Look I know this looks like a big wall of text, and believe me it really is, but I sort of have a point. First off, it’s true I’m lazy and I’ve spent my entire Christmas break applying for Graduate Schools (get a real job amirite?) and frankly the last thing I want to do this Christmas Eve is hunt down images and work on layout for a few hours. I didn’t even vote in the staff best of (so don’t blame me). Most importantly though a thousand words are worth a picture so maybe these words might paint an appropriate year-in-review. As the title suggests, this has been a year where the 80s have ruled supreme; I want to dedicate this entire year, actually, to the under-appreciated 80s electro-pop duo OMD. Saxophones, keyboards, sex, and hazy soundscapes of drunken post-Sharon Stone effluence and tumescence dominated the sounds of the year—canticles of vanity in the best way possible. M83, Destroyer, and Bon Iver were big movers this year and they ultimately define this sound.
It was a good year. It was not a great year; certainly not a great year in respect to 2010. There were some stellar recordings, but there wasn’t too much fight in reaching my top 25. Feist’s Metals, The Dodo’s No Color, Bill Calahan’s Apocalypse, Phonte’s Charity Starts at Home are significant runners-up, and I never did get to The Roots’ Undun or WU LYF. Once the 25 was set, the order
Halloween draws to a close and I found myself wandering home off the bus listening to Red House Painter’s “Katy Song” on the moonlit path and thinking about words and music. I had just finished conducting a seminar on the “Sirens” episode of Ulysses. For those not familiar with the text I will explain it briefly: Joyce writes an entire chapter in a bar scene and structures it as a fugue. The language serves a tripled purpose—narrative, thematic, and sound qualities. Snippets of songs and of important lines in the book are refrained and build one on top of the other fuga per canonem. So I was churning over thoughts of language patterns, phonetics and word associations, when I began thinking about nachtmusik. There is no real reason to actually associate certain kinds of music to the night, just as there’s no real reason why Ulysses should be considered Joyce’s masterpiece of the day and Finnegans Wake his masterpiece of the night. These concepts are purely constructs of the mind, for whatever reason we do it; the Real, idleness, nostalgia, kernelization of sound.
Then it hit me: night music is night music for the same reason that language is the perpetual creative act. Because language is the highest echelon of creativity; we have our set rules (grammar) but beyond that there are infinite ways to construct a sentence (ask Kafka) and infinite ways to combine phonemes to create neologisms (ask Joyce). The same goes for music; these chords sound nice…
“I cannot walk through the suburbs in the solitude of the night without thinking that the night pleases us because it suppresses idle details, just as our memory does.”
Memory is nothing if not a collision of creation and fact: the perpetual struggle between actuality and imagination. There is always something tangible and factual at the heart of each memory, but the contextual world is one of modality. Ever changing: the colour of that car, what that person was wearing, minute details that ebb and flow. These things are all subject to change over time because they are overcome by imagination. When my Grandmother was in the hospital, for example, she remembered meeting my brother’s fiancé on a bus a few years prior—but to her that bus ride was from Clyde Bank to Glasgow and not the city bus in London (where the meeting actually took place). These details are an extension of imagination and how it corrupts memory. In many ways this is how nostalgia works. Avoiding a purely clinical, Freudian framework, nostalgia is the erosion of actuality in favour of compartmentalized emotions. Over time we elude precision of memories in favour of a broader spectrum of general feelings that umbrella over periods of our lives.
Music plays an important role as an agent of nostalgia; platitudes such as “the soundtrack of our lives” are not entirely without merit. As we compartmentalize our more nostalgic memories, so does it seem that we compartmentalize the music…
I struggled for awhile with the second part to this little discourse. The struggle was that, to be in full disclosure, I had no idea really where I was going with the argument. I simply knew that my first part was not enough and as a failsafe I put that “Part 1” at the end of the title. I had a rough idea at what I was trying to get at, but in terms of putting something together—well I was at a loss. So I’ve decided to structure this second part in a very Hegelian manner. Hegel’s method of discourse, for those of you who do not know it, is essentially to have a thesis, then an antithesis, and finally a synthesis. For, the first part of this blog post laid out my essential problem: where have all the big ideas gone? My suggestion, if it may not have been clear, was that the increasingly factional categorization—I believe nitpicking was the word I used—of genre labels by communities of music lovers such as ourselves here at Sputnik, is symptomatic of the endangerment of these big ideas. A ‘big idea’, as I see it, is an attempt to illustrate something specific in a way that transcends experience and connects to the mind of the audience. This is not to say platitudes or other generalizations, in fact that’s the opposite of what I mean. No, a big idea is one that makes you think beyond the way you normally do.
I miss big ideas. I lament their loss, in fact. I miss the sweeping gestures once made that attempted to understand oneself, a body of people, humanity as a whole, the very world entire. I was not around for these grand ideas (or, at least not in the intellectual capacity I possess now), yet I feel moved to write in elegiac prose as if I mourn the loss of something very dear. Before falling into a vast pit of hyperbole, I will make clear exactly what I mean by a ‘big idea’ through examples. Hegel’s dialectic is a big idea; Marx’s proletariat is a big idea; Freud’s archive is a big idea; Spivak’s postcolonial readings of Victorian texts are a big idea; these are attempts to explain the metanarrative of the human condition, the human struggle, the way in which the human acts and thinks and why. I do not necessarily lament the passing of the ideas themselves—any good close reading of these ideas reveals there many contradictions and faults—but rather I miss the attempt implied by these ideas. It seems to me that in our great postmodern idiom we have narrowed ourselves into a tautological spiral of refining and redefining and infinitely categorizing these ideas into sub-ideas and sub-sub-ideas. It is a phenomenon that is plaguing the music community as well, and this is what I lament the most.
I am not, nor am I attempting to, bringing anything new to the discussion at this point. Anyone who…
Sometimes history is hard, you guys. I mean big history. Like, Hegelian sized history. History that spans across entire civilizations and generations. It’s hard for us because sometimes that historical meta-narrative is forever just out of each. There are moments, though, when we are thrown a little bone by the gods; we are given a fragment in time that simply defines a generation, nay, an entire civilization. Roman antiquity had Caligula naming his horse as his consul, Early Modern Europe had the Defenestration of Prague, The Victorian Period… was just depressing, and the 1990’s had Sockem Boppers with arguably the greatest commercial jingle of all time.
But what about our generation? Where’s our summarizing event? Sure, some might argue it’s Radiohead’s Kid A in long, pretentious, essayist reviews. Others might even claim this war, or that war, or the internet, or other such fads. I will not mince words: these are all horribly inaccurate. I know these suggestions are inaccurate because I myself have seen the very moment that defines our generation.
It has a little bit of everything: fat men breakdancing, rastlin’, grown men in silly costumes, historical inaccuracy, hypnosis, hillbillies, borderline mental deficiency, music that isn’t even from our generation, overzealous commentators. In so many words, this is our generation in a nutshell. A glorious, glorious nutshell.
Roland Barthes theorized that there are two types of text: the text of pleasure and the text of bliss. The text of pleasure is simply that which washes over you in an aesthetically pleasing manner; the text of bliss, however, forces you to question your very…