2013: Appropriating a 2013 (Nu.wav) hallucinations of an irretrievable past

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

Moving along these same lines are LAMPGOD & **L_RD//$M$. Via their **$EXT8PE (July) the duo spliced fragments of classic soul and R&B from the 1970s into disorienting, counterintuitive arrangements that subverted the stock denotations of the tracks they plundered, seemingly miring them in insinuations of sleaze and decadence. Many points of comparison could be made between their work and Koenig’s, yet in their case, the inflection, the angle of attack was slightly different. Sure, their collaboration could just as easily be construed as a seamy ode to the pervertibility and corruptibility of popular music, or as a deranged envelopment of the idea that music can “appropriate” and confine us in narrow circles (witness the 15-second iterations during “**CREAMPIE??” of “I Can’t Get Over You” by The Dramatics). But at the same time, their piracy of quasi-historic music, in its ineffectual loops and gauzy detachment, was at bottom an accentuation of the distance that separates us from our past and of the unbridgeable gulf that prevents us from re-entering and re-experiencing that past in any faithful, cohesive, or continuous way.

Their liberations of “You’re Welcome, Stop On By” by Bobby Womack and “Inseparable” by Natalie Cole were almost surreal in their abstraction and incongruity, and it was precisely this surrealism and incongruity that marked the incompatibility of the past with the present, that marked the first as irremediably incomprehensible, inaccessible, and alien to the second. Taking this premise to its very limits, their burglaries hint at the futility of both historical consistency and history itself, thereby returning this digression to the opening postulation that any attempt to situate 2013 on a single, definite, and definitive chronology is jeopardized from the very beginning, since the events that precede the year are in many respects unknowable and therefore resistant to an authoritative conceptualization that might peg them to a meaningful sequence.

The same could be said for SAINT PEPSI and his HIT VIBES (among five other albums he finished this year), which in May filtered such luminaries as Rose Royce, Live Band, and The Whispers through a backward-looking compressor, in the process discoloring them in an unnatural, over-idealized light that betrayed the artificiality of any attempt to revive and reconnect with their onetime substance. And in many cases, it’s arguable that 2013’s heightened wave of appropriation was the sum of various efforts to reestablish such a continuity with a past that’s been diffracted and severed by the march of time and technology, by the proliferation of internet-launched musicians and genres ostensibly disconnected from everything — from the localities, venues, scenes, publications, and labels — that came before them. Artists such as SAINT PEPSI strove to resume a certain kind of conversation with their heritage, but through integrating the past into their work, they seemed to leave it behind altogether, owing to how they dismembered it from its particular context, drained it of its former healthy complexion, and finally exposed its disembodied irrelevance to the present.

“Take care of all your memories. For you cannot relive them.”
– Bob Dylan

This discussion of the past slides into concerns that have been metastasizing ever since the beginning of the 21st century and that reached (what hopefully is) a peak/nadir with Simon Reynolds’ Retromania in 2011. The crux of these misgivings is that “our” fixation on the past is suffocating innovation and preventing any of today’s would-be pioneers from producing music/art that is genuinely “new,” or, if nothing else, more than a lazy, knowing, or ironic rehash of its genealogy. Quite apart from its inability to separate aesthetics from wider cultural and socio-political trends1, this kind of argument is weakened by its reluctance to concede that sample-based appropriation is just as legitimate a form of composition as performance-based appropriation, and that it’s potentially just as rich in terms of what it can say and evoke.

Taking only a single example — say, James Ferraro’s “Nushawn” (from October’s NYC, HELL 3:00 AM) — it can easily be pushed that its recombinatory amputation of Bernard Hermann’s Taxi Driver score is not some regressive nostalgia trip, but a signification of any one of several conceivably enlightening things, including the depiction of a transition between two conflictual states of mind, an attempt to bare the glitchy sparsity underlying all solemn consciousness, a stark rendering of the subjectivity of perception/conception, or maybe a blunt contrast between two periods of American/NYC history. Aside from these potential interpretations, it’s also clear that the dyadic juxtaposition of (sampled) orchestration with wonky minimalist electronics isn’t so virulently pandemic in stylistic terms that the result is an insipid frame-for-frame recycling of yesterday’s trash. And even when an appropriationist does take a single sample and reproduce it with barely any retouching or re-membering, there’s still every possibility that a new network of sense or a new message emerges.

James Ferraro and the T-1000

We need only return to LAMPGOD & **L_RD//$M$ for evidence of this. From a purely formal perspective, their “**ATM??” indulges in a minute-and-a-half rerunning of the 10-second romantic motif from Tim Maia’s “Azul da Cor do Mar” (1970), yet from a wider angle, much more is going on than a simple reapplication of whatever emotional currency Maia and his collaborators had worked hard to accumulate. One overlooked aspect of this song, the **$$EXT8PE album as a whole, and of blanket-appropriationism in general is that it performs the same kind of transformative denuding and demystification of music that the notoriety of Duchampian readymades and anti-art did for the institutionalized artwork. “**ATM??” and its ilk question the assumption that a song is identical to its compositional structure, that a piece of music is coextensive with sounds and sounds alone. They attempt to replace this received wisdom with an estimation of a record as a contextually-dependent entity, as only one component in a dynamic or relationship between the individual and her present circumstances.

