the joker is me

Kath & Kim - 7.30pm Sundays, Channel Seven

Ra ra ra, commercial television/culture is crap. The private television stations pander to the lowest common denominator in their attempt to sell as much audience to advertisers as they can; public television (ABC, SBS) is the last bastion of refined, progressive programming, etc. etc.

How then, can a show become significantly more politicised in its transfer from public to private broadcast? The new season of Kath & Kim is the most topical, political, progressive one yet, an uneasy albeit (or because it is) funny look at colloquial politics. First we had the "bloody Howard" stab at the IR laws and now tonight's episode went to task on new forms of racist patriotism manifesting themselves in Australia (including Border Security), hilariously.

I'm not sure how to make sense of this, or whether or not it is truly politically radical, but it sure beats silence.


Iron & Wine - Boy With a Coin

I suppose, in wanky figurative terms, the dichotomy in Sam Beam's band name is a good description of the music: intoxicating, yet brisk. Boy With A Coin is the first single from the soon-to-be-released third album, The Shepherd's Dog. I don't really know what to say about it, other than that it's quite a lovely track, it has you instantly when that circuitous guitar and clap-beat come in, and the moments when small metallic undercurrents surface are really nice.

Iron & Wine - Boy With A Coin



As you've likely recognised, this blog seems to be morphing into a bit of a place where I dump cursory, exploratory ideas about the nature of popular music, in some ways like a kind of archive of (attempted) theorisation, a sort of pile of scribbled (and scribbly) thoughts. I'd like to continue doing the whole journalistic, aesthetic rock-crit (pop-crit?) thing, alongside the occasional recommendation, but I can see this whole theory thing becoming a big part of (con)temporary. Following this...

After seeing Britney's "performance" at the MTV VMAs, I was struck with a question, one that had suggested itself before, but not as obviously as this: why do we need to critique popular culture when it regularly, constantly, critiques (or eats) itself? Further, can critical discussion only parrot what pop shows us and itself anyway? Are we simply describing pop's own critique? Is there a place for intervention?

This set of questions is obviously a significant one, one worthy of a lengthy, involved discussion, one that I can see taking place over this blog to some degree. Of course debate has been underway in academia for some time, and recently discussion, complex and sophisticated, is exploding in the blogging community. I mention this simply to stress that I'm not claiming that I am miraculously the first one to stumble across these issues - if anything I'm only replaying debates that have occured, there's probably a great number of spaces in this post that could be filled in with quotations - rather, I'm just offering my own thought on these issues.

As an initial response to these questions, my answer would probably be yes, we do still need to critique pop, whilst recognising that it is pop's nature to cannibalise itself. The challenge then, might not be to simply bring up examples of this tendency but to actually analyse this very dynamic, its parameters, politics and consequences. Of course this opens up a huge debate over the value of resistance from inside popular culture, questions of popular politics, and even the (im)possibility of theorising musical development. Whether you look at it with regards to a single case study (which many believe is the only viable way of approaching cultural phenomena and movement) or across a longer dynamic, historically or paradigmatically, is also a difficult choice.

Taking Britney's performance, we might analyse the nature of its 'failure' rather than just simply laughing at it (which is fun to do, anyway). There's heaps of things worth discussing here, two might be:

The way in which seeing this performance somehow retrospectively refracts all of Britney's past performances: it's as if by seeing this we realise that everything she's done before is just as 'inauthentic' (or 'staged') as this, but that it was just covered up slightly better. Like go back an watch any of her other videos and just try not be haunted by that image of her restlessly flicking her hair every ten seconds at the VMAs, an almost unequivocal signification of her complete unenthusiasm. Same goes for the lip-syncing thing (which we've seen many-a-time before).

Secondly, the way in which MTV utilised Britney's 'comeback' to generate hype around the VMAs; and conversely, the implicit use of the subsequently crap performance in differentiating ascendant pop stars. This bit here is crucial I think: pop often eats itself, playing on this discourse of authenticity vs inauthenticity, in order to constantly rewrite (and re-legitimate) the boundaries of what is 'authentic' (or even more generally, 'good'). This is implicit in the video of the performance which regularly flicks to developing, more image-controlled celebrities (Kanye and Rihanna - maybe not 50, we'll get to him soon...) with a bemused look of "this is crap" written across their faces. Arguably the whole 'function' (I'm aware using this word is problematic in relation to what could be an accident, nevertheless it seems like a manufactured one) of Britney's performance was simply to make these new versions look better, more in control.

