Everyone’s 2013 was different. Yes, this would appear to be an incredibly obvious statement to make, but it’s not meant as a patronizing allusion to subjectivity and the tendency of individuals to perceive the same object divergently. No, it was intended as a denial, namely of the idea that there was a “same object” that we could all mutually gawp at and consume as one happy global family. That’s right, the implication here is that there wasn’t a or the 2013, but rather a multitude of them, a macrocosm of rivals and counterparts that all confusingly went by the same numeral.
This assertion probably sounds either crazy or just plain stupid, so before someone gets institutionalized, it might be helpful to elaborate. The key here is that, in an increasingly digitized, computerized, and archived world, people (by which is specifically meant musicians) have an ever-growing access to past social and cultural artifacts. Because of the internet and its seemingly inexorable co-optation of everything we’ve ever done, artists can now selectively retrieve and experience a plethora of age-old music, films, and books to a greater extent than ever before, with the consequence being that they’ve come to piece together their own highly personal and idiosyncratic timeline of influences, and that their (sense of) history has almost drastically splintered away from everyone else’s. And because a year is — at least in part — defined and constituted by its position within a sequence, by the years that preceded it and brought it into being by transforming into it, one musician’s 2013 was therefore fundamentally different on a conceptual level from another’s, since each was in essence a temporal construct derived from antecedents not shared by others.
Which means that any attempt to pinpoint the year in music, to reduce it to any one theme or trend is severely undermined from the beginning. As remarked many, many times in the past here and elsewhere, genres, subgenres, and microgenres are now so multifarious that it’s becoming frustratingly difficult to uncover traits they all share in common, and ergo it’s becoming ever unlikely that one of us will summarize a whole year in a nice, pithy sentence or two. This may be a vague source of dejection for someone craving an indication of where “music” is going, but before this overview gets way too abstract for its own good, the topic of accelerating historical personalization does point toward one phenomena that infiltrated a significant portion of 2013’s output. To be more precise, this was the appropriation of the past, that is, the often overt and unashamed usage of material written and recorded many years ago, a practice no doubt aided by the information explosion invoked above. Some of this expropriation was subtle to the point of being nearly intangible (e.g. Bill Orcutt’s excellent A History of Every One), while some of it was so unsubtle that, somewhat paradoxically, it was no less intangible as far as deciphering its intent and significance was concerned (e.g. LAMPGOD & **Ł_RD//$M$’s **$EXT8PE).
But whatever the precise degree of transparency, this practice of more or less explicitly lifting aging material reached a new excess in 2013, and it’s something that warrants further analysis, because it is, at one and the same time, a method by which musicians are attempting to renegotiate and re-establish their connection to a fragmented past, and one of the main reasons why this past is already so fractured, why their aggregated history has been dissected into an innumerable set of estranged, unrelated narratives.
Against this observation, it might be regurgitated that artists have always been extracting past tropes and reworking them to resonate with their present, and it could even be argued that art itself embodies nothing if not an elaborate attempt to transform history and biography into something more positive, edifying, or salutary, into the Hegelian transcendence of itself. Moreover, concerted, even politicized appropriationism has roots delving at least as deep as the early 20th century. For example, in 1906 the Hungarians Bela Bartók and Zoltán Kodály began their first forays into ethnomusicology, compiling the Slovakian, Romanian, and Hungarian folk songs they would later blend with a strain of modernism inspired by such pioneers as Schoenberg and Debussy (who himself had siphoned elements of Indonesian gamelan into his “own” works). Classical music would continue to break ground for annexation well into the 50s and 60s, with the emergence of magnetic tape and its scope for manipulation falling into the grubby hands of John Cage, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich, to name only a few. Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain (1965) looped and consequently mangled a street preacher’s agitated barking of its titular phrase with much the same lack of restraint that clipping. would later show toward their “Get money” in this year’s “Outro,” a parallel that would seem to imply that even appropriation itself has been appropriated by a new generation.
So, clearly the basic technique of reusing and reinterpreting the already-recorded is nothing new, and it has been utilized in pretty much every decade up to the present day (as seen with the development of hip-hop in the late 70s and 80s, and with, say, Negativland’s infamous 1991 EP U2, which ridiculed and tortured “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” to lawsuit-provoking heights). But in 2013, its deployment attained its own particular character, with a more than incremental differentiation in how certain performers incorporated their inspirations, influences, and source material into their compositions. Whereas the tactful, possibly deferential approach of yesteryears had bands and producers largely employing the groundwork of their forebears with subtlety, the likes of Dean Blunt, SAINT PEPSI, D/P/I, or LAMPGOD & **L_RD//$M$ are much more barefaced and indelicate, and yet somehow they generally come across as much less derivative than many acts who sink no further than using a pre-existing style (rather than ripping entire melodies, phrases, or vocals) as a point of departure for their own “original” work. And in contradistinction to 2012 and 2011, when vaporwave drafted anonymous muzak and consumer jingles into its antiseptic collages, 2013 was marked by those who were hard-boiled enough to requisition the already well-known and famous.
