The Long Tail and Endless Flattery

In which this reviewer frolics in the used CD bin and reflects on the ambivalent nature of Pop memory

A “wise” algorithmically generated amalgamation of message board users once said, “The Internet never forgets.”  While that is superficially true, it would be more accurate to say that, abetted by the vast semi-organized troves of music and obscure band trivia music nerds have put on the Internet, music nerds never forget.  One of these music nerds is musician Alexis Georgopoulos, AKA Arp.  In 2013, Arp released the very ENO-esque More, a tiny stadium of simple, high-contrast glam outfitted with warm jets galore.  Today, while slowly perusing the used CD bin, I found an earlier Arp opus, the 2007 release In Light.  While I couldn’t help be touched by the faithfulness of his full appropriation of ENOisms on 2013’s More, I was struck on first listen to In Light by his apparent love for ENO collaborators and inspirational source Harmonia, in particular for their 1975 album, DeLuxe.

Oh, Arp, shall I compare thee to a summer’s eve?

51lfYaMZ2bL._SX300_ Harmonia: DeLuxe

Let’s begin our comparison with the names of these records.  Michael Rother, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius’ band Harmonia’s 1975 record’s title, DeLuxe, means “of the light.”  Arp’s 2007 release, In Light means, well, just that.  Harmonia’s original work came from the light, the source of inspiration, and Arp’s record was made by in the light cast by its predecessor.

Arp’s cover art has a certain undeniable, warm similarity to Harmonia’s, which carries the metaphor further.  The cover image of Arp’s 2007 album, by then already far from 1975, is more distant in obvious visual proximity from the source.  Here the reduction in the camera’s proximity to the sun does not reduce the similarity to the subject matter, however; in spite of the drifting, obscuring, amnesiac clouds, the parity of the image’s composition with the timing (further away in time and more obscure) only increases the level of homage.  Less is more.

The content (that hated word) of the record lacks an exact analog to the signature Rother guitar, but, if one is looking, a suitable one can be found in the steady saw-wave buzz that drones on the second track, “Potentialities”, or on the fourth, “Fireflies on the Water”, or opening the fifth, “Premonition of the Sculptor Steiner”.  In fact, the sound on the fourth may even be a guitar.  Even without a guitar, which we know Georgopolous will get to along with vocals on More, the songs all bear an unmistakable resemblance to the spare synthesized rhythm and repetition of the works of Moebius and Roedelius.  The use of a muted, pastel pallet of analog arpeggios and LFO-modulated, watery pads throughout Arp’s In Light hearkens back to Harmonia’s “Kekse”, “Notre Dame”, “Gollum”, or “Walky-Talky”, the less driving 3/4 of the earlier masterpiece.

Momus recently mused whether anyone was talking any longer about originality. In a summation of an earlier survey he had conducted, he states “critics in music and art mags prefer to talk about influences and reference and context.”  This question of originality in conjunction with or in opposition to creativity is very interesting to me, a person raised in the waning, pre-Internet years of the American Monomyth, my brain antiseptically washed squeaky clean in the Superman-iacal ideal of the One who would change All, in spite of the fact that, even then, everyone knew no one could ever come along and be the Beatles again.  The Alphas were out.  Onward to the age of the Alpha/Omegas- the Guns ‘n Roses of the world- the bands that would, at the very same time they finalized the form they embodied, kill it with their perfection.

Now, with the availability of cheap storage, streaming music, and endless, unpaid music journalism, we seem to have entered a Pax Romana of pop culture.  The illusion of an endless swathe of time seems to extend ahead and behind in Western culture in which our trivia, our selves, continued, continues, will continue, and will have continued to make sense.

In reality, Pop music by its nature lacks permanence.  Pop music appears before its intended audience at the time when they will hear it, and it leaves that audience’s consciousness nearly as soon as that moment as passed.  Unless you are a completist, it requires no effort to unearth.  It is apparently omnipresent, and as undemanding of examination as most people’s unexamined lives, lit intermittently  as they are by the strobe of changing fancy.  Like politics, Pop comes and goes and is drowned in the waters of Lethe nearly as quickly as it gains its audience share.

For the completist, however, this is not the case. The Internet needs the completist far more than the completist needs the Internet- for it is the true rock nerd and his narratives who keeps the cobwebs on all that rock obscura (placed there by those same rock nerds or ones like them) at (e-)bay.  It is the completist, obsessed with the human continuity of any cultural form, who saves us from our woefully short memories.  This was true in the past, and it’s especially true now in the age of the Internet, with all that cluster of media forms’ distracting, rapid-fire arguments aimed to cut us off from whence we came.

It is this present environment that makes an artist like Arp so interesting.  The Long Tail means that, for the completist, the archival Pop reference becomes at once a blatant strategy for remembering, for organizing a history, and a form of expression.  If culture appears to have been on a steady course lo these many years, and all that work that composes that history is still available to tap into and compare oneself to, why wouldn’t Pop in some way formalize itself to remember itself?

