I’ve been seriously addicted to electronic music lately. I went through a brief stint in college of going out
crazy drinking and winding up in clubs, then using pirated DJ software to write increasingly expansive dance tunes the morning after as a sort of hangover remedy. After that, I retreated into more lo-fi musical stylings for a few years, before simultaneously discovering the digital joy of Kraftwerk and Daft Punk. From different ends of The Continent, spanning almost 40 years of technology and evolving influence, I found myself immersed in this fascinating alpha and omega of what is possible when you make music in the astral plane. From there, it was an educational fill-in-the-blanks of what came in between, most notably the Manchester scene from the late 70’s to the early 90’s (as documented in the Tony Wilson pseudo-documentary 24 Hour Party People, which charts the up and downs of Wilson’s Factory Records label). With their German influences firmly in place – both in the form of nascent electronic music exploration and post-Reich crippling industrial decline – the scrappy Manchs infused a dark, gritty punk sensibility with a burgeoning appreciation of what technological advances in recording and post-production could do. Once Joy Division – the all-time thought leader in melodic droning – lost their morose lead singer in 1980, the haunted bass and drums became haunted synths, and borrowing some Kraftwerk samples (a new concept at the time), New Order was born. The aural aesthetic of this time period blows my mind, it’s like time-traveling to a future/past that was too beautiful to ever exist. Add a few years, and the introduction of ecstasy to the same pale, depressed masses – now raving at Wilson’s “Hacienda” club – and modern dance music as we know it was underway.
From that same time period and relative place, another moribund influence appears that will monopolize the artistic palate of techno: 1982’s Blade Runner. From Northern England descends Ridley Scott and his Philip K. Dick-based pièce de résistance of futurama. A few things stand out while watching the director’s cut of this movie now: (a) it’s dense but accessible and therefore highly rewarding; (b) this movie is completely infused in the DNA of cinema, and almost no one has had an original thought about the future on film since (although Blade Runner itself looks to have drawn substantially on Fritz Lang’s impenetrable Metropolis, it is definitely its own thing); (c) the existential implication of humans against similarly capable artificial intelligence/computers/robots was never more deeply or movingly explored. Daft Punk’s robot versus human imagery is clearly a direct descendant of this motif (is “Human After All” an answer to over-produced early albums or Deckard’s identity quandary?). Kraftwerk’s 1978 album “The Man-Machine” picked up and ran with this theme a few years earlier, and its iconic cover certainly echoes Metropolis‘s modernist style. Of course, the touchstone for the sci-fi struggle over what is unique and indelible, if anything, about being human – a collection of organic computational structures versus artificial ones – dates back to the late 50’s and early 60’s in the Cold War paranoia of The Twilight Zone and P.K. Dick himself*.
If Kraftwerk’s homemade vacuum-tube synths and sparsely inhuman Bloc sound and outfits describe the skeleton of what was to come, Daft Punk, with their endlessly palatable repetition and penchant for Tron-like graphics and permanent robot costumes, were the fruition of what’s possible on a commercial, multinational scale. Both also prove that the best electronic music comes with a healthy dose of avante garde style. Not surprisingly, Daft Punk is doing the soundtrack for (and “starring” in) the perhaps horrible, perhaps interesting rehash of Tron, and is now featured in their own adaption of the Guitar Hero franchise, something called “DJ Hero,” that uses two fake turntables for controllers, and was well-received enough that Activision was willing to invest in a sequel.
So if Disney movies and blockbuster rhythm video games are now on the table, who’s making music that still warrants forty consecutive listens? More Europeans, that’s who! Right now I can’t stop listening to Miike Snow and Mark Ronson and his Biz Int’l*. Both of these projects benefit from the musical genius and chameleonic voice of American hipster Andrew Wyatt, who is the lead singer/songwriter for the Miichael Snö and a frequent collaborator of Ronson’s, most notably on the raise-the-dead catchy “Somebody to Love Me” (along with full-time eccentric and face tattoo-haver Boy George). Unlike most American artists working in this genre who have mysteriously eschewed nuanced hooks in favor of harshness or pure intensity, Wyatt and his Euro cohorts have a gift for fusing traditional music elements like piano and banjo with brain-melting electronic sounds, creating surreal, unreal, 4 dimensional*, textured earscapes*. I’m sure Mr. Wyatt et al.’s work is well-complimented by psychedelic drugs, but they nearly make them beside the point. It’s not quite clear to me what trust fund baby Mark Ronson’s exact gift is – be it networking, or being a super cool dude super cool people want to party with, or just rocking a crazy blond pompadour, or what – but his new album is straight stupid with relentless electro-driven hits, and each song features a minimum of three additional parenthetical guest artists. Ronson is an especially delightful throwback to The Hacienda scene, sounding frequently like a mash-up between Eurotrash DJ’s, hyper-literate rappers, and The Smiths, the lattermost being the one band Tony Wilson regrets not signing to Factory Records. I’m holding my breath for Ronson to charm Morrissey out of whatever self-imposed reclusion he is no doubt currently in, and offer him a guest spot in a parenthetical on his next album. Honorable mention on this note must also be given to Miike Snow’s “Burial,” a song which is such a fantastic piece of poetic dance-mope that it could make Old Man Morrissey implode with misery-envy.
Perhaps I find this music so entrancing because there is no IRL limitation to the sound dynamics and the images they conjure in my head. Or maybe it’s because electronic music always feels like a projection of the zeitgeist’s conception of the future, and regardless of dystopian themes or alienation lyrics, has some sort of lost optimism about it, a snapshot of a place that’s unattainable, beautiful, and will never exist. The dichotomy of the ideal and the correspondingly impossible, as the ancient Greeks and Mad Men viewers both know (see etymology of the word “Utopia,” elucidated equally well in either Plato’s Republic or Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel pitch), is painfully lovely. Also, as an intellectual property lawyer who is taking his first class in computer programming, it’s transcendent to be working in all this mundanity and then realize what is possible with the ultimate end result. How you get from .txt files filled with numbers and brackets to “Silvia,” “You Gave Me Nothing,” “Harder Better Faster Stronger,” or “Blue Monday” is beyond me, but it’s an amazing concept.
There is probably the fantasy factor too. Being a DJ (like a real DJ that makes music, not the slash “club promoter” type) seems like the coolest lifestyle ever ever ever.
*To be fair, the origin of this thematic device probably has direct roots to Shelley’s organic-yet-artificial creation in Frankenstein.
*I’ve also been listening to a lot of We Were Promised Jetpacks, but despite their futuristic-sounding name, they’re pretty much a traditional, albeit good, indie rock band.
*Height, width, depth, and awesomeness.
*New word, copyright me, right now. Hey,
Sarah Palin Shakespeare does it.