Monday, May 28, 2012



Not Not Fun profile (The Wire)
Excess All Areas, or The Catastrophe... and What Comes After (The Wire)
Tales of Toopagraphic Oceans, aka "We Are All David Toop Now" (The Wire)
Digital Maximalism (Pitchfork) 
Recreativity (Slate)
Leave Chillwave Alone, aka The Zones of Alteration (Village Voice)

Total Recall (Retromania article for Guardian)
Searching for the Sound of Now (New York Times)
The Ghost of Teen Spirit: grunge nostalgia and the end of the monoculture (Slate)
Retro Active Issue overview essay / Lana Del Rey (Spin)
Brand New Super Retro (Sleek)
Xenomania: Nothing Is Foreign in an Internet Age aka Loving the Alien (MTV Iggy)
Guest Music Posts for  Bruce Sterling’s Beyond the Beyond blog at Wired


label profile / cover story, The Wire, May 2011

by Simon Reynolds

There's a crossroads in Eagle Rock that's like a microcosm of Los Angeles. On one corner, a billboard for the Matthew McConaughey movie The Lincoln Lawyer faces off against a billboard for José Huizar, a city councilor seeking reelection.  On the opposite side of the street, an acupuncturist's and a nail salon contrast with the Eagle Rock Baptist Church. Right there, all at one intersection, you have: Hollywood, the coming Latino majority, the Asian-American influence, the beauty industry, and the little known fact that the suburban sprawl of greater L.A. has more in common with America's red-state heartland than you'd think.  

But there's something else at this crossroads.  Invisible from the street, representing  L.A.'s  thriving musical underground, there's Not Not Fun, the record label whose seven-year-old discography reads like a who's who of  DIY culture in the 2000s: Ducktails,  Sun Araw, Matrix Metals, Yellow Swans, Charalambides, Rangers, Dolphins Into the Future, Magic  Markers...  Go round the back of a building, climb the metal exterior staircase, and you'll find the apartment that doubles as HQ and home for  Britt and Amanda Brown, the husband-and-wife team who founded NNF in 2004 and who have played, together and separately, in several of the label's key groups, including Pocahaunted, Robedoor, and LA Vampires. 

The couple's living room is a charming clutter of thrift-store finds, tchotchkes, and sundry cool old stuff.  A vintage manual typewriter squats on the coffee table. A Seventies-relic turntable called the Realistic Clarinette 40 clings to one wall. The opposing wall is taken up by a mural of an autumn forest, the sort of décor you might find in a time-warp restaurant in Bavaria.  Through the room's wide windows you can see some real-deal pictureseque: the mountain ridge that gives Eagle Rock its name.  There's vinyl everywhere you look, and on the wall hangs a wooden cabinet crammed with cassettes.  

Tapes is how Not Not Fun started out.  The Browns originally met when Britt was working at the Hollywood celebrity-oriented glossy FLAUNT and Amanda was his intern. After she'd left but they'd kept on dating, Amanda suggested they start NNF, a flashback to her early teens as a riot grrl making zines and releasing cassette compilations via her label Cotton Crown.  Britt and Amanda also formed a band,  Weirdo/Begeirdo, who promptly appeared on NNF001:  the cassette sampler Have An Uptight Party.  The next few releases came from other groups on the sampler, like My Sexual Dad. Then the couple started to put out tapes, vinyl and CD-Rs by bands they saw playing at LA's famous punk venue The Smell or the Neon Hate You micro-festivals  organized by Brian Miller (whose own primitivist ensemble Foot Village were NNF009 with "World Fantasy"). "We saw so many amazing bands in a short space of time," recalls Britt. "I just didn't know there were kids on our level trying things so sideways.  We rode that high for several years."

In the label's early days, when its releases came in editions anywhere between 32 and 300, NNF's hallmark was its cute 'n 'clever handcrafted packaging. This was mainly Amanda's department: not only had she done a minor in sculpting at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, but she has "tiny little hands, perfect for assembling factory style."  The couple would come home from their full-time jobs, then spend entire evenings putting together the artwork for their latest limited edition.  "We'd rent some movies and set up," recalls Britt. "Go late into the night."

Darting into another room, Britt returns with an armful of their favourite handiwork.  Like the compilation Boo Yeah: A Halloween Retrospooktive, which comes with a Frankenstein-shaped hand-drawn comic inside and a Trick-or-Treat style Tootsie Roll attached.  And like Free Beasts, a 2006 comp of bands with "animal-involved names--believe it or not, not so easy to come by back then!"  Each cassette is partially hooded by a "creature-head" with mismatched buttons for eyes and fangs whose tips are colored blood-red.  These miniature saber-tooth tigers look like they might have been repurposed from thrift-store cuddly toys but were actually hand-sewn by Amanda and two friends. "It was so much about how wild we could be with this aesthetic," says Amanda of NNF's drive to re-enchant the commodity. "That's the true connection that we have to the music: we spent so much time with those objects."

The couple stress how haphazard and "blind" those halcyon early days were: NNF had no aesthetic agenda.  Imperceptibly, the label evolved from a fun sideline to their jobs into their actual livelihood.  "Now it feels like there's never been anything else in our lives," says Amanda. Most weeks they work six or seven days, toiling into the small hours.  The discography has passed the  #230 mark and the pressing runs are much larger nowadays: typically 1000, but reaching 2000 with "hits" like the LA Vampires/Zola Jesus collaboration or Peaking Lights's 936.  

Inevitably, success has pushed NNF out of their artisanal comfort zone and into manufacturing. Now and then they'll still silkscreen a tape or 7-inch, like Dylan Ettinger's forthcoming "Lion of Judas".  The shift was painful, says Amanda. "It was hard to let go of being the maker. Now it's more that we'll order 1000 records and drive to the record plant and pick up the boxes. And there they are, ready, perfect, shrinkwrapped."

Vinyl is still analogue, though. Tougher still was the decision to sell digitally, through eMusic/Revolver/Boomkat.   MP3s are anathema to NNF. "We don't listen to any digital music, we don’t own iPods" says Amanda. "When things started to turn toward everything-digital, that was such a struggle for us.  We try not to be Luddites  but we are a bit like, 'I can't believe you don't want to hold this thing in your hand! What's wrong with you?!'" 'But Britt says that they believe in the music too much to keep it limited-edition. "I feel it's our duty to make it available. If we did an edition-of-fifty tape and it sold out in two hours, that's frustrating to me because clearly the demand is there.  And if I was a fan of the band, I'd be like, 'do you actually want me to just listen to it as a shared MP3s on the internet?'"

That last comment points to the way that underground music today, from post-noise to post-dubstep, enjoys a peculiar double existence.  There's premium tier of involvement (that finite elect who have and hold the music as tape or vinyl) and then there's this whole other realm of dematerialized dissemination (illegal shares through message boards, through blogs uploading to file-hosting services).  So a record has a primary audience and then an unquantifiably larger audience, who check the music out once or twice, listening most likely in a fairly disengaged, distracted manner. This is partly a side effect of the music coming to them free: if you haven't paid, you're far less likely to pay full attention.  But it's exacerbated by digimusic's user-friendly  "conveniences", which invite you to break the flow of immersive listening. 

Do Not Not Fun feel like they are part of the resistance,  by pulling people back inside analogue time?  "I would say we're part of the resistance to things that almost don't exist," says Amanda.  "It feels like the music doesn't exist.  To some people, I know, this doesn't lessen the quality of it. But it actually does to me.  We all have certain ages of our life where we stop growing. And there are certain tenets I had aged 14 that I still have now I'm 29.  I remember how hard it was to get stuff. There was this one PJ Harvey import CD and I'm still getting chills at the thought of how difficult it was to acquire. I know it's not 1994 anymore -and in so many ways, thank God-- but I  want people to feel that kind of exultation with owning the music, seeing the artwork and holding the thing."
But as much as NNF push back against digi-culture, their operation is completely enmeshed with the Net.  There's a Southern California aspect to the label: the back catalogue teems with local outfits, like Magic Lantern, Sun Araw and Abe Vigoda, who belong to same L.A. ferment that produced the Ariel Pink/Geneva Jacuzzi/Nite Jewel cluster or, at a more NME/Pitchfork level, groups like Warpaint and No Age.  But increasingly NNF is becoming postgeographical: the roster is studded with acts from Japan, Australia, Denmark, France, Canada, New Zealand, Estonia and Britain.   "Half of our sales are international," says Britt. "We fill out a lot of customs forms! We're down at Eagle Rock post office three times a week, mailing out packages to places like Copenhagen. It's actually people from other countries that seem most enthusiastic. And that's always been the case:  some of the first people to reach out to us were just internet trawlers from France and England who somehow found the website."

But perhaps the contradiction of being digi-phobes dependent on the Net isn't a contradiction so much as a productive tension. Or even a strategy.  NNF resist some aspects of digiculture but embrace others: the liberating lines of communication opened up by high-bandwidth networks, which enable the aggregation of dispersed fans into a viable market, and, more importantly,  connect them with artistic like-minds. 

Many of the label's newer signings agree. "I think the internet is helpful in finding your extended family, essentially," says Isla Craig, vocalist of the Toronto-based AquaGoth trio The Deeep.  Dylan Ettinger, creator of last year's splendid swan-song for hypnagogia New Age Outlaws: The Director's Cut, says "The place I live now--Bloomington, Indiana--doesn't have the best scene for what I do.  So the Internet is absolutely essential to what I do and what NNF does." He tells me he's about to play the NNF showcase at SXSW in Austin, Texas, "alongside bands from Japan, Australia and France." The French artist in question, High Wolf--real name, Max--talks about how the Net has destroyed one idea of "community" ("the oppressive one of neighbourhood, social background, religion") but allows for the building of "a new community just from your taste or interests." This parochialism of sensibility is "not based on place." But this global dispersal means that the modern musician goes places: "I can travel to Tokyo or LA and sleep on people's floors in maybe seven different houses."
But even as NNF and their artists take advantage of the Net's deterritorialising potentials,  in other contexts they retrench around analogue modes: their format fetishism represents  recalcitrance  in the face of the brittle, partially-attentive listening virtually imposed by digitized music.  "In French the word is contrainte, I don't know the English," says Max. "Oh, it's 'constraint'? Ha! With digital, you can skip within a track from the first minute to the last minute. With analogue, there is a constraint, but it is liberating." This concept--freedom through submission,  bliss as surrender--is deeply mystical (and perfect for the nouveau cosmique rock made by High Wolf on albums like Ascension). But more important, the concept is also deeply musical: rapture as being rapt, detained against your will.

The day after chatting with Max in an East L.A. café, I go see him and three other NNF artists play a show that's at once deep underground and high in the sky. It's at Landslide, an open-air, hillside venue in Lincoln Heights, an area that like its neighbours Highland Park and Eagle Rock is becoming a trendy place to live for musicians and bohemian types.  Landslide isn't really a proper venue but an idyllic, if rather steep expanse of grassy meadow and woodland in back of a house.  Panting, the musicians lug equipment up the hill and assemble the PA on what used to be a skateboarding ramp and is now a makeshift stage.  Stars twinkle overhead but the firmament is eclipsed by the light-show panorama of downtown LA in the valley below: skyscrapers and glittering freeways familiar from  countless helicopter scenes in movies.

Robedoor,  Britt's band, kick things off:  tentatively at first but rising to an impressively primal rampage, with drummer Geddes Gengras stripped to the waist.  Brisbane's Blank Realm play psych-tinged postpunk midway between Blue Orchids and Flying Nun. After a DJ interlude of Celestial Vibrations-style new age, Goblin-esque horror soundtracks, and slap-bass-happy fusion, High Wolf take the stage.  

Although guitars and effects pedals dominate, Max's sound is surprisingly clean and clear for a NNF band.  But then the day before Max had declared his total lack of interest in "sounding lo-fi or like The Skaters". Prior to High Wolf, he'd worked with sampling and Raster-Noton style abstract electronics. The four sides of High Wolf's quadrangle of sound could be Spiritualized, Steve Hillage, Shpongle... and Sun Araw.   Tonight, because Max spends so much time crouched over various machines, triggering tabla loops and intoning vocals through FX boxes, the lead guitar comes courtesy of a lanky young man with buttercup-yellow locks called Barrett Avner, a recent recruit to Sun Araw.

Listening to space rock with nothing but air between your head and the stars above is a lovely way to spend the night.   But as midnight approaches I'm also feeling puzzled.  This is about as underground as an event can get, but it doesn't feel underground.  A woman wanders around with a bucket to collect $5 donations, reminding me of Spiral Tribe doing the same thing at illegal open-air "teknivals" like Castlemorton. But the vibe couldn't be more different.  There's no atmosphere of danger, wildness, or even--despite the trippy music-- drugginess.  This is just some well-educated young (and not-so-young) people standing on a hill listening to loud music. Blank Realm even got some funding from the Australian government to mount their US tour.  There's little sense that something illicit or threatening is taking place. Maybe that's why the police, dropping round in response to a neighbour's complaint, leave without incident, noting "that it's early yet" and politely suggesting "keep an eye on the volume levels".  

Three days earlier I had asked the Browns what they thought "underground" meant nowadays.  I'd been struck by a comment of Amanda's in a Pocahaunted interview: that they were "blissfully unaware" of "everything popular".

In 80s America, post-hardcore noiseniks and indie groups alike felt almost physically oppressed by  mainstream pop. The self-same synth textures, drum sounds and  production hallmarks that yer hypnagogic popsters are now  resurrecting, felt in those days like an insult, an assault.

Today, underground musicians just seem have a mildly amused indifference towards chartpop. There's no sense of enmity. "Oh yes, the mainstream just runs right alongside us," Amanda agrees.  She and Britt laugh about how so many of the underground musicians they know--"the weirdest person making the most out-there sounds"--listen to Beyonce and Kanye.   "Justin Bieber: I don't own his records but I don't have an issue with his existence."

So what defines "underground" then, if not opposition to the commercial overground? "It's more to do with an operational procedure," says Britt.  "Booking your own shows, playing somewhat non-traditional venues.  You're 'underground' if you're putting out your own records, or if whoever is putting out your records is not that much above you."  It's not about avoiding professionalism (NNF obviously take immense care over what they do) but about not having too many levels of intermediation between yourself and the listener: agents, managers, levels of business hierarchy. "We get emails that are like 'have you any idea how I can contact  Amanda Brown?'," laughs Amanda."And I'm emailing back, 'Hi! It's me!"

"Underground", in 2011, means creating an atmosphere of cultural intimacy. So the most apt comparison for where do-it-yourself music is today might be ETSY, the online market for handmade and vintage items. Not only is the economic structure similar--small entrepreneurs selling their wares at fairs or through specialist boutiques but doing most of their business online--but the aesthetic sensibility overlaps. There's the same vintage materials and formats (T-Shirts with pictures of old-fashioned typewriters, notepads that repurpose the covers of 1970s textbooks), the same penchant for slow, unwieldy production methods, even similar iconography (lots of ETSY stationery features animals and birds, particularly owls!).  But what this analogy leads onto is the unsettling thought  that underground music-making is becoming a niche market, a form of hip(ster) consumerism that slots right next to distressed furniture,  micro-brew beer, artisanal cheese, and vintage clothing.  No longer art as an intervention in the battlefield of culture, but art as "décor for life."

Asked if they can delineate the sensibility of their generation, Britt and Amanda's thoughts converge with my own doubts.  "I consider it to be post-creation," offers Amanda. "Pastiche. We're all now just pulling and pulling and pulling.  Someone like Prince was thinking of people in the past, but it didn't feel as funneled and as specific.  We're a bit derivative, unfortunately, and it's not to our detriment always-- but we are direct descendants and there are all these lineages. It's an interesting time for music because people aren't trying to create anything brand new."  She points to NNF act Umberto: "He's making music that sounds like Goblin, which you'll have heard if you've watched old Argento movies. But he's one of the few people making that kind of music today. So that is the choice you make: you go for who is stepping a little bit outside of the box--the box being the demos we get sent everyday. But you can't say, "Umberto, he's so original'.  Originality is not a thing anymore".

Britt compares the way today's bands operate to crate-digging. "It's like, 'I've just stumbled across a thing that nobody else has referenced yet".  Citing Zola Jesus's Nika Danilova, Amanda elaborates: "The people who stand out are those who use famous people as an influence that nobody else is using.   So when Nika was like, 'I'm going to make sort-of-Goth, everyone was like 'We forgot about Goth! We forgot Siouxsie was cool!'  But Nika's not trying to reinvent the wheel."

One side effect of this chase for fresher things to rediscover, and from the sheer abundance of past music people are exposed to these days is that artists aren't attached to specific styles so intensely.  "It used to be that people would bond at a formative age with a style, and then keep going with it, evolving of course, but staying pretty constant," says Britt. "Now people are more like 'I have my witch house band over here, that plays by certain rules, but I also like still playing beach pop .  Everyone's got a million projects."

High Wolf exemplifies this syndrome: Max also operates the "weird hip hop, no samples, all played" project Black Zone Myth Chant, the "doom-and-dark" project Annapurna Illusion, the "abstract techno project" Kunlun, plus several collaborative projects.  Max has even done a "split" LP (for the label Group Tightener) divided between two of his alter-egos, High Wolf and Annapurna Illusion.  Then there's Daniel Martin-McCormick, who plays in the Thrill Jockey band Mi Ami but records for NNF as Sex Worker and Ital.

All this multipolar activity means that it makes sense to see the music put out by labels such as Not Not Fun and Olde English Spelling Bee as not so much separate genres (hypnagogic, witch house, drone, nu-Goth et al) as a single macrogenre.   Artists move back and forth within an ever-expanding post-historical (and increasingly post-geographical) field of resources. Sometimes they combine elements from different archival seams (Italodisco, horror soundtracks, screw, Cold Wave, Afrobeat, etc) and sometimes they'll focus on a specific period style.  Which is why overtly retro genres like garage punk and psych are tolerated in this realm, despite their done-to-death staleness compared with fresher recombinant strains.

I love so much of the music coming out of these Zones of Alteration but one thing that disconcerts me is its relative lack of an expressive element. There are exceptions: Oneohtrix's Returnal contains deeply personal emotional resonances, while the two records by Sex Worker serve a similar function of catharsis following a bad romance.  But generally you don't get much sense that the music comes from the artist's life beyond music.

"Everyone's more inspired by a style, and the desire to be creative," agrees Britt. "It doesn't mean there isn't emotion in the process, but nobody sits down with a guitar thinking 'I'm going to write about this thing that just happened to me'. It's more, 'I'm going to get up and do this every day, whether I'm feeling remotely inspired or have anything at all to say'.  There's a discipline to that and high art has come from it.  But it does feel a little divorced. That's why a lot of contemporary styles can have a sheen of irony, because there's not a ton of people really fervently standing behind what they do.  There's no Fugazis anymore." Amanda, for her part, says that "when I make music, I'm only interested in thematics. I think, "What do I want to present? I'm trying to make a certain statement. And that takes it out of emotionality and more into a cerebral place. 'Meaningful' becomes more of an adjective than 'soulful'. "

When music is only rarely about releasing inner emotional pressure ("I have very little angst!" says Amanda) and nor is it formed in reaction to its political/social environment ("we're pretty educated, we're middle class, we don’t have much to complain about"), then the model for the modern musician becomes the conceptual artist. Or even the critic. That's what strikes me about the new breed: they think like critics. They navigate the history of music using a kind of combinatorial logic (Goth + dub = LA Vampires/Zola Jesus). They frame projects with over-arching concepts or clearly designated reference points: Chains was "Pocahaunted does Tom Tom Club". Like certain critics, they're genremaniacs, constantly coining new terms for their sound, sometimes just for a single release: "tribal soul" was Pocahaunted's buzzphrase for 2008's Mirror Mics , while 2009's Passages was "dark raga".


As those Pocahaunted examples suggest, Amanda Brown herself is a supreme exponent of   "concept music". She often stresses that she's "not a musician" but an "audio artist". Or she'll talk about being a writer. That's what she studied at college. And her debut novel Drain You is set for 2012 publication on mainstream-as-they-come HarperCollins. 

Pocahaunted was at once primal and conceptual. "We were trying to be raw," Amanda says of the group's beginnings, when it was just her and Bethany Cosentino (now of Best Coast). "The Earth's period is how we described it.  The planet's menstrual cycles! We weren't even trying to make a specific kind of music, like 'let's make drone!' It was literally,  'what can we play? What instruments do we have? ' Bethany and I agreed that we didn't have any words to speak at the time, so we just used 'vocables'. That's our term for these lilting sounds we'd make with our mouths.  So our sound was us strumming through as many pedals as we could hook up and putting as much reverb and delay as we could on the voices. We took an old keyboard stand, attached mikes to each side, and sat facing each other. And we'd sing based on each other's facial expressions and the shape of our mouths."