It should be clear here that I'm suggesting there is gain (profit) to be made by the media industries in this (forced?) dynamic of pop eating itself, and if the Britney example isn't convincing enough, the very same event at which this occured offers another one for you - the highly contrived stoush between Kanye and 50 Cent over record sales. It's almost as if 50's 'gangsta' value is recognisably exhausted (which it is - just looking at that worried, furrowed brow on the cover of Curtis, says it all), and so this sinking ship is redeployed in order to boost record sales for Kanye. Sure this shit is fairly obvious, but it's worth thinking about nonetheless.

Up until now I've avoided questions of whether pop's critique of itself is valuable, and its definitely not something I want to (ever?) conclude on, but just as a cursory comment I'd say there are certainly things to suggest it is. If we consider Beverly Best's argument that resistance "existing in clear-cut contradistinction from the dominant culture [is] no longer relevant" (regardless of whether you fully agree with such a contentious position), then we do need to consider the 'progressive' aspects of popular culture's engagement with itself. What I'm suggesting here, is that, broadly speaking, even though the cannibalising dynamic which has arguably operated across the entire span of twentieth and twentyfirst-century music is often a strategy for profit, it also propels and provokes a constant aesthetic rewriting which itself can be broadly seen to push the limits of culture in general, and music specifically. Calabrese does a great job of theorising something resembling this dynamic in his conception of the space of culture as a sphere, the limits (borders) of which are pushed and/or exceeded by various cultural phenomena. There's an argument to be made that, by maintaining such self-referentiality and self-critique, pop continually expands the cultural sphere of possibilities of expression.

As for an aesthetic evaluation of this process, that's a whole other issue, which inevitably brings in notions of kitsch, history, serialisation, reproducibility, originality, and dozens of other concepts that I'm not going to even bother trying to consider for now. All I'll say with on that part, though, is watch this, and tell me that internal critique and something artistically valuable can't merge:

And that will do for the meta discussion, congratulations to those still reading.


holding up the mirror(ed)

I'm deeply ambivalent about Battles' Mirrored, and for those that care to know why, wait no longer:

To preface my doubts, I wonder why music critics have swallowed it so willingly, advancing it as a kind of avant-pop future-music:
Mirrored is a breathtaking aesthetic left-turn that sounds less like rock circa 2007 than rock circa 2097, a world where Marshall stacks and micro-processing go hand in hand. (P4K)
With a score of 86/100 on Metacritic, it's safe to say that critical orthodoxy around Mirrored is that it's brilliant: progressive, unique, etc. Most reviews labour the point that Mirrored short-circuits experimental aesthetics (read: oblique compositions, heavily processed vocals) and something that still really 'rocks!'

Sure, it's mathematical rock (ie. math-rock) in many ways, but in another sense its amazing how obvious (transparent) and straightforward this complexity is. In other words: its complexity is not complex; there is nothing nuanced about Battles approach, regardless of how interesting it might seem it is overwhelming diagrammatic. Its puzzling just how many (often far more cynical) critics have omitted this point in their tripping over themselves to praise the album.

I find it interesting, considering this, that Battles are taken as a kind of 'forefront' to modern music (this is often played out literally in the futuristic discourse of many of the reviews). I think in some ways this speaks to a wider problem of a lack of true experimentation, critical and nuanced, in pop music - maybe this truly is the most exciting thing at the mo'. Maybe that's the most useful mirror Battles actually hold up, if unintentionally.

Aside from these issues, and somewhat in conflict with this first objection: is cyborg music really what we want? What if everyone followed Battles algorithms? I'll stop short of saying "I don't want music played by robots" because of course I'm fully aware that all (instrumental) music is a duality of human-machine (taken broadly) - but that doesn't mean I can't be wary of a sort of music that tries to elide the 'human' part, or at most leave only tiny traces of it in warped, unintelligible vocal samples. I don't know if I want such a programmatic music, bereft of error, a style akin to instruments playing themselves.

But then again, it's got a fucking catchy rhythm.

