Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Column: 'Isn't it Ironic?'

Latest column for Dummy is on this notion of irony in indie / underground pop, what it might and might not mean, also featuring a coda on irony in the recent orchestral performance of William Basinski's Disintegration Loops at the South Bank - (click here to read):

What is an ironic moustache?

Distance suggests more of a continuum of difference between two things than ‘irony’ does, the latter often suggesting a stark superposition of opposites. Rather than being infinitely ‘sincere’ or infinitely ‘insincere’, we float and shift somewhere between the two, negotiating, understanding, accommodating and travelling these distances as a sort of cultural journey, an experimental shift of the self into new territories.

Yet at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, two of the ‘Disintegration Loops’ had been transferred from the digital recording of the disintegrating tape to an orchestra. Now the London Contemporary Orchestra was playing these short phrases over and over again, and reducing them bit by bit until there was no-one playing any more. Yet there was a bizarre irony at work here too. You might suppose that the orchestral context was simply a means of performing the music in a live context, and that furthermore this highbrow context brought it to an apotheosis under the auspices of traditional, great Art (tsk). But what this orchestration did was disintegrate the composition still further, even as its scoring for orchestra would appear to render it a permanent fixture in the museum of Great Art Music...

Monday, 20 August 2012

Post-genre? A Reply to Postwutchyalike

The Hipster Runoff Genre Shirt
Earlier this week there were a couple of replies to my essay 'Whatever Happened to Genre?' on the Postwutchyalike blog. Postwutchyalike is run by a number of anonymous contributors and has been a brilliant and prolific place to discover new tracks recently, so I recommend following if you're not doing so already. Although they were both largely resistant to the essay's attempt to rehabilitate genre and shared many of the same concerns about it, the double posting was apparently unplanned. The first, 'Editorial: Post-Genre Pt. 1' is by an anonymous author I'll call PWYL1, click here to read it, and the second, 'Editorial: Post-Genre Pt. 2' is by Laurent Fintoni (click here to read Part 2). This response to Postwutchyalike will hopefully be an opportunity to clarify my position where it might not have come across clearly enough in the original article. To do this, I'll get a bit more precise and philosophical, so I hope you can excuse the slightly drier tone - probably quite different from discussing it all over drinks in this 'real life' they speak of...

Firstly, the article was hoping not to be a straightforward defence of genre as it has traditionally been understood. Its argument was that a return to using genre identifications ('genrefications') should only be possible and allowable if we appreciate that they are fluid, temporary and relative constructions of patterns rather than boxes aiming to exhaustively define some musical reality. That was a pretty big proviso. The hope was that a detailed and specific recognition of even loose and small-scale patterns of commonality in music-making could be (and increasingly is) possible without boxes and straightjackets, without running the risk of outright falsehood or oppressive taxonomy. I was aiming to move beyond that notion of genre and into a relativistic one that didn't claim to be exhaustive, universalising and compulsory but that was, and only to a certain extent, capable of addressing and representing the commonalities between musicians, especially when they're new and unusual. And to do this is not to presuppose or seek to explain or reveal the intent of the musician.

This brings me to a two-part working assumption that I seemed to notice underlying both posts: that musicians and their intentions should and do define the terms of genrefication, and (alongside this) that much of the time they choose not to. Hence why genrefication should be resisted. I won't declare this assumption to be invalid or valid, but I do want to highlight it as an assumption about how the proper ways that we talk about music should develop. I would argue that the intentions of musicians, along with the broader virtue of authenticity implicitly prioritised in both posts, are just as much single, particular constructions as any genrefication might be. I know these things are important but don't think I hold them to be as universally real and desirable as Postwutchyalike does - even if they appear to be completely indisputable as ways of handling musical culture, they are ideas and constructions like anything else. My hope was that if we understand genres to be the constructions that they are, we can talk about them in a relatively helpful way while relatively limiting their proscriptive and taxonomic effects.
Something else I noticed in both posts was that some genrefication boxes were acceptable to PWYL while others weren't. Both posts were generally against putting music in boxes, and thus they criticised genrefications like 'wonky', 'glitch-hop', 'aquacrunk', 'trip hop' and 'ghettotech'. And yet broader, older boxes - 'hip hop', 'techno', 'house', 'RnB' - were given a pass, largely because they were wider supercategories that the musicians themselves identified with. To me it's typical and totally OK to believe that some genrefications are preferable to or more convincing than others, but what worried me slightly about these two lists was that the acceptable genrefications all appeared prior to the mid-nineties, and all the criticised ones had appeared since then. Now it's not that you should either believe in any genrefications or you should believe in none of them, but it's almost as if the overall (and at times, seemingly comprehensive) resistance to genrefication expressed in both posts (e.g. PWYL1's 'genre names are actually a bit silly, pointless and ultimately unhelpful') is not a resistance to all genrefication per se, but rather a rationale for freezing the development of certain genrefications as a certain fixed landscape or hierarchy of acceptable categories as they were c. 1995-2000, with much of the differences and subcategorisations that were suggested after that time being considered erroneous or confining in their excessive particularity, and thus rejected.

