Dissonant Notes

Sunday, February 20, 2011

No Alternative: Pitchfork and the End Times of Indie Culture

          If you want to understand the indie mindset in America (and elsewhere) right now I would say it’s a must that you read Pitchfork. It wields an almighty influence in terms of the formation of taste and in terms of giving musicians widespread internet exposure. To give it its due, Pitchfork has regular features on topics which are often ignored, such as international music trends, and has also been reasonably successful with regards to exposing indie fans to hip-hop and electronica. Its reviews and articles, however, are almost uniformly awful but, if one is willing to wade through the garbage, it's possible to discern how both the typical indie fan and the typical indie musician approach music and popular culture. While reading through various Pitchfork features recently I came to notice a slightly troublesome trend. From a recent interview with Iron and Wine came this little nugget:

Beam, who has frequently licensed songs to commercials and films, is largely unconcerned about repercussions within his fan base. The days of hollering "sell out," we agree, are mostly over. "I think people in the industry care. And people who define themselves by what kind of music they listen to care. But most people can tell the difference between people who are making records to be famous, and people who make records because that's what they like doing," he says. "It's the same shit, whether you put it out yourself, or on an independent label, or on a big label. It doesn't matter."

What I found troublesome was the offhand way in which the entire question of ethics in regards to song licensing was glossed over. Decades of debate were dismissed casually and carelessly. Barely a week had passed when I uncovered this in a Decemberists' interview:

Pitchfork: Did you feel any backlash from the initial decision to go to a major?

Colin Meloy: We didn't get as much backlash as we might have if it had happened 10 years prior, when there was a stronger connection to what independent rock music meant. Now, people understand that you gotta do what you gotta do. I remember when the Shins sold “New Slang” to McDonald’s -- it was an uproar. People were so pissed off. Now it's, "Oh, whatever."

Notice that both statements reek of passivity. This thing happened, and, well, that’s just the world we live in now. There’s no point in complaining and, anyway, people can tell who’s in it for fame and who’s not. So, in case you were slow on the uptake, here’s where we’re at right now: there should be no ethical dilemmas about either signing to a major or allowing your songs to be used in a commercial. It simply does not matter anymore. Then while browsing a little more I find this lovely quote from a Pains of Being Pure at Heart feature:

Pitchfork: You recently wrote on Twitter: "We just turned down a lot of $$,$$ because we don't want to be in TV ads. Not self righteous, just rather be unknown than known for that." Can you expound on that?

Kip Berman: I shouldn't have said that because one day we'll be on a commercial and someone will be like, "Oh wow, you compromised your original values!" If someone else had said that, I probably would've rolled my eyes at them. The thing is no one really knows our music and suddenly for everyone to hear it for the first time all at once on TV-- I don't know. I just want people to hear our music as music first.

At the same time, there are a lot of bands that are better and cooler than us that have done it. It allows a lot of artists to make music on their own terms. Ultimately, the song's a song, no matter the context. It's a way for bands to make money and bands deserve to make money. But we do want our songs to be in TV shows and movies. I've always wanted to be a part of popular culture like that.

Alex Naidus: Just because we're indie, it doesn't mean we can't do this or that. That whole idea doesn't exist as much as it used to.

Did you catch that? The palpable sense of embarrassment at maybe, kinda, making a decision based on ethical grounds? Please don't mistake their actions for self-righteousness though! At this point it would appear that some people live in fear of being judged if they take a moral stand. Is this is what we’ve come to? Something important has disappeared in terms of our understanding of what “indie” or “alternative” is, and nobody seems to care. In fact, they appear rather pleased about it. So, I suppose what I’m wondering is, does it matter and should we care?

          First off, we need to define alternative culture. Is it something that provides values for those who identify with it, or is it just mainstream culture decked out in thrift store apparel? What we think of as alternative culture can be traced back in an almost unbreakable line to the social circles and hangouts of early jazz musicians. As many white Americans began for the first time to mingle with African-Americans, the hipster was born. From hipsterism came the Beat movement, the first major American rejection of mainstream values. While it’s easy to go back and pick apart the motives of those involved, the Beat Generation’s bohemian challenge birthed our now accepted liberal attitudes to sex and sexuality, as well as a predilection for more challenging forms of music and literature. With this came an understanding that, in rejecting everyday values, a person had to embrace an alternative set of principles in order to combat the all-powerful force of mainstream culture. The main point was that one did not play by “normal” rules and this way of thinking helped produce an “us-against-them” mentality that fueled many powerful and enduring works of art. This truly “alternative” culture became a wellspring of debate and ideas, as all preconceived notions were put under the microscope. From Beat came rock ‘n’ roll and ‘60’s counterculture, with its influence still being felt in the days of post-punk and beyond. So, if we still have a counter-culture in this day-and-age, what are its principles?

