A Gora's Guide to Bollywood (Part 1)

"Gora" is a word in Hindi and Urdu roughly equivalent to "gringo" in Spanish; though it loosely refers to white people, what it really signifies is outsiders to the culture of its speaker. I use it because for a long time you goras of the English-speaking world haven't really given a fuck about Subcontinental Asians, in spite of occasional encouraging moments (lately: the success of M.I.A., Harold and Kumar, Anoop on American Idol, and so on). Last Saturday, however, seemed to signal a larger change. Danny Boyle's Hollywood-drama-set-in-Mumbai (please don't suggest it has anything to do with Bollywood), Slumdog Millionaire, swept the Oscars, including a win for composer/songwriter A.R. Rahman. I can only hope that we will soon start to see decent releases of South Asian music and film--Bollywood and otherwise (and there is an otherwise)--in the English-speaking world. (If anyone from the Criterion Collection is reading, come on guys. Honestly.)

A frequently voiced, totally clueless complaint about Bollywood is that the films are not realistic; they are filled with too much song and dance, they mix genres too eagerly, they are too colorful and exuberant for a country that is devastated by poverty. I hope my readers are perceptive enough to know that this is bullshit. Media and genre mixing is longstanding element of traditional cultures, and is even more important for people with little leisure time and few sites of cultural experience. As for charges of escapism? To deny lower-class Indians the kinds of pleasures you and I derive from consuming culture because they were born into poverty is typical liberal guilt projection, blame-the-victims nonsense. Besides, everyone knows that a good escape plan is of prime importance for revolutionaries.

Since this is a music blog, what follows is a sampling of ten fantastic Bollywood songs. For inclusion, not only did the song have to be excellent, it had to be from an excellent film. You could get a great start in learning about this vibrant global culture by following these leads.

"Chaiyya Chaiyya," from Dil Se

It only makes sense to start with a Rahman composition. The guy is a household name all over the world, and it's about time y'all caught up. Rahamn's work is extroadinarily diverse; he is equally adept at more melodic, romantic ballads as he is at rhythmic dance jams, of which "Chaiyya Chaiyya" ("shadow") is a prime example. (A key example of the former, the absolutely irresistible "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai"--loosely translateable as "shit happens"--was disqualified for its source movie's tiresome plot and troublesome gender politics.) You might recognize "Chaiyya" from the opening sequence of Spike Lee's 2006 Inside Man, but it originally comes from Mani Ratnam's 1998 Dil Se ("from the heart"), a dark, impressionistic depiction of a sexually charged encounter between a journalist and a suicide bomber. The voice is playback singer Sukhwinder Singh, but the actor moving his lips is megastar Shah Rukh Khan.

"Pyar Zindagi Hai," from Muqaddar Ka Sikander

The name of Amitabh Bachchan is invoked frequently in Slumdog Millionaire, and for good reason. My man is one of the most well-known film actors in the world, outside of the United States, whose emergence in Indian cinema in the late seventies marked a shift from light romance to violent, melancholy drama. 1978's Muqaddar Ka Sikander may not necessarily be the best of Amitabh's action movies, but it features perhaps the greatest disco jam in Bollywood history, by musical eccentrics Kalyandji and Anandji V. Shah. The dazzling, funk-influenced work of the Shah brothers is the wellspring of material for Dan the Automator's Bombaby the Hard Way and its sequel. "Pyar Zindagi Hai" ("love is life") is performed by Lata Mangeshkar, who I believe holds the world record for singing the most songs of anyone ever, and her sister Asha Bhosle, who was immortalized in Cornershop's 1998 tribute to vinyl, "Brimful of Asha." The male vocalist is the less well known Mahendra Kapoor. No, I don't know where you can find a 12-inch of this.

"Soni De Nakhre," from Partner

A movie like 2007's Partner is a perfect target for those who are too cool for Bollywood. The film is based on the already mediocre Will Smith vehicle Hitch, about a guy who teaches clients how to get dates, adds in a totally irrelevant mafia subplot, stars the beefy, insincere Salman Khan,
and features a lengthy chase scene in which the protagonist is pursued by a heat-seeking missile--while on a jet ski. As you have probably guessed, it's fucking awesome. As much as I love Will Smith, Hitch is truly bested here. "Soni De Nakhre" (don't speak Punjabi, sorry) is the movie's peak moment (along with that jet ski chase I guess), a wonderful instance of the Bollywood tradition of throwing one song in Punjabi into a movie that is otherwise in Hindi; this is without exception the bangingest number, often in a Bhangra style. Many people don't know that the name of the genre "Bhangra" comes from the word "bhang," which means marijuana, often used in that region to make a kind of milkshake called "lassi." This shit is like Indian dub reggae, or dancehall. "Nakhre" was composed by Labh Janjua, who is also responsible for Punjabi MC's seminal Bhangra classic "Mundian To Bach Ke" (better known for its Jay-Z remix, "Beware of the Boys," but better heard in its original incarnation). Not only is Partner cooler than Hitch, this song is way doper than "Pump up the Jam," which it blatantly rips off. A great example of Bollywood's mastery of male-female song dialogue.