I do not believe that some genrefications are inherently acceptable, while others are not. I believe, and I hope I was able to express the gist of this in the original essay, that all boxes are acceptable and none are, at the same time (again, they're all constructions). This is not a contradiction, but the broadest possible recognition of different possibilities and different forms - it was the position I was ultimately obliged to take on musical innovation in Infinite Music. If there are no absolutely correct or incorrect genrefications but merely more persuasive or less persuasive patterns and signifiers, then we shouldn't fear genrefication as much as we do. Laurent says that there's 'nothing new under the sun', which would echo the idea that there should only really be one big box for everything since there are no differences or novelties. The inverse of this idea would be that 'we can never step into the same river twice', which would suppose that we need an infinite number of boxes, or that difference is so constant and infinitesimal that boxing anything as the same as anything else is ultimately futile. The two sayings are really two sides of the same philosophical coin, two ends of a continuum, but they both equally suggest that boxing anything up is a mug's game. I believe this. But it doesn't mean that we can't potentially agree with each other, temporarily, somewhere along the continuum, on particular abstracted constructions like 'that's a new shirt' (i.e. 'that's a new genre') or 'that's the same river we walked past yesterday' (i.e. 'that's just the same genre'). Both and neither are absolutely right. In one instance, from one viewpoint, any thing can be said to be (in) the same (genre category) as any given other thing, while in another instance, from another viewpoint, any thing can be said to be (in) a different (genre category) as any given other thing. These things are relative. The same applies to any given genre, particularly because they are such abstract concepts.

I don't think that PWYL1 quite appreciated that I was moving beyond a clumsy realist-taxonomist model of genrefication and into this fluid, relative and non-realist conception of genre and genrefication that I outline in the original essay and above. PWYL1's post featured many of the standard criticisms of genre, backed up by protests that it's not what the musicians intend or want (I never said that genrefication was there to define, explain or condescend to a musician, or that it was exhaustive or necessary in each and every case, those were PWYL1's assumptions, and I'd actually written much in attempting to counteract those assumptions in the second half of the piece). But PWYL1 did observe about genre that 'the names [musicians] are given by others are irrelevant', and that '[genre names] can mean different things to different people', which clearly shows an appreciation of the fluidity and relativism at hand here. I completely agree with both these statements, and such observations, which I think most people are aware of, are precisely why genre is not the straitjacket we fear.

This is not why genrefication is wrong and harmful, but why it's relatively safe. And I think that this awareness of genre is either taking hold today, or is at least on the horizon, thanks to the Internet and the changed conceptual landscape of the twenty-first century. I think that the fact that so many genrefications in this period have appeared initially as 'jokes', as a relatively distanced identification-as-play, reflects this changed understanding, and moreover that their subsequent usage undermines the idea that these 'jokes' are obviously, entirely and universally insincere expressions. Besides, it's old news that musicians (and even their work too) can't truly be pinned down to genre, really old news, and it's even more manifestly true with twenty-first-century speed and technology. I'd hope that in the twenty-first century practically every music fan - surely - understands these things deep down, though I might be wrong. With this proviso safely tucked under our belts, we should be able to piece together some flexible understanding of new commonalities, every now and again.
One concern that both posts highlighted was that a new genrefication implies a separation from its wider historical continuity or context (PWYL1 mentions fragmentation, isolation and broken connections). This is a fair concern, obviously. This is probably why at one point Laurent substitutes the term 'genre' (implying a separation) with 'facets' (many 'facets' of hip hop). Elsewhere, he asserts that something (this 'trap' construction) 'isn't a genre' but 'a style of hip hop production'. Surely these 'facets' and 'style[s] of hip hop production' are just the same sorts of constructed groupings of commonalities that the genrefications I describe are, even if the change in terminology appears to sanitise them and remove them from such a process? Again, it's all relative. If you accept the 'nothing new under the sun' / 'you can never step into the same river' relativist continuum, then surely nothing can be truly separated from its historical continuity or context, and yet, at the same time, nothing can be truly reduced to continuity with or sameness as something else (e.g. a genre), because there is always a further level of difference right up to the infinitesimal.

