Rollercoasting (Part 1)
’ve been hammering Embrace songs again lately. This is not an uncommon phenomenon; every few months over the last nine years I’ve done it, gorged myself on their music to the exclusion of everything else. Sometimes the gap has been longer—between 2002 and 2004 I barely listened to them at all—but the gap is always closed in the same way, by pulling out a CD or pulling on some Sennheisers. The contents of their albums and singles as released are rarely satisfactorily sequenced in themselves (whose are?), and seldom have been—when I was 18 I’d make cassettes of live sessions recorded from the radio—these days I make playlists on iTunes, grouping together tracks thematically, chronologically, or stylistically. Or just because I like them better than others. But the manner in which I go back to them is inconsequential—what matters is that I go back. Something pulls me back. When I was 16 it was The Stone Roses or The Verve. It's always something.
In April 1996 I had what I refer to as my “dance epiphany”—intrigued by positive press coverage and urged on by my eldest brother I bought Orbital's In Sides album on the day of release, without having heard a single note by the Sevenoaks duo before that day. Without ever having listened to anything even remotely like them before. I took the CD home when I left college at lunchtime, put it in the stereo, and planned on doing something else for the rest of the afternoon with the CD as an ambient soundtrack. Within two minutes I’d put down whatever else it was I’d planned on giving my attention, and my love affair with Orbital—with dance music—had begun.
Last Friday the BBC audaciously suggested that musical taste is often "swayed by peers". No shit. My friends, as you can imagine, used the “real music” trope at every available opportunity when dismissing “dance music” (as in “how can you like that, it’s not even real music”). This is stupid for any number of reasons, not least because it presupposes that real things are inherently more interesting than unreal things (they’re not; ask Peter Jackson) (and also the metaphysical conundrum of whether or not "unreal" things even actually exist—this was perhaps beyond the ken of your average Mudhoney fan though), but perhaps mostly because it narrows down the scope for enjoyment of the human condition for totally arbitrary reasons; if I was enjoying Orbital (and I really, really was) then surely that made it just as worth listening to as Hendrix or Metallica or whoever my friends were pimping at any given time (more so, if I enjoyed Orbital more), and to hell with the fact that “anyone could do it” (if anyone could, why wasn’t everyone?) or that it wasn’t "real" because, I dunno, an amplified guitar run through pedals to make it sound different is somehow less authentic than a synthesizer, which is just a piano run through FX units to make it sound different (only all in one box), surely? Maybe it's the masculine thing, that keyboards and samplers aren't phallic enough, that steers this protectionism, and authenticity is just a ruse. Who cares?
I’d tentatively encroached on non-guitar territory before then, delving into Screamadelica, Massive Attack, and Björk, but the musical landscape of my peers at age 16 was defiantly guitar-based and fascistically genocidal in its refusal of other forms, so my explorations were surreptitious and infrequent in nature lest I become (even more of) a teenage pariah. Some of us had dallied briefly with hip-hop (of the decidedly Daisy Age variety) and we’d even, in more naive days, actually enjoyed dancing, but come the onset of adolescence proper and the struggle to define one’s own identity that goes along with that, fun went out of the window and Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden came in. In my defence, whilst I may have owned a Pearl Jam t-shirt, I didn’t buy one of their records until several years later (ditto Nirvana) (and even then I only bought Yield for "Given To Fly" and No Code in case there was anything remotely like "Given To Fly" on there), and I have never owned a Soundgarden record. In fact I don't think I've ever touched one. Not even by accident. The Pearl Jam t-shirt was a token gesture to ensure my own survival amidst the pack mentality of sadistic, grunge-obsessed teenage boys (who would gladly crucify anyone listening to something that wasn't at least aesthetically similar to their own musical creed for lacking in "individuality," the savagely conforming anti-conformist fascists). Sad, I know, but it left me free to listen to The Beatles and Marvin Gaye in my own time with no fear of recrimination.