"Main Koi Jhoot Boleya," from Jagte Raho

Jagte Raho ("stay awake"), is a landmark film, featuring one of India's earliest auteur actor/directors, Raj Kapoor. Though his early films were compelling translations of Charlie Chaplin's formal style and political thematics to a third-world context, 1956's Jagte Raho, a collaboration with Amit and Sombhu Mitra, is some downright Scandanavian shit. Like the European art cinema of the day, the story is highly symbolic and abstract: a peasant finds himself trapped on a Calcutta street after curfew, dying of thirst. He comes upon a gated apartment complex, where the overworked guards shout to each other at regular intervals to make sure no one sleeps on the job. He manages to get past the gate, and makes his way, unseen, through the hundreds of apartments in the complex, becoming a silent witness to the latent corruption and conflict that lay under the normalized surface of India's emerging postcolonial middle class. The film won the main prize at the prestigious Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, forcing the world to take notice (a bit) of Indian cinema. This scene is, in a way, a predecessor to the previous one, as an encounter with a more marginal ethnicity in both story and song. "Main Koi Jhoot Boleya" ("do I lie?") is by Salil Chowdhary and Prem Dhavan, and is mainly performed by Mohammed Rafi (who is something like the Indian Elvis). I can't translate the Punjabi outside of the refrain "so what!"

"Jaane Wo Kaise," from Pyaasa

Early Bollywood, like early Hollywood, was a profoundly exciting, innovative, politically engaged world. Like many of the great talents involved in thirties and forties Hollywood (and the early Soviet Union), the workers in India's nascent film industry came together from many disparate fields--visual arts, theater, classical music, poetry, and so on--to develop a radical new medium. Again, similar to Hollywood, many of these artists were involved with the Communist Party of India. The hybridity was not only media based; Bollywood was perhaps the first truly national culture of the Subcontinent. Rather than a Sikh cinema or a Sufi cinema or a Muslim cinema or a Hindu cinema or a cinema based solely on any other one of the region's many ethnicities, Indian cinema constructed a notion of Indian-ness out of many cultural traditions, making it a profoundly anticolonial art form. From this millieu emerged Guru Dutt's 1957 masterpiece Pyaasa ("thirst"). For many, it is the greatest Indian movie--influential film theorist Laura Mulvey is one noteworthy fan. Dutt borrowed some aspects of his plot from Preston Sturges's brilliant 1941 comedy/drama Sullivan's Travels, adapting it to an Indian setting. Dutt, ethnically a Hindu and trained in theater, worked with Urdu poet Sahir Ludhiviani, ethnically a Muslim, on the story and songs of Pyaasa, with music by Bengali composer S.D. Burman. Students and fans of cinema owe it to themselves to see this classic. For now, the wrenchingly beautiful "Jaane Wo Kaise" ("how could it be?"), performed by Hemant Kumar.

Stay tuned for Part 2, goras.


I'm Not An Animal

"We are living in a Post Merriweather Post Pavillion World," writes Carles, "and I am a conceptual bro." Perhaps we are all conceptual bros. The new Animal Collective album, probably the most hyped thing ever, has been settling into the heads of music fans everywhere for the past couple weeks, to the point that it recently debuted at 13 on Billboard's Hot 200 albums (right below Andrew Bird's latest--this probably says more about the shrinking demographic of album-buyers than it does about some kind of musical zeitgeist). It has been reviewed at Resident Advisor, where I thought I would be safe, Kanye West posted the "My Girls" video on his blog, and don't even get me started on all the cover versions flooding youtube. Make no mistake; this is for real, and it's serious. I'm sure you've heard it all before from your neighborhood's resident Animal Collective apologist, but witness Simon Reynolds's baffling a priori vitriol for anyone who dares question the consensus on Merriweather Post Pavilion:
It's funny watching AC haters frothing at the mouth isn't it? They can't help it, their loathing is so visceral, such an uncontrollable gut aversion to the sound: its maculate, confusional qualities seem to be intolerable, a real affront to sensibility--the way the music mixes levels, categories, registers like so much spin art (or more apposite in this case, like tie-dye).
WTF, bro?

