Thursday, December 9, 2010

On Rockism, or why electronic music shouldn't kill your buzz

Sufjan Stevens: singer/songwriter, folk music god, sometimes synth agitator. Photo by Marzuki Stevens.
A few things have got me thinking about this electronic music "trend" (I didn't realize it was a trend, but other websites tell me it is, so there I go) that's been sweeping the blogging music press for the past year or so (even though it's been around since at least the '80s). Like all waves in music, people either love and embrace it, or loathe it and crucify every artist who dares to include a Prophet '08 synthesizer in their recording studio.

Take this review on of Sufjan Stevens' The Age of Adz for example: The reviewer, Alan Shulman, says that he has "(n)othing against electronic music, though I confess I mostly hate it," which is the first clue that he isn't the right guy to be reviewing this particular Stevens album. Prior to that comment, Shulman says that Stevens has "taken an unfortunate page from the Animal Collective playbook and subjected his minimalist material to maximalist arrangements." To be fair, That's exactly what Stevens did with the much lauded 2005 album, Illinois, only with piled on woodwinds, brass, banjo, violin, and any other decidedly analog instrument he could get his hands on.

Rockism is the belief that some music and musicians are more authentic than others. Although I hadn't heard this term until recently, it applies to a lot of music criticism, and to the strongly held beliefs from obsessive music collectors the world over. It seems like a lot of musical pundits have placed any musician that utilizes electronic quirks under the umbrella of "not authentic." Nowhere has this reaction been more vehement than with established artists (like Stevens) taking their casio's out for a spin. On the one hand, yes these artists may just be latching on to a popular trend that isn't always what's best for their sound (although it's an imperfect example, Kanye West's ill-conceived foray into the precarious world of auto-tune on 808s & Heartbreak could be perceived as an artist overextending his reach), but on the other hand there are artists whose musicality extends beyond the guitar, the piano, the limited range of a human voice. The exploration of one's personal sonic universe is opened up by new technology - always has, always will. Like with any instrument, it's all in how you use it.

Animal Collective. Courtesy
I admit that when I first heard Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion I didn't get it either. It sounded like a lot of melody-shy noise layered into an unintelligible heap, resulting in little emotional appeal. I must have had my old lady ears on because I can't even remember why those were my initial thoughts. I resisted for a long time (months, even), but I was either too lazy or too stubborn to take the album off my iPod. At first it was the catchy hook nested in the repeated "For my girls" on "My Girls," then the haunting and earnest questions raised in "Also Frightened," and then the whole album just opened up for me. Suddenly, the gradual ebb and flow created by the bizarre, overlapping squeaks/bleeps/sirens and other synthetic sounds appeared as just another expertly told story using a new type of orchestra. Far from being emotionally adrift, this album had discovered a new way to explore youthful pathos while using a medium that young, digital device-savvy people understand almost too well.

I have become entranced with the possibilities that electronic music holds. In contrast to Shulman's assertion that all these bleeps and bloops obscure the heart that's at the core of music like Stevens', I believe that these noises are getting at a deeper, more primal human emotional state than was previously unexplored in his earlier work. For The Age of Adz, it's a letting go of formality, allowing movement and immediacy to guide both the artist and the audience through one of the most over-explored areas of the human condition (that would be love, and the loss of it) - and doing so in an imaginative and thoughtful way.

I'm done with the snark. We all have our opinions, but writing off albums or entire bands because they don't conform to your preferred method of musical creation isn't productive. But this is music, so artists will rise and then fall into obscurity, sounds are constantly diverging from one-another, and popular taste is always evolving. By the time this post goes live it will already be irrelevant and no one will care about electronic music (maybe they're more worried about rape gaze?). Being an active participant in the love of music is both beautiful and exhausting - and I wouldn't have it any other way.

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