Friday, August 28, 2009

Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?

I was talking to someone in bed last night, and she and I were discussing the fact that the Information Age is helping us inch, musically, toward the melting pot of cultures that we've been promised since grade school. The examples on my mind for the purpose of this brief diatribe are Gorillaz and M.I.A..

I've spoken to a few people who took my M.I.A. piece a few weeks ago as a slight against her... far from it. It was more to illustrate (poorly), the effect the internet and global connectivity are having. The two acts listed above are prime examples of this effect. How would you categorize them? Not everything needs to be classified and pigeonholed, but for the sake of posterity, for the sake of our future music historians (who I can only assume will have the same filing system we do), how would you tag the genre for these acts on your iPod?

Me? I choose hip hop. Not because it's accurate. In fact, it stings a little bit because I know it's NOT accurate. But it's about the only style I can wrap my brain around this music being more than anything else. It has beats and a little rapping. Maybe not a higher percentage of that than pop or rock or indie rock or punk or soul or some world music I don't have a knowledge of, but it's got SOME.

Forget all the hype about M.I.A. - I was sick of her before I'd even heard her. Another Lady Sovereign, this one political and indie and Sri Lankan. Big deal. Bloggers were falling all over themselves to kiss her ass, hipsters were telling me how great it was, and I wasn't buying the hype. I still don't. Especially since the same fickle trendspotters have moved on to something else. Some I've talked to told me the appeal lied in hearing a form of music they'd never heard - South Asian hip-hop. Cool. Whatever. But that's not what caught me. It's the fact that, as mentioned in that previous article, the Information Age allows her to pick from the cultural rubble, using whatever she wants to paint her pictures.

Now, I'm not stupid. I know not to believe the tale of Maya Arulpragasam, wide-eyed and angry refugee from a war-torn country. I'd like to give her credit for being smarter than that. After all, she went to art school and designed the packaging for Elastica's second album as I recall. Craftily smart, she's able to pick and choose... with the technology available, any idea or sound is only a click away. It's complete recontextualization, something I've been railing for since I was a pop-art obsessed teen, but too shortsighted to understand when it popped up in front of me in a form I didn't expect. While I hate the fact that the term "postmodern" is misused and thrown around these days to indicate something modern, this is more in line with Jacques Derrida's work (or part of it, as I understand it) - complicated things come from a complicated origin, not something pure and simple. M.I.A. assembles collages like Richard Hamilton - the pieces used come pre-loaded with meaning and purpose of their own, she's either hijacking them or subverting them altogether.

And while Maya A. basks in the glow of a thousand blogs (a trend which I wonder if I'm critiquing or contributing to), the Gorillaz one-up her in a form - they're so post-modern they don't even really exist. Each member of this cartoon troupe is an archetype for either a musician or a gang member, I'm not really sure. They live in a floating castle of sorts and have adventures. It's escapist fantasy. Nevermind the fact that their real-life counterparts are combining rock, pop, hip-hop, soul, funk, electronica, spaghetti western soundtrack, punk, and whatever else. Sure, some of the parts in this case might be more recognizable, but that makes the effect of playing with purpose even more daring. Their self-titled album was great, but the second, Demon Days, took it even further, jettisoning original producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura and bringing in enfant terrible Danger Mouse, fresh off his postmodern (again with this!) masterpiece, the hallucinatory Beatles/Jay-Z blender child The Grey Album. Genre for them in this case is merely a case of "what should we do now?" They don't add guitar parts, they add whole styles, taking whatever they want, because, hey - it's all just music, right? They are actually breaking down cultural boundaries, building a new concept out of old ideas, taking whatever they want, leaving it to sound like what it is, but somehow, with the magic of this "context blender effect", giving it a new meaning based on what it sits between, without stealing its identity, both culturally or sonically. In the past, an artist might sample something and conceal the sample sonically - fuzz it out, reverb it, EQ tweaking - to make it almost unrecognizable. The new wave of artists leave things as they are. They let your mind change what you hear.

Now that's revolution, baby.

[With these realizations, I'd like to formally submit Danger Mouse's The Grey Album and M.I.A.'s Kala to my best of the '00s list. Why Kala over the earlier and therefore more bracingly "new" Arular? Cause I like the sound better, and they're both really good.]

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