I've never been a follower of the band, so I can't comment on their earlier stuff. But on MPP, a singular aesthetic shines through; this is the work of a group that knows what it is doing. A frequent comparison is to the Beach Boys, but with the exception of the relatively enjoyable "Bluish," I don't hear it. What I do hear is more unsettling, yet openly acknowledged: "Merriweather Post Pavilion" is the name of the arena where the Animal Collective boys saw their first Grateful Dead concert.

Ah-ha. Other touchstones fall into place: the cloying harmonies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, the starry-eyed navel-gazing of hippiedom, the breezy multicultural appropriation inclinations of white sixties aesthetes, and so on. Guess I missed the meeting when we decided we now consider CSN and the Dead appropriate influences for a band in 2009, but there you go. Animal Collective are hardly the only rock group to mythologize the Sixties, and their take is really not all that different from the rest. The cultural myth of the Sixties falls squarely into line with the way Roland Barthes defined myth generally, as "depoliticized speech." The effect is,
The world enters language as a dialectical relation between activities, between human actions; it comes out of myth as a harmonious display of essences. A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature, it has removed from things their human meaning so as to make them signify a human insignificance. The function of myth is to empty reality; it is, literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a haemorrhage, or perhaps an evaporation, in shot a perceptible absence.
Ahistoricizing as well as depoliticizing, this kind of mythologization of the sixties does not concern itself with radical movements in the third world, with feminist and queer aspects of the sexual revolution, with class struggle. What it comes away with are essentialized, reified concepts of liberation, antiauthoritarianism, diversity, and so on, the signifiers of which are wholly incorporated into capitalist culture. For this generation, the vestiges of the Sixties--of which a primary marker is the write-their-own-songs/play-their-own-instruments Rock Band, a group that with few exceptions must be white--result in, to once again quote Carles, something like a "non-profit lifestyle brand."

Consider the analysis of Christian Lander, the creator of the somewhat cynical website Stuff White People Like. From the Atlantic:
It's strange that we are the kids of Baby Boomers, right? How the hell do you rebel against that? Like, your parents will march against the World Trade Organization next to you. They'll have bigger white dreadlocks than you. What do you do?
The answer? You don't rebel. What's the point? There are other things to attend to, as we are told in MPP's first single, "My Girls."

Written by Panda Bear, the lyrics take a confessional tone: "Is it much," he begins, already wishy-washy, "that I feel I need/A solid soul and the blood I bleed?" Personally I think that the post-Cartesian paradox of a "solid soul" actually is a bit much, but we can put that aside for now. Mr. Bear proceeds to tell us what he really needs, which is his "little girl," his "spouse," and "a proper house." (Never mind that there was no need in this case to be gender neutral, spouse rhymes with house okay?) After informing us that he doesn't want to have to get a job ("take part in a precious race") in order to pay for this house, he goes on to set his convictions in stone: "I don't mean to seem like I care about material things, like my social status/I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls." Hey, a third world-style house with adobe walls! Pretty alt!
Now, our boy Panda is no sellout. He realizes what a boomerist resignation it is to want a house. He's quoted in this New York Times article as feeling kind of guilty about it. "It's a song about wanting to buy a house, but then I sort of felt bad about writing a song about wanting to buy a house," he says. "'Social status' and 'material things'--just that kind of mindset was what I was apologizing for." This self-righteousness finds the latent solipsism of Sixties counterculture elevated to mythic proportions. Railing against "material things" has always been easy for children of privilege who have picked up some countercultural notions; what they don't realize is that along with the "precious race" of labor, they have summarily dismissed any potential criticality about class structures under capitalism. "Material things" matter; to ignore them abandons any sense of society rather than of just individuals, any interest in imagining and constructing new forms of social organization.

As for its sound, the song has a central synth riff blatantly jacked from Jamie Principle/Frankie Knuckles's seminal house track "Your Love." Nothing against jacking shit but in this case I keep waiting for that sublime bassline to kick in and needless to say it never does. (Actually, that kind of sums up how I feel about this album pretty well right there.) The song is heavier on rhythm than most of the album, though. The effusive "Summertime Clothes" may better represent Merriweather Post Pavilion, with all of Animal Collective's sonic trademarks in full effect, a gentle 4/4 thump not really adding up to anything like a groove. The bouncy loop backs up a trite evocation of that most boring of Rock figures, The Wanderer. In the dominant post-Sixties wave of Rocka trope that once gave voice to actually homeless people in country and blues music has again parted from material conditions and become merely another "non-profit lifestyle brand." True, the Wanderer of "Summertime Clothes" does not wander alone; the chorus swooningly bellows "I want to walk around with you!" Whether it's directed at a girl or at a bro is not directly specified, but you know how these Wanderers are. They never pass up a chance of getting laid.