Battles - Race: In

- Who (what) are Battles actually battling? The answer is in the album title: no one but themselves.
- Battles' experiments have been made before, it's just this band synthesises and rhythmatises them


My Disco - Trades Hall, 8/9/07

"These are / exit sounds"

My Disco are on the threshold.

My Disco are the sound of music just before it exits itself.


One note = one song.

Minimal / Powerful.

My Disco are fucking brilliant. What will they bring back from Chicago?

My Disco - Patterns Surgical


take my danger zone away

From the Top Gun (1986) soundtrack:

Kenny Loggins - Danger Zone

Berlin - Take My Breath Away

How do we even begin to comprehen
d this?

In High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, Wyatt notes that high concept films, of which Top Gun is exemplary, depend primarily upon the mode of 'reducibility' in the basic combination of genre, stars, style, music and marketing (with the last factor likely determining). Danger Zone and Take My Breath Away are probably best understood as key epiphenomena in the marketing-textual (the two are thoroughly collapsed in high concept - it advertises itself as it screens) network of T
op Gun. Both songs, and their videos, are part of a promotional strategy for the film that seeks to fuse together the success of these songs with that of the film, not only on a financial level but also one of meaning. Both are highly simplistic, yet 'powerful', tracks, that are reducible musically to certain lines ("hiii-waay to the / dain-gah zone") or sounds (that strange 'wong wong' that persists throughout Take My Breath Away).

This is all fairly self-evident stuff, but I suppose that's exactly what's worth recognising he
re: how obvious the 'synergistic' marketing strategies and highly simplistic thematics of Top Gun (and other high concept films) were in this period. It's interesting, in part, because this was around the time in which postmodern theory was booming, and many other realms of popular culture were busy responding to this via ironic gestures and deconstructive techniques. Top Gun completely ignores, forgets and/or denies these developments, instead choosing to swing through on a level of unabashed blatancy (did I just make that word up?) that's even more spectacular for the fact that it's unchecked by any sense of self-awareness.

So the songs - let's start with Kenny Loggins' epic, in which bendy bass-synths, epic drums signalling themselves into oblivion and crunching guitars come together for one of the rockingest tracks ever. In terms of affect, its hard not to find yourself feeling the need ... THE NEED FOR SPEED, when you hear this number. So
nically (and lyrically, der) it's best described in terms aeronautical: flight, speed, g-force - and watching the clip it's just striking how strong the fit between the music and its imaging, and thus the film, is. Central to the high concept movie is something like a video clip aesthetic - quick cuts, stylised scenery, etc. - it's no wonder Danger Zone is played ad nauseam throughout the movie itself, and that Maverick himself "ride[s] into the danger zone" on his bike in that scene where he trails a jet taking off with fists pumping. Most hilarity from the video, though, is definitely the shots of Loggins interspersing the film material, standing in some no-space bedroom singing to himself in the old Ray Bans (promotion within promotion, astounding!).

These two songs demand to be understood as a pair, as they're intended to replicate the binary themes of love and combat that the film itself plays out ever so modularly and nicely. If Danger Zone is the boys' track, one pumped in F1 (but not MIG!) cockpits everywhere, then Take My Breath Away is its sensitive feminised counterpart. Thus in the Danger Zone clip we mainly get action cuts from the film, whereas in the Take My Breath Away video it's romantic incursions. Of course, these two arenas are thoroughly intertwined, as Top Gun umistakeably ties the phallus to the weapon, and establishes a cle
ar identity between male courting and military combat. This point itself would be fun to dwell on: the way in which the bar scene where Maverick first meets Charlotte (the bar being a "target-rich area") parallels the opening combat scene (the men being 'on patrol' in both); the way in which pilots gives one of the men a 'hard-on'; etc. etc.

But let's move onto Berlin's comparatively 'limp' love song - here, the forceful instrumentation of Danger Zone (and its aggressive lyrics - "on the e
dge", "in overdrive") are slowed down, made passive and receptive ("still anticipating", "take my breath away"). The masculine/feminine binary couldn't be more obvious, or offensive, but here it is in full view! It's no surprise these tracks were both written by Giorgio Moroder; dude even won an Oscar for Take My Breath Away. And if much of Top Gun can be seen (quite plausibly) as men flying (and riding) around in their phallic symbols, and as Maverick's ongoing synthesis with his steel machine, then its also no big surprise that in the film clip for Take My Breath Away we have Terri Nunn offering herself up in a big, gaping, creepy, hollowed-out aeroplane, then abandoning herself atop an F1.


