Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Great, Scott

"The nineties were better than the eighties, and one key reason was that there was less originality. Originality is unmusical. The urge to do music is an admiring emulation of music one loves; the urge toward originality happens under threat that the music that sounds good to you somehow isn't good enough."

Scott Miller, Music: What Happened? 

A clever thought - inspired by a song by Smashing Pumpkins of all things ("Cherub Rock")

Elsewhere, he picks up the theme:  

"As you know, I kid the 1980s. I wonder can it possibly be fair to condemn an entire decade as a horrifying decline in every kind of musical competency, but nostalgia for the Eighties baffles me. Eighties nostalgia has lowered my opinion of nostalgia. So you're right, I was unconsciously targeting that kind of decline with "What Happened?" But pop music is great in that a true decline fosters a true pop response, like R.E.M. Eighties music suffered from a coliseum spectacle mentality, and R.E.M. reached around that with a sort of small-combo, home-spun literary connection approach."

Music: What Happened?   - well, it's a view of music very different from mine... we do converge on early R.E.M., but it's a rare occurrence in  Scott Miller's year-by-year inventory + commentary on the best  best songs between 1960 and the end of the 2000s. (He carried on commenting on the year's output online, until his tragic too-early death in 2013).  Even when his approbation lands on a band I love, he often picks a song by them I don't rate or actively dislike. 

But it's a wonderful book to read for that very reason - full of unexpected insights and precision description of a song's moving parts, informed by his being a musician (Game Theory, The Loud Family) and operator in a scene (loosely,  college rock) that had its own distinct metric of evaluation (craft, structure, daintiness to a degree.... cleverness as a pure value... melody above all, but understood in a particular sense, that sense defined by the inside-out - in my view - position that the tunes of Grant Hart were better than the tunes of Bob Mould).  

So yes the '80s canon is dBs, Let's Active, XTC, the bleedin' Smithereens...  and by the '90s  (The Posies, Jellyfish, They Might Be Giants) it's getting even further from both my own aberrant pantheon and the mass idea of what pop is....  by the 2000s, it's beyond marginal. 

But Music: What Happened? - despite the implied, "it all went to shit" in that title -  reads neither as contrarian nor embittered, but as simply the eloquent expression of another way of listening, another kind of loving. 

Check it out here

Here's a review by Michaelangelo Matos that goes into Miller's methodology in the book (each year's harvest relates to a CD comp of his favorite tunes released that year).

Interview with Scott by Matthew Perpetua.

There's a bit in it riffing off the Smashing Pumpkins / originality comments: 

Scott Miller: I don’t want to create the false impression that the more derivative a piece of music is, the more I like it. But liking something because it’s new is never a musical response. Music carries a lot of potential for emotional impact that is not musical impact. As a simple example, a moving set of lyrics may have more or less the same impact if you just read them. Five minutes of sound might have dramatic impact, and five minutes of compositionally vapid music in a film score might work great to telegraph a set of emotions and surprises to go with the scene. But a purely musical response always needs an existing music context. You can’t play Andean flute music to Rush fans and expect the value to be apparent in isolation, or vice versa. There’s a world of context needed by the ear to support a musical reaction. I like originality in music, but that is a non-musical reaction.

Matthew Perpetua: How often do you think originality actually occurs? I tend to think that it usually comes down to the personality of the artist more than the formal aspects of things, which are usually lost on non-musicians. I found it interesting that you chose the Smashing Pumpkins as the vehicle for this thought because while that band didn’t really invent anything, I would think that to some extent there is originality there simply because Billy Corgan is such a one-of-a-kind figure. If nothing, he has this distinct voice and persona.

Scott Miller: That’s a very good observation. On the artist side, there are gestures intended to be taken as originality, and on the listener side, there are experiences of novelty, and they might not match up at all! One of the most tried and true formulas is for musicians to strive mightily to do something as well as their heroes, but while failing miserably at that, arriving at something close enough for a certain size audience to relate to, but with a whole new aspect of appealing sound that simply came from who they are.


Tuesday, April 2, 2024

great moments in retrophobia

At The Ringer, a  whole feature about Pitchfork's Most Notorious Review. 

The year was 2006, the album was Jet's second effort Shine On, the writer was....  well, that's the mystery that Ringer's Nate Rogers sets out to solve. 

And the review? The review was wordless, consisting only of a brief video of a chimp peeing in its own mouth. 

Scott Plagenhoef, an editor at Pfork, recalls: 

We were talking about the central problem as we saw it with the record, how the Return to Rock trend that started with the Strokes, White Stripes, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs—and really rock in general—had curdled into a set of lazy signifiers and poses. When the point or driver of what you’re doing is reclamation it’s inherently limiting and resistant to new ideas. It’s a creative cul-de-sac. Progression—whether it was in hip-hop, pop, guitar music, electronic music—was important to us at the time. Seeing mainstream rock music, which of course most of us had grown up with a fondness for, became so knuckle-dragging and Xeroxed was disappointing.

This what things were like in the 2000s. A state of affairs that might lead someone to write a book called Retromania.

Mind you, a magazine doing an in-depth historical investigation into a single record review could be taken as an example of retro culture.

Or if not retro exactly, then a kind of chronically historical culture.

Only way to make it more archive-feverish would be if it had been an oral history of the Shine On review.

As it is this piece  - including a sidebar on Other Famous Pitchfork "Stunt" Reviews -  is nearly six thousand words long

Never listened to Shine On, or indeed any Jet album, but I confess I've always liked "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" - always turned it up when it came on the radio. It's an immaculate recreation, boosted with modern production.  

