Diminishing Into the Twee
I am back working at the local radio station. I’ve been out of the music loop for five years, not that I had no idea what was going on; I just wasn’t fully plugged in. I was off investigating the music that actually engaged my attention; like Eastern European folk punk or baroque dance music. (Hint: Jordi Savall – La Folia!) Not to mention less musical interests like puppetry. And so now I’m taking a crash course in the kind of music that is on someone’s radar for the cutting edge in the present moment.
Carsten Hyatt warned me about this. He said things had gotten fairly spineless amongst the endless musical flotsam and jetsam of his generation, in that young twenties college aged world. My rather lackadaisical musical sonar had been guessing something like this. It had seemed back in ’05 that repetition was the order of the day. He told me he’d gotten fairly tired of the general played out music of various Indie microgenres. I tried to make up for it by passing on to him music that had more substance and passion: Sixties Garage Rock, the neglected oeuvre of Holly Beth Vincent and more recently the late great Russian folk punker Yanka Dyagileva. Then I reinserted myself back into radio work a couple of months ago as Music Director with a backlog of hundreds of CD’s in tubs from the last few years to go through. And what he had been saying struck me with the force of a truckload of hogs sideswiping a beer truck.
Or should I say, with the placidity of a marshmallow feather duster.
Twee! It’s just all so twee, so precious, so limp, so fainthearted, emotionally vague and just out and out wishy-washy. I kind of noticed this from a distance when I would hear certain DJs, intelligent people in their mid-twenties, spinning discs. The music seemed to have no definite emotion, no solid major or minor chords, and lots of smirk, ironic gestures. I chalked it up to the various tastes of the DJs. I went on listening to the Ukrainians, Gogol Bordello, Françoiz Breut, Radúza and the Warsaw Village Band. Astounding stuff was coming through a modified, punkified European sensibility.
And yeah there have been great bands beaming through the American Tower of Internet Babel on occasion: White Stripes was a stand out and now they’re history. The Decemberists aren’t too shabby. In England Imogen Heap has only gone from strength to strength. And, thanks to the likes of Lady Gaga or Die Antwoordt, the dance world seems to be becoming even more artificial and alien, which has it’s own repulsion/fascination as new anti-definitions of humanity are generated like a Twinkies conveyor belt in a post-Britney meltdown world. (Don’t think about that too long.)
Meanwhile the people responsible for being at the cutting edge seem to have disposable plastic forks. As I have sampled album after album, I keep waiting for something to hit me: the Zeitgeist, new forms of rebellion, cries from the heart, good music. Well musically these people can play. Suddenly it’s the 60’s, 70’s. 80’s, 90’s again. A beat might engage me, a nice bass line, the guitar comes in … then comes the vocals. And it’s pretty much over. It all feels so empty to me.
I was debating making a list of the names of the groups I’ve listened to… but why? Why prod folks to waste their time looking for this stuff to see if I’m right in my assessment. Occasionally I’ll hit something that engages me, yesterday it was the Twilight Singers, but even the more popular bands of the day like the Decemberists or the Black Keys have a kind of anemia to them, even at their best.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been listening to Alina Simone or Yanka Dyagileva lately and I get tired of hearing people sing without actual passion after getting a straight injection of the real thing. No wonder Eugene Hutz’ Gogol Bordello is one of the bigger concert draws these days. I don’t agree with the libertine side of his ideas, but I know I could sit down and have a real freewheeling intelligent non-politically correct discussion with him. And he puts his guts out there on the line in his shows. The danger is that he becomes merely a symbol for that sort of thing over time. But so far he’s in no danger of doing so.
Meanwhile back in America we have a generation that I believe is afraid to really to think, to believe, to show courage. The history of music in the 20th Century helped bring us to the place. The various musical conflagrations of the last 50 years were truly a kind of war. Music helped to turn peoples perceptions inside out. And in many cultures it is still doing so. The Arabs are discovering rock as one incentive to the new thoughts inspiring pro-Democracy upheavals. Rap music has been adopted by nearly every group that sees itself as oppressed in some manner. But back in the west it all is a burned out zone.
Dissonant and Atonal Classical Music, Modern Jazz, Free Jazz, Rock and Roll, Folk Rock, Psychedelic Rock, Metal, Punk, New Wave, Funk, Rap, Disco, Techno, Electronica, Grunge, Alternative, Goth, Industrial, Noise the list goes on and on: These styles all contain varying degrees of modernist alienation and ironically a cri du coeur against it at the same time.
But after the desperate failure of the Sixties, then later Punk, and the deaths of so many musicians to drugs and despair, culminating in the shattering shotgun blast of Kurt Cobain’s desolation and the commodification of every ounce of rebellious noise imaginable, the reaction in the late 90’s was twofold.
The most obvious late 90’s track was to commercialize the angst of the early part of the decade; see “Alternative”, see Marilyn Manson, who is nothing if not a compendium of underground spite being sold on the largest record company on earth, see Nu-Metal (the style) or Insane Clown Posse (the act).
But the other track is what we call ‘Indie’, which no longer meant something put out independently. Indie became a sort of familial reaction to both commercialization of the early part of the 90’s and reaction to the loud howl of sound and fury signifying nothing much. And so bands in this line turned inward, while retaining certain aspects of the Alternative scene. So bands still played with noise, but now it was washes of spectral sound rather than and all out assault. Some instrumental bands were even dubbed Post-rock: Tortoise is a prime example. The line from Pavement, Guided By Voices, Slint, Neutral Milk Hotel, Palace (Will Oldham), Elliott Smith, Pedro the Lion, Eels, Iron and Wine, Sigur Ros, all vital music, eventually lead to the mood that pervades the music world today. What seemed almost like an elegy for the hopes of the 20th Century has slowly mutated into something that just seems like cowardice and resignation. It has diminished into the twee.
I know that is not the end of the story. But one thing is clear to me. The concept of rock as a force for societal change, for some oft dreamed revolution (Hutz not withstanding), as a spearhead to a new world is dead and buried. The next wave will have to come from another source. And hopefully without the same cargo of ideas that lead us to this destination.