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Friday, March 28, 2003

++ Getting It All Wrong

++ Simon Reynolds has recently been exploring, at some length, the opposition between "fanaticism" and "dilettantism" in music criticism (and fandom). His argument spins out of Tom Ewing's 2002 wrap-up at Freaky Trigger, in which Ewing argues that the diversity of music today, and the rapidity with which it continues to fracture, makes critics — the very best critics — not "experts" in the classic sense, but rather, simply savvy travelers. "No critic anymore can keep up with everything," writes Ewing, "and the non-specialist should stop pretending to."

Reynolds examines the two positions as being roughly akin to monotheism vs. pantheism. Either you're a hardcore believer in the supreme truth of a given genre (the position of so much criticism in both rock and dance music), or you are, almost by necessity, a dabbler, if only because there's not enough time to become expert in every genre that attracts your attention. (In another vocabulary, one could describe the opposition as that of transcendent vs. immanent critiques.) Reynolds, while acknowledging his commitment to "the ol' pirate-radio hardcore-continuum" (e.g. British rave music, drum 'n' bass, garage) ultimately finds in favor of dilettantism (or, to use a less loaded term, generalism).

++ I find both writers' perspectives reassuring, if only because I have often felt like a dilettante myself. Criticism, after all, is all about authority, and how the hell do you certify up your credibility when you're writing about an artist (or, worse yet, an entire musical genre) you only discovered last week? Is it enough just to (rhetorically) jump up and down, raving, "Listen to this amazing sound"? Maybe it is, if your ranting and raving are particularly inspired. But I've always been more interested in, and concerned with, reading form against culture. I'm interested not just in trying to explain how music sounds, but in trying to localize it: to determine where it is in a continuum, where it comes from, and perhaps even where it's going. That is, to give music history, and to read music as a social form. (And, occasionally, to read form against culture — to understand not just how it sounds but what it does.)

But this type of practice presupposes a certain involvement in the culture in question, preferably first-hand, or at the very least, via a sufficient immersion in the culture's productions (music, zines, radio shows, etc.). What of the "outsider" critic? What is her authority, responsibility, positioning? "Outsider" listeners have created some of the most enduring music of the last century: Jamaicans turning American R&B into blubeat, ska, reggae; Western Africans turning Afro-American funk into Afrobeat. But we cut our musicians more slack than our critics. The question, perhaps, isn't "Can the dilettante speak?" — Reynolds and Ewing have just affirmed that she can — but rather, "When may the dilettante speak?"

All this musing is a very long way of getting to the fact that I've been increasingly frustrated because I've recently fallen in love, all over again, with UK garage — but I have no idea whatsoever how to read it.

What do I mean? I have no idea whatsoever what UK garage's position is in the UK. Despite the deceptively unfettered access afforded by the Internet — I can hear just about any tune I please, any ol' time, and generally turn up a wealth of information on the artists as well — I have no clue as to the real socio-cultural standing of the stuff. What kind of people listen to it? What do they do while they're listening? Where do they buy it? And so on.

This has always been an issue with UKG, partly because the response on the two sides of the Atlantic has been so asymmetrical. At garage's peak, as I understand it, the music was practically ubiquitous in London, played on the radio, on the Top of the Pops, on television commercials, on ringtones. Here in North America, though, garage was underground even within the dance music community. The two UK garage artists to break into the US — Craig David and The Streets — were sold to audiences here as R&B and hip-hop acts, respectively. (Ms Dynamite, likewise, comes out of the garage scene, but most press around her debut album, a collection of ragga-flavored hip-hop, doesn't even mention her career as an MC for anthems like "Booo!" and "Ramp.")

Still, garage's ubiquity made it readable in the same sense that mainstream American hip-hop could translate for British audiences — as a reflection of, or even a synecdoche of, the culture at large. Distorted, sure, but still legible.

Then, seemingly like that, the point was made moot: garage was said to have fallen out of favor, dried up, disappeared. Mainstream R&B singles ceased including obligatory garage mixes. Virgin and HMV discontinued their garage sections. (Here in San Francisco, one of the few U.S. cities to have shown much interest in garage, the situation was paralleled in Amoeba's garage section, once the best in the city, now a shrinking rack of new releases and, alongside it, a steadily expanding bargain bin.)

Which turned out not to be a bad thing, because just as the music was falling off the mainstream radar in the UK, my favorite elements — the dark side, the roughness — were giving birth to the new strain, "gutter garrige," or garage rap, as others are calling it. Gone was the ultra-posh gleam, and in its place was a music that recalled early hardcore: nasty, brutal, mean.

