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Monday, January 05, 2004
Man, there's nothing better than a music critic missing the actual music criticism in an actual piece of music:

Is James Murphy the best music critic working these days? Via his LCD Soundsystem project, he hit the target square on with the 2002 single "Losing My Edge"/"Beat Connection", the A-side sending up the name-droppers and file-compilers while the B-side righteously lambasted the indie scene as "the saddest night out in the USA." But these tough-love tracks didn't declare a dead end for indie, instead offering a way out, infusing the snark with electro beats and announcing the arrival of (no, we don't have a better name yet) discopunk.

So, a year and a half on from that manifesto, here comes "Yeah", a sort of "Where are they now?" revisitation of the mission statement LCD Soundsystem laid out in '02. The results, according to Prof. Murphy: "Everybody keeps on talking about it/ Nobody's getting it done." Perfect, as in the interim the discopunk explosion has packed all the wallop of a snap pop, The Rapture letting their momentum erode in pursuit of the fattest contract possible, !!! taking so long to record their second LP you'd think Axl Rose was producing, and Liars letting their groove leave the band with their bassist. "Everybody keeps on listening in, nobody's listening up." Damn straight; the scene's built up around a hollow core, packs of kids ready to dance because that's what they've been told, reciting "yeah, yeah, yeah" in a zombie chorus to an empty stage.


The track manages to shoot its warning message across indie's bow without any lyrics: We're laying down the foundation, will somebody please come and give us some competition? Murphy and Goldsworthy can't do it all alone, people. If writing about music is like dancing to architecture, what does that make dancing to writing about music?

It makes it dancing, you jackass.

Look, you can't come in at the end of an essay about a song and say that the song makes a particular point without using lyrics when the only evidence you've used to elucidate said point is quotes from the song's lyrics. The lyrics themselves are easily inconsequential--someone in the blogosphere said that it's the first LCD Soundsystem track they could love without understanding a word of the lyrics, and while I'd disagree with that ("Tribulations"[1] is much better without the lyrics to my ears), it's safe to say that the words themselves are far less vital to the song, both in terms of meaning and enjoyment. You can interpret them as a criticism of the scene Murphy's work has spawned, and while, yes, that's clearly one meaning he intends to suggest, it's hardly the narrative being told (the "master narrative" if we're gonna get nerdalicious), because it's far too specific a tale for what the song is doing. The main narrative is specifically pop (the one Rob's suggesting is more, I dunno, hip-hop) because the words and feelings are universal enough, or vague enough, to appeal to almost any consumer of pop music, the trick that I'm told is the key to any successful pop song.[2] The lyrics could be just as easily interpreted as a complaint by a corporate middle manager about his slacking underlings, or a complaint by a bandleader about his own band members, or a depressive monologue about the hopelessness of trying to achieve anything of consequence in an essentially meaningless world. It's all of these things and none of these things because it lacks a framing device or overriding narrative thread (or even a common theme aside from "things aren't as good as they could be") and lacks a character aside from what you can gleam from the speaker's vocabulary. I hear a stray "I" here and there, but it's certainly lacking the strong first-person perspective of "Losing My Edge," and there's no reason to assume that Murphy is the speaker, an assumption that would certainly eliminate some of the possible plots but an assumption we really can't make based on the available evidence. Nor is there the specific physical setting of a song like "Beat Connection," which is clearly narrated by someone at a party, whereas "Yeah" is just a series of free-floating assertions without any particular perspective. Which is OK, but certainly not what Rob's suggesting.

More importantly than the lyrics, though: yes, the main point is being made non-lyrically, but there's nothing really done here to explain how exactly that's coming to pass aside from a half-hearted, unspecific riff on the idea that a long, gradually mutating track represents an affinity with jambands, a theory which suggests that Rob's never heard a 12" remix before. (Or a jamband, for that matter.) There are certainly very interesting things this track is saying musically, but regrettably I'm going to have to leave most of my take on that for another post, which I've been planning on doing for a while now.

The big problem, though, is that Rob gets the point wrong, a fact which is amply illustrated by that dumb final question. What's dancing to music criticism? It's just like any other dancing, and as a matter of fact almost all dancing constitutes dancing to music criticism, because almost all music is music criticism in one way or another. The idea that musicians are unaware of their art is a fantasy critics maintain to preserve their self-worth, but there are numerous songwriters and producers whose compositions place them in the upper echelons of critics if we were to regard them that way, and almost every songwriter is commenting on music at least at the level of a college newspaper's music reviewer. The reason Rob doesn't seem to be able to articulate exactly how the music constitutes criticism is that I think he's stuck, maybe only momentarily, in the idea of criticism as something critical, something that takes a yes-or-no stance on a piece of art, rather than something that extends or comments non-judgmentally on ideas proposed in other pieces of art. That consumer guide function is only a small part of what makes up criticism. It's an important part, certainly, and the most visible one, but it's one undertaken deliberately from the perspective of an outsider for other outsiders, the words of someone who can't change what he's receiving and so has to decide whether or not the unchangeable finished product is worth consuming. But this is about as far away from Murphy as you can get: not only can he change his own music based on his critical opinions and observations, but he can remix other people's music and actually effect the changes a critic might want to make on a track. He's as far from an outsider observer as you can get. So yes, "Yeah" says, as pretty much every LCD Soundsystem track has said, that people shouldn't be so afraid of combining rock and electronic, of making electronic music live and placing rock into the whole variety of available electronic song forms. But it also says that there were a lot of similarities between acid house and mutant disco. It says that the detuning of synths that, in part, makes trance tracks sound so driving and energetic can also sound great in a more lo-fi context. It says that handclaps sound great recorded in a freight elevator.

What it doesn't say is what Rob's implying: that "nobody's getting it done" except James Murphy. Instead, "Yeah" says that nobody's getting it done, up to and including Mr. Murphy, because music is never done, never finished, and it's that continual comment and incorporation and melding and reinvention and rediscovery that fuels music and makes it so damn enjoyable. If music will never be perfect, it shouldn't be, and if there's a message in that five-minute ecstatic build-and-release, it's that the process of seeking the perfect beat is what leads us to all those wonderful imperfect ones. I mean, there's two version of the damn song! How inauthoritative can you be? How can this be "getting it done" if even LCD Soundsystem themselves offer two separate attempts at it?

All I'm saying is that critics seem a little over-reliant on lyrical analysis and oppositional stances to explore music. But there are many other ways to look at a song and think about a song and hear a song. For one thing, there's the music. Maybe we could start there.

[1] I realized last week that the title of any LCD Soundsytem song is precisely the word or phrase used the most in said song, unless I'm misremembering one track or another.
[2] As my dad likes to quote, "This trick I don't know."