          It’s ok, you can give up. I can’t think of any either. If there’s a cardinal sin in these times it’s not being open-minded enough about mainstream music or, worse still, having a self-righteous attitude. Ironically enough, corporate entities have managed to so completely co-opt the idea of “cool” and alternative that many have leapt to the conclusion that there really never was such a thing as alternative to begin with; it was just a bunch of people fooling themselves. And, anyway, The Clash were on a major label, right? (Yes, they were. Look what an unlimited budget will do for you! You too can produce a bloated incoherent mess like “Sandinista!”). Slowly but steadily business ideals have both absorbed and corrupted alternative values, with corporations grabbing what they can resell back to the public and dispensing with those things which are a bother. One of the most bothersome things of all for the corporate agenda is having principles, which means potentially saying no to something even if the end result is having less money in your bank account. This doesn't mean not wishing to make any kind of money at all. Oftentimes if one criticises an indie act for “selling out” one is met with the quip “Yeah, cos everybody just wants to record in their bedroom and never make money. Grow up”. Apparently holding an artist accountable for whatever actions they take is just childish. Does it bother Vampire Weekend that Tommy Hilfiger uses sweatshops? Oh, grow up. Does the idea that corporations around the Western world are slowly but successfully undermining basic notions of democracy wherever they go imply that one should think twice before helping them shift more of their product? Look man, you gotta do what you gotta do and, anyway, we can tell who’s making music because they care. So, whatever. The Decemberists turned down Dennis Miller for being too right-wing but still allowed AT&T to use one of their songs even though AT&T gave the maximum possible contribution, $250,000, to George W. Bush’s second inauguration. Then there’s the matter of AT&T assisting the American government to tap citizens’ phones without a warrant. Still, what’s the big deal?

          The question remains: is it ever acceptable to allow your song to be used in a commercial? I suppose if you had done your homework and a company’s ideals matched your own, then a case could be made. But what of the integrity of the song? Does such a thing exist? I’d like to believe it does, but the idea seems overly precious in our values-free times. We’re all supposed to be reveling in a smash-and-grab pop culture wonderland and absolutely nobody is allowed to take themselves seriously. The idea of an alternative culture has been all but destroyed, replaced with what can only be described as a light covering of dust from alternative cultures of days gone by. Everyone has been trained so thoroughly to identify all the bullshit from alternative cultures of the past that everyone has forgotten all of the good things that came from them. Knowing that the ‘60’s were just a bunch of smelly hippies looking for free love, I am at liberty to dismiss everything connected to the ‘60’s counter-culture. In the same vein, punk was just a bunch of middle-class poseurs reveling in anti-social behavior to upset their parents. So what’s left to believe in? It appears that the business agenda, which does not hide its desire for profit, is the least hypocritical enterprise on earth! Alternative culture, in the past, has indeed produced hypocrites, charlatans, liars, opportunists and every other kind of unpleasant individual. But it has also produced debate, it has challenged the norms of our culture, it has given us wild acts of creativity, and it has traditionally been the most welcoming culture for minorities of all description. Even smaller alternative cultures like the one which produced hip-hop would have been impossible without an isolated sense of us-against-them. There were rules but as hip-hop collided head on with the commercial world these rules were eroded and are now all but forgotten. I will let history judge whether this development was beneficial.

