Music is a minefield, a battleground. From tritones to heavy metal, from “Hound Dog” to “Cop Killer,” from essentially any historical point and any ethnographic perspective, there has been some debate taking place, an argument to make, or an accusation against which to defend. Criticism, at its purest, is not a discussion of a singular quality, but of a wider, interconnected range of qualities. All opinions are subjective, but those that engage on a theoretical level are often more influential than those that approach art plainly, on a scale of sub-par to superlative. Of course, by the time you have read this, you’ve surely noted the numerical score posted above. Debate, like culture, is fluid and often contradictory, but also open to dissonance and complication.
As of late (as well as around these parts), critics have been mulling over the hypothesis of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, which, in short, claims that modern pop is stuck in a ouroborian loop, gorging on nostalgia for itself, regurgitating old ideas and themes, and then swallowing them back down again. This is an Alexandrian lamentation, tears spilled over the realization that there are no more worlds left to conquer — or perhaps more precisely, that there is no further curiosity for the charting of unexplored territory. Reynolds, a punk at heart, is motivated by disappointment at this perceived complacency, rather than by the myopic, ethnocentrism of those who have prematurely declared our arrival at some post-historical era. He is a far more accomplished critic than I, so far be it from me to pithily dismiss his ideas. They are, at the very least, worthy of consideration.
But there is an alternative perspective to this issue. David Byrne, in his latest book, makes the seemingly obvious argument that music is directly influenced by both technological and cultural changes, and as such, is always changing. The way music is produced, the way it is consumed, and the culture within which it is birthed — all of these factors influence how the music itself sounds. It is perhaps a simplistic reduction of a more complex idea, but at least to me, there is something reassuring and wise in the recognition that history follows patterns, that we can look to the past for context on the present and future, even as we blindly march into the unknown.
If you are still reading this, then I thank you for your patience. This is a review of a record and not some undergraduate essay, but please bear with me; I will get there soon. But before I talk about Autre Ne Veut, before I attempt to justify that aforementioned score, let me offer one more piece of context.
Earlier this month, Grimes, another exciting and divisive pop artist who straddles the boundary between experimentality and mainstream pop convention, posted a series of notes to her Tumblr, before deleting most of its contents:
“I don’t see why we have to hate something just because it’s successful, or assume that because it is successful it has no substance.”
“I’m tired of people telling me I’m ignorant for liking pop and hip hop, because I’m not.”
“I know very few adult males who consider themselves serious ‘music guys’ who don’t laugh when I say I like Mariah carey [sic].”
Grimes, who once (facetiously?) described the genre of her music as “post-internet,” announced her discomfort with the progress of her digital life, in an attempt to justify the purge to come. “i guess i just grew up on the internet and the internet is where i do things. its been intense to become a part of the content on the internet rather than just a passive observer.” These feelings are certainly understandable from an outsider’s perspective, but they also add further resonance to the discussion over qualities and merits of pop music, a discussion that for many artists, Autre Ne Veut included, occurs within and is expressed through the art they create. What to Reynolds seems a repetition is to others a vital matter, not only a semiotic deconstruction of influences and styles, but a radical act of recontextualization, an attempt to prove that meaning can be found or created in any text, in any language. The culture in which this art is created is different than the cultures of the past. New music might sound unduly indebted to an older tradition, but when considered from a different angle, it can be heard as something altogether different, something new.
Those who admonished Grimes for her mainstream (read: plebeian) tastes did not necessarily intend to spark feminist debate, but it was foolish of them to think that they could dismiss popular music without also diminishing the perspectives such music represents or the meanings contained within it. Grimes, on her most recent album, featured a song melismatically Mariah Carey-ish, as light as ether, pleasant to the ears, easy to process, yet it described obliquely the disassociation felt during sexual assault and, more broadly, depicted the experience of living within a culture of rape. There was never a moment in time when the clean production and professional equipment were accessible to those artists bent on using music to express radical anger, let alone with writerly nuance. What sounds like pop is, more than ever, capable of succeeding on multiple levels simultaneously. Even still, it makes sense that we are too close to our own experiences to be able to always notice cultural shifts. It’s understandable to fail to appreciate the subtle differences between the orderly world of our minds and the unpredictable one outside it.
This is where I discuss Autre Ne Veut. To many, Anxiety will reek of shallow, gaudy populism. The kinds of people who pejoratively wield niche nomenclature (PBR&B, witch house, vaporwave, etc.) will find much to dislike about this record. As will those who find distasteful the earnest, embarrassing sincerity of bands like Bon Iver, Ke$ha, Passion Pit, and Fun. Far be it from me to tell anyone what they should and should not like; that said, what I ask is not agreement, but acknowledgement. It’s worth reminding ourselves that we need not like any work of art to acknowledge its importance.
Anxiety sounds like a textbook example of Retromania: highly processed, easily consumable club beats mixed with soft rock and R&B textures. There is little offered here that has not, in some other form, been offered before. But in this case, that familiarity, that mania, is more than subtextual; it is the very text itself. Pop music was, for a long, long time, a gated, carefully tended community. That exclusivity existed as a result of the structures of the music industry, as well as the limitations of past technology. Those gates have long since been crashed. The democratization of technology has allowed musicians more freedom than they were previously afforded, but on another and more important level, it also offers new meanings for old articulations. Modern pop music seems less a closed loop, an endless repetition of ideas, feedback upon feedback, than something altogether different from that which it most closely resembles.
I’m not claiming that modern pop is somehow more refined or worthwhile than its ancestry. There has always existed a tangible thread of complexity within pop music — sometimes on a compositional level, other times on a contextual one. In any case, it’s hard to argue, with reason, against the intelligence, depth, and sophistication of the titans of pop (Whitney, Mariah, Kels, to name but a few). Modern pop is not better or worse than its past; all I am arguing is that it is different. Nothing more, nothing less.
Arthur Ashin of Autre Ne Veut might be working with familiar musical concepts, but he employs them in ways that are, to my ears, contemporarily relevant and indispensable to the discussion over the trajectory of popular music. Whether it be the use of synthetic instrumentation to expound upon ideas of alienation and mortality or the often free-associative lyrics, which at times remind me of Horse_ebooks more than any other songwriter, Ashin’s music engages the complications of this post-Wi-Fi post-Pro Tools, post-Twitter, -iPhone, and -inbox-zero existence directly. He translates commonplace banalities into an indelible, painful emotional language. The ecstasy, the ennui — all of it is quite contemporary. What seems smooth and easy is anything but. Anxiety could not be the product of any moment other than this one. Again, just because ground seems familiar, doesn’t mean its territory has yet to be fully mapped.
More important than critical theory or semiotics is the simple fact that these songs work as pop. Anxiety would be a failure were it to come across as an academic exercise, a late-arriving dilettante’s attempt at the music of the masses. Its appeal should be obvious enough to anyone who hears it, but it is also easily understood that there are many barriers to enjoyment that mark this particular path. The histrionic emotionalism of Anxiety will turn off those put off by bombast. This is an understandable feeling. There are moments when I listen to Anxiety and feel repulsed by its intensity. That said, I never feel a lack of admiration for what it achieves, for the mood it evokes, sustains, and perfects. There is no moment wasted, no shout, no silence that is without meaning. This is art that undertakes no less a task than the comprehension of the meaning of life in a deeply contradictory era. The importance of this pursuit should not be diminished nor confused by matters of newness and oldness. After all, there is little more radical than criticism of the self. The lack of vanity, the frank way it strives for accessibility only serves to further magnify the greatness of Anxiety. It does the most ideal thing art can do: it tries to make sense of life itself, without pretense or guile.
Grimes, near the end of that same message, touches upon the very heart of Anxiety: “i just need to have a normal life right now,” she wrote, acknowledging the price of living post-internet. It’s hard enough for me to accept that we have reached a post-historical era — though I am open to persuasion — and I very much doubt that we ever will. But our lives — love, lust, all the basic tenants of human interaction — have been irrevocably altered through technology. We are all post-internet these days. Arthur Ashin pleads repeatedly over Anxiety’s duration for some semblance of normalcy, however illusory. He sounds ecstatic most of the time, but the ebullience of his songs is matched by a consistently neurotic and modern mania. Whether or not Ashin is being ironic is unclear, but regardless, the dissonance he conveys is rooted in the particularities of life in 2013. The mediums that connect us to one another also shrink and flatten our worlds; we shout YOLO and suffer from FOMO; we struggle to find solutions to crises and conflicts that transpire primarily in virtual realms (Tumblr, OkCupid, Reddit, and the like); we’re constantly dealing with the realization that the predicaments we face have never played out precisely the way they do today. So say what you want about Retromania, about old tropes, about new art. Just don’t try to convince me that pop music, a mirror to the vulnerable, mercurial self, isn’t changing with us.