Kim Jong-Il, The Spring Light of Love

Sometimes you come across these wonderful YouTube users and you wonder where they get all their brilliant stuff from. One current favourite, totally, is troublemaker1973, who specialises in the pop music of obscure communist dictatorships like Albania and especially North Korea.

I'm fascinated by the official state-sanctioned "pop" music of these places because its uniformly awful in such interesting ways (à la Tolstoy). Doesn't prevent it from throwing up occasional gems, though, like this weirdly haunting thereminbox-driven number by Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble that troublemaker1973 assures us is "about Kim Jong Il":

Marvellous. I've yet to understand completely whether he's posting these videos seriously or ironically, but it's damned interesting either way.


The Deejay's In The Details

You know I honestly never even considered...?

I've recently spent a couple of enjoyable hours parsing through Vanity of the Vanities' excellent set of articles and music samples dealing with the fascinating local Carolinian "beach music" genre, an interesting parallel to northern soul and the missing link between The Swinging Medallions and The Chairmen of the Board. Loads of meaty info, relevant interviews and interesting analyses.

But what really fascinated me was the portrayal of the scene's DJs, especially in the two follow-up articles. Because they, and by extension the entire craft of DJing, were portrayed as highly suspect and possibly even evil.
It's a very peculiar thought to me but it actually makes surprising amounts of sense from some perspectives. I've been brought up on enough positive accounts of the DJing profession to have a highly romanticised view of it, and I'm fascinated by how a good DJ works. DJs manipulate their audience in interesting ways, shape narratives of music, cleverly subvert the intentions of the original artists, link together diverse records and create fascinatingly complete new sounds and genres.

But all those skills can just as well be used for, well, bad things. Malevolent manipulation. Insinuating narratives and connections, cruelly warped artistic intentions, preserving old genres by moulding new records into their limited vocabularies. The authors of the article bring up the example of how beach DJs regularly bowdlerise R&B records of all their rapping so as not to offend the audiences with the "degenerate" content they contain.

I think it's a fascinating twist of perspective, and I'm surprised it comes so natural to the writers. Because rejecting DJ craftiness, like David Mancuso famously did in the late seventies, seems so strongly connected with conservatism and 19th-century ideas of "genius" and "the work". I guess that ought to teach me to try to see the opposite perspective as well.


Living with Critical Estrangement?

This summer I'm going to be 27 years old. And I'm starting to worry. One of my big interests in life is popular music, and inexorably approaching towards 30 means there's the chance (borne out by oh-so-many precedents) that it'll stop being on top of my agenda. Thirty is the age critics usually start to falter, dismissing new music off-hand as crap and derivative and then slowly creeping towards irrelevance.

This all wouldn't scare me very much (since I hope to bypass it) if it wasn't for the fact that otherwise cool blogs have started to feature new music I don't particularly like. And that it might be the start of a trend I will have a hard time not feeling excluded from.

The first blog-hyped genre I don't get is the entire cumbia nueva thing. I wasn't very fond of cumbia in the first place (it being a rather broad, safe, geographically detached lower-middle-class music) and most of this new stuff has retained all those questionable virtues. It's very much latino (rather than musica negra), it's not properly locally grounded anywhere, it's too reverent to an earlier, fairly dull generation. This all means the obvious analogy is to "rock" in the western world, which is not exactly a glowing endorsement coming from me.

Another aspect is that even the most digital stuff is very samplerrific and shying away from the synthesiser extremes of the past few years. That's something it has very much in common with the other new genre I don't "get", funky. It's kinda softish house-beated, mid-tempo garage with an (almost universal) afro-carribean 3+3+2 latched onto mild house diva or r&b vocals, and it's apparently huge in the london clubs. To me it has all the fairly staind qualities of recent zouk and I just don't see the fun (or the supposed connection to soca).

