Pleasure and Beauty

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Shannon Coulter

Shannon Coulter
San Francisco, California, USA
October 21
Boombox Serenade
I help filmmakers find and license music for their work. I also write the film-music blog Boombox Serenade. Based in Northern California.

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FEBRUARY 19, 2010 2:58AM

Apocalypse Then: Why Rock Isn't Angry Anymore

Rate: 17 Flag

"Everyone talks about rock these days; the problem is they forget about the roll." Keith Richards

“After a period as America's finest shoegaze revivalists, Asobi Seksu now leave genres behind and document the night sky”
Plan B

I have a friend with whom I have an ongoing, nearly ritualized conversation about music.  It starts by him bemoaning the lack of any interesting movements these days. I counter with a choice selection or two from the last few years: drone metal, freak folk, left field hip hop. He then explains why none of these are real movements or at least why none of them measure up to the punk scene of late 80's San Francisco. In those days, he always reminds me, shows would spontaneously crop up in abandoned buildings. There was an immediacy and an edge that just isn't there anymore. It's been lost, he says. Lost forever to an industry mindset.

He has a point, and yet music's forward edge is never fixed. For one thing, the epicenter moves around and these days it's not the Bay Area—it's New York. For another, the forefront looks and sounds so different than it did in the past that I suspect it's difficult for some of rock's more seasoned gatekeepers to recognize it as such, maybe all the more so for being kind Maybe that's the wrong word, but I can't help noticing that several of my recent concert going experiences have been genteel in the extreme. A few weeks ago at a medium-sized venue where I'm typically packed in shoulder-to-shoulder to see bands, I was surprised to find the space set up like a concert hall with folding wooden chairs. I wondered if I was in the right place for the band formerly known as "Sportfuck." Asobi Seksu, as they're now called, delivered such a floating, feminine, and unapologetically orchestral set that it hardly mattered to me whether it was part of some definable movement or genre. It was just so pretty.

A recent Magnetic Fields show was quietly transcendental. Watching the audience file in you'd have sworn they were there for a book signing. The performance itself was intimate, unhurried...almost recital-like. It had exactly none of the urgency of an underground punk show, but I think that was the point. When rock snaps the tether so completely, it makes sense to listen to it in a different way. Consider that the new it-gig appears to be a particularly unlikely place to hear loud music: the museum. Yeasayer recently headlined at Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. No Age played MoMA. Animal Collective was just booked at the Guggenheim. My friend might see this development as an unacceptably far cry from the squat-rock of yore. I see it a sign that institutions are giving interesting music its due. One thing I know for sure: none of this music should be written off just because it isn't all that pissed off.

A recent Guardian article observed, "Dream-pop, nature and nostalgia is in, raging against the machine is out. Just when did indie rock get so laidback?"

I have a theory that Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1994 marked the point when rock unconsciously started to veer toward something gentler because his death symbolized the logical extreme of the genre's own iconoclasm—one that had been on loan from the blues for too long anyway. A few years after that, Massive Attack released the landmark "Mezzanine." It was still dark, narcotic music but leavened with a dreamers' love of reverb, deeply imaginative production, and the angelic voice of Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins.

For me personally, the trajectory is now reaching some sort of apex. The vaulting but pensive melodies of Bat for Lashes. The gauzy downcast psychedelia of Beach House. The Cloud City synth of M83 and Ulrich Schnauss. Even more straightforward indie rock from The xx and Spoon seems more about nuance than propulsive forward motion. I love the intricate, sugary experimentalism of Passion Pit and shiny headphone candy of Gang Gang Dance.  And of course there's all the indie folk that seems to be emanating directly from the forest these days. Fleet Foxes. Blitzen Trapper. Bon Iver. For every relatively traditional rock band like Phoenix that arrives on the scene, there's some soul holed up in a one-room cabin somewhere, writing fiercely clean harmonies that attempt to rival mother nature herself in purity and scope.

In short, I am loving all the yin lately. Hell, even metal is oblique these days.

In Rolling Stone, Jonathan Lethem wrote, "We judge pre-rock singing by how perfectly the lyric is served...We judge popular vocals since 1956 by what the singer unearths that the song itself could never quite." In rock, he observes, the singer has to be doing something that "pulls against" his or her context.  

Rock is still pulling against its context, but this time the context is one of its own making—having made such a point of its own bad-assery for so long that it became a cliché. Vampire Weekend's "Contra" debuted at number one a few weeks ago, and it's no accident that the title of this preppy, playful album means "against." For those steeped Decline of Western Civilization-style notions of rock, it's difficult to swallow that something so carefree could represent the vanguard, but if you're using Lethem's definition, these guys are doing a great job.