The name's play on Pocahontas, the daughter of an Algonquian Indian chieftain, suited the group's tribal vibe. Amanda says her original dream was "twelve women doing vocables and having a choral effect. But it ended up just being a sisterhood between Bethany and me.  We did feel like a little tribe." Other inspirations came from the course on ritual and primitive religion that Cosentino took at Pasadena City Community College, which influenced albums like Peyote Road.  In true conceptualist fashion, that album's "Heroic Doses" came from reading about ayahuasca, not actually tripping on the potent hallucinogenic potion.

Pocahaunted's early recordings can be hard going, the gnashing and wailing recalling a riot grrl take on PiL's "Theme".  The group really started to find its stride when dub entered the picture on Island Diamonds, grounding the improvised vocalese in bass-heavy hypno-grooves.  That 2008 release was the last recording before Consentino left.  Pocahaunted continued for a while as a five-piece, a decision Brown now seems to regret. Then she launched LA Vampires as the vehicle for her deepening passion for dub. If Pocahaunted resembled the spirit, if not quite the sound of The Slits, then LA Vampires recalls what Ari did next:  the On U supergroup New Age Steppers.  Except that Amanda is the Adrian Sherwood figure and instead of a fluctuating collective, LA Vampires works through serial monogamy: successive one-off partnerships with kindred artists.

"Every day I wake up and ask myself  'How I can be more like Bjork?'," laughs Amanda. "'How can I be the most ecstatic, eclectic artist? Every one of Bjork's records is different and that's partly because she's always working with new people. LA Vampires is me trying to deconstruct the Solo Artist. I want to take the 'solo' out of it!" Amanda says she loves being "seen through the eyes of my fellow musicians" but wants to shed "the baggage of being committed to a band".

The first LA Vampires release wasn't a proper collaboration, however, but a split LP with NNF's Psychic Reality, a/k/a Leyna Noel.  After falling in love with dub--"the most charming musical experience of my life"--Amanda started working with a drum machine and samples. Because she "can't play any stringed instruments", she enlisted Britt and another musician in the NNF camp, Bobb Bruno, to supply basslines on some tracks.  Although she enthuses about dub's sensuality, describing its languid drum-and-bass riddims as "like playing a woman's body", the split LP's version of dub is gnarly with red-zone distortion.   "I can't do anything clinical.  I don't make any music with a computer. I just have a dumb, clanky Alesis drum machine."

The name LA Vampires is partly inspired by all the second-division hypnagogics "vampiring" off South California imagery (palm trees, etc) and also by the fact that, although she grew up near Malibu, "I've been to the beach about five times. When I do go, I look like a vampire, in jeans and boots!".  But the Gothic name suits the second of the three Vampires projects to date: her alliance with raven-haired ice queen Zola Jesus. Here Amanda plays Sly & Robbie to Zola's Grace Jones.  The triumph of this LP, which peaks with the stunning "Eulogy", is that it takes a genre whose every last sonic potential had seemed extracted and goes somewhere new with it.  Amanda's take on dub couldn't be further from dubstep or Basic Channel.  "I know--what shall we call it?," she giggles, adding "I'm trying so hard to get recognized in The Wire as dub!  It's like, how can I physically break through the barrier between the Avant-Rock and Dub sections?"

Next came a swerve: So Unreal, a collaboration with Matrix Metals's Sam Meringue. "I don't know how it comes across when I say this, but I am deeply invested in sex and sexiness.  So I told him, 'want these songs to be sexy, Sam!'. When he sent me the beats they were perfect but really bouncy. So I slowed them down. By the end it was where I wanted it to be-- beyond lo-fidelity, un-fidelity."  

So Unreal is tough to tag: its haze-glazed mid-tempo discofunk sometimes stirs up balmy Eighties memories, like Compass Point or the ZE-influenced Thomas Leer of 4 Movements.  With lyric-shards like "is it the champagne talking?" bubbling up on songs like "Berlin Baby", you can imagine it as a "slow jams" album for couples looking to get in the mood. "Sade is a huge reference point," says Amanda. "I don't have 1/25th of her voice but the way she is able to impart a very specific sensuality is a big influence. I still think I have my own personal 'Sweetest Taboo' in me!"

Future LA Vampires projects include another Zola Jesus platter, records with Cliva Tanaka and with Maria Minerva (an Estonian "songstress" who recently debuted on NNF with the marvelously woozy Tallinn At Dawn) plus possible alliances with The Deeep and Ital. "Even something as slight as buying a new record can change my course. There's a lot of wind ruffling. I'm flimsy that way.  Impressionable. I like to change so that things stay... zesty!"

Unlikely as it may seem given the label's roots in no-fi noise 'n' drone, "lush" and "groovy" seem to be NNF's watchwords for 2011.  Hence 100 % SILK, the dance-oriented side-label that Amanda has launched. Along with its evocation of luxury, "silk" echoes Chicago house pioneer Steve "Silk" Hurley, while the imprint's generic-look sleeves hark back to disco's luxe aesthetics. "I'm a huge fan of dance music but I'm very specific: 70s dance and 90s dance," says Amanda. Explaining that she doesn't like Eighties robotic-ness or Noughties  glitchy-ness, she enthuses about trip hop and "downtempo groove. Stuff people think of as Muzak nowadays. Portishead!"  Indeed NNF has its very own Beth Gibbons in the form of Weyes Blood's Natalie Mering, whose voice, gushes Amanda, "is  just stellar."

The idea for 100% Silk was triggered when Daniel Martin-McCormick presented Amanda with a tape of disco jams in early 2010.  There's a dance element to his other groups: the postpunky Mi Ami play "body music" while Sex Worker sometimes recalls the defective disco made late in their career by Throbbing Gristle.  But in parallel with these outlets, McCormick has been trying his hand at full-on club tracks for five years now, "cutting and pasting homemade drum sounds, samples and other shit into something like techno."

Silk 001 is McCormick's debut EP as Ital.  The project name nods to Italodisco and demonstrates how large swathes of dance history--Chicago radio deejay sets from the mid-Eighties,  Baldelli's Cosmic mixes, Detroit and Balearic obscurities, all of which are readily available on the  internet-- have joined the archival reservoir siphoned by the Post-Everything Generation.  Sun Araw's Cameron Stallones, for instance, regularly spins acid house, "sunrise mixes" and "3 AM eternities" as part of the East LA deejay collective Where's Yr Child.

Ital is pretty banging, beats-wise, but the three other 100% Silk EPs to date are stronger on texture, melody and atmosphere: this is a skewed, "outside" take on dance, rather than the functionalist real-deal.  A collaboration between members of Rene Hell, Driphouse and Nimby, Cuticle offer hypnagogic house; Maria Minerva's "Little Lonely" is delightfully quirky electro-bop;  The Deeep's "Muddy Track" clanks and warbles like a strange but gorgeous alliance between Loefah and Clannad.

The Deeep are a prime example of how NNF is diversifying way beyond its original domain and taking on music with high production values.  "They're not lo-fi , which is interesting," says Britt. "It's about this cleaner, more beat-based thing, with insane vocals over it." Isla Craig's voice "just hurts you," says Amanda. "If she went in a different direction she could be Natalie Merchant--coffee house music."

Alongside Craig, The Deeep comprise beat-maker/atmosphere-weaver Wolfgang Nessel and recent recruit Victoria Cheong, an installation artist who's steering the group's evolution into a multimedia performance unit. Along with Nessel's love of moody dubstep such as Dbridge and Shackleton, the other vibe dripping off Life Light, the group's  debut for NNF, is Goth-Lite. That's my affectionate nickname for the 4AD of Cocteau Twins and Les Voix Mystere de Bulgare.  When Craig talks of being "really interested in early vocal music, church music and world music", it's clear she's the long-lost daughter of Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard.  The analogue-bubble-bath synth-burbles and bobbing, suspended feel of tracks like "Meadow Dusk", "The Dream" and "The Ballad of the Abyssal Plain" conjure up mermaid vibes, recalling the sub-aqua utopias of A.R. Kane and Hugo Largo.  According to Nessel, the extra "e" in the name comes from "working our way through the Attenborough Blue Planet series. 'The Deep' episode blows minds."

Like Amanda, The Deeep love trip hop and Sade.  Like Maria Minerva, they're proof not just of Mr and Mrs Brown's determination for NNF to keep moving stylistically, but also of Amanda's commitment to having a strong female presence on the roster. "Yesssss! I would love to have more.  I get very viciously angry if I check our release schedule and it looks like we're not going to have a woman for a while.  I'm like, 'what is this? Let's go out and find some women!'"


The Catastrophe... And What Comes After
The Wire magazine, June 2011)

By Simon Reynolds

Sometimes, when I consider the immense transformations wrought upon music and fandom by the digital revolution, the word ‘catastrophe’ springs irresistibly to mind.

Oh for sure, there have been numerous upsides. Obscure music made readily obtainable. Esoteric knowledge opened to all. An eruption of quality music writing by non-professionals, much of it too eccentric, or theoretical, or personal, or fragmentary to be tolerated by most magazines. Getting lost in the memory maze of YouTube. New channels of communication and connection, virtual but lively communities of enthused like-minds and stroppy contrarians.

For the moment, though, I want to accentuate the negative. Let’s take a pleasure maimed, if not quite killed off completely. Shopping for secondhand vinyl: I can’t be alone in too often chancing on an intriguing record and then being halted just shy of purchase by the thought: “Hmmm, I can probably find this on the Internet for free... save myself $15... do I really need another record cluttering up the house?” Digiculture has here damaged a multifaceted set of pleasures: the thrill of the hunt, the risk of taking a punt, the tactile delight of ownership.

Curiously, revealingly, my crate-digging lust is shifting to another analogue-era object of desire: the vintage music magazine. Now and then on a blog you’ll come across a download link to a zipped file of scanned pages from an obscure fanzine or periodical, but for the most part these yellowing bundles of ink and paper have yet to undergo the fate of dematerialisation/dissemination that’s befallen almost the entirety of recorded music. Part of the sudden allure of old magazines is, I’m sure, that they retain a scarcity value that records have forfeited (at least in terms of pure sonic information: the physical records obviously retain potent fetish appeal in terms of packaging, the period flavour of the design and the label, etc).

But there is also a more elevated aspect to the attraction. Packed with uncommon knowledge, these vintage magazines provide the kind of information that’s hard to find on the internet owing to the particular way its archiving system is structured. Online, you can uncover a vast amount about an artist in terms of diachronic trajectory (discography, biographical arc). Much harder to reconstruct is the synchronic context: what was going on at the precise moment in time of a record’s release, whether in terms of the genre in which the group operated, the general state of music culture, or the political and social backdrop. A musty, yellowing 1970s copy of NME or Melody Maker, Creem or Let It Rock, is a precious capsule of circumstantial evidence: reviews and features about contemporaneous groups, but also record company adverts and the graphic design and typography, which ooze period vibe. You can’t fully understand the impact of glam rock without a sense of how drab and style-less regular rock groups looked then, of how visually depleted the whole media environment was. Likewise, the stark angular minimalism of post-punk groups and record covers derived its salient edge from juxtaposition with scruffy Old Wave and Stiff-style pub rock. A time-slice of history, stubbornly analogue, the vintage music magazine in some sense resists the decontextualising vortex that is netculture, that endless end of history that never stops churning.

Catastrophe is a melodramatic word. The way I mean it is less ‘act of God’ and more ‘act of Economy’. Just like the Industrial Revolution two hundred years earlier, the Digital Revolution had a stampeding quality, herd-like, at once willed and out of control. Industrialisation ripped up old folkways, uprooted populations, ravaged the environment, restructured society. It even installed a new temporality: labour paid by the hour, the seasons irrelevant, the cycles of sunrise and sunset overruled by the requirements of production and profit. Industrialization also brought undeniable boons: cheap consumer goods, the relative freedoms of the anonymous cities.

The digital revolution had a similar pell-mell quality, a feeling of impersonality and inevitability. From the internet to the MP3, the whole caboodle took off because it was technologically possible, and because people just went along with it. Paul Virilio famously argued that every technological innovation is also the invention of a new accident or disaster. The digitization of information and culture had all kinds of unforeseen, wrenching consequences. The compact disc, for instance, seemed to the record industry like a great idea. In the short term there was a boom off the back of back catalogue being issued as overpriced CDs. But somehow nobody in the industry foresaw that turning audio (and later video) into code would make it vastly easier to copy. At first this was old-fashioned piracy (CDs and DVDS being much quicker to copy, with less loss of quality than cassette, vinyl, VHS). Later, it all went haywire with the MP3. That was another invention supported by big entertainment corporations, and a classic case of the industry shooting itself in the foot. The broadband component of the file-sharing cataclysm was more to do with capitalism’s lack of central command: an innovation introduced in one sector of the economy (because essential to the furtherance of the internet) led to devastating consequences for another (the entertainment industry whose audio, video, games, etc got trafficked globally).

‘Tectonic’ rather than ‘catastrophic’ is a calmer, more dispassionate word for what’s happened these past 15 or so years. There has been the media-cultural equivalent of a shifting of the continental plates, causing a new ‘land-mass’ to emerge out of nowhere: the internet, which really is closer to a New World than a new medium. Such a seismic passage from what could be called the Analogue System to the Digital System has inevitably left a host of wreckage in its wake.

The Analogue System – based around vinyl and tapes, print music magazines, terrestrial radio and TV broadcasting– created particular kinds of affects, modes of identification and convergences of social energy. Because it was largely organised around the physical movement of information-containing objects (records, magazines), it had a particular sense of temporality, structured around delay, anticipation and the Event. The Digital System – based around the dematerialized information flows enabled by the MP3, netradio, YouTube, blogs and webzines, et al – has a different sense of ‘culture-time’, one marked by a paradoxical combination of instantaneity and permanence, speed and stasis. Online is all about the this-minute tweet you can’t remember half an hour later and the persistence of the past as a readily accessible archived resource (a YouTube of T Rex from 1972, a 1967 Stan Brakhage reel at UbuWeb, a pirate radio session from 1993 via some old skool rave blog).

Under the Analogue regime, time was tilted forward. In Digiculture, time is lateral, recursive, spongiform, riddled with wormholes. It is characterized by operations like cut and paste, simultaneity (keeping open multiple windows), rewind/fast-forward/pause using mouse and cursor, saving things ‘for later’, fitting cultural or news experiences into your schedule (I won’t watch that major Obama speech as it happens because I can always catch it later on YouTube). One’s control of time is vastly more flexible than under the Analogue regime, but one’s experience of time is vastly more brittle.

The digital landscape emerged gradually and it has certainly generated new ways of experiencing and discovering music. Yet overall it’s hard to avoid concluding that the intensities possible under the Analogue System have been replaced by distraction and a kind of restless ‘circulation for its own sake’. Fanatical identification with an artist, scene or youth tribe has given way to drifting eclecticism and ‘partial allegiance’. The album, as a cohesive artwork whose internal temporality the listener submitted to, has been displaced by the playlist and the mix. Music increasingly functions as a mood modifier or background sound for the multitasking listener.


An Analogue>Digital analogy. Under the Analogue System, culture was a complex but delicately balanced set of channels or pipes through which culture-stuff was pumped. For the most part this was a one-way transmission. Because the pipes were narrow, you had a cultural economy organized around scarcity and delay, which created affects of craving and anticipation. What happened with broadband is that the pipes dramatically increased in size, by a factor of a hundred or a thousand. Moreover, these conduits became traversable in both directions. Everyone could be both a transmitter and a receiver. They could distribute their opinions, publically document their lives or interests, and traffic in music or other cultural data outside the usual channels (the ones that required remuneration of the producers of the culture-stuff).

The repercussions of this jolt to the hydraulics of culture were massive and manifold. When everybody enjoys both instant access and total access, it stokes an insatiability, the delirium that I gesture at in the title of my book Retromania. When music became effectively ‘free’, consumerism was unshackled from all constraints. But because the channels are traversable in both directions, not only did the music consumer’s greed become limitless, so too did generosity. I understand only too well my own, almost literally insane compulsion to acquire more music than I could ever conceivably listen to, to the point where storing and managing it becomes a burden. What I don’t quite understand is the bloggers who hurl (in almost the vomitous sense of the word) vast quantities of sound up on to blogs or message boards, filleting the entire discographies of artists that they seemingly admire and care about. You might call the syndrome ‘oversharing’, except that that the term already has another Web 2.0 meaning: the unguarded, minutiae-oriented self-documentation encouraged by blogging and Facebook-style social networks. In both cases, ‘too much information’ is the appropriate response.

There’s a delirious quality to the archive fever raging across the web, from YouTube to the legion of collective blogs dedicated to particular backwaters of culture or zones of sensibility. It’s like some kind of blind, data-swarming drive, as if we are ants or bees building a vast construction whose ultimate purpose is beyond our ken. Which is perhaps why techno-utopians are so tempted to talk mystically about the noosphere as an emerging macro-intelligence. But another way of seeing it would be as a gigantic data dump, the collective archive as landfill.

Digitech virtually enforces this kind of activity by making it so frickin’ easy to upload and share, but still leaving just enough of a dopamine buzz that these acts signify ‘achievement’ to our brains. That’s the neurological theory of internet addiction as espoused by Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Another explanation draws on post-Freudian psychoanalysis. Developed by Jodi Dean in Blog Theory, the core idea is that the compulsive pleasures associated with netculture – down-and-uploading, tweeting, updating, searching – engage us on the level of drive as opposed to desire. Our transit back and forth across the net is not really in pursuit of an object of desire, but for the intransitive sensation of going. More primal and basic than desire, drive is associated with repetition and regression: it’s not the quest for the (impossible) object that will fill lack, but a kind of enactment of loss itself. Dean analyses our participation in digicultural activity in bleak dystopian terms of capture, the ensnaring of human energy. I’m not entirely convinced that desire has nothing to do with it: you go on YouTube or comb the blogs because in the past you’ve found delicious morsels of culture-matter; there’s also a neurotic dimension rooted in the anxiety of missing out on something. But Dean’s theory does account for the addictive, kill-time aspect, the way that you can fall into a trance on the computer and the hours just fly away.

Probably the most disconcerting and provocative idea in Blog Theory is the suggestion that the cultural worth of doing-it-yourself has been voided by its recuperation by digiculture’s interactivity and participatory mechanisms. When pre-formatted platforms such as Blogger and Bandcamp bring once arduous activities (producing a fanzine, self-releasing music) within the reach of anyone who can be halfway bothered, the result is an excess of access and a glut of artistic production. Digiculture is an exact inversion of the Situationist notion of the Spectacle. That concept emerged in reaction to the post-World War Two expansion of the mass media, with its centralized and unidirectional broadcasting. Situationists like Guy Debord critiqued entertainments that enforced passivity and isolation, and called for participatory situations that breached the barrier between art and everyday life. This in turn influenced punk and the subsequent DIY explosion of micro-labels that persists to this day. In this schema, doing-it-yourself was not just about unleashing your personal creativity: regardless of any political content to the art, it was a political act that threw down an egalitarian challenge to the professionalized culture of media and the hierarchy of stardom. The existence of the mass media and the mainstream was what gave DIY its utopian charge: you were ‘answering back’ the monologue of the monoculture.

Digiculture is the Anti-Spectacle: now we’re all doing it for ourselves, incessantly. The passing of the Analogue System makes it possible to see the benefits of the Mono-Mainstream (TV networks, major labels, government-run public broadcasting). This apparatus created mass experiences, mobilizations of energy and desire. But it also brought into being undergrounds, subcultures that grew in the darkness, outside mediation. In time, these would break through into the mainstream, via certain libidinally charged thresholds (in UK terms, the weekly music press, Top Of The Pops, Radio One). They would change pop and be changed by it. It was hard to break through, but if those barricades could be surmounted, things would then get propelled into mainstream consciousness and couldn’t be ignored. This antagonistic symbiosis of underground and overground resulted in a dialectical process of renewal and recuperation that kept music moving.

For my generation – who grew up when the 1960s was very much still a presence in the culture and who then lived through punk, post-punk, hiphop, rave – what you might call our cultural libido (what turned us on, what roused us) is inextricably bound up with these moments of breakthrough. But that entire cultural terrain is disappearing. The netscape means that there is an increased tendency for music to find only the pre-disposed.

The Analogue System was centripetal, its flow-structure innately resisted entropy. Digiculture is centrifugal because it is designed to promote individualization and differentiation at every level. Consensus and convergence become harder to achieve. Scenes fragment into micro-scenes. This atomization can even be detected at the level of the artistic self: auteurs ‘disagree’ with themselves, split up into multiple alter ego and side projects. When creating/documenting/distributing become so easy, the volume of output increases monstrously. Digital is based around encoded information and near-infinite storage; analogue culture involves costly materials. Because, say, taking a digital camera snapshot involves far less existential weight than using film, you’ll take dozens of pictures in rapid succession, then sift through for the best take. In music, the effect of digital technology is not simply that there’s many more musicians putting stuff out there, it's that each individual musician generates so much more, thanks to minimal costs for recording or materials.

