Friday, March 14, 2008

Pondering the Album

By Nicole Pope

Each week I ask myself several music-related questions. Some become seeds for a column; others hibernate until my next round table discussion with fellow music nerds. Lately I've been pondering THE ALBUM. Rather than choose just one, I thought I'd bring you a medley of musings.

Yes, I just said medley of musings.

Why don't fans identify themselves with ALBUMS rather than BANDS?

This one's been bugging me for a while. You see, I have very few favorite bands. As in, there aren't many bands I would feel comfortable identifying myself with. Prime examples: Wilco. Interpol. I adore Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Turn on the Bright Lights, but not so much the later schlep. So will you ever hear me say Wilco or Interpol are my favorite bands? Hell, no. But Yankee and TOTBL are two of my favorite albums. Therein lies the rub.

Is it just that bands are more convenient touchstones? Like, "I dig The Arcade Fire." Or, "I heart The Shins." When what you really mean is, "I love the shit out of Oh, Inverted World. And Funeral is just tops"?

A related question: Do latter, lesser albums devalue their excellent predecessors?

Does Yankee Hotel Foxtrot lose its importance because it may be a fluke? As a fan it's hard for me to listen to an album like this without feeling bittersweet. Certainly I still appreciate the album, but I can't help thinking it's been prostituted by several subsequent albums rehashing the same sound, themes, etc.

Take The Flaming Lips' "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion," from their most recent album At War with the Mystics.

"They tell us "Autumn's a comin' and soon everything around us will die... They only see the obvious. They see the sun go down, but they don't see it rise."
Hello! Does anyone else see the obvious ripification of "Do You Realize?"? Yeah, yeah, the sun isn't really setting. It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round... People don't really die... I got it, guys. While I hate "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion" for being so unoriginal, I also feel like it somehow lessens the impact of the original song.

Is it just that an artist has said what they wanted to say, and now they're just splashing around in the puddles?

Or is the exact opposite of my initial point true: that because a band never achieves that same level, it makes the album that much more significant?

And some age-old questions: Will THE ALBUM format die as bands begin focusing on songs rather than cohesive albums?
Will the album ever be an exclusively online creation? Will record labels die in the wake?

Before Hail to the Thief was released in '03, I read a Filter interview with Thom Yorke about his desire to abandon the album format in favor of EPs. As Radiohead is known for its concept albums (Kid A being perhaps the most impressive), this news saddened me considerably. Thankfully, the band has put out not only one but two more albums since this declaration. Still, the unconventional In Rainbows release has me considering this question once more. Could bands do away with record labels all together, and release all of their material online? And if this happens, will they begin peddling their music to ITunes and its focus on the single download -- which might lead artists to focus on individual songs rather than entire albums?

Once more I think of someone I know who downloaded "My Body is a Cage," his only exposure to Neon Bible. Or "Suffer for Fashion," his only track from Hissing Fauna. Ironically, he now goes around calling himself an Of Montreal or Arcade Fire fan, which circles back to my earlier question in an intriguing way. Could music fans start identifying themselves not with albums, but with individual songs?

What ripples will this have in the music industry? Will there come a day when we lose the concept album, or will the bands' love of music and creativity halt this process?


Zach said...

"There’s some other thing that is being transferred. A payment and a reward that goes beyond, 'This is what that song means to me.' You’ve got to understand this, or else it just breaks you. As listener or as performer, it breaks you. That’s what all that bullshit on the Internet is about. Those people are broken by their desire to own music."

Bill Callahan said that. By "own" he means the same thing that you mean by "identify with." The need to identify with something in the first place begs its own questions - questions that you should consider before the ones you're asking in this column (which are very interesting, nonetheless).

Femme Fatale said...

Fair enough, zach. Though I'm not quite sure what you're driving at.

That we shouldn't identify with music (or novels, or art, or films, for that matter)? .... Or that we should consider the value of doing this?

Or that just because I don't identify with a particular album doesn't necessarily mean someone else doesn't?

Or that an artist ultimately puts themselves into their music, and we should take it or leave it?

I can see all of these ideas having some truth behind them. That said, I think whether it's wise, fair, etc., people DO identify with music. Isn't that what gives it its power?