And thank God it isn't all acorns and antlers out there. One of the sexiest developments in music lately is how many artists got bored with their own schtick and started messing around in other genres. When Dirty Projectors' "Bitte Orca" was released last year, many reviewers noted that it contained some fairly hot R&B-style hooks. Beyonce's sister, Solange Knowles, noticed too and did a sultry cover of their song, "Stillness is the Move." Jay Z made an appearance at a recent Grizzly Bear show on the Brooklyn waterfront and suggested hip-hop should take some artistic cues from indie rock. At live shows indie duo Cocorosie is known to cover "Turn Me On," turning the bouncy Kevin Lyttle dancehall track into a smoldering R&B ballad, and it's delicious to hear Bianca Casady sing lines like "Girl, caress my body" in a delicate vintage warble. (Talk about pulling against a context.) Artists like Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) and Scott Herren (Prefuse 73) weave together hip hop and experimental rock so expertly that it would make Prince Paul and Syd Barrett equally happy. To me, Herren's "The Class of 73 Bells" (featuring twin sisters Claudia and Alejandra Deheza from School of Seven Bells) represents a high watermark in this love affair between urban and indie.

It could be that we're coming into a time when music will be judged not by how well it serves or defies a lyric, but by how able it is to take us somewhere completely well the artist plays Tetris with the tectonic plates of genre. Of course there will never not be a place for anger, grit, and unvarnished darkness in rock. Bands like Baroness, The White Stripes, and The Kills easily prove that and I wouldn't want to live in a world without them. And when the context changes once again and the pendulum swings the other way, anger may yet spawn new sub-genres of the sort my friend misses so much. For now though, it's refreshing to me that so many artists want to leave off cock-and-awe for awhile, break some genre rules, and light out for the territories. It's sophisticated, fluid, unexpected. More please. 

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It's very simple really - kids are sexually active now as young as twelve years old. They have those rainbow parties where a young boy can get oral sex multiple times per night. No wonder they're not angry! And they have web porn. Hell, if I'd had that when I was a young teen age boy I never would have left the house much less picked up a guitar.
Good writing, I enjoyed your piece and by the way, check out Against Me, now they're angry!!
Slayer anyone? Lamb of God? Have you listened to death metal lately? Even Avenged Sevenfold is a wee bit angry and they are just pop metal rock... maybe I hang out with too many young guys at the gym but you may be skimming the surface of pop rocks...the candy. Interesting thoughts about rock then and now - I still like the classics of rock but this is 2010.
Coogansbluf - your comment made me laugh. Leonde - I'm not saying there isn't angry rock out there. I'm saying that the vanguard of rock these days is of a different bent. It'll change again; it always does.
Having been officially classified as "Old and Unhip" years ago, I won't pretend to know anything about most of the bands and singers you mentioned. That said, I'm glad to learn that young(er) musicians are still pushing boundries, especially if they are pushing the boundries in unexpected directions. Really well written piece.
Every generation says the same things about...every new generation. There's always angst. There's always dreck. There's always a feeling that the new kids on the block just don't "get it." And it's always that older generation that really doesn't "get it." And shouldn't.

But what fun this was! Loved it...
I listen to so little that's new that I can't really comment, but this is an interesting analysis.

