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Music Snobbery: A Reason to Live

I met Christine at a bar.  She had an MFA in journalism, and was currently interning for Rolling stone.  She said Lady Gaga was “a genius”.

My hand involuntarily reached for the Beretta tucked in the back of my pants, but I stopped myself.

No, not here.

People have asked me before what my goal in life is.  The answer is simple.  My goal is to not kill myself.  This is not an easy task.  Music helps.  People like Christine do not.  It’s a tough choice, Sophie-from-Schindler’s-List-Style, as to whether Christine or I deserved the single bullet in that metaphorical Beretta chamber.

Get me my chalkboard, let’s dig in.

So, it’s 2011, and we’re squarely in the middle of the electronic music generation.  It’s a perfect fit.  We structure our jobs, our relationships, our governments, and our recreation with our technology… why not our music?  Those who say that electronic music has no soul are the same people who bought Passion Pit CDs.  They’re not wrong, they’re just slow — and working with what they know.

“I think, fundamentally, music is something inherently people love and need and relate to, and a lot of what’s out right now feels like McDonalds. It’s quick-fix. You kind of have a stomachache afterwards.”

– Trent Reznor, Salt Lake Tribune Interview (29 September 2005)

Electronic music has given us not only a new genre, but a rapidly expanding and splintering one.  The popular consensus of those “in the know” is that it’s growing faster than we can name it.  That’s fast. And in the clusterfuck confusion, a lot of people are getting credit for copying off of other people’s tests.  Not chill.  Let’s dish out some credit where it’s due.

“Ideas are like fish.  If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.  Down deep the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”

David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish (2007)

Kraftwerk is the granddaddy of the scene.  These men, we’ve learned, were visitors from the future in 1978 (with their seventh record, The Man Machine) when they basically invented house music.

Kraftwerk – Minimum/Maximum

They saw it coming.  Even down to the theme of “Man/Machine”.  And yet, they are barely now getting recognition for what they started.  When Daft Punk pirated the entire concept of Kraftwerk, watered it down to make it more socially acceptable, and then added some bounce to attract 12 year olds… it still needed the help of Kanye West in “Faster Stronger”.  Finally, in that unholy year of 2007, people praised Kanye and Daft Punk for introducing something “new”… 30 years after it had been done much more intelligently.

Aphex Twin was basically Nostradamus in 1999 when he released “Windowlicker” — the title, the sound, the progression, the video… it all paints a portrait of the genre’s future.

Aphex Twin – Windowlicker

It starts out as a sexy 4/4 dance beat, as innocuous as the thousands of other club anthems of the late 90s … harmless, saccharine, playful…   just a few cross-dressing or transgender people looking to have a good time, the envy of the gangsters in the worn out classic vehicle… hey I wish we could get in on that shit… then it begins to break down… glitch, trip, switch time signatures… until finally, it rumbles into dark, dark territory with an ugly side… before finally crushing under its own weight and delivering a disturbing view of the face behind the dance… and the audience is forced to sit in silence and wonder if what they just saw and heard was a joke, or serious.  And as the years tick by on our digital calendars, the more we realize how serious he was.

There’s enough depth in a 30 second clip of an Aphex Twin or Kraftwerk song to sustain the entire career of one stagnant (and rich) musician — and the evidence is all around you.  But they weren’t satisfied with 30 seconds.  They went all the way. They were over 25 years ahead of the curve… we’re only now catching on to everything they were trying to say back then.  Maybe that’s why their newer stuff has sounded so shitty.  We’re cavemen staring at a TV set.  What the hell is this?

“I want it to be all back together again; I want to go out to a club and listen to all different types, not just one specialist type.”

–  Richard D. James

Do you remember how frustrating it was in grade school when you knew the answer to a teacher’s question, raised your hand, and she still wouldn’t call on you?  Now imagine holding your hand up for 25 years until Ke$ha blurts out a poorly worded, watered down, annoying-sounding version of your answer.  And then gets awards and millions of dollars for it.

She won’t be the first.  Kanye did it with his song “Runaway” by copying a 5 year old sound, almost note for note, and turning it into a slamming hit.  Look at him pushing boundaries! And if that’s frustrating for me, it surely must be frustrating for the old pioneers.  Some Christines of the world will say, “Oh, don’t blame Kanye, he just took something out there and made it better.  Facebook did it to Friendster.  Google did it to Yahoo.   He brought it to the mainstream.  It’s the American Way.”

Now that’s not only a sad comparison, but it’s a dumb one, because in business, the 2nd generation generally improves on the last.  This isn’t the case with music.  Britney Spears, for example, who hired a one-dimensional, second-rate dubstep DJ, Rusko, to produce her new album, is vastly dumbing down the pioneers of new sound.  Maybe there’s merit in that.  Perhaps people “aren’t ready” to hear something new.  Their heads may explode.  She’s bridging the gap, making sure the 12 year olds are safely on their way to avant-electronica, instead of dangerously jumping in to someone like Burial who might make them realize that mainstream artists created in a boardroom are, in fact, talentless hacks designed to pickpocket naïve children.