Zach said...

Yes, to your first question. Bill puts it pretty plainly in saying that to "identify" with someone else's work is bogus. It's parasitic.

Your last question uses a different definition of "identify." And yes, that kind of identification does make it powerful. That kind of identification is simply the act of comprehending.

However, the "identification" that you refer to in your column is more along the lines of image cultivation (for instance, the first heading reads "identify themselves"). That is what is destructive and pointless.

And yes, people do engage in this type of identification on a constant basis, and it will always lead to the sort of disillusionment that you experience with Wilco, Interpol, The Flaming Lips, and whomever else. Preserve the buffer between yourself and the artist and simply enjoy that exchange that Bill speaks of. That's what exhibition is all about.

This is a long comment.

Hackworth Artifex said...

If you "preserve the buffer between yourself and the artist," I'd argue that while you may comprehend the art on a logical or even emotional level, you'll never fully internalize it.

Every act of observation is an act of empathy. You may not watch a ball drop and think, "What if I were the ball?" But the only way the ball dropping obtains meaning is through a personal, internal process that ties the stimulus to your memories of previous experiences (often mitigated by language).

The only way to fully comprehend something is to completely empathize with it (Note: empathy does not necessarily mean advocacy) internally. It's not destructive, but rather creative as long as you can re-emerge from the unification with the art, taking what you like to further your own desires.

As far as being parasitic goes, I think you'd be hard pressed to find an artist that can't list other people who they've (to put it mildly) borrowed heavily from. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, adding our own creativity to the mix.

Zach said...

I agree with all of that, and I also agree that all of that it essential. However, the original meaning of "identify" has been confused. Take this for instance, which comes from the third sentence:

"...bands I would feel comfortable identifying myself with"

That has nothing to do with internalizing or understanding. That kind of identification is about cultivating an image. It's about expressing an individuality by latching onto someone else's product. It's vicarious. It's the "favorite music" section of Myspace or whatever. That's what I'm referring to, and that's what this column ultimately concerns - an extraneous relationship with art and the resulting confusion and disillusionment.

Femme Fatale said...

Zach, I hear what you're saying, particularly the example of people feeling the need to say "these artists represent me as a person." I'm not sure I was taking it that far, though.

This may be a prickish thing to say, but I do think that the music we listen to DOES say something about us as people. Relying on that alone to express our individuality our outlook is, however, ludicrous.

As far as the whole "parasitic" idea goes, I can't help but quote High Fidelity: "What really matters is what you like, not what you are like... Books, records, films -- these things matter. Call me shallow but it's the damn truth."

Of course, we ARE supposed to see Rob as rather shallow...and maybe I'm just showing how shallow I am by constantly having to use High Fidelity to express thoughts I am perfectly capable of articulating myself?

My brain is going to explode.

Hackworth Artifex said...

Well, I think it depends on why one chooses to incorporate them as part of their identity. I don't wana get into a whole thing about the nature of self and all that, but suffice it to say that our identities are always an amalgamation of external stuff.

Picking and choosing artists to add to the hodgepodge of self based on what other people will think about you is definitely destructive. But saying that you identify yourself with an album/song that you actually have a deep connection with is really just a shorthand way to communicate a lot of information.

It's kind of like telling people that you're "shy," "driven," "introspective," etc. It conveys a lot of information quickly, but not particularly accurately. In the same way that people mean different things when they say they are "spiritual," there are a lot of different meanings to saying you are a fan of some band or another.

The Moon said...

So in short,

you will always be the summation of the things you both like and dislike because you would neither like nor dislike them if you were not yourself...

though this does not take into account the WAY you like and dislike things which I believe also speaks greatly about a person...

The Moon said...

To answer this,

Why don't fans identify themselves with ALBUMS rather than BANDS?

Because, I believe, after experiencing a great piece of work we as human being want to form a connection with it's creator... rather than just appreciating the piece.

Also, if someone was able to create some thing that you can identify with once, the law of averages would assert that there is a good chance they could do it again...?

It's not like this happens just with music? I also like Douglas Adams books, Sofia Coppola Movies, and Diesel clothing?