++ This is the stuff I have no idea how to read in context. This occurred to me as I was listening to Platinum 45. Their new tune "Bad Boy" is unreal, one of the strangest things I've heard in ages. The new crop of garage, in general, is mutating in totally unpredictable ways, fusing elements of techno, bleep, and American hip-hop. But "Bad Boy," which I ordered from Juno along with a slew of other recent singles, is even stranger. It basically has only two sections: a super-minimal passage that, aside from the kick drums on the downbeat, is almost totally silent (UK garage inna John Cage stylee?), and then a bizarre shuffle refrain that sounds, more than anything else, like the offbeat triplet style common on Kompakt, Auftrieb, Profan, and other Wolfgang Voigt-related labels. In other words, totally un-fucking-like anything I would have expected to come out of UK garage. (This excites me because, among other reasons, I'm beginning to discover more and more recent tracks that mine the middle ground between comparatively swung hardcore styles and more-or-less straight techno. The terrain seems a) like an almost obvious formal move, b) relatively unexplored, and c) at least for the moment, nearly limitless in its potential.)

And then I Googled Platinum 45, to see just who it was that would turn out a track so minimal, so un-funky, so totally fucking weird. To my surprise, the very first link returned was a video from "Top of the Pops" featuring More Fire Crew rapping over Platinum 45 beats, a tune called "Oi" from a year ago. After the "Top of the Pops" link, scads of ringtone sites. And after that, Top 40 listing after Top 40 listing. The production crew behind what I'd read as a totally out-there, weirdstep, unprecedented beat turned out to be pop stars.

None of this invalidates my opinion of the music, of course. As any number of critics have pointed out over the past couple of years, the productions from Timbaland and the Neptunes can be every bit as "experimental" as self-consciously underground music, if not more so. Still, for someone who's interested in reading the music in context, Platinum 45's certified-platinum standing has left me wondering what the state of the art — and of the marketplace — actually is. If, for all garage's talk about pirate radio and underground signals, it's still broadcasting across mainstream signals, does that change the way it needs to be received? For the moment, I'm going back to my drawing board — and back to my research.

++ But perhaps all this muddle is a good thing; maybe we put too much stock in understanding a genre from the inside out. It's not like middle-class kids, white or black, really understand the "lived experience" of Biggie or Tupac or NWA or any other artist self-consciously representing the ghetto, and maybe they weren't supposed to. The Streets' Mike Skinner once told me that Brits liked American hip-hop for its over-the-top qualities, its fictive sense. Maybe their distance from the supposedly "representative," documentary qualities of hip-hop — the obsession with authenticity, with keeping it real — have liberated them to make merry with its pop qualities in a way that most American listeners can't.

In fact, maybe there's nothing drearier than approaching a genre from inside its hallowed walls. Just look at Mike McGuirk's recent piece on the SF noise-rock scene in the SFBG. I'm not sure I've ever read a more cynical piece of rock criticism (I call it cynical in part because it hid behind a veil of false innocence). In sketching out the noise-rock scene, McGuirk failed really to describe the music, to explain what was good about it, or even what distinguished any of it from anything else. (He admitted, in fact, that much of it was basically interchangeable.) What he enjoyed, it seems, was the fact that all his friends were at the parties, and they could get drunk and fall down together. (There was lots of falling down in the article. If hardcore punk was all about jumping, noise rock seems to take physicality in the opposite direction, not attempting to escape from gravity, but simply giving in and going straight for the floor.) The conclusion to his article was even worse: even as he was readying the article to send to his editor for publication, McGuirk was bemoaning the increasing popularity of the scene, sure that as more people caught on, it would lose its specialness, its insideness, its coolness. The article ended in a weird fit of sour grapes, as if by the very act of reading his article we'd suddenly ruined the scene for him. It was a very strange, bitter, unhappy article that spoke volumes about cliquishness and exclusivity and bad faith — and virtually nothing about form, music, or the social function of either.

Ironically enough, as much as I may have fit the demographics of the scene he was describing — white, urban, underemployed, middle-class, late-20s/early-30s, educated in punk and indie rock and enough avant-garde music to appreciate "noise" — I didn't particularly feel that my default insider's perspective was enough to allow me automatically to understand that scene. Or even, for that matter, to want to be a part of it, whether there was falling down involved or not.

Maybe I just like things difficult, but reading that paean to insiderism made me, more than anything, crave something unfamiliar, foreign, totally opaque. Give me UK garage, give me German techno. Hell, give me mainstream hip-hop. Fuck insiderism. Here's to outsiders getting it all wrong.


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