And, Leonde, for some reason, I read "Avenged Sevenfold" as "Avenged Seinfeld". D'oh!
I agree. More please ;0)
RnR is soooo 20th Century. Look into the various genres of "electronica" and there you will find your "counter-culture".
It's pretty difficult to sound angry about having a million bucks, all the adoration you can get and having to ride around in private jets or a giant tour bus when you're 22.
Black t-shirts and ripped jeans only go so far then you figure out that you're actually a dipstick. Sorta John Mayer tough.
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Think you need to listen to better music. Who are any of these "contemporary" acts you're talking about? Of course pop today is hip hop. Not angry enough for you? (slides out)
Yes, indeed. Today's music is far too angry, and obscene, and unfamiliar. Not like when I was young, and the choir sang with the voices of angels on Sunday morn. Ah, the bright shiny faces of the boys, like glowing apples on an autumn day...Um, well, er, yes. And the music of today is unholy, too. Verily, it is the devil's serenade. (HurumphHurumph) Amen.
XRay's got the right idea--and the perfect riposte. Today's music IS hip hop. Not angry enough? Geesh. Get outta the fucking suburbs.
We're stil in the Coldplay era. Other than screamo or Andrew WK, there doesnt seem to be much demand for loud music. As for Rap, it keeps getting dumber and dumber. Young people seem to want either bump and grind or whiners with messed up bangs. The White Stripes were interesting for about 10 minutes, after the initial novelty.
Of course there has never been a music culture more angrier than Hip Hop. That street energy is so angry there isn't much room for self-indulgent Wagnerian guitar bands to come off like life's tough.
Yeah Cypher - I agree. Rock's anger has always, to some degree, been a bit of a put-on, out on loan from the blues that spawned it, so it was really gratifying and cathartic when things came full circle in the 80's with Chuck D's immortal line: "Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me." I also agree with some of the comments that U.S. hip hop is feeling pretty moribund lately. But when genres and scenes reach the end of their rope, interesting things can happen. I think interesting things are happening in music right now...things are collapsing and recombining in new ways.
Cypher, Hip hop used to be angry. Now it's mindless smack that ass music, boasting about women and money. It no longer social commentary, just the expression of personal ego, greed and stupidity. And it's clownish stupidity spreads to acts like the Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga. Its like the establishment wants more clowns. Young people given nothing but bump and grind from rich imbeciles like Soulja Boy or various semi-retarded half talents. Rap seems to go in waves, trading off musical with lyrical ability, starting with good lyrics but just a beat, getting more complex with NWA but the lyrics being more shock value, leading into Eminem which improved upon the musicality but also started to mark the end of serious lyrics. Now it is musically sophisticated, but the words, the boasts of rich flash in the pan idiots. Is it because the system wants music dumbed down, or young people crave stupidity is hard to say. Based on the popularity of Lady Gaga, which is less dadism than overhyped infantalism. Serious rappers are now actors or dead, and the ones promoted, people with more money than talent or brains. I suspect the etablishment doesn't want angry blacks or educated kids. Between the education system and popular culture, they are breeding an illiterate generation of morons, incapable of thought beyond texting and ass slapping drunkeness.
well written, great observations...
Angry rock? You must not have listened to Green Day. Green Day is pretty fucking angry. And talented. And from the Bay Area.
Shannon, Snoresville: I agree with you both. One is lucky to live through any transition of an art form when its energies have run out. Commercialism is part of the natural wave of art in industrial society. It is a form of decadence and boredom, but it helps pay the bills for what is new and untested. And beyond what tickles our immediate sense of freshness and relevance, we should have some sense of what remains within the decadence. Said another way, commercialism has its charms, especially as technical/production skills. But we have not fully grasped the energy that Hip Hop has released into a World Culture because we haven't heard back yet from all the voices. German Rap, Trance, Hip Hop, whatever, has a particular ambience not understood here. Hispanic Hip Hop has another energy within street culture unnoticed by an egghead like Jon Pareles (sp? - cause I don't care.) The compelling part of Shannon's piece, for me, is noticing this fallow period and looking around for something decent in fresh ground. But these new seeds are mighty wild things, and Hip Hop has changed what will grow in profound ways. A parallel is found in the 13th and 14th centuries as musicians explored the new "technology" of notation which allowed them to create music outside of the body experience.In that effort composers and listeners scoped out harmony, form, counterpoint, a process that led to many styles over a span of some 800 years. Hip Hop has unleashed something similar in studio technology. While it began with a street genius expressed in quite new poetics of words and rhythm, it is now joined at the structural level with studio