This is why the discographical arc of your typical underground musician has gone nuts recently. From Lil B to James Ferraro, Wiley to Sean McCann, unspool an endless stream of mixtapes, limited cassettes, podcasts, web-only remixes. Fandom is no longer organized around anticipation, waiting with baited breath for an album your favourite artist has laboured over for months or years. Being a fan now means keeping up with the non-stop emissions of your cult icon. Some major talents can sustain that level of output without drying up, but for the most part it has led to redundancy and a flattening of the artistic landscape (fewer ‘event releases’ or ‘landmark masterpieces). Such saturation bombing has sparked a kind of retroactive appreciation for the filtering effects and in-built delays of the Analogue System.

The endzone of digital facilitation is people who can’t even give their music away: the mass graves of MySpace. Everybody talking, nobody listening. In the topsy-turvy world of digiculture, the scarcity economy of music has entirely gone... replaced by a scarcity of consumers and spectators. Momus’s celebrated maxim that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 people might have been over-optimistic. You can even imagine some future European Community subsidizing people to be uncreative, mere passive recipients of cultural transmissions.

When everyone is DIY-ing, the act of putting out your own music or magazine loses much of its ethical and political charge; it becomes something you do, a pastime or hobby. Another problem for the concept of ‘underground’ is the curious spatiality of the internet, which creates the illusion that everything is somehow equal, on the same level: the flat plane of webspace. Real and enduring inequities of media power and prominence still exist but they are disguised. The New York Times occupies the same amount of screen space as Not Not Fun’s website. Neither seems any more accessible or less ubiquitous than the other. The dialectic of invisibility/secrecy and visibility/publicity that worked so well during the Analogue Era has been tampered with.


The final and most disorienting effect caused by digitization is the principle concern of Retromania: the phenomenon that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling have recently been theorizing in terms of ‘atemporality’. If you’re under the age of 25 and have grown up with a relationship to music based around total access and the erosion of a sense of sounds belonging to a historical sequence, thinking about music in terms of development through time becomes alien and unrecoverable. When music is distributed across the virtual spatiality of the web, styles seem to connect to each other much more through sonic affinity or uncanny trans-temporal echoes (ghosting, prophesy) than through a chronological logic (causal chains, stylistic evolution). You can get peculiar reversals of time’s flow: a later group feels like it has influenced a group from the past, which in turn comes to seem like a pale copy or unrealized prototype.

It's as though the space-time of culture has been flipped on its axis: the place once occupied by the future is now taken by the past. Which is why the orientation of so much music making in the last decade has taken the form of retro-activity (see The Wire 319). In the 60s, during postpunk and mostly recently with the Techno-rave 90s, artists sent out sonic probes into the beyond. Nowadays, they’re no longer astronauts but archaeologists, excavating through layers of debris (the detritus of the analogue, pre-internet era). The exploratory impulse survives, but its accent has shifted from discovery to rediscovery. They’re questing not so much for the unknown as the lost. This is still a utopian impulse, grasping for something beyond the artist’s immediate reach. But if McLuhan and Marcuse were the philosophers of the 60s, then Benjamin and Borges are the avatars of our ‘time out of joint’ era.

It’s not just the fourth dimension that’s affected either. This upending of cultural space-time means that modern musicians are as post-geographical as they are post-historical. Ideas of local scenes and regional sounds dissolve like sugar in water. Issues like appropriation and cultural property become as irrelevant as the distinctions between decades.

Fourth World Music was a theorem devised by Jon Hassell in the early 80s: the mingling/mangling of ancient and modern, ethnic ritual and Western hi-tech, as put into practice on his own albums like Possible Musics and Dream Theory In Malaya, and paralleled by works by Talking Heads, Byrne & Eno, Ryuichi Sakomoto, and Holger Czukay (who could claim to have reached the Fourth World ahead of everyone with 1969's Canaxis, not forgetting Can's 'Ethnological Forgeries' series). Blogger Kid Shirt has been mooting a successor concept, ‘Fifth World Music’, to tag a new strain of neo-geo exoticism and tribal vibes in recent underground music. Beyond the specific sonic coordinates Kid Shirt has in mind, the idea of a Fifth World strikes me as being extremely applicable to the postgeographical/post-historical archive-space that is the Internet, and to the superhybrids emerging from a historically unprecedented situation/predicament where not only virtually everything happening across the world is accessible but where virtually everything that ever happened is at our fingertips.

Despite the atemporality of so much contemporary left-field music (tracks that could have come out in 1991, 1972, or 1983), one way you can sort of tell the time with today’s music is the emergence of a new aesthetic of maximalism. More than just a response to the supersaturation of input and influences, it’s also a result of musicians exploiting the scope for micro-surgical intricacy offered by audio workstations. The new maximalism is not extensive, as it was with Progressive rock and jazz fusion, but intensive: a convolution that doesn’t involve structure (song cycles and side-long album pieces, like houses with too many extensions) but the density of events and layers per bar. Digi-tech encourages the finessing of micro-edits and subtle tweaks; it favours sound design over focus and thrust. If there is an aesthetic that defines our time then it’s one of exquisite clutter and generic indeterminacy. Seen negatively, a sort of dithering; framed positively, an affirmative embrace of everything (what philosophers call ‘plus/and’ rather than ‘either/or’). That these aesthetic characteristics bear some relation to the zeitgeist is indicated by the way they crop up all across the leftfield music spectrum, from TV On The Radio, tUnE-yArDs and Gang Gang Dance to Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke and Nicolas Jaar.  

Gang Gang Dance's new album Eye Contact starts with the words: 'I can hear everything. It's everything time.' Increasingly with the Post-Everything Generation, you get a kind of splayed sensibility, an artistic self that is diffuse and centreless: Hype Williams, Mosca, Pyramid Vritra. When on "The Age of Information" Lil B says, “I’m on computers profusely”, I don’t think so much of the endless ripples of web buzz and tweet fame encircling him, so much as the peroration of Jean Baudrillard’s 1983 essay “The Ecstasy Of Communication”, an unwitting prophecy of networked culture and psychology:“The schizo is... open to everything in spite of himself, living in the greatest confusion... [defenceless before] the absolute proximity, the total instantaneity of things... the overexposure and transparence of the world which traverses him without obstacle. He can no longer produce the limits of his own being... He is now only a pure screen, a switching centre for all the networks of influence.” The corollary of this ceaseless influx is constant out-flow. Like a rap James Ferraro, Lil B issues an endlessly spewing spoor of creativity, not through limited edition cassettes but mix-tapes that are really unshelled spurts of immaterial data.

A creature of another age, I find it hard to imagine how anything artistically coherent can be created under such overloaded conditions. That said, the Analogue Era ideals of community and resistance achieved through music (as developed in the 1960s) were ailing by the 90s, and digitalization simply put those notions out of their misery, leaving a clear space for music to be repurposed. But most of the artists who’ve come to the fore in recent years retain an experiential memory-sense of what fandom and creativity were like in a cultural economy of scarcity, distance and delay; their sensibility was forged during the 1990s, when the Analogue System had yet to be fully displaced. The next generation, who’ll have never known anything but the internet, music for free, superabundance and atemporality, might well be better equipped to navigate the profusion. Who knows what uses their music will have, the shapes it will take, or the kind of convergences it will bring about? 

For the moment, though, an awful lot of music remains bound up with sign-play. It is meta-music largely dependent on its echoes of past radicalism (Sixties rock, postpunk, 90s rave), or conversely, on its witty, frisson-laced inversions of orthodox notions of what makes music edgy, experimental, important (as with hauntology and Hypnagogia’s attraction to the functional background sounds or glossy commercial pop of yesteryear). But when sound styles finally shed all those ghost-traces of History and achieve a perfect non-referential blankness, the past will cease to be a museum or even an archive, and become simply a set of resources: material to be used without reverence or nostalgia. No longer pointing to the past, music will perhaps be ready to reconnect to the world happening beyond the screen.

[also published in Rolling Stone Italy]


TALES OF TOOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS: an intellectual profile of David Toop

director's cut version, The Wire, March 2012

by Simon Reynolds

The names Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari barely feature in David Toop’s writing, and then only late in the day (a few mentions in 2004’s Haunted Weather). But in many ways the philosopher duo’s concepts and coinages—deterritorialisation, “lines of flight”, nomadology, the rhizome—are the perfect way into Toop’s remarkable body of thought, as manifested across several decades of music-making, music criticism, and music-curation.  D&G and DT are shaped by the multiple, interrelated radicalisms of the Sixties, from the anti-psychiatry movement to psychedelia (music figures prominently in D&G’s A Thousand Plateaus), from anarchism and androgyny to Eastern philosophy and mysticism.  What you could term the “cultural libido” of these three men is very close: they’re turned on by the same things.

Flux and mutability are the utopian keywords of a materialist-idealism wherein forms, structures, genres,  emotional/psychological rigidities, all dissolve in the flows of desire, energy and sensation. The non-fascist life, D&G propose, involves a perpetual unmaking of the mind and softening of the character-armour. Territorialisation, which in music equates with what Toop deplores as “taste tribalism” (purism, genre-patriotism, etc) is war psychology: fortified, locked into defensive-aggressive modes.

Exoticism is a strategy of deterritorialising, a line of flight outside the familiar life-world into otherness.  As part of The Wire’s Adventures in Sound and Music series, Toop talked recently on Resonance FM about his lifelong fascination for “a kind of distant music” in terms of deconditioning: a 1960s buzz concept put into practice by figures such as R.D. Laing and David Cooper (both involved, like Guattari, in the anti-psychiatry movement). In Toop’s case, it’s aesthetics and taste that undergo a willed dismantling.  Similar impulses impelled the trans-disciplinary work Toop tried to explore at art college in the 1960s: “multi media, projections and sound– radically adapting existing instruments or inventing new ones – rather than stay[ing] within limits of what’s available”.

In parallel with the instrument-building that informed his 1974 booklet  New/Rediscovered Musical Instruments and debut album of the same name, Toop made several radio programs in the early Seventies for the BBC series Crossroads. These were woven out of field recordings--Korean Confucuian music, aboriginal Australian mortuary ceremonies, Inuit eskimo vocal games—presented without contextualization or indeed any voice-over commentary whatsoever bar a few enigmatic sentences.   Granted access to the BBC’s archives (“to me it was paradise”),  Toop spirited the 10 inch discs home and taped them for private delectation.   This personal collection of fabulously esoteric exotica became a “wellspring”, something he’d return to whenever his capacity for musical awe dried up.  

Xenomania was not uncommon among that breed of hungry Seventies souls who would become post-punk prime movers.  Blixa Bargeld trawled the “Obscurities Departments” of Berlin record shops;  This Heat listened to Nonesuch Explorer LPs of Balinese gamelan;
No Wavers Arto Lindsay and Mark Cunningham tripped out to tribal trance music from Africa. 

Toop went further, though, starting his own label Quartz in 1977 and releasing LPs of sacred flute music from New Guinea . He went literally further, journeying to the Venezuelan Amazonian jungle to record the Yanomami tribe’s  shamanic rituals.  This too was released on Quartz alongside improvisation LPs made by outfits in which Toop played. One of these albums, Whirled Music punned on what was then just an arcane term in ethnomusicology circles, not the record industry marketing buzzword it became in the Eighties.

Toop and Whirled collaborators like Steve Beresford and Paul Burwell were key catalysts in the 1975 formation of London Musicians Collective and its magazine Musics.  The plural discreetly announces a guiding ethic of deterritorialism:  totalizing conceptions of “what music is, what it’s for” are rejected in favour of discrete practices and histories.   LMC founded itself on the principle of non-exclusion: its meetings were open to all, and accordingly rather fractious affairs. The same applied to Musics, a “squabblezine” full of angry correspondence from readers,  “open letters” from the writers to critics at other publications, and ideological  disputes within the editorial team that were ventilated publicly. 

The Deleuzo-Guattarian concept of rhizomatic (derived from rhizomes, laterally connected plants like ferns and bamboo) fits the LMC milieu’s endlessly shifting line-ups and temporary alliances.  Interviewed in Melody Maker as a member of Flying Lizards, Toop celebrated “the flexibility and unpredictability of improvisation” over “the hierarchical writing set-ups and the eternal marriages of groups." When I spoke to him for Rip It Up and Start Again, Toop pinpointed the influence of R.D. Laing’s critique of the nuclear family as an emotional hothouse breeding neurosis and mental illness. “The whole idea of the band as a family had to be destroyed.”   Once again this paralleled Deleuze & Guattari’s anti-Oedipal politics and opposition to “arborescent” hierarchies (top-down, tree-like command structures like the state, patriarchy, the super-ego).  All this in turn intersected with hot Sixties concepts like polymorphous perversity and play-power.

As a player, Toop was certainly putting it about a bit in those days. Along with Flying Lizards, he participated in a plethora of duos and ensembles drawn from the LMC pool, including Rain in the Face, 49 Americans, General Strike, and Alterations. For the latter, he contributed sounds generated using animal decoys, fire buckets, water, various flutes, whistles, plucked and bowed strings, music box, as well as electric guitar and bass. Some kind of pinnacle was Circadian Rhythms, an octet convened for a single July 1978 performance that lasted  thirteen hours, with Toop’s unusual sound-palette for once out-done by Annabel Nicolson’s charcoal, sparks, branches, twigs, fire, pine needles, draughts, and smoke. The concert was originally intended to run for an entire day but ran into what Toop described as “a wall of exhaustion and an overwhelming feeling that there was nothing more to add... There were too many distractions and too many players."

The always-schismatic Musics fell apart a few years later, and not long after Toop quit the LMC, where he’d fallen into the de facto and unenviable role of organizer. “That’s the trouble with collectivism, it’s too exhausting”, he told me.  During the Eighties, “sick of playing in bands, sick of playing with human beings,” he embraced the solitary empowerment of music technology.  However the LMC’s all-gates-open ethos did reflower in evolved form with the magazine Collusion, an unofficial successor to Musics, co-founded by Toop, his then- girlfriend Sue Stewart,  Peter Cusack, and Steve Beresford. The latter described the editorial philosophy to me as “trying to make more connections” and treating “the music we were involved in” (i.e. improv-meets-postpunk DIY) as just “another relevant genre” among many others, which included everything from Bollywood soundtracks and tango to Western Swing and calypso. 

Celebrated by Richard Cook at the time as “a magazine of connections and interzones”, Collusion’s post-everything eclecticism anticipated the omnivorousness of  our bloggy present.  What’s really prophetic about the magazine isn’t just its globe-roaming diversity but the way it unshackled itself from release schedules and embraced the emergent “atemporality” of music fandom enabled by the rise of reissue labels and the discographical efforts of specialists.  Toop himself talks of a “Mojo-like aspect” to Collusion.  Contemporary sounds are present, as with the Steven Harvey’s celebrated survey of New York’s post-disco underground. But most of the content concerned the past. Unlike Mojo, the magazine’s retrospective gaze isn’t confined to rock history, though. Indeed, rock barely features at all in Collusion’s six issues, apart from an article on heavy metal that treats the scene ethnographically: just another (sub)culture with rituals to decode. 

Many of Toop’s later preoccupations  are already present:  a piece on Les Baxter-style exotica, another featuring the phrase “the mediumship of the listener” that 25 years later resurfaces as  the subtitle of Sinister Resonance. After Collusion’s demise, Toop continued this after-rock pluralism as a working journalist, notably in a monthly column for The Face: most forms of black pop, Eighties club sounds, and world-y sounds were covered, but electric guitar music, whether marginal or mainstream, was cold-shouldered.

Toop’s first proper book was The Rap Attack (1985), a richly researched but relatively straightforward hip hop history. Ocean of Sound, published ten years later, implements deterritorialisation at the level of the text itself.  As he wrote for more magazines and newspapers,  Toop found himself increasingly constrained by the strictures of mainstream journalism: clear argument, intro/conclusion, and so forth.  As Ocean of Sound was to be a meditation on music’s “alternately disorientating and inspiring openness”, the  first thing to do, he recalled later, “was to abandon linear chronology, that boring and false sense of logical progression through which one development follows its precursor as if culture was designed in advance by an art historian.” In its place, a musicated writing (leitmotifs, samples) and “making connection sideways”: a  rhizomatization of the text, in other words.  Ocean of Sound doesn't proceed by argument but by through filaments of observations, anecdotes, quotations and insights.  Inferences and implications spread out in ever-widening ripples. Even individual sentences often unfurl as a chain of supplementary clauses (freefloating ideas, imagistic metaphors) that gradually recede into the horizon. 

“It’s a way I have that expresses the way my mind works,” is how Toop described it. “Constantly branching off in different directions”. That image suggests dendrites in the brain and dream logic, but it also anticipates the hyperlinks of the net, whose criss-crossing lines defy the limits of space and time. What had been realized at Collusion at the level of editorial policy (genre pluralism, atemporality, the global village) now inhabits the individual writer’s style of thought.   
There is a proto-blog aspect to Ocean of Sound.  Alan Kirby argues that digiculture involves a distinctive form of textuality characterized by “onwardness and endlessness”. The blog format encourages meander and fragmentary comment; inconclusive arguments resumed or revised in subsequent posts; the stringing together of barely-related thoughts and observations, illustrated by audio or video.  And Toop has talked of consciously aiming with Ocean and subsequent books for a “hypertextual approach” that makes “overlay and displacement into a coherent, compelling (non) narrative.”

If the methodology seems ahead of its time, so are many of Ocean’s insights, such as the thought (more leitmotif than thesis) that “music—fluid, quick... outreaching... immersive and intangible...  has anticipated the aether talk of the information ocean”.  Rereading recently the written-in-1994 observation that “music floats around in the aether of the WorldWide Web, waiting to be downloaded, hoping to talk to somebody”, I did a double-take: mildly surprised that sound-files were getting shared so early, but really startled by the understated pathos of “hoping to talk to somebody”. It seemed a prophetic intimation of the isolation and anomie that the Internet purportedly eradicates yet really and merely rearranges. 

A year after publication, Ocean of Sound became a compilation as well as a book. The selection mirrored the time-and-space vaulting logic of the text, sliding from King Tubby to Herbie Hancock,  the Vancouver Soundscape to Howler Monkeys, the tracks mixed without gaps, so that their outer edges brushed. Although individuals had privately compiled crazily eclectic mix-tapes, as far as  know this is the first compilation of its kind to be commercially released. 

Other Toop-curated collections for Virgin followed: some (Crooning on Venus, Guitars On Mars) more deterritorialized than others (Booming on Pluto tracked the electro diaspora, Sugar and Poison celebrated R&B slow jams as psychedelic erotica). There was a wild moment at Virgin in the mid-Nineties, when a sector of the company, overseen by Simon Hopkins, flashbacked to the label’s pre-punk spirit of experimental eccentricity (Faust, Gong, Lol Coxhill, et al). Alongside Toop’s Ocean of Sound series were equally all-over-the-map surveys by Kevin Martin of “isolationism”, “electric jazz” and dub’s viral influence, plus single-artist CDs from Paul Schutze, Techno Animal, and DT himself.

Spirit World, one of Toop’s two Virgin albums, betrayed some contemporary influence from drum-and-bass but sounded like jungle made by someone who’d actually been inside one, absorbing sense-impressions of its perpetual roil of growth and decomposition.  Spirit World and its predecessor Pink Noir previewed the preoccupations of Exotica, the sort-of-follow-up to Ocean of Sound.  Deterritorialisation of the text is taken even further here: fact and fiction, memoir and fantasy, coexist and blur, with sections that vaguely recall Conrad and Ballard and a hilarious dialogue with canine movie-star Lassie about recordings of animal-and-bird sounds.

Lassie alludes wryly and slyly to the notion of “the armchair traveler”. What emerges as a subtext of Exotica is the idea of the collection--a public or private archive of recordings, texts, images—as a decontextualisation machine.   When a collection achieves a certain density and duration, the proximity of things of far-flung provenance allows for the remapping of cultural fields: strange connections cutting across time and space and genre become almost unavoidable. Ownership and location of cultural forms gets displaced from its proper setting. The Internet-- a vast collective collection, a non-space of absolute proximity between everything-- is just the nth-degree fruition of tendencies inherent to the archive.