Another act that comes to mind when considering this question is recently reviewed, Sub Pop-signed His Electro Blue Voice.  With their music they make references to The Pixies, Ministry, and Weezer in addition to their more obscure prog touchpoints.  Pop is an amateur form, and these references are up to thirty years old.  Why shouldn’t they be available to be used as an artist wishes if, as in any amateur form, one must imitate them to learn the temporary laws of genre?  Why should we be surprised to see them here again?  I prize originality, but I fear its illusion more.  A stress on continuity signals  a knowledge of history, something our always-accelerating media has been trying to divest us of since the inception of print.  If reference and derivation means, on some level, the triumph of history, I will revel in the stylistic reference.  It is never reviled among filmmakers.  Why should it be so in the case of musicians who respect their teachers?  The crucial element is, of course, this respect on the artist’s part for the innovation in a prior work, a prior work that is understood by the current artist.  This is what separates hackneyed derivation or kitsch from homage, and it allows for new beginnings, for audiences to connect to the same expanding pool of vetted reference points.  This is the condition in which originality can come into interplay with hagiography and survive.

The most tragic and sobering aspect of Pop is its veiled allusion to death.  Warhol knew this.  Pop is here today, and tomorrow its audience will have moved on, more concerned with making sure they can pay for their kids’ college tuition than with engaging in the romantic fantasies tied up in a night out.  Most serious Pop acts lose their audiences to maturation and the unexamined life, or become entwined in more banal concerns themselves.  Astute readers of Pop forms should appreciate when new acts flatter those masters they came across in record bins, through recommendations, and via RSS feeds with imitation that doesn’t become kitsch.  It is good when audiences can be taken along on an artist’s path of discovery, when they are allowed to follow the curved lines of a human dawning of context, culture, and music while more deeply forming their own.

A final aside on homage will end this post.  As I sat writing this, I listened all the way through another used find, The Album Leaf’s 2001 EP In an Off-White Room.  On the final track, on the far shore of a river of twenty minutes or more of ambient room noise, there is a fantastic cover of the English language version of Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love.”  Michael Rother of Harmonia and NEU! was briefly a member of Kraftwerk in an early incarnation of that band.  It’s hard to call it serendipity when everything is just so connected.

Atom™: HD

Atom™ this week Monday released HD on indefatigably experimental electronic label Raster-Noton.  It’s a 9-track, 40-minute guided meditation on the state of pop music, climaxing with the “Komputerwelt” homage track “Stop (Imperialist Pop)”.  The vapidity and globally enforced sameness of commercialized pop media is the theme the record drives at, so as this RA reviewer so rightly observed, there is obvious irony in the fact that HD was released on the same day as the latest Justin Timberlake soporific. Among other sameness over substance acts name-checked on that track (with the demand they “give us a fucking break”), Timberlake carries the honor of being the name that makes the line rhyme.  It is also ironic that this song’s obvious debt to Kraftwerk seems to indicate that the artist is under the yoke of another irresistible influence even as he decries commercial pop culture’s hegemony.

Third track “I Love U (Like I Love my Drum Machine)” features experimental electronic R&B crooner Jamie Lidell, a performer whose profession consists of recontextualizing a R&B mainstream pop thematically and sonically into the experimental and the underground. (Have a look at his video for “The City” wherein he has a shave outside a liquor store with a pink razor for an example of what I mean. Watching this again, with those brightly colored bottles hovering behind him and the pink ladies’ razor skimming across his face (we must keep up appearances!) I think, what a catchy little critique of urban alienation and domination by consumer kitsch!)  The absolute genius of “I Love U” is revealed as it progresses toward a sample of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech:

“In the words of Martin Luther… (begin sample) I have a dream… (end sample) Now listen to my drum computer.”

By reducing the whole substance of this anti-war and human rights activist’s magnum opus speech to a sound bite before a command to check out how cool he is, this track masterfully exposes exactly what pop does best.  It effects a pleasant, Warhol-esque emptying of meanings wherein the surface, in its vaguest recognizability, is king.  This is the primary theme of tracks “Empty” and “Riding the Void”.  (This idea should go some ways toward explaining the popularity of Girl Talk a few years back, if you’ll pardon the digression.)  The assertion being made is that, in the context of a pop song such as this, there may as well have never been a King or a context in which he originated his speech.  We should also mention that Dr. King is ambiguously, if not erroneously name-checked… Martin Luther wrote the 95 theses that started the protestant reformation.  Martin Luther King gave the “I have a dream” speech. Perhaps this ambivalence is deliberate- after all, if we accept that this record serves as a protest of the hegemony of vapid pop written in the language of vapid pop, then it can’t be a stretch to imagine that Atom™ is, as Martin Luther did in Latin, nailing up his theses in the language of the church.