a month ago I started getting a new error message occasionally, implying that only Americans are allowed to watch certain clips. Videos can now be geographically restricted by their copyright owners, and this has happened more and more during the past month.

I could talk about the international nature of the internet, about shortsightedness in marketing and about how the effort is significantly futile (almost all videos have fan-posted copies). But what really matters to me is the fact that YouTube (which I've used as my main source of new music for almost a year) is now significantly less attractive to me as a tool. It's not as broken as, say, Pandora or MTV videos, but it's getting there and that saddens me a great deal.

I've long had a YouTube search as one of options in the FireFox search bar, and I probably use it more frequently than the other ones on there (Google, Chambers, English Wikipedia and Discogs, in case you're interested). As I post this I'm switching it to a Google Video search. Google Video used to be a prime example of a fairly evil entity, but since they bought YouTube the search function has grown to include Myspace, Dailymotion and loads of smaller alt.tubes. Plus the search algorithm is a lot better. So expect to see videos from a variety of sources on here from now on...


Albania: this year's trend

It's the inevitable follow-up to any Eurovision winner: the products of the formula gurus. After Ruslana won in '04 a whole bunch of tracks the next year attempted to catch the winning formula and featured heavy percussion. Then Elena Paparizou won with a more conventional pop song with male dancers and rope on stage and the next contest was deluged with solo females. Of course, Lordi won and so last year it was an unusually heavy-rocking contest.

Expect a whole deal of Maria Sefirovic clones this year then. The first offering in the Molitva-styled grandoise ballad stakes is Albania.

What I like about this one is the obvious debt to American R&B which makes it a little bit fresher then most such attempts. The little "ah-ah-ah" backing vocals stand out too. Unfortunately, Olta's voice is not really up to par and I'm not too thrilled about the song structure which essentially consists of a twice-repeated parallel verse-bridge-chorus with a huge drop in intensity mid-way. It's also 23 seconds too long according to the rules, and risks being overcompressed come competition time.

Prediction? Won't reach the finals. Not that there's much wrong with it, but Albania lacks closely related countries that can pile up votes for them.


Genre of the Week: Nerdcore

Everyone who's vaguely into African music knows the story of Soukous. Musicians in Kongo became fascinated by the faraway sounds of Cuban music* and made their own version, originally misunderstanding the musical content of the music they copied and eventually developing it into something that sounded nothing like. Bad copying by those outside the cultural core leading to new exciting developments in music - it's a familiar story and one of the great processes of creativity.

Nerdcore (not to be confused with the softcore porn genre) is a bit of a Soukous. The difference is that the socially distant group is not Central Africans, but white, middle-class, perenially uncool computer nerds. (It should be called nerdperiphery, really.**) And the music they source is not Afro-Cuban music but a music which in theory should be very distant from them, culturally, and which is strongly based on coolness indeed: African-American hip-hop...

It was inevitable, I guess, with the wide spread of the internet. Nerds have had their own musical subcultures before, but spreading through articles in fanzines is never going to be very dynamic. Now that there's a form of distribution so closely linked to the nerds' primary interests it's not surprising that this music has spread so fast, with big web sites, articles in major newspapers, club nights, documentaries being made, even speculative subgenres. It's been seven-and-a-bit years since the genre was concieved, but the recent growth seems very healthy indeed.

Still, the genre seems far from finished in its development. I'll be the first to admit that nerdcore is closer to the "misunderstanding" phase of transculturation than the attachment one, and the quality of the message and the rapping flow is generally abysmal. But I think the genre is definitely coalescing, and some of the beats are starting to come together real well. Quite to the opposite of what you might expect there's only a little quirky geeky eastcoast influence; instead the music has a great bent towards the minimalist and electronic that I really appreciate. There's a lot of metal-ish guitars, video game music and sound collage influences that work really well in the setting, I think.

Instead, the genre's potentially biggest problem is a social one. I think the way it grew out of some sort of prole parody with minstrelsy undertones and the ethnically largely monocultural white fan/artist base risks the suggestion that this is in fact racist music. This impression is reinforced by the seeming lack of any understanding of (or connection to) the "nerdy" side of African-American music, which has existed for ages, been instrumental in the development of hip hop and which still thrives today.*** It's not that strange that two seemingly similar musical styles exist side by side without interacting, but I do think a bit of cross-acknowledgment could be healthy. Not least for the genre's reputation's sake.

Still, it's good to see nerd subculture (which in some ways is as strong and as oppressed an identity as any gender, sexuality or ethnic group) stand up for itself and make interesting music. I'll definitely be following the nerdcore scene in the next few years to see what they can come up with...