Still, if indeed we're seeing a trend away from the extreme bassline-oriented electro-styled music of the past few years then I'll have to adjust or be passed off into uselessness, won't I? To me, accepting (and correctly appraising) music I feel totally indifferent to is a huge problem, and a much bigger one than the opposite one that has been discussed a lot recently. How on earth are you meant to critically engage with a subject matter that you don't like or hate but that just bores you?

When critical distance passes off into critical indifference, that's when you really have to start to worry.


Sushi Schalger

Is it just me, or is it more than a coincidence that the two most successful Japanese-language singles of all time here in Sweden both have had food-related titles?

Kyu Sakamoto - Sukiyaki (1963)

Tegomass - Miso Soup (2006)

I guess there's an interesting post here about the relative success of food globalisation compared to all other kinds (or is it really?). And another one about the strange European J-Pop subculture. But those will have to wait for another time.


Macedonia and Armenia: Questing for Modernity

Two ostensibly similar Eurovision entries. Uptempo, slight ethnic overtones grafted onto conventional pop material, similar rhythm. Yet one is at the very top of the betting firms' odds, and the other is at rock bottom. In this post I'll have a shot at explaining why, and why those small differences in rhythm are more significant than one might think.

These are two of the most modern songs in the competition from one way of looking at it. But what does "more modern" mean in a pure pop context? It's not being the music that's the most boundary-pushing, that's for sure. (It's questionable whether that's even a possible definition of modern in the first place. Chart pop ten years ago was arguably more boundary pushing than today, depending on which boundaries you count.)

Nor is the music that's seemingly ahead of its time, which is incredibly hard to predict of course (are we heading towards funky or dark dubstep?). And it's probably not even relevant in this context. To pull an analogy with, I dunno, the late sixties, "Cold Sweat" and "Here Comes The Fleas" were definitely symbols of the future. But if we look back at that time and think "what sounds the most 1966?" or whatever, we're gonna nevertheless be stuck with something like "Scarborough Fair". This "modernity as sounding like your time" is probably best represented so far this year by Usher's latest hit.

I think this kind of modernity is what Macedonia are aiming for.

Tamara feat. Adrian and Vrcak - Vo Ime Na Ljubovta

Listen to the rhythm here. For most of the song it's a semi-regular, Eastern European three-grafted-onto-two beat (with hits on the first, fourth, fifth and seventh quaver). But in the scene-setting first verse that beat is reduced to just a 3+3+2, a change that together with the singing rappers signal some sort of assymetrical dancehall or reggaeton. I know that trend is not exactly new but it's still signalling being ahead to the conservative Eurovision audience.

But there's one more conception of modernity that's probably even more relevant to that audience. And that's the idea of not sounding outdated. Something like Iceland's entry this year is never going to work because it sounds like something that went out of fashion long ago, but Armenia has really gone to lengths to sound universal in a current way. And yes, the result sounds a bit like some sort of Shakira song.

Sirusho - Qele Qele

Now, listen to the rhythm on this one. This one also has that slight ethnic assymetry in the rhythm, but it only appears every other bar and the four-on-the-floor is much more heavily emphasised. It's saying - "I'm current, but I'm also a normal pop song with the safe symmetric beat."

And that's why it's an odds-on favourite and Macedonia is tipped to fail. Or it could be that it's much more memorable and that the Macedonian rappers are distressingly out of tune. But whatever.


Does Your Assigned Stereotype Really Permit That Influence?

I'm fairly adamant generally that world music is bad, but if there's one thing I can usually accept that gets lumped into that category it's the pre-existing music. Something someone has heard (rather than made) and decided to pass on to the west. Heck, I'm guilty of enough of that myself to defend it, at least when it's knowledgeably and respectfully done and the selection is fair and based on the received wisdom of the scene itself.

But even as I'm involved in this sort of thing myself, I've recently started to realise the magnitude of its problems. The biggest one by far, I think, is our discourse of genre selection, and I find myself asking: what types of music are we really selecting, and what is our real reason for selecting them?

