clap clap blog: we have moved

Wednesday, May 04, 2005
(This is the follow-up.)

Part of the modernist project, as I understand it, was to make art that reflected the new world, especially the cities, and by and large, they succeeded, from music that included industrial elements such as klaxons and drills to more abstract expressions of the urban landscape in bop and minimalism. Many of these elements can be found in present-day popular music, but although some of these genres are commonly grouped together in the quasi-racist category "urban," they don't really sound like urban music.

What they sound like is dark and indoors, but although these two descriptors would be most closely associated with the metropolis, this is an inaccurate understanding: what makes cities are their size and density, their people and their buildings. Modernist music accurately reflected the feel of cities because they conveyed the feel of cities outdoors, of the great crush of bodies and machines, of anonymous speed, of individuals massed until they lost their humanity.[1]

This is the feeling I got from the Dirty Projectors, and from Sufjan Stevens. The Getty Address sounded best when I was going over the Manhattan Bridge, looking out at the water bound by tall buildings and covered by another massive bridge with hundreds of cars sliding across, every eye in every window sending forth a simple message of their own existence aggregated into a statement of scope. I fell in love with Greetings From Michigan on my first listen, taking the train from Brooklyn to Times Square and walking through that peculiar crossroads with Stevens' music injected straight into my ears, its presumed descriptions of northern country wastes, snowy and barren, sounding best among millions illuminated by advertising and culture and enveloping evidence of our own particular place on Earth. When I pressed stop, I was wonderfully sad. You could say it was Detroit being portrayed here, New York's dull deserted shadow, but it was the music itself, inherited from modernism (Reich, Brubeck, etc.) that so closely mirrored the uncontrolled visual accompaniment to my listening experience, and it sounded equally good a few months later, sitting by the west side highway, watching Chelsea joggers chug along and the sun hesitantly approach Jersey's juvenile skyline. And it worked for a simple reason: the people seemed to be moving not to its beat but to its melodies, and the sightlines seemed to be arranging themselves in parallel harmonies to those in the songs.

This is all to say that modernist music succeeding in sounding like cities because it reflected the unfathomable size and speed, the sense that, no matter what you were seeing, there were a hundred thousand other things to see just in your immediate vicinity; there were amazing things going on that you would always miss, no matter what you do, because they are going by too fast. They conveyed the feeling of stepping out from your apartment or office straight into the breathtaking press of activity of Manhattan.

But this feeling was in short supply in popular music after the 50's, because something changed in the 50's: all of a sudden, the main locus of activity was the suburbs, not just the upper-class suburbs of before, but suburbs for everyone, even if at first that meant "white people." And, accordingly to its status as "popular" lining up with the suburbs' status as same, music following the growth of the suburbs was itself suburban, which is to say decentered, massively portable, and contained. None of these are necessarily bad things. But Elvis was, after all, a country boy, garage rock explicitly implied suburban housing, and the most urban punks of them all, the Ramones, were technically suburban kids--what up, Rock-Rock-Rockaway--a poor suburb, sure, but suburban nevertheless.

As for "urban music," it's really club music, and despite their association with an urban setting, a club can be located anywhere[2]; what's important is what's inside. The sound of music outside a club is muffled, distant--unreal. Popular music today is explicitly designed to be contained, to be bounced off some far wall. The most urban of urban musics, hip-hop, if not meant for a club, is meant for a car, a portable, personal club, four walls you can move along with you, a suburban room traveling through a city.

This is no accident--as I say above, suburban music is popular because most people are suburban, or want to be in one way or another, and the music's particular portability and decenteredness is appealing to almost everyone. You can create a suburban room within a city, but you can't drop midtown into the suburbs. Whereas modernism sought to translate the feel of a new world, which ended up being a particular time and place, suburban music aspires to be universal, and has strangely succeeded in that aim, given the worldwide presence of rock, hip-hop, and dance[3].

Now, longtime readers know where my sympathies lie--I'm all in favor of decentered music that can sound good anywhere, especially as opposed to music that you can, supposedly, "only get it if you were there, man," so I'm certainly not suggesting that the above scenario is a problem, nor to I mean to denigrate the musics at hand by calling them suburban. (I like the suburbs.) But, aside from the fact that suburban is what they are, I am interested in other people making city music in the same sense the modernists did. What would it sound like? How could you represent the feel of a modern city? Are they so suffused by the erstwhile urban music that it's impossible to imagine a metropolis without hearing beats and bass? Or are there little oases where something different might emerge?

[1] In contrast, today's music seems more interested in reducing individuals to a generalized ideal listener. Modernist music wanted to address everyone at the same time, modern music wants to address everyone as if they were the same person.
[2] Like, say, a backwoods discotheque...
[3] Also, as Dave Q suggests in this piece, dance can be made alone while wearing headphones, as opposed to the practical limitations of a rock band. Once you have the equipment, the only further requirement to make electronic music is an outlet, whereas other genres require an isolated or insulated room, other people, understanding neighbors, etc.