*Well, okay, not so far away if you consider that the Rumba is obviously based on percussive sounds coming with slaves from Africa. But that's certainly not the form that made it back across...

** Political Science joke.

*** But I guess it's always been the nerds vs The Cool Kids, eh? :-)


Andorra: Cut and Shut

Andorra is one of the few countries in this year's Eurovision with no televised national pre-selection. So seeing their entry prominently on Youtube was a bit of a positive surprise - until on closer inspection it turns out we've been sold a lemon...

Mind you, it wasn't as easy to spot as it seems in hindsight. (Are there any Eurovision songs not exactly three minutes in length?) When I listened to it first I thought it was just badly produced, somehow squat and compact in a strangely unpleasant way. Then I started counting bars and noticed that the end of the chorus cuts off abruptly on the third beat of a bar. Whoops!

A closer listen reveals that the "chorus" is just one little section relooped, the "second verse" is a straight copy of the first verse and all the little connections (especially the chorus-second verse one and the chorus-chorus repeat one) are obviously just cross-fades. The song has quite simply been put together from the minute-long sample previously posted on YouTube. I honestly don't know why someone would go through the trouble of doing all that...

So, what does the sample reveal? Standard slightly housed-up eurovision fare, not very memorable, and in distinct danger of leading the listener lost through having overly many sections. (Do you really need two different bridges?) Won't make it through the semi-final without some super-spectacular stage performance, a fate unfortunately shared by last year's entry (which deserved better).


Eurovision - Douze Points

I love the Eurovision Song Contest. I'm going to cover it in my blog. And I don't want to hear any groans.

I'm probably not going to though, am I? The very idea of "alternative music" has fizzled out into nothing and most of today's properly radical music is located far away from any hippie tents. All expressions deserve to be taken seriously, and are, even the most insiduously capitalistic mindnumbers. In fact - potentially more so than ever. Might it be that it's the "serious" music they were defending that's the music of the opressors? Adorno is fucking dead.

Something as nakedly commercial, simplemindedly populist as the Eurovision Song Contest holds a wealth of interest to anyone fascinated by music or people. Since I know a great deal of my readers are not European I'm going to use this post to try to explain its appeal.

The Eurovision Song Contest is probably the largest non-sporting annual TV event in the world. The format is essentially very basic - 38 countries from all over the European continent, from Ireland to Azerbadjan, send in a performer who performs a 3-minute original song on stage. These are then ranked by a televote, giving the viewers in all countries equal "power" in deciding the winner.

In one way, it's a giant experiment in pop manufacturing. The viewers act as study subjects, seing a (usually unknown) performer only once or twice and having to decide based on these fleeting impressions which are the best songs. The songwriters and performers have to navigate a huge demographic range of ages, ethnic groups and tastes in order to reach as sucessful a position as possible, and many of the highest-placed entires are based on gimmickry and stupid performance tricks. It's raw, it's naked of all the shrouds of marketing and hype, and it reveals lots about every country involved.

Of course, in practice people tend to vote entirely differently than you'd expect. Most famously, there has formed blocks of inter-voting cliques in Scandinavia, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union where every country inevitably votes for each other. These voting patterns seem immensely interesting to scientists and there's been reams of scientific papers trying to analyse them. Here's a great opportunity to actually statistically analyse cultural differences very straightforwardly that seemingly no social scientist can resist.

Equally fascinating (for me) is the special subculture of Eurovision fans that has grown up around the contest. Significantly gay male, slightly camp yet often deadly fanboy serious, it's an amazing culture that very specifically worships something that is designed to be broadly liked by everyone. Here in Sweden it's huge and the media precence is fascinatingly thorough, but worth seeking out (if you get a chance to see it) is BBC commentator Terry Wogan, whose heavy-drinking, sardonic love-hate relationship with the contest is the stuff of legend.

But what about the music? Well, as you'd expect it's often quite broad, slightly outdated middle-of-the-road pop. But quite often it throws up, I dunno, weird folk hybrids, weak attempts at satire, ska-punk or whatever idiosyncratic music is fashionable at the time:

I think it's a fairly fertile ground to poke about a bit in. I'm certainly no Eurovision expert (and lord knows this subject is overblogged) but I'm going to try to cover this year's entries in a little bit of detail over the months leading up to the final, starting with Andorra who were the first to select their entry. I might even stick in a few off-kilter classics from the past if I get the chance. So Bienvenu! Welcome! Välkommen! To Tunedown's Eurovision 2008!


