Passion or Pastiche? The appeal to authority (part 3)

At the beginning of this year, my wife and I bought a new bathroom, one of those things that some people do when the need arises. As tends to be usual with this kind of transaction these days, my email address was surrendered to the vendor even though we were paying by cash and in person (we’d been saving up). So you can probably guess what I’m going to be telling you next – every day subsequent to that for about 13 days I got emails from this retailer who specialise exclusively in bathroom products. It probably would have gone on longer, but I unsubscribed from the list.

Now then, having just bought oneself a bathroom, how long do you think it would take for someone to start thinking about replacing said bathroom? Many years? Some years? Some Months? Some days? One day? And yet, can you blame the autobot for automatically adding an email to a mailing list, and can you blame a salesperson for obtaining said email address? They do it because that is what is done these days. It might make marketing sense for a retailer whose goods traverse something of a range, but let’s be honest, if I need to replace aspects of my newly bought bathroom within days or weeks of buying that one, I’m hardly likely to be looking at the same supplier…

So my beef here is not with email lists in general, although they are one of the many lesser evils to assail us daily (unsubscribe! unsubscribe!) but instead with unthinking application of procedures, aka Lazy Thinking. We have a mailing list because everyone has a mailing list. We send daily updates because everyone sends daily updates. We put that sitar in the recording because everyone is doing it these days. We put that quote about the spirit world in to prove that we’re truly psychedelic and therefore we must be right into all that new age shit, right? I mean, that’s what they do, innit?

And that, ladies and gentleman, is how to cross a bathroom with a Goat.

Briefly going back to the bathroom story, there are probably great precedents surrounding the email marketing technique being applied. Have a look at this article back in 1999 (if you have an ACM subscription), this more recent one (also needs a not at all cheap subscription) or this one which may actually be free. Of course, the man at the counter collecting email addresses is probably not aware of any of this theoretical basis, he’s just doing his job, which is to follow the precedents and apply them to the marketing of bathrooms. Company X started collecting data on their customers and their portfolio has risen by N percent a year since. Luminary Y said in some speech last year that any company not collecting email signatures was doomed to failure. You know the kind of thing; a few examples of success, and a few more ‘authorities’ shouting for the cause, and then simply not doing it becomes unthinkable. And thus a story is written.

But there is very usually a context that doesn’t get taken into account. Company X’s profile may actually have risen N percent a year because of a confluence of coinciding factors, of which the data collection was but a minor one and some snazzy new catchphrase crossed with sleek design crossed with being in the right place at the right time may just have been about 1000 times more important. Equally, Luminary Y may work as a consultant for a company that specialises in exactly that sort of data collection and is basically drumming them up some business. Regardless of the original contexts, though, the end result is that almost every damn vendor you buy anything from these days will then start sending you emails. Have you ever seen the look on a salesman’s face when you say you don’t want to give them your email? Depends on the salesman, I suppose. But these things rarely make the story.

Anywho, on the subject of marketing, there is only one authority you need.

You’d better believe this kind of lazy thinking happens with people writing/making/performing music.

Probably the biggest authority-bubble I would like to see popped in my lifetime is the notion of ‘types of music,’ known to most of us as ‘genre.‘ In some fields, the fragmentation into various sub-genres is frankly mystifying to the people who remember that field starting, especially as what separates one artist from another into separate categories is usually only noticeable to the ‘expert.’ (There is a separate and probably opposite idea here about increasing complexity mirroring evolution in it’s speciation-tree manifestation, and taking it fractal, but I’ll let that gestate for a while).

But that is a pet peeve of mine, and the world is not going to stand or fall on it, no it isn’t. Where I think this need to follow precedent is at its most pernicious, though, is where it tries to place limits on what you can do. I mean, some of my favourite psychedelic music of this century would probably not even be considered as psychedelic by most people who would instead call it jazz or neo-folk or whatever because of the obvious stylistic trappings and completely disregarding the actual effect on the listener. Meanwhile, bands who are basically a revivalist rock band are unquestionably accepted as ‘psych-rock’ because they play the music the way it was done by that great band back in the late ’60s even though the effect on the listener is not noticeably different to listening to a covers band. The same thing happened with ‘stoner-rock’ a while back. Therefore, a young band comes along and they haven’t seen past the bullshit of labels just yet, and start thinking about playing about with what they’re doing. But it isn’t psych-rock! exclaims their guitarist/producer/ manager/hanger-on/bank manager. And thus the idea is discarded, and we get the old maps out and tell the bass player to stop looking down those dirty alleys, they’re not on this map.