You may have recognized the title of this post as a line from the most disturbing song on Never Mind the Bollocks ("Bodies," described by Robert Christgau as "effectively anti-abortion, anti-woman, and anti-sex"). "Summertime Clothes" brings to mind another bunch of punks. Every time I hear Animal Collective droning on about walking around with me, I'd like to think that the voice of Joey Ramone calls out in response from 30 years ago, as in a classic tune on the first Ramones album:
I don't wanna walk around with you
I don't wanna walk around with you
I don't wanna walk around with you
So why you wanna walk around with me?


Chance Operations

We begin by setting a standard. This is the greatest online video I know of that captures an excerpt of electronic music performance. Here's Detroit's Octave One:
If that doesn't make you feel like throwing your computer through the window and screaming TECHNO TECHNO TECHNO at any passerby (you don't have to do it, you just have to feel like it), perhaps you would feel more at home here. Enjoy the new Fleet Foxes! If you are feeling properly invigorated, though, you might put that energy to use in locating and purchasing the great new Octave One album, Summers On Jupiter.

Octave One (a.k.a. Random Noise Generation) are brothers Lenny and Lawrence Burden, who for something like 20 years now have been not only producing incredible techno records, they've been playing their productions in what remains a pretty unique live show (though I've heard that both Phuture and Dan Bell do something like it, I've never had the pleasure of seeing it). As the above clip demonstrates, they do their thing with a rack of sequencers, samplers, and synthesizers rather than with turntables, spending performances both engrossed in creating the subtleties of their music and physically expressing its effects. Yes, a lot of the power of this performance is the spectacle of it; seeing the rack, seeing their heads bouncing up and down above it. But what's most compelling about their live shows is that they are a rare instance in which electronic music production and performance collide. The result is an ongoing practice that is profoundly connected to the origins of dance music, in encounters with the early machinery of musical simulation.

That moment of origin is described by Kodwo Eshun as an instance of "autocatalysis," which is
when sound emerges by itself, when the machine generates a new sound autonomously, without a human agent. A machinic lifeform emerges from the sampler on its own. The Roland TB-303 Bass Line Rhythm Composer engineers its own audiomatter. In ’87 the 303 discovers acid on its own, uses Phuture to replicate.
The machine rebels against its creator, in conspiracy with its user. Eshun's gesture towards a process of production that is not merely cyborgian but entirely mechanistic may seem hyperbolic, but it is certainly more reasonable than the boring attribution of complete authorial autonomy to the Artist that cultural producers in the high-modernist traditions of literature and rock music are often granted. In this interview, Lawrence Burden similarly describes Octave One's music as navigating a dialectic between the humanistic and the mechanistic, with the latter sometimes achieving preeminence.

This is nothing new, in the history of radical sonic culture. Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone serialism was a kind of written technology, a system of composition that functioned as a machine: once put into operation by a "composer," it would develop the music itself. John Cage similarly sought to immolate the notion of the composer with pieces based on "chance operations" rather than either composition or improvisation, both of which emphasized a kind of subjectivity/ownership that Cage meant to abolish.

It is this tradition that brings us to Microsoft Songsmith. One wonders what Arnold and John would have thought of this strange artifact of digital you-culture, a piece of software that composes musical accompaniment to match its user's voice. If Songsmith is like the 12-tone serial technique, it's hard to say who its Schoenberg is--is it the user who sets the machine in motion, or the presumably large staff of programmers who created its parameters? Regardless of who its Genius is, it's clear what its Masterpieces are. This video, a recomposition of Oasis's 90's rock hit "Wonderwall" has been causing quite a stir lately.

What an improvement. The song is transformed; a new harmony completely alters its emotional mode, the meaning of its words, the appearance of the video, a new rhythm gives it a goofy propulsion that we could not previously have known Britpop sorely needed. I am reluctant to give youtube poster azz100c full credit for this piece (nor should we grant it solely to Oasis or Microsoft), but I will thank him for bringing it into existence. What's remarkable about this artwork is not only that it has no author, but that it consequently deflects all criticism one could direct at it. Of course it has "no soul," of course it's incoherent, of course it's repetitive and simplistic. Its composer was a series of 1's and 0's, for crying out loud.