They get down pat the surly, rocket-in-my-jeans-front-pocket mannish-boy swagger of, I dunno, the Pretty Things

Perhaps justifying one's weakness for such a record would require resorting to the "time travel" metaphor, the futurist critic's self-respect-saving rhetorical maneuver.

Going back to the mid-to-late 2000s, when the retro-talk really started in earnest.... 

Momus amusingly castigated this sort of thing at that time -  reactivating Peter York's concept of Art Necro and talking about Retro Necro

One post in particular at his blog Click Opera I remember vividly, although possibly imprecisely: 

Momus is at an airport and what is clearly a rock band arrive at the same gate. The Groop come swaggering in, elegantly wasted, in the appropriate dress for a rock band sonically oriented towards the pre-punk Seventies. Suddenly Momus feels like he's looking at employees at one of those "living history" museums, whose job it is to wear Medieval garb and do traditional crafts all day long - , working in the blacksmithy, churn butter, that kind of thing . 

I suppose it's possible the band at the airport might actually have been Jet.

Not that there wouldn't have been many other contenders to trigger this epiphany - Kasabian. Probably most groups that appeared on the cover of NME during the 2000s

Yes, it was a chronic culture of revival and reenactment... which now feels stabilized, just part of how things are and will always be... 

But at the time it seemed inundating and alarming...  the escalation of  preexisting trends and their synchronized convergence, combined with new digital archiving platforms = Crisis. 

Particularly disorienting and dispiriting for post-punk veterans such as me and Momus and Mark. 

Friday, March 29, 2024


 Interesting post by Robin James at It's Her Factory about how we've moved into "Pop's Franchise Era". 

Noting the Bob Dylan biopic and the horrific thought that each individual Beatle is getting their own biopic, she argues that what already unfolded in Hollywood - franchization, cinematic universes, stars replaced by characters - is taking hold in pop music. Not just with Legacy Artists, but with relatively young, musically active stars who are prematurely Legacy-izing.  

Hence Taylor Swift's Eras tour: only 34, she's already consolidating the exploitation of  her archive in the way that Bowie did with his Sound + Vision tour of 1990 and the Rolling Stones have done since the late '80s. 

Robin writes: 

"... When Swift repackaged all her individual albums into a catalog of “eras” for a tour of that same name, she created a universe; each album set the vibe for world-building sets, costumes, and the like. The same is true of Beyonce’s various acts: there’s the house music act, the country act, and purportedly a forthcoming rock act....  

"Taylor and Beyonce are franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They are not stars, per se, but tested and proven brand IP that the industry leverages into blockbuster content like the Eras and Renaissance tours and concert films. And they franchise not just in the music industry, but across media – that’s what the Taylor and Beyonce beats at Gannett are, new locations of existing franchises. I will be the last person to be surprised if and when they build a Taylor Swift theme park....

"With their “portfolio careers” spanning various industries like apparel, beauty, instruments, and food... , pop stars treat their own brands as a franchise.... Pop artists are less like stars and more like characters whose vibes grace everything from athleisure to sweet potato pies.

"The problem, of course, is that this concentrates all the wealth in the hands of the richest artists and corporations... 

"In August 2023 Billboard published a piece asking “Why Aren’t More Pop Stars Being Born?” 

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

the future behind us now

Xenogothic exhumes a panel discussion from 2014 involving Mark Fisher, Lee Gamble, Kode9 aka Steve Goodman, Alex Williams, Lisa Blanning - and bearing the title The Death of Rave - and does a public service by getting the debate transcribed.

Go here for his reasons for digging this up and reflections of how it relates to current glumness, state of clubbing and club music, as well as the transcription itself

Here's one choice exchange: 

Alex Williams: As regards hedonism... What was interesting about things like the early days of rave music, is that it’s fun, but it’s serious fun. It’s seriously fun. But also it has some… There’s a kind of a sense that sort of eliminating yourself collectively through drugs and music is an intense and meaningful experience. … Kids still go out. They still have a good time and people still take lots of drugs and become highly intoxicated....  The lack of the idea that this could be a good time that is also more than a good time, in a certain sense. An intense experience that could be transformational, in some way. Maybe not political. I think in many ways, all of this stuff stands in for politics. The politics we’re not allowed to have.... Within the impulse that you see in rave is a lot of things coming from the failed revolutions which were happening in 1968, which couldn’t happen. They failed. So that impulse, then, sort of reverberates throughout culture, and pops up every now and then. And rave was one of these things.

... To a lot of eyes today [it] seems naïve. We think it’s naïve that you could treat a rave as if it was really serious, as if.... this sort of being together with people and having this collective experience could be transformational. We view it a bit distastefully, as if it’s sort of jejune, or sort of hippy-ish. It’s something to be kind of viewed with contempt. 

Mark Fisher: The key affective figuration of our time is depressed hedonism. Depressive hedonism. Like the way Drake sings, “We had a party, we have a party, we had a party”. [Laughter] It’s like the saddest sound you’ve ever heard....  The best kind of critiques of capitalism coming out of, like, Drake and Kanye West… Even if you’re super rich, you’re totally fucking miserable.... Just the absolute abject misery of on-tap hedonism...

Friday, March 22, 2024

trick of memory


It's funny how an image like this can give you a right hauntological frisson....  

But at the time, it would have just been part of the dreary everydayness of the era (that dingy orange)....  graphic with-it-ness reaching the mainstream and becoming mundane....  unremarkable, unnoticed... 

But there are design scholars and archivists and imagery collectors who love the Sainsbury packaging, see it as an outpost of popular modernism

And they're not wrong

Selection of Sainsbury delights below and the growing official archive here

As pointed out in the comments, there's been a book of this stuff out for over a decade now, the brainchild of one Jonny Trunk

Some sample pages