Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Authority in "Dark" Music, pt. 1

This is the first of a two-part entry.  I'll finish the other half soon.

A few blocks from where I live in Greenwich Village, CoSTUME NATIONAL recently opened a display for Fashion Week.  With black drapey clothes, they've called their line "New Wave-No Wave-Dark Wave." 

The three waves named here are recognizable to fans of progressively obscure music: New Wave often describes both punk and its commercial, synth-driven fallout; No Wave was New York's underground postpunk collision of disco, free jazz, noise, and funk, all fueled by cocaine; Dark Wave was a little-used term that emerged in the 1990s to describe a lush, orchestral blend of gothic and industrial music.

These three waves offer up a collective tsunami of fashion potential in their attitudes and aesthetics, but what really catches my attention is the mainstream recognition of so esoteric a thing as Dark Wave.  The bands originally called darkwave were and remain nearly totally unknown (and not in a hipsters-want-to-reclaim-them sort of way); do you own any records by Oneiroid Psychosis, The Machine in the Garden, or Covenant of Thorns?  Didn't think so.  

So looking at the store's clothing and some wider emerging trends in culture, it's clear that this use of "Dark Wave" connotes a different, younger darkness; a reimagining of darkness as a cultural aesthetic.  Specifically, I want to talk about how we can understand stuff like Witch House, NĂ¼-Goth, and the whole constellation of dreary musics that frustratingly (but importantly) tend to resist simple genre classification.  

I'm not the first writer to wet his feet in these murky waters; after all, this stuff has been around in various inflections for anywhere between three and fifteen years, depending on who you ask and what acts you include in the spread.  Simon Reynolds asserts that the related quasi-genre of Hauntology eulogizes that long-ago moment when a forward-looking future seemed possible, and does so by trying to recapture snippets of a cultural past that never really existed to begin with.  What I'm hoping to do here, however, is to go a bit deeper and to zero in the belief systems of this new darkness.  That'll come in the second installation of this entry, but before I can do all that, I want to historicize and unpack the west's previous inflection of subcultural gloom.

As a teenager in the 1990s, I was in love with latter-day goth music; long before the word "epic" was completely mainstreamed and derailed by video game culture around 2007, goth music truly (and nearly uniquely) connoted the epic.  The drench of reverb that soaked The Cure's Disintegration album placed it physically in a gigantic space.  The genre's pseudoclassical instrumentation and its modal harmonies—especially that ubiquitous flatted second scale degree—gave songs like Switchblade Symphony's "Clown" an oppressive pall of the magisterial.  With such stony magnitude and resolve, it makes perfect sense that even this music's label—gothic—casts it as a new soundtrack for old cathedrals.

Goth music paid homage to the past canonically: bands like Dead Can Dance obsessively glorified the medieval while records by Bauhaus and The Sisters of Mercy namechecked the likes of Artaud and Marx—iconoclasts yes, but iconic ones.  And similarly, fans genuflected to the genre's own short history; the scene's taste was famously slow to evolve, with musicians and clubgoers in the 1990s more invigorated by decade-old Depeche Mode and Skinny Puppy records than by the new CDs that labels like Cleopatra and Bedazzled were releasing.  A newbie's cred was most readily assessed by whether she preferred First and Last and Always or Floodland, Seventeen Seconds or Wish, or whether her t-shirt proclaimed allegiance to Cocteau Twins or Nine Inch Nails.  This ancestor worship entrenched the music in remarkable consistency and tradition.  Reverse-engineering the decade's goth music reveals a blueprint by which no album was complete without lyrically deploying an army of words like fire, scream, night, soul, mirror, stars, blood, purity, ocean, torture, and of course, death.  Any sniff of the quotidian—you know, things that real people talk about—was noxious.  Whatever experience an artist wished to convey, there was a stylistic mandate to cast it through the most grandiose, intellectual, and abstruse metaphors imaginable.  

Having long since dyed its punk roots black, goth music seemed pretty apolitical on the surface, but there's a lot wrapped up in so consistent a deference to the Kantian sublime.  Specifically, when we take in this imagery alongside the genre's love of history, canonicity, and high art, a culture comes into focus that is remarkably conservative in its adherence to all things Apollonian.  Consistently billed as sensitive, intelligent, moody and—it should be noted—functionally tolerant of both androgyny and corpulence, goth was heady and bookish, not bodily and base.  To a large degree, the goth scene viewed itself as an institutional guardian of a measured and severe elegance, and the loneliness of this duty was an essential facet of its aesthetic.  This identity surely doesn't apply to all fans and musicians–for example, the ideology of some early anarchist deathrockers was quite nearly the opposite—but it was nonetheless part of the scene's unspoken ethos when I was there in the 1990s.  At age 16, I reveled in that sadness, going so far as form a band called Cordium Detractio—Latin for "separation of the heart," I was quick to tell you—and then to write a zero-irony waltz about exhuming a dead bride.  I read Shakespeare and Poe.  I wanted to belong not just to a scene, but to a lineage.

[I'll get to the actual topic of the new dark wave in the second half of this post, hopefully in the coming day or two.  Thanks for reading so far.]

Sunday, September 16, 2012

An Introduction

This is where I review, reflect, riff, and write.  Some of what goes here flows out of or into my books and articles, my classes, and my recordings.  Some of it doesn't.

I teach music at NYU and the University of Florida.  I study the ways that ideology and music come together in structural form, social spaces, physical landscape, and political history.  As of this initial entry, I've written one book (Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, forthcoming with Oxford University Press), and I've got a second one in the works for Continuum's 33 1/3 series.  

My doctorate is in music composition and theory, and I've written about a lot of 20th-century art music, but as an act of public musicology, critique, and creativity, this blog will mostly grapple with various inflections of pop.  

So let's get started.