Now the label ‘psych-rock,’ or indeed any label for that matter does not matter as much as one may think it does, certainly it matters less than I may appear to be trying to make it matter. I shall fall back into the realm of absurd analogies, a realm I visit often, to illustrate my point.

Let us suppose that all children and immigrants into our society from now on were going to get all of their knowledge from a select group of teachers, and no other members of society may contradict what these teachers may tell our society’s newbies. Let us then suppose that these teachers started telling their charges that the colour we have come to know as ‘yellow’ is, in fact, ‘blue,’ and vice versa. This process, uninterrupted, would result in a population who had completely opposite views on these respective colours in less than a hundred years, albeit there would be some confusion in the meantime. I dare you to write that screenplay.

Now, whether we call ‘yellow’ ‘blue’ or vice versa doesn’t actually matter a damn; the key thing is that we tend to agree with each other that we’re talking about the same thing when we communicate – this is called ‘consensus reality,’ and it has its uses. But although labels are an occasionally necessary evil, particularly if we want to tell someone what colour towel they should be fetching out of the airing cupboard – why do we need to start describing that label? ‘Well, John, Blue is the label we give to vibrations in light frequency between 610-670 THz, you can’t miss it.’

So where to begin with describing the labels given to music? I mean, go on, describe rock music. Describe psychedelic music. Describe noise-rockDescribe slowcore. Describe post-dubstep. And describe all of those terms in such a way that anyone will know exactly what to expect from any artist tarred with that label. I’ll wait.

Where the problem with this is exacerbated is that Valerio Cosi, for example, may only ever get filed under jazz, experimental or improv, and people will think they don’t like jazz or improv, and certainly not that horrible experimental racket, but they do love themselves some Psych, so they go to the psych ghetto and there they are introduced to Foxygen. But, but, Pitchfork said they were good! And our would be seeker would have discovered that the aural atmosphere created by my favourite Italian saxophonist is in fact every bit as good as I said it was if someone had had the temerity to add ‘psychedelic’ to his many facets. In a way, it’s like the way academics have to fill their work with citations of other academics to justify their own work, why they had the temerity to think of doing the investigation in the first place, and look everybody, we followed the correct protocols and jumped through the right hoops. And as academic knowledge gradually indexes more and more of material reality out of this blob of writings and citations, so musical genres also get labelled as soon as they emerge. In most cases, the artists themselves were probably just doing what felt right/sounded good.

It doesn’t help that almost every artist labels themselves. I’ve yet to find an artist whose primary descriptor for their output is simply ‘music,’ yet every artist who I have mentioned or will mention could quite legitimately do that. To counter the ‘but that wouldn’t be very helpful’ argument, I say this: what label or description would guarantee that you would like an artist? Because two artists could very easily be legitimately described as the same thing and you would hate one and love the other. There is no foolproof way of avoiding music you don’t like when investigating new stuff. Which may be why the majority of humans seem to happily let commercial radio be the gatekeepers who decide which new artists are allowed into their mental space. Clearly this post is not aimed at such people.

Imagine the freedom you would have if you only applied the broadest of categories to who you are and what you could do. Instead of saying I make lo-fi indie-psych-rock-punk, I make music. This means I can make music in any format without violating expectations. Now, I can do that anyway. But people have a serious resistance to having their expectations violated, which is one of the reasons I’m suggesting we should do as little to help create them in the first place. Every expectation created is a potential script/straitjacket to follow. Why do we want to behave as people expect us to?

Now, hondootedly mossis thotcher, there are valid reasons for the existence of labels. I mean, how many different artists can you currently choose from if you were to go to t’internet now and try to find a new musical love? I don’t just mean current, either. How many artists could you theoretically listen to? So, if I were to indulge in this exercise now, even I would probably have to put some genres into a search engine for whatever resource I’m exploring, and I think the jury deciding how varied my taste is must have gone to the pub and got pissed, because if it’s still out, they’re having you on. And I’m quite narrow minded compared to some people I know.

It is no sin to create music that falls squarely within the boundaries that groups of people have decided to label as a genre – there’s a good argument to say that a large percentage of music that is made has to, by definition, be quite conventional. If you consider music as another form of communication, another language, then compare it to the way we use our verbal language – we use the same words as each other so that we may be understood, yet language nevertheless evolves without trying to. So I don’t advocate originality for the pure sake of it, it is my belief that it happens when the time is right – putting yourself in the right conditions, from the artist’s perspective. And always, the work is the king. Do it properly, it basically does itself, so trust your instincts.