This is where the notion of subcategories and supercategories comes in. These are ways of reflecting this duplicity of genre-sameness and genre-difference, allowing things to be different and the same simultaneously. So, for example, the facet of 'west coast gangsta rap' is a subcategory (subgenrefication) of hip hop, and hip hop is its supercategory (supergenrefication). And like the new fluidity of genrefication I've already described, I hope that the modern music fan appreciates that there is a rich and complex interconnection of potential subpatterns and superpatterns to be found in the world of music-making past and present. Because people listen so widely nowadays, especially to music of the past, I don't think a genrefication necessarily supposes a denial of context or of any superpatterns from which they might come, at least I would hope it doesn't.

No-one could be more into continuities and supercategories than me - I spend a lot of time in Infinite Music describing how music-making is one big bucket ('music space') of infinite possibilities, all continuous with each other and never truly subject to conceptual division. But as I said, I also appreciate that we can never step into the same river twice (again, not a contradiction, just the notion that infinite differentiation can apply). It's a two-way continuum (sameness one way, difference the other). So I was a little concerned to see PWYL arguing mostly for the sameness of supercategories (it's all just hip hop, it's all just techno, etc) and against subcategories, because to do so runs a certain risk of denying any due representation of difference. And I would argue that the representation of difference and novelty is a key part of the job of the music critic, even if they must simultaneously avoid the complete erasure of historical context - we must move both ways along the continuum (and sideways too). (Perhaps Laurent can do this perfectly well with his 'facets', in which case, our difference is opinion is merely semantic).

I'm not saying that PWYL1 or Laurent don't appreciate any internal differences within categories such as hip hop, or even within their 'facets', that's clearly not the case. But hopefully an imperfect analogy can illustrate why we shouldn't be too keen to prefer absorbing differences into apparently unified supercategories. The United Kingdom is made up of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and various other islands. These areas are subcategories of the United Kingdom. Now you could say, 'wherever you're from, it's just one big United Kingdom at the end of the day', 'it's all just the UK'. But of course, these internal differences are very important to many of these areas' populations. The danger is that the appearance of unity masks the fact that England is and has historically been the dominant force in the UK. It's where the capital is, it has invaded and absorbed many of the other territories, and 'Englishness' tends to overwhelmingly dominate the world's perception of 'Britishness', all of which those 'it's all just the UK' pleas conceal. Non-English people are more likely to resist the 'it's all just the UK' mantra, and sometimes quite passionately. Fortunately, the difference of the non-English cultures in the UK has been relatively well-represented (and I mean this word in its sense of 'portrayed' as well as 'voting'), with their own flags, cultures, and recently their own national assemblies. But it can go further, with the idea of Scotland separating from the 'Union' entirely gaining ground north of the border. And again, it's all relative. There are sub-differences - the different counties and post-codes of Scotland, England, Wales, etc. And there are super-differences - 'it's all just Europe', 'it's all just the West', 'it's all just the World', 'it's all just the Solar System'. All of which makes you wonder why some people are so particular about the UK and its borders and what's inside them or kept out, as if it were the only natural political-geographical category that could ever really apply.
Now in this analogy, the UK border is one of these acceptable genrefications, like hip hop or house or techno, and clearly there isn't the same degree of cultural oppression with these categories. But my concern about this recent spurning of new genrefications in favour of twenty and thirty-year-old genrefications appears is that the latter can appear to shift the music's centre of mass back in time slightly (a 'drag effect'). Just as if you ask an American to imagine a British person and they'll think of Englishman Alan Rickman, when someone says some music is nothing other than hip hop, I imagine they sound like Grandmaster Flash, and when someone says some music is nothing other than house, I imagine they sound like, I dunno, Frankie Knuckles. That's not to say I don't appreciate that it probably will sound different to those guys, but it is an influence - whereas if you said 'deep house' or 'UK funky', I would appreciate something more specific and differentiated. In Infinite Music I call this particular, constructed perception an 'image of music', as distinct from the full musical possibilities that could apply.

