Saturday, October 07, 2006

Observations and Red Flags From the Armchair Music Critic

Last week I wrote a mini-essay (er, stream-of-conscious rant) inspired in part by Philip Sherburne's Pitchfork feature on the trend toward 10+ minute techno tracks. Sherburne wrote an in-depth follow-up earlier this week, further explaining his theories about the trend. I agree with most of his observations and enjoy much of the music cited. However, the follow-up article brought to the surface issues I had feared for some time as deeper underlying trends. While smartly discounting popular associations, Sherburne states, "At its heart, this is trance music - trance-inducing in its purest sense." I think everyone who has any investment in techno music pretty much loathes the bastard branch labeled "trance", and the shiny-shirt wearing goons and fake-baked skanks who eat it up. We're not talking about that. We're talking about fundamental theories. I think the observation is absolutely correct, but take issue here with the basic notion of music which can only be appreciated in an altered state of consciousness - be it a self or environmental-induced sort of hypnosis, or (more commonly) with the assistance of controlled substances. In such a state, water dripping from a faucet can be a trance-inducing, fascinating experience. For our Catholic readers, doing repetitive rosary prayers can have the same effect. For those with their wits about them, music at this level is intolerable at best, and as maddening as rosary prayers are to a hyperactive child. We've been watching artists and critics begin to back-pedal from their anti-trance positions over the past year or so. Trance, I don't think is the biggest issue with techno right now though.

Techno as a genre is coming of age, like rock music did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This era brought great advancements through experimentation with both technology and theory. The Beatles, Cream, and acts such as the MC5 revolutionized rock music during this time. At the same time though, the idea of progressive rock was emerging. Prog rock rejected the notions of pop, emphasized virtuosity of musicians and catered to a very specialized type of listener. In other words, it was musicians masturbating for each other, usually with epic length songs. The best thing that came from the prog rock era was the severe backlash, which contributed to the creation of both punk and disco: perhaps the two most significant musical movements to come about in our lifetimes. Techno is at a turning point, and must evolve to fully mature. Watching some of the tendencies of prog rock seep into techno, I ask the artists, do you want to be The Stooges, or do you want to be Jethro Tull? (This is obviously over-simplified to make a point.) Not at all to suggest there is no room for experimentation and high brow art within music - these are critical and essential elements, but there is a danger of being so self-referential that the music becomes irrelevant to anyone outside the inner sanctum.

Much of this current discussion is centered around one myopic scene - ignoring very different trends in other parts of the world and even within Berlin, but its influence is so far reaching that it becomes an issue for the entire genre. One can look back as recently as Fischerspooner's last LP to see how trying to be deep comes off far less fulfilling than trying to make great pop music. There were some very good songs on Odyssey, but as a whole it just felt like a desperate attempt to be taken seriously. There is a great misconception that serious art must be punishingly boring and difficult to appreciate. Those who support it will always revert to, "you just don't get it." That is simply a shield for an inability or unwillingness to make something that is interesting on multiple levels. Much of the greatest music of the past 35 years is not only innovative from an artistic standpoint, but is crafted in manner that immediately connects with people. Art fails if it does not communicate on its own. If music becomes boring the minute the drugs wear off, it doesn't necessarily mean it is bad, but it is half-baked.

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