          The idea that a person should not allow a song to be used in a commercial comes from the unwritten rule that to do so would be to help move product, to debase the idea of Art, and to reduce your song to a mere jingle. If that seems pretentious it’s because our ideals have been transformed into cynical acceptance of the realities of the modern world. Without some sense of an alternative culture, without the idea that some unpopular ideas are important enough to be taken seriously, we allow the dominant culture’s values to be our own given that our built-in bullshit detectors have become attuned to reject every idea of rebellion as foolish and naïve (The flipside of this is pseudo-intellectual debate about commercial monsters like Lady Gaga). For those who see pop culture as nothing more than brightly-coloured entertainment to fill up some empty hours this essay will seem laughable, but for those who imagined that within pop culture there lurked something more, something meaningful, some thread that connected the best of it to challenging artistic movements of the past, it’s hard not to feel a sense of loss at our current predicament. There is a feeling not so much of surrender but that nothing much mattered in the first place. Our job now is to accept the reality of the modern capitalist agenda. Anything else is naïve. At this point we have no alternative culture to draw strength from, no connection to the glories of non-conformity. All that exists is all that is sold to us. By accepting this reality we reject the idea of meaningful change and, when all is said and done, that could turn out to be the single most powerful weapon the dominant corporate culture possesses.

Monday, February 14, 2011

New Ways of Living: Destroyer's Leap From Pointlessness To Professionalism

        If his songs are anything to go by, Dan Bejar is a fallen Lord who lives in a castle which has seen better days. The castle walls are strewn with testaments to past glories: aging military trophies and rusted coats of arms. His empire is in decline and has been for a good while now. Yet there sits Bejar, proudly toasting a chalice of wine to himself in an empty dining hall, as the fire crackles down to its last embers. He is pop culture's very own King Lear, or better still Emperor Nero, fiddling about while Rome burns. Overwhelmed by the artistic triumphs and significance of pop music in the many decades previous to his own, he nevertheless allows himself a wry chuckle, unsure as to whether his opinion of the current pop scene is a valid one or whether he's just another casualty of the emotional engagement he accorded to music in his younger days. He is the victim of a witch's curse, forever doomed to seek approval from a culture he confers no value to. He's listened to too much Dylan but, like all good Dylan fans, he both loves and hates him, forever struggling with the Oedipal urge to plunge a knife into his heart for all his artistic pratfalls, while also remaining slack-jawed in admiration at his many musical accomplishments. And therein lies the tension at the heart of Dan Bejar's songwriting: how do you balance reverence for your art, knowing full well that notions like "art" and "reverence" contain their very own brand of bullshit, while also knowing that no reverence for your art leaves you open to the worst kind of musical missteps or even denials as to your art's basic worth (outside of monetary worth and entertainment value)? It can be a difficult line to walk. How does one grow and change musically while still staying true to whatever values one professes to have? Enter "Kaputt", the new album by Destroyer.

      Kaputt means broken, or even destroyed. In the run up to the album's release, Bejar released a list of things he deemed relevant to its creation. Two of those things were "the hopelessness of the future of music" and "the pointlessness of writing songs for today". We can use these statements as clues to unravel the secret of Destroyer's supposedly strange new musical turn. And what is this strange new musical turn? On "Kaputt", Bejar has embraced a languid, lite-jazz approach. Much has been made of the influence of late-period Roxy Music, but the songs, at least structure-wise, seem mostly to be in the Destroyer tradition. The occasional New Order influence seeps through, as does the random appearance of a bass-line that could have been lifted from "Lovely Day" by Bill Withers, and the ambiance of Eno is a presence but, other than that, no particular musical influence leaps out. What seems more apparent is that Bejar has become disenchanted with the "indie" approach and has attempted to provide his songs with, of all things, a professional sheen. Bejar's singing is more controlled, more nuanced, somehow less jarring. Saxophones murmur sadly in the background, as if the studio were being haunted by the ghost of David Sanborn (Yes, I know David Sanborn isn't dead. Who's writing this review anyway, me or you?). Female vocalists chime in, though this being Destroyer they get to sing things like "Animals crawl towards death's embrace". So what have these facts to do with the hopelessness and pointlessness mentioned above? I view Bejar's professionalism to be a reaction to the feeling of hopelessness. This is no lunge at mainstream acceptance a la "Terror Twilight" or "Do The Collapse" and as such is not the colossal failure that both of those records were."Kaputt" seems more like a refinement but also a shifting of priorities. Knowing that it is foolish to attempt to alter one's songwriting in an attempt to receive some sales-based validation, Bejar has instead looked to an increased sense of musicianship and sonic sophistication to chase away the demons of despondency. All of this being the case, one important question remains to be asked. Does it work?