As the subtitle Fabricated Soundscapes in A Real World hints, exotica involves misrecognition and falsification:  Les Baxter’s layering of “layered dislocated fantasy on dislocated fantasy”, the cosmopolitan confections of   Hosono, Sakomoto, Van Dyke Parks.  The book points also to a deeper impossibility at the heart of the exoticising impulse.  “Exotic” is not an intrinsic property of the object but entirely relational.  In its native context, the Northern Dahomey funeral ceremony played by Toop on Resonance FM last year is not alien or disorienting; it is homely, music tethered to a socially cohesive occasion,  and a coherent cosmology. In its original setting, it’s probably as conservative as an Anglican church service. The very musical attributes whose embrace makes us brave, exploratory, risk-taking, for its proper audience signify  obedience and conformism. My favourite example of this paradox is Ofra Haza, briefly almost-famous in the West after being sampled by Coldcut on their remix of Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid In Full”. But Haza turned out to be an MOR superstar in her native Yemen, the equivalent of Barbara Streisand. 

There’s another paradox to “rootless cosmopolitanism”: its dependence on cultural forms that evolved over a long period in rooted, inwardly-focused cultures.  Like marsupials in Australia, the more cut-off the culture, the more alien is the music. Case in point: the Yanomami, who had barely experienced any  contact with the outside world when Toop recorded them in the Seventies  But the syndrome can be seen in popular music too, from hip hop’s emergence from the South Bronx (which Toop attributed partly to “the ghettoisation that took place in American cities.... that lack of mixing and fluidity”) to the relative insularity of Chicago’s footwork scene. Within the bourgeois-bohemians context of art-pop, “taste tribalism” is considered regressive; curiosity and the open-mind are virtues. But tribes, ethnological or subcultural, are not cosmopolitan: from food to music, they are governed by a defined and inflexible set of attractions and aversions.  Closure is strength, and exposure to the outside (anthropological, economic, media) is generally cataclysmic.


“At home he feels like a tourist/He fills his head with culture/He gives himself an ulcer”—Gang of Four, 1979

One rationale for this piece is that musically-speaking, it’s a Toop-y time. What I’ve taken to calling the Zones of Alteration (after the blog Altered Zones, RIP) is a post-geographical network of artists who make porous the membranes between genres. Oceanic and cosmic imagery abounds in the Zones, both echoing and extending the aspirations of earlier phases in which Toop was active:  ambient and space music in the 70s, post-rave  electronica in the 90s.  Exotica as a concept is prevalent and relevant like it’s not been since the mid-90s:   a blog-world cult for vintage ethnological recordings and environmental soundscapes is matched by releases from new artists with titles like Cambodian Field Recordings or Pacific Fog Dreams.  One of my favourite denizens of the Zones, Dolphins Into The Future, a/k/a Lieven Martens, makes fictitious field recordings and litters his work with references to cetaceans and Polynesia.  He cites Ocean of Sound as a major influence. Exotica shows us how the various exoticisms (Orientalism, Pacific-ism, Africa-as-heart-of-darkness-ism) were the other side of imperialism, a response to the “glut of new stimuli” (spices, fabrics, curiosities, et al) pouring into the colonial homelands.  Equally it’s clear that today’s xenomania is entwined with globalization and the distance-abolishing effects of the Internet.

In truth, though, the idea for this essay came to me in a flash, as a fully-formed sentence: We Are All David Toop Now. Unpacked, what that slogan says is that any kid with a broadband connection can access the sort of of dizzying diversity of listening experience that took Toop a lifetime of obsessive dedication to accumulate. One drawback of reading Ocean of Sound and Exotica when they originally came out in the Nineties was the discographies at the back: how on earth to get hold of all this often out-of- print esoterica?  Today almost of it is online, as blog-shared albums, or excerpted on YouTube.

The nagging question that followed the initial thought-flash was whether all this knowledge and “experience” has anything like the same value when it’s achieved effortlessly. On Resonance FM, playing the precious ethno-treasure he taped from the BBC archive or hunted down in record shops, Toop recalled those Seventies days  when he spent so much time writing to people in distant leads beseeching them to send him LPs.  At the extreme his hunger for “unknown worlds”  took him to the Amazon.  Few of us would ever go that (literally) far. But when “discovery” is completely divorced from a sense of quest, isn’t it depleted of much of its libidinal energy? 

There’s another drawback to the Internet as portal to myriad elsewheres and elsewhens. Because analogue-world collecting involved physical exertion and travel, distance and delay structured music-consumption according to a rhythm of hunt and capture, ingestion and digestion.  Those vital gaps are insidiously filled in by the Internet, whose  always-there plenitude incites restlessness, the audio equivalent of checklist tourism.   Before file-sharing, the only people who experienced this kind of frenetic overload (of choice and sheer volume) were the rich and those who got sent shitloads of freebies, i.e. critics and deejays. Now this unearned “wealth” has become the generalized condition of music fandom.  Toop, in his work, has wisdom to offer concerning this predicament.

After several years penning a monthly column for The Wire, in December 1997 Toop handed in “a letter of public resignation”: the culmination of a mounting “indifference to contemporary music” and the fatiguing chore of finding things to say about it. Only old Takemitsu soundtracks and memory-rush ambushes (hearing the O-Jays in Pizza Express) provided solace during this chronic state of sonic anhedonia. “I’m outta here, if not forever, then for a long lie down in a metaphorical dark room lacking in music transmission technology.” 1997 seemed like a pretty exciting time to me, musically, in the pop mainstream as much as the margins, so at the time I was puzzled by the column. Yet I recognised from my own experience the  occupational hazards of the critic obliged to process too much “pretty good” music in too short a time.  Rereading it recently, I was struck by its courage and candor, coming from someone who made much of their living writing about music.

The crisis seems to have lasted a while: in an Invisible Jukebox from March 2003, Toop discussed the attraction of Japanese musical minimalism as a reprieve from  an “overload of information”.  “A  lot of people feel there’s too much stuff out there, too much music.... I feel it myself, I love silence, but music as a whole I don’t like anymore....  I don’t like listening to it on the radio, seeing music on television. I don’t like having it on in the house...  That love of music as a generalized experience, I’ve come to the end of that.” A few years later, recalling the dry spell, he talked about how “it became a real problem for me. I wondered how I was going to carry on writing about music. Now I’m much more ruthless. I don’t listen to anything unless it’s really good.” But then how do you determine what’s “really good” without checking out lots of contenders? Every first-time play competes with something else’s second or third listen. Two aquatic metaphors go to war here: surfing versus immersion.

Overall, the ocean as a resource of utopian metaphor is looking kinda tarnished these days, from over-fishing desertifying the seas to the Pacific Trash Vortex, that gyre of plastic litter.  The ocean even suffers from noise pollution: gas drilling, cable-laying, freighter propellers, and military tests have turned it into a deafening nightclub, in which sea mammals are unable to communicate and their equilibrium is shattered.  If the ocean-of-sound prefigured the ocean-of-data, it’s hard not to see parallels with the Internet: not the clean, smoothly functioning expanse for communication that the obsolete term “cyberspace” once evoked but a crowded, cluttered “junkspace” (Rem Koolhaas), a place where we didn’t transcend ourselves but inevitably brought along all our petty crap. 

Haunted Weather, the third volume in a loose trilogy that started with Ocean of Sound, seems like it’s anticipating the hauntology discourse of recent years.  Actually, this 2004 book surveys of an array of sound art and environmental music practices, at time resembling the travelogue of Toop and his peers on a global circuit of festivals and exhibitions.  The title has a discernibly ominous tinge, though, mirrored in the text by  flickers of anxiety about digital technology’s dematerialization and disembodiment of sound and an overall sense of  overload: “how to maintain poise in a world gone crazy with... informational delirium”, “the hysterical onslaught of information, mediation and consumerism”, “data pipes spurting  information of massively variable content [in]  unprecedented, oceanic volumes...”.  Aqua-utopian imagery shifts decisively to the darkside, and the source of the switch is traceable to that late Nineties moment when flood-became-drought: “In the past, trying to listen to everything has almost destroyed my desire to listen to anything.”  Cultivating a Japanese dry garden at the back of his London house becomes a form of therapy, its seclusion and focus returning him to analogue time and earthy materiality.  The sounds of birds passing through help Toop find ““a way back into music after a period in which my feelings about sound seemed to be deadened.”

Although Haunted Weather is generally optimistic about laptoptronica sour notes are sounded concering  digi-tech too. “I love this aspect of digital composition,” Toop writes in reference to the myriad options that empower the solo artist. “And at the same time regret it.” Digital audio workstations “can take away the space, or the air, from music production”.  During one compositional process, he impulsively throws open the window to “let a random chunk of the world outside” into the work.  Reflecting on the illusory wealth of having at his disposal “six different computer software programs” and numerous plug-ins, Toop echoes Brian Eno and Holger Czukay when he argues that “omission is a virtue. Without limitations there is only confusion, vulgarity, the loss of meaning. I can’t truly live by it but I bear it in mind.”’

By 2010’s Sinister Resonance, there’s a shift towards a wholly negative conception of sound as uncanny and threatening: no longer protean but formless, not so much wombing as “enveloping, intrusive”. What’s striking about the book is the near-complete avoidance of music in favour of representations of listening in literature and painting.  The sonic affect previously provided by music can seemingly now only be achieved through other art forms, and as a negative intensity: the inverted-bliss of the disturbing noise, the pregnant silence. In interviews, Toop spoke of sound in terms of  “uncertainty” and ambiguity of location, “extreme psychic states,” “dread and fear”. He recalled primordial experiences with sound as a small child, imagining hearing intruders in the house or in his room.  Xenophilia flips into xenophobia, fear of the stranger. The exotic (in Greek, literally “from the outside”) becomes invasive. 

“I wanted to state another case for sound, to move the discourse slightly away from utopian conceptions,” Toop declared in one interview. Certainly we’re long way from the Nineties, when flows-of-sound and flows-of-data were celebrated by such as Sadie Plant and DJ Spooky in an libidinized jargon of  mutation and motility that derived largely from Deleuze & Guattari.  Others favored metaphors derived not from fluid mechanics but virology.  Kevin Martin, a/k/a The Bug, titled his Virgin compilations Macro Dub Infection. This exaltation of the virus in certain circles (see also the Plant-associated CCRU) always amused me:  I’d wonder if these folk modified their views when they came down with stinking colds or lost a hard drive’s contents.  Viruses, biological and computing alike, are nothing if not deterritorialising agents. But then as the critic Judith Williamson points out, many “flows” are “deeply pernicious”: the flightiness of capital in a globally integrated market, traffic in narcotics and weapons, the spread of diseases and non-indigenous species. Like a strong immune system, boundaries and border patrols can be necessary protections.

So many debates, in politics, economic, and culture, revolve around the ambivalent status of “flow” / “flux” / “flexibility”. In the 90s, a decade that echoed the 60s, we viewed these qualities and tendencies as inherently progressive.  Eno, in a 1992 magazine essay on perfume quoted in Ocean of Sound, celebrated our “increasingly un-centered, un-moored” lives, in which values were provisional, subject to constant revision.  The sociologist-philosopher Zygmunt Bauman calls this “liquid modernity”, a postmodern/post-Internet update of Marx’s “all that’s solid melts into air”.  As social norms weaken, as migration for work becomes more common, as individuals adjust to the possibility of mid-life career changes, existence takes on an ad hoc quality. Character itself becomes fluid. Bauman sees the possibilities as well as downsides of this existential instability. But in recent years, academia has been rife with buzzwords like “precarity”.  “Flexibility” has increasingly negative connotations, suggestive of the “flexible work patterns” imposed on a labour force vulnerable to outsourcing and the alarming fluctuations of global capitalism.  It also  suggests management consultancy speak: the ideological slipperiness of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has been traced by some to his profession, which entailed an endless chameleonic adjustment to his clients’s needs, a perpetual modification of thinking “in a world that’s constantly changing.”

Perhaps the very idea of change itself has lost its utopian lustre. “The versatility of the space of flows” could describe the anarcho-utopian procedures of the 1970s LMC, or the electronic milieu of the 90s with its remixological back-and-forth. But it’s actually Manuel Castells’s description of the lightning-fast movements of capital within the “informational city” that connects the world’s financial districts.  In “solid modernity” (the era of Fordism and strong unions),  stability and permanence were seen as obstructing the free-flow of energy and desire. But in postmodernity’s  liquid flux, the solid, and its close conceptual cousin solidarity, start to seem like essential bulwarks, a vital “drag” on the mercurial tendencies of hyper-capitalism.  This applies at the level of the state, the family (children flourish in conditions of structure and routine), and the individual psyche.  It’s possible that in the near-future, as we’re buffeted hither-and-thither by data and fashion, psychological characteristics such as rigour and rigidity will lose their pejorative connotation.  The ability to make your mind up, to not see all the sides of everything, might become prized like it was in the olden days.  Certainly it’s true that any long-term collective project requires a degree of territorialisation: in gardens where we feel secure, things come to fruition. 

Although a fellow-traveler with the Nineties technotopians, Toop has always been attuned to ambivalence and reversibility.  In Ocean of Sound, he writes about a "sensation of non-specific dread that many people now feel when they think about life, the world, the future", but argues this is the other side of the coin to “a sensation of non-specific bliss.” In one of his most recent writings, he achieves a perfect poise of neutrality. It’s the foreword for Jean-Yves Leloup’s Digital Magma, a book that offers a Toopian reading of electronic dance culture in terms of “flux and network.”. Right there in the title there’s a geological pun that implicitly contrasts the molten flows of digital music with the solidity and stasis of rock.  But think about it: magma is uninhabitable, you can’t build anything on it, its liquidity liquidates all it touches.

In his foreword, Toop presents the effects of electricity on music in the 20th and 21st Centuries as an alternating current flipping back and forth between liberation and control.  Energy, flowing from fossil fuels or hydroelectric dams, passes through cables and airwaves and wirelessly into the info-sphere;  the current and the culture are a single force, “all flooded through” the “fields of economy, the symbolic and memory”. But every positive reference (astronauts gazing down at Earth) is counterbalanced by a negative (intercontinental ballistic missiles).  Then the final flourish: “With digital audio, the objects of music begin to disappear into an aether of intangible properties, a mist that enshrouds and disintegrates established structures with no regard for their traditions or values. Like the dizzying rise and fall of a financial system based on intangible commodities these new conditions plunge us into instability and uncertainty yet as cultural formations they also possess great potential for value and meaning”. The sentence trails off tentatively, an obligatory expression of faint hope  upstaged by the awesome, awful drama of recent cataclysm: currencies and assets in freefall, value voided, millions of live stalled still in limbo.


 “One must take care not to deterritorialize too quickly”-- Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. 1980

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere”—Seneca, circa 64 AD.

Where now for David Toop? The subject of his book-in-progress is improvisation.  I can only speculate, but it seems that a circle is being completed: returning Toop to where he started, if not as a fan of music then as a practitioner-conceptualist.  Back to music that exists outside mediation, entirely in the moment of its creation; music that in its truest form is never recorded, archived, distributed.  Music inseparable from the bodies of its composer-performers, from their presence in a shared present.  Concrete yet cosmic; ephemeral and eternal. 


a version of this article was delivered at the Off the Page festival in Whitstable, February 2012

bonus material at the Wire website - a Toopographical portal to  various related articles by Toop and others (and also me) plus a radio dialogue with music between Toop and Derek Walmsley



 You Are Not A Switch: Recreativity and the Modern Dismissal of Genius (Slate, October 5th 2012)


ZONING OUT (published as Leave Chillwave Alone)
Village Voice Pazz and Jop 2010 issue,   Jan 19 2011

by Simon Reynolds

Last summer, Pitchfork launched Altered Zones, a site dedicated to the "explosion of small-scale DIY music": all those recent protean micro-genres that reach a hardcore audience through ultra-limited cassette or vinyl releases, but accrue a much larger listenership thanks to blogs and file shares. What was intriguing was the decision to outsource the content—MP3s-with-blurbs, video premieres, artist-curated mixes, the occasional profile—to an "international team" of 15 blogs. Deftly balancing deference and co-optation, the move was a tacit admission that something was going on that the webzine itself couldn't quite handle, and a shrewd enlisting of those who could.

Altered Zones is invariably called Pitchfork's "sister site," but the missing word here is "younger"—there's an age difference large enough to be considered generational, maybe even epochal. Pitchfork thrived through adapting the print-music magazine to the Internet; its mindset still belongs to the era of criticism. But Altered Zones is an expanded version of the MP3 blog, with a sensibility that could be fairly described as post-critical: You'll almost never read a negative comment (MP3 blogs, by definition, don't post sound files they don't rate), and nothing gets graded on a 10.0 scale.

Founded by people whose formative musical experiences occurred before the Internet really took off, Pitchfork retains an attachment to notions like "importance" and "significance," along with such related pre-Web concepts as the geographically located scene, the gig as a privileged site where the community forms around a band, et al. But the Zones generation, artists and listeners alike, have never really known a time when music wasn't enmeshed with the Web. They have only a tenuous sense that music is something you pay for, and a much-diminished investment in live performance. In the '80s and '90s, Amerindie fans typically withheld judgment on a band's worth until they saw them "deliver" live. But when the Web is your primary new-music portal, live performance fades in importance. In the Zones, buzz bands are rarely bands as such: More often, they're just a guy in a bedroom.

The godfather of all this, of course, is Ariel Pink, who built a cult through mid-2000s albums The Doldrums, Worn Copy, and House Arrest, made at home on an eight-track, every last note played by himself. Like My Bloody Valentine with shoegaze, the sound Pink invented—'70s radio-rock and '80s new wave as if heard through a defective transistor radio, glimmers of melody flickering in and out of the fog—was so striking it could only become a chronic influence. Ironically, just as a legion of one-man bands emerged brandishing pre-faded sounds, Pink returned after a five-year silence with 2010's Before Today, an album recorded with a proper band, in a proper studio, and—in this realm, almost unheard of—with a proper producer. On songs like "Can't Hear My Eyes" and "Round and Round" (Pazz's #8 single, and Pitchfork's #1), Pink stripped away his trademark reverb-haze to reveal the formal perfection of his song structures in all their intricacy and ingenuity. As the title hinted, the album harked back to a lost golden age, approximately bookended by Rumours and Synchronicity, of professionally crafted, crisply produced pop-rock. That is to say, the very slickness and adultness that the lo-fi indie tradition originally defined itself against.

I wish glo-fi had caught on as the name for the genre spawned off those three Pink albums (a sound that Before Today ultimately leaves behind), since it at least captures something of their gloss and mess. But "chillwave" seems to be what we're saddled with, a term coined as a joke and wielded most energetically as a brick bat. For 2010 wasn't the Year of Chillwave so much as the Year of Chillwave Backlash, a flurry of jibes almost as formularized as detractors make out the music to be: obligatory reference to Hipstamatic + snigger at the name + invocation of nostalgia as a priori Bad Thing = entire region of music dismissed.

A fundamental human emotion, nostalgia is a perfectly respectable subject for art (see Proust, Nabokov, much poetry, and plenty of pop music, actually). For sure the gauzy sub-Galaxie wistfulness of all that beach pop gets tiresome. But the elegiac mode can also generate things like Mark McGuire's Living With Yourself, on which the Emeralds guitarist weaves "field recordings" of his burbling five-year-old self, originally taken by his father, into the rippling radiance of tracks like "The Vast Structure of Recollection." Living With Yourself, Emeralds's Does It Look Like I'm Here?, and Oneohtrix Point Never's Returnal (all released on the respected Austrian experimental label Mego) have similar temporal coordinates to Before Today, but draw on different resources: the late-period Krautrock of the Sky label, Manuel Göttsching, and soundtrack-era Tangerine Dream; New Age and the Ambient Series (Budd and Hassell as much as Eno). But the almost-clinical clarity of the textures and the mood-blend of serenity and sadness point to common ground between the instrumentals-only Oneohtrix/Emeralds sector and the song-oriented school of Pink.

That said, I don't think the N-word really has much to do with all the '80s ghosts haunting this music. From YouTube to sharity blogs, the Internet is an ever-expanding data sea, and these young musicians are really explorers, voyaging into the past and diving for pearls. Like the real ocean, it's full of flotsam, garbage, kitsch. But sometimes the plastic turns out to be the pearls. The paradigmatic move here is Oneohtrix-man Dan Lopatin's prising apart of Chris DeBurgh's sickly ballad "Lady in Red" to release the sliver of sublime that is "Nobody Here" (one of numerous "echo jams" he deposited on YouTube). But yacht rock and New Age were just the start of the '80s salvage trade. Hitherto disregarded genres of that decade like Goth and EBM entered the influence-mix this year, while How to Dress Well's gaseous take on r&b suggests that the '90s pop mainstream is next in line for archival extraction. Witch house belongs here, too, as just another "zone": Salem's Goth + screw + crunk cuts a diagonal through the '80s, '90s, and early noughties.