Weird, probably imaginary, very convulted coincidence involving to my great regret Wu-Tang, Cambodia, Akon and my idiotic imagination

Okay. Here are three videos.

This is a hip-hop classic.

This is a cambodian hit from last year produced by a man who is quite possibly named after the song above (and sampling The Game).

This is a worldwide hit from a few months later that takes it's lyrics (as acknowledged) from the first video but has a melody in the chorus that's very reminicent of the second video:

(Okay, that's not the official video but Wyclef wouldn't allow me to embed that.)

Yup. It's barely even qualifies as a coincidence. I just thought I'd mention it, maybe the melody is from somehwere else entirely...


Genre of the Week: Dhaanto

Okay, rather than do "Pop, part 2" (which is a mastodon post) during this exam-heavy week I've decided to throw out another question about a genre since the last one went down so well. This one is about Dhaanto, which I gather is "traditional" music from the fascinating region of Ogaden, the somali-speaking part of eastern Ethiopia. I think I saw some on public access television today (it's a bit hard to identify without a name attached), and that got me started searching. YouTube has a few videos but there's inevitably a dedicated NewTube that has many many more...

The video that sparked my imagination a bit was off YouTube though:

That little piece of clever meta-music (designed to show the connections between reggae and dhaanto) really hit home what other videos had suggested - this is music that's immensely well-suited to reggae, funk and arabic pop reimaginings. I've heard a few treatments that way (like the one on TV), and there's a joy in using different strange timbres and arrangements that you rarely hear in African pop - in fact there are also strangely south-east asian qualities in a lot of the material. It's fascinating!

So I'm wondering - does anyone know anything about this music beyond the little you can gather from the videos? History? Big artists? Where can I get hold of it? I might do an expedition to a somali-heavy part of town at some point and see if I can find any CDs...


Khmer rap: the next episode

(previous posts here and here.)

I just got off the phone with Helene Granqvist at the production company behind Papa's Kappsäck, Good World. She gave me another bunch of interesting evidence in the Khmer hip-hop puzzle but it's still far from complete - next I'm going to try emailing the man I suspect (and Helene confirmed) is the "spider in the web", Sok Visal/Cream.

One thing she did ask me to mention is that the show is currently up for renewal and that if there's to be a second season it would be great if they got as good ratings as possible. Us non-metered viewers are probably most helpful in that regard by watching the show streamed over the internet, early and often. Here's the next episode, about the Asian underground scene in London and India.

So, what is the verdict on the social position of hip-hop in Cambodia, which was our chief outstanding question? Well, Helene only saw a fraction of it (of course) and wasn't there as a researcher but as a filmmaker on a tight schedule, but she seems to be a fairly keen observer and gave me a bunch of input.

The hip-hop scene is fairly small and difficult to access (not being regularly available in record stores) and is indeed fairly "underground" in the sense that most Cambodians aren't immediately aware of it. That it's dynamic and growing is unquestionable, though, and there seem to be hip hop fans everywhere. Mostly, and this I thought was possibly the most interesting revelation, in the countryside - hip-hop is way bigger in small towns than in the capital. I think that promises very well for the future cultural attachment of the style in Cambodia.

As suspected, the majority of the hip-hop scene (both audience and artists) comes from a fairly well-educated upper-middle-class. Cream, for instance, works as an AD in advertising and is doing fairly well off it. He is not a deportee but a returnee, having returned with his family from France in 1994 after the country opened up. In conversation, he tends to come across as a very modern and well-spoken individual, which indeed is also the impression you get from his web presence.

The biggest star in the clique is Kdep, but one of the more fascinating characters is Aping, who doesn't conform to the standard pattern. He grew up extremely poor in the shanty towns around Phnom Penh, lost his father (and one eye) before he was eight and has managed to pull himself up and put his kids through school via his hip-hop career. To me he seems to be the one with the charisma to break through to a wider audience, and Helene definitely confirmed that view.

Despite the horrors of the Khmer Rouge dictatorship (where not least practically all of the country's musicians were killed) and the ill-functioning, corrupt civil society, Helene noticed a strong sense of optimism and belief in the future. It's remarkable, I think, how such a completely broken oral tradition as the Cambodian pop music one has led to such remarkable new developments yet with such an interest in the past and the artists who are no longer present.

Well, the picture is clarifying a bit but short of a proper ethnomusicological research trip the best thing I can do next, I think, is to send Cream an e-mail. Let's see what he has to say...