And I'm afraid, I'm very afraid, that the reason is stereotyping.

I generally consider myself some sort of hip-hop/disco fan and most of the music I've chosen to pass along has been young, electronic, "hard", bass-driven and working class. That type of music certainly gets some attention, and over the years seemingly disparate material like (to take three examples) Cambodian garage rock, crazy eclectic Bollywood music and South African semi-modernised dance music has ended up in some hazy media spotlight. Why this material exactly?

Chance, I guess. Quality to a certain extent. Accordance with the usual prejudices of "world music" in many cases, like that they're a bit exotic, fairly unthreatening, fairly old. (80s Bollywood, clearly superior to the 60s material previously touted, has only recently been accepted in world music circles.) But I think that even if we chose to factor out all these things there is a clear prejudice to the genre selection that I see in myself and that I'm very uncomfortable with.

I think a lot of the music is picked because we have expectations that certain people are going to conform to certain stereotypes. The Indian film music composers are allowed to be genre-crossing music thieves, but you'd never see crazy eclectic Latin music. Or South African garage rock - Africans are meant to copy African-American music, right, and make blues and funk and hip hop-based modernisations? Everything else is sorted away.

We all love it when someone in South East Asia creates a dynamic hybrid genre with hip-hop or something. But what if they decide to use heavy metal instead, like in morlam sing?

You could argue that metal is a "bad" genre and hip-hop is a "good" genre, but I think there's also an underlying assumption that metal is a "white" genre that "ethnic" people can't take their lead from, so this kind of hybrid is never properly explored. I certainly would have ignored it a few years ago.

Plus there's a whole bunch of conventionally "good" genres that people in the developing world aren't allowed to take their lead from. There's a really good shoegazer scene in Singapore, for instance, that we will never hear about because it's not "their music" - people "down there" are meant to make funky working-class music with ethnic undertones.

When I consider this sort of built-in prejudices I'm truly thankful for a blog like the wonderful with comb & razor, easily my favourite MP3 blog at the moment. From his vantage point on the scene in Nigeria, the author scours for quality local vinyl of every type and genre. Recent highlights have included Nashville-style country (which, of course, was also wildly popular on Jamaica), a coloratura soprano singing faux folk songs and the overture of a Nigerian opera. None of it is bad either (okay, the opera kind of is), but you'd never hear of any of it in the sea of Afro-funk and ethnic sounds that is our stereotype of Nigerian music.


Rumbles in the Jungle

I went to a dubstep club and I discovered something very interesting going on in drum & bass.

All Out Dubstep
is Stockholm's number one dubstep night (or rather, only dubstep night) and they had a brilliant event on at the Students Union. The genre is such a brilliant example of why music styles work best in the first few years of their existence, before the format is completely settled. I was especially impressed by a Rinse FM DJ called Chef whose sampling eclecticism ranged from Bounty Killer to Balkan jazz via Busta Rhymes, Niche, epic house, horror movies, spoken word, all brilliantly dubstepped up. I really liked his focus on Jamaican material as well with sublime touches like a few seconds' worth of "I Chase the Devil". The rhythm constantly weaved from nu-breaks to one-drop and everything in between.

All evening I also kept checking the adjacent drum & bass room and was turned off every time. I just don't particularly like the genre - it's too dense, too sample-centric, too old-and-stale, too pretentiously intelligent for my tastes. But then Chef was brought in to do a drum & bass set in that room and to my great surprise it was absolutely brilliant. Fresh, exciting, modern-sounding material. There's definitely something interesting creeping about in the jungle.
I couldn't find any tracklists or the like on the net so I sent off an e-mail to the organisers and they sent me a bunch of tracks and artists to check out (thank you Martin at Club Traffic). Now that I've done that I'm even more excited if anything.

