Monday, April 28, 2008

Just "Gimme Some Truth"

I dedicate a fair amount of time to checking up on new bands, and while I will concede that there are certainly groups out there that are worthy of attention, I can’t help but draw the conclusion that so much of the indie scene is nothing more than recycled bullshit. Over spring break in March, I happened across a satellite television station (I forget the name, and haven’t seen or heard of it anywhere else) that provided extensive coverage of SXSW, an indie film and music festival that takes place annually in Austin, TX. Bored (I was alone in Montana waiting for friends to touch down) and curious, I flipped it on to check out a couple of the bands that were performing. As expected, before the groups went on, the network always brought on some acclaimed rock journalist, decked out in hipster regalia, to espouse his pseudo-intellectual opinions on the group, and to offer some comparisons and influences. The guy would site a few British punk groups, then maybe talk about Brian Wilson, and then round it out with a story about how long it took the group to cut their latest record. Fair enough, my attention was piqued. The band would then take the stage, sound a few opening chords, their homely female vocalist would start belting some nonsense, and I would change the channel.

I risk sounding like I’m generalizing, but, while not all of the groups featured a homely raving banshee as vocalist, I can’t help myself from doing so. The lineup for SXSW, while incredibly large, was also incredibly homogeneous, as I have since checked out a lot of the other groups, and come to the conclusion that most of them operate on the same punk/post-punk foundation while attempting to imbue this sound with an “X-factor” second influence, which, frankly, is rarely discernible. To move beyond SXSW, I would like to acknowledge that, yes, there are groups out there who are making fun, catchy, and, at times, even cerebral music, and I think the electronic subgenre is a good example of this. But what all of these groups lack is the ability to excite their listeners in the sense that one can recognize something distinctive and innovative about the group’s approach to music (excepting hip-hop, which, while it really isn’t my style, is a genre that is constantly innovating). When was the last time the indie scene has produced something genuinely new? Where are the Ramones, the Jesus & Mary Chains, and the Nirvana’s of today? As I contemplate these questions, I cannot help but make the observation that the indie scene, a scene that has always prided itself on cherishing and discovering the “new,” is riddled with posers—retro-obsessed, self-absorbed, and overly concerned with the ironic. The “new” is not, and hasn’t been, new for quite some time, and while I’ll be the first to admit that I appreciate heavy-handed sarcasm and irony, and that a jaded sense of detachment can be kinda cool sometimes, isn’t it more edifying when you know you’re listening to something that has substance? I think yes.

By “substance” I’m referring to the type of intellectual and artistic milieus that, in the past, have propelled great underground acts into stardom (however ephemeral it might have been). The Haight-Ashbury in the 60’s, New York City and London in the mid-70’s, Seattle in the late-80’s/early 90’s—all of these scenes, while underground, inevitably produced wildly popular groups that were not only stylistically innovative, but were fueled by a concrete set of ideas—substance. Ever since grunge fizzled out, and rave culture hit its peak (not that there’s anything particularly substantive about rave, but it was definitely sonically innovative), we have been plagued by innumerable “retro-revival” acts. Some of these groups are pretty awesome--the Strokes, the Libertines, and the Arctic Monkeys are, or were in the case of the Libertines, all pretty catchy bands, and there is a host of others. In this same vain, I also like to hit the dance floor when the latest 80’s electro-pop/70’s disco revamping comes on. But, while I enjoy this music, I am always left with the feeling that, 10 years from now, it will have been largely forgotten.

Who knows though, and maybe I’m wrong—maybe we should all just be doing drugs and dancing our asses off.


Madamelamb said...

Well said

Anonymous said...

the village back in the days of dylan and the pattys and whatever other artists were around is the immediately 'familiar' situation. these days i think it might be as simple as you don't get any of the economies of agglomeration anymore (artists are all over the place now - multiple geniuses in close quarters back in the day seems like just an explosive formula for growth). people still talk about the smiths or the talking heads or whomever today, and maybe its our jaded take on 'modern art', but i can't really see people in 20 years talking about how the yeah yeah yeahs were doing something new. or maybe they will, but in these very very narrowly defined niches, which can't possibly be the case with the smiths. i dont know enough about music to really have an opinion, i suppose, nor do i really care enough to have a very informed one. that said, i like an awful lot of music, and not necessarily because any of it is transcending any boundaries, is especially expressive/communicative, or presents the unfamiliar/complex. i think we could probably argue that the western concept of tension/release is pretty tired, but we'd have no more trouble arguing that the afro/cuban/carib concept of repetition and interlocking parts is awfully tired, or that the south asian 'atonality' is awfully tired, or that the 'digital' sound is as old as the 70s. call me uncreative or unimaginative, but lets not forget that delillo and dfw aren't doing anything different than cummings or eliot did an awful long time ago. is there a finnegan's wake of the music world, by the way?

i think i just have a hard time getting behind the notion of good taste/bad taste, whether we're talking about music, or wine, or what have you. six-month-olds are far better at detecting differences in complex rhythms/harmonies/whatever (and have taste buds that haven't been socialized to boot) than all but the most studied virtuosos, and it makes me wonder who gets to determine what makes, for instance, 'good' jazz. would we say there are rules in music? or maybe more to the point - that people can compete when it comes to music?

Anonymous said...

I think there are many reasons why the music created today will not be as "good" or as remembered (if that's a measurement of good) as the music of the earlier decades - but I think that making music so accessible to people all over the world via internet has been the main destroyer of the genius we appreciate in earlier work. Here are some reasons: 1) now it is easy for any band to have a myspace or an album on itunes, so the amount of crap that we hear is escalated. 2) Emphasis is taken off live music. No longer do bands get popular through performing in coffee shops and other small settings - instead, bands are popularized through one killer track on myspace that gets 1 million people to listen to it (also look at the crap we watch on youtube). This puts a lot of pressure on the band as we expect them to be musical geniuses, but we may find out that the one song they made was a stroke of luck or something that they are incapable of performing. The success of a band used to lie on the artist's ability to perform and engage the audience in a live setting, so - inevitably - that person needed talent and a brain to get people talking. Now, artists can hide away in studios and basements and make something worth clicking on instead of something worth GOING to, which allows mediocre bands to reach inflated status. Today's Indie bands are more often than not pioneers of the studio and less often good performers. I can't even listen to some live recordings of bands whose cd's I enjoy listening to...

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