In "Hardcore Pops Are Fun," from 2006's House Arrest, Pink provided a kind of hymn/manifesto for this generation's ahistorical omnivorousness: "Pop music is free/For you and me . . . Pop music is wine/It tastes so divine." But he still had a foot in '90s irony ("Hardcore Pops" was actually recorded in 2001). Archness gets burned off completely in the music of those that came after him, replaced by an earnestness that aspires to spirituality. You can see the sensibility in both the music of key figures like James Ferraro and Sun Araw, and in the writing of Altered Zones contributors like 20 Jazz Funk Greats: hyper-referentiality without irony. From a distance it looks like postmodernism, but really it's something else: a mystical merger of Pop Art and psychedelia.

Earnestness is one of the defining attributes of "digimodernist" culture identified by the theorist Alan Kirby—other hallmarks are "onwardness" and "endlessness." On Altered Zones and its constellation of blogs, the flow is relentless: What matters is always the next new name, the latest micro-genre, another MP3 or MediaFire. Artist careers likewise are a continuous drip-drip-drip of releases, a dozen or more per year—there's no reason to edit or hold back, every reason to keep one's name out there. Stimuli streams in, largely via the Web; creativity streams out, largely via the Web. Today's musician is a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence. (That's me echo-jamming Eighties Baudrillard, by the way).

Which brings us back to Pitchfork's decision to create a sibling site. Why couldn't they just process the output from all these zones themselves, sort wheat from chaff? The answer perhaps is that there's just too much of the stuff, and that filtering doesn't seem to be quite the thing to do with it. This scene is about being engulfed and enthused, carried along by the currents of the new. Drifting not sifting. Before Today made the Top Tens of most of the blogs that make up this restless circuit, but, one senses, mostly out of sentimental loyalty to the forefather. Signed to a big label, touring to promote his big album, praised and profiled by big magazines, Pink no longer really belongs to the underground. Whether that now puts him in limbo, and whether any of his chill-dren (the most promising, Toro Y Moi and Neon Indian, both add Daft Punk to the mix) will follow him there, remains to be seen.


Total Recall: why retromania is all the rage
The Guardian, June 2 2011

by Simon Reynolds

There's no single thing that made me suddenly think, Hey, there's a book to be written about pop culture's chronic addiction to its own past. As the last decade unfolded, noughties pop culture became steadily more submerged in retro. Both inside music (reunion tours, revivalism, deluxe reissues, performances of classic albums in their entirety) and outside (the emergence of YouTube as a gigantic collective archive, endless movie remakes, the strange and melancholy world of retro porn), there was mounting evidence to indicate an unhealthy fixation on the bygone.

But if I could point to just one release that tipped me over the edge into bemused fascination with retromania, it would be 2006's Love, the Beatles remix project. Executed by George Martin and his son Giles to accompany the Cirque du Soleil spectacular in Las Vegas, the album's 26 songs incorporated elements from 130 individual recordings, both releases and demos, by the Fab Four.

Hyped as a radical reworking, Love was way more interesting to think about than to listen to (the album mostly just sounds off, similar to the way restored paintings look too bright and sharp). Love raised all kinds of questions about our compulsion to relive and reconsume pop history, about the ways we use digital technology to rearrange the past and create effects of novelty. And like Scorsese's Dylan documentary No Direction Home, Love was yet more proof of the long shadow cast by the 60s, that decade where everything seemed brand-new and ever-changing. We're unable to escape the era's reproaches (why aren't things moving as fast as they did back then?) even as the music's adventurousness and innocence make it so tempting to revisit and replicate.

For a moment there, Love looked like it might herald the opening of a new frontier of revenue-generation for rock legends keen to exploit their own archives. Would the Rolling Stones be next, I wondered? So far, surprisingly, the Beatles mash-up has proved to be a one-off, although Kate Bush's "new" album Director's Cut does rework songs from 1989's The Sensual World and 1993's The Red Shoes (a disappointing move for an artist once so forward-looking). But Love was a chart success and its platinum sales contributed to a remarkable statistic: the Beatles were the second-bestselling albums artist of the 2000s, shifting nearly 28m units. Indeed the Beatles book-ended the decade with 2000's singles anthology 1 (whose 11.5m copies made it the best-selling album of the 21st century so far) and 2009's massive reissue programme of the entire back catalogue.

Now the Beatles are the Beatles: they tower over the history of pop, so why wouldn't they be giving Eminem (the noughties No 1 bestseller with 33m) a run for his money? But think again, think comparatively: let's contrast pop with other commercial art forms such as film or fiction. David Lean and Stanley Kubrick's 1960s movies are epoch-defining classics and doubtless tick over nicely in DVD rental and TV airings, but neither dead director was breaking box office records this past decade. The quality fiction bestsellers of the 60s – zeitgeisty novels by JD Salinger, Philip Roth et al – remain a presence in our culture but did not trouble any noughties bestseller charts. Equally, there are no modern directors copping licks from Dr's Strangelove and Zhivago, nor authors styling novels after Portnoy's Complaint. But there are still bands ripping off the Beatles. Some are even pretty great, such as Tame Impala, whose latest LP Innerspeaker is a bit like the band decided Paperback Writer b/w Rain was rock's unsurpassable peak and decided to stay there, for ever.

Cinema isn't immune to retromania. Directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch still gamely fly the postmodern flag with films that are pastiche genre exercises or larded with in-joke references to cinematic history. The remake has become a fixture of the movie business, not so much for pomo reasons but because it's what people in the industry call a "presold concept". Unlike with rock, where most of the biggest-grossing tours involve reunions or wrinkly legends from the 60s and 70s, people won't go into the multiplexes to see a rereleased classic or blockbuster from yesteryear. But they will, seemingly, turn up for glitzy, pointless updates of major movies, such as the recent travesty of Arthur starring Russell Brand. TV has got in on the remake game, too, with new versions of The Prisoner, Charlie's Angels, Hawaii Five-O, and Britcom faves such as Minder and The Likely Lads. You also have the retro-chic series Life on Mars and its sequel Ashes to Ashes, whose appeal depends heavily on the sensation of utter immersion in the past through a fetishistic focus on period details of clothing, decor, food and so forth.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that pop music is the area where retromania really runs rampant. There is something peculiar, even eerie, about pop's vulnerability to its own history, the way the past accumulates behind it and hampers it, both as an actual sonic presence (on oldies radio, as reissues, through nostalgia tours and now via YouTube) and as an overpowering influence.

If you want further proof, there is no better evidence than the record that at the time of writing enjoys its 16th week at No 1 in the UK album chart: Adele's 21. In the US, her success (No 1 album for nine weeks, No 1 single with Rolling in the Deep) is so unusual for a British artist these days, it's tempting to see it as a flashback to the glory days when the Beatles and Stones sold black American music to white America. Except that those bands were doing it with contemporary rhythm-and-blues. Adele is literally flashing back to black styles that date from the same era as the Beatles and the Stones.
Adele is not quite as retro-fetishistic about it as Amy Winehouse, with her beehive, or Duffy, with her black-and-white video for Rockferry, her sample of Ben E King's Stand By Me in Mercy, and her name's echo of Dusty Springfield. But there is no doubt that her "anti-Gaga" appeal is based around the return to bygone values of gritty soulfulness. Adele's 21 consists of "timeless" songcraft influenced by Motown, southern soul and country, framed by "organic" arrangements featuring horns, banjos and accordions, with the whole package given just the slightest lick of modern slickness. The production involvement of Rick Rubin almost proposes Adele as somehow already an iconic veteran like Johnny Cash, in need of reverent rescue in the form of a "stripped down" sound.

I lived through the first revival of all this in the 80s, with Dexys Midnight Runners, Carmel, Style Council, the Christians, and the rest. It seemed corny and retrogressive then. In 1984, should someone have said to me, "If you want a vision of the future, imagine Alison Moyet emoting into a human face – for ever", I'd have laughed at them. I'm not laughing now. And just wait until the industry – desperate and with dollars signs in its eyes – floods the market with facsimiles.

Retro is not a completely new phenomenon, of course: pop has an extensive history of revivals and creative distortions of the musical past. What is different about the contemporary retromania is the aspect of total recall, instant recall, and exact recall that the internet makes possible. Fans can drown themselves in the entire history of music at no cost, because it is literally all up there for the taking. From YouTube's archive of TV and concert performances to countless music, fashion, photography and design blogs, the internet is a gigantic image bank that encourages and enables the precision replication of period styles, whether it's a music genre, graphics or fashion. As a result, the scope for imaginative reworking of the past – the misrecognitions and mutations that characterised earlier cults of antiquity like the 19th-century gothic revival – is reduced. In music especially, the combination of cheap digital technology and the vast accumulation of knowledge about how specific recordings were made, means that bands today can get exactly the period sound they are looking for, whether it's a certain drum sound achieved by Ringo Starr with help from the Abbey Road technicians or a particular synth tone used by Kraftwerk.

Hence the noughties phenomenon of the 80s revival. It actually started in the later years of the 90s and just kept going: a friend quipped that it has now lasted longer than the actual 80s did. La Roux's Elly Jackson, whose tunes could be placed right next to Yazoo or Eurythmics without the least bit of temporal disruption, declared recently that "synth pop is so over . . . If I see anything more 80s-themed, I'm going to bust". The gall of the gal! Black Eyed Peas's last big hit The Time borrowed its chorus from the 1987 smash (I've Had) The Time of My Life by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, suggesting that the 80s-extraction industry has run out of good stuff.

Peas's maestro is also a pioneer of 90s recycling: the non-80s parts of The Time sound like boshing techno-rave from the early days of Berlin's Love Parade. On the radio, every big R&B hit sounds less like R&B and more like Ibiza-trance or circa-1991 hip-house. Guest rappers such as Pitbull or Ludacris are obliged to spout party-hard inanities just like the MCs of Technotronic and CC & Music Factory once did.

Head into the post-indie musical zones of NME/Pitchfork and most of what you encounter is "alternative" only in the sense of offering an alternative to living in the present: Fleet Foxes, with their beards and balladry modeled on their parents' Crosby, Stills & Nash LPs; Thee Oh Sees' immaculate 60s garage photocopies; the Vivian Girls' revival of what was already a revival (C86 shambling pop). In indieland too we're starting to hear 90s vibes creeping in, from Yuck's grunge-era slacker-isms to Brother's Gallagher-esque "gritpop".

The deeper you venture into the underground, the more music involves pilfering from the past. This is one of the central mysteries that propelled me through the writing of Retromania: how come the very kind of people who would have once been in the vanguard of creating new music (bohemian early adopter types) have switched roles to become antiquarians and curators? In the underground, creativity has become recreativity. The techniques involved are salvage and citation; the sensibility mixes hyper-referential irony with reverent nostalgia.

Some of the music made in this spirit, from Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti to the output of labels such as Ghost Box and Not Not Fun, is among the most enjoyable and thought-provoking of our time. The book is not a lament for a loss of quality music – it's not like the well-springs of talent have dried up or anything – but it registers alarm about the disappearance of a certain quality in music: the "never heard this before" sensation of ecstatic disorientation caused by music that seems to come out of nowhere and point to a bright, or at least strange, future.

What seems to have happened is that the place that The Future once occupied in the imagination of young music-makers has been displaced by The Past: that's where the romance now lies, with the idea of things that have been lost. The accent, today, is not on discovery but on recovery. All through the noughties, the game of hip involved competing to find fresher things to remake: it was about being differently derivative, original in your unoriginality.

All the cool obscure resources such as Krautrock or acid-folk have been excavated long ago, which is why the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never, Hype Williams and LA Vampires started looking to 80s mainstream pop, megastars such as Hall & Oates, Michael McDonald and Sade. For today's underground bands, enough time has elapsed that the overground sounds of yesteryear seem exotic and mysterious. Certainly it's a lot less obvious to draw on this stuff than the Velvet Underground, Neu! or My Bloody Valentine. But as even these mainstream resources get exhausted – and when I talk about pop's addiction to its own past, the analogy is less with drugs than with the west's oil addiction – the cutting edge of hip music is looking to the pasts of foreign countries. For instance, the latest crush of Los Angeles cool-hunters such as Ariel Pink and Puro Instinct is Soviet new wave music, readily findable on YouTube. Associated with the youth subculture known as Stilyagi, the Soviet new wave offers a slightly askew mirror-image of western pop of the 80s.

The hipster underground is also where musical retromania intersects with the related phenomenon of vintage chic. From the fad for collecting quaint manual typewriters (either as decorative objects or to actually use) to the continuing boom for vintage clothing, there is a striking parallel with underground musicians's fetish for obsolete formats such as vinyl and cassette and with the antique-like trade in early analogue synthesisers. But the trend that is most emblematic of our time-out-of-joint culture is the vogue for digital photograph apps such as Hipstamatic and Instagram, which give snapshots the period look associated with cameras and film from the 70s and 80s. (See also ShakeIt, an app that mimics the Polaroid and works faster if you actually shake the iPhone.)

What does it say about our era that so many people think it's cool to place these pre-faded, instant-nostalgia filters on the images that will one day constitute their treasury of precious memories? When they look back to the early 21st century, their pics will look like they were taken two or three decades earlier, summoning up a long-lost era they don't have any reason to feel nostalgic about.

Just like retro video games such as Mega Man 9 that simulate quaint 8-bit visuals via a modern console, these retro-photo apps embody a central paradox of contemporary pop culture. We have all this futuristic technology at our disposal, endowing us with capabilities that would have seemed fantastical in 1972, but it is getting used as a time machine to transport us into yesterday, or to shuffle and share pop-cult detritus from long ago. We live in the digital future, but we're mesmerised by our analogue past. Hipstamatic-style apps also raise another question: when we listen back to the early 21st century, will we hear anything that defines the epoch? Or will we just find a clutter of reproduction antique sounds and heritage styles?


Searching for the Sound of Now (published as The Songs of Now Sound A Lot Like Then)
by Simon Reynolds

ONCE pop music was something by which you could tell the decade, or even the year. But listening to the radio nowadays is disorienting, if you’re searching for a sound that screams, “It’s 2011!”

Take the biggest hit of the year, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” The song is basically 1960s rhythm-and-blues tightened up with modern production. Everything about “Rolling” — its melody and lyrics, Adele’s delivery and timbre, the role played by the backing vocalists — gestures back to a lost golden age of soul singers like Etta James and Dusty Springfield. Then there’s Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You,” a hit from last year that’s still on the radio, and which moves a decade nearer the present through being steeped in the ’70s soul of acts like the Staple Singers.

Elsewhere on Top 40 radio you’ll hear a lot of brash, pounding songs that sound like ’90s club music. Recent smashes by performers like Black-Eyed Peas, LMFAO, Kesha, Pitbull, Taio Cruz, Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears recall the “hip house” sound of hitmakers like Technotronic and C&C Music Factory, or mid-’90s trance anthems by Paul Van Dyk and B T. It may require a mental exercise to bring out the true weirdness of this development: Imagine how peculiar it would have been if in the early ’90s the charts were suddenly flooded with music that sounded exactly like ’70s disco.

Figures like Lady Gaga and groups including the Black Eyed Peas reach even further back and throw ’80s flavors into the ’90s Eurohouse mix: the resemblance between Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was widely noted on its release this year. “Just Can’t Get Enough” by the Black Eyed Peas references Styx’s “Mr. Roboto,” while their song “The Time” borrows its chorus from Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life.”

Much of this déjà entendu dancepop is exciting in its crass, energy-drink-blast kind of way. So why does the aural overfamiliarity matter? Well, up until the 2000s pop decades always had epoch-defining sounds. Two or three (sometimes more) genres would emerge to achieve dominance or, at the very least, prominence in the mainstream. Musical styles usually build on the past to some degree, but these genres always took their sources in striking and fresh directions, and they often wrapped the music up in subcultural garb, with a distinct fashion element, new rituals and dance moves, and so forth.

The ’70s generated heavy metal, punk, disco, reggae and more. The ’80s spawned hip-hop, synthpop and Goth. The ’90s had grunge and the techno/rave/electronic explosion. But the decade and a bit that followed the turn of the millennium has produced — well, what exactly? Hip-hop and R&B have built incrementally, at times imperceptibly, on where they were at during the ’90s. Emo is a tuneful and melodramatic merger of pop-punk and Goth. True, if you venture into the musical left field, you will find various underground genres that can claim at least relative freshness: grime and dubstep in Britain, the post-indie sounds of Animal Collective and similar bands in America. But their effects on mainstream pop music has been minimal.

Those who don’t have much personal investment in the idea that popular music should always be pushing forward probably won’t be especially troubled by the current pop scene’s muddled mix of stasis and regression. But those whose expectations have been shaped by growing up during more fast-moving and ever-changing pop decades — which is basically all of them to date except for the 2000s — are likely to be perplexed and disheartened by these developments. In particular the innovation-obsessed ’60s and the cyber-optimistic ’90s instilled an ideal of pop music as herald of the future, a vanguard sector of the culture that was a little bit ahead of the rest of society.

The fading of newness and nowness from pop music is mystifying. But in the last couple of years a concept has emerged that at least identifies the syndrome, even if it doesn’t completely explain it. Coined by the co-founders of cyberpunk fiction William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, “atemporality” is a term for the disconcerting absence of contemporaneity from so much current pop culture. This curious quality can be detected not just in pop music but in everything from fashion to graphic design to vintage chic.

A prime example of atemporality is the fad for photography apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram, which digitally simulate the period atmosphere of pictures taken in the ’70s or ’80s, using the cameras and film stock of the time. Instant-nostalgia snapshots are part of a culture-wide fascination with outmoded technology and “dead media” (Mr. Sterling’s term) that encompasses everything from the cults for manual typewriters and cassettes to the steampunk movement’s fetish for Victoriana to the recent movie “Super 8.”

Mr. Sterling sees the time-out-of-joint nature of today’s pop as a side effect of digiculture. One of the curiosities of the futuristic-seeming information technology that we now enjoy is that it has dramatically increased the presence of the past in our lives. From YouTube to iTunes, from file-sharing blogs to Netflix, the sheer volume and range of back catalogue music, film, TV and so forth that is available for consumption is astounding.

We can access all this stuff with incredible speed and convenience, share it and store it with minimal effort. But a potential downside of this sudden “affluence” is a flood of influences that can overwhelm the imagination of young musicians, who are absorbing five decades of pop history in a frenetic jumble. Their attention is also being competed for by music from outside the Anglophone rock and pop traditions, everything from West African guitarpop to Soviet New Wave music to Ethiopian electronic funk from the 1980s.

The musical omnivorousness that the Internet has encouraged and enabled is one reason atemporality is even more pronounced when you listen to alternative radio stations, which specialize in music by bands that consciously aim to have broad taste and to develop unusual portfolios of influences. Listen to KCRW (89.9 FM), the NPR-affiliated station in Los Angeles whose programming often wanders between genres and decades, leaving listeners to wonder if a particular track was recorded in 2011 or in 1981, or in 1971.

A few weeks ago the station played a gorgeously dreamy tune whose rippling, dewy-with-reverb keyboard part and yearningly melodic bass line seemed uncannily redolent of late ’70s Fleetwood Mac. Was this actually a lost Mac song circa 1977’s “Rumours”? Or was it an offering from one of the growing number of contemporary indie bands influenced by ’70s soft rock? The song turned out to be “Roscoe” by Midlake, a group of 21st-century soft-rockers from Denton, Tex. But it was a remixed version made by the British outfit Beyond the Wizard’s Sleeve with clear intent to bring out further the Fleetwood Mac-iness of the song. And then, to show they were in on it, the programmers at KCRW followed “Roscoe” by playing “Rhiannon.”

That 1976 Fleetwood Mac hit is the kind of staple tune you’d normally hear on a classic rock station rather than KCRW, whose sensibility is like a slightly more adult version of the online hip music magazine Pitchfork. And this shows how atemporality has not just jumbled up the decades, it’s eroded the barriers between genres. The iPod shuffle is the era’s defining music technology. One result on the radio dial is the rise of formats like Jack FM that seemingly mimic a middle-aged man’s iPod in shuffle mode: a restless drifting that nevertheless stays within defined taste limits.

The iPod shuffle and similar digital platforms for music listening have a contradictory result: on the one hand it serves to erode the historical divisions between kinds of music by its decontextualizing effect, on the other hand it enables fans to avoid entirely music they don’t like. So the programming on Jack FM (whose slogan is “Playing what we want”) slips back and forth between ’70s and ’80s, Old Wave and New Wave, with occasional excursions into the late ’60s (Hendrix, Creedence) or the ’90s (Sublime, Smashing Pumpkins). It’s a world where hip-hop and techno-rave never happened, but also where ZZ Top and the Clash are no longer on opposing sides.

