Up for Debate: Electronica (Part II)
[at this point we've got a small loss in transmission. The gist of what I asked Casey here was: to what extent, then -- given your description of your relationship to electronica -- do you use this music as an escape or as a sort of portal to an otherwise inaccessible or elusive meditative state? The fact that you seem addicted to, and really sort of loving of, this state is admirable, but it makes me think that maybe you were born in a tree and are only ever comfortable in the world when you've escaped into your world.]
Casey: It’s an interesting point and I don’t think we fully understand how important our portable music players are to this conversation. We joke all the time about getting on the bus and not making eye contact and putting in our headphones and not attending to the hideous parts of the world around us. But it isn’t really a joke, it’s a tool that is new to our generation. The world on the bus is increasingly unbearable to the hyper-sensitive, and luckily we have this tool to deal with it. Electronic music is the banner-genre for a generation of music-listeners that live in their own private sound-bubbles. As such, maybe it isn’t a surprise that so many obsessive, neurotic, tree-born urbanites love it so much. It’s the music of being totally alienated from the world.
Certainly people who depend on their headphones for active immersion while in transit across depressing landscapes need very intricate diversions… And are the kind of people who will get lost in hypnotic beats and slow-burning trance tracks.
Dru: I love thinking about what other people on the bus are listening to. Sometimes I can hear it though and usually it’s just some canned hip-hop or Taylor Swift or something (which is fine, actually, since I love those things myself sometimes). The bus is a great place to weigh the importance of our music to us, because music on the bus totally serves as our escape from it. But what we’re talking about makes me wonder, ‘an escape into what?’. What if my dislike of electronic music means I’m afraid of plumbing the depths of my soul and that you, therefore, are more courageous and human than I am? What if all I can tolerate are the clichés and sugar beats of contemporary pop music? What if my love of pop radio is just a sign of my fear and pusillanimity? Your conviction about electronica is causing me to question the legitimacy of my existence, you asshole.
Casey: But then, you’d have to think maybe that’s just a defense mechanism on my part. Picture me, huddled in my jacket in the back seat of the bus, wearing my Adorno t-shirt and glowering at the great unwashed with their silly sugary music. When really the hyper-specific music I listen to possibly just serves as a way to exercise a desire to feel superior, and pretend I’m not doing basically the same thing that all of them are doing (which, of course, I am). I do think, though, that good electronic music demands something of you. A patience and a willingness to introspect that it rewards but sparingly at first.
Which leads me to my next point, which is drug-related. Unquestionably, electronic music is the domain of pot-smokers and psychedelics users. My experience here is similar to the experience of listening to Burial. It is not a social activity – it is reflective, and sometimes frightening and lonesome, but also cathartic and deeply human. Whereas I think is it easy to lump ‘unintelligent dance music’ together as the sonic backdrop required for a happy beer-and-cocaine buzz…
Dru: Why isn’t music its own drug?
Casey: I guess you could argue that it is. In the same way that good art has the power to put us in some sort of ecstatic state. But for me, altered states of consciousness provide vastly different experiences of the same artwork. Marijuana makes me more attentive to detail – and I find something like Four Tet especially rewarding. I think being drunk makes me appreciate the overall fun-level that much more. If there weren’t beer, the Hold Steady probably wouldn’t exist.
But maybe these substances represent dumbo feathers, and what I’m really after is the experience of being totally and actively immersed in the experience of art. I REALLY get there with Flying Lotus, Burial or Four Tet.
Dru: I probably almost couldn’t disagree more about The Hold Steady and I’m pretty sure you’re making that claim based on listening to their music about four times. They’re a great example, though, of a band that is very much a band — instruments, chord progressions, relatively unvirtuosic musicianship, insane live shows et cetera — and a lot of what carries them as a band are their lyrics and delivery. Electronica almost never has that! Isn’t that kind of the elephant in the room here? Why is there so often a profound lack of wordsmithing in electronic music or, when there are words, a preference for the found/sampled soundbite delivered in a (usually) repetitive and almost incantatory way? Don’t you ever miss words?
Casey: A few things. 1)The Hold Steady are fun – and what keeps them relevant is their fun-ness, which is enhanced, I’m sure, by being drunk and going crazy at their show. 2) It’s a boring card to play, but as the immortal ‘playing-on-the-radio-at-your-shitty-job-while-time-moves-backwards’ song goes “you say it best, when you say nothing at all”. You know as well as I do that sometimes the clumsiness of our language gets in the way of our expressing something greater (just look at this sentence). Representative art never quite brushes against the ineffable like abstract, objectless art. 3) Electronic music is the backdrop against which the best hiphop plays out (c.f. The Neptunes, Cannibal Ox, RZA, every band on Anticon records etc…) 4) when I miss words, I switch my iPod to my Willie Nelson Collection. He uses many words and they are all instantly available to me.