Just listen to these tracks from the set and tell me if they aren't brilliant. They've got a sense of fun, speeded delirium that's rare in music (Ca Plane Pour Moi and Surfing Bird excepted) with short interjections, fun samples and happy danceable basslines, connecting across the pond to bmore and ghettotech. On top of that they're exquisitely modern, if not 2008 in sound then at least 2006-ish - great wobble basses, spacious production, garage and grime influences.

TC - Game Over (Youtube "video")

Clipz and Die - Number 1 (Youtube "video")

Martin claimed the music was part of a sub-genre called jump up, and listening to some classics of the genre I can certainly see the connection. But it's all been updated to sound so new that it's almost like another genre entirely. Apparently (judging by Wikipedia edits and Youtube comments) this type of music is considered declassé "chav" material by "true drum & bass fans" which is certainly a recommendation in my book, and indeed it seems to lie closer in spirit to the best of garage than to something like liquid funk.

Looking through the myspace pages of the artist list, the ones that appealed especially were Clipz, DJ Hazard and TC and what's interesting about them is that they all come from the same city, Bristol, and what more they're all residents at the same club night. This kind of local scene-building gets me all hot under the collar, it's exactly the kind of stuff I go for. I also think the trend towards vocals and proper track structures is very promising.

I'm telling you, keep a look out for "Bristol runstep" or whatever this scene will end up being called. In my book at least, this stuff should be blowing up to high heavens.


Three types of popular music, part 2: graphing theories

I hinted in my last post that there's another reason I like the triangle. In my view it's a fairly interesting tool when examining the theories of others about popular music. By positing a set of three categories of popular music we can easily look at how aesthetic theories overlap, interact and differ, and while I certainly can think of theories that don't fit the system at all a remarkable number do.

I think this has a lot to do with the perceived values, or if you like authenticities of the three corners of the triangle. Personal or artistic authenticity is key to the arty-pop corner. Cultural authenticity is what defines folky-pop (in whatever sense you put into the word, I personally don't see traditionalism as part of it for instance). And I guess a kind of populist authenticity defines the commercial pop corner - if people are buying it, who are you to say it's bad?
These kinds of values are very common in music discourse, the first since the early romantic period, the second since national romanticism and the third more recently. Although it's often not explicitly said, I think these valuations underlie a lot of the theories about popular music, concious and unconcious. The standard "music journalist consensus" for example definitely likes arty-pop, has an ambivalent relationship to folky-pop and hates commercial pop. (Remarkably similar to the romantic aesthetic that still permeates classical music, by the way, but on a smaller scale.)

For this post I'm singling out two well-known theories of popular music and one less-known, all of which posit a dichotomy but that I nevertheless think make sense graphing on the triangle.

First up is Critical Theory. Although granddaddy Adorno himself hated all popular music, even the pretentious stuff, some later critical theorists have accepted the arty end as having "truth content", freedom and creativity. Critical theory also makes the not-that-startling claim that the commercial pop corner of music is manipulating the populace into docile servility to the capitalist system.

However, the interesting point the theory makes (as made apparent using the triangle) is that the variety offered by the seemingly self-created and self-maintained folky-pop corner is in fact only "pseudo-individuality". Its pleasures are easy and escapist and serve exactly the same purpose as commercial pop, to distract from the economic hardship of the people.
So what the theory does is basically actively define away one of the corners of the triangle. Our second theory, Cultural Studies, arose at least partly in response to this curtailing - one definitely gets the sense that a basic desire there is to re-appraise the self-created culture of the working class. Cultural Studies concedes the idea of a culture industry creating according to a capitalist agenda, but its central theory is on the reception end. Some people do fall for the hegemony, but a lot of them "negotiate" the culture for their own ends and the media is a battleground rather than purely hegemonical. This focus on (essentially working class) reception means Cultural Studies hardly ever deals with the arty stuff. It's basically outside the theory (or can be constituted as belonging to either side).