However, we seem to have evolved a reward system for people who can make music in a way that successfully communicates to people, a mixture of financial reward and ego-stroking, which interferes with the original intention to communicate. Where there’s success, there’s a support system, in this case the music industry at large – the managers, the agents, the record labels yadda yadda. And once entrenched, they naturally prefer to stay entrenched due to the not insubstantial rewards in this support system, which include more power than you’d realise. Thus, the edifice eventually coalesces into a rigid conservatism where formulas are followed based on what made money previously. Repetitive rituals, basically. And thus we get a situation best described by Alan Moore (one of my appeals to authority!) where the majority of people, including many practitioners, think all of this is just something to pass the time whilst waiting to die.

Come on now, is that how you would describe your most transcendental music experiences?

If it wasn’t for all the places on the internet where unknown artists could show their work, we wouldn’t get heard outside of our circles of friends. Yet, it is this that will make the dominant system redundant, almost a separate enterprise in terms of musical innovation, a bit like children’s fiction has its own niche in our cultural superstore. It is here at the bottom of the pond where the new swings in cultural direction originate, the earth in which they germinate. Everything in the mainstream ultimately has its roots with outsiders.

Ah! But why do we need someone to police what is and what is not acceptable as a trap for young bands to fall into? Well, now we’re asking a more intelligent question. Maybe this is all actually part of the game.

In true Trickster style, indulge me in a thought experiment. Suppose you wanted to communicate something to the widest audience possible, and the message would seem more important than how it was communicated. Well, wouldn’t you go for the best vehicle for the ride? There’s a very good reason that cliches are what they are and passing in the air as I write this is one that goes Keep it Simple, Stupid, so I’ll pluck that out.  We’re back to the idea of needing stories to get an underlying message across, only in this case I’m thinking of stories told in a musical language. Popular music equates to popular musical stories, and if you wanted to reach your widest possible audience, you’d surely use a popular vehicle to get you to the biggest stage you could. If people thought you were actually doing something else such as entertaining them, well, so much the better.

Have you ever noticed how universally simple the main themes of our most popular songs are? They very often boil down to self help workshops, songs of love and devotion and, yes, worship; very often there’s a mix of one or more of the preceding. If, like me, you’ve investigated some esoteric/occult explanations for reality, you’ll probably be aware of the idea that life is about performing your true will – being your true self, remembering who you are. Now this message can be summed up very simply as – I want to be free. You can be free. (Y)Our dreams can come true.

Ever heard any songs with that kind of message?

A similar interpretation can be performed on love songs ultimately being about completing yourself. The point is that there are some truly deep meanings underneath these ‘simple’ songs, much in the same way that fairy tales touch on so many fundamental archetypes of deep culture. We are back in the realms of the legominism. Gradually, listeners find themselves being drawn to the more complex communications once they’ve been engaged, and maybe start exploring, creating maps. In a few cases, they really do go out and find something new, because that’s how it works. But the process got started with those pop songs, and disguised itself as ‘mere’ entertainment. In the same way we don’t actually sniff at children’s books because that’s how we teach people to read, so we shouldn’t sniff at manufactured pop music. It’s where the children learn the language.

Staying with the books analogy – there are gradations of adult fiction, from the bestselling ones right down to the niche, cult books, each adding its own layer of story, and all parties on this spectrum have the same mix of motivations as those those on the music one. For example, this bestselling book actually has a very deep but simple story, the message of which will absolutely be scoffed at by many in my culture, but they are not its intended audience. Believe me, the author doesn’t give a stuff for the opinions of those who don’t agree with him, otherwise he wouldn’t have published it. It’s there for those who understand what he’s saying, even if they don’t consciously grok the full depth of it. The same, then, can be applied whenever my spidey-sense goes about a band who I think are putting it on – maybe they are actually genuine, but I am not their intended audience. My opinions can go hang (I’ve been trying to make them do that for the last three years; unsuccessfully, as these posts demonstrate).

Anyway, the point is that in amongst all the chancers and celebrities and smartarses who make up the successful top tiers of the musical pyramid (plus of course, the really genuine ones who are truly following their muse, who are probably the only artists not limiting themselves to appeals to authority), there are some tricksters there, not as they seem. It’s the job of the listener to sort out who’s who, and how much/ if at all it matters. Also, it’s probably the same proportions all the way down. This means there will be tricksters all the way down, concentrating on the audience they can get using the stages their chosen vehicle can take them to. They may be indistinguishable from those who are doing it because its their most preferred way of passing the time until they die, the ones who follow styles as much from lazy thinking as from a particular passion, and they usually do a reasonable job of playing the part that they mean it, maaaan. In fact, they usually mean it just as much, but not as advertised. The more I think about it, the more necessary I actually think they are.

Maybe they are, in fact, a wink from the elephant in the room.

Ah, have I not mentioned the elephant in the room?

As I’ll discuss on the next (probably last) post in this series, this is why YOU do matter.