The way fads come and go, sometimes it almost seems that the counterintuitive is an indispensable staple of human cognition. For instance, while Bill Clinton was in office, nobody was complaining about his failure to wage war: the economy was great, MTV was playing videos, and the cellular phone was sweeping the nation, uniting us all in a fast-paced bath of cultural sludge. All of a sudden, in 2003, bloodlusting couch potato idles became experts of foreign diplomacy, disparaging the ’90’s democrat for “not doing anything.” This is just what I saw here in northern Indiana, not trying to ascribe it to the whole country.
This phenomenon of the arbitrariness of opinions and images, though, is basically what the movie Hype! is about, the documentary entrenched in ’80’s and ’90’s Seattle, detailing the 180-degree cultural shift that happened there. To a point, the whole thing amounts to people complaining about success, but nevertheless, the message is pertinent if only to illustrate how “fashion sense” is volatile unto itself, and vulnerable to itself, the seemingly randomized turn of culture, like the spinning of a bottle.
Intriguingly, I see gut reactions to music taking such a self-defeating holistic shape, too, though certainly wound with more unimpeachable cognitive inclinations, by and large. A recurring trend in hip-hop is the “futuristic,” whereas provincial folk hipsters go for the retro, from the “Drum machines have no soul” bumper sticker I saw at Altamont Brewery in Asheville, to an autonomous discourse that, simply, prizes things that sound old, even as these things may be new.
One relevant question is: which of these, the old-sounding or the new-sounding, tends more toward emotional integrity? The answer may be a bit up in the air, but I’d slightly favor the new-sounding — the artist or band who has the gumption to morph sounds, to elicit an inspiring breadth and array of samples, simply, to do things nobody has done before. These components are more likely to inspire the esteem of inarguable artistry, because the person who deems a search for the sonically unprecedented worthy, logically, is he who has been driven past his own verbal means, lunging for invention as a means of sustaining coherence.
There is also the phenomenon of a song “sounding familiar,” the way, sadly, Hanson’s “Mmm-Bop” did for me, though it was a little ridiculous too. At a certain point the Slaugherhouse-Five allusion is summoned: the idea of great music fusing past and present, giving to the listener, if not a sense of invincibility, at least of impunity, that any tragedy in this life is surmountable for being undoable, and ultimately small.
Yet this is not exactly what is taking place with an artist like Adele, whose “Rumor Has it” is played on stations along with older songs, and sounds every bit assimilated, aside from also being superior. This brings me to this great song called “How Do I Let a Good Man Down?” by one Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, circa 2004. The guy at work who’d put it on a mix was enthusing thusly: “When would you think this song came out? The ’60’s? The ’70’s? Exactly!”, his point being that retro is good, maybe for said groove’s ability to sound accepted, if you will, warmed by the heart of the “one big song” that has always existed, to quote The Black Crowes.
To the credit of these musical statements that immediately pay their dues on a staggering scale for their simple ability to sound extant, both of which that have been mentioned, as what may be coincidence would have it, fall roughly into what you might call “neo-R&B,” they do actually manage to be different from their contemporaneous kinfolk, since at any given time there’s probably a prevailing shtick that other “artists” follow in order to try to succeed. So for those who claim that everything’s been done, maybe sometimes we just need for someone to do something in a different way, reminding us that we’re all like snowflakes, and can’t be truly held down by the haters flinging logic. So finally this is what the perfection of everything amounts to: indefatigable uniqueness.