Liars - Liars

"Well, Liars are like my favourite band ever, an example in that they’ve constantly adhered to change over three records but they’ve never done anything to please other people."
- Simon Taylor-Davis of Klaxons

Liars' fourth missive was issued this week, and listening to it I've come to both completely agree with, and yet dispute, the above quote, one which always stuck in my mind when listening to 'Drums Not Dead'. That is, because, Liars are a band so unchained to, yet so aware of, their already-developed sounds. They never sound the same across albums, and yet their entire discography can be conceived as a dialogic process, each new work answering, extending, denying, informing and being informed by its predecessors.

2001's debut They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (herein Trench) was a forerunner of 'dance punk' before it was pinned down as such a genre. Self-knowingly amusing, and yet an undeniable force of art-punk fuzz and distorted synth - "cyborg junkyard rock" said Pitchfork. It garnered the band a sizeable fanbase, despite the thirty-minute-plus buzzing drum loop of final track 'This Dirt Makes Mud'.

Such a song proved to be frustrating foreplay for their second foray, the dangerously experimental They Were Wrong, So We Drowned (2004) (herein Drowned), a title which proved interestingly prophetic, as the album was broadly critically loathed - if the 'trench' and 'monument' was the acclaim and expectation that results from deifying a band for spearheading a scene and sound, then this album was the point at which those expectations were strongly countered and the band subsequently drenched in negative reviews. Drowned itself worked almost entirely in opposition to the debut, its loose, oblique, bricolaged Other.

It wasn't until Drum's Not Dead (2006) that Drowned was truly understandable, and critical reassessment went into overdrive as listeners recognised the second album as a crucial bridge (and break) between the tight debut and the percussive assault of this third offering. At once the band's most accessible and cuttingly avant-garde work, Drum's Not Dead told the tale of two friends (metaphors for dichotomous creative impulses) Drum and Mr Heart Attack, who journeyed through a neo-tribal world of synth-skewed drums. Again, a strangely self-descriptive title for its reception, this third album proved the band's creative abilities certainly weren't batshit insane (as some suspected with Drowned) and re-gained them a strong following.

Liars is the fourth in this process of (re)definition, and this time it seems like something of a recombination of all the band's previously elements - punk funk (or, broadly, a 'rock' impulse), heady experimentalism and ritualistic drum-scapes - and yet also it is none of these.

In a sense, Liars surfaces a previously submerged element to their work, namely, their ability to write a fucking cracking rock track, as the band play in relation to certain music histories, touching on elements from Led Zepellin to 60s garage and Jesus and Mary Chain (all put through a blender, mind). Pragmatics does seem somewhat the move here, and an easy label for this record (which I just used, evidently) is that it is one of "actual songs" (!). And yet, it's all drenched in a certain dank space, like a dungeon, and is pervaded by an abidingly GOTHIC aesthetic. Percussion, too, like every other album, is the underlying foundation to these songs, even on tracks that don't seem to feature heavy drumming
We've always used drums as the foundation of how to write a song, and that generally comes from a lack of musicianship on my behalf. Aaron would play a drumbeat and I would figure out how to do something with that.
- Angus Andrew

You know what, though? Between songs, the album itself doesn't even 'adhere' to any one sound - tell me the driving crunch of Plaster Casts of Everything and the (albeit crackled) dreamy Pure Unevil are by the same group (the first half of the album almost explicitly works on a one-two sequencing of juxtapositions, in fact)? And yet, of course, they are - because Liars stamp their character on everything they record, even if that character is somehow, counterintuitively, defined by differance.

Of course, much of this post (especially the preceding two paragraphs) has seen me oscillate between 'they do this' and then 'yet they also...'. This is nothing less than the byproduct of an attempt at describing a band who marry two ostensibly contradictory impulses: the desire to never sound the same, and the one to develop a band's musical identity.

Liars is Liars, indeed, but they're also liars.

Liars - Grown Men Don't Fall in the River, Just Like That (from Trench)

Liars - If You're a Wizard Then Why do You Wear Glasses? (from Drowned)
Liars - Drum and the Uncomfortable Can (from Drum's Not Dead)
Liars - Plaster Casts of Everything (from Liars)