Tuesday, July 02, 2013

In a Haze Between the Popular and Obscure...

It was a very old tweet written by Zach (@randomrecs) but it was a quip compelling enough for me to jot down and keep: Why is it that music writers only want to rehash the canonised legends or dig up the super obscure? After reading that, I felt a momentary jab of identification and it was a jab, because it was a bit painful for some untold reason. It's true, I ruminate about Queen as I seek out Форум, I dance to The Strokes as I think of Nemesy. I want to successfully articulate the consequence of those big bands that changed everything, while at the same time I long for that sense of ownership that derives from musical obscurity. So what becomes of those bands that fall between those two polarities? What are those bands that fall between those two polarities?

When it comes to music writing, I can only assume that it all comes down to a question of legacy and legitimacy. There is an unspoken expectation that we are all acquainted with Revolver and Pet Sounds, there is an assumption that we know what happened at Newport and Altamont. Documentaries, books and articles are constantly reinforcing the classic rock canon, establishing and re-establishing that familiar sense of retrospective consequence. It's nothing that I particularly resist or resent, in fact I give into it quite freely. If the University of Rochester's History of Rock Coursera course taught me nothing else, it reminded me of how comforting it is to have that shape, to have that firmly established understanding of cultural importance.

Perhaps we just like to hear the same stories over and over again. Perhaps we are shaping this history in an attempt to legitimise pop music in a way that it can stand alongside classical music. If I were really cynical, I would think the whole process of purposefully establishing musical histories reeks of insecurity: either it's the insecurity of the authority (desperately urging you that this is an artist of historical and cultural importance) or else it is the insecurity of the audience (unsure and unknowing, unclear of why they have to care for this artist exactly). But then I remember what I do on here. I just share and talk about the artists and the songs I love. I talk about the histories of various genres of music and some of those genres are obscure, so obscure that their histories haven't been properly documented yet. It's hard to describe why I love that, but the idea of uncelebrated pop fascinates me endlessly.

Why do I wish to rehash canonised legends? Because they're important to me. Why do I wish to dig up the super obscure? Because they're important to me too. Saying that, I admit that I am suspicious of the popular or that which I ought to embrace, according to some important cultural stakeholder. Perhaps those are the bands that fall between those two polarities, those contemporary groups who are not completely assured of a long-term legacy. I say that because I've witnessed that shame that comes from liking those once-popular-now-embarrassing bands. Only recently I was told of a friend-of-a-friend's deathly embarrassment, after her music press boss ridiculed her for still liking the band, Editors. It all seemed horribly ironic, since that same musical publication once campaigned heavily for that band's popularity. The incident makes me feel irked and yet, it effectively demonstrated why I'm so reluctant to take up their musical recommendations. Quite simply, I feel awkward connecting with the musically fickle.

Viktor Tsoi in Moscow, 1986.
Ideally, personal taste should be autonomous, it should remain unaffected by popular taste. There are instances where this actually happens, where you manage to develop a strong bond with the music itself, completely free of any knowledge, recommendation or hype. But whether you like it or not, every single band exists on this scale between popularity and obscurity. There will always be a historical and cultural context: Did people like their music? Did people buy their music? Is that music hard to get now? Yet what seems frustrating about it is that no matter how much we write, no matter how often we go over that historical and cultural context, there's no way of properly calibrating that scale. What might seem ridiculously obscure to one person might be more than familiar to another... and yet, oddly enough, that doesn't seem to be the point of all this.

It's about appearances. It's about establishing a sense of authority. It's about reinforcing this impression of discernment and good taste. Returning to those far-flung polarities of the very popular and the very obscure is an easy way to do that. I'm looking forward to the day when I'm more inclined to take the trickier route, to embark upon lengthy, unapologetic essays about artists who are neither popular or obscure. I wish to celebrate artists like Milli Vanilli, in a way that doesn't undermine my taste or my identity. I want to do it in a way that isn't ironic or defensive. That's a difficult thing to do, a near impossible thing to do in fact: to encourage a reader to cast aside their historical understanding of a group, to ask them to faithfully suspend their cultural pre-judgement and just listen to the music. That's something I'd really like to do.

Cassettes & Chocolate Milk: Mixed Bag Podcast #56
Internet Forever - Cover the Walls (Dreamtrak Diamond Sound)
Pompeya - Untitled
Santigold - Disparate Youth
Entrepreneurs - Fuck Tactics (feat. FOE & Ghostpoet)
Clean Bandit - A & E
Marcella Wright - Origins
Chromatics - Back from the Grave
Daniela Poggi - Break-Up (Hysteric Edit)
Veroniqué - Jungle Man
Kino - The Last Hero

Download (76.2 MB)


Archaznable said...

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Klaus said...

nice post. i like your musical taste and explanation as to why you dig up the obscure.

Eleanor said...

Thanks for your kind words, Klaus!