Monday, February 7, 2011

More music.

I've got music on the brain once again this week, convenient for the subject matter I suppose, but doubtlessly due to a much-anticipated show I'll be attending this weekend. Alas, I must once again be subservient to my "demons," if you will, which also happens to be the title of a crushing song I'll probably hear on Saturday.

"Demons." It's a song about demons.

Do forgive the gentleman at the beginning. He has demons.

Jessy, Adam, and Kathy respectively inquire into whether any contemporary art can actually be original, the impact of authorship on/with widespread dissemination, and the effect of profit margins on media outlets on/with the maintenance of the status quo. Adam made a good point when he showed us the similarity between "Louie Louie" and the subsequent chart-topppers utilizing the exact same chord progression. Kelynne's post last week also clearly relates well. While it might be a stretch to suggest that Nirvana listened to "Louie Louie" and then thought it'd be a brilliant idea to put it into a grunge song might be a stretch, grunge itself came from another genre, which came from another genre, which might have been inspired by a particular band or artist, who had written a particular song also using the "Louie Louie" chord progression, who was inspired by it after it was popularized by rock n' roll cover artists, who obviously appreciated Richard Berry's original. In other words, the inspiration probably wasn't so much the original, but the canonization of the original through time, context, and market forces, suggesting that the style was so "effective" that it could be reproduced time and time again with success. No one did so deliberately, but the cumulative effect is the same.

In speaking of the music industry, however, I feel that we often casually glance askance at music which, by most measures, cannot be qualified by what have become industry standards or mainstays. The aforementioned chord progression is a good example, as is the incessant verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure of most radio play.

What better way to extend the conversation than everyone's favorite non-marketable subgenre of music, death metal?

It seems as though we're caught in a perpetual cycle whereby whatever predominates in the status quo might as well define the oppositional genres which emerge out of them. For example, Rigor Mortis became popular in the metal underground towards the mid- to late-1980s largely because they played way faster than a.) all the other underground bands, and b.) whatever single was on the radio. That level of proficiency was rare in the underground back then, and a popular myth is that Metallica once reached out to Rigor Mortis to co-headline a tour but canceled the entire thing after Kirk Hammett went to a Rigor Mortis show and realized that he couldn't play anywhere near as fast as Mike Scaccia. Metallica exploded, Rigor Mortis stayed in smoky clubs.

Slayer came next. Where most other metal bands worked within conventional structure, especially with the explosion of glam bands like Guns n' Roses, Poison, Cinderella and the like, Slayer took all of the speed and complexity of Rigor Mortis and did away with their structure entirely (watch "Demons," it's essentially verse-chorus-verse), packaging it into song progressions that were more reminiscent of classical music than the confines of pop. Notice the lack of this formula in one of their more famous songs, which was once on an episode of South Park:

This firmly characterized the development of death metal in 1987 when the band Death, from whom the entire genre took its name, released "Scream Bloody Gore," characterized by what we now know as "the death growl" and even more pronounced technical complexity. The genre has ebbed and flowed to various degrees since then, but it continues to take roots in an outright rejection of that which is marketable. A personal favorite is Nile, an ancient Egypt-themed death metal band formed by an actual Egyptologist.

That's not even the whole song; it's cut short by a minute. You'll never hear a 12-minute song on the radio, let alone one that sounds like a Nile song.

The genre is extremely broad as a result of its various underpinnings. Contrast Nile to Opeth, whom most consider to be a "progressive" band in the molding of Rush, Radiohead, and Dream Theatre but with death metal elements:

In the 2000s, in particular, newer bands are shifting even further away from conventional form and structure towards what most are calling "post-metal." The label is a source of contention.

In returning to my original premise, though, my argument is that, yes, art can be "original" within contemporary context, but it depends heavily on what happens to be popular at the time, and what is popular is strongly encouraged by that which is marketable and accessible. I believe this answers all three questions at once. Death metal and its various derivatives have maintained their following over the years because of its emphasis on artistic merits which differ from those in the mainstream, and its sheer breadth is indicative of this; if you think about it, popular music is remarkably narrow-minded. I agree with Horkheimer when he states, "The truth of ideas is demonstrated not when they are held fast but when they are driven further" (p. 164). This is not to suggest that there is no merit in the popular, but that most of what expands the boundaries of the art form has recently tended to occur and thrive outside the boundaries of a profit margin.

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