Yes, this is meant to be 30 Days of Songs. Yes, I started it a full year ago. Yes, the fact that I haven’t finished it yet is also part of what’s been making me sit on my hands and not post much on this blog. But let’s pick up Day 11 on the 11th, shall we, and see if I can’t just manage to do 30 Days of Songs in less than a year.
This is an interesting question, really. A band I wish everyone knew about? Everyone? A band whose music I wished to inflict on absolutely every human on Earth? Surely not: no matter how much I loved any given group, no matter how meritorious I thought one of their songs might be, there’s no way it could successfully cross all the cultural gaps and somehow be worth everyone’s time, right?
So I’m going to scale this question back a little, at least to start, and I’m going to be ethnocentric about it: by “everyone,” I’m just going to assume it means “everyone in my culture.” Which is still more nebulously defined, but it’s at least more approachable than the freaking Voyager Golden Record task of thinking of some song I would want to share with an entire planet. Maybe whatever I figure out will work more universally, but I’ve gotta start small-scale.
Even when it’s scaled back like this, though, it’s still a pretty weighty question. Should I pick a group that’s very well-known already, but that deserves being even more well-known? Or should I pick something that’s obscure? Should I pick something I actually think everyone would like, something I think they’re missing out on? Should I pick something that’s so different, so avant-garde, that it would be shocking — but would be incredibly inspiring for the fraction of people who operate on a similar wavelength? Perhaps I can narrow it down.
I do think it would be best to pick something obscure. Even though that itself is vague; almost everything is obscure to somebody. Okay, maybe not The Beatles. Or maybe so The Beatles; I really do wonder how aware my niece’s generation is of their music. Back when I was in elementary school, there was only a small knot of people — many of them not even in my grade, but a year behind me — who had any real cognizance of oldies or classic rock. Even in junior high, there was still that sense of discovery, hilarious in hindsight: “Dude, have you ever heard of this ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ thing?” “Yeah man, that’s trippy stuff! But here, you’ve gotta check this out — it’s a Led Zeppelin CD, but its name is all symbols, so I dunno what it’s even called.” “Whoa.”
Now that more time has passed, and the Internet has made discovering new music so easy it’s rather overwhelming, that sense of discovery is both heightened and defused. Heightened, yes, because it’s so much more likely that you and your friends are stumbling across some band or artist that very few people know… yet defused because it’s so much less likely that you’ll meet anyone else who’s a similar fan. When you’re in school, you’re a captive audience to commercial culture. Your personal preferences outside of school may be whatever they are, but for eight hours a day, you’re still going to see your peers wearing certain shirts, making references to certain artists, listening to certain bands. If you take the bus, you’ll probably hear the Top 40 hits — which is usually more like the same ten songs, over and over. Whether you’re actually caught up in it or not, you’re still in sight of the mainstream, and it becomes part of that ambient culture of your generation. Even though high school subcultures could practically be defined by their music preferences — the Rapper Kids, the Goth Kids, the Stoner Kids, the Punk Kids, the Christian Rock Kids, the Country Kids.
By the time you’re out of school, however, and no longer in forced proximity to people in your same age range, you have the latitude to choose what sorts of people you hang out with, where you go, what you do, what you listen to. It’s easy to break away from the mainstream entirely, and to drift off into a little eddy of your own — ideally no stagnant pool, but still much more selective. Commercial culture isn’t marketing to your peer group anymore, and so you have to make a point of seeking out the trends to see what today’s hip, happenin’ teenagers are listening to.
What you grew up on is obscure to them. What they’re immersed in now is obscure to you. Everything’s alien to someone.
But I’ve shared enough music with enough people to know how truly wonderful it is to watch someone discover something and fall in love with it. To go from complete unawareness of the song’s existence, assuming themselves pretty content with their lives, to hearing that song, and feeling such great affinity for it that their brains are simply swimming in endorphins. It was no part of their life before, but after hearing it, they’re happier! Amazing!
Oddly enough, it’s that exact thing that makes me lean away from picking something… safe. Yes, I could try to pick a song that I thought a lot of people might like, based on all the other things that they hear and like. But that’s the same path to madness taken by everyone who designs art by committee. Seeking mass approval at all costs, creating only some thin and tasteless gruel that everyone finds equally inoffensive, but few people really love. This is why I don’t believe in “giving the people what they want.” I don’t think the people know what they want. I think that the most amazing things, the most beloved things, the most exciting and interesting and influential things, are by definition the things that nobody quite saw coming. They’re logical progressions from previous genres, sure; it’s no musica ex machina. But nobody asked for rock and roll. Punk was not approved by a focus group. Rap was not born in a boardroom. When they bubbled up into mainstream awareness, they were controversial.
And that’s good.
I think we need that again. I think we need a new artist, a new genre, that gets parents and preachers upset. Something that makes old people a little bit scared, because it’s nothing remotely familiar. I’m not sure if we have one right now.
Well, besides dubstep, perhaps. Though it’s already fallen well out of vogue, from what I can tell. Still, it was a common target of mockery as it rose from obscurity and mutated from its roots. It was decried as noise and garbage, as the sound of broken robots arguing in a blender. It seemed to make some people outright angry. It’s no surprise that we burn out on things faster than we used to; it no longer takes nearly as long for an artist or genre to become incredibly well known, so it also doesn’t take nearly as long for people to get utterly sick of hearing it. Trap seems to be rising as a successor, but it doesn’t seem to have the same shock-your-parents level of strangeness to it, and I’m not sure that it could. It’s derived so clearly from rap and from other EDM that it’s not really all that alien.
Obviously, if I were prescient enough to know what the next new, weird, shocking, game-changing musical genre would be, I wouldn’t be sitting here blogging in my pajamas and eating lukewarm leftovers.
But the point still stands: I wouldn’t want to take my captive audience and share something I already knew everyone would like. I’m not ClearChannel. IHeartMedia. An asshole.
No, I wouldn’t necessarily want to everyone to smile afterward and thank me. Forget just sharing a different band that I thought needs more love, a band that does a standard rock / pop / whatever thing, and does it very well, but hasn’t hit the big time though it deserves to. Sorry. I’d rather share something that is, in some way, unlike anything most people have heard before. Something that takes the familiar and the comfortable and renders it unfamiliar: that recontextualizes it, restructures it, deconstructing and reassembling it in new ways. Something that grows music in what seems a fallow field.
There are a few options for that sort of thing, Negativland perhaps foremost among them. After all, they invented the term “culture jamming.” If anything, remixing and recontextualizing is only more relevant now than it was at the beginning of Negativland’s tenure, and the aims of culture jamming all the more important. Still, their work might be – dare I admit – too different? Not quite approachable? Hard to appreciate without a lot more context. That, I think, is the core. It’s hard to just take a single one of their pieces and understand what they’re doing, what they’re using, and why they’re doing it – if just because most of their work is, well, older, sampling commercials and songs and speech that have already been defused by time itself. (I haven’t listened to their newest album, It’s All In Your Head, yet, though; it may have more current stuff.) And it’s not as if their past work doesn’t still make relevant commentary about consumerism, war, and religion, obviously. But unless one were alive cotemporaneously, the references used to make those points just won’t have the same impact. It won’t be turning the familiar on its ear, because it won’t be the familiar.
So. Scale back a bit again. Something less avant-garde, but with similar workings. Mashups? Those work best, by far, when someone is already familiar with both sources, and I’m not sure of anything that could be so broadly known. They, more than anything else, seem to blow the minds of people who hear them – but only if they already have that cultural context to really appreciate the juxtaposition. Anyone else would just hear some backing tracks, and some vocals, and might have no reason to believe they were originally from different songs. Which is delightful, of course, but it also means it doesn’t carry as much meaning, and it’s not as much fun.
The Evolution Control Committee? Similar issue: not everything they’re sampling is “the familiar.” Their work tends to be more fun, though, and not always as expressly political (though the whole sound collage / plagiarhythm genre inherently makes a statement about culture by appropriating it. …Though, well, what doesn’t.)
Other cut-ups, then? Rx’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” built from Bush speeches is still a pretty amazing thing, and is even melodious, but has the same issue: interesting in its mechanics, but no longer timely. Much more timely is Diran Lyons’ parody of Jay Z’s “99 Problems” constructed from Obama speeches. Timely, yes… but not as smooth and fluid or melodious, and hard to even follow the lyrics without reading them at the same time.
Schmoyoho, and Songify nee Auto-Tune The News? Closer: it’s certainly more approachable, more upbeat, more melodious, less charged. Auto-Tune, like dubstep, is mercifully less of A Thing now, or at least isn’t being used so blatantly. But it still exists to take something mundane and pedestrian and weave music out of it. Creating something often beautiful out of something boring.
Who else makes music of the mundane? The Sursiks: their entire album I Didn’t Know I Was Singing takes answering machine messages and creates music based on the tempo and melody of casual human speech! The instruments are played well, the music is catchy, and it really makes the listener aware of how musical “non-music” can really be. So I think that’s my final answer:
“Sister!” by The Sursiks is something that everyone ought to know about.
It’s not on YouTube, so I can’t link to the song that way, but it is indeed listenable, in full, under that link. Purchasable, as well!
Why that one? Well, there are no swears, and only the mildest of potty humor. Is there a great and compelling artistic message to it? Nope. It’s a message left from one sister to another, relating one of the little agonies of daily life – and remembering a similar incident from childhood. It’s just a bit of spoken language. But David Minnick and company flesh it out into a full and proper song, with expert instrumentation, catchy syncopation, and general improvement of everything the original source was.
That song, and that group, possibly more than any other, might serve as reminders that there’s music everywhere. Not just if you’re talented enough or rhythmic enough, as with STOMP’s stuff. But that the natural intonation of your natural voice may very well be someone’s song.