In other words, a record is a function from context to emotion, and simply by repackaging it in sexual imagery — by doing nothing more than altering the alleged “supplement” that is in fact essential to its identity — LAMPGOD & **L_RD//$M$ indecorously exhibit how easily it can be changed into something else, and how perfect or wholesale plagiarism is perhaps an impossibility. Indeed, appropriation could even go further in its figurative ramifications, in that its all-too blatant exaggeration of the indebtedness inherent to the creative act is yet one more denial of the authority, genius, and originality of the individual author, one more swipe at the idea that an author is anything more than an emasculated worker of systemically pre-given forms and invoker of systemically pre-determined contents.

And once again, the main crime perpetrated by this form of brazen appropriation isn’t the seizure of intellectual property (as it primarily was with, say, the theft of African American music that aided and abetted the creation of folk and rock), but rather the destruction of comforting images and notions, most of which all return to considerations of the past and of how elements of that past are either still alive or can be resuscitated in the 21st century. The zeitgeists of former decades — the moods, mores, morals, attitudes, and experiences — have been lost forever, and at best artists can only use such eras as the symbols of their own disappearance and, conversely, as kitsch stylizations of present-day conceptions of how things might be alleviated for ourselves here and now. And to a certain extent, this apprehension was present in other releases that, although they didn’t engage in the renegade iconoclasm of the above, nonetheless built their work around a liberal soaking up of pre-existing records.

One of the shining examples of this was Andrew Pekler’s Cover Versions2, a garbled rejuvenation of long-lost exotica and Easy Listening that, while underlining the empty space between us and the past, demonstrated just how radical that past could be as a launchpad if only we’d stop trying to recreate it piece for piece. Another album that farmed similarly progressive terrain was Ahnnu’s World Music (September), which converted a diversity of neglected hip-hop, soul, and jazz relics from multiple decades into cosmopolitan organisms that erased any inkling of the scrounging that’d birthed them. Both of these albums were sample-centric, yet it would actually be unfair to use the term “appropriation” to describe what they do, since for the most part, they completely reform their grave-dug bones into unrecognizable skeletons, illuminating the possibility that the only authentic relationship with the past is the one that drastically remodels it into its own future. And perhaps — in opposition to everything that’s been said up to this point — a track like Ahnnu’s “Shame,” with its stop-start refitting of drowsy lounge, is what appropriation fundamentally is: a creativity that instigates and perpetuates temporality itself, that reconfigures extant space and matter into a new set of coordinates that we demarcate from its predecessor using such terms as “past” and “present.”

But this is too general and obvious an encapsulation to conclude with, and it’s also one that does nothing to distinguish 2013 from everything that flowed into it. What’s more specific to our age, however, is another interpretation, applying to pretty much every album that abducted any portion of its hooks and sounds from dormant repositories, from Hit Vibes to Cover Versions to Fresh Roses (September) by D/P/I and MIXTAP3 (November) by 18+. It’s that appropriation in its present form is the complement to and inevitable corollary of the virtually communal status of music in the internet age, where an increasing number of people regard a song or album as common property, as something they have a right to hear and even to own without going through the usual rigamarole of symbolically or financially acknowledging the labors of the artists they patronize. Appropriation is therefore what occurs when this mindset is transferred to the artists themselves, who at some point in the creative process must surely reason that, if the public are obtaining their creations for nothing, then they should be able to assume a similarly cavalier attitude towards music that’s already made more money than they could ever imagine.

So finally, the conclusion to be drawn out of this is that the upsurge in appropriation this year is broadly a lagging recognition of how music itself has been appropriated, demoted as both a commodity with a monetary value and as a cultural artifact with a semi-hallowed social value. It now belongs to no one and everyone, and therefore it’s no surprise that musicians spent much of the particular 2013 I’ve selectively remembered fessing up to this communism in their work.

1. An assertion that recurs throughout Retromania is that the 21st century, while replete with plenty of micro- and sub-genres, has signally failed to produce any “mega-genres” (p. 408). The examples given of such mega-genres include punk, hip-hop, (’60s) psychedelia, and rave, and Reynolds supports his account by invoking how such styles were imbued with a sense of direction, teleology, and purpose, as opposed to being backwards-looking (pp. 403, 424). What he doesn’t explore in any particular detail, however, is why the influences, derivations, and adopted components of the so-called mini-genres should be foregrounded and scrutinized, while those of the more worthy genres he cites should be backgrounded, glossed over in such a way as to suggest that post-punk or new wave, for example, were sui generis phenomena. The reason for this biased oversight is that Reynolds repeatedly conflates the novelty of a genre with the novelty of the fashion, culture, and politico-social attitudes that surrounded it, prioritizing those genres that either helped instigate popular fads in youth culture (i.e., that modified the particular form through which the young inconsequentially expressed their ambivalence towards adulthood and civilization) or were the parasitic symbols of genuine social and political change (i.e., flower-power psychedelia). Because punk, for instance, was on the forefront of a certain shift in how thousands and possibly millions of chinless wonders identified and socialized themselves, he seems to assume that this saves it from being little more than a “micro-genre” or offshoot of the garage rock of the late 60s and early 70s. Conversely, he denies the sub- and micro-genres of the 21st century the status as full-fledged aesthetics primarily because they aren’t attached to or associated with any mainstream or large-scale social craze. But this absence of such bandwagons is more a product of economics, commerce, and technology, of increasing individualism and social division, than it is of the abrupt disappearance of the human capacity to create, fuse, evolve, or bastardize. So, in sum, Retromania is more about sociology than it is about present-day music.

2. Cover Versions was actually released in Dec 2012, but I’ll attempt to justify this by pointing out that, at the time of writing, this was less than 12 months ago.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

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