        I can answer that question with a resounding yes. Granted I don't think Destroyer are capable of releasing a bad album, but this one is already vying for a place in my top three. Bejar, as it seems was his intent, has turned his hopelessness into a defiant romanticism. The songs may be peppered with enough inscrutably enigmatic females to merit some Cohen comparisons, but Bejar is no beautiful loser. He's too caustic and knowing for that label. That said, his lyrics, while losing nothing of their brilliance, have more of an approachable, less impenetrable feel. This is Destroyer, though, so that still means you won't really have a clue what's going on at any particular time. It's just that, when he sings "Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME, all sound like a dream to me" on the title track, you feel like Bejar is allowing sentiment into his songs like never before yet not in some trite, unrefined way. Those British music magazines probably looked exotic to the young Bejar and talked of a world that would have seemed all but unreachable. The album opens with "Chinatown" and Bejar is too much of a culture junky for it not be an allusion to Polanski's neo-noir masterpiece. His purpose is not to invoke the actual movie as some pointless pop-culture reference but more to invoke the movie's dark undercurrent. "I can't walk away, you can't walk away" is the song's main refrain, and these lyrics do a good job of summing up the thread of trapped romanticism that runs through the entire album. In order to create romance and excitement in his life, Bejar has cast himself as the star in his very own film-noir creation and called it "Kaputt". "Savage Night at the Opera" glides along like some out-take from "Another Green World" played by New Order (Yes, I know New Order didn't exist when "Another Green World" came out. Just indulge me while I play the music reviewer association game. At least I didn't say that it sounds like Eno meets New Order on downers, which I could have). "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker", with cut-up lyrics provided by visual artist Kara Walker, comes off as some mournful exploration of the state of the Union. Suddenly America itself is trapped, unable to escape from its past, from its broken promises. "Words, words, words...Longings, longings, longings..All in vain". All in vain, but still he endures. I told you Bejar was a romantic.

    "Kaputt" closes with "Bay of Pigs (detail)" and, at over eleven minutes long, it is the album's most ambitious piece of work. The influence of Eno is apparent in the first four-and-a-half minutes as the song slowly unfolds in waves of electronic noise. Then suddenly it becomes almost a dance song, only to transform itself again within a few minutes into a frenetic acoustic strum. It all holds together brilliantly, as Bejar's lyrics weave their typical poetic spell. It's a triumphant end to an altogether brilliant album, an album that has seen Destroyer move up a notch in the hearts of North America's indie fraternity. Always respected but always on the sidelines, Destroyer's current '80's vibe has found a home at Pitchfork. The reason why '80's music is still revered at Pitchfork and elsewhere would take too long to explain but, boiled down to its essentials, the '80's remain a benchmark for "cool" because: a) the indie ironic persona devours bad taste, and the 1980's excelled at bad taste; b) '80's music is still embraced as a rebellion against '60's and '70's music and any criticism of the '80's is assumed to be from a '60's classicist point of view; and c) no great musical event has occurred to help draw the line between '80's music and what came after in the way punk did with '60's music. So Destroyer's lite-jazz approach will be seen by many as a brilliant conceptual coup, one more ironic indie embrace of a previously discredited musical genre. As far as I can see, nothing could be further from the truth. Bejar appears to have been listening to "Avalon" era Roxy Music and Brian Eno and decided to create something along similar lines. In other words his new musical direction seems completely sincere. The only irony then is that this new approach has won him so much critical approval from indie taste-makers. Bejar's lyrics are typically filled with so many barbed critiques of the music industry (though not so much on "Kaputt") that it's hard to imagine what kind of payoff Bejar wants from any particular album release. Is approval from an industry that you despise a good thing? Make no mistake, Pitchfork are one of the most powerful forces in the music industry right now, capable of turning a band with little to no fans into big venue headliners in a matter of weeks, then sending them right back again when they're done (witness Tapes 'n Tapes). What represents success in such an environment? No wonder Bejar feels hopeless. Yet he perseveres and even finds romance in his struggle. He is that rare beast in these times, a true artist. One who also knows how much bullshit is attached to terms like "true artist". And what does an artist do in tough times? Creates. "Kaputt" is a dark city with no easy escape routes. Washed-out horns blow sorrowfully into the night. In a bar in Chinatown, with broken neon buzzing from its "Open" sign, sits a kind-hearted but cynical survivor. If you buy him a shot he'll tell you some cryptic stories of how things work around these parts. His name is Dan Bejar. Pull up a chair, kid. You're in for a long, entertaining night.