I Know What You Want: Dance music. We decide to tackle a thorny subject. After unexpectedly great initial sales, fans decide realize complain mightily. Nice beat. I Give it an 85. But is it really ‘Prog’? Talking Heads. Kraftwerk.
Roger CortonAfter some pretty great initial results, the sales of Progress plummeted like the proverbial stone. Expected?
JCHExpected. Or rather, I think the fact that the initial sales were good was the unexpected part.
RCPart of it was, I think, the fact that some of us were expecting a (hate to bring up a sort spot) a tour.
JCHI get it.
RCAnd I think another issue, which we’ve decided to handle
JCHFULL FRONTAL. NOW DON’T SUGAR COAT IT, SON!
RCBecause the scuttle butt was that Progress is that…
RCie. the big ‘epic’ cut is great and the rest of the album…
RCAnd it sucks in a particular way.,,,
JCHLet’s go. Unh. Unh. Disco. Everbody!(laughs)
RCYeah, that pretty much sums it up.
JCHLet’s get one thing straight. I’m zeeeee artiste, Hokay, Big Boy? The record was about progress, you dig? Helllloooooooooooooo?
JCHWell for me, nothing speaks to the irony of the modern world like dance music. As Jaron Lanier said so well in his book You Are Not A Gadget, there really hasn’t been anything new in music in at least twenty years. You can’t name a truly new genre since rap. We’ve discussed that.
JCHWell, that was pretty important for me to discuss. Music now is mostly functional. It’s now something you put on to make you feel a certain way or to help you perform an activity. Very few people think of music as something just to ‘listen’ to anymore.
RCAs you said in the poem to Beautiful Sounds
Right. We’re back in a world akin to Mozart, where the music has what musicologists call a ‘surface’, which listeners in his time would consider ‘pleasant’, but insiders would consider subversive. Consider ‘Snarky Puppy’.
RCThey’re consider the hippest of the hip now, right?
JCHOK, they get over by overlaying jazz solos on top of very pleasant smooth jazz or funky jazz or whatever you want to call it, but basically digestible music. They’re subversive. They’re danceable. THAT is currently state of the art jazz.
RCIs that what you are trying to do? ‘Smooth Prog’?
JCHNO. I’m trying to point out that DANCE. EDM has taken over. I’m trying to point out that ‘dance’ is everywhere and we have to confront that. So I’m commenting on it. But that brings me to what defines ‘prog’.
RCWhat does define ‘prog’?
JCHIs it metal? Djent? Ayreon? Epic Gameified orchestrations? To me it was always about a) hot playing b) incorporating genres c) big ideas. Dance is what’s now so that should be fair game. Really listen to the tune. Listen to all the layers. My grouse with fans who put it on and turn it off after 10 seconds is that they aren’t really as ‘prog’ as they say they are. If you’re not willing to stretch? You’re not really prog. And I’ll go even further…
RCOr is it farther?
JCHLet’s not start that again! There was a fascinating rant in Salon just last week railing against Sergeant Pepper. It frankly caught me off guard because it’s like when you realize that there are people out there who think Shakespeare stinks or that Mozart is crap.
RCFlat Earth. Birthers.
JCHExactly. You get this sense that there are no absolutes in the world of art now–that the only thing that matters anymore is, how does it make you feel. The narcissism is so epic it’s breathtaking. I’m thinking of a gag I saw as a child on the RTE where a guy would start throwing buckets of salt in his coffee to sweeten it and then start buttering his toast with horse shit–you know whilst pretending like it was the most normal thing in the world. You’d call it Bizarre-O Land today. Except that today everyone is supposed to just carry on like it’s all good. Nothing to see here folks. There are no norms to speak of.
RCExcept that dancing is fun?
JCHRIGHT! That’s exactly how I feel! I feel like music has reached this place where it’s so purpose-driven that the only way to comment on it was to write a purpose-driven piece. Get it? And I need people to go with me on this.
RCOK. I guess. Sort of… This is my Red Green. Half-hearted moment.
JCHLook, there are two great novels of dystopia: 1984 and Brave New World. Orwell and Huxley even argued about the relative merit of their books. And I believe Huxley was correct in thinking that people may fear 1984, but in the end, what will destroy civilization will be a lot more like Brave New World.
RCFor those of us who haven’t taken college lit 101 recently.
JCHThe government takes over by offering people a drug that offers complete happiness. And everyone feels pretty darned content. The only real downer is that there is no longer such a thing as ‘family’. Government controls reproduction. But you can have sex with whoever you want, whenever you want. You can pretty much do whatever you want. You can’t mix with different classes of people, but then, you don’t really want to. Well, that’s kinda where we’ve headed–a very hedonistic world. Less
JCHAnd some of Progress is based on a Dave Eggers book I read a few years ago called The Circle which I highly recommend.
RC:There’s a movie version of it out now which I haven’t seen.
JCHMe neither. The reviews were pretty dreadful. The book wasn’t that great either, truth to tell, although I think he’s a fantastic writer. But the ideas in it were stellar. It’s like the he created a comprehensive laundry list of every ill of ‘tech’ and tried to shoe horn them all into a novel to show how the road we’re currently on could go very, very wrong. How we could willingly give up privacy and freedom–as we’re doing–in exchange for convenience.
RCIt doesn’t sound far from reality at all.
JCHNo it’s not a stretch at all. It’s just not that well written. I think because it’s such a polemic, he gets stuck preaching. He did his best. Anyhoo… (laughs)
JCHLook, I love dance music. I still have an original autographed Kraftwerk album.
JCHOh yeah. Those guys were so creative. There’s a reason that they were so influential to (cough) ‘urban’ sounds. Everyone loved what they did. Lou Reed. Bowie. Afrika Bambaata. What they were doing cut across all lines. It just had to be done well. People think it’s all machines but just like I keep saying with opera or Prog the ninety percent that is dross falls away. I dunno how, but people figure out what is rockin’ and latch onto it.
The thing those electronic music guys worked out was a story arc. They figured out how to play bleeps and bloops for twenty minutes and make it interesting. They worked out how to have emotional highs and lows in the performance and despite what DJs tell you, they did it first. And that’s what made EDM possible.
RCBut is it music or conceptual art? I thought you hate conceptual art?
JCHWell that’s the thing, isn’t it? At some point, it stopped being interesting music and just became a show. And that’s when I checked out. When the video and computer technologies got cool, nobody could resist, right (laughs). But before then, they had to do interesting music. See that’s what a lot of artists like Talking Heads did. They made very creative music until video got cool enough. And then?
RCThey went on to what they wanted to do in the first place (laughs). So what you’re trying to say is that music was just a stopgap.
JCHMaybe. But I’ll tell you that there was a point, I’m not sure exactly where, but there was a point where if you squint a little, you can say that both Kraftwerk and Talking Heads coulda gone ‘Prog’. They had a concept and a message and a structure and in the case of Talking Heads they even had some players with serious chops that coulda taken them into the land of a Weather Report if they had so chosen. But they made, in my opinion the best rock movie ever, Stop Making Sense and that was it. They took as far as it could go.
RCBold statement. But OK. As James Brown said, “Kill ’em and leave.”
JCHYep. See my point is that dance music as a thing may intrinsically be ‘shallow’ because it speaks to (cough) ‘the body’ but it doesn’t have to be. It can go deeper.
RCBut you weren’t so much trying to make ‘deep’ dance music as commenting on the shallowness, right? That’s the whole point of all that ‘Brave New World’ gas, right?
JCHOK, ya got me in box there (laughs). But my point is that you have to ask yourself: Is ‘Prog’ really about mellotrons and soaring steel guitars and so on? In other words, this song has dance beats, but I maintain that it’s definitely ‘progressive rock’.
JCHWell, it’s goes through four keys for one thing (laughs). Yer typical rock/pop/dance song can barely manage two chords these days. That’s one thing I like about a lot of Beatles songs–for you musos out there, they modulate; they jump to different keys in the song like a proper ol’ fashioned songwriter would do, Guv (laughs). That’s a good part of what gives them their freshness–even today. Your ear hears these slightly ‘traditional’ harmonies being played by a young rock band.
RCDo you think the average Prog listener cares about that?
JCHFrankly, I don’t care so much as I care that the thing rocks. I maintain that I used the same tools to put this thing together as I did for any other song, I just used different ‘parts’. If you can get past the disco bits and hear the craft…
RCNot the ‘Kraft’… sorry, couldn’t resist…
JCHCute. The sophistication is there. I mean I put a lot of work into not just the message, but the craft–as much as any other piece I’ve worked on. And frankly, I think that what passes for ‘Prog’ these days is often just as stale. It’s just stale in a different way. I submit that by doing dance music, I’m actually being a lot more ‘Prog’ than a lot of the so-called Neo-Prog groups out there that sound like Pink Floyd or early Genesis or what not. But anyhoo, my main point is this: If it doesn’t get butts shaking it’s a failure. I can’t stress that enough. I’ll get into trouble for this but it’s what I call the Gentle Giant Effect.
RCOh no, I know what’s coming. Don’t do it.
JCHRemember when they did those latter records where they tried to prove they could ‘rock out’?
RCAnd all they did was prove that they couldn’t rock out.
JCHExactly. They sounded like what they were–these stiff English guys trying to rock out. So the satire just didn’t work. Zappa was the same in my opinion. He would insist on parodying disco or rock but the truth was? He just wasn’t those styles so the satire was never as good as he intended.
RCI have to step in and mention that you realize that this offends G.G. fans, right?
JCHIt’s just the truth. (As an aside it’s also one of the worst mixed records of all time.) They shouldn’t have done that kind of satire because it wasn’t them and I shouldn’t do this kind of social commentary unless I’m convinced it works.
RCSo by definition it works if people can’t easily tell it’s satire?
JCHThat’s the goal. A guy just off the boat from -wherever, not speaking a word of English hears this thing and just thinks…
RCNice beat. I give it an 85.
RCAh, but is it Prog, Grasshopper?
JCHI can’t hear you. I have my earbuds in, Daddy-o.