Tag Archives: Beastie Boys

The Politics of Fashion

Naomi pointed me the way to this excellent piece by Thursday/United Nations’ Geoff Rickly on the MTV Headbanger’s Blog site on my previous post, and it got me thinking about the impact of fashion on culture. Rickly astutely notes the power of the image, and in doing so recalls Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” Rickly is quite correct in his assertion to use McLuhan as an intellectual pinpoint to the decline of political action – or simply plain action – in punk and underground culture. But McLuhan doesn’t sum up the concept of said decline like Daniel Boorstin managed to with his book on American culture – The Image. In the book, Boorstin points towards not only the great power that images have over us, but how they can sometimes distract from the real events and meaning behind said image. In our ability to reproduce certain images, the reproduction often overshadows the thing that made the original such an endearing event in human existence in the first place. You can buy a postcard of the Mona Lisa or download it online just about anywhere, but it doesn’t compare to seeing the lightly-cracked brush-strokes in real life. But, more importantly, when an image is so readily available through commerce, the idea of flying to a foreign country, waiting in massive lines, and paying out of your rear end to see a painting you might not even care for (especially if you aren’t into art) may actually end up diminishing any positive experience with the original image – forget events that went into making it such an emotionally arresting work. The same can be said for folks who enjoy wearing Che Guevara t-shirts; the image is well known, arresting, and connected to connotations of rebellion, and the $15 for the shirt and look of cool is immediately accessible versus the time one would spend in researching Guevara’s political ideas and the true concepts behind his face. It’s a very concept that is rooted in American culture; the democracy of information versus the time and effort needed to be fully aware of the information you are ingesting.

Daniel Boorstin

Daniel Boorstin

These concepts are fully drawn into the world of music and its revolutionary/underground/political backgrounds. Rickly points towards Fugazi as a beacon of light in the music-as-action argument; what Rickly fails to mention in the article is that Fugazi never submitted themselves to any easily-replicable image. Among the many ideas that are thrown into Instrument – the excellent Jem Cohen documentary on Fugazi – is their consistent battle with trying to portray an accurate portrait of themselves. The media have such a way of forcing individuals into boxes that there’s no wonder the members of Fugazi did away with the mainstream press; providing an easy-to-swallow image makes the important messages that Fugazi was creating, well, lost in the medium. Most folks may not know a lick about the band, but those individuals who have the forthright to find out about their music and enjoy it will get the full-blast (aurally and idealistically) of the band’s concept.

Fugazi in action… literally (from Instrument):

In music, nothing makes or breaks a band like fashion. It’s the easiest thing to digest when learning about new bands – it takes minutes to listen to a song, but a handful of seconds to stare at a picture and determine if its aesthetically pleasing and cool. Fashion has made certain acts desirable and its also driven cultures and bands to the bitter ground. Take a look at grunge; all it took was for one word – “flannel” – to encompass an entire lifestyle of poor-as-hell artists in the Northwests and a handful of years later grunge was “played out.” As Rickly mentioned, hipsterdom is on the brink of destruction, and that’s mostly because of the easy-to-replicate image of cool. The reasoning behind the wears that artists involved in the indie scene is completely lost on all those who use clothing as a cache for cool – likewise, the need to separate oneself from the mainstream through fashion gets blurred in the culture of consumerism. How non-conformist is something purchased from Urban Outfitters? How neo-conformists is it when you can’t even recognize why an item of clothing is “revolutionary”? The easiest example of this widespread impact of the image of cool and how its deteriorated true subversion of the norm is the newfound fashion statement in the indie world; the kafia. Sure it looks cool, trendy, and yes, different. But how many American teens and twenty-somethings can actually connect with the Palestinian plight that the kafia represents? Moreover, how many people can actually recognize that as the antecedent?