"Roxanne" isn't quite as astonishing as "Wonderwall," but it is valuable for demonstrating irrefutably how moronic this song is. Occasional moments of dissonance, when the program does not what it was programmed to do, but what it can do, are an utter delight. azz100c has a couple other pieces posted, but they're not worth looking at; some Doobie Brothers track sounds practically the same as its original incarnation, and "What's Goin' On" was just a terrible idea. (A worse idea: this commercial. DON'T CLICK you will regret it.)

Songsmith will probably fade into relative irrelevance soon enough, with only these wonderful videos remaining as vestiges of Microsoft's folly. The questions Songsmith raises, however, are more important. What can the technology of today produce that is comparable to what the Roland 303 and 808 produced, what the Technics SL-1200 produced? What can it do that isn't just an easier imitation of what previous technologies and their users already accomplished? I'm sure I'm not the only listener sick to death of that Ableton micro-looping warp click sound and all its variations--Songsmith is a breath of fresh air in comparison. But I'm guessing it will be a while yet before anyone does on computers anything nearly as vital as what the Burdens do on their obsolete black boxes.


They Still Call It the White House, But That's a Temporary Condition Too

I'm no chump. As relieved as I am to hear words like "change" and "workers" replace words like "tradition" and "family" in American political discourse, I remain reluctant to invest too much hope in electoral politics. 

But you'd have to be either a cynic or a racist not to feel great about today.



Marcel Dettmann and the Return of Maximal Techno

I was putting off writing an entry on Marcel Dettmann’s appearance at last Friday’s Bunker party at Brooklyn’s Public Assembly, figuring that a recording would soon become available as the next installment in the Bunker’s excellent podcast series. However, the recent appearance of what promises to be an epic five hour set from Jus-Ed makes it suddenly clear to me that these podcasts are delayed by about a month. I hate to add to the anticipation for those of you who have already been impatiently awaiting Dettmann’s set, but let me get this out of the way: you will not be disappointed. In the meantime, you might as well get your house on for a month with Jus-Ed--I sure will.

I’d never been to a Bunker party before, and I was shocked (in a good way, of course) to see such a draw for house and techno in Brooklyn--some regulars told me this was the biggest crowd they had seen yet. The pumping, high-energy vibe that opener Derek Plaslaiko had going in the back room got the night started out just fine, and the floor was already full, but my crew was more drawn to the subtle-but-freaky funk of Eric Cloutier’s set in the smaller front room. I mean, my man put on “Psychotic Photosynthesis” right when we walked in the door, and proceeded to fully live up to that promising start. No small feat. As those of you who have followed
his recorded mixes know, this guy is someone to watch.

The fact is, however, that the size of the crowd and the general sense of excitement was due to the headliner--as far as I know (though I could be wrong), this was his first American appearance. I don’t really need to add to the hype surrounding not only Dettmann, but the whole OstGut/Berghain/Panorama axis of Berlin techno that has been taking dance music by storm in the past year or so. Chris Hobson’s
review at Resident Advisor of Dettmann’s first commercially released mix typifies the eager praise the whole outfit has been getting:
Chances are we’ll look back at Berghain 02 as a defining movement when techno got out of that locked groove, and started moving forward again.
If I were Marcel Dettmann, this kind of talk would make me very nervous. But Dettmann showed no trace of nerves Friday night; he may not have executed flawless mixes all night (what great DJ does?) but he presented his set with complete conviction.

The reason this is worth caring about is because what he presents does indeed break away from the “locked groove” of today’s dance music. My use of the rather obvious term “maximal techno” is, of course, a simple inversion of “minimal techno,” but the difference between what Dettmann does and what minimal techno has been doing is complex.

an interview, Dettmann describes the music he plays as “futuristic, anarchic, uncompromising,” with “character, soul and a kind of hypnotic, industrial feeling,” while maintaining “clarity, deepness, and simplicity.” These words could easily be empty platitudes, but in Dettmann’s case, this is pretty much exactly what he sounds like.