Does the atemporality of so much modern pop music mean that when in the future we listen back to early-21st-century pop, we won’t be able to identify a sound that characterizes the period? Fans often identify periods of pop by their production hallmark. So they’ll talk (usually to complain) about ’80s drum sounds. If there’s a modern equivalent, it’s the superhumanly perfect vocals featured in so much current pop and rock thanks to Auto-Tune, the pitch-correction processor made by Antares Audio Technologies.

The slickness of Auto-Tuned singing seems to have a similar aesthetic quality to the design of smartphones and MP3-players and other hand-held gadgets, or to the C.G.I. effects in modern Hollywood blockbusters and the glossy hyper-real imagery in video games. Auto-Tune vocals even seem a bit sci-fi. Which is why in one Black Eyed Peas song sings, in heavily processed tones, about how he’s got “that future flow/that digital spit” (not a reference to saliva, but to rapping). Take away the Auto-Tune sheen, though, and there’s little about Black Eyed Peas records to indicate they weren’t made in the ’90s. The same applies to other recent dance pop smashes by the likes of Taio Cruz, Kesha and Lady Gaga.

Pop music in the 2000s may not have made any huge strides on a formal level (the way songs are written, grooves constructed and so forth), but on this cosmetic level of the digital gloss that’s been applied to the vocals you could say that it does sound of its time. (Which is also why the rasp of Adele and Cee-Lo Green is a deliberate throwback to the era of vocal grit and grain, a bid for “timelessness.”)

For better or worse Auto-Tune is the date stamp of today’s pop: it will date badly, and then it will go through all the stages of starting to see charmingly quaint, cute, cool. Who knows, at some point in the near future it might well become a revivable sound, embraced first by early adopter hipsters who will hunt down “vintage” Auto-Tune plug-ins in the same way that they currently collect antique synthesizers and old-fashioned valve amplifiers.


 The Ghost of Teen Spirit: grunge nostalgia and the end of the monoculture
(Slate, August 23, 2011)

by Simon Reynolds

For the final night of Britain's Reading Festival on Aug. 28, the promoters have something unusual lined up to entertain the 80,000-plus rock fans who congregate there annually. On the alternative stage there will be a screening of Nirvana's legendary performance at Reading in 1992, when Cobain and his bandmates triumphantly headlined a bill of grunge and alternative rock groups they'd personally selected. In an interview earlier this summer, festival booker Tania Harrison declared, "It was such a legendary performance that so many people haven't seen ... one of those seminal moments that changed everything, which is what Reading's all about."

This decision is perplexing on a number of levels. First, there's the obvious oddness of interrupting the schedule of live groups in favor of a dead group. Then there's the curious fact that Reading's promoters, aiming to capitalize on 2011's status as the Official Anniversary of Grunge, are showing the footage of the gig on its 19th anniversary, a year ahead of customary schedule. (Nirvana did actually appear at Reading in August 1991 but were still relatively unknown and played midway through the bill.) Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about this exercise in time travel, though, is how it isn't really that surprising. It's exactly the sort of thing that you'd kinda expect from a pop culture increasingly characterized by a compulsion to revisit and reconsume its own past.

One of the primary aims of my book Retromania is to defamiliarize an attitude that has gradually, insidiously installed itself as normal. To do so requires memory exercises and techniques of retro-speculation: in this case, asking yourself whether the promoters of Woodstock, or the first Lollapalooza in 1991, would have lowered a giant screen onstage and projected footage of a gig from two decades earlier? The answer is no: They were too busy confidently making history to bother with referring back to it.

Nirvana's ghostly reappearance at Reading is the first course of a banquet of grunge retrospection this fall. Early September sees the publication of Everybody Loves Our Town, a 555-page oral history of the Seattle grunge scene by Mark Yarm (a name freakily close to Mark Arm, Mudhoney's singer). On Sept. 20, Pearl Jam Twenty, Cameron Crowe's documentary about the band's career, is released to theaters in tandem with the PJ20 soundtrack, a double CD of rare and unreleased tracks plus a 36-page hardcover book written by the director. A week later Geffen will roll out the deluxe expanded reissue of Nevermind, which in its most extravagant form presents four CDs and one DVD and gathers up every last alternative mix, B-side, demo version, and boombox-recorded rehearsal take of the songs. More laudably, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is staging a "whole album" rendition of Nevermind at Seattle's rock museum, Experience Music Project, to raise money for the band's former publicist, who is battling cancer.

All this grunge retro-action takes place amid chatter about a '90s revival already in full swing and encompassing everything from tours by alt-rock stalwarts like Pavement, Soundgarden, and the Lemonheads, the return of Beavis and Butt-Head and 120 Minutes to MTV, and Nickelodeon's recent bout of '90s-nostalgia programming. The latter garnered good viewing figures, but what is striking about the recent "9ties R Back!" blather is the absence of any real sense of "by popular demand." The retrospection feels rote, the predictable upshot of the way that commemorative cycles have become a structural, in-built component of the media and entertainment industry. This revival is largely top-down, not grass-roots. Everybody benefits: Magazines generate content to fill their pages, record companies can bolster their ailing bottom line by rereleasing archival material (guaranteed profits, since the original recordings were already paid for long ago) in spiffy, bulked-up form, and the commentariat gets something to reassess and pontificate about. Yet the intervals—always measured in decades, the 10th or 20th birthday of whatever-it-may-be—are arbitrary, governed by a calendrical metric that has little to do with whether there's any actual yearning out there to relive the event/artist/era in question.

Not strictly '90s but closely related to this wave of pseudo-nostalgia is the forthcoming oral history I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum. The book ends in 1992, when The Real World debuted, prefiguring MTV's abandonment of music in favor of reality TV. As a Brit who in 1990-92 was spending something like 50 percent of my time in New York and therefore witnessed grunge's MTV breakthrough, it struck me that the music channel had become what America had always lacked before: a nationwide forum for pop music that played the same role that the state-owned pop station Radio One and BBC's weekly chart show Top of the Pops had done in the United Kingdom.

American radio had always been vastly more diverse and regionally scattered than the near-monopoly that was Radio One, while American Bandstand never loomed as large as Top of the Pops, a program watched by one-fifth of the British population. MTV was what made grunge's rapid crossover possible. At the same time, grunge confirmed MTV's gatekeeping power while giving it a dose of credibility sorely needed after the hair-metal years of Poison and Warrant. The channel's combination of flexing its power while also being musically and stylistically rejuvenated went to MTV's head: Remember the slogan "the revolution will be televised," the "Rock the Vote" campaign, and MTV's somewhat unseemly pride in supposedly having rallied the youth vote behind Bill Clinton?

What I'm suggesting is that an undercurrent to grunge retrospection is the music media's and record industry's own nostalgia for the heyday of the rock monoculture. It was already crumbling in the early '90s, thanks to rap (the rebel music of black youth, obviously, but a lot of white kids had defected to hip-hop, too) and to the emergence of rave and electronic dance culture (in America destined always to be a minority subculture, but in Europe the dominant form of '90s pop). Grunge was the last blast of rock as a force at once central in popular culture yet also running counter to mainstream show biz values.

Not only did grunge give MTV a timely Botox session but it underwrote the heyday of Spin magazine, which this year noticeably jumped the gun on everybody else with its "What Nevermind Means Now" cover story (Kurt in a swimming pool recreating the album's iconic baby-swimming-underwater image) and accompanying tribute LP Newermind (covers of the LP's tracks by Kurt's heroes the Vaselines and Meat Puppets, among others). The Spin website's own staff-written blurb for August's "Special Issue: the 20th Anniversary of the Album That Changed Everything" wryly notes the "symbiotic, borderline codependent" relationship between the magazine and grunge, and admits that "back in 2001, when we published a tenth anniversary Nevermind issue, one letter-writing wag remarked, 'So, still pickin' those bones, huh?'"

If grunge was a last blast, the aftershocks carried on deep into the '90s. Spin and MTV both tried to repeat the grunge effect (an underground sound going overground, overnight) with electronica. By the time nu-metal hit at the turn of the millennium, MTV had shrewdly shed the M in its name and moved decisively toward round-the-clock reality. The heavily edited and contrived quasi-vérité version of young life offered by these programs eclipsed the gritty authenticity that grunge had represented.

Along with reality TV, something else had risen up during the '90s that was all set to radically transform music consumption, music fandom, and music industry alike. In my mind, if nobody else's, the death of Kurt Cobain is freakily intertwined with the rise of the Web. During 1994, I was back living in the United Kingdom and—here's where you really have to do a memory exercise, mentally re-create a sense of what life was like then in terms of access to information and news—the remarkable thing was how little coverage there was in the British media of Cobain's suicide. So that grim weekend, my wife—an early adopter of everything to do with computers—went online, where we found teeming communities of grief, speculation, rumor, and memorialization. It was mindblowing, actually: the moment at which I woke up to the potential of the Internet, from its leveling effects (in one forum, Buzzcock Pete Shelley, who'd toured with Nirvana, chatted with distraught Kurt fans) to the threat it posed to traditional media.

Cobain, arguably the last rebel-rocker-as-star, had owed his rise to the centralizing power of the old media; now in his death, he was entangled with the emerging new media disorder. The old media and entertainment channels (what I think of as the analog system) constructed the mainstream while simultaneously creating the possibility of that mainstream being breached and reinvigorated by forces "outside." In grunge's case, that meant the flannel-wearing, slacker-minded alt-rock underground that had developed during the '80s, fostered by a network of independent labels. This curious process of inversion—the underground becoming the overground—was how the analog system had worked repeatedly in the past. ('50s rock'n'roll came initially from the regional independent labels.) And with Nirvana and their fellow travelers, that's how it worked one last time.

But what is also true is that that the media organs of the analog system generated what you might call the "Epochal Self-Image": a sense of a particular stretch of years as constituting an era, a period with a distinct "feel" and spirit. That sense is always constructed, always entails the suppression of the countless disparate other things going on in any given stretch of time, through the focus on a select bunch of artists, styles, recordings, events, deemed to "define the times." If we date the takeoff point of the Internet as a dominant force in music culture to the turn of the millennium (the point at which broadband enabled the explosive growth of filesharing, blogging, et al.), it is striking that the decade that followed is characterized by the absence of epochal character. It's not that nothing happened ... it's that so many little things happened, a bustle of microtrends and niche scenes that all got documented and debated, with the result that nothing was ever able to dominant and define the era.

The failure is bound-up with the erosion of the filtering function of the media and its increasing inability to marshal and synchronize popular taste around particular artists or phenomena. The Internet works against convergence and consensus: the profusion of narrowcast media (blogs, netradio, innumerable outlets of analysis and opinion) and the accelerated way that news and buzz get disseminated, mean that it is harder and harder for a cultural phenomenon to achieve full-spectrum dominance of the attention economy. Now triumphant, the digital system has interfered with our very sense of culture-time.

That is why it is so hard to see what, from the last dozen years or so of rock, could be the focus for future commemorative or revivalist impulses. Can you envisage the 20th anniversary of the Strokes' debut album, or the White Stripes's breakthrough LP, White Blood Cells, being celebrated? Spin will not be able to put either group on the cover under the legend "The Album That Changed Everything," because neither record came close to Nevermind's paradigm-shift. (Remember the droves of grunge-lite copyists like Silverchair and Bush? The undignified way that even superestablished bands like Metallica tried to de-metallicize their sound and image? How Axl Rose disappeared into a bunker of botched self-reinvention for 15 years?) Even less epoch-defining clout could be claimed for those Pitchfork-anointed bands who've codified the post-indie sound of the 2000s such as Arcade Fire and Animal Collective.

When people—fans, critics, industry, whoever—look back to grunge, then, what they feel wistful for is not just the particulars of that moment (flannel, shaggy hair, down-tuned guitar sounds, Tabitha Soren) or even qualities that music seemed to have then and since lost (anger, rebellion, spontaneity, anti-gloss realness, etc). It is for the concept of period vibe in itself, for "aura of era" in the abstract. It is a nostalgia for a time when the Zeit actually possessed a Geist.


"Geist" means spirit or ghost. Which brings us back to this year's Reading Festival and the spectral reappearance of Nirvana on its stage, in the form of that one-year-premature showing of the 1992 performance. A show that British rockmag Kerrang! ranked at No. 1 in their list of 100 Gigs That Shook The World ... and that turned out to be Nirvana's last-ever U.K. concert.

The Nirvana "repeat" derives its meaning and value from something historic that happened two decades earlier. But its presence in the present—its re-present-ation—works against anything equally world-shaking happening again. For sure, the chances are remote that something as momentous as the Nirvana show would have occurred during the hour or so that the old concert footage takes up in the schedule, should some contemporary band have played during that precise time slot instead. But we'll never know, and the more that the present is taken up with reunion tours, re-enactments, and contemporary revivalist groups umbilically bound by ties of reference and deference to rock's glory days, the smaller the chances are that history will be made today.

One thing we can definitively say is that the screening of the classic Nirvana gig is an anti-event, a black hole in history. That hour in which young and old alike gawp at a world-shaking performance from 1992, is dead time: the time of repetition and simulation. Another, harsher way of putting it: The dead man on that screen is more alive than the people watching him.

RETRO ACTIVE / Shabby Chic / Lana Del Rey
director's cut of lead essay for Spin's relaunch issue NOW, March/April 2012

by Simon Reynolds  

Watch out Adele! There’s another soul lady coming up behind you and her name is Lana Del Rey.” So said a Top 40 radio deejay last month, transitioning between “Rolling In the Deep” and “Video Games”. 

The patter wasn’t just a canny way to introduce an unfamiliar song to mainstream listeners, it was an astute bit of music criticism. Adele and Lana Del Rey are both young women who’ve had their hearts broken, singing about it via overtly non-contemporary musical idioms:  Etta James-style Sixties soul, in Adele’s case, and, with Del Rey, something less tightly anchored to specific sources but equally old-timey in its evocations of the Fifties and Sixties.  The question these two singers raise is: why do these otherwise thoroughly modern women express first-hand feelings in such second-hand imagery? Why coat something raw and real in this vintage veneer?

Lana Del Rey arrived on the scene too recently for inclusion in my book Retromania, but—just like Adele—she’s an absolute gift when it comes to talking it up: “look, see, that’s what I’m on about!” Yet they each represent different kinds of retro-pop.  Adele’s is unselfconscious, an artist adopting an old-fashioned style as if it was the most natural thing in the world, neither adding much to it nor drawing attention to its out-of-time quality. Escort, the New York disco troupe featured in this special issue of Spin, belong in this category. One hallmark of unselfconscious retro is not dressing the part, not looking like you’ve time-travelled from the period in question.  
Lana Del Rey is closer to the hyper-conscious retro that’s endemic in indie/underground music, where clothes and artwork evoke a bygone era, and lyrics often teem with allusions and references.  Frankie Rose & the Outs, also featured in this issue, are a prime example,   from their Sixties girl group sound to songs like “Thee Only One” (the “thee” nods to various bands led by Sixties-revivalism-pioneer Billy Childish, but can be traced further back to Sixties garage bands like Thee Midnighters) to the  cover of the 7-inch single version of that song, which Rose wanted to “look like a cross between a Blue Note album and an old French pop 45.”

Retro of this kind, where a band’s sound-and-visuals incorporate citations and spotting them is integral to the fan’s enjoyment, is not a new thing, of course. It’s been part of indie almost from the start (The Smiths’s iconographic record-sleeves, Jesus and Mary Chain or Butthole Surfers “sampling” riffs or backing vocal refrains from Sixties and Seventies legends). You can trace it back further still, through glam’s Fifties rock’n’roll echoes all the way to The Beatles’s 1968 Chuck Berry pastiche “Back In the U.S.S.R.”. Yet there’s no doubt that this kind of conscious retro-activity has intensified in the 21st Century. Partly that’s a result of just how extensive the archive of pop history is at this point (five decades and growing!). And partly it’s because the broadband era made accessing all that history so easy. YouTube, especially, is a vast, ever-expanding repository of videos and music-on-TV clips. It’s also an audio library that holds virtually every instance of pop (and unpop) music extant.  You can school yourself there, free of charge.

Which brings us back to Lana Del Rey. Her rocket-like ascent through the buzzosphere was propelled by videos she put on YouTube made out of footage she’d found on Youtube.  “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” put History in shuffle mode:  a miasma of Americana that drifts back and forth across the decades but is unified by its sustained elegiac mood of not-now-ness.  Amid the appropriated home-movie-footage of swimming pools and skateboarders and kids on mopeds,  specific allusions pop up:  Chateau Marmont, Lana in Lolita sunglasses from Kubrick’s movie, Lana in a racing driver jacket that suggests Evil Knievel or 1970s road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, Lana in a white leather fringe jacket that echoes Easy Rider or Elvis-in-Vegas. 

According to Del Rey, though, the invocations of places like Las Vegas and LA in her videos (and also her lyrics) aren’t really references so much as mood-tints.  “The thing that fascinates me about all of them is the colors of the places,” she says on the phone, in transit to another mythic-Americana landscape she adores, Coney Island.  “The muted blues and greens in California, the bright lights of Vegas...  People ask me about what the Fifties imagery from California represents to me, but actually I’m mainly just a visual person.   Sometimes when my producer and I talk about songs, we talk about them in terms of colors. In a way the album was visually driven. “

Part of the nostalgia effect of the found footage in Del Rey’s videos derives from the properties of the different kinds of film stock, including the specific way that it ages and decays.  The bleached and blotchy textures trigger a poignant sense of time’s passage, an inkling that even your most halcyon memories will fade to nothingness.  “Blue Jeans” explicitly forefronts the idea of “dead media” and antiquated formats with its opening footage of a hand grabbing a pack of Eastman Ektrachrome Super 8 film.

Lana Del Rey may be about to become the first Hipstamatic pop star.  (If she can get past the negative bump of her stilted Saturday Night Live performance, widely and somewhat unfairly deemed disastrous). Photo apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram,  or Fuuvi’s new faux-Super8 device the Bee, offer a digital simulation of an analogue past. Something similar is going on with Del Rey’s music : old-timey instruments like mandolins, strings, harps and twangy surf guitar make up much of its texture, but there’s also  unidentifiable sounds that are clearly sampled and processed, while the beats on Born To Die ‘s more uptempo tunes are boombastic,  hip hop in impact if not  feel.  The result:  the RZA meets Lee Hazelwood. Factor in Del Rey’s choices in clothes, hair, and make-up, and it’s clear she’s the perfect pop singer for the era of vintage chic. 

Not that she’s the only artist around offering a pre-faded sound-and-vision.  Perfume Genius, also featured in Spin this month, has a similar “warm”,  softened-by-age sound, and a video, for “Lookout, Lookout”, set in a quaint motel, complete with rotary phone. 

It’s not just the stylized form of Lana Del Ray’s songs that harks back to olden days, it’s the emotional content too:  a language of romantic excess redolent of Roy Orbison’s most over-the-top ballads or Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World”. Love as malady and madness, delirium, delusion... and death.  From its title on down, Born To Die is full of it: “I’m not afraid to say that I’d die without him,” “I wish I was dead”...

“I don’t really condone relying on another person to the point where you’re going to die without them,” says Del Rey.  “Something I never really expected was to have gotten into a relationship that ended up being very tumultuous.  But I had met someone who was so magnetic and made me feel differently from the way that I felt for so long, which was sort of confused and bored...  and because in the end we couldn’t be together, it ended up having a do-or-die element to it.  I kept on falling back to that place in terms of inspiration for the songs.” 

Born To Die goes beyond retro-romance, though, to retro-sexuality, retro-gender.  All those yielding, doe-eyed ballads of abject devotion look back in languor to a time when men were men and women were thankful. A pre-feminist world, or more precisely, America before Betty Friedman’s The Feminine Mystique was published (1963).  “This Is What Makes Us Girls” seems to define femininity as being a fool for love:  “We all look for heaven and we put love first/Don’t you know we’d die for it?/It’s a curse.”  At the other extreme, there are songs about women who uses wiles to get what they want. “Off to The Races” recalls Ginger, the Casino character played by Sharon Stone, except if she was as docile and adoring as DeNiro’s Sam Rothstein hoped.  She’s a moll, wasting a rich man’s money (“give me them coins”), breaking into a Betty Boo squeak for the lines “I’m your little harlot, starlet” and purring “Tell me you own me”.

 “I’m an interesting mix of person,” says Del Rey defensively, with just a hint of annoyance.  “I am a modern day woman.  I’m self-supporting. I went to college. I studied philosophy. I write my own music. But I also very appreciate being in the arms of a man and finding support that way. That feeling influences the kind of melodies I choose and how romantic I make the song. Maybe it ends up giving it a slightly unbalanced feeling.”  Asked about the references in other songs  to good-girls-gone-bad  (“degenerate beauty queens” is one memorable lyric), she points to David Lynch’s movie Wild At Heart as not so much an inspiration as a parallel with phases in her life. “The way I ended up having relationships and living life, it sometimes mimics those more wild relationships.”