hipster cool

hipster cool

Fashion is not lost in the realm of emo; not a day goes by that the idea of black-clad teens with weird haircuts boxes emo into a seemingly inescapable definition. And it seems like something new and more-or-less negative gets added to the mix; makeup was nowhere to be found five years ago when emo was first getting popular. And yet, despite all the doom and gloom that fashion can force on a once-forceful, active underground culture, I still have faith in some, if not all, of emo and indie (especially when the two are still so hard for people to define). And it has nothing to do with fashion. It has to do with history. Although America is still known as a “young” country, seemingly without a past, certain aspects of our culture go against those stereotypes, and in America, we love our home-brewed history (sometimes too much in the guise of nostalgia). But it’s always good to look back in an attempt to move forward. Geoff Rickly does just that with his piece for Headbanger’s Blog; he takes a concept of revolution and forces it right in the face of the individuals he is more or less critiquing, and using a major source of information (MTV) to do so. And while a movement becomes mainstream, images no doubt takeover, and certain ideas may be lost in translation, I come with the belief that making certain information available to those who normally wouldn’t be aware of its existence is a good thing. Rickly has always managed to articulately and effectively state why it was good that Thursday signed to a major label despite being so independent-minded, and opening up their audience to new people who may not have been aware of the importance of action is certainly a positive choice and change in my book. While one can assume that a large portion of today’s sub-standard pop-punk may not heed Rickly’s advice, I’d prefer to think positively. Because somewhere out there, some earnest fan of Rickly’s has always been a fan of taking some form of action in their everyday life, and they’ll read Rickly’s article and be inspired. Because you can’t always wait for change to happen – you have to enact it yourself.

A little bit of (music) news:

*The New York Times has a great piece on the crossover success of Gym Class Heroes.

*The Beastie Boys’ MCA is working in his own independent film company.

*iTunes Version 8 has a program called Genius which supposedly links one song to others like it in your library, as well as ones that may be purchased from the iTunes music store. Sounds like iTunes merely links songs other listeners have purchased online rather than songs that share similar compositions/aesthetics.

Advertisements

The Revolution Will Be Produced

It’s always nice getting some sort of personal email, especially when it’s in the form of a musical reunion between David Byrne and Brian Eno. Well, “personal” isn’t quite the right word, but I certainly took the message as a sincere and direct one:

It’s with great pleasure we offer you a sneak peak by sharing an MP3 from the album. The song is called “Strange Overtones”.

The album in question is Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, and it’s the first collaboration from the two post-punk minds in decades. The duo last came together with the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. However, that album was overshadowed (and probably will always be overshadowed) by Byrne’s main musical artery, Talking Heads. Yet, Eno was a central tenant to the Talking Head’s success, as his role in the producer’s seat for three of the Heads’ best albums (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light) was as vital as any other performing member of the band. It was because of Eno’s previously-unforeseen creative control over the band – which according to the book Rip It Up And Start Again hit its tipping point when Eno and Byrne got writing credits for Remain in Light ahead of the other band members, who were simply written down under the umbrella of “Talking Heads” – that his relationship with the Talking Heads and Byrne deteriorated.

Talking Heads

Talking Heads

It took me quite a bit of time to realize what an impact certain producers have over the final musical product. I always assumed that the final version of a song and album was simply a record of what the musicians themselves had originally created. And in many cases, that is true, especially in the world of underground music (and on the flipside, with mainstream, conglomerate pop, there’s the tendency wherein the “musicians” have less control over the final sound – or even the original sound to begin with). But as I became more interested in music, its with the “behind the music” stories so to speak, that I realized what a fundamental role producers play. The most famous stories I can think of involving the influence of a producer are all about Rick Rubin, the man who transformed the Beastie Boys into a fully-fledged hip-hop act and brought guitars and turntables together with his idea to do a Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration.

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin is the kind of guy who blends a musician’s sound with his own distinct style. His style is not quite overbearing, but you can hear distinct patterns and ideas in songs such as Jay-Z‘s “99 Problems”; with it’s big, chunky guitar riffs broken up by break-beats, its in the same ballpark as “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” or “Walk This Way.” It’s something I tend to notice coming out of my favorite producer today – Danger Mouse. Despite the fact that DM works with a diverse number of genres and artists, there’s a certain reliance on futuristic-soul (a bit faster than old skool soul) with a twist that flows through most of his repertoire. Don’t believe it? Take a quick listen to the Black Keys‘ “Strange Times” and compare it to Gnarls Barkley‘s “Go-Go Gadget Gospel.” They’re both excellent songs, but they share a pop-friendly downbeat and have the same hand-clap filled start.

