Friday, April 07, 2006

Popular Trends

I haven't been feeling well, and it's a dreary day outside. But, I'm feeling better now, and I'm getting married in one week, so all is right in my little corner of the world.

I've finished three books since my last post--Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again, Edward Falco's story collection Acid, and Kirstin Allio's novel Garner. I have things to say about each in due time (plus Despair, which I kind of left hanging).

Rip It Up may figure in a longer post about the nature and evolution of my own music fandom, if I can scrape together the time to write it. For the moment, I'll just say that I think Tom rather misses Reynolds' point about the period under review in the book. Tom characterizes the book, loosely, as being about "the idea that the late 70s and early 80s were this ridiculous technicolor pop playground, that punk opened up all this space for people with big label contracts to fuck around with pop conventions and actually become popular in the process." Which I guess is close enough. But then:
I'm not sure about Reynolds' idea that this golden age came to a crashing halt in 1984; seems to me that just about any era has its share of unforeseeable radar blips, proud weirdos who manage to worm their way onto daytime pop-radio playlists through some combination of savvy image-positioning, ADD genre-blurring, and, um, like, songwriting.
This misses the point entirely. Reynolds is talking about the general feeling that anything was possible, that musicians were future-looking, some of whom may or may not have broken into the pop charts, some who may or may not have been trying to. In his Afterward (of course, I have the American edition--I gather that the UK edition is quite a bit longer), Reynolds writes:
The really depressing thing about 1985...wasn't the mainstream tyranny of nouveau riche pop so much as the unimpressive state of the alternative scene. The collective sense of purpose that bound together the diverse initiatives of postpunk had seeped away. Everything seemed desperately disparate and therefore somehow diminished.
He is not saying that there were no good records being made, nor is he saying anything about the actuality of seemingly unlikely acts scoring bizarre left-field pop hits. Of course there are always "unforeseeable radar blips" but that has nothing to do with the point at hand. Anyway, Reynolds allows that "[i]n retrospect, one can go back to the mideighties and find harbingers of future revolution. Rap was about to enter its most exciting phase yet, and there were early stirrings that would evolve into house and techno."

One of the things I found interesting about the book is how so many of the UK and American acts were again looking to black music for inspiration--reggae, dub, funk, disco--but of course the book is not about those musics, other than insofar as they served as inspirations. A vast amount of music that I have almost no contact with directly. I was becoming more and more aware of how disconnected from "black" music I have been. In his chapter on the art groups, Talking Heads, Wire, and Mission of Burma (three groups to whom I needed no introduction), Reynolds writes about Talking Heads' rhythm section, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, who "steeped themselves in funk and disco", before moving on to David Byrne, who
meanwhile, had started to believe that the production techniques in black dance music (disco's extended remixes, the sumptuous layering, and thick textures of everyone from the Jacksons to Parliament-Funkadelic) constituted a bigger musical revolution than punk. "When you started getting people doing the early remixes--stretching the song out, chopping it up--it was great," he recalls. "And it was all happening in the dance world, it wasn't happening in the rock world at all."
Recently I've been listening to more and more music from the period Reynolds is writing about, mostly coincidentally (for example, I bought my first Fall records just a couple of months ago). I bought the Soul Jazz New York Noise compilation back when it came out in 2003, largely because of the No Wave stuff that is on it (Mars, DNA, Theoretical Girls), but my favorite songs on it have turned out to be "Optimo" by Liquid Liquid and "Baby Dee" by Konk--two pretty damn funky tunes. Also, I have developed a relatively recent (last two years) openness to (chart) pop. This, combined with a considerable increase in the amount of Hip Hop I've listened to as well as some of the dancey moves of other bands out of the rock arena (DFA, Out Hud), has on the one hand opened things up for me quite a bit. On the other hand, however, given my difficult to avoid curatorial approach to music, this means that I feel like there's a big gap in my knowledge of, say, 70s funk, early hip hop, disco. Well, there's always been the gap, and I've always known that it's been there, but now I feel like I need to address it, that it matters to me. Aside from being expensive, this is a daunting prospect.

