So looking back on the last few posts here I realized I haven't really been giving a lot of content. There are the obligatory SF updates but I feel like this blog should be more than that. I've actually had a lot on my mind but was unable or maybe unwilling to sit down and try to work these thoughts out in words. Also over the last year there have been some gnarly misquotes from this blog put up around the internet which for a while now has had me scared to post anything meaningful. But I think I'm over that for now. So in 2010 look for regular editorials on this blog about subjects that I feel are important and interesting. It will give me something to do.
Jay Reatard Retires From the Fight Against the Streamlining of Independent Music
In the mid-1990s everyone from faux-grunge rockers Bush to aging classic rock legends Robert Plant and Jimmy Page wanted Steve Albini’s raw engineering approach to scar their major label records. In 2009 we saw the culmination of the reverse trend. Today independent labels and their best selling artists are cultivating a flaccid, top-40, sonic character. Artists who just a few years ago where releasing sonically challenging records are now being praised for their newest and remarkably easy-to-digest records.
But of course this only makes sense at a time when the “pro tools” esthetic of beat mapped, pitch corrected, and massively compressed recordings have dominated records for over a decade (did you know that Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” was the first single to hit #1 that was recorded, edited, and mixed solely in Pro Tools?). There is a whole generation of music listeners who only know the less forgiving and dynamic quality of analog recording as a quirky alternative hailed by mainstream mavericks such as Jack White. Those of us old enough to remember before the age of spotless digital wizardry seem to have not only grown accustomed to the sound of these recordings, we expect it! Things just don’t seem to sound right, are just too sloppy, or just don’t “hit” enough without this digital magic. Even if some of these artists aren’t using the tricks of the Digital Audio Workstation they are still using the esthetic as their guideline.
While searching end-of-the-year lists from the biggest and hippest media reviewers I was struck by the utter lack of artists and albums that could be even remotely referred to as punk, regardless if your definition of punk be informed by The Ramones, The Clash, Black Flag, Big Black, Beat Happening, Mudhoney, The Oblivians, Rancid, or This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb. Reviewers, music buyers, and indie labels at large are not only ignoring new, sonically challenging artists they are encouraging the dumbing down and streamlining of artists who could formally be referred to as experimental.
But this of course also makes sense. With record sales dwindling to nothingness, to keep from going under major labels have set their focus on a dozen or so artists. Meanwhile independent labels have taken up the slack by managing to toe the line between appealing to causal, formally major label music consumers who recoil at anything remotely sonically challenging and, at the same time, retaining their core buyers; the “indie scene.”
How did they manage this? By releasing slicked up and dumbed down records by artists with “indie cred,” their copycats, and anything else that could be tagged as indie while remaining cheerfully refined and palatable. It’s the perfect formula. Release pop records and market them as indie rock. Here when I say pop records I am not referring to songwriting with pop sensibility or a pop melody. I am referring to the spotless, gutless, streamlined recordings that make up the common ground among releases by the likes of the Backstreet Boys, John Mayer, and T-Pain.
This all makes the passing of Jay Reatard that much more difficult to handle. Jay’s presence was a thorn in the side of this movement. His pop sensibilities allowed him to squeeze onto these lists and into the biggest blogs and glossies but his toiled home-recording techniques and stripped down, double-speed live shows are what made it interesting. There are multiple interviews where Jay challenges other artists to release unrefined records that allow the listener into the artistic process, as he so often did with his relentless 7” singles. I can only image he was responding to the same problem I’ve laid out here.