Sunday, September 22, 2013

Working for The Weeknd: Kiss Land and Loss

The new Weeknd record, Kiss Land, brings out a lot about the earlier material that I hadn't seen before.  I wrote about Abel Tesfaye 's earlier work at about this time last year, and I had nothing but good things to say.  The Weeknd, I said, explored the limits of modern morality, a space that usually remains unconscious in pop music.  It had the rush of transgression coded in the terms of modern pop.  Murky, smug, and ruthless, the mixtape Trilogy was a rare naked gesture in pop.

Listening to Kiss Land reminded me that you can't write a story about decay, The Weeknd's story, without a sigh.  In the Trilogy, a slightly younger Tesfaye wrote about MDMA and thuggish sexual encounters with the leer of a villain.  There was a sense of loss, but the loss was hers; Tesfaye's stories were about a devilish character leading women into the pit where he stayed.  This is why you had to wipe the slime off of you at the end of the tape.  The Weeknd told an urban horror story set in skyscrapers and tucked away nightclubs.  Pain and pills were passed around equally.

But Kiss Land reminded me that the core of this sort of predation was a sense of innocence. The self-awareness and sensitivity that it took to pen the emptiness on his earlier works came from a sense of ruination.  The fact that Tesfaye had been hurt snuck through in places in the Trilogy, but nowhere did Tesfaye make it as explicit as he does on Kiss Land.

Tesfaye is still 23, and it's impossible to fathom his motives but I suspect that it's hard on a young kid making music like he does.  In that light, it's unsurprising that Kiss Land veers into relatability consistently across its tracks. His insistence that "This ain't nothin' to relate to/Even if you tried" comes off as posturing at the end of a record full of human biography.  An important element of this is ambience; rather than the thudding, nasty statements on the best parts of the Trilogy, the beats on Kiss Land sprawl for miles and shudder with dissonances that sound cribbed after the advent of Yeezus.  This enhanced cinema lends Tesfaye some interesting widescreen spaces to play in at certain points during the record, but when you hear the eighties' guitar and the strumming straight out of Bad on "Wanderlust" one can't help but think that he got the wrong idea from the Miguel record.

Tesfaye tries for the debasement of his earlier work several times throughout Kiss Land.  The result is thoroughly unpleasant, and not in an interesting way.  Unmasked by its context, songs like the title track spin a dull story of seducing women using your fame and status.  This breed of status-mongering "sexuality" looked boring and moronic on Mick Jagger and it is profoundly disappointing here.  On the strongest moments of the Trilogy, Tesfaye wrote like a libertine.  Here, he writes like the drummer from Poison.

It's appropriate that the only guest appearance on the record is by Drake.  This is Tesfaye's play for mainstream acceptance, and it shows.  He meets his OVOXO teammate halfway throughout the record; when Tesfaye tells a Marvin's Room-like story we're disappointed in a way that we're not when it comes from Drake. We know that Aubrey Graham is playing at his limits when he makes himself vulnerable for the microphone, but we thought that Abel had a much stronger range.  When we hear him blabbing about the vicissitudes of success and wealth,  it's like remembering that all of Tyler Durden's shirts were from Tommy Bahama.  Kiss Land, as a weak moment, is a critical moment.  It reminds us that for all of pop music's posturing, the glitter and gold of "success" make motherfuckers get cautious.  Back in Toronto, Abel might still be a demon.  In the limelight, he looks dressed up for Halloween.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Thoughts on John Maus and (Black) Experimental Music

(This post is an unsolicited continuation of Rory Ferreira (AKA milo)’s letter published earlier this summer over at Impose)
"And my sense of rhythm acts like a force field/ protecting me from you or you from me (tone it down driver!)/ what's that in your gun holster? oh this, its the de-negritizer/ I shoot myself with it until I'm whiter than Peter Piper/ now I'll be able to bow before our world leader's might or/ tell them that the shackles on my Adidas sneakers need to be tighter/ 'cause right now man, I'm free like a zebra in Zaire/ so I'll hop in a time machine and have my lineage wiped clean/ and I'll entertain yuppies as they buy tight jeans and Thai cuisine" —Busdriver as featured on milo's "the gus haynes cribbage league"
John Maus

Synth-pop musician John Maus has an agenda. He is knowledgeable about experimental classical music (Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage etc.) but is also steeped in continental philosophy—he holds a degree from the European Graduate School. His decision to work in the pop-music idiom is informed by his philosophical training: “I take seriously this claim of Gilles Deleuze… that perhaps it’s our task as artists to make intensive use of a major language.” Maus considers pop to be both a major language and something of a singularity within music history because it for the most part does without thematic development and major/minor tonality- the staples of western music, which is to say that now both “experimental” music and pop music have cast aside musical conventions and, as such, either might be an exemplary idiom for a political radical to be working within. A great pop performance leads to a sense of atavistic recognition between audience and performer, while experimental music becomes a contest in elitist one-upsmanship. In other words if you want to express yourself, write a three chord anthem, not a twelve-tone row. I’m not persuaded by this argument, partially for the same reason as milo: it disregards black music.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago
When John Maus talks about experimental music and conflates it with elitism, he is speaking exclusively about white classical composers. Avant-Garde jazz groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Sun Ra Arkestra are coming from a similar place as Maus but create better, more politically dangerous music; his argument seems to hinge upon an ignorance of experimental black musicians. Both the Art Ensemble and the Arkestra play music that expresses black consciousness and identity, and the volatility therein. The Art Ensemble’s catch phrase is “Ancient to the Future”; often on stage some members would wear tribal war paint while trumpeter Lester Bowie wore a lab coat. Their work contains the entire spectrum of African Diaspora musics, rock elements and the clatter of found percussion instruments, all subservient to the purgatorial wail of the blues. This melting pot aesthetic doesn’t lead to an atavistic music, where distinctions between white and black experience fall away. The breaking down of musical and cultural boundaries in search of an underlying unity ends with the abortive and sneering conclusion that existence itself is a boundary; the Art Ensemble’s mastery of jazz, classical, rhythm & blues and Caribbean styles expresses with claustrophobic intensity the terror of black American experience in the present (I’m writing primarily about the Ensemble’s hey-day in the 70’s and 80’s). The group’s presentation is simultaneously an homage to and mockery of History, their sound an orgy of overblown saxophones, speechlike trumpet and jocular drums. Instead of providing a release from the present (negro spirituals come to mind), the Art Ensemble of Chicago celebrates the present in all its ugliness, and what a perverse celebration it is.

