The Triumph of Art Rock
I did a benefit show Sunday night for the Red Hot organization at Radio City. I joined Bon Iver, Dirty Projectors, Feist, My Brightest Diamond, The National, Dave Sitek and Sharon Jones, and it went extremely well. The concert revolved around a double record, Dark Was The Night, which features those artists plus Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire, Yeasayer and a bunch more. I did two songs live with Dirty Projectors, and duets with Feist and Bon Iver — I was pretty thrilled. St. Vincent, TV on the Radio and Lavender Diamond were hovering around as well.
There’s a lot going on musically right now. It’s an exciting time. Other than Sharon Jones’ soul music and some of the other artists’ folk leanings, the overall tendency amongst this group seems to be a kind of potpourri of art rock. I mean that in a good way — it’s art in that pop music is taken, assumed even, to be a serious and open form; a genre that admits a wide variety of approaches and instruments; and a musical form that is equal in depth and emotion to anything else out there. That’s a really different approach than what might be called traditional rock or pop, which can be extremely dogmatic — not to mention disposable — with prescribed instrumentation, tempos and subjects. There’s a sense of seriousness about this crop of artists — serious play, but still serious.
Besides their dedication to their art, most are successful — but one senses that fame wasn’t their primary engine for choosing a career in music. There was no hierarchy in this group — everyone was treated as an equal, and participated with everyone else where they could. Many were already acquaintances or friends. Times have changed. No one was drunk, on drugs or two hours late for rehearsal. There was no “rock star” behavior. That could sound boring — but such rebellious, clichéd behavior hasn’t always guaranteed good music. When great music would surface from a personal or professional mess, it often seemed like a rare but happy accident, unlikely to be repeated.
Maybe it’s the headiness of being surrounded by so many creative folks, but it seems that popular music — some of it anyway — might be going through one of its periodic peaks. It also seems that rock music, or some sizable branch of it, has evolved from being a throwaway piece of merchandise for teens to a respectable art form. The transformation, made in fits and starts over many decades, seems more or less complete.
Hit factories and Scandinavian songwriters churn out chart-toppers — some of which I love — but that kind of pop music stays within fairly proscribed boundaries, while this other stuff — though not as slick or polished — ranges all over the place.
I’m somewhat fascinated by the factory approach. Terius Nash and Christopher Stewart wrote most of “Umbrella” — a song many of us can’t resist. Nash was interviewed in the New Yorker, saying, “I usually don’t do second verses… I just do the first verse and do the hook.” (On that song he made an exception.) [Link to article] Doesn’t do second verses! Wooo. From a certain standpoint, he’s right. If you haven’t got the listener by the first verse and chorus/hook you might as well quit, because the regular pop fan won’t even make it to the second verse. And once you have the listener hooked, you can say pretty much any old thing in the second verse as long as it fits melodically and metrically.
It’s a different approach — an intensely detailed way of making music — though in some ways it’s less like music than some kind of sonic mind fuck. It’s polished to an inhuman sheen — and when it works, the machines win hands down. I have friends who just do beats — a seductive beat with the right sounds can go halfway to sucking in a listener. I’ve heard that Missy Elliot used to audition beats, though her run with Timbaland was hard to top.