Dispatches: Keeping It Real

On the day after CBGB’s closed, it seems appropriate to try something new and dance a little jig to architecture – by which I mean, to write about music.  Not that I’m going to expend a lot of sympathy over the closing of a rock club in a neighborhood that is currently dominated by luxury supermarkets, biodynamic wine bars, and breathtaking, gorgeous NYU dormitories.  If anything, it might speed up the realization that the East Village is now mostly the domain of undergraduates and young lawyers; far from possessing the DIY ethos of a marginal area, it’s a place full of pre-affixed brand names, kind of like Whole Foods.  And this is not necessarily a bad thing – but let’s not pretend a punk music scene is gonna spontaneously re-emerge where a studio apartment costs two thousand dollars per month.  Anyway, I don’t want to imply that lamb shank-eating lawyers are any less authentic than heroin-snorting hipsters; they’re not.  It’s just that it feels a little strange for the Times’s front page to eulogize the place.  What’s next?  A new, Renzo Piano-designed CBGB’s, putting the encrusted old space “in dialogue” with a new glass enclosure?  Multimedia exhibits featuring Mike Bloomberg telling the story of New York indie music, from Television to TV on the Radio?  Lou Reed’s Tomb?

Definitely, though, the issue of authenticity is at the heart of contemporary popular music, which, it seems to me, contains two opposing strands, neither of which needs New York particularly.  One tries to restore it, sort of, the other questions its meaning.  The first is the current folk revival, now at least five years old, including your Devendra Banharts, your Will Oldhams, your Iron and Wines, your Decembrists, your José Gonazalezes.  The rough animating principle for a lot of this music is the idea that the dyad of the acoustic guitar and the confessing subject comprise the simplest approach to the self-expression, like the bedrock of identity.  Not that this idea is by any means new, of course.  This music is a descendant of Romanticism; maybe the best possible description of it would be the Wordsworthian “Lyrical Ballads”–lyric here meaning the singing self, ballad here alluding to a tradition of itinerant musicians.  The songs, of course, are about not having love, finding love, and love going wrong.  When the self confesses, it’s so often the ironic confession that you can’t always get what you want. 

The other strand includes records made by DJs who create almost no original music.  It’s a pretty nerdy genre.  I include mash-ups here, probably most notably The Grey Album, the mixture of Beatles White and Jay-Z Black by the guy behind that song “Crazy” that you’ve probably heard ten million times.  But I’m thinking more of music that combines many pieces of music instead of just two, like that of The Avalanches, who probably employ hundreds of East Village lawyers just to clear their samples, or Diplo’s remixes using samples from tracks like “Walk Like an Egyptian” or “Papa Don’t Preach.”  This strand can be represented in state of the art form by the recent Girl Talk (actually a guy from Pittsburgh named Gregg Gillis) record, Night Ripper.  Imagine listening to every notable riff, every memorable drum beat in your memory mixed together.  It’s hard to explain what it’s like to listen to (yeah, sort of like doing the cabbage patch in front of the Seagram Building), but I’m gonna try.

Okay, here’s about fifteen seconds of track 5: you’re hearing a rap vocal over heavy, crunching Nirvana guitar, then suddenly the guitar dies away, and the classic drums from “Scentless Apprentice” (In Utero) kick in.  Four beats of just the drums alone (they’re worth it).  Then, over the top of that drum, comes a “whoooo, whoooo” from The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde (can’t remember which song).  One measure, and in comes… the piano riff from Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”  Nirvana drum is gone, “Tiny Dancer” and the Pharcyde sample trade off one more time, and then, deliciously, “I let my tape rock/ till my tape popped”: the most endearing voice in hip hop, Biggie Smalls, from “Juicy.”  In comes the Pharcyde bassline, now trading with the other sample and the Elton John piano, and now we’re getting a sped-up, chipmunky beatmatched version of the Elton chorus (“Hold me closer tiny dancer/Count the headlights on the highway”), with Biggie presiding over it all:

It was all a dream,
I used to read Word Up magazine:
Salt ‘n Pepa and Heavy D up in a limousine
Hanging pictures on the wall
Every Saturday Rap Attack Mr. Magic, Marley Marl
I let my tape rock, till my tape popped

Not only does Biggie catch up with and repeat the snippet of himself we’ve already heard, but he does it over the nostalgic climax of the Elton John song.  The vocal itself is nostalgic; it’s the story of the boy B.I.G. dreaming of rap stars (Ahhh!  Heavy’s fade! Yellow shirts with giant black circles!), and now remembering clothes circa 1992 or so: “Way back when I had the red and white lumberjack/With the hat to match” (coincidentally the same year Nirvana hit).  So that’s about fifteen seconds of the album.  It’s like eating a one-pound bag of sugar while looking at pictures of yourself from 1985.  It’s so danceable, playing the album in the daytime sounds weird somehow.  And don’t think the moment I picked is uncharacteristic.  The whole record is this way: Neutral Milk Hotel, Beyoncé, M.I.A., The Beatles, Outkast, James Taylor, Naughty by Nature, C+C Music Factory, Panjabi MC, The Verve, 50 Cent, Phil Collins, PM Dawn, Sir Mix-a-lot (“Double Up!”), Rob Base, Michael Jackson, whatever.  It’s in there (did you think of Ragu?).

The cumulative effect is strange, as though someone has colonized your mind: your musical familiarity, your seemingly particular emotional responses to songs, it turns out, are anything but unique.  Instead, thanks to mass distribution, we all share this “inheritance” of cultural material: pop.  Fred Jameson once wrote that pop songs contain nothing but nostalgia for the last time you heard the song.  That seems true here, but in a good way.  When we all have the songbook in our heads (or at least, most Americans of my generation), a DJ can use it as formal material for a weird collective bricolage.  The best thing about this approach is the fact that it leaves no room for snobbery about pop, or arbitrary line-drawing between genres.  The worst thing about it is it can seem slightly too intellectual (even as I challenge you not to bob your head to this record) and, well, inauthentic.  No one plays any instruments.  (This actually brings up a third strand, where people play instruments but in ways that recognize the computerization of music, but no time for that.)  Girl Talk messes with the idea of authenticity, but can’t replace it, and actually, just sets the stage for cyclical revivals of yearning musical simplicity.  And I wouldn’t want to be Gregg Gillis’ lawyer, for any money.

Night Ripper doesn’t respect the distinctions between musical genres, but it treats them differently.  The catchiest or most well-remembered bits (synth, drum, guitar) get used, but over the top is always a rap vocal.  Hip hop is modernity.  The idea that you can retreat to the hills with a guitar and your Self?  Sure, go for it, but from Girl Talk’s vantage, that’s no more real than downloading beats from a suburban cul-de-sac.  (Or Pittsburgh.)  There’s no connection to any landscape here, except the radio.  Late in the album, there is a delicious exchange, starting with 2 Live Crew’s (be warned) vulgar call and response:  “Heeyyyyyyyy!  We want some pusssssy!!!  Heeyyyyyyyy!  We want some pusssssy!!!!!” which gets put into dialogue with this crooning, absurdly sentimental proposition from Paul McCartney:  “I… looooovvvve… youuuuu!”  This repeats a few times, touchingly but hilariously. It’s worth pointing out that the effect isn’t to devalue McCartney’s “sincerity” and value 2 Live Crew for “keeping it real,” but to question the possibility of either being exactly true.  Both are serious stances, both are ironic poses.  You gotta listen to both.  Truth lies somewhere in between.  (Not to sound too much like Stanley Fish.)  I let my tape rock… till my tape popped.

See my other Dispatches.