A third fascinating theory, though I guess less academic, is the one presented by Martha Bayles in her book Hole in Our Soul. Her basic contention is that the real, popular, civilized music (very obviously her imagining of the folky-pop) has been destroyed by what she calls "perverse modernism", the desire to shock (which she traces from futurism to 2 Live Crew). This is interesting because not only is the bunt of the argument directed against arty-pop, but on closer reading she actually includes commercial pop in this category as well! How's that for a different perspective on the triangle?
So as a thought experiment the triangle is not a bad one. It's limited in that it does not differentiate between different conceptions of the same corners - for instance you can have two or more competing types of cultural authenticity that would be in conflict with each other without it becoming apparent on the triangle.

But enough with the triangle already. A futher discussion on the musical characteristics of the three corners will appear under the heading "Genre of the Week: Pop, part 2" in due course.


There's only three types of popular music

There have always been attempts to generalise and put music into different boxes. Sometimes it can lead to stifening and clichéd thinking, but I think it's a useful tool in many ways - thinking about music in categories can help you develop a more complex understanding of it.

A fairly traditional way of trying to categorise popular music is to set up a number of dichotomies. For example:
Here commercial music, with pure pop as some sort of extreme, is pitted against non-commercial music with people making music only for their own enjoyment or for "art". Although very simplistic, this kind of division can help examine motivations and uses of music, and perhaps examine what musical characteristics are typical for each end.

Other examples would be complex vs simple music, professional vs amateur music, etc. etc. But here we encounter a problem. None of these categories really overlap. Non-commercial music can be either professional or amateur without any significant problems. Simple music can be both non-commercial and commercial. And so on. One way of dealing with this is to accept a multifaceted complex of different non-overlapping characteristics, but I think there's a more interesting (and hopefully revealing) option available.

I want to bring back the dreaded and widely discredited triangle.
This thing turned up several times in the first month of musicology classes and is a classic piece of bad old-fashioned musicology (which the field by the way if rife with). The basic idea is that there's three kinds of music. "Art music" is the music of the elites and the grand western tradition. "Folk music" is the music of the pre-modern common people, oral traditions within smaller communities. And "popular music" is the music of the modern, mediated, industrial masses.

This is a hugely problematic way of division. It's got unconscious prejudices built in. (I mean, "art music"? Come on.) It makes a very arbitrary division between popular and folk music, both of which essentially mean "music of the people". It seems very closely connected to outdated ideas of one or two categories being of higher quality than the others, particularly racking down on popular music.

It does have one significant advantage though and that's the fact that it's fairly good at dealing with our dichotomies from before. For instance, popular music and folk music both tend to be fairly simple compared to the complexities of art music. That means you could draw a diagram like this:

A similar division can then easily be made for professionality (popular and art music tends to be professional, folk music amateur) or commerciality (popular music tends to be commercial compared to art music and folk music). Or any of a number of other factors. Plus there are factors that very clearly have three different answers, like who the music is for - the masses, your community or no-one/yourself/art? Each one fits nicely into one category.

I think if you limit the triangle to the popular music corner of the field, it makes much more sense than the whole thing. All popular music is to a certain extent mediated, commercial and mass-oriented (I'll freely admit) but you can easily find examples of popular music that exhibit relatively little of these characteristics, in different ways.

This is especially true since about 1967. In the rock era there's been three diverging directions of popular music that fit relatively well with the three traditional definitions. There's the thread of "intelligent", "independent", "progressive" music, ranging from prog rock to post-punk to idm. There's the pure commercial pop, made more extreme from bubblegum onwards. And there's a huge plethora of smaller music-making communities like hyphy or bluegrass or soca or whatever that are, relatively, folk. Thus we can construct a triangle with "folky" popular music (community-oriented, limited distribution, often amateur initially), "arty" popular music (complex, pretentious, created for art's sake) and... a third category. I hate to call this "pure" popular music because I think most popular music actually tends to fall into the other two categories, but let's just call it "pure commercial pop" or something.