Strange Times:

Go-Go Gadget Gospel:

It is partially due to production that emo transformed from an obtuse and ambiguous umbrella term for DC based post-hardcore, into a tangible genre. In its infancy, many of the bands who were tagged as “emo” simply produced their own records, or had friends produce their records. Everyone from Rites of Spring to Beefeater (note – their friend “Gumbo” MacKaye is said to have produced their overture) to Fugazi to Lungfish to Jawbox had band members working on both sides of the soundtrack. Hell, Happy Go Licky, the post-Rites of Spring group in a slightly different formation, only has one album, and its a collection of live recordings. The first wave of emo’s lack of a singular mode of production allowed for each act to create their own sounds uninhibited by any outside forces.

Happy Go Lickys Will Play

Happy Go Licky's Will Play

Enter the second wave of emo and there are noticeable changes and formulations drawn out that inevitably impact the future of the genre. The 2nd wave basically has two distinct halves: the spread of the DC-inspired sound to particular parts of the country in a small number of bands (Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker, etc), and then the immediate spreading of “emo” under the influence of the previous 1st and 2nd wave bands (most notably throughout the Mid West). Of all of the groups in emo 2.1, Sunny Day Real Estate had the most influence, and yet, they themselves have two distinct parts in which their sound developed due in part to the band’s relationship to two producers: Brad Wood and Lou Giordano. Wood produced the first two Sunny Day albums (Diary and LP2), and the production value brought out a certain aural dissonance derived from the feedback of the band’s dual guitar-work. Considering the band found an instant fan base (albeit, rather small) isn’t unbelievable as their produced sound shared numerous qualities with grunge, which was still popular at the time (Wood worked his alterna-sweeping grunge sound into the work of other artists such as Red Red Meat, Hum, and Smashing Pumpkins). And yet, on LP2 you could sense that the band wanted to achieve something more powerful than the immediate gratification of sonic blasts, as songs such as “J’Nuh” delved into succinct, taught patterns. When they reformed, Sunny Day grabbed Giordano, who helped relieve the band of its excess dissonance in favor of sparse melodies, a concept which has carried on into the band members’ post-Sunny Day work (The Fire Theft, Enigk’s solo work). Sunny Day held their own individual sound throughout their career, but with the help of two different folks created two distinct portraits.

Sunny Days final form

Sunny Day's final form

As emo spread throughout the rest of America and bands began to share musical ideas, producers helped sift through the sounds to create something resembling a conglomerate creation. And the two people who had the most impact behind the bands themselves are Mark Trombino (former Drive Like Jehu drummer) and J Robbins (former Jawbox frontman). Trombino is best known for his production work with Jimmy Eat World, most notably on the album Clarity, a record which traded the band’s pop-punk leanings for ambient experimentation. Trombino’s relationship with Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Knapsack, and Boys Life no doubt formed a core aesthetic for emo which mainly highlighted the band’s talents by simply teasing out the volume, focusing on the intertwined guitar flurries, and highlighting the singers’ vocals. It’s a style of down-tuned production that no-doubt has influenced countless pop-punk and emo bands today, many of whom Trombino has worked with.

J Robbins

J Robbins

As Trombino fiddled with certain bands’ sounds, J Robbins mostly covered the bases of bringing the bands to the studio. In the case of many J Robbins’ produced albums (most recently, his work on Ponytail’s Ice Cream Spiritual has gotten attention for bringing a notoriously hard-to-record-but-excellent-live band into the world of recorded sound), Robbins leaves much of the musicianship up to the band, but makes sure to twist the production knobs in a way that it gives each group the kind of pop-friendly gloss they were hoping to achieve. Even in the case of Texas Is The Reason (Do You Know Who You Are?), Robbins has been able to flesh out the noise-fetish in order to create approachable pop. In fact, Robbins’ work with one band in particular helped drive emo into the bubblegum chew of pop perfection: The Promise Ring. After TPR were upset with the sonic outcome of their debut, 30 Degrees Everywhere, they turned to Robbins for a little quality control. And that’s exactly what Robbins did, delivering the band’s two poppiest records; Nothing Feels Good and Very Emergency. It’s with Robbins that certain aspects of the emo “sound” manage to stand out, because he managed to make the sounds all stand out; rather than bands being lost in a caterwaul of noise, Robbins’ produced material (from the Dismemberment Plan to Jets to Brazil to Braid to mewithoutyou) sounds clear and conscience, making the band stand out. And in music production, that’s what counts.

Brian Eno and David Byrne – Strange Overtones (fan video):