“A good composer does not imitate, he steals.”
– Igor Stravinsky
Or rather, the difference between this passing year and its immediate predecessors is that, while the latter invested the obscure and therefore pretty much meaningless with a peculiarly vitalizing significance, the former hafted a new meaning onto what was — insofar as it was already part of some musically-focused collective consciousness — already meaningful. This implies that when Dean Blunt pilfered the Spring Round Dances from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and built “Six” around it, he didn’t simply make use of orchestration that would best evoke a certain austerity, but also transplanted the score into a novel context, transfigured its connotations, and therefore irreversibly augmented or even sullied its meaning for those who may have known it in a “purer” or less mediated form. It’s for this very reason that the whole phenomenon should be called appropriation — not so much because it’s the theft of a composer’s or songwriter’s intellectual property, but because it’s the “theft” (or recalibration) of a song’s very resonance and import, because it potentially deprives others of the particular value they once gleaned from a piece of music. And this denial and frustration of semantics is a much more radical form of larceny than its simpler cousin, because whereas plagiarism can be rectified by the simple reattribution of credit and profits, the subtle or not-so subtle mutation of your relation to a work, or alternatively the mutation of its sense and reference, is much more stubborn in its resistance to correction.
From Dean Blunt’s Brixton 28s show at Hackney’s SPACE gallery
And for someone who isn’t a DJ or producer, Dean Blunt seemed to be engaging in this breed of kleptomania an awful lot this year, although we can only speculate as to the conscious or subconscious motivations. Without trying to be exhaustive, both The Redeemer and Stone Island featured recasts and re-situations of the likes of “All My Life” by K-Ci & JoJo (“I Run New York”), “Victory” by Puff Daddy and “Oh Daddy” by Fleetwood Mac (“The Redeemer,” which also borrows the “Wake up, wake up” riff from Bobby Womack’s “Get A Life”), and also Kate Bush’s “Sat in Your Lap” (“Demon”). It’s therefore pretty safe to say that arrogation — at least this year — is one of the defining and essential characteristics of Blunt’s work, but the question remains as to why. Perhaps it’s simply a brash foregrounding of intertextuality, of the fact that the significance of an album or song will be as much determined by the works that preceded it — as well as other extrinsic factors — as it will by its own intrinsic form, to such an extent that these works become indissoluble from that very same form. This claim has something going for it, and surely it will become more relevant with every passing year and every new welter of artists that gets added to those memory banks that ultimately decide on an emerging musician’s identity. Yet things may be sinking deeper with Blunt, in that his miniature heists — insofar as they center around episodes of his own life — could be regarded as a postmodern nod to how information overload and the unrelenting pervasiveness of culture often dictate that he can’t conceptualize and even pursue that life except through the prisms of the music, cinema, television, literature, and social media that now jostle themselves into so many of his waking moments. Hence, the music that speaks his life comes pre-threaded with the abovementioned samples, since that life may — in certain extreme cases — be little more than a secondary phenomenon of the latter.
“We thought sampling was just another way of arranging sounds.”
– Chuck D
From here, it’s a single step to the view that Blunt’s anachronistic appropriations are veiled acts of revenge, a mirrored retaliation for music and art having already appropriated him and his consciousness. Maybe, but before this becomes one long disquisition on the apparently inexhaustible symbolism of Dean Blunt’s 2013, it might be better to develop this train of thought in new company. To this end, another creative who similarly underscored how far you can distort and disfigure the supposedly entrenched meanings of received culture was Alex Koenig, a.k.a. Nmesh, who with his Nu.wav Hallucinations (April) not only extended the metamorphic, defamiliarizing treatment to “Back to Life” (Soul II Soul), “Can’t Let Go” (Mariah Carey) and “Two Tribes,” but also highlighted the extent to which the year’s growth of an appropriative ethos is in many cases simply a logical extension of vaporwave into more popular domains, an extension that from one perspective is a cultivation of the ideas that were outlined by the Eccojams of Chuck Person (a.k.a. Daniel Lopatin) in 2010 but circumvented by the ‘wave anti-auteurs of 2011 and 2012.
Relocated from the kitsch, esoteric, and unfashionable, this new focus is in many ways more provocative, since by moving from the forgotten to the celebrated, it essentially equates the variably sacred cows of rock and pop with the invariably profane rats of muzak et al., with insubstantial and ephemeral silage forged purely to generate short-term profit, numb critical thinking, and therefore dislocate people from their world. And this brusque extraction and exploitation of such cows by Nu.wav Hallucinations is perhaps intended to emphasize how easily they can be diluted and lowered to the same level as disposable fluff, and therefore how lacking they are in an entrenched “meaning,” in a stable essence or substrate that might have prevented them from ever being reconstituted so disconcertingly.