In the city I live in, Chicago, the owners of the historic Congress Theater came to an agreement with the city banning EDM from the venue. All acts that play there must now use “traditional instruments” during their shows.
Like genre skeptics of the past who have questioned the value of unfamiliar music and derided its creators as unauthentic charlatans, Chicago’s powers that be have provided an opportunity to think about authenticity in music. Why do critic resort to strong language about reality itself – “real,” “true,” “only” – when discussing low-stakes topics such as whether Deadmau5 is a working-class DJ or if a heavy metal is allowed to use synthesizers?
It’s like the 2000 U.S. presidential election all over again – are musicians persons with whom listeners would enjoy having a beer, yet, at the same time, do these celebrities exude sufficient serious to be accepted into The Canon (if such a thing even exists in EDM; it’s sort of a rockist construct). Since music criticism is so indeterminate, the only methodology for vetting ascendant musical acts is to wrack their music for tell-tale signs of a laborious creative process (hence, “traditional instruments) or relation to a specific social class (Born in the U.S.A. and Parklife are good examples from the rock album annals).
This critical approach toward everything from jazz to EDM has nudged artists to prove their worth – and their down-home (read: white and probably rural) – temperaments. Even synth-pop bands have proclaimed that they won’t succumb to the infinite DIY possibilities afforded by iOS music apps and instead soldier on with real synthesizers. Likewise the unexplainable influence of Mumford & Sons even made folksiness an important litmus test even for Group Therapy-grade acts for a while there. Above & Beyond themselves did acoustic shows last year and released an acoustic artist albums this year.
Genres and Society
Genres aren’t static, but their paths are carved not only by shifts in consumer style and taste, but also by social and demographic change. Jazz was incubated during the urbanized, prosperous 1920s in America, while rock and roll became the logical musical extension of 1950s urban sprawl, as the sound of America’s white population expropriating and exporting blues and jazz, which had previously been the specialties only of the country’s extreme rural and urban poles, to the suburbs.
Just as societal change can easily incite refuge to defensive terms such as “real” and “traditional” to bemoan the loss of an ideal that may have never existed, musical evolution brings out from the woodwork the authenticity scolds who decry new stars for, at best, violating good taste and, at worst, endangering everyone’s sanity and livelihoods. The Atlantic had an excellent piece on the rise of EDM (electronic dance music) as the new rock n’ roll, and in doing so, it nicely summarized the dark critical history of new genres being born (emphasis mine):
“The most obvious point of comparison…is how this new movement has been received by the majority of people who consider themselves possessed of good taste. In the 1920s, jazz was preached against from pulpits and editorial pages as the devil’s music, its crazy rhythms jangling the nerves, speeding the degeneracy of American civilization, and responsible in part for the ongoing failure of the temperance movement. In the 1950s, rock and roll was sneered at as jungle music, provoking lascivious displays unfit for the Ed Sullivan Show as well as responsible for juvenile delinquency and reefer madness. In the 1980s and ’90s, rap music was censured as violent thuggery, non-music…[B]ut most of the current non- parental criticisms of EDM are made in purely aesthetic or culturally derogatory terms: Dismissive, class-based coinages…are employed to wall off “real” electronic music as the preserve of the specialists.”
Perhaps one should pause to note the surreality of wide-bore, public discussions of “realness” within electronica, since electronica itself was once pilloried, or at least dismissed, by artists and critics alike as something too mechanical, fake, and European to be acceptable. Up until the release of their block-bluster The Game (1980), Queen emblazoned each of their 1970s LPs with the a disclaimer that no synthesizers had been used on the record. The White Stripes reprised this school of thought in the liner notes to Elephant (2003), which shouted, to no one in particular, that no “computers” had been used to make the record.
Computerized and Real Music
“Computer” really is the key term here, more so even than “synthesizer” or any more specific descriptor. Early electronica, especially the West German variety of Kraftwerk and Klaus Schulze and the American creations of Silver Apples and Cromagnon, announced itself by its reliance on obviously strange – non “traditional,” certainly – instrumentation that gave proceedings a computerized, alien sound, whether synths were in play or not. Sometimes the entire arrangement, rather than the individual sounds of a synth, made all the difference in distinguishing a song or album from pre-electronic music. For example, on Autobahn (1974), Kraftwerk juxtaposed traditional violins and guitars with samples car sounds and synths to demonstrate the possibilities inherent in new instruments and methodologies. Only a few years later, however, Kraftwerk had gone completely computerized on Radio-Activity (1975), and then issued an entire concept album that ruminated on the computer’s use cases in government, mathematics, and music itself on Computer World (1981), right on the eve of the widespread adoption of digital recording and playback technology that attended the CD format’s birth in 1982.
From The Man-Machine (1978) onward, Kraftwerk also adopted the mannerisms of robots, seemingly forced into their new mechanized existence by the growing centrality of computerized and automated processes in music creation. What had begun as the usage of a simple synthesizer had progressed into the usage of loops, drum machines, and more sophisticated recording techniques. It became hard to know where the human input (initially assumed to be composition and performance) ended and computer input (likewise assumed to be a means of enhancement and refinement) began. It was no coincidence that Kraftwerk waited until 2008 to issue a definitive remaster of their entire catalogue, as Ralf Hütter in particular became obsessed with getting the sound just right in light of newly available digital editing and production tools.
More so than any other outfit, Kraftwerk embodied how the issue of realness affects musical pioneers. Their posturing as robots was an ironic take on the conundrum that electronic musicians face in the face of both authenticity-obsessed critics and the persistent, decades-long dominance of rock and roll and indie rock within the music press. The fixation of publications such as Rolling Stone with lists of the greatest singers and guitarists, along with the enormous critical reputation afforded to indie musicians, keeps alive the question of how much realness factors into aesthetic evaluation. It appears that process in particular – the steps by which the music was created, and how discernible said process is to the listener – is a prime determinant of realness. When in doubt, we can consult Urban Dictionary (bolded emphasis mine) on this issue:
“real music includes anything that goes through what is called a pure process towards becoming music that sounds nice and does not bore the listner [sic] involves singing and not rapping. Usually involves: guitar, bass, drum.”
Via sarcasm, Urban Dictionary summarizes 60 years of rock criticism. It excavates the fading cultural currency of rock music by pinging its most basic and obvious traits – the guitar-bass-drums trio setup – and invests them with the unique power to produce “real” music, a label that early 1950s critics might have reserved exclusively for less guitar-based music, like jazz.
Books, EDM and Realness
Similar struggles for a definition of “the real” exist in other cultural fields, such as in the case of Jonathan Franzen complaining that ebooks don’t have the same permanence as the written word. There one finds characteristic appeals to soft classism (“real readers”) and authenticity (“literature-crazed). This broad struggle over realness in culture extends to EDM, which is currently the most prominent form of electronic music, and accordingly it is fertile ground for producers in heavy-rotation pop and hip-hop who are seeking to cross-pollinate their tracks with club flair. This piece, however, focuses more on how the authenticity debate affects EDM disc jockeys (DJs), who are the main EDM performers and composers. The DJ abbreviation itself is accidentally telling: it has nearly truncated the musicians’ ties to real physical discs and become a word in its own right, even if many DJs do go on using real discs (usually vinyl LPs) and their corresponding playback equipment, rather than a completely digital setup.
EDM is a conveniently broad umbrella under which to shelter the diverse genres of house, trance, techno, acid, dubstep, and what used to be dismissively called IDM (intelligent dance music). House music arouse in late 1980s Chicago, while trance was at least initially a much more European phenomenon, coming to the fore in the early 1990s with The Age of Love’s titular masterpiece. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a time of rapid transition in how music was recorded. Although editing software ProTools had not yet become mainstream, the music-making process was becoming increasingly automated, with hip-hop as the most brazen exponent of music that could float across a sea of carefully curated samples. Whether the samples were the hyper-specific record collection allusions of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (1989), or instead the vaguer synth-bass-drums issuances of house, making an album became as much about one’s abilities to curate an aural collage – and make as apparent as possible one’s diverse yet classical tastes – as about one’s abilities to perform with the human verve and virtuosity associated with jazz, classical, and rock; the idea of a “solo” doesn’t really exist in EDM.
Accordingly, the aesthetic critic would not be raising the critical stakes by criticizing the pitch of a house diva or other EDM vocalist, or by bemoaning the technical repetitiveness of a jam. The latter term is imprecise, but it may suffice if only to construe EDM as a hipper, more urban update on the rock jam, that is, a long-form construction (most EDM albums would qualify as “double albums” in the rock sense) that evolves in often subtle ways and which aims to capture, comment on, and finally re-imagine a highly specific setting, whether Ibiza or the Renaissance UK club. Terre Thaemlitz has stated that house music is “hyperspecific” and meant to convey a particular kind of post-1980s angst. Since EDM in this classical sense is super-local, like politics, then the onus for accurate reproduction and commentary falls on the DJ, whose mixing skills are arguably of no use if he doesn’t have an authentic relation with a particular location and audience. Being a DJ is really like being a politician or a real estate agent.
DJs: Just like Politicians
Like politicians, DJs have come under increasing pressure in the last decade to present themselves as authentic, “real” persons who talk, tweet, and perform just like their fans. The Verge once commented on the celebrity of the Canadian DJ Deadmau5 (who is the at the center of the current storm about DJ authenticity; emphasis mine):
“As a human, Joel Zimmerman epitomizes the “celebs: they’re just like us!” ethos. Fans are treated to rambling, very-unedited, “lol” and emoticon-laced posts on Facebook and Twitter. His face is an angular vessel of pure emotion, nearly always dominated by an ear-to-ear grin that communicates just as much as the words that come out of it, another testament to context bringing more to the table than words. His body, a lanky vessel clad in the t-shirts, baggy pants, and ballcaps of the masses, is covered in nerdy tattoos (Space Invader, Zelda hearts, Cthulhu, Mario “Boo ghost); he needn’t do more than walk into a room to tell you what his deal is. But when he transforms into deadmau5, his presentation is stripped of nearly all words.”
So Deadmau5 is someone to whom his fans can relate. The Verge even goes on to characterize him as a latter-day arena rocker, one who has replaced guitar pyrotechnics and animalistic rock star rituals with blinking lights and repetition. Even in a non-critical assessment of Deadmau5, the issue is framed within the context of rock music.
In light of these portrayals of Deadmau5′s performative style, it becomes easy to see him as the hipster or unusually tech savvy guy DJing a fraternity party or rave. While he certainly imports the obtuse cinematic sweep and costuming of Daft Punk, as part of a tradition harking back to Kraftwerk’s own aforementioned transformation, his wordlessly curated sets nevertheless have an earthy, populist air that nicely coincides with the DIY stylings of his album titles. The populism – the carefully crafted facade of “realness” – succeeds in part because of how Deadmau5 obscures his source material, although it is worthing noting that his protege, Skrillex, courts the authenticity wonks by appealing to older, mostly critically unassailable genres like reggae, in the same way that drum n’ bass once leaned critically on jazz and ragga. The New York Times described his technique as reductionist – many of the familiar parts of dance music (can we call it “classic dance” or “traditional dance” now?) are stripped away to highlight a few flashy traits, sort of like a guitar solo cutting through the blues and jazz changes of early rock but never completely obscuring the reputable source material.
Deadmau5 makes EDM that is agnostic of any particular demographic, a strategy which would seem to run into trouble if the previous argument about house’s hyperspecific contextualism is accurate. But the opportunity to predictably decry Deadmau5 as “not a real” DJ did not fully present itself until he said that most DJs show up to their concerts and, amid the booming noises and lights, simply press play. He likened EDM (by name) to a “cruise ship” meant to convey atmosphere for fans and celebrity bandwagoners alike, which, while partially an astute observation in its probing of it the genre’s roots in partylike locales like smoky clubs or laser-emblazoned dance floors, was nevertheless surprisingly brutal, even savage, in its assessment of an increasingly intellectualized, gentrified genre and its auteurs. The backlash was swift, with David Guetta in particular hitting back at Deadmau5, while other parts of the DJ community took the opportunity to point out that the instruments and live processes available simply were not up to snuff for recreating the complex introverted processes of in-studio EDM production.
Automation and Labor
To the latter point, the invention of newer, more efficient instruments has allowed for entire genres to develop, mature, and be performed throughout history. The piano’s improvements upon the harpsichord is a particularly significant case-study. Perhaps EDM’s DJs have indeed not yet succeeded in discovering easily reproduced ways to create studio-quality live performances. But even if they had, would it have changed the tribalism and infighting over “realness” in EDM? There were plenty of criticisms of Deadmau5 that cited the “hardworking” ordinary DJs (not unlike a political ad, really) who, unlike Deadmau5, specialized in live improvisation, singing or other real and true-to-life processes that demonstrate a tangible, almost bodily link between the performer and the music being performed. This is one of the more strident examples of one subgroup’s idea of “process” dictating for everyone what does and doesn’t count as “real,” and unsurprisingly, Deadmau5 himself has characterized studio recordings as “what counts.”
In EDM, musicians may well have reached a level of automation and in-studio complexity that is difficult to reproduce live, but this conundrum is a distraction, a too-convenient frame in which to confine the more nebulous issue of how “realness” is redefined and achieved by different classes. EDM today is a strange comparison to rock music in 1966-7, when The Beatles retired from touring altogether to focus on studio experimentation that would have had been both laborious to reproduce and unpalatable. This tack led to works (now) regarded as classics, like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but it is equally notable in how it shirked populism and visible, transparent process (like the live-playing of instruments on stage) for opaque in-studio control.
Contemporary DJing, and EDM at-large, remains strongly invested in placating crowds and creating atmosphere in that pre-Sgt. Pepper way, but they achieve this populism via automation rather than human labor, hence the aforementioned “just press play” sets. To appreciate the different tacks that rock and EDM have taken, simply recall the comparison in The Verge of Deadmau5 to arena rockers. In the 1970s, prominent arena rockers Electric Light Orchestra, known for the complexity of their studio works, were beset by accusations of lip-syncing and usage of prerecorded tracks. In the 1970s, did this faux-pas make ELO any less “real” that synthesizer disavowers like Queen?
The Verge characterizes Deadmau5 as someone who was ordinary and just like his fans, a portrait at odd with his metapersonality as a purveyor of prerecorded tracks. In a dance club full of physically active persons, Deadmau5 may be least active, as he simply goes through the motions as the music plays. But isn’t that precisely what everyone else is doing, both in the club and out of it? Doesn’t the usage of common, commoditized items like the laptop, coupled with Deadmau5’s freedom to dance (like anyone else) while his prerecorded set streams over the speakers, make him just another one of his fans? One may struggle to determine if his routine is “real” or even what school of “realness” he would be validating if it were, but struggling with the “realness” debate is not an end to itself. Rather, it is usually the sign of a genre that still requires additional norms from musicians, critics, and listeners alike in order to have its critical profile enhanced, its sound refined, and its “realness” no longer questioned in light of the ensuing maturity.
“Technology” is a problematic term. Like “problematic,” it has a specific Greek etymology that, when scrutinized (a pastime of mine), reveals it to be distressingly vague in its meaning. Anything that is artful or crafted (techné) can be “technological.” So why limit this blog to the “traditional” (I really should cut back on the scare-marks in this blog) space of gadgets and apps, when there’s a whole world out there waiting to come under the “technological” (oops) lens of scrutiny? And what better to analyze than The Knife’s long-awaited triple/double album, Shaking the Habitual? Since it comes in a handy 3xLP/2xCD package (in Europe, if you’re lucky), it even bridges the divide between the digital and analog worlds (even such “worlds” even exist) while unfurling over an hour and a half of new original content.
But it’s more fascinating as an artifact from a cutting-edge (heh) band who have tapped one of the hoariest formats of music’s yesteryear (the gatefold double album) to contend with and combat, if even unintentionally (as if intent matters, but whatever), the current business models of music, which gives less reward for more work. In doing so, they use their enormous, obvious effort (a double album! seven years in the making!) to highlight, both implicitly and explicitly, Europe’s own ongoing issues with labor and shared currency.
The Knife are (this British noun/verb agreement structure seems appropriate here) an enormously accomplished band, and, really, their success could hardly have been more surprising. Aesthetically, the Swedish twins traffic in a brand of frenzied yet strangely introverted techno. At its heart is Karin Dreijer Andersson’s protean voice and the way it floats unsettlingly over the duo’s electronic stew, which seems to occupy the precise boundary at which fairytale-grade Scandinavian forest meets (obscure) nightclub: earnestly rustic, yet hipster, too.
As such, The Knife are a curious case-study for the notion of “technological progress,” since they simultaneously seem to excavate some indelibly vague set of older folk musics and notions of the album as a form (not to mention the work of Yoko Ono, whose work may now reasonably elicit a response of “She’s still alive?”) while also attracting the keen attention of the hyper-hip current music press and clubgoers alike. Other than the impending release of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories next month, there probably won’t be a bigger event in “indie” music (i.e., covered by websites with fancy CSS) this year. And speaking of Daft Punk, Shaking the Habitual is very much The Knife’s answer to that band’s dense, intellectual Human After All.
But The Knife aren’t just aestheticians; they’re political activists, which raises the stakes that accompany each of their projects. Their Venetian masks, insistences of privacy, and reluctance to perform live are delightfully anachronistic, if one’s idea of “–chronism” is the always-on/you have no privacy bullshit mantras of Eric Schmidt, Jeff Jarvis, and the general cult of Google (I love Google’s products – this is an Android blog, after all – but I don’t romanticize it as an organization). They’ve assaulted notions of gender via their approach to vocals, and they reprise their assault here in “Full of Fire,” which contains the Salt-N-Pepa referencing lyric “let’s talk about gender, baby / let’s talk about you and me.” And now, they’ve made a project bigger and more politically overwhelming than anything else in their repertoire, an album which uses both form and content to wedge itself uncomfortably against the political, musical, and social status quo.
Speaking of “bigger,” this is a huge album. Almost 100 minutes of new material. And to make it even harder to down than a rum-and-(Diet) Coke that was mixed, unfinished, and then rerefrigerated, it’s almost stridently idealistic in its politics. Translated, this means that it makes no compromises in terms of run times (tracks go upward of 10 minutes in length) and often broaches topics like the Euro’s slow-motion demise, as on “Stay Out There,” or the self-explanatory “Fracking Fluid Injection.” And is that PSY on the cover (probably not, but it would be topically appropriate)?
In their 1997 song “Bigger Than England,” Long Fin Killie bemoaned “waiting here for days, and still no hint of a thrill,” in the context of gently satirizing British rock music’s history of constantly changing genre labels (“let the post-punk dash left you behind…the morning dogs who protest retro rock n’ roll”). Shaking the Habitual, as its title suggests, takes a similar tack, that of a bored/skeptical onlooker who wants real change rather than the superficial changes and labels that surround them. It does this against the backdrop of major wealth redistribution thanks to the Euro and the proliferation of electronica into the awareness of average indie and pop listeners. “Bigger Than England”? Shaking the Habitual may as well be “Bigger Than Europe.”
Since many listeners now hear electronica simply by turning on any heavy rotation station, The Knife have reconfigured even their own already-abrasive musical language to be more far-out (and I mean that not simply generically, but with specific weight to the late 1960s music scene – more on that later). The stair-step synths from their 2004 masterpiece Deep Cuts and the murky atmospherics of Silent Shout anticipated the mainstreaming of indietronica and dubstep, respectively, so what’s next? Shaking the Habitual is a super-cohesive work: its songs share an homogenous sound that is shot-thru with cheap-sounding drum machines and synths. “Networking” recalls a more cynical Drexciya, while the Egyptian pipes of “Raging Lung” play like an elongated reprise of “Keep the Streets Empty for Me” from Dreijer Andersson’s Fever Ray solo album, while also mysteriously quoting Fugazi (“what a difference a little difference would make”). Nothing sounds like “the future” (and what does something that doesn’t exist yet sound like, anyway?), but I think that’s the point: the only way for The Knife to make a cutting point here is to dig into “the past,” for music presumed dead but which is actually very much still with us.
This approach is most liberally pursued on “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized,” a 19-minute tone poem that stays true to its title by never really firing into action but instead lingering in the background, often inaudible. As the cynical exclamation on a difficult statement, it rivals The Mothers of Invention’s “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” a similarly mysterious stretch of near-silence that capped their 1968 album We’re Only in it for the Money. The latter has often received epithets like “Most Lousy Song on a Great Album,” which I’m sure will be recycled in approaching “Old Dreams…” and how it fits into the otherwise fairly digestible Shaking the Habitual. Yes, for all of its difficulty, this album is a smooth listen, driven by Dreijer Andersson’s cheeky lyrics and androgynous vocals, not to mention more than a few vocal hooks, such as on “Raging Lung” and the delightfully droning “Cherry on the Top.”
The album’s surprising appeal – I’ve since spun it three more times – made me recall a recent missive from the musician Terre Thaemlitz. In the PDF liner notes to his unprecedented Soulnessless album (which I hope he won’t begrudge me quoting here) has written eloquently of how most high-profile projects inevitably surrender to prevalent norms about music:
“Our obsession for career compliancy with the mechanisms of the marketplace, even when producing “culturally critical” projects, betrays an underlying aspiration to the status quo. It also exposes a crippling religious faith in our labor only gaining true audibility through dominant notions of audience and visibility. The marketplace demands that we develop products aspiring to universality and mass appeal, with no concern for the detrimental aspects of homogenization. And even in our most sincere attempts at non-compliance, we magically seem to comply.”
The aforementioned homogenous sound of the album seems to indicate the same phenomenon occurring on Shaking the Habitual. But it complies in an odd way, by referencing the older double-album format (what is a “double album,” anyway, in an era in which so much music has no physical form?) and its various distinctive traits like very long tracks and short, palate-cleansing interludes, seen here in the Margaret Atwood-referencing “Oryx” and “Crake” songs, both of which clock in at under a minute. This plays more like The White Album, or one of The Mothers Of Invention’s more far-strung 1960s works (the double-disc Uncle Meat, for example) than any more recent double-album. In other words, The Knife are well-versed in the particular vocabulary of the album, and they have delivered a Big Statement of sorts by electing to release such a long-form work in an era defined by single-song downloads and streaming.
Or have they? Thaemlitz, in that same essay, also remarks:
“The album, as a compositional formation derived from those media durations, is dead in the wake of infinite single-track downloads. While there is a desire to celebrate audio recording’s liberation from the arbitrary time restrictions of archaic media formats, technological and corporately devised limitations of the MP3 format make any such celebration premature. Throughout the CD era, record labels have come to demand audio producers make projects that fill the longer digital media capacities. So much so that consumers now feel disappointment and even trickery when purchasing shorter albums. Yet all the while labels are paying lower advances and royalties. ”
Paradoxically, the era of seemingly short attention spans and discrete individual tracks has also given rise to huge, never-ending albums, keeping the old format in rather rude health. The long, overstuffed Shaking the Habitual, as such, is an amazingly poignant work for 2013, and this poignancy makes its venom all the more potent. It appears to lash out against environmental abuse and the “short century” caused by the Euro crisis. It’s a work that has the residue of recent economic crises all over it, as evinced by the “End Extreme Wealth” mantra on the vinyl edition’s cover.
But it makes an even more subtle point simply by way it marries seemingly archaic form with a consistent knack for pop. Even Pitchfork, in reviewing the pair’s contributions to the Tomorrow, in a Year opera, said that The Knife have always been a pop band at heart. And it’s this pop sensibility that reveals the band seemingly grappling with how to make a difficult Big Statement (on politics, on art) while subconsciously “complying” (to use Thaemlitz’s terminology) with pop norms in a way that only they can. In 2004, on “Listen Now,” they declared: “We seek and we will find/Reason to stay alive/The price has never been this low.” In 2013, amidst shrinking musical royalties and increasing inequality in Europe and the West, they have made good on that promise, staying alive thru the sheer weight and power of Shaking the Habitual.
-The ScreenGrab Team