Let me put it another way. In conversation with the Berghain’s enigmatic owner, “Michael,”
Philip Sherbune arrived at a compelling idea: the music associated with the OstGut label and the Bergain club is nearly a sonic equivalent of the Berghain’s space itself. As Sherburne writes,
Housed in a disused power plant, the Berghain complex is an intimidating, post-industrial behemoth boasting a cavernous main room; the more intimate Panoramabar upstairs; cement floors, ceiling, walls and staircases; and dark, meandering passageways and cubbyholes, which unlike their counterparts in the United States, offer zones of total autonomy.
If you’ve heard one of the several recorded sets by Dettmann, you’ll know what I’m getting at. In this musical world, BPMs are quick, but not overwhelmingly so, and beats are simultaneously unrelentingly hard and rhythmically fluid. Sounds are almost exclusively synth-based. You will probably never hear a vocal house track from Dettmann, but words are not limited to pseudo-mystical commandments issuing from the pitched-down voice of the God of Mnml; instead voices and instruments make allusive, arresting appearances. A breakdown is not a call for lighters-in-the-air swayage; it’s a moment of rupture, an explosive overflow of complexity and intensity.

Beyond stylistic descriptions, what’s especially critical in Dettmann’s conception is a careful interpretation of dance music’s history. In
a great interview, on Beatportal of all places, he emphasizes this aspect of his approach:
For me it was the same--when I listened to pop music for the first time, I listened to Depeche Mode and I used to think, “what did they do before?” So I think it’s important to know what comes before, to understand it.
I listen to records that came out in the late ‘80s--Chicago stuff, Detroit stuff, so many fucking great records that I never listened to before--and when I find some artists that I’m really interested in, I want to hear all their stuff.
I think it’s really important to know where it comes from, the whole techno music stuff--is it Kraftwerk, is it funk, jazz stuff? I think it’s good to know.
Dettmann cites Robert Hood, Jeff Mills, and Joey Beltram as his “techno heroes.” It’s worth considering the relationship between the style(s) these figures represent and what is now called “minimal.” Philip Sherburne has suggested that there was some kind of bifurcation in dance music in the late nineties, with Detroit techno persistently “working within the margins of traditional song form,” while European producers began to make “an art out of producing microscopic variations on a single rhythmic theme.” He goes on to suggest that this new minimalism took two approaches: skeletalism, “the imperative to carve everything inessential from dance music’s pulse, leaving only enough embellishment (syncopation, tone color, effects) to merit the variation,” and massification, which “attempts to create extreme densities with a relative paucity of sonic elements.”

On the other hand, Robert Hood’s minimal blueprint on records like
Minimal Nation (a favorite of Dettmann’s) isn’t “traditional song form,” but it doesn’t seem to me to fit this rubric either. His tracks, from earliest to latest, are far from the loop-obsession of post-Hawtin minimal, and they are more than just an unchanging framework for the superimposition of sound effects. Hood’s tracks are infused with a developmental flux within the groove itself, and often incorporate interruptions of voice or melody into an unpredictable structure.

In that same Beatportal interview, Dettmann connects the genealogy he traces directly to the music he plays and produces:
What I think is that this kind of techno music was always there for me. And for so many people, some young people, they aren’t growing up with this kind of music, so when they discovered this kind of classic flavored techno, the raw stuff, they don’t know it before. They only listened to some minimal stuff before, so they think “Oh, that’s new…”
That’s not new! It’s the classic way of techno for me. For me it exists the whole time, since I first listened to techno.
This isn’t just talk; Dettmann’s Berghain mix includes (somewhat controversially) Risqué Rhythum Team’s 1986 Chicago house record “The Jacking Zone” and Kevin Saunderson’s “Just Want Another Chance.” Last Friday he dropped Armando’s acid classic “Land of Confusion” near the end of his set, and yes, it brought the motherfucking house down.

It’s safe to say that the entire OstGut/Berghain/Panorama collective makes a similar effort to historicize their work; think of the wistful spoken interlude in Shed’s
Shedding the Past on “the feeling of the intensity and purity of club and rave in the early days,” or hell, just listen to the Detroit-influenced harmonies of his productions (or check out this housey mix on mnml ssgs). The folks upstairs at Panorama, including Cassy and Steffi holding it down for the ladies, have consistently made room for old-schoolers Moodymann, Theo Parrish, Shake, Rick Wade, Daniel Bell, and so on (you've got to hear Steffi's live set here).

Remarkably, this “defining movement” in techno, this “move forward,” is really a throwback of sorts, a return to the origin points of house and techno. But this is only a regression in the sense that the songs of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were retrograde imitations of Chuck Berry and the Ronettes. In reality, just as punk restructured rock music from the ground up, recalibrating its approaches and effects to maintain only its most salient features, the new maximal techno brings us back to zero.



Musical Eugenics

Since the sixties, the Album-artwork-commodity (on LP, cassette, CD) has become something like Format as Big Other. You must not only listen to every song, in order, says the Media Father, you must like them all. Even “She’s Leaving Home.” Its primary injunction: NEVER SKIP.