The Lynch connection highlights a curious quality of Del Rey’s whole shtick: not only does it hark back to the Fifties and Sixties, it also recalls the Eighties’s own invocations of that time. Movies like Blue Velvet, Jim Jarmusch’s Strangers in Paradise and Mystery Train, the S.E. Hinton adaptations Rumblefish and The Outsiders. Musicians as various as Tom Waits, Alan Vega, Chris Isaak, Mazzy Star. This syndrome isn’t  unique to Del Rey, though.  The scene that Frankie Rose belongs to—Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls—reaches Spector’s wall of sound and the Sixties girl group’s via Eighties British indiepop, specifically Jesus and Mary Chain and the “C86” movement of bands like The Shop Assistants. Then there’s The Men, also in this issue, who draw from the harder side of Eighties U.K. psych-revivalism. On their song “( )” they filch not just the riff from Spacemen 3’s “Revolution” but a chunk of its lyric (“And I suggest to you/That it takes/Just five seconds”) along with lines from “Take Me To the Other Side”.

If retro culture has reached the point where we’re seeing revivals of revivals, citations of citations (Spacemen 3’s “Revolution” was itself an already-somewhat-hokey homage to MC5), what are the implication for music going forward? As time goes by, signs become steadily more detached from their historical referents, hollowed out.  All these sounds, gestures, time-honored phrases, are entering into a freefloating half-life, or afterlife, where all they represent is pure style: a dated-yet-timeless beauty.

This appears to be the ghosty place where Lana Del Rey comes from.  In “Without You”, she sings “but burned into my brain/all these stolen images” and I can’t help thinking of Blade Runner and the androids who are given transplanted memories.  Her lyrics teem with sampled clichés (“walk on the wild side”, “white lightning”) and iconic brand-names (“white Pontiac heaven”).  But she says that the Pontiac allusion isn’t for its pop-cultural associations (Two Lane Blacktop and other 70s movies, songs by Tom Waits and Jan & Dean) so much as “just the sound” of the word.  “Lana Del Rey” itself was chosen for its lilting loveliness rather than its rippling resonances (a platinum-blonde Hollywood idol with a turbulent and tragic private life, a 1950s Chevrolet, a California beach-town). “My music was always beautiful and I wanted a name that was beautiful too.”

“Beautiful” crops up repeatedly in Del Rey’s conversation, as it does in her lyrics. She seems to be intensely susceptible to the splendor of appearances, to the point of vulnerability. “You look like a million dollar man/so why is my heart broke?” she beseeches plaintively in “Million Dollar Man”.  The gap between image and reality, between “real and the fake”, is an obsession. So is fame, portrayed as the dangerous desire to lose oneself by merging into a glamorous facade. “I even think I found god in the flashbulbs of your pretty cameras,” she sings in “Without You”, while the words “Movie Star Without a Cause” flash up in the video for “Blue Jeans”.

Then there’s “Carmen”, seemingly a song about a 17-year-old starlet who’s dying inside and only comes alive when “the camera’s on”, but actually a perturbing self-portrait. “‘Carmen’ is probably the song closest to my heart,” says Del Rey. “’Famous and dumb in an early age’—that’s fame in a different way, in different circles, for different reasons. Not really for being a pop star. It’s sort of like, my life”. Born To Die is at once the result of—yet also somehow about--an imagination so colonized by old movies and old songs that real life can only be expressed, or maybe even experienced, through this “cinematic” prism.  Is this an artist’s distancing mechanism, a buffer to manage the emotion? Or was the actual love affair itself contaminated by fantasy and role-play?


What we have with Lana Del Rey is the problem of the undeniable talent who is also a throwback, and thus sets back the cause of musical modernism. (See also: The White Stripes).  She’s not a straightforward revivalist: the music and the presentation are diversely sourced and the end result is a sophisticated and often seductive concoction.  But it still falls, ultimately, within the domain of pastiche, memorably defined as “speech in a dead language”.  Given her passive persona, it’s tempting to say that the ghosts of pop culture’s collective unconscious are speaking through her.    

Born To Die, haunted by lost lovers (“there’s no remedy for memory”), the spectre of Spector stalking indie-land... it’s all somewhat gloomy and morbidly retrospective.  Are there upsides to the contemporary condition that some call “atemporality”, where past, present and future blur indistinguishably and the entire history of music is at your clicking fingertips?  Definitely. You can travel to time-zones that no one else has, as Destroyer did with Kaputt, a tour through regions of 1980s pop that neither synthpoppers like La Roux nor chillwavers like Neon Indian cared to visit. You can create “superhybrids” that draw on disparate sources from far-flung eras and locations, as artists as wildly dissimilar and energetically inventive as Vampire Weekend, Grimes, and Rustie have done.  You can become mesmerized by “lost futures”  of  70s synth music and attempt to start again where they left off, as with Emeralds and its members’s solo careers (such as Steve Hauchildt’s recent, brilliant Tragedy & Geometry), not forgetting all the Emeralds proteges who record for the label Spectrum Spools.  Similar neo-futurist moves are made off the back of 80s electro-funk and electronic space music by Oneohtrix Point Never, Ford & Lopatin, and their protégés Napolian and The Renaissance. The archive can be a radical resource,  if its immense array of musical precedents are used as launching pads into the unknown, rather than touchstones to recreate. The challenge is daunting but far from impossible: to make music that doesn’t remind you of X or Y, but prominds you of something yet to come.


essay for Sleek magazine, Germany, early 2012

by Simon Reynolds

“Brand New You’re Retro”, sneered the British rapper Tricky back in 1995.  This taunt, directed at some unknown adversary, could easily be repurposed as a general indictment of pop culture in 2012.  Tricky’s cutting catchphrase conveys just how often the superficial appearance of freshness and novelty masks recycled derivativeness and stale familiarity.  

Another line in the song “Brand New You’re Retro” speaks of “a dread of the past and fear of the future.”  There’s no shortage of future-fear at the moment:  anxious uncertainty rules the day, tomorrow looks less and less likely to be an improvement on the present.  A shaky Eurozone; nuclear war in the Middle East looms as a possibility; economists wondering whether economic growth is an unsustainable dream;  an environment that, frankly, looks fucked. But “dread of the past”? Quite the opposite! Here in the 21st Century, we’re obsessed with 20th Century pop culture, mesmerized by its mythic giants and fascinated by all its obscure corners and forgotten figures.  Perhaps it makes perfect sense: future-fear and nostalgia are two sides of the same coin, in precarious times people look back to a past that was more stable. But if you’re the kind of person, like me, who looks to popular culture for forward-looking energy and the promise of endless renewal,  all this retrospection and rehashing just adds to the gloom. 

Take pop music. The 2000s were consumed by a long Eighties revival that took in synthpop, postpunk, and most recently goth/ industrial/EBM (with acts like Zola Jesus, and Xeno & Oaklander). Now, right on cue, we’re seeing the start of Nineties-retro: bands inspired by  grunge (Yuck, Joy Formidable, EMA), shoegaze (Cults, M83),  and early house (outfits like Miracles Club and Teengirl Fantasy,  labels like  100% Silk and Ecstasy Records).  Yet you couldn’t say that current music is unified by a dominant “Nineties-flashback” character, because virtually every other decade of pop history is getting ransacked too.  “Revival simultaneity”, I call it: a temporally confused music scene where Fifties rockabilly-influenced artists like Dirty Beaches coexist with Sixties garage inspired bands like Thee Oh Sees, Sixties psychedelia-homaging outfits like Tame Impala,  late Sixties folk-rock-oriented ensembles like Fleet Foxes, 70s raunch rock resurrectionists like The Black Keys, 70s punk invoking groups like Wild Flag, 80s hardcore rejuvenators like Fucked Up.... and on....  and on.  Disparately dated, diversely derivative, these groups have created a musical landscape that lacks anything that could be construed as a Zeitgeist. What, one wonders, will future generations find in this era that’s distinctive enough to be worth reviving? Or even feel nostalgic about?

“Pop will eat itself” , a saying coined by the British music journalist David Quantick in the Eighties to describe the effect of sampling on music, has spread so far and wide that it’s a cliché now.  In the trendy Manchester market Afflecks Palace, I saw a T-Shirt slogan that declared “Fashion Will Eat Itself”. But the truth is that fashion was munching on its own flesh long before rock and pop got into auto-cannibalism. Fashion started revisiting its own history as early as 1967, but in recent years its cycles of recycling seemed to rotate ever faster.  Every few years it seems, grunge and Goth, Sixties style and Seventies chic, come around again. Punk, apparently, is next up, with black leather and spikes strutting down runways soon courtesy of fashion houses like Gaultier, Burberry, McQ, and Balmain. Meanwhile, vintage clothing just keeps getting bigger, to the point where high street clothes manufacturers have started slapping the word “vintage” onto their merchandise even though they’re obviously brand-new rather than original garments from the past. 

Vintage chic extends beyond clothes to retro-styled décor and accessories of every kind imaginable: the hip fad for archaic appliances like manual typewriters and outmoded formats like cassette and vinyl; period-look spectacles;  beards and moustaches beamed in from 1969 or 1975;  retro toys, retro games,  and even retro sweets.  ETSY, the online marketplace for handcrafted goods, is where the fetish for “dead media” and antiquated production techniques converges with nostalgia for childhood to form the  aesthetic I call “cutesy-poo”:  posters depicting reel-to-reel tape recorders, belts whose buckles are made from the plastic shells of cassettes, notepads with covers repurposed from 1970s school textbooks and children’s fiction paperbacks,  letterpress cards and silkscreen T-shirts that juxtapose birds, deer,  or narwhals with turntables, typewriters, or cassettes. Then there’s the huge  vogue for digital photography apps like Hipstamatic,  Instagram, and ShakeIt, which give your pictures the period ambience associated with the film stock and cameras of the  ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s.  The popularity of this kind of ersatz-analogue “instant nostalgia” has led to gadgets like Fuvvi’s The Bee, a miniature-sized simulacrum of the Super 8 camera that digitally simulates the grainy, jerky look of 8mm home movies.

Dead media and archaic formats have featured in cinema, like last year’s Super 8, a homage to early Eighties Spielberg centered around kids who are amateur movie-makers and which features clumsy appearances of Walkmans and other antiquated technology from that decade.  But obsolete media are also at the fore of a separate trend in movies that The Guardian newspaper dubbed “retrovision”:   films that aren’t just set in the past but are made in the style of that era, to the point of deliberately adopting the technical limitations of the time.  Hence Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, a pair of 1970s-style horror movies with digitally-faked production defects and even fictitious trailers for similar films to play in the middle of the double bill.  Michel Hazanavicius studied the camera angles and stylistic quirks of the silent movie era to make The Artist, his own mute and monochrome version of that bygone genre.  The approach has crept into TV too: Mad Men, not content with fetishizing the clothes, furniture, décor, and cigarette smoke of the early Sixties, is also shot on film to enhance the time travel effect, at a time when high definition digital cameras are the norm in TV.   Retrovision, though, is separate from two other backwards-looking trends in mainstream movies: the endless stream of remakes and cinematic adaptions of TV shows of yesteryear, and movies that are heavily referential (and reverential) to past eras of movie-making, such as Drive, an exquisitely put-together piece of nothing that homages Walter Hill’s The Driver from 1978.
Retrospection in pop culture isn’t a new development, off course. There have been revivals in pop music going back as far as the early Seventies (when Fifties rock’n’roll made a comeback), while film-makers like George Lucas and John Carpenter often make witty, affectionate nods to the Hollywood pulp movies that thrilled them as kids.  What’s new is the scale and intensity of the looking-back: the mania in “retromania”. In the Nineties you started to get a new breed of geek-scholar forming indie bands or making independent movies: figures like Quentin Tarantino, who’d worked as a video store clerk, or Pavement, who worked in record stores.  In those pre-filesharing days, it was only people whose day jobs gave them unlimited access to the artform they were obsessed with and the time to listen to a huge diversity of the genre’s output,  who were able to develop a special kind of meta-consciousness that  would  lead them to make music or movies dense with references and allusions. But the Internet has made all that hard-earned knowledge available to all, and at zero cost, for those who are prepared to download illegally (which is almost everybody).  

Having total access and instant access to all this previous creation makes it very tempting to kick-start the creative process by reworking something you’ve found, rather than attempting to dream something completely new into existence, ex nihilo.  If you’re not feeling terribly inspired, what better way to get the juices flowing than by flicking haphazardly through the archive until you find something you think most people won’t have seen or heard, or that you can tinker with slightly until it’s “new enough”?  Or if you’re feeling slightly more energetic, you can take a bunch of separate old things and combine them into a new-ish composite. It’s easy to tell that this is how a lot of  “creatives” today operate just by looking at the fonts and imagery used on so many album sleeves, book covers, band flyers, etc. Digital technology not only makes it all too easy to roam the online archive looking for “inspiration”, it vastly facilitates the procedures of cut-and-paste,  tweaking, processing, and so forth.

People who work with visuals—fashion, design, pop video—seem to have the least amount of qualms when it comes to appropriation.  Designers don’t hesitate to recycle, say, the modernist typography and graphic style of the early 20th Century.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the famous slant-wise Constructivist poster by Rodchenko--a Bolshevik woman shouting agit-prop—get ripped off: it’s been used in countless flyers for concerts, on record sleeves (most famously Frank Ferdinand’s debut album), and book covers (most absurdly, on a business self-help book Recommended: How To Sell Through Networking and Referrals). As for pop video...  Let’s look at the case of Beyonce’s “Countdown” video, controversial because of its borrowing of moves from an experimental ballet choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.  But the video was omnivorous verging on indiscriminate in its appropriations, managing to also cram in allusions to Audrey Hepburn in Funny Girl, Monica Vitti in Modesty Blaise, Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, and Diana Ross in the  Supremes.


Quotation and homage go back a long way in the arts,  it’s true.  But what was once a sophisticated, marginal and relatively infrequent practice has escalated to the point where it verges on becoming a dominant, epoch-defining sensibility. Digital culture is synonymous with practices like mash-ups,  YouTube parody, fan fiction, videos woven out of found footage (such as Lana Del Rey’s promos for songs like “Video Games”).  The ever-growing vastness of the online archive, combined with the speed and slickness of techniques of sampling, cut-and-paste, etc, has led to a situation where creativity has been supplanted by recreativity as the new paradigm for culture-making.  Visiting a California art college recently, I met a young performance/video artist whose work involved him singing the entirety of the musical Hair under the blazing desert sun: a project that combined the camp of  Glee or vogueing with the physical ordeals undergone by 70s artists like Chris Burden.   When it comes to parody and reenactment, the possibilities for recombination are limitless. But what is this kind of work really saying? What is it actually bringing into the world?

In his famous prose-poem manifesto Junkspace, the architect Rem Koolhaas argued that “regurgitation is the new creativity; instead of creation, we honor, cherish, and embrace manipulation.” And yet what Koolhaas characerises as a gigantic cultural garbage heap, might also be conceived as something  more like a flea-market: a disorderly sprawl, the bulk of which consists of worthless detritus, but which always holds out the possibility of finding  strange treasure. A hell of a lot of ideas and images, personae and styles, were churned up during the 20th Century: maybe it makes sense that artists are now less interested in making the totally  new and more attracted to strategies of sifting and sorting, mixing and matching.  Some of the best musicians of the last half-decade—Ariel Pink, Vampire Weekend, Oneohtrix Point Never, Gonjasufi, Grimes, Gang Gang Dance, and many more—are effectively rag-pickers who pore through the mountainous debris of 20th Century pop culture, whether it’s digging for weird records in thrift stores or trawling through YouTube for vintage video clips.  

Filtration, pattern recognition, an ability to surf the choppy sea of information and chart a unique and personal course through the ocean of overload: this is what is required of the modern artist.  Baudelaire, writing in the context of the 19th Century city with its bombardment of stimuli, described the modern artist as “a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness”. Today you would have to update the metaphor and talk of the contemporary artist as a search engine endowed with consciousness.  "I can hear everything,” declares a voice at the start of Gang Gang’s recent album Eye Contact. “It's everything time."  The challenge now is turn that into opportunity, not a paralysing predicament.



MTV Iggy, November 29, 2011

by Simon Reynolds

Imagine the media as a hydraulic system: broadband has dramatically expanded the pipes and channels through which cultural data, including music, passes. The result has been a monstrous increase in the volume and range of music that the average listener can access. Before file-sharing, a music fan’s ability to explore the wide world of sound was restricted: the cost of buying records inhibited one’s willingness to risk checking out unfamiliar sounds.
All those Analogue Era deterrents and blockages have now been swept aside by the torrential every-which-way data flows of Web 2.0. The Internet is a gigantic archive, a collectively assembled and chaotic audio-video library that contains every form of popular (and unpopular) culture imaginable. Thanks to “whole album” blogs and YouTube, there is no financial disincentive to trying out stuff, and precious little exertion required beyond  the expenditure of one’s time and attention.
Infinite choice + infinitesimal cost = nomadic eclecticism as the default mode for today’s music fan.

My book Retromania is primarily concerned with digital technology’s effect on our sense of time: because the entire past of pop music is splayed out as this instant-access archive, older styles of music feel as “present” as contemporary music, and this has the knock-on effect of encouraging music-makers to mix-and-match influences from all across the historical spectrum.
But the Internet’s effect on space has been just as profound. A new generation of listeners and musicians is emerging whose consciousness is post-geographical as well as post-historical. There’s a thirst for fresh musical stimuli that slips easily past geographical borders and cultural boundaries.
At once satisfied and stoked by album-sharing blogs, deposits of esoteric and outlandish treasure on YouTube, and a new breed of pan-global crate-digger label, this appetite for the alien could be called xenomania, a play on the term “xenophobia” and its less well-known sister-word “xenophilia.”


Xenomania and retromania are both forms of exoticism. The difference is that xenomania is about geographical remoteness, whereas retromania is about distance in time (as in L.P. Hartley’s famous maxim, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”).  Sometimes the two fascinations converge: while one contingent of Western hipsters are feverishly tracking contemporary sounds from far-flung corners of the globe, another bunch are investigating the musical pasts of all these non-Western countries.

The first kind of globe-trotting xenomania comes out of dance culture, in the form of early-adopter beat-geeks who compete to find exciting new rhythms from all over the world. I say “new” but often the dance subcultures in question have actually been in existence for decades, it’s just that Western deejays and producers have only just discovered them. The first of these “global ghetto grooves” to become trendy was carioca funk, which was spawned in slums of Brazil. Next came kwaito house (South Africa), which was soon followed by kuduro (Angola), cumbia (originally from Central America but spreading in mutated forms through Peru, Chile and Argentina), coupé-décalé (Ivory Coast), and more. Recently there’s been a smatter of hipster chatter about the Egyptian dance music that gets played at Cairo street weddings.

There’s also bubblin’, an example of a related but slightly different phenomenon: a musical hybrid that hatched in the West but in the bosom of an immigrant community. The story goes that bubblin’ sprang into existence when immigrants from the Dutch Antilles to the Netherlands responded with unexpected fervor to a Den Haag deejay who accidentally accelerated a dancehall track (or in some accounts, a reggaeton track) by playing it at 45 bpm. Bubblin’ has subsequently gone on to spawn another hybrid dance sound called moombahton whose genesis is even more tangled and confusingly post-geographical.

Whether they’re spawned in European cities or the ghettos of the Southern Hemisphere, what all these exotic dance genres share is impurity: they are bastard and creole children based in the soundclash of folk forms with Western styles like hip hop, house, and techno. Ethnic vibes (traditional instrumental textures such as accordions, unusual polyrhythms) mesh with American/European staples like the booming 808 bassline or the house synth-vamp. Rowdy chanted MC vocals influenced by gangsta rap and dancehall are offset by cheesily tuneful choruses invariably given the cheap gloss of AutoTune.
Inspired by the circa-2005 fad for carioca funk, the writer Matthew Ingram coined the playful term “shanty house” to pinpoint both the common sonic traits these styles share and how they are rooted in social conditions that are sadly similar all over the world.
Made quick and cheap using pirated software, laced with unlicensed samples from mainstream pop songs, this is party-hard music for ruffneck youth from the urban areas that nobody wants to go (“favelas,” they call them in Brazil, which is roughly equivalent to “projects” in America, “estates” in the U.K., and “garrisons” in Jamaica). Despite growing up amidst poverty, when these kids go out to dance they dress “rich.” Style-wise they’re fluent in the international language of bling: gold jewelry, flashy man-made fabrics, name-brand sneakers.
Often there’s a link between this music and gangs: the lyrics tend to celebrate the fast-money lifestyle of criminality, when they’re not addressing perennial topics like the female rump and the urgent necessity of shaking it. The Angolan version of shanty house, “kuduro” actually translates as “hard ass”, although whether that means “tight buttocks” or “tough guy” I’ve yet been unable to establish.