While the Art Ensemble translated the collapse of history and linear progress into music, Sun Ra was more whimsical. He famously claimed to be an angel from Saturn; in his own words:
“I realize that people got feelings, and I reach toward their feelings, not their minds. Because they’ve been brain-washed. Why should I try to reach something that’s brain-washed? But their spirit hasn’t been brain-washed… I’m really not a man, you see, I’m an angel. If I was a man, you see, I couldn’t do anything, because man always fails you know, he’s so limited… I use my music as a sound-bridge for them to walk across the void.”
Sun Ra
During Ra’s lifetime, Arkestra (an approximation of the ebonic pronunciation of ‘orchestra’) members lived together, abandoning their families in order to pursue music. Sun Ra was a radical and a futurist (he was one of the very early proponents of synthesizers), a man of the people and a recluse. He was very much aware that he was considered a novelty by many music fans, but was apathetic towards his reception. His music often implored people, black people in particular, to face the realities of their situation; he demanded this but deflected questions of progress and action because he was just a concerned interstellar agent. Like the Art Ensemble, the Sun Ra Arkestra’s wild sound reproduced the crisis of black identity. Whereas John Maus makes use of a “major language”- pop music- in order to be seen, Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble make vigorous use of experimental languages in order to give life’s ambiguity and distortion full scope.

We like noise-rap crew Death Grips a lot here at the Spook (check out Owen’s post on them here). Their music and career arc shed light on how experimental music functions in society. First, it is important to recognize that Death Grips is a continuation of experimental rock drummer Zach Hill’s oeuvre (that is, they were never seeking mainstream acceptance or success). Infamously, the band was dropped from Epic Records after they leaked their album No Love Deep Web, which Epic financed, directly prior to the official release date. The cover was, fittingly, a picture of Zach Hill’s penis with “No Love Deep Web” written on it in sharpie.

MC Ride and Zach Hill
In Jean Baudrillard’s The Agony of Power, he distinguishes between two modalities of power: domination and hegemony. Domination is characterized by interpersonal antagonism and exploitation. In hegemony, which historically can be seen as domination’s final phase, the connection between human intent and power disappears. What emerges is a network of complicity; critical thought no longer targets sectors of power but uncovers ways in which works, movements and values collude with global capitalism. The “negative” thought of the Hegelian slave or Dostoevskian Underground Man might persist, but it is rendered impotent and by the virtue of its impotence is complicit with hegemony. MC Ride’s lyrics embody Baudrillard’s polemical intensity. On “Come Up and Get Me”, the title proves to be more of a plea than a provocation:
My stone wall it's on dog gaze duct taped to the ceiling/ Stucco cave make me illi okay, okay feel me/ I'm in an eight high abandoned building/ No daylight one midnight lamp lit twenty-four seven/ Murdered out windows two exits/ Street or nosedive to the next life in seconds/ and suicide ain't my stallion/ So I'm surrounded…I'm epiphanic amnesia

Baudrillard writes:
“A bitter truth: Radicalness is on the side of the intelligence of evil… we must look to the side of evil for the clearest indications, the harshest reality. Only those who show no concern for contradiction or critical consideration in their acts and discourse can… shed full light on… the absurd and extravagant character of the state of things, through the play of objective irony."

“For us…the continuity of history is shattered; we live in an instant and disincarnate currentness in which we take no more trouble… than to prolong history or rather the end of history, immersed in the euphoric banality that Heidegger called the second Fall of humanity.”

“Globalization automatically entails…fragmentation and deepening discrimination-and our fate is for a universe that no longer has anything universal about it-fragmentary and fractal-but that no doubt leaves the field free for all singularities: the worst and the best, the most violent and the most poetic.”
Jean Baudrillard
MC Ride’s lyrical content deals with these dark topics (for instance, the euphoric banality of voracious drug consumption and sex on tracks like “Spread Eagle Cross the Block” and “I Want it I Need it (Death Heated)”), and Death Grips’ sound resonates with people, which is partially why they got signed to Epic. By Baudrillard’s logic, Death Grips’ “nihilistic” sound ought to be prime material for corporate exploitation, but the group’s allegiances were never paid to careerism. If global capitalism is an unscrupulous, “evil” discourse, experimental music is a prima facie irrelevant discourse. In experimental music, personal expression is possible because the musicians have no concern for political agency. Baudrillard claims that only those in formal positions of power can “shed full light” on the state of things, but Death Grips, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra’s Arkestra all play music on behalf of disenfranchised people—a growing category—and I think that the song of the disenfranchised contains more truth than the pronouncements of the cynical. John Maus is clearly a thoughtful dude, and he is limiting himself by ignoring not only the black experimental tradition, but also the heights of viciousness and vulnerability found in hip-hop from Big L to Death Grips.