The Future of Music

The vaunted future of music is a favorite topic with critics. Here we raise the possibility that a turning point has been reached.

Music is many-splendored: it is a form of expression, a form of communication, and a form of entertainment. As a form of expression, music is about the self, the artist. As a form of communication, music transacts between artist and listener. As a form of entertainment, music is avowedly for the listener. The history of entertainment does not interest me; but the history of music as a history of expression and communication does. What happens when music is viewed from this perspective?

Punk and Jamaican ska and reggae emerged within a few years of one another. Pockets of punk sprouted in England, the US, Australia, and elsewhere. Ska and reggae spread via Europe’s dance clubs and the occasional cover or remix. Both expressed political views at odds with the status quo, punk espousing an anti-establishment pose made politically explicit at times, and reggae promoting various forms of African independence and/or unity. In this light, punk and reggae are similar to the vein of folk music occupied with social and political commentary. Both enabled a politically and/or socially marginalized segment to reach a broad audience. Similarly, the Velvet Underground et al. gave a voice to an underground culture of sex and drugs. Much of the WaxTrax! roster, i.e. Ministry, KMFDM, Front 242, et al., would continue this theme, though in different musical forms. Though the theater is different, a marginalized segment achieves a mode of expression and communication.

With the contemporaneous emergence of rap or hip-hop and grunge at the end of the 80s, different socio-economic groups acquired louder voices: the black community and the overeducated youth of America, respectively. But these two examples differ from the preceding ones: rap and grunge sold millions of records. This, perhaps, marks an underlying change in the dynamics of music. The artist and the audience are here socio-economically distinct. NWA did not sell albums only to black teenagers in ghettos. Nirvana did not limit their albums only to white 18-30 year old males in the Pacific Northwest. Rather, a marginalized segment reached a broad audience, and pop culture absorbed the new music: grunge and rap got radio airplay, films, dedicated record labels, and the rapt attention of the media.

Trying to disentangle the 90s for signs of coherent themes in music is a rough business. I want to suggest a bifurcating movement going forward: lo-fi pop vs. next generation electronica. In a sense, this is a natural conclusion to the tension manifested in rap and grunge. The malaise exhausted itself and now two paths wander off. Lo-fi pop might be construed to be anti-excessive instrumentation or production; or it might mean subdued and streamlined musically. By next generation electronica, I mean the stuff begun by Massive Attack and continued by Pole, Autechre, Oval, and Tortoise. These bands are involved in complex fusion music, some of it clearly computer-conceived. It is expressive in non-verbal ways. It does not speak to a marginalized segment per se. The people making the music do not belong in any rigidly defined subculture. But the music tries avowedly not to sound programmed and stiff, eschewing the mechanized sound and feel of much of “electronica”. In this sense it looks backward, using modern technology and production techniques to get a less modern (i.e. clean and perfectly programmed) sound.

The other path, lo-fi pop, seems to me to be the present form of folk music. And it is not the politicized folk music we are historically used to. Contemporary lo-fi pop is moving toward the personal and the cultural. It is being recorded by the Scottish band Belle and Sebastian; by the Magnetic Fields and Stephin Merritt’s other projects; by the young men of Modest Mouse; by Silkworm, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, the White Stripes, and Tom Waits. These musicians extend the folk (or blues or jazz or cabaret) tradition by approaching new subject material with a wider range of musical tools at their disposal. Yet it is the intimacy of their recordings which makes them work. Maybe they continue in the tradition of Nick Drake’s atmospheric recordings.

The lo-fi pop to which I allude does not evince the snarling vigor of punk or rap. It is not overtly political or mean-spirited. But it is very different from contemporary singer-songwriter fare. The Magnetic Fields recent 3-cd recording 69 Love Songs reveals clean pop songs, theatrical cabaret numbers, several singers, and an array of (synthetic for the most part) instrumentation. Stephin Merritt takes elements of the past (cabaret and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound sensibilities) and the future (a time when honest songs will be deemed infantile), creating a new aesthetic in pop. The White Stripes, using a drum and a guitar, fashion 2-3 minute songs delivered in a Zeppelinesque fury. Their material is the traditional blend of Son House and Dolly Parton. Belle and Sebastian’s stunning debut Tigersmilk established them as the darlings of indie pop. They sing smart songs with boy and girl vocals, as if VU decided to talk more about religion and childhood stories, and less about Venus, furs, or heroin. Looper, bassist Stuart David’s (of Belle and Sebastian) band, has extended this aesthetic to embrace samples, loops, and a (certain) playfulness.

On the one hand, progressive electronica is trying to roughen up technology and use computers to make fresh, organic music. It is forcing us to sit up and listen because we can’t easily figure out what is going on or how the tracks were made; the music is compelling. On the other hand, lo-fi pop is turning away from the tradition of political and social themes in music, fashioning songs of bleakness, charm, melodrama, and intelligence. What does this communicate? A primary role for music, giving voice to a marginalized segment of society, is no longer functioning in pop. It has been replaced by a desire to communicate private notions and fictions. Both progressive electronica and lo-fi pop seek to use technology in innovative ways, allowing artists to record simple songs that do not feature any real instrument, or complex songs eluding classification or obvious analysis. Neither wants to discuss politics, and neither can be identified with a certifiable subculture. It is the music of an apolitical, anonymous people. They are us.

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