Further to point 3 – the wordplay here often bests the wordplay in beer-n-coke jams anyways…
BUT ALSO, the incantatory lyrics are sometimes hypnotic and fascinating as well. C.f. the aformentioned ‘Bad Kingdom’, or all the crazy vocal samples on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Eno/Byrne were able to do something like vocal bricolage… which was totally singular and globalized and zeitgeisty when it came out, I’m sure.
Dru: I know you don’t mean very many of the things you’re saying right now. But they make me wonder about how exactly electronica defines itself, through its stylistic/technological tropes, as a genre (and btw I know you’re just plugging ‘Bad Kingdom’ because there’s an elephant in it. I know that.) distinct from lots of other ‘electronic’ music like everything made in the 80s. Really all pop music is pretty much electronic these days, but not all of it is introspective (or, rather, pretty much none of it is, is what I mean). There are a bunch of sound-crafting producer types out there building novel soundschemes for Katy Perry and Rhianna but those people are different, we assume, than Dan Deacon or Fuck Buttons. And this makes me wonder if you’re obliquely defending the inanity of pop music since the ‘lyrics’ of contemporary pop songs are so banal and idiotic that they are effectively voided out as meaningful language and pretty much take the form of the invisible or incantatory. At the most they are avatars for whatever personality-type the artist is supposed to represent. Isn’t that weird? I’m starting to lose interest in why people would like electronica (since you’ve so deftly defended it) and instead wonder about why people like pop music. We both went through a Ke$ha phase, after all…
Casey: I think this is the real elephant in the room. Because I’ve been acting as though I really believed in a stark division between the world of IDM and D(umb?)DM? I think that if there is a difference, it only matters to people that I wouldn’t want to hang out with. The production on some of the songs on Warrior was better and more enjoyable than half of Moderat’s II. And the fact is that I can’t only listen to druggy dark-bedroom, introspective dirges all day. I want to have fun listening to music too. ‘Electronic’ is such a ludicrously broad designator that it’s hard to really know what we’re talking about…
With respect to your great point about pop-avatars, I wanted to add that I always thought of Lady Gaga as something like the hyper-real satire of this tendency. Like she is avatar of avatars, deliberately rearrangeable, and infinitely banal.
Dru: Lady Gaga is the perfect example of the artist that is so convinced she’s an artist that she’s become a perpetual commercial for her legitimacy as an artist and, thus, she never really seems to, like, be an artist. How many steps difference are there between Miley and Gaga? One half? I always sort of hoped that Lady Gaga would just get Björkified somehow and live in a cave in the Antilles for nine years and do nothing but grow a beard and make harmonies out of like dolphins and clouds and just drink her own blood and compose an opera out of a 3 stringed banjo and a salad bowl never to be performed for anyone and then one day she just gets apotheosized into the sea like Oedipus. But she’ll never do that because she needs people to love her. Which is the Achilles heel of so many otherwise possibly legit artists.
Casey: A real tragedy. I’d buy tickets for that opera… I’d still probably fall asleep though.
Dru: Speaking of falling asleep…
Casey: Werd. Let’s call it a night.
Dru: Wanna get a Big Mac?
Casey: Only if we can stuff it with anchovies and marshmallows and then go skateboarding at footclan HQ. Why don’t we skateboard? I’m starting tomorrow.
Postscript: I’ve appended a rap battle text exchange Casey and I had as we prepared to go toe-to-toe in a confab of music taste. This exchange will give you a little sample of the mindset we were in.
Text rap battle:
D: Well chief you better gear up for some mega-banter because I’m fixing to hunker down here at school and grease up my keyboard. Your ass is grassier than a Marley record. I’m gonna wreck you like Miley, brain you like Smiley, locomote you like Kiley and pat you like Riley.
C: Whoa: Ilya [our actually excellent rap battler friend] is that you? Could you get this message to Dru? Tell him to save some grease for lubricant. Imma custom-fit vomitspit — take his little question and, yawning, answer it.
D: Answer it? Prob’ly just write a bunch then cancel it, whenever there’s a chore I’ve never seen you handle it, you think you’re hot but you can’t even get a candle lit, you think you’re tall but you can’t even get your pants to fit, if that’s your vomitspit then I’ve got some beef with it, namely: flush that shit.
C: Snore. Your beef is maggotty, and your methods haggardly approximating the tact of a braggart keen on making daddy notice. Buckle up son, you’ve got my attention. If you’re playing in my closet check the safety on that gun…
D: I check safeties like I’m Dru Brees and this one’s free. I’m in your closet with your skeletons, doing voodoo like I’m pelicans, watch you wasting all your mulligans while I send you back to school again, dry you out like you’re beef wellington and knock your rhymes until I’m swelling them then telling them I’m selling them.
[like two hours pass and I ask Casey for an update on his progress in answering my opening question]
C: My balls is already swole, bro, just ask your moms though…and check yr inbox. It’s blowin’ high dough.
[And with that the battle ends because how can anyone top a Tragically Hip reference in a rap battle? Can't be done. Casey wins.]