Generalities, Backlash and Your MP3 directory: A response to SketchyT

by Aquafiend

It seems to me that it is remarkably easy to come up with a knee-jerk attack on a so-called counterculture which is becoming increasingly popular (i.e. mainstream), such as “progressive” (sic) music mentioned in SketchyT’s article, “Music, Oscillators and Porno”. Notwithstanding the fact that it may be yet easier to write a knee-jerk response to an article of questionable foundation, I shall forge on.

Alternatively described as “progressive” music and “ambient, trance, drum & bass (and whatever else I’ve forgotten)”, SketchyT draws appropriately sketchy boundaries around the type of music actually being discussed. Although I doubt this was the author’s intention, “progressive” is most often used as a qualifier on other genres of music, not as a genre itself. It is used to refer to songs which “progress” – those which build (usually) in energy and often pitch. Good DJs use them to bridge between diverse tracks.

But enough semantics – perhaps the reader can conclude that the author is referring to any and all popular experimental music, or perhaps just music he or she doesn’t like. Based on the list which SketchyT supplied (Sigur Ros, GYBE, Boards of Canada et al.), the former seems more or less accurate. Let’s get on to the actual argument, shall we?

SketchyT makes a heartfelt appeal to us all when he describes the “traditional 4-piece guitar, bass, drum, and vocals band” being replaced with some kind of heartless “studio decked out with Pro-tools and … state-of-the-art equipment” which exists only to “make the Top 40 of the Year list in Spin Magazine”. Yep, it’s easy to bash technology – who wouldn’t prefer to go back to a simpler time, where a band was a band, and noise was noise…- but let’s not forget how many “traditional 4-piece” bands that we all know and love have existed only to make one sort of top 40 list or another.

And let’s not forget melody! SketchyT clearly thinks Ny Batteri by Sigur Ros, Posession by Massive Attack, Girl/Boy Song by Aphex Twin, Telephasic Workshop by Autechre, and many others by those artists have melodies similar to roadkill. Tell me what highway you’ve been driving on, SketchyT, and I’ll be there this weekend with a mic and a tape recorder.

But by far the shining moment of SketchyT’s argument comes in the “oscillator” segment. The author seems to argue that the musical genres under discussion lack dynamics, or perhaps lack dynamic elements (as dynamics usually refer to only changing volume). It seems ironic that the author’s original statement of the music at large (“progressive”) is, more or less by definition, the most dynamic music there is. But leaving that aside, let’s focus on the less literal definition we have been using instead. There is no doubt that certain bands/genres which fall into this category lack certain normal dynamic elements. But as experimental music, this is often intended as an interesting change from the norm – it’s not meant to be the only way to listen to music. The problem with the argument is that the majority of the bands that SketchyT mentions at the beginning of the article are far more dynamic (in any sense of the word) than any of the five (admittedly catchy) songs mentioned at the end of the article. Perhaps I misunderstood the intention of this section of the article, but boring or not, the bands that SketchyT mentioned at the beginning of the article are anything but static (as opposed to dynamic). To claim anything else is not a matter of taste, it’s just wrong. Take May nothing but happiness come through your door by Mogwai – the volume is dynamic, the pace is dynamic, the tension is dynamic … I challenge anyone to find a poppy song with as many or as well used dynamic elements.

The defining character of the songs mentioned at the end of the article is this: They are all very radio-playable. This is not a problem in and of itself, but it does place major restrictions on the songs. Dynamics (volume) cannot be used effectively since a radio station will not play a song that has quiet parts in it, not to mention that it’s pretty hard to appreciate a quiet song after hearing something unrelated and loud. Song length is also highly restricted – unless a song is 3-5 minutes long, it will have a hard time getting radio play. But by far the greatest restriction is the context in which the song will be played – sandwiched between commercials, unrelated songs, and DJ shouting. It is interesting to me that songs that are optimized for radio are also optimized for randomly dipping into an mp3 directory and hitting play. I would strongly suggest that anyone who is interested in music take a quiet hour and just listen to any one of those artists’ albums – all the way through. Think about the context in which you listen to and evaluate music, because it does matter.

So Yes, people do enjoy the bands that SketchyT mentioned, and No, they did not all hear about them from Spin magazine’s top 40. Backlash against snobby types who think they’re superior because they listen to “experimental” music and don’t ever rock out to Zep and play air guitar? Yes! But backlash against the music that they like? That’s the wrong target. The way that the superior/ bleeding edge/ avant-garde music snob presents this music is not the way it is.

So here’s my list:

1. Mogwai: Put these songs on your playlist and listen to them in order:

  1. Waltz For Aidan
  2. May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door

  3. Oh! How The Dogs Stack Up
  4. Ex-cowboy
  5. Chocky

You will be wondering what happened to the last ½ hr by the time you’re done.

2. Sigur Ros: Ny Batteri.
Don’t sandwich this between anything loud. Just stare out the window or at Geiss and chill out.

3. GYBE: Storm (LP1, side 1 of Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven)
Listen to what the guy at the beginning is saying. He’s not singing, but it’s OK – it’s poetry.

4. Aphex Twin: Girl/Boy song
Sweeping, emotional, plus a kick in the teeth.

5. Any one of the aforementioned artists: One full album
That’s right. Just pick one and listen to the whole thing.

  • Generalities, Backlash and Your MP3 directory: A response to SketchyT
  • by Aquafiend
  • Published on September 1st, 2001
Related Article:
Music, Oscillators and Porno

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