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Monday, February 16, 2004
Earlier tonight I was listening to Eminem's "Without Me" and folks were talking about how they like Eminem, and the bit comes on when he sings the Batman theme, which I've always been pleased to note he actually gave up a percentage of the publishing for doing, and I thought about it for a second--the idea of sampling a bit of familiar music by singing it instead of playing back a previously-recorded version of it. It's far from original with Eminem, of course, and while it works--especially when he places it in that particular symbolic/referential context, which is one of the things he's best at--it is, in its way, the hip-hop equivalent of an ocarina solo, or having a key change in the last chorus, or any old pop song arrangement technique. (To say nothing of its roots in "quoting" other songs in the midst of jazz solos, but let's not give him too much credit.) To my ears, its content references so overwhelm its technique references that you really only think of the Batman theme when you hear it, not previous vocal samplers. But I think it's not just that it's OK that the technique isn't original with him, I think it's actually better.

And this made me sort of realize something about my musical temperment: what's good to me about someone coming up with a new sound or technique or instrument or idea isn't the new thing itself--this intrigues me, but rarely excites me. What's exciting is the thought that in a while people will figure out how to use it so well that they can combine it with all the old things to make more great songs. In other words, I'm not excited about something simply because it's new, I'm excited about it because it'll one day be good, and I don't stop being interested when it stops being new--indeed, I think I get more interested.

In a way, it makes sense that I would come upon this line of thinking when dealing with hip-hop. After all, that seems like the place where it's most obvious how much development of something new can do for the quality of the thing. As many great things as there were about old-school hip-hop, I think you can't deny that MC'ing today is just far, far superior to MC'ing 20 years ago, to say nothing of production. Hip-hop was great, but what was really great was that it put all these additional things into play that you could use in a song. I think it's rare that an idea really is best soon after its inception; if this is the case, it's either a dud/overused genre/idea, or what follows is simply less good imitations. Now, there are some people whose musical values say that this is the case with almost every new musical idea, that it all becomes either overused or badly imitated. And I'll reconize that this is a legitimate, albeit annoying, stance. For instance, I'm currently listening to This Moment In Black History[1], about whom many people have taken this particular stance. I guess they sound new. Not to me, but to some people. (Or maybe they sound like another iteration of a far-from-tapped idea? Hmm.) And so this is good.

But for me, I think that it takes a long time to milk all the utility from a musical trope, and so what really excites me about the new is seeing where it goes, seeing what people will do with it. And so I'm actually more bored when it's new when it's not.

[1] Who have a song called "The Last Unicorn." What the fuck is it with these heavy bands and all the unicorn imagery lately? I mean, Lightning Bolt, Neon Hunk, Friends, well maybe it's just a Load thing.