This aversion to new terminology is making it difficult to point out and represent new differences and novelties, and is thus one of the causes and effects of retromania and any similar stagnation of musical creativity. (I'd hoped to have voiced this concern in the original essay). It is holding us back from perceiving new images of music that can better reflect what is happening and what could happen. Laurent is completely right to call for a 'balance'  between 'the past and its drag effect, the history of where modern music comes from... and the new, the future and its clean slate on which anything can be written and proclaimed to be a new genre'. This would be a state of workable equilibrium between sameness / oldness and difference / newness. Laurent will be pleased to hear that I devote a whole section of Infinite Music to precisely this idea (I have a whole section on the socio-cultural importance of 'the recurring specifics of style' too). I call it 'synthesis' and suggest that it might be the most productive and popular way of making new music. But it is only one of three categories of new-music-making I describe. The others, 'alien styles' and 'alien genres', are perceived to have a radical discontinuity relative to old and familiar forms of music and to what music itself is, respectively. It's important to keep the option of such radical alternatives ('I am NOT the same, I am different') on the table.

Honestly, and I think we can all agree here, it doesn't matter what you call it, as long as you are faithful to the music and the sameness or difference it brings with it. We'll disagree about how best to do this - with music criticism, with historicism, without much input at all - but it would be the best way to keep the music alive.

P.S. I was as sorry as usual to see the virulent denial of the genrefication or category of 'wonky' in the PWYL posts, and its originality. It was never just about putting the beat somewhere else, it was about synths too, and so much more. People constantly forget that Martin Clark coined it as a 'theme - not a genre' and what was so fascinating about it was that it was a new kind of pattern-recognition that cut across the old, established hierarchy of genres. It turned electronic dance music on its side. It was an avant-garde thing that had a whole raft of characteristics. I still think that whole moment was one of the most interesting things to have happened to underground pop in the last decade. Slowly, it seemed to shed some of its parts - purple, and the other producers closer to dubstep - until it only seemed applicable to a strand of fascinating and psychedelic beat-making that went beyond Dilla and beyond Flying Lotus, a strand which is alive, well, populous, and happy to call itself 'wonky' on Web 2.0 genre-tags but dare not speak its name in pop music discourse. But that original avant-garde moment has practically sunken without a trace, with droves of producers now going back in time to traditional house and techno as if the whole thing were just an embarrassing phase, best forgotten. The genrefication was taken away and then the music was taken away, and the difference and the novelty along with it. All hail the traditional genrefications.

Remember this? Yes? Then say 50 hail Derricks.

P.P.S. Both PWYL1 and Laurent make convincing arguments against this term 'trap' that's been kicking around lately, especially regarding its 'quite unsavoury' 'social connotations'. I completely agree with the reasoning here, but all I can say is that loads of producers out there on SoundCloud and Bandcamp consider themselves to be making trap music, historically and culturally accurate or not, and have created some sort of a stylistic template (genre or not) under that title characterised by deep, long kicks, often quite bizarre and dramatic mid-range features, and of course those ticking clockwork hi-hats (TR-808 being the drum machine samples of choice). You'll often find those Trap-a-holics type samples in there too, 'real trap shit' etc (you can see how they arrived at the name, even if it wasn't supposed to be signifying music at first). The history of music is full of bizarre, historically and socio-culturally dubious misunderstandings and mistranslations. When is a genre not a genre?

Thursday, 16 August 2012

I'll be on the US East Coast for 6 months from October

Hi, just thought I'd let people know that from October 1st 2012 until April 1st 2013, I'll be doing research in the US on lo-fi culture and will be based in Washington DC, just in case anyone has any recommendations or uses for me while I'm in the general area. I'll aim to keep normal activities going as usual (writing for Wire, Dummy and others) as far as possible.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Column: 'Whatever Happened to Genre?'

I've started a column I'll be writing every two weeks for Dummy with a short essay entitled 'Whatever Happened to Genre?' (click here to read):
Over the past decade, slowly but surely, it has become deeply unfashionable to talk of new genres in underground pop music...
The growing reluctance to differentiate the musical landscape of the 00s by describing new genres meant that few people challenged the ones that already existed, and as a result the term ‘dubstep’ came to represent a bizarrely swollen category. Many people decry contemporary genres for being absurdly small, too small to really take seriously (note the proliferation of the term ‘microgenres’), but dubstep, by being ‘too big’, shows that in other places the reverse scenario can be perceived...
Something changed in the 00s that made the traditional modes of genrefication, and maybe the notion genrefication itself, untenable...
If all these sounds had genre names that were used regularly enough, would we be so quick to conclude that nothing much of any significance is going on in underground pop, that nothing was unifying it and giving it substance? Perhaps not...
Genre is a democratic music-making project that many hands (musicians and listeners) build and change dynamically. It also plays an important part of the way the language of music discourse evolves and better represents its specific elements...
I'll be posting news of the column entries on this blog and Twitter shortly after they go up. I'm looking forward to using it to peer into some of the issues of the day.