All these global ghetto sounds have much in common with the bass-heavy street beats of America (local hip hop offshoots such as hyphy, footwork, Baltimore breaks, jerk, bounce), the U.K. (grime, bassline, funky, donk) and the Caribbean (dancehall, soca, reggaeton). And all face condescension and sometimes repression in their native context: feared by the political and cultural establishments for their underclass uncouthness and links to a shady nightlife underworld, they are typically scorned by more liberal-minded progressives and sophisticates too, who regard the music as cheap trash and object to the aggression, sexism, and hyper-materialism of the lyrics.
Divorced from the local context and its class antagonisms, it’s these very qualities of gritty menace and rude-boy raucousness that appeal to Western hipsters. That and the jagged inventiveness of the beats, which are often wilder and weirder than the self-consciously arty experimentalists of left-field dance music. The earliest of the early-adopting beat-geeks were deejays like Diplo (M.I.A.’s producer partner early on and someone wont to boast about how his quest for rare beats took him to Latin American urban danger-zones where no other “gringo” dared go) and DJ/Rupture (responsible for globe-roaming mix-CDs like Gold Teeth Thief and the blogs Mudd Up and Dutty Artz).  Lately they’ve been joined by figures like Mosca, who emerged from the U.K.’s dubstep scene but as a deejay draws for super-obscure styles like Guadeloupe’s gwoka.


Recently the interest in non-Western sounds has moved beyond pure dance forms to include plaintively melodic music that is roughly equivalent to mainstream pop, perhaps even the local equivalents of Celine Dion for all anyone really knows. The Seattle-based label Sublime Frequencies has released a series of CDs documenting the ultra-sweet pop fare of countries like Java, Sumatra, Algeria, Burma, Palestine, Thailand and Niger. Some, like Radio Myanmar, were taped directly off the radio, while  others draw from cassettes picked up in street markets.
In nearby Portland, the Sublime Frequencies concept was taken to the next level by Chris Kirkley and his label Sahelsounds. His two Music From Saharan Cellphones compilations (initially distributed for free on the internet but set to be issued in vinyl form through a crowd-funding scheme) gather up songs by artists from Nigeria, Algeria, Niger, Morocco, Mali, Ivory Coast, and the Sahel region of Mauritania that circulate promiscuously throughout North Africa when cellphone users transfer and trade them in MP3 form.

As Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson noted, part of the appeal of Saharan Cellphones in particular and nu-exotica in general is that the music seems “rare.” Unlike most Western pop and unpop, where even the most obscure artist is exhaustively documented and annotated by fans on the web, the performers on the Saharan Cellphone comps remain shrouded in mystique, with some artists and songs only partially identified. So it “feels” like a throwback to the analogue era, even though the way the music is distributed (both in its original Saharan context and in the trend-chasing blog world) is totally digital.
For the exotic beat-freaks and the global street pop enthusiasts alike, something of the thrill of the hunt has been restored, it’s just that the safari now takes you through the deeper recesses of YouTube or the hinterlands of the web, rather than to an out-of-the-way record store or a street market in some dodgy neighborhood.


Other explorers are heading not just far afield, but far back into the past as well. In recent years there has been a surge in the number of reissue labels and music blogs that specialize in ethnological field recordings and in non-Western music from the Sixties and Seventies (i.e. prior to the original “world music” phenomenon of the eighties that led to major labels signing artists like King Sunny Ade and Youssou N’Dour).

This retro-exotica boom often draws on field recordings of tribal chants and gamelan orchestras that back in the day were released in the West by ethnomusicology specialist labels like Ocora, Nonesuch Explorer, Folkways, and UNESCO Collection. But increasingly people are digging much deeper. Witness the rise of a new breed of A&R archaeologist who ventures abroad to scoop up the battered vinyl and worn cassettes of music only ever released in its native land. Whenever possible these are then licensed for Western “reissue” (strictly speaking, that should be “issue,” since it was never available outside its homeland in the first place).
Prime movers in this ethno-retro field include labels like Finders Keepers, Honest Jon’s, Cherrystones, Secret Stash, Now Again, Soundway Records, Strut, Dust-To-Digital, and blogs like Awesome Tapes from Africa, Brain Goreng, Holy Warbles, Sea Never Dry, Ghost Capital, and Anywhere Else But Here Today. These labels and blogs pursue every imaginable kind of vintage exotica, from field recordings made with hand-held microphones by roving anthropologists in the Fifties and Sixties, to pop and showbiz (every nation seems to have a domestic equivalent to what Americans call schlock or schmaltz, what the Germans call schlager) to hipper sounds (everything from Indonesian hard rock to Turkish psychedelia to South African disco).


Because the music was usually recorded quickly in a rudimentary studio, because it’s a strictly analogue affair with none of the digital gloss and computer trickery of global-ghetto-groove styles like kuduro, these older styles of non-Western music seem “purer.” But when you look into them more closely, it turns out that is just an illusion caused by the passage of time.
Most of the stuff that gets reissued by the crate-digger labels is not traditional folk music handed down generation to generation. More often than not, it’s an already-hybrid style contaminated by Western pop: many of the troupes collected on the celebrated Ethiopiques series were heavily influenced by the flamboyant frenzy of James Brown’s Seventies funk, while the Indonesian hard rock and progressive rock bands on Now Again’s marvelous Those Shocking, Shaking Days compilation followed the template laid down by their British and American arena-touring models as closely as possible.
Indeed the pro-Western regime running Indonesia actively promoted the spread of rock music in parallel with their solicitation of investment from Western companies. As with the rap and rave inspired global-ghetto styles, there can sometimes be an unsettling sense that the attraction of this music is that it provides a distorted mirror image of Western pop: in other words, a slightly askew, exotic-but-ultimately-familiar version of things we already love.


As this decade unfolds, xenomania and omnivorous cosmopolitanism will spread and intensify – and tracking the impact on Western hipster music-making is going to be really intriguing.
We’ve already heard flickers of it in the music of Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer and The Dirty Projectors. On 2010’s brilliant A Sufi and A Killer, Gonjasufi samples 1960s rembetiko, a Greek style of low-down music that often gets compared to the blues and that dates back to the end of the 19th Century.

Battles’s less-brilliant but always interesting Gloss Drop slickly fuses everything from techno to Tropicalia, synthpop to soca. The band’s Ian Williams recently observed to The Wire magazine that “With the internet, everybody’s exposed to World Music now, and a much wider wealth of influence that come from everywhere. The library that people are exposed to is much bigger now.”
Of course the phenomenon of musicians looking outside the West for inspiration is not particularly new. Rock stars like Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and David Byrne embraced rhythms, melodies and instrumental textures from Africa, the Middle East and Latin America; Gabriel was involved in the founding of the U.K. world music festival W.O.M.A.D, while Byrne launched his own record label, Luaka Bop, as an outlet for music from South America and other worldy zones. For his debut solo album Duck Rock, Malcolm McLaren traipsed around the world in search of earthy roots-music antidotes to glossed-up, synthetic Eighties pop, in the process making bizarre collages of Soweto guitar pop, Bronx scratching ‘n’ rapping, and Appalachian square-dancing.

The trumpeter Jon Hassell coined the concept of 4th World Music, the merger of Western hi-tech and ethnic music. He also influenced the landmark Brian Eno & David Byrne project My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, with its sampled voices from Folkways-style field recordings and Arabic pop. Ryuichi Sakomoto’s own version of 4th World was “Neo-Geo,” a cosmopolitan pastiche of panglobal flavors.
But Hassell, Sakomoto, Byrne and Eno were in many ways simply reiterating and developing 1970s notions of a “One World Music” as pursued by artists like Miles Davis, Don Cherry, Traffic, and Can. All that’s really different now is that the Internet makes it so much easier to “travel” far and wide in your listening, while digital technology means it is easy to harvest found sound off the web and to incorporate it seamlessly into your own music.


“I can hear everything,” proclaims a voice at the start of Eye Contact, the latest album by ethnodelic New York outfit Gang Gang Dance. “It’s everything time.” “But just because you can hear everything, it doesn’t mean you should try to. There are definite downsides to all this net-enabled hyper-eclecticism.

For listeners, the temptation is to pig out at the world’s greatest buffet, to heap your plate with a little of everything, savoring nothing in depth, overloading the palate with clashing cuisines and ultimately leaving you with indigestion.

For musicians, attempting to assimilate inputs of such diverse provenance can lead to the audio equivalent of fusion cuisine gone wrong: a cacophony of incompatible taste profiles. Intriguingly, New York magazine’s classical music critic Justin Davidson has observed this syndrome at work in the world of up-and-coming young composers. “A century ago, Bartók had to haul his gramophone through the mud of Moravia to learn about folk music. Now a curious kid in Brooklyn can track down an Azerbaijani song in seconds. Today’s styles need not be born of deep experience; they form out of collisions that bypass history and geography.” There is a faddishness to the chase for exotic beats and ethnic obscurities that is exacerbated by the high-turnover cycles of the bloggified music scene.

However, the impulse to seek out the alien sounds that already exist on the planet (that may indeed have existed for decades) but are effectively new to you could be a displacement of the future-hunger, the quest for the unknown, that used to be the motor driving the vanguard sectors of Western pop.
If our own rock and pop traditions seem stagnant and stalled, their forward motion obstructed by the sheer accumulation of glorious history, it could be that one way to escape the dead end is to step sideways. Get yourself outside the Western narrative altogether and explore all the elsewheres now accessible like never before.


guest "Musica Globalista" post for Bruce Sterling's Beyond the Beyond blog at
September 2, 2011

by Simon Reynolds

This is the last in this summer’s series of guest blogs from me c/o Beyond the Beyond. But before I hand over to Geeta Dayal, I’d like to say ‘big up’ to my host Bruce and close out with something of an epic: a sprawling almost-essay looking at Retromaniacal-parallels in a realm of music that’s outside my customary remit–contemporary classical composition.


Last week I stumbled across a piece by New York magazine’s classical music critic Justin Davidson, a critique of what he termed “a new New York School” of composers whose eclecticism and border-crossing echoes the downtown movement of the 1970s. The article is actually several months old (but in this atemporal world, who cares?) and reading it I was immediately struck by the convergences with Retromania’s concerns.

The piece’s subtitle is: “An omnivorous generation of composers could use something to rage against”. Davidson vividly and not unappreciatively describes the music made by a new breed of “composer-performers who go merrily Dumpster-diving in styles of the past and of distant parts… These composers in their thirties worry less about categories, narrative, and originality than about atmosphere, energy, and sound. .. they churn out somber symphonies, wry pop songs, laptop meditations, filigreed chamber works, endearing études, and occasional film scores. This cornucopia of new music seems perpetually promising. It bristles with allusions and brims with ambition—yet it somehow feels stifled by all that freedom.”

One of the composers focused on in the piece is Tyondai Braxton, whose 45-minute suite Central Market is “a high-voltage score for orchestra supplemented by amplified and effects-enriched kazoos, electronically tricked-out voices, piano, a pair of synthesizers, and six electric guitars… The music pounds through a sequence of musical landscapes with the manic intensity of a movie foot chase. Insistent syncopations, deliberate sonic overloads, whistled melodies, music-box tinklings, jaunty motifs that repeat and trip over themselves—Braxton grinds these ingredients together with the exuberance of a sorcerer on speed. The piece is euphoric, crazy, and irresistible.”

Sounds eminently resistible to me, to be honest! Regardless of whether you enjoy the work or not, “Central Market” appears from Davidson’s account to fit the profile of what I’ve termed “hyperstasis”: a syndrome that affect music at all levels from the individual works, to the style/oeuvre of specific artist, to entire genres/scenes/fields of sonic endeavour. The hallmark of hyperstasis is restless energy and a fluid but ultimately facile transition between styles/modes/moods – facile because related to digiculture’s facilitation of long-valorised-in-music-criticism techniques of hybridization, mix-and-blend, versatility, stylistic range, etc. In hyperstasis, creativity rends itself apart in a paroxysm of optionality, it’s wracked by a sort of frenzied indecisiveness, a fervour of non-commitment.

Davidson makes the digiculture connection himself, talking about how composers like Tyondai Braxton ”use computers as compositional tools and alchemizers of sound” and observing that “for the YouTube generation, technology… grants entrance to a virtually infinite thrift store of influences.
A century ago, Bartók had to haul his gramophone through the mud of Moravia to learn about folk music. Now a curious kid in Brooklyn can track down an Azerbaijani song in seconds. Today’s styles need not be born of deep experience; they form out of collisions that bypass history and geography. No combination is too weird.”

“Nonsectarianism” is Davidson’s term for what popular/semipopular/barely-popular music critics like myself would probably call impurism. Being a sectarian and a purist is invariably regarded as a negative, for reasons I explored a decade ago in an essay called “Pure Fusion: Multiculture Versus Monoculture” (which you can find in the Bring the Noise collection recently put out in America by Soft Skull). But it is way too easy to equate “nonsectarian” and “impurist” with musical virtue. As Davidson astutely notes of the new New York composers, their “freewheeling mash-ups aspire to hip nonsectarianism, but the results can prove shockingly tame.”

Worse still, with the musical past’s archives splayed open, there is a constant temptation to regress: “Their range of choices oppressively wide, several composers have taken comfort from the past, masking retrenchment with style and panache.”

By the time Davidson is writing about “well-crafted but oddly familiar works [that] display the virtues of facility, versatility, and curiosity, but… also showcase a group that seems disoriented by its own open-mindedness”, or noting that “rules can be a crutch or a cage, but they can also act as stimulant… Despite their gifts and alertness to the moment, [these] composers seem muffled, bereft of zeal. What they badly need is a machine to rage against and a set of bracing creative constraints”, I’m imaginary-high-fiving the dude.

Tyondai Braxton is better known as former member of Battles, a fact that leapt out at me because I’d only just got around to reading the Battles cover story in The Wire from several issues back. Here too I was struck by the band’s post-everything omnivorousness and the way both their aesthetics and their ethos echoed progressive rock and jazz fusion. Writer Daniel Spicer points to the way Battles draw on “elements as disparate as Tropicalia, soca, Techno and synthpop”. I feel queasy already.

One of Battles, Ian Williams, observes that “if you think about the music that was available to experimental people and cool hippies in the 70s, it was probably classical music, jazz, and rock, right? And Prog came out of that. With the internet, everybody’s exposed to World Music now, and a much wider wealth of influence that come from everywhere. The library that people are exposed to is much bigger now.”

I enjoyed the previous Battles album Mirrored, but on the new, Tyondai-less Gloss Drop, the results of all these inputs leans to the ludic(rous), the kind of chops-heavy comedy prog purveyed by Primus.
What Davidson, Spicer, Williams, are all talking about is the notion expressed at the start of Gang Gang Dance’s recent Eye Contact album: “I can hear everything. It’s everything time.”

But–as the fusion and prog analogies show–it’s actually been everything time for rather a long while the only difference is that it’s cheaper (virtually costless, thanks to file-sharing) and easier (thanks to digiculture) to access that Everything.

What is significantly different now is the factor of atemporality. Earlier phases of hybridity and eclecticism tended to have an orientation to the present: prog had its classical-music recursions and folk flavours, but for the most part Seventies progressive minded musicians were doing their fusing with stuff that was current or from very recent and usually black music.

So Led Zeppelin got inspired by The Meters and James Brown, while The Police drew on contemporaneous reggae/ (Intriguingly both Led Zep’s James Brown pastiche ‘The Crunge’ and “early Police” crop up as comparison points for Battles in the Wire piece). Fusion aka jazz-rock aka jazz-funk was entirely about jazz responding to contemporary black dance styles or Latin/world influences, and also engaging with the latest technology (synths with Weather Report, Herbie Hancock etc).

Much the same applies to postpunk and early Eighties art-pop: Talking Heads responded to current or relatively recent recordings by Parliament-Funkadelic and Fela Kuti; New Order were inspired by Italo-disco and the club tracks emanating from New York, and so forth.

These kinds of real-time transfers of ideas occurred at all levels of pop music, in fact, not just the self-consciously arty, progressive-minded sector: a band of such lowly ambition as Foghat imitated Larry Graham’s slap-bass techniques on “Slow Ride”!

What gradually developed, with the passage of time, was the onset of atemporality: more and more elements in a new band’s make-up cease to relate to the present genrescape and instead involve rummaging through the archives.

This started to take effect even before the Internet took off, on account of crate-digging, esotericism and obscurantism, and the burgeoning reissue industry. A band like Tortoise was an archetype of mid-Nineties, just-pre-Internet nu-fusion: they had current influences (some hip hop, some math-rock) but also dub, Ry Cooder, Morricone, marimba-pulses via Steve Reich, etc. A vigorous brew at first, soon to droop into a sort of Spyro Gyra for Wire readers.

What is different about music now is that open-minded, curious musicians are responding to and fusing with influences from all across music history and all across the globe. This ought to provide them with a palette of infinite possibilities. And for those who are very creatively strong, who have a filter, having such a superfluity of launching pads and diving boards works out well.

But most artists aren’t strong enough to withstand such an influx.

What is so interesting about Davidson’s piece on new classical is that it shows how the possibilities and problems of post-broadband music-making are manifesting all across the musical spectrum. I suspect similar forces are at work – sometimes vitalizing, mostly vitiating – in metal, but I wouldn’t know. It is definitely happening with dance music especially with the area I’ve kept an ear trained on, i.e. the post-dubstep zone.

Here the exact same hyperstatic symptoms that Davidson diagnoses in modern composition can be seen leading to a similar predicament: a diverting but directionless impasse. A seeming heterogeneity that conceals a fundamental homogeneity (traceable back, ultimately, to the nature of digital sound and its structuration protocols.) Paradoxically, it is the more insular, technologically-retarded scenes (footwork in Chicago now, hardcore rave in the early 90s) that produce a better outcome: a seeming homogeneity that masks genuine hetereogenity and forward-tilted strangeness.

The other thing worth saying about these nu-fusion or “superhybrid” styles/scenes is that their very rhetoric and philosophical repertoire has a pronounced “retro” air. These ideas and ideals have been around for what feels like forever! “New New School” nods to 1970s downtown New York in the Seventies , the post-Fluxus fluxed-upness and post-Cage uncagedness of minimalism, performance artists, and such edge-of-punk / outskirts of No Wave figures as Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham and Arthur Russell.

Justin Davidson’s piece seems to have garnered a slew of annoyed and outright hostile responses from the modern composition community. One of the more measured responses, “The New Challenges of New Thinking”, appeared in Zeitschichten.

Peter Gilbert précis-ed the anti-Davidson stance: “He is called out as being an old school modernist, entrenched in a decrepit idea—that making something new requires rejecting the formerly new”, with commentators dismissing Davidson’s verdict of “a neither-here-nor-there absence of motivational direction” as mired in subjectivity. (Cue a twinge of déjà vu/writerly solidarity in me!).

Gilbert situates the conflict–and the annoyance–in terms of a generational shift. “The thirty-somethings of today… are the second generation of the everything’s-okay, no-style-can-hold-us ethos. For us this thinking is more normal than revolutionary, though we don’t take it for granted—I think we still own our omnivorous tastes with (probably unnecessary) pride…. the core ideal of nonsectarianism has almost complete ascendency now.”

Gilbert astutely notes that the musical radicals of the past who broke down aesthetic barriers created a world where there are in fact no barriers: “the power of their vision led to the open-minded future they wanted and subsequently (unintentionally) denied their students the opportunity to similarly respond”… As a result, the last ardent rigor… has dissolved into transition”.

But (as Retromania argues) the trouble with this state of endless “transition” is that it looks a lot like the way fashion operates. Or indeed how high finance operates. Where no value is immune from being abruptly and utterly devalued.

What this means is that the principles and practices of “flux and mutability” have long ago shed their former subversive and utopian charge. Worse than that: they have become inverted, to the point where if anything they suggest the static and dystopian. Because in some fundamental and profoundly perturbing way, “flux” and “mutability” are actually isomorphic with the economy, characterized as it is by precariousness and the imposition of “flexible” work patterns.

This idea seems to lurk underneath Gilbert’s concluding remarks, where he writes about how “there is something different about this world where everything goes. We, the thirty-somethings, seem to largely be ardent believers of the new order and we readily shoot down dissent, but, as with anything relatively new, there are aspects and consequences of the changes in culture that we can’t yet fully anticipate or understand.”

All that’s solid melts into air, innit.

More guest posts at Bruce Sterling's Beyond the Beyond




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