28 November 2010

Season of the Witch? - Some Notes on the New Black

An intriguing assertion via this review of the recent offerings from Salem:

Salem’s music -- a hazy, loping, lo-fi electro—fits that rudderless Rust Belt existence as guilelessly and artlessly as a glassy stare. I can’t say it's good per se, but it speaks to me. And probably others—there are many of our breed, born under Reagan into a world where our destinies have already been mortgaged. Not 'no future' in the cool Johnny Rotten rallying cry sense, but 'no future' in that withdrawn, hopeless, Gummo type of way. Not sexy or cool. Not even sad. But maybe a little scary.

And returning to that same theme later in the review...

[...] Salem delivers the starkness of what neoliberalism has left us—drugs and death. Instead of nostalgia, whether painful or idealized, you’ve got numbed verses like 'It’s hard to remember / What we did last November.' There's not even any sex: Salem’s music is too slow for the club and too weird for the bedroom. As Holland says, 'Sex has nothing to do with making music,' and anyway, the antidepressants have robbed him of his libido.

Seems that someone might be broad-brushing a bit, or hanging a too-heavy coat on a weak peg. Not sure, won't call it. But still, it poses an interesting query about a particular tendency that's emerged of late, a mirrors a comment that Philip Sherburne made in his own recent post (cited earlier) on "witch house" (ugh) and the "new doom"...

I don't think it's any surprise that an unironic post-punk/goth aesthetic has taken root so widely; western culture is suffused with anxiety and self-doubt right now. We're no longer worried about the Big One blowing us all to bits; now it's economic landmines, suicide bombers, hurricanes, cyberwar, downsizing, you name it. Do you know anyone who feels truly optimistic?

This topic came up a couple of years ago, back when it was clear that the economy had cratered and that an extended stretch of socio-economic shittiness lay in store. What sort of effect will this have in terms of shaping tastes in the entertainment realm -- will music reflect or articulate the bleaker aspects of our post-crash culture? And I recall one pop-culture pundit replying that the opposite was more likely to be the case; that if it went anything like the way it had gone in previous grim and recessional times, then we'll all swimming in a deluge of bouncy, fluffy, escapist fare. Meaning: More Mylie for everyone.

Somehow, all of this feels pretty familiar to me. Flashback to the 1980s, the years of Reaganomics, and the pair of recessions that bookended the decade. Yeah sure, as far as middlebrow stuff went, there was the MOR plaintiveness of Springsteen's Nebraska and the pre-Columbine adolescent suburban malaise of River's Edge. But by and large, it was a time when much of the heartland’s cultural landscape was awash with the waist-down, party-on prerogatives of hair metal & whatnot. But then, you also had the likes of Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, etcetera who came along and re-engaged metal's earlier and long-lapsed "downer rock" sensibility. By doing so, this latter crop of artists met with a formidable degree of popularity, much to the surprise of a good many pop merchants. And I recall that they also provided cause for concern among certain watchfulparties, who worried that the music’s dark and apocalyptic lyrical content and the audience it had landed might be indicative of – y’know -- something.1

For me thew thing is that I'm hard pressed to think of any time in the past 30 years or so that there wasn't some variety of this sort of thing going on somewhere in the music scene -- a dark or goth or doom impulse manifesting itself in some form or another.2 At some times, it’s lurking much further on the margins, goes largely unacknowledged, and (providing you’re inclined to seek it out) you have to try a little harder to find it. And at other times, a generation of young musicians turn on or tap into this tradition, and end up creating something that either speaks to a shared, broader sensibility or that merely scratches some collective itch by offering a zag from the dominant aesthetic or style of the day.3 I'm not entirely sure that the former is what's going on with the whole supposed "new doom" thing; but if it is, then the current situation certainly warrant that sort of an articulation, and it'd certainly make things more interesting.

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1. Naturally, I can think of other examples where some musical trend was either said to be a response or was definitely a response to societal or economic pressures. But in the general area of anything loosely consider "dance music," such attitudinal and stylistic are usually attributed to little more than the influence of this or that fashionable drug.

2. For some, this is a really obvious observation, I know. But it's surprising how much of it would be news to most people. And I believe I've already touched on this topic once before.

3. Meaning that Salem might be little more than kids from the suburbs who really liked Justice, but also happened to dig downtempo beats and screw’d hip-hop.

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