“Dance music,” as my friends termed anything without a guitar (it’s a horrible, pointless term—did no one ever dance to The Rolling Stones? Orbital have made me want to do many things over the years, and shaking my butt is way down the list), offered me a key to a whole world of genres outside guitar-based alt.rock; overnight music became an exciting, modernist, rapidly-developing landscape full of possibilities, ideas and genres, none of which (bar opera and pop-country, obviously, because they're both horrible) were closed to me. I quickly dove in and sailed through Aphex Twin, Prodigy, Public Enemy, and Underworld, stopping to take in the historical perspective offered by Can, Miles Davis, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Tangerine Dream, and Brian Eno, before ending up at Plaid, Timbaland, Mouse On Mars, Outkast, and Four Tet (and Vitalic, Villalobos, Luomo, Basement Jaxx, Fennesz, Akufen, The Neptunes, etcetera…). My skewed, hermetically-sealed perspective whilst at university notwithstanding, “dance” music (“electronic” music?) was far more important to me for a number of years than rock music was.
I remember fevered debate on I Love Music at the tail-end of 2003 about whether or not it had been the year that pop “broke” (popists, dance-ists and anti-rockists shooting themselves in the foot by borrowing terminology from the enemy, shocker), simply because Justin Timberlake and Outkast had dominated the critical landscape that year at ostensibly "indie" and "rock" publications. Blame Beyonce, perhaps. That year I voted Manitoba’s Up In Flames as my album of the year, covered quite a few other “dance” records for Stylus, and ended up being thought of as an “electronic music writer” to the extent that I was invited to contribute to specialist publications on the subject.
And so I did write reviews for an “experimental electronic music magazine” for a while, because it seemed like the thing to do. But my heart wasn’t in it, which made me feel like a bit of a fraud, and in the wake of Bark Psychosis and Embrace rekindling my enthusiasm for “rock” shapes in 2004 (further compounded in early 2005 by Bloc Party, Patrick Wolf, and British Sea Power), I jumped ship.
Electronic music did seem, for a while, like the future; but then so did rock 'n' roll fifty years ago. Synths, 303s, samplers and sequencers offered yet another utopian, punk idyll where anyone could produce something that could touch someone, which meant something. And it kind of happened. But like any other genre or mode-of-production-led school of music, there was rubbish, and the stuff that drew me to it didn't do so because it was electronic—it drew me to it because it moved me in one way or another.
Like the aesthetic aggression of punk was interpolated into mainstream rock and pop, so too has the stylistic and technological inventiveness of electronic music; synths are not new and revolutionary anymore and drum machines certainly aren’t. Rock bands routinely base songs around heavily sequenced loops, it’s just that they’ve made the loops themselves first; programming skills are as important as old-fashioned musicianship to bands in 2006. Given applications like Autotune they're almost more important—anyone can hit a high-note if their vocal's being bent upwards inside a Power Mac. (Does using Autotune make a vocal inauthentic? Ends versus means is a whole other column—a whole other thesis…)
I had considered going into a spiel about songwriting, about how no matter what genre or aesthetic or sound you chose, how skilled or cutting edge or inventive you are, none of it matters diddly squat if you don't have the song(s) to back it up. But that would make me sound like Paul Weller, who I can't stand for obvious ethical reasons (odious po-faced "real music" gatekeeper that he is). And that would be missing the point anyway, partly because I don't think what I'm grasping at (have been grasping at for a long, long time) is wholly about songwriting, and partly because I simply don't have the technical expertise and musical knowledge to break "it" down into little pieces if it was. If a key change or a harmony or a guitar break or a particular drum sound is songwriting, then it's about that, but a house is more than just foundations and framework; it is fixtures and fittings and décor and garden and environs too.
I bought one of those new-fangled Intel iMacs in the end, by the way. It works, at the moment.
Post Post Script
Also I joined that Myspace thing. Add me; it is my mission to acquire a million friends by Wednesday. Add Stylus, too. Go on.