and production exploration. Just as a 13th century composer could might try a construct through notation, then decide he (mostly he's back then) likes it, and takes that construct back and makes it part of his "natural" craft, the same is true with Hip Hip, and other related styles. The rhythms of words and even the longer rhythms of form in Hip Hop can be manipulated outside what is "natural" and then absorbed into an innate craft. Put another way, a rapper's tracks can be sliced, pasted, whatever, to create something interesting (or sometimes hackneyed) that he or she then must perform. The performer absorbs the mechanical, and in the case of techo becomes it. What makes all this quite interesting for me is that the 800- year journey of classical music, built on notation, has run completely out of creative energy. What's left are postmodern efforts to grab something real from pop or world music, dress it up with intellectualism, and claim its relevance. While classical music has reached this completely exhausted state, and wallows in the worst kinds of commercialism for its integrity, popular music --whatever that is --seems the most powerful infant born in the last 30 or so years. Shannon is engaged with transition, energies running out and rebirth. Is it some small river of a change within American pop music, as heard from a local rather than global stance ? Or is it the sweep of the whole change. I'd say both. But no question that the full measure of technology is a force of immense in creation and consumption. Not only studio technology, easily had now by musicians throughout the world, but that other thing that is dethroning melody, harmony, form, and even lyrics --video. Which affects at the most basic level, even the bands that have gone back to supposedly raw roots.
Maybe the real problem is that we live in an age where they now use rock n roll to try and sell cadillacs and Justin Timberlake is taken seriously as an artist. Any kid who can string three words together and can't put his baseball cap on straight is a rapper AND we actually want to have intellectual discussions about rock music. Where the fuck is Eddie Cochran when we need him?
Cypher: totally fascinating stuff about classical, and it's interesting you should bring it up because I feel like a lot of the music I'm talking about in this article has taken a definite turn for the orchestral. It's definitely a thing right now. Peter Gabriel just came out with "Scratch My Back," an album of covers of the likes of Magnetic Fields and Bon Iver. The copy on the banner ad for it reads "Orchestra. No Guitars. No Drums." Did you ever think you'd hear Peter Gabriel touting no drums in his music? As for hip hop, I agree with you. Lots of interesting stuff internationally. Still, even here there's interesting stuff going on lately... Mos Def, Qtip, that amazing sounding Damon Dash "Blakroc" collaboration with the Black Keys. And again, I bow to Brian Burton & Scott Herren for what they're doing -- using hip-hop as just one blotch of paint on the palette. It's a good time to be a music nerd.
There was a time when I couldn't imagine anyone over 30 playing rock. Producing it, yeah. But not up on the stage. The careers of the older set - Peter Gabriel, for one - are interesting for many reasons. Most can't rock. Many are deprived as performers of the inherent sexuality of rock, pop and even popular culture. They ain't raw no more. So they have to come up with something. Making pop music artsy has limits. Extending careers beyond what speaks to the real is risky. But what do I know. I prefer the Dixie Chicks to Gabriel, and Miles Davis to Yanni. It's a crap shoot.
coogansbluff: I'm not sure that any kid with a cap and a couple words can be a successful rapper. And I would never disallow the incredible street genius of a bunch of kids becoming DJ's on the Grand Concourse.
Cypher - I'm sure there's plenty of genius out there but the last thing most record companies have ever been interested in is genius
coogansbluf: Hey. I just get nervous when people dismiss too quickly possible talent as stupid or unworthy. I get a whiff of elitism. I don't hate record companies for making money. I just wish more of it came my way. Money drives an important part of the music culture. That's how it's always been.
I'm a 58-yr-old who grew up in the 60s and I like several of the melodic new bands - Vampire Weekend, Spoon, Art Brut, the xx (though sorry, I couldn't stand Dirty Projectors). My biggest complaint is that too much of the music seems like it doesn't address the real world. War, depression, global warming - many of these bands seemed totally unconcerned that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. It's music made by people who spend too much of their time listening to their iPod through headphones and totally blocking out what is happening five feet away. That's why my two favorite bands are probably the Drive-by Truckers and the Arcade Fire - they sound like they actually read a newspaper.
First Rock and Roll is mainstream, not counter culture. It is a big business for the most part controlled by corporations. When you consider 60-70 percent of all movies, music, TV, radio is controlled by 8 corporations it becomes a machine. 90 percent of stations fall under three formats: Classic rock, top 40, and talk radio. Go to any town and you hear the same songs, same DJ banter, same play list. Why because most likely the station is owned by the same company who dictate the programming down to the last joke.