That this plays into both high-modernist Art-capital-“A” ideology and the demands of the market should come as no surprise--can anyone really argue there’s a difference anymore? But what is equally important is its technological determination. This Idolator post laments the conflation of music criticism with reporting on technology, but is that really something new? When critics talk about an album’s cohesiveness it’s as much a discourse on the demands of a format as it is on “Art.” In the mp3 era, the Album’s hegemony begins to dissipate, leaving us in a single-based musical environment more like the years before the 12-inch record.

The question is, what replaces the Album, with radio all but outmoded and intangible media ubiquitous? Consumer challenges to the Album are not entirely new either. Consider the opening paragraphs of John Corbett’s brilliant book Extended Play:
At last, I have a CD machine with shuffle mode. It’s a miraculous button, “shuffle.” In an instant it does away with the logic behind decades of music industry packaging, the kind of logic that works with A-sides and B-sides (the soon-to-be-obscure domain of records and tapes), the same logic that sequences a release in a particular way so that cuts are preceded and followed by appropriate others. For instance, think about how many hit singles are positioned as the first cut on the second side of an album; that’s well known as the LP sweet-spot. In the place of this sequential logic, shuffle offers a random number generator, an exciting turn of events. Now a disc can renew itself virtually every time it’s played, putting together unforeseeable combinations, segues, connections, and leaps of faith.
As I see it, this is one of the great possibilities of musical postmodernity. In the process of shuffling, the activity of making connections and creating meaning is somehow thrust back into the lap of the listener. Naturally, shuffle mode doesn’t eradicate the old logic; more often than not, a listener will probably just press “play” and let the disc run its course. But that’s part and parcel of the postmodern: it makes a multitude of systems possible. At its worst, postmodernism manifests itself as an empty form of eclecticism in which, as Jean-Françcois Lyotard suggests, the bottom line is still the buck. At its best, the postmodern is about the opening up of options, the acceptance of incompatibility, the irreducibility of all forms of discourse to the logic of one.
Corbett’s (pre-Napster) enthusiasm for a function that I suspect is rarely used may seem quaint, but his insight into its potential, as some kind of digital-sonic Exquisite Corpse game, is prophetic. The very channels we necessarily use to access music today often don’t even allow us to experience the intended form of content at all (being able to download only half the tracks on a CD, or hear a couple on youtube, or catch some on television, through a blog, etc.). The resulting jumble forces us into being much more active consumers than a bunch of stoner rock fans in the mid-70’s sitting around listening to Pink Floyd’s entire oeuvre in chronological order.

A decidedly not random rejection of the Album’s sanctity is the homemade mix, a possibility that’s been around since the cassette tape, and has been made many times simpler with personal computers. Not to get all Nick Hornby here, but for many music people, making a mix CD/tape is a meticulous, deeply personal process, and receiving one is a profound pleasure. I can’t see any reason to be cynical about it.

On the other hand, the mix form has now evolved into an online application that’s like something out of The Matrix: Pandora Radio. According to their FAQ, Pandora is “a music discovery service designed to help you enjoy music you already know, and to help you discover new music you'll love.”

There’s a bit more to it than that. Apparently they use “vectors,” “complex mathematical algorithms,” and “distance functions” to recommend music to listeners based on a single artist or song selection, employing a system that Pandora founders Tim Westergren, Will Glaser, and John Kraft call the “Music Genome Project”: a list of “attributes” that attempt to quantify and categorize everything about all music. Westergren is quoted in this article in business journal Fast Company on the initial idea for his venture:
"I thought, if I could do a kind of Myers-Briggs [personality map] for music and tell people what songs they'd probably like based on musical similarities, the Internet could solve the problem of access," Westergren recalls. "It would be like what eBay did for pink flamingos."
Pandora’s self-described points of reference--genetics and psychology--make it difficult not to see its aim as manipulative in some grand conspiratorial way. Who knows why they thought it was a good idea to name their service after the mythical figure responsible for all the disease in the world, but as long as they were going for the whole revealingly disconcerting thing, “Panopticon” might have been more to the point.

An explanatory page sums up Pandora’s analytic method:
Together we set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level. We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or "genes" into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song--everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It's not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records--it's about what each individual song sounds like.
Never mind the reductive, self-righteous dismissal of affiliation, context, and reception; the danger runs deeper than that. Pandora can tell you that the Meat Puppets and Mötley Crüe both possess “Basic Rock Song Structure” and “Dirty Electric Guitar Riffs,” while completely missing the point, but it can’t tell you what Mobb Deep shares with Merle Haggard. You know the story about how Brian Wilson first heard “Be My Baby” while driving, and became so enraptured he had to swerve over to the side of the road, fearing he’d crash his car? It’s safe to say that this kind of experience is impossible on Pandora. These are not minor complaints.

