Friday, January 07, 2005

Music: A Review, A Manifesto, And A Rambling Monologue

Reading the news this morning, I see that the music industry finally managed to increase album sales in 2004. I have certainly done my part to help them, though it seems almost comical that of the Top Ten albums, I own none of them. I don't even respect them. (Evanescence? Ashlee Simpson?) My eleventy-billion albums -- for that is how many I bought -- don't show up on the media radar.

But despite that fact, there is a strange tension building in the music industry. It's been a peculiar year for music, or at least it looks that way if you read Pitchfork and Stylus and the armada of MP3 blogs spreading the hipster gospel throughout the blogosphere, each of which has offered its own listing of the top albums and singles of the year. After some reflection, I would give "top single" honors to "Toxic" by Britney Spears. That is not sarcasm, by the way. And even stranger, the aforementioned hipsterati would usually agree with me. (Some prefer Usher's "Yeah.") So despite the fact that I didn't buy any of the top ten albums, I did buy some of the top songs. It's not safe to dismiss the "mainstream" as irrelevant, any more than 60's acid rockers could dismiss Motown, because there's some amazingly inventive stuff out there in hip-hop and dance music.

I would give "top album" honors to Madvillainy, an "underground" hip-hop album. It may be worth noting that in hip-hop, "underground" doesn't refer to being "underground" any more than "indie" still refers to "independent" status in rock. (See media darlings Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, and Arcade Fire.) "Underground" now means "not obsessed with thugs, pimps and whores." Anyway, Madvillainy is ruthlessly inventive and endlessly exciting, like I imagine jazz was once upon a time. Once again, the most inventive and interesting work being done in popular music is being done in hip-hop. Sturgeon's Rule* still applies, but it's the source of significant hope for the future.

[* When asked why 90% of science fiction is such crap, SF author Theodore Sturgeon responded that "90% of everything is crap."]

The stranger trend is the fact that the free hip-hop is the best.

Though I would call Madvillainy the best album, my favorite albums this year were these:

The Grey Album by DJ Dangermouse, Jay-Z and The Beatles (Jay-Z remixed with unlicensed Beatles samples)
A Night At the Hiphopera by the Kleptones (hip-hop samples mashed with unlicensed Queen samples and, sometimes, entire tunes)
Piracy Funds Terrorism Vol. 1, by M.I.A. and Diplo (collaboration between MC and DJ/mashup artist using unlicensed beats)

Each album was a triumph of the DJ's art, in which incredibly talented musicians showed that "piracy" is about a lot more than simple duplication of crappy CDs by shady businessmen in a market stall in Shanghai. These artists looked in their toolboxes, found just the right material for a song, and used it -- regardless of the fact that the "material" was unlicensed and thus illegal. Who cares? Make the song and release it and move on.

More importantly, each album is more than a simple stunt. The Grey Album could have been simply a joke -- Jay-Z's The Black Album mixed with The White Album. But Dangermouse was able to use the beats to add to the flow, to comment on it. He made a new work of art that was more than the sum of its parts. A Night At The Hiphopera is straightforward mashup, not true hip-hop, but it resurrected the worth of a lot of Queen songs by finding a lot of similarities between their bombast and the well-known belligerence of hip-hop artists. (And it was simply brilliant to mash "Under Pressure" with "Ice, Ice Baby," Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is A Place On Earth," and Prince Paul.) And Piracy Funds Terrorism is a fascinating "mixtape" collaboration between Sri Lankan-born, London rapper M.I.A., and Diplo, a mashup artist who brought a constellation of unlicensed world beats that perfectly mix with M.I.A.'s sparse style. (For instance, suddenly you realize that M.I.A.'s flow has given way to "Walk Like An Egyptian," which is why the whole thing remains quite illegal.) It's particularly interesting because it was a collaborative effort -- M.I.A. helped out with the "illegal" appropriation of her own music. And Madvillainy could be placed in the company of these albums. Madlib is another one of the incredibly innovative DJs working today, which is why his collaboration with MF Doom (Madvillainy) was such an inspiring work. It is not a coincidence that Madvillainy started out as an illegal collaboration, or at least one in which legality was not an issue. It was their good fortune that a record label was able to license all of the samples and release the disc.

The nature of art is changing in a way that Roland Barthes never could have predicted -- or at least, that couldn't have been predicted by his numbskulled disciples, who remain trapped in their own useless heads. Pomo failed as an intellectual movement, because it's uninspiring and hollow at its core. But deconstruction works in hip-hop, because the Apollonian is torn down and used as the foundation of a new, Dionysian art. And if you don't like it, stop complaining and get on the dance floor. Life's too damn short. The world eats itself on a daily basis; why shouldn't music?

In short, the music industry is in the midst of a fully-fledged meltdown. Its best artists are able to flout the law by giving away their most adventurous work, which builds their reputation and allows them to charge more for their legal efforts. The best-selling artists are widely derided as ludicrous cheesemongers. The radio stations have made themselves irrelevant through their support of said cheesemongers. And because America is starting to develop a lactose intolerance for all that cheese, the industry is moving toward a slice-and-dice, one-song-at-a-time, listen-when-I-want-and-where-I-want model.

For instance, I generally like U2, and this year I was finally able to buy their new album How To Dismantle A Stellar Reputation in the way I have wanted to buy every one of their albums since Rattle and Hum: cherry-picking the three songs that reviewers indicate are the only songs worth owning. Thus, I can wholeheartedly endorse the new U2 disc as having held my attention throughout its ten-minute runtime on my iPod. Thanks, iTunes!

For instance, I bought "Toxic." But I paid $1 for it, not $18 for the entire insipid album. Thanks, iTunes!

For instance, of all the albums I recommended this year, 75% of my recommendations went to albums that were "free" (read: illegally posted on the Net). I didn't recommend them because they were free, I recommended them because they were the best music had to offer this year. Thanks, mp3bloggers!

For instance, I found out about great new music from two sources: (1) the internet, including mp3blogs that illegally post songs for the purpose of evaluation and "spreading the gospel," and (2) XM Radio. Screw you, Clear Channel radio!

God only knows where the "music industry" is going next. But the decentralization of information sources is here to stay, and lawsuits will never be enough to stem the tide.

By the way -- check out "Drop It Like It's Hot." Well worth the $1.

 9:18 AM

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