But more likely, there is no merit in that.  It may in fact be entirely evil.  She’s slowing us down as a species.  If she’s going to “do us a favor” and bring something to the mainstream, why leave the real beauty of it hidden?  If someone’s head is going to explode, let it explode.  Darwin would be proud.

People say to me, “Oh, Bill, leave them alone.  They’re so good, and so clean-cut, and they’re such a good image for the children.”  Fuck that! When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children?  I want my children listening to people who fucking rocked!  I don’t care if they died in pools of their own vomit!  I want someone who plays from his fucking heart! “Mommy, the man Bill told me to listen to has a blood bubble on his nose.”  SHUT UP AND LISTEN TO HIM PLAY.

–  Bill Hicks, on the topic of New Kids on the Block, George Michael, Madonna, et al.

It’s the way of the world.  The true geniuses usually go on to generate a fiercely loyal, but small, fan base… and then the locusts come in, steal the idea, make things worse, and collect awards on stage while wearing suits of stitched-together hundred dollar bills… hundred dollar bills which were earned by suing teens who shared their ripped-off watered-down music online.  And there will be no time for these copycat thugs to say thank you, they’ll be too busy counting “Most Innovative Artist” awards.

I don’t know why things are this way.  It may have something to do with our abysmal education system.  In an increasingly experimental artistic field, it can be difficult to immediately determine who is actually talented and who is just fucking around.

The best argument for liking a song is “it sounds good to me.”  That’s an absolutely acceptable answer.  But it’s no qualification for “genius”.

“You sit at the board and suddenly your heart leaps. Your hand trembles to pick up the piece and move it. But what chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it’s really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas.”

Stanley Kubrick, Newsweek (26 May 1980)

A true work of genius, in my opinion, can appeal to a wide audience.  And it can give each subsection of that audience something different.  It can insert clever messages and show-off-moves that non-experts won’t see.  And it can speak to the man who just happens to stumble across it in a car commercial.  All shapes and sizes.

And at the same time, a work of genius has to provide much more with each listen.

I mean, I read Catcher in the Rye when I was 14.  Then I read it at 18.  Then 22.  Let me tell you, it was a completely fucking different book each time.  And each time, it was sensational.  Who knows what I’ll see there at 26?

The more I hear Lady GaGa, the more I see her watered down version of the FameHateLove act perverted from the thousand of times it’s been done before, and her songs begin to fall into the predictable chord progressions of sugary disco — and it makes me physically nauseous when I think about young girls with her posters on the wall.

“I feel the same way about disco as I do about herpes.”

–  Hunter Thompson, in a speech to the University of Colorado Student Union

We have to look back, in order to see the genius that we missed.  The answers are there.  And they aren’t going to be spoonfed to us.

And we shouldn’t need them to be.  It’s sad that this needs to be said.  But tracing the source of things helps you understand their true value.  Without studying the history of a genre, a voice, or an ideology, we can fall for some pretty nasty tricks.

“I don’t want anybody to have the spotlight but me.  Don’t share.”

–  Lady Gaga, March 30th, 2010

If these artists were saints, they’d say, don’t worship me, worship my creators (my fathers, my influences), and rejoice in the music (the eternal, the holy spirit).  But even Christ couldn’t get that one right, because he decided he was God half way through the New Testament.  Fame can really mess a person up.

What I’m starting to understand, what the very best understood years ago, is that it’s not the artists/politicians/singers/writers/messiahs responsibility to deliver the blueprints to their work.

It’s our responsibility to find them.  Checks and balances.  In a freemarket of artistic ideas and creative thought, it’s up to us, the fans, to set them straight.

And I think we should do it at the top of our lungs.

I guess that makes me a snob.  I don’t want to be.  The minute you say you like your usual stuff more than stuff you haven’t really listened to, you start to sound like you stopped reading books before you got to Green Eggs and Ham.

“I actually don’t read anything, because I feel like the haters really like to hate out loud, [and] that people who love sometimes love quietly. So I don’t really listen or look at anything. [But] in general, f— the cynics. Go be cynical … I’m having a good time. Like, who would you rather hang out with? That cynical dude or, like, me with my laser beams?”

– Ke$haEntertainment Weekly

I have no laser beams.  I don’t care what you hate and what you love.  But I’ll take the title of cynical snob over the title of thieving ignoramus if I have to.

Because spreading awareness for the saints who slipped through the cracks is better than becoming fan #4,005,288,179 of a plastic person.  Because some people are trying to trick those who are less aware.  Because others are trying to shed some light but they’re getting buried in bullshit.  Because I know the tremendous pain of sitting with a hand up, knowing an answer, and watching idiots get called on left and right.  So if I can’t get called on, I’m at least going to try and get my friends and heroes called on, because I know they’re going to call on some other awesome people, too.

And there are so many, it could take a lifetime to list them all.

“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:

–  Kurt Vonnegut, “Vonnegut’s Blues For America” Sunday Herald (7 January 2006)

It’s enough to keep me from pulling the trigger.

Happy digging.

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