In that same Fast Company article, we’re treated to a peek into Pandora’s “boiler room”:
There, five days a week, 32 music-addicted miners pick apart stack after stack of CDs, analyzing each track against a digitized checklist of characteristics. They are all professional musicians--most moonlight in Bay Area bands--and all have studied music theory and been put through an initial 40-hour genome training session (there are training updates as new genomes launch).
Wow, sounds kind of like that second Indiana Jones movie. You know, the one that sucked.

Pandora doesn’t just yank the still-beating heart out of the chest of the listening public, it also cages us in and lowers us down a fiery pit of consumer obligation. You may not be able to repeat a track, but you can definitely buy it instantly on Amazon or iTunes. In the end, we’re left with a dazzlingly naked instance of the most sinister machinations of the culture industry, tricking us into thinking it liberates us through choice when in reality it restricts us by choosing in advance. This is something a smart theorist called repressive desublimation, and a smarter theorist called placebo syndrome.

Technology is not just a part of culture, it is culture. That’s why something like Pandora isn’t just a benign diversion, and why media and format are worth as much critical interrogation as texts themselves.

In other words, when the syndrome is around, don’t let your guard down.



The Top 5 Reasons DJ Hero is Going to Rule

You are not going to believe this. Activision, the company that is probably responsible for reducing the number of shitty teenaged rock bands all over the world thanks to their Guitar Hero game, has announced the summer '09 release of a new game: DJ HERO. How sweet is that! Evidently this is the second time Activision has plagiarized Japanese game company Konami, which not only put out a game called Beatmania in 1997, but also one called Guitar Freaks in 1998. Though trance fool Tiesto may or may not be involved in the game, it seems like the focus will be on scratching and on-the-fly sampling, not on creating DJ sets, and it will be soundtracked by "mashups." This game is two years in the works, and it's going to be so awesome. Check this out, from Kotaku:
Instead of flowing the musical notes down a guitar neck, DJ Hero will flow the music down and around a virtual record in a half arc. Either left top to middle bottom if you are left handed, or right top to middle bottom if you are right handed.
OMFG! Look, I know some of you cynical types are probably skeptical, so I put together a countdown of the reasons that DJ Hero is actually going to rule. Let's get started!

5. Because turntables and CDJ's are just too darn real.
I don't know whether or not that will be the actual peripheral for the game, but it's posted on both Bodytonic and (not making this up) lesbiangamers.com. So let's assume it's somewhat accurate. While Guitar Hero improved on the interface of the guitar by getting rid of the strings, this controller improves on a DJ setup by getting rid of the, um. Knobs? Buttons? Switches? Sliders? Rotating cue?

Okay, so it kind of has all of those. But it's actually just a simulation of those, like the guitar with all the buttons. It's way cooler, trust me.

4. Because you never learned to beatmatch anyway.
If you're like the many DJ's I know who can't keep a couple of hours of music going to save your life, but can scratch my freaking ear off all day, this is perfect for you! Never mind that it's probably not all that different from playing a record on one turntable and scratching on the other; at least this way you didn't have to buy any records.

3. Because virtual crowds are better than actual crowds.
If you think DJing is about catalyzing physical and emotional responses in a dancefloor full of people, you obviously haven't seen this screenshot:
Look at those guys! Think they'll clear the floor when you put on your favorite record, or request "Sexyback," or ask you to play "something we can actually dance to"? No way. They totally love you.

2. Because chicks will probably dig it.
You know how rock stars always spout some dumbass line about how they started a band just to meet girls? Any male DJ stupid enough to think things would work like that for him has probably long since given up entirely, especially if he played (ew!) techno. On the other hand, babes love Guitar Hero, right? Right. So don't even worry about trying to get them on the dancefloor--just invite 'em over to your pad for a little two-player. 

This is probably going to mean that eventually, only female DJ's will be left. Given all the evidence, that wouldn't be a bad thing.

1. Because there's just too much music out there!
The number one reason DJ Hero is going to rule is that DJ's will no longer have to find and purchase music, or worry about making selections during a set. It's all chosen and sequenced for you! This is going to make being a DJ a lot easier, by dispensing with the actual point of DJing and retaining only the relatively boring physical work we do to make a carefully arranged series of tracks sound good. If that sounds like loads of fun, that's because it will be. This is already shaping up to be a great year.