Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dance Sub-Genres and Pop Remixes

At the moment, I'm stuck in an airport in Chile on a 12-hour layover. An overnight bus-ride followed by a bumpy flight over the Andes means that I am physically exhausted from lack of sleep. And after 7 weeks of research, I am also really tired of thinking about my dissertation. Given the above, I thought I'd talk about something else that has been on my mind lately: dance music sub-genre loyalty.

Last summer, one of the students in my electronic dance music class called me out on something I never would have expected. To paraphrase, he said that fans of a certain electronic dance music sub-genres will always find pop music remixes within their preferred genre to be more emotionally evocative than those from others. It was the always that stuck with me and inspired my current train of thought.

In most dance music scenes, genre loyalty is fairly important, especially for the DJs involved. I have always been honest about my loyalties: when it comes to dancing, I'm a tech-house girl. This means that I enjoy most variants of house music as well as detroit techno. What really gets me moving (at times involuntarily), however, are the meeting points between the two genres. House is really my first love when it comes to dance music, mostly because of the genre's honesty about what it is really about: making people move with a four-to-the-floor beat that is unmistakable with soulful vocals on top. So when I hear a particularly well-executed house or tech-house remix of a pop song from the other end of the pop music universe that I already like, I go nuts and I need to dance. (This once happened when I was listening to a DJ mix tape while driving and I nearly crashed the car... One more reason why I no longer drive...)

But if I take my student's comments to heart, my current favorite dance remix is way out of bound for me: DJ Tiësto's remix of "Crosses" by José Gonzalez. I already liked "Crosses" in its original format, but the Tiësto version has had me bouncing around South America for weeks now. For me, the song is way more haunting and intense in its dance-floor version in a way that is entirely rare for me. I think it might have to do with just how spare the original production was for the quiet acoustic sound of Gonzalez's recording. But by adding the four-to-the-floor THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP with a gradual (yes, progressive) development more typical to trance during the track's six minutes, the urgency of the song just pops right out.

I love this remix way more than I should. I have avoided Tiësto (and trance) for years. He's the kind of trance DJ that is so legendary for appealing to the sub-genre's base. I am no trance loyalist. I teach the music, and I like some of it, but I would never attend a trance DJ event. I dunno... maybe tech-house shows my age. And when I talk to other house fans who avoid Tiësto, they have the same reaction to this dance mix. They like the mix but feel a little surprised that something by a anthemist like Tiësto would work so well. Yet there it is.

I don't really care about it when I listen to the mix and can't stop moving. Perhaps all this harping on sub-genre loyalty is inaccurate when it comes to pop music remixes, and maybe if Kaskade or Miguel Miggs had remixed this song I would be that much more elated; however, I believe that remixing a song to the point where certain emotions emerge with that much more force is a talent that requires skill. I have been humbled by Tiësto: he has reminded me that there is no room for genre loyalty when you just want to move.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A PhD in Horribleness

When I tell people over a certain age that I study musicals, they seem to feel obliged to do one of two things. Either they ask me what my favorite musical is (I don't have an answer to that one; sorry), or they tell me, conspiratorially, that they know all the words to West Side Story.

I'm not kidding; all Americans who were aware in 1957 know every last word of West Side Story. This odd tidbit is often used to begin a tiresome conversation about how musicals after WSS have really not lived up to its gold standard, an attitude common even among scholars of the musical theatre (British spelling specially added for extra pretension!). "Why have musicals fallen out of the public consciousness," my despondent yet articulate interlocutors ask; "why are they no longer a part of our collective knowledge?"

Here I can finally respond, "they still are." Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog represents the culmination, for many show fans, of a trend that has been building for over a decade, the parody musical. From The Bitter Suite episode of Xena: Warrior Princess (1998) and Joss' own Once More, With Feeling (2001), to Broadway productions like Urinetown (also 2001), Avenue Q (2003) and the aptly named [title of show] (this past Thursday), there have been upwards of a dozen musicals about being musicals in recent history.

Such a commercially and critically successful phenomenon can only exist when the idea of the musical still has a firm grip on the hearts and minds of at least a significant percentage of the populace. The jokes aren't funny once we've forgotten the language they employ, the language of the musical. Luckily, despite the insistent nostalgia of the over-fifty crowd, we haven't forgotten it. We've just let it grow and develop, as languages will if not policed. Musicals, much to the chagrin of certain older scholars, didn't stop changing when Dick Rodgers finally croaked.

Now to the matter at hand: Dr. Horrible. Unlike most of the other musