J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Notes From Underground - #35
Don't Look Back (Sort Of) - Part One


The last Notes From Underground elicited some great and thoughtful responses from people both online (mostly over at the post on Aquarium Drunkard) and off. The various comments led me down a path that took me to this question: should we expect more from music than just being entertaining?

My argument in the previous post was that alt-country had hit its high-water mark some time ago and that while good albums were still being released, there wasn't any innovation going on. Instead we have a movement that is producing quality music that is enjoyable, but not a great leap forward in art.

But should I demand innovation in music? Am I holding out for too much? The answer to this depends on how you approach music in general. If you look at it from the perspective of it being a saleable commodity - which it most certainly is - then the ultimate goal of music is to entertain and to solicit patronage. The only demand is the market, however that market is defined. Whether it's selling a million records, or packing the local bar, meeting the demand of the audience is the key goal. A musician shouldn't be lambasted for not moving forward if their art is finding a steady and eager audience.

If you look at music from the perspective of it being an art form with stylistic movements, however, you end up with a different set of priorities. As a commenter at another message board said, "People are still painting impressionist work--every day--but the movement itself is merely a shadow of what it was when Cezanne or Degas or Monet were creating art. In fact, it isn't a movement any longer because it isn't really moving anymore. It just is." People are still recording all kinds of music that have existed for some time, but it doesn't mean they are innovating. Can we subject commercial music to the same standards? By doing so, we are asking of art to do what art naturally does - innovate and live. Art, to paraphrase Woody Allen, is like a shark. When it stops moving, it dies.

But we may also be asking music to do something antithetical to its environment. Music has long faced the conundrum of how to satisfy the market and the artist. Classical composers were indebted to their patrons and to the positive responses of audiences at premieres. Today, too, musicians are held responsible by record companies and the record-purchasing public. They must have an audience that responds, otherwise there will be no commodified output. They can sit at home and write all the songs they would like, but if they have an urge to perform for others, well, an audience is crucial to that equation.

Last week I wrote about Sleater-Kinney. They were a band that danced along a tight rope with me during their existence. While their innovative sound drew me in as a listener, there came a time in their catalogue (right after the release of One Beat) where they felt stale to me. I hadn't seen any serious change in their sound or style since at least The Hot Rock, if not Dig Me Out, and now two more albums had come and gone without any great leap forward. I was still enjoying the music, but I was beginning to question if I didn't already own "every" Sleater-Kinney album just by virtue of the fact that all of them were beginning to sound so similar.

They made a conscious decision to go elsewhere with their last album, The Woods. It seemed like an artistic decision, something based out of a longing to try something else, and to be sure it alienated some people. I've heard many a diverse opinion about that record. I hailed it as the best album of 2005, but others certainly didn't see it that way. Sleater-Kinney were also in the enviable position of having a steady, built fan-base who would've turned out to buy their music regardless. This gave them a certain freedom that allowed them to create as they saw fit. Radiohead's release of In Rainbows for free was another instance of a band stepping outside of the established mode. Truly there are very few bands in that position who are also willing to take advantage of it. Lord knows I'm not holding my breath for some avant work from Nickelback.

Ultimately there are aspects of both these perspectives in most music lovers. My friend, James, said about his favorite band, Black Flag, that he knew their later albums were crap, but he loved them anyway. There was a connection he had to the music that allowed him to judge it on how it made him feel, not how he felt about it, necessarily, as a progressive piece of art. And ultimately, art's purpose is to make us feel. That doesn't mean that all artists are off the hook for quality and innovation, but it does maybe shift the focus of our discussion.

Next week: Go√ęthe, "The Lady of Shalott," "Minniver Cheevy" and the audience's role in shaping the future of music.

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