I think this is a useful way of dividing popular music. Mostly, I think we can create excellent systems of characteristics for the three different categories. For instance, arty-pop tends to be consumed and produced by the upper-middle-class, folky-pop tends to be produced and consumed by the lower-middle and working classes, while commercial pop tends to be produced by the upper classes for the consumption of the lower...

I'll highlight two more I think are a bit interesting. First is the genres. The vast majority of tiny, insteresting genres will actually fall into the folky-pop category, simply because genre = scene = community. Arty-pop musicians tend to think themselves beyond mere genres, and all commercial pop falls into one or two broad genres like "pop".

Then there's consumer age. At any normal school (as, I think, Simon Firth first explored) the youngest kids will listen to commercial-pop, the young teens will tend towards folky-pop and older teens will disproportionally listen to arty-pop.

As you can see it's not a bad tool for categorisation and it fits neatly with lots of three-part divisions. I'll try to return to the triangle in the following two posts to talk about traditional arguments about music and how they interact with the triangle, and about the musical characteristics of the three different ends.


Greece and Russia: Fake and Real Timbalandisms

Timbaland is one of the world's best-selling producers and certainly one of the few in the pure pop world whose production signature is instantly recognisable. Considering his success, it was perhaps inevitable that some of this year's Eurovision entries would try to copy that signature sound - I mean, we all know what a mature Timbaland production sounds like, right? Lots of short vocal samples like "hey!". Jiggly rhythmic figures that go semiquaver-semiquaver-quaver. Multilayered rhythms, strange percussion instruments, some handclaps.

The Greek entry has copied all of those aspects. Yet they get it so wrong.

Kalomira - Secret Combination

It already starts off wrong. Timbaland would never establish a rhythmic hook in the intro that then completely disappears into the background for the remainder of the song. Once the main rhtyhm is introduced it drops very conventionally into a first verse which I guess is okay, until the chord change and the guitar, and then the chorus which is very standard Eurovision pop. Not necessarily a wrong thing ("slightly hard" verses and a "soft" chorus has a tendency to produce winning entries) but it totally breaks the illusion of continuity. The only bit of the rest that feels good in the context is the last break, which adds an "ethnic Timbaland" touch as well. Still, overall it rests uncomfortably between two chairs and the constant breaks in style fuck up what is perhaps the main strength of newer Timbaland production.

Starting around 2006 Timbaland started incorporating a great minimal-hypnotic quality in his music, largely based on the influence of Latin Freestyle from the eighties. The shimmering, high-pitched chords, the subtle yet relentless propelling rhythm, the little repeated changeover motifs... It's brilliant. "Secret Combination", of course, has very little of it.

Russia's entry does though, at least a bit. It retains the "Timbaland hand clap" (in place of the vocal shout) and some of the rhythmic complexities and although it's excessively buttery it hints at the kind of regularised chord changes and hypnotic continuity discussed above. (Perhaps you hear it better in a studio version.)

Dima Bilan - Believing

If you've been following the Eurovision news you will know that the reason for this is that it's actually Timbaland who's produced this track. It's not one of his stronger productions (very throwaway and old-fashioned) but it does have a small touch of the magic. I think it can do fairly well in the competition.

As will probably Greece, unfortunately. Pity they couldn't repeat the quality of the last Greek code-themed entry, which actually has the high-pitched hypnotic synth chords this one is sorely missing.


Spain: Reggaeton, Minstrelsy, Internet Memes, Oh My!

The Spanish entry for this year's Eurovision makes me want to forego the usual "first voted in, first posted about" rule for my Eurovision coverage. And that's because it fits so very clearly in with all my other blogging interests.

Because "Bailar El Chiki Chiki" by Rodolfo Chikilicuatre is, strangely enough, en reggaetón. And because it raises questions about post-colonialism and the internet age.