Anyway, I'll go into more of this when I go into that longer (!) post about how my musical fandom has changed over time. But, so, postpunk. I also bought, this much more recently, but still before I had or read Rip It Up, Ze Records' expanded cd reissues of the Mutant Disco compilations. (Incidentally, I had these on my radar in part because of a great piece from late 2004 by John Darnielle extolling the virtues of Cristina, whose two albums were also reissued by Ze, and who appears on Mutant Disco. Darnielle's piece is not just about music, by the way, but about sexual politics, and it's kind of awesome.) I love these discs. I mean, it's disco, right? I was supposed to hate disco, wasn't I? I'd more or less disabused myself of the notion that disco (or any musical form, per se) was ipso facto bad many, many years ago, but that's not the same as actually listening to it (and besides, you can't like everything). Granted, this is not the chart disco, generally, but still.

The point is that after postpunk, the (basically white) rock underground essentially stopped engaging with mainstream pop, which meant it stopped engaging with the innovations of black musicians, while also exhibiting a strong tendency to look back. Reynolds again:
In the mideighties, most chart pop was glossy, guitar free, black influenced, soulfully strong voiced, dance oriented, high-tech, and ultramodern. Indie made a fetish of the opposite characteristics: scruffy guitars, white-only sources, weak or "pale" folk-based vocals, undanceable rhythms, lo-fi or Luddite production, and a retro (usually sixties) slant.
I was a self-conscious teenager in the mid-eighties, living in the suburbs, away from any musical or cultural center that I could discern, and my response to "mechanical", as I saw it, chart pop, was to turn to classic rock. A steady diet of Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, etc. In retrospect, when I began to allow that, hey, maybe there was some valid new music out there, I realize now that it was the retro-ish bands such as REM, the Replacements, U2 circa The Joshua Tree, or the more mainstream Guns n'Roses, who were added to my collections and listened to regularly. At the same time, I still followed the new releases from old farts like Eric Clapton and Don Henley.

As one who was not comfortable dancing in public, and having bought into the worst of the rockist ideals, I completely missed the rave culture, which Reynolds identifies as having in many ways embodied the spirit of postpunk. At that time in my life, I was not at all tuned in to the underground; Chicago house and Detroit techno were necessarily completely beyond my ken. I wouldn't even have heard of them until many years later, when I'd started to investigate the more electronic side of so-called "post-rock".

Ok, I'm rambling, and I don't want to get too far into the History of My Musical Life right now. But, I'm trying to tie together my own experience as a music fan and Reynolds' description of what happened when his period under discussion came to an end. By disdaining pop and looking back, the "indie rock" scene that developed in the wake of postpunk, cut itself off from the whatever may have been exciting in those years. By defining itself as, effectively, against the popular, innovative sounds of the day, indie rock found itself in a feedback loop. Plenty of excellent records were released in this time, many of which I cherish. And, there was, I think, a forward movement in some parts of it. I'm thinking here of the post-Slint, post-rock stuff, which engaged with electronic music, jazz, classical composition, and all sorts of other stuff. I spent a lot of time with this music in the early 2000s--much of which I think is both brilliant and beautiful. But even (especially?) this music generally evaded direct contact with pop currents and wasn't likely to move one to get up and dance.

Which I guess is a long-winded way of trying to demonstrate (belabor?) the point that, by defining his period as he does, Reynolds is not saying anything about, again, "radar blips" that reach the pop charts, but, rather, IS talking about general trends away from musicians looking to the future, from looking towards pop music (effectively black music) as something to engage with, as opposed to defining oneself against. Especially as this seemed at the time to those who had lived through postpunk and were excited by its possibilities.


Lilymane said...

What a great blog! I've only had time to 'sample' it and I look forward to taking it in smaller chunks when I can until I catch up. I LOVE Ocatavia Butler and haven't read her in a while - so thanks for the reminder. Peace.

Anonymous said...

great piece on post-punk. I had many of the same experiences with mostly white mostly anti-pop music adoration growing up (although I'm a little younger than you), and have had similar epiphanies in the last few years (disco also being recent for me). I had very much the same reaction to Rip it Up as well (although I read the much longer UK version for whatever reason). Anyway, nice blog!