Electronic Music: The Invader and Infiltrator
Electronic sounds have come to occupy and permeate spaces focused on alterity, from the fringes of academia to the disposal heap of exotica.
It should be clear to even the most casual observer of postmodern society that, as William Shakespeare, Philip Dick, and Jacques Derrida uttered, time is out of joint. The 21st century seems thus far to be a regurgitation of the 20th, its bad and worse behaviors remediated by recycling, curing war with more war and yielding irascible greed with unfettered free markets. The past continues to haunt us, showing up at every moment we seem poised to move forward. In many ways, the media phenomenons of the 2008 US Presidential election, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, seemed like an attempt to break free; American society’s attempt to prove it could do something new, even though the new was sanctioned by and officiated by the old.
In addition, mass media has become so systemically unstable that its individual pieces can be conjoined at will without chronology, context, consternation, or concern for causation. The fast edits.The instant downloads. The Twitter pulse of shared consciousness thinking that the machinations of proffered choice are autonomy, freedom. The immediate access to so many parts of culture through so many channels relieves us of the burden of taking anything on in full. It’s like splaying millions of puzzle pieces across the floor. Eventually, you may find two that fit together nicely even if the picture thus fitted doesn’t quite match. You’re building your own story, but you’re missing out on the larger picture.
If we all live, as DJ Spooky posits, in remix culture, it seems reasonable that we may also lack the apparatus to prevent us from consistently remixing the world back into our image. Thus, remixing without structural intent serves only to reinforce our own current understandings and privileges. Thankfully, the critical complex has helped some of us keep culture fresh, even as the absorbers of culture have repeatedly fallen under the claustrophobic spell of a recursive intellectual model of late capitalism, rockism, and poptimism as the end of history. It’s only through proclaiming the validity of everything that everything can be kept on the market, leaving most of us to default to whatever is popular and whatever requires the least amount of cultural friction while the long tail wags the rest of us into disenfranchisement or negligence.
Electronic music in particular has always been caught in a ripple of disjoined ontology. By its popular presentation as music that is “not real”, electronic sounds have been allowed to occupy and permeate spaces focused on alterity, from the fringes of academia (Stockhausen, Cage, Schaeffer, Niblock, et al.) to the disposal heap of exotica (the kitsch of '60s and '70s moog outfits, the '90s PoMo artists that sampled them). The early branding of electronic sound as not only unreal but unnatural allowed its usage to remain surrogate from art’s deluded stake in realism. Furthermore, as a new induction into Marshall McLuhan’s electric media, electronic music was now set to become an integral part of the central nervous system and advance alterations to corporeal and cognitive human hardware (rave’s practice of inuring tunes for the greatest chemical affect demonstrated this at times with scientific acuteness).
These in-sounds from way-out for a long time represented what Freud dubbed 'the uncanny'. It was shockingly strange in all the ways that it was familiar. It’s no mistake that this otherness was represented often in the early days of electronic sound by the Theremin, the first major recognizable electronic instrument. The Theremin not only produced spooky noises, such as those notably embraced by Bernard Hermann in his score for The Day the Earth Stood Still. It also mimicked a female soprano. In the process of replicating the coos of a birth-giver’s voice, the Theremin set upon a course to create a new mechanical mother, a Maschinemensch for the human race.
Subsequent to this rebirth, electronic music’s subsequent status as invader and infiltrator, an artificial intelligence secondary to the “purity” of country, blues, and jazz derived forms, has never been lived down. From the Theremin on down to auto-tune, Western culture seems unable to escape the creeping suspicion that we’re being replaced by all this technology, that eventually all of what we know to be human will dissipate. Never mind that almost all major label music is adorned with enough ProTools tinkering to be completely machine-incubated.
A deterioration of homo superiority would also promise an end to the luxuries those of us on the top of our currently established human hierarchies enjoy. If we all lose our voice and are forced to sing the body electric, then we would then only be able to communicate through our material interactions with the detritus we’ve created. We could not longer pretend to speak from the heart or ruse the world into accepting the innate superiorities and convenient faiths of our invented institutions and orthodoxies.
However, isn’t remix/postmodern culture just the transformation of existing signs and symbols into the praxis of communication? If Guy Debord was right that all that was once lived has now transformed into representation, our current worldview is a remix of what is allowed to pass through to our personal political economy. We’re a composite of representations, a simulacrum deviated enough to dispossess us of the agency to curate meaning, but close enough to the original for our recitations to systemically advance and reinforce the continued relevance of the dominant ideologies we’ve assimilated.
The popular view of history is that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and The Last Man saw this arc resolving in the viral outgrowth of Western liberal (and tacitly Capitalist) democracies. Yet, a different arc could be drawn. One that leads from a time of relative stability between hunter-gatherer tribes to a time when mankind stands on the precipice of a multifocal extinction from an unsustainable production cycle. If this is natural progression, perhaps the best thing to do is to welcome the unnatural.
If evolution is no longer about survival of the fittest and, as Devo liked to point out, sometimes the strong will survive and the weak will survive as well, maybe evolution continues not through the natural course of history and chronology unfolding, but through choice, through a challenge to the our intrinsic qualities of competitive self-interest. In other words, a fight against the survival instinct that seems to be threatening our survival. Marx saw the “social formation” as the “closing chapter of the prehistoric stage of humanity”. So perhaps post-prehistoric man can only grow when he ceases to see his current status as a temporal inevitability, when he disturbs “the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself” (Debord).
Electronic music’s radicalism has always been the radicalism of form rather than intent. It’s not that revolution can not be sung in electronic tones, but electronic music’s alterity precludes it from simply reconstructing familiar narratives and mythologies like overthrow and the reassignment of power. Its voice is defined by an engine of difference, coming across as either completely alien or substantially disembodied.
It should be no surprise then that electronic music’s most populist forms took off from the cultural margins, from within scenes that were already spectral, like the AIDS-ravaged black and queer community that spurred the advent of house music. The music from that era does little to capture the community in intimate photorealist detail, but it does say something about those forgotten disintegrated faces, which were already foreign and exogenous to heteronormative culture.