Saturday, November 1, 2014

Impetus versus onus

Music occupies a bizarre nether region of commercially codified art. All of us think of and genuinely consider musicians--even middling ones--artists. Of course each type of art, whether it be writing and poetry, or painting and sculpture, or movies and theatre, has it's own modes of consumption.

Most of us do not own more than a handful of pieces of visual art (and more often than not, just reproductions). Most books, we only get through once--most movies too, for that matter. Plays are an occasion. Music though, we tend to own--or, in the streaming digital age, access--large quantities and we play much of it repeatedly. We somehow try to absorb music as a work of art whilst handling it as a commodity.

By contrast, our brief and infrequent encounters with great paintings or sculptures are fleeting and profound. Music by your favorite musician? You've steeped in those works. They're a part of your DNA. If that musician provides a new record of strikingly similar work, it's inherently going to feel, well… redundant. You'll probably enjoy it well enough, but it will take a conscious effort on your own part to get this new, ancillary material to matter to you.

Artistically, that seems unfair. Consider how long visual artists--from Monet to Rothko--mined highly specific niches. They'd plumbed the depths of it, with little expectation to re-innovate. One or two sea level changes are enough for one career, thank you. This plays into what we expect of musicians: we want them to audibly change and grow with each new work or release.

Additionally, like movies (and, to a lesser extent, books) we simultaneously expect music to be art that also entertains. Entertainment and artistic value are, at heart, different beasts. Of course, great art can entertain us--but it can also challenge, disturb or confront us.

Take the most obvious example: David Bowie. His career arc is at once exceptional, but also strikingly archetypical. He kept himself relevant for years beyond the usual pop commodities' shelf-life by way of radical reinventions: post-hippie psychedelic-folkster to glam-rock visionary to narco-soul crooner to outer-space pop revolutionary to new wave champion. He even pulled out of a creative nose-dive by rightly predicting a return of rockist power and then turned to embrace industrial and drum-n-bass dance culture. Lately though, he's settled into a career sunset of give-the-people-what they-want-ism: a sort of soft-focus pastiche of his own past, puréed into a stew that everyone can enjoy but nearly no one will remember.

Commercially it's a bit of catch-22. You have to innovate--but, as entertainment, most your fans aren't really looking to be pushed too hard. As far as the market is concerned, incremental, lower-case-c change is best--but even that is subject to a law of diminishing returns. New work may hew too close and be viewed as redundant. Alternately you could eventually end up too far afield, leaving your dwindling fan base pining for your 'classic sound'. Of course, appeasing them would then be a capitulation to a sort of irrelevance.

There's no universal answer to this problem. I have several (very OCD) devices I use to try and continuously re-engage. Sometimes I'll pointedly listen to an artist's entire discography, making a playlist by taking one, single song from every album. Going back to that mix will give me a span of their work-to-date leavened by time and progress instead of weighted by popularity. Maybe I'll choose an album I feel I've neglected and try to listen to it every day for week (at least).

It's too easy to let the way we consume music overpower the very thing we are listening to it for. Ultimately, we should periodically remind ourselves: no matter how commodified music becomes, it's value is artistic.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Separated at birth

I've been toying with an idea for a while that is sure to stir up trouble:
U2 and Green Day are like identical twins.

At first blush, the statement is obviously false. Their beginnings are over a decade apart and they don't sound all that much like each other. The idea started when I began to realize they occupy very similar spaces in musical history; serving the identical purposes in their respective times. You see, they both ended up as harbingers announcing the end of what had previously been periods of chaotic creativity and musical expansion.

When U2 came on the scene, post-punk was in full swing. I've put forward my theories and thoughts about that era plenty enough, so I'll try and keep it brief here. The punk explosion inspired hundreds of kids across Britain to rush out and start their own bands, but by the time those kids could string 3 chords together, punk imploded. It didn't just stumble or stop, it ended ignobly. The Sex Pistols signed to a major label (gasp!) that ultimately stifled them, then they flatlined in an excess of drugs, ids and egos. For all their DIY, fuck-the-man bluster, their collapse could have been any of the 70s dinosaur acts they sought to make extinct. Those kids they inspired responded by not repeating their sound or path but tearing everything apart. Post punk made some of the most unruly, experimental rock up to that point and it was often recorded in their own studios, on their own terms, and released on their own, new independent labels.

From a major label's perspective it must have seemed like actual anarchy. They had no idea how the taste of kids got out ahead of them. Instead of setting trends, they were now in a place of scrambling to keep up. Enter: U2. Listening to their debut, Boy, Bono & Co. had many hallmarks of their era: scratchy guitars, lugubrious bass, relentlessly repetitive rhythms, a singer with an off-kilter voice... but there was something about them that seemed ready for the big leagues. It's almost impossible to imagine a band like U2 ever playing to a crowd of 15 in a small club. They were designed for the stadium. It was huge: go big or go home.

This is exactly what the music industry needed: a mold; a template for spinning post-punk into Grammy-winning gold records. They would no longer take a risks on unruly, experimental acts with sounds unheard before on the face of music. All that was needed was more of this, and this was U2.

Flash forward one decade and Nirvana upends the scene. Nirvana did not come from out of nowhere. There are direct chains of precedence and influence--a context in which they make perfect sense-- but the landscape of mainstream pop radio onto which they exploded was filled with the likes of Madonna's Vogue and other things I shudder to think about like C&C Music Factory. Their runaway success, seemed to catch major labels resting on their laurels, and led to a subsequent feeding frenzy. College radio bands that had been kicking around the underground for years got snatched up into big deals, whether it made sense or not.

An industry, ill-prepared for change at the best of times was now trying to grapple with a seismic shift they had not accounted for. Their trolling through the nascent indie-rock scene certainly gave some cult acts much wider appeal, even if they could never feasibly bring the return labels wanted (and the deals almost all turned sour). Then, in walked Green Day.

They had the right, now sound, but tweaked it perfectly. The guitars still burned but they no longer snaked or tangled--they moved in giant, simple, dayglo patterns. It was as easy to grasp as children's toy blocks. They had attitude, but it was more snotty teen than tortured soul. It was at once anthemic and meaningless.

With Green Day, the marketers of music once again had their mealticket. There would be no more ugly bands like Pixies or Replacements given air. It was to be Blink 182 and the Offspring from now on. Green Day's success was both bankable and replicable.

Having mulled over this idea for a long while, I started to see even more similarities. Green Day tried to mature into a 'message band'--something U2 embraced early on with Sunday Bloody Sunday and their odes to Martin Luther King Jr. In all cases, the message was never specific or targeted... or even that personal: it was designed for universality. Decrying war, as a concept, is about as controversial as taking a stand against cancer. I remember Green Day's American Idiot being equally popular with the "Let's Roll" hawks as "9/11 was an inside job" doves. It was full of fist-pumping good times and toothless, vague introspection.

Of course they both periodically rebel against their own maturation with diversions--getting back to their roots, as it were (whatever those might be). Around the time of 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, I'd taken to saying that U2 was the best U2 cover band ever. Lately, Green Day has arguably earned a similar honor.

Lastly, lest we forget: they both debuted Broadway musicals--almost simultaneously. That one's a little hard to swallow.

So yes, U2 and Green Day may not have much in common sonically, per se--at least no more than any other rock band of their time--but they do seem to occupy the same cultural space. They both serve as the lowest-common-denominator force that ended the post-punk and grunge eras (respectively). Certainly, it was bound to happen, all periods of furious creativity come to a close, but it is interesting to examine the means and instruments of those ends.