It use to be a talent would emerge and develop with a fresh sound, those days are quickly disappearing. Now, it is formulas supported by mass PR and advertising. American Idol is not a talent show, it is a talent development arm. By the time the contestants make it to the show, they are signed and controlled and packaged. Each season you get a pop star, a country western star and a bad boy. All the new stuff has been filtered out long before the show starts the season.

Sony, Disney, and Viacom are going to put out the same middle of the road crap so it will get plenty of air time on their controlled stations. It's all planned to the last note sung, the message, and look are all preplanned for what will generate the biggest audience and profit. When one burns out, they shovel the next pop star into the slot.

If a new sound are artist appears they are snatched up by the major labels who make them more mass appeal worthy. Look at Green Day, they use to be cutting edge now they appear with Dick Clark's Rock'n New Years Eve singing watered down versions of their songs for all those out in TV land.
M Todd -- that's radio dude, not rock. Apples and anvils. Fresh sounds abound. You just have to know where to look.
they're using music by canned heat/ pigpen for ads on tv and radio now.

everything is absorbed by the borg.
Shannon, rock has become the mainstream music of this generation. It is not angry or edgy because it is as corporate as a car or computer. Sure there are alternative music scenes, but as soon as they gain popularity they are mainstreamed into music industry.

It is understandably because despite all the angst, and pretentiousness it is just about the money. It is a business. Business is rarely angry or rebellious. The rock generation did not become their parents, they became even worse in many ways.
Cranky Cuss - I know what you mean, but I think it's ok for music to turn away from politics for awhile. Even the most political artists of the 60's needed to do that after a time. It's a pendulum thing. I don't agree with you, M Todd, that all interesting music is immediately absorbed into mainstream culture. We will never hear Cocorosie's "K Hole" in a car commercial. Arcade Fire is extremely tight/controlling of their license. It's not all highest bidder out there. And having worked directly with many artists and record label folks, I can tell you, they are NOT a purely or even mostly industry-driven people. If they were, they'd get their MBAs instead of joining bands. Most are driven primarily by the music itself, which is something a non-musician might have a difficult time understanding.
Interesting and thought provoking essay.

You mention Cobain as a kind of dividing line. I was 16 when "Nevermind" broke, along with the resulting "alternative" flood of bands. My friends and I were certainly attracted on a visceral level to the anger, but there was also a sense of "what else is there? It all can't just be 'I'm pissed off!' right?" I mean, where do you go from there?
In the 90s jambands like Phish, moe, and SCI became extremely popular for many of us. Others gravitated to electronica and techno. It was "outside" but offered something more than "I'm very angry!" And when an artistically minded rock band like The Flaming Lips released "Soft Bulletin" I remember thinking--this is perfect man, just perfect.
I also don't think you can discount the rise of the Rave culture during the last half of the 90s. Techno and electronica coupled with a rise in psychedelics offered something more and (perhaps) deeper than unfocused anger. Look at where the rave culture has gravitated towards: (check out STS9, Pretty Lights, EOTO, Daft Punk etc). And the rise of large diverse festivals---Cochella, Bonnaroo, Rothbury, etc--- foster a musical mixing and genre bleshing I have seen evolve over the past ten years)
I also think 9/11 (and everything that followed) had an impact as well. There seemed to be enough anger--the adults the ones "responsible" are all angry.
People in their late teens and twenties want to escape the anger prevalent in the world. In a way the real rebel thing to do, the real rock n roll thing was to NOT be angry. To seek transcendence and bliss.
One of the most powerful live musical experiences I've ever had was watching My Morning Jacket play a late-night concert for four hours in pouring rain a couple of years ago. It felt damn revolutionary to dance and sing--to celebrate while everywhere the world is embroiled in anger and divisiveness.

Sorry for the long and rambling comment! Enjoyed the essay!
MJwycha: You wrote, "In a way the real rebel thing to do, the real rock n roll thing was to NOT be angry. To seek transcendence and bliss." *So* beautifully put. Thanks for that. I love that you mention The Flaming Lips too. They're a perfect example. Dylan said the answer was blowing in the wind. Coyne, on the other hand, asks, "Do you realize?" Both are incredible songs. One has an answer; the other, a question.
Hi Shannon,

I thought this was a very well written piece. Writing this clearly and totally adhering to your main point throughout is not easy. Well done to that.

As to the music, I defer to your expertise in what is developing currently. Glad to hear there is some maturity in the modern expressions.

It's great to rebel, always will be. I am 48 and there are still things that piss me off, but "pissed off" wouldn't be a great way to describe me. I have been growing into WHO I am for a long time. There is a lot more to me than one phrase can cover. I have depth. I was however, I am unashamed to admit, quite shallow in my youth.

I am glad to hear that rock n roll has reached a new era of maturity. That maturity will certainly piss off some talented youngsters and we can get right back on the merry-go-round with them.


Sannon, not cranky, just a realist. It is better to see things as they are and then dream of ways to make it better. Rock has matured, it is (always has been) an industry. I don't blame the musician who creates their music then finds a larger fan base. Larger fan base means more money and as the money grows so does the influences from the business side. In a lot of ways success is rock's worse enemy. Mass appeal means compromise.

Cobain died mainly because he was a drug abuser. He may have sung about the angst of being an American teen, the pain of conforming, but in the end he was just another rich guy who shot himself in his million dollar home. Rock artist start out young and idealistic like everyone else, but as they grow up, they like grown up things like families, houses, cars, and dare I say stability. Those that don't end up dead or burned out.
MTodd -- the reference to "cranky cuss" was to another commenters moniker, not to you. ;)
Sorry, sometimes it fits. I can be a cranky cuss
Hey, hey, my, my
Rock 'n' Roll will never die
Just hang your hair down in your eyes
And make a million dollars

-Todd Somebody, "Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues"