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Monday, March 29, 2004
Genre confluence.

I've seen an unusual number (for me) of unsigned/local-type bands lately, whether because I was playing with them or seeing them open for some better band or actually going out and seeing a whole show of unsigned bands without personally knowing any of their members (!), and at a certain point it really struck me how similar, despite their superficial genre signifiers, they all were, and in a way I didn't expect. (Regrettably, this point was then passed and I saw yet more bands of this type, which made me want to run to the nearest terminal and make a post here beginning "I AM SO SICK OF INDIE ROCK," but wisely--or not--this did not occur. I had a milkshake instead.) As I say, they would seem to range in styles: one was sort of loud Coldplay-ish britrock with keys and yelling, one was Joy Division-fixated post-punk[1], one was Elvis Costello-y power-trio nerd-rock, one was hardcore-influenced indie stuff with a Sleater-Kinney / Pretty Girls Make Graves vibe, etc., etc. The weird thing is the way they were interpreting these various styles. It was like all of them were taking from their influences, but they were listening through headphones with little filters over the ears labeled "sad."

For the sake of convenience[2], let's call this the emo influence. You can call it whatever you like--borecore, mope-rock, etc.--but there's no denying that a discomfortingly large portion of the music being made today by "the kids" has a very gray undertone, a sort of assumed stance of despair. And not even desperate despair, which is interesting--just kind of, you know, despair. It's the musical mode as much as it is the lyrical. Sure, we're sort of unspecificly yelling about Things Being Bad, but we're also throwing together a lot of muddled chords, indistinct melodies, bleeding basslines, sloppy drums. It hits a certain drone of loudness but doesn't really progress much, and never hits the spots I'm looking for.

Now, I could spend 4000 words critiquing this reflex, and maybe I will at some point, but it also seems reasonably obvious--either it annoys you or it doesn't, and my ranting about it probably isn't going to change anyone's mind much. But what is interesting about it is the phenomenon suggested by the title: the way it's sort of leveling out all these disparate genres into this sort of sad glop, this common sound that ultimately unites seemingly unrelated projects.

The weird thing about it is that it wouldn't seem like an obvious thing to do in the slightest. Look at all the styles I check out above: none of them except for hardcore are even 50% sadness. For every mopey dadrock band to misinterpret Radiohead, you have a wholly joyous song like Idlewild's "Roseability." For every asshole who hasn't gotten over his depressed teenage years and ignores all the dance in Joy Division, you have the innumerable post-punk bands that traded in joy, or at least anger--Blondie, the Talking Heads, the Raincoats, Kid Creole, etc. For every band that can only hear the depression and romantic complaint in Elvis Costello and the smiths, there's a whole pile of songs attesting to their rapture and irreverence. There's no particular requirement of genreic fidelity to love these styles and sing sad songs. (Indeed, one of my great disappointments at dance-punk is its undifferentiated mood of blah, which the Rapture at their best wholly overcome.)

It seems particularly weird when you consider the bands who are supposedly at the root of all the emo-ness in the air right now: Rites of Spring and Weezer. But RoS, like most of the "old-school emo" brethren, were an ecstatic experience, full of unrestrained, passionate emotion; this didn't mean they were good, but it's far more reminiscent of that desperate despair I was talking about earlier. And sure, Weezer has some sad-ish stuff, but so much of it is soooooo happy, and even the sad songs are clear, crisp, and wonderful. "El Scorcho" is seemingly the apotheosis of the modern-emo inspiration, but it's a giddy, screamy mix of confession and grinning guitar, with far more in common with RoS than Dashboard Confessional.

I think partially the key comes in recognizing that a lot of the emo urge right now represents a repressed pop urge in the yoot, an ideologically correct alternative that's really just mopey variations on what's come before in pop, and partially in adding a few more musical requirements to the canon. For one thing, there's the simple fact that hardcore, originally the enemy of emo, gradually enveloped its former nemesis in the hardcore aesthetic of contained aggression. Emo kids today get derided as pussies by already pretty pussified indie kids, but Chris Carrabba isn't any more a threat to masculinity than the Cure or the Smiths, unlike emocore, which wasn't a gesture of tragic romanticism like modern emo, but clutchingly embraced awkwardness and loudness simultaneously, and that loss of self would be way valuable to a lot of today's music audience and makers.

Also, no matter how they want to portray it, no emo kid got their entire musical education from Dischord. There were other things going on in music, too. One has already been tagged as an influence of rap-metal stuff, but I think that given the confluence here between modern interpretations of genres, we need to add it to the inspiration of the indieground: grunge. Grunge was, in its generic form, a celebration of heroiny moping, and that legitimization of self-indulgent self-pity (along with, again, a healthy dose of misinterpretation--if all you can hear in Nirvana is the self-pity, you're missing a lot of pop) is certainly a key influence of the attitude you hear underlying a lot of the music being put out there right now "by the people." (Ahem.)

But and of course, I think along with Weezer and RoS, you have to add as a key specific-band influence to today's sound Radiohead. Their most obvious influence has been on the Brits, who do soaring melodrama well anyway, but I think either Radiohead's attitude or the attitude that leads to Radiohead moving a hell of a lot of units is what's leading so much of this. Radiohead do a lot, and so you can pick and choose, but as much as I see them as fundamentally happy and hopeful, let's be honest, they sure don't come off that way. They take these semi-ambiguous (sometimes melodic and pretty, sometimes dour, sometimes discordant) backings and put a very much grim top-level on it, usually in the form of the vocals. But again, this is largely a misinterpretation: they can get away with it because this is being conveyed with Thom Yorke's voice, which can throw out a whole lot of beauty and hope and transcendence with even the most gray melody and lyrics. Very few people have his voice, but a lot of people are still trying to reproduce the Radiohead effect[3] with a different set of tools and coming out with sort of a bad pastiche of the way they make self-conscious dimwits feel.

But more so than any specific band or genre, I think the root cause of all this is a particular aesthetic assumption and a particular practicality. The assumption is that sadness is more noble than happiness, and more real than anger; something sad is just, to many people's minds, more valid, more artistic, more worthy of attention. I think this is true for a good 75% of the audience for music, and is truly unfortunate for the forward progress of the artform--I understand that it's sort of cyclical and that the attitude is in part a reaction to the smiling, plastic attitude that permeated the music of the late 90s (a time period from which, unsurprisingly, dour bands like the American Music Club and Red House Painters are now being critically extracted), but I still don't like it, and I still think it's gone on too far. I think people could really do interesting things with these influences, and I think people have, but by and large it's just not happening.

The practical reality, of course, is that sad is easier to do than happy. We're still slackers at heart.

[1] To the degree that they seemed to be trying to LOOK like JD, which was icky.
[2] If not accuracy.
[3] Not the Radiohead sound, please note.