Monday, October 09, 2006

What about theory?

In reading this month's Wire issue the answer of a question I have now for a time been struggling with came to me. The question namely why what used to be my favorite kind of music (i.e. electronic dance music and the non-dance genres that sprang from it, in other words the music that dominated my sonic surroundings from my late youth until my early adulthood) has lately quietly but surely been pushed away from the immediate scope of my philosophical and social questions about sound and music.

I don't know if I already posed the dictum here that to me "music is serious business". I probably have. Of course music is also fun, entertaining and a source of consolation, thus a surface on which you can reflect your emotions. But what is, in the end, more important to me, is the need to theorize and investigate the possibilities of music to derange, influence and change the fabric of people's lifes. This may sound preposterous to most people, who usually deploy the cliché that "music is only music". That may be the case for most people, but to me, understandably, as I listen to a lot of music in order to write about it and try to say something meaningful about it, it has always been much more. Over the years I've come to believe that all good music, however small and narrow its intention or scope, should be able to withstand questions about its validity to fit into an historical context. Music, even the thinnest commercial pop music can never not have a meaning and be important at the same time.

It is on of the reasons why I adore a magazine like The Wire (The Wire is just an example, perhaps there are others, but I have not discovered them yet). Yes, you could say that The Wire staff are a bunch of other-worldly intellectuals writing about music that nobody other is interested in. You could say that, but then you would sidestep the one issue of true importance. Namely, that it is still a good thing that there are people who want to place music into a social, philosophical and historical context, looking at it objectively, and, most importantly, giving artists who truly reflect about their art (because, yes, I consider good music, whether it is Britney Spears' 'Toxic' or Nurse With Wound, to take two extreme examples, to be Art) a forum to bring those reflections and new ideas into the open.

To return to the problem in question, I find that there is a serious lack of this approach in electronic dance music in general. I rarely read a really interesting interview with a 'dance' artist. Of course there are exceptions (Jeff Mills, Squarepusher, Matthew Herbert and, recently, Kode 9 spring to mind immediately, I know there are a few others) but it is my experience that most interviews with dance artists are limited to the anecdotic and factual. I've interviewed quite a lot of dance artists myself and I found most of them shying away from theoretical and social issues, as if they do not want to take themselves too seriously, quickly avoiding those questions and all too often reverting to the old catchphrases "it's only dance music and it should stay fun etc..." instead of interrogating themselves about their place in a wider context. You can talk to them about their influences, what music they like and sometimes about the influence of equipment and multimedia, but it seldom goes much further than that. With dj's, the waiters of electronic dance music, it is even worse.

The immediate corollary of this situation is that you also have few writers who dare take on electronic dance music in that way. Maybe this has to do with the relative short history of electronic dance music. But most of all it is a question of a lack of will and guts.

I will throw you a few names of people who I think write in an interesting and inspiring way about electronic dance music. Philip Sherburne is the prime example, Mark 'K-Punk' Fisher is another (although he could rein in on the 'Lacanian dynamics' and make it even better) and I will add my favorite, Woebot, here too. Even the over here loathed Simon Reynolds (mostly because I think his predictions are a bunch of self-interested bollocks, his historical writings are much better for that matter) can be added to what is still too short a list. In my mothertongue Omar Muñoz-Cremers and Theo Ploeg are the few examples I can think of, although (sorry guys, don't hit me) even they do it too rarely. But at least, as much as you can disagree with their opinions, they do try. Most others (and for the time being I will humbly include myself) dare not or simply are just not able to come up with a thesis that can withstand the least theoretical scrutiny, by which I mean that they do not succeed in offering the barest minimum of a social, philosophical or historical framework which you can start to reflect upon, subsequently paving the way for antagonistic, provocative and new approaches or views.

The inevitable result is that most writings about electronic dance music are ultra-subjective and indicative: everybody likes this or that, or they want to direct you to or enthousiastically convince you of the merits of such or such record. Sorry, people, but the review (still about the only journalistic form that takes on electronic dance music) is forgotten in the blink of an eye and almost as fast obsolete. If you want to offer writings that inspire people you are going to have to do much better than that. This has been the case in the past for all modern forms of art: cinema, jazz, 20th century plastic arts, rock and pop music, avant garde, architecture, I could go on. Who cares about the 1969 opinion of the then very influential Pauline Kael about Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssee now, in 2006? Right, nobody. Why? Because the review is ultimately an attribute of the modern mass media. Reviews are in the best case strings of hopefully expert opinions to fill the pages of newspapers, magazines and, in this day and age, weblogs. Reading a review is a mere pastime, it can be funny or poignant, but it remains at that. Why do we, in contrast, still read the more theoretically advanced writings of Goncourt (for French literature of the early 20th century) or Godard and his colleagues of the Cahiers de Cinéma (for postwar cinema)? Because they said something, because they dared impose a view.

For me personally it has come to the point where I am being drawn away from what was my favorite music, just because it seems that no-one dares draw up one interesting theory about electronic dance music. Either you have university people applying drab postmodernist nonsense and newspeak and thus containing what could be interesting into the feared circle of cultural studies, or you have amateurs generating a load of irrelevant utopian nonsense, ultimately resulting in not much more than predictions about which hype is going to be important in a year or so. That is about it when it comes to context and ideas. In between there is a void and it urgently needs to be filled up.

So, in the end, this is a cry to artist and writers alike for some cojónes. Please, dare say something, dare invent, dare position yourself. Because at the moment it is almost nothing at all.


Martijn said...

Who cares about the 1969 opinion of the then very influential Pauline Kael about Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssee now, in 2006? Right, nobody.

Sorry, Vince, but this is nonsense. Kael is still one of the most revered and referenced film critics, especially in the US.

Of course she was completely right about 2001 too, but that's besides the point.

OMC said...

Actually the Kael review that still matters is the one on Bonny & Clyde. Textbook stuff.

Fire in the Mind said...

@martijn: i do not agree obviously, on both counts.

Martijn said...

what's there not to agree on that Kael is still highly regarded? I checked Amazon and all of her books are still in print and you can't hardly find an American essay about a film made in the 1960-1980 that does not a least mention Kael's ideas about that movie. Kael is also known as someone with very distinct ideas (or theories, but I like ideas better in this case; a theory is something that makes falsifiable predictions) about what movies should be and should not be. So the difference between mere 'reviewer' Kael and 'theorist' Godard also seems to be a false one to me.