Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The free culture of the electronica movement.

I have never really been a fan of electronic music. Growing up in Southern California, my taste in music was taught to be loyal to ska, punk and the emerging indie scene. Anything else was not only dismissed, but held in contempt for being of a lesser genre, one far less sophisticated than the one that I held my loyalty to. I never thought much of rap, avoided it, and all I'd ever heard was the emerging pop bling bling crap on the radio. To me, it seemed that the genre must have gotten its name from dropping the c in front of it. But worse than rap was electronica, techno, trance, dance music; whatever name it had, no difference--it all sounded the same to me. And it had no words. Surely this is not music, I thought.

I'm not sure exactly when my mind changed from rigid to fluidly embracing, but I am glad for it. In some ways I became less critical, and in others more so. I am more open to trying anything once, and more selective of what I will listen to twice. Gone now is my blind loyalty to the Southern California scene (which is a misnomer anyhow as the gangsta rap scene is also a big player in the area, but not where I grew up, in the culturally exclusive suburban sprawl), and in it an appreciation for electronic music. Not just electronic music and certainly not all. A lot of electronic music is really bad and does indeed sound the same, but so does a lot of indie music.

Good electronica, however, reaches a level of stimulation that the muted pop hooks of the SoCal punk/ska/indie seems unfit for. There are interesting things to be heard in those genres, but for different reasons. Electronica (from now on let's assume I mean the less repetitive mindless bass beats, the 'good' kind) functions much like a game. The artist starts from one set of beats and rhythms and slowly layers them, modifying each so slightly, and you as the listener try to focus on each layer, each individual placement (of both note and tempo) of every beat. And yet the artist distracts you with a pop hook so that while you get carried away on that, you often miss the subtle change in the bass/drum beat, and with that the entire song changes, and once you realize what has happened, it becomes very noticeable just how much has changed. That's why electronica does not usually depend on vocals because it does not need to, much in the same way that jazz and classical music do not. (I would say that for a lot of punk/ska/indie this is different, vocals have become a vital instrument to those genres; what percussion is to electronica, vocals have become to punk/ska/indie.)

Part of the success of electronica, I think, has been its ability to support itself, its artists, and its listeners without needing the music industry. This and jazz are the closest thing we come to freedom in music because they are not reliant on the industry that in many ways is just a virus. It took rock first, now bastardizing the genre for the sake of pop, movie soundtracks, commercials. The music industry controls both production and distribution (a practice that should alert suspicion). But electronica has been mostly untouched by that. Artists don't seek major distribution in 30-second commercial ads, and therefore the genre is not expected to conform to making music more friendly for such a medium (with some exceptions of course--remember that horrid cover of the already despicable Bryan Adams song, something about heaven or other...yeah). They make money off of fans who appreciate their work, their innovation. The most popular electronica artists are certainly not nearly as wealthy as the most popular of pop (say...Aphex Twin vs. Jessica Simpson even). So why do they do it? I can only guess at the motivation. But I think electronica serves as a beautiful model for what all of music can be (and was before the commoditization of audio culture). Look at this wonderful underground culture! They make, share and mix recordings, and the original artists don't seem to mind at all. In fact, this practice is common amongst the artists as well. And it's promoted experimentation and innovation; who cares if you can't sell it to a record label to play it on the radio when your core audience doesn't listen to the radio?

I won't try to argue any supremacy of one genre to another, but for now let me, a former hater of all but my small microcosm of Southern California rock, attest for the good in good electronic music (and rap, the off-air kind). And let that serve as a testament to the promise of a free culture, one not owned by fat men who have lost the joy for life and humanity to be able to appreciate the beauty when the artist has pushed him/herself beyond anything known, when the artist has the courage to explore that dark part of the forest and invites you to follow along.


Blogger letdinosaursdie said...

Check out this article for some further discussion.

3:04 PM  

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