Rodolfo Chikilicuatre - "Bailar El Chiki Chiki"

Welcome to the brave new world of Eurovision. The Spanish TV company TVE decided this year to make all the sent-in entries (numbering in their hundreds) available on Myspace for the public to select from. Fairly revolutionary in itself, I guess. But then a team of Catalan comedians, led by Andreu Buenafuente whose TV Show is apparently very popular, perfectly interpreted and exploited the new selection method and placed a song all the way at the top.

They did it by creating a meme.

Rather than market their song through the usual channels they worked very hard to ingrain the song in internet culture. The character of Rodolfo (played by actor David Fernandez) has his own web page, Twitter page and Facebook page, all very popular. Even more importantly, they encouraged people to create remixes and funny videos of the song, putting them all into a group on Youtube. And it worked amazingly well - this marketing effort (as driven by a rival broadcaster to TVE, by the way) has managed to push itself into the general Spanish realms of internet phenoms. There are the required teletubby mashups, Counterstrike machinima, etc. It's been watched something like a million times altogether in various versions.

On the surface this does bear some similarity to the memes created around El Chombo twofer Chacarron and El Gato Volador, that are very similar musically, thematically and as phenomenons. This, too, is a (no doubt loving) send-up of reggaeton and its themes. The timbres and the way of singing might as well have been lifted straight from El Chombo.

But obviously Rodney Clark as El Chombo is Panamanian whereas David Fernandez is Catalan/Spanish, making their position in the post-colonial world very different. I'm wondering how much of a difference this makes to the reception of the music - there's a real danger "El Chiki Chiki" will be perceived as racist against Latin Americans, minstrelsy style. I've yet to see any reggaeton fan's responses to the song, but that would certainly help clarify things.

One thing that speaks in its favour is that it seems to have been reggaetonned-up considerably during the selection process. The original, as appearing on Rodolfo's Myspace, is that worst-thing-of-all, a mild western copy. But somewhere along the way someone who knows reggaeton has added on a proper production with a real, prominent dembow.

I've got mixed feelings about it myself. I like the idea of the extension of the competition into the internet sphere and don't mind the resultant entry as a piece of music, even liking it a bit. But I am concerned about the implications of its position in the post-colonial power structure. How much easier it would have been if Fernandez, as suggested on another site, had been Mexican...


Genre(s) of the Week: Electro

Electro is one of those strange nebulous genres that seems to mean different things to different people. Sometimes, it seems as if people are actually talking about completely different genres.

Perhaps that is because they are.

This is an article that I originally wrote for the webzine of a Swedish music festival, which in turn is based on an episode of my now-defunct student radio show. It appears here translated and in slightly modified form.

Throw together a hip-hopper, an indie fan and a house devotee in a room and ask them to name their favourite electro tracks and you'll get wildly diverging answers. The hip-hopper will talk about Afrika Bambaata and Egyptian Lover. The indie guy about The Knife or (if he's Swedish) Familjen. The house lover David Guetta or Bodyrox.

You might imagine this is because Electro is one of those nebulously vague genres that don't mean anything specific, really. But it's actually a fair bit more complicated than that - the three are actually taking about different genres, all of which happen to be called electro. To stir up even more confusion there's at least another three genres called electro as well.

But let's go through it from the beginning. The word "electro" as an obvious short form for electronic has existed at least since the thirties, when the Westinghouse robot Elektro amused the crowds at the 1939 New York world fair. The first style of music that was called electro-something was probably electro-acoustic music from the mid-fifties, but music that we could possibly think of today as electro only starts appearing in the mid to late seventies. The genre that appears then, early synth pop with a strong sense of the robotic and dystopian in its aesthetics, was usually called "techno pop" or "synth pop" but those terms have obviously disappeared as they've come to be applied to other music. The one term that remains from that era is electro pop, which is interesting for our discussion but not quite yet the first electro.

No, the first genre whose name is just "electro" is a Kraftwerk- and YMO-inspired old school hip-hop subgenre that appears in New York in 1982 and dissapears as the winds of fashion change around 1987. At first it was called electro funk, in accordance with the naming principle of electro pop, but the suffix disappeared fairly quickly.

Electro names appeared in rock as well. Laisons Dangereuses, the german EBM band, called their music electro punk for example. The next genre to abbreviate itself electro (or rather elektro, I guess to be different) is the fairly obscure genre of electro-industrial music at the end of the eighties, succeeded in short order by electro #3, dark electro, which at least to me sounds fairly similar to its immediate predecessor.

The current electro trend can be traced back to the mid nineties, when bands like Dopplereffect in Detroit (a city with a long electro tradition) together with Anthony Rother in Germany revived the hip-hoppy electro genre while focusing on its most futuristic qualities. One offshoot of this "electro revival" was the fairly similar genre of French electro (electro #4!) with hitmaker Mr Oizo at the spearhead. A few years later there was also a reborn interest in electro pop (spawned by, among other things, wonderful home brewed bootleg mix CDs) which became the fashionable genre electroclash. That in turn is the basis of today's indie-subgenre electro (#5!).

The last piece of the puzzle is electro house, which inevitably is also called (say it with me...) electro. The most obvious precedent electro here is the French one, sharing similar snaky analogue bass lines. That genre, of course, has also kept on growing and developed towards a mode of expression that most of all resembles electric boogie form the early eighties.

None of these genres have much more in common than their electronic nature, and perhaps a slight fascination with science fiction and the eighties. That simple, appealing definition and the looseness of the term practically ensures that there will be even more electros in the future. In Belem in Brazil, for instance, a new hard style is growing out of the local pop genre tecnobrega. And that too, of course, is called... electro.


Azerbaijan and Bulgaria: The power of a great intro

One of this year's new countries is Azerbaijan and they're certainly off to a promising start. In fact, having now heard most of the entries I can safely say that they're one of the best so far.

Elnur Hüseynov and Samir Javadzadeh - Day After Day

I love the devil-and-angel scenography, the very on-trend (as previously discussed) operatic metal dance-pop music and the lack of any debutante respect. But what I like most about the song is the intro.

The rhythmless synth sweep, the totally secco opening lines, then the shouting over the guitar riff (a technique I've always loved). It's perfect. Now, I realise the rest of the song isn't up to as much (the second singer is particularly atrocious, though the weird breakdown section is brilliant), but I think that intro alone should propel them into the top ten.

Sometimes, though, a fantastically brilliant intro is probably not enough. Especially if you forget to add more than the sketch of a song to it. I'm looking at you Bulgaria:

Deep Zone and Balthazar - DJ, Take Me Away

I'd still vote for them, mind, for the sheer balls and the burning turntables.

In case anyone is interested, I've started to put together a playlist of some Eurovision favourites of mine, past and present, well-known and obscure. A lot of the material is new to me so expect more to be added here as time goes along.


Is there any other art where fine is necessarily equal to upper class?

To continue yesterday's rant a little bit, here's a very simple question.

In classical music, pre-20th century, only the music of the power elites and that of the church is accepted as "art music". There's a comprehensive equivalence between the music of the top echelons of the ruling estates and "musical quality". Is there any other art where this is the case?

There's plenty of fairly "small" painters and writers that made art purely for themselves or never got anywhere that today are seen as geniuses. Not to mention highly populist ones, like Shakespeare. Are there any composers?

What else could be? Furniture making? (Nope, at least in Sweden "folk" furniture is considered highly valuable and interesting.) Dance? Very closely tied to music, methinks.

Does anyone have an idea of another totally upper-estate genre or a type of classical music that wasn't that of the rulers and that is considered good today? Otherwise I'll be forced to conclude all classical music lovers are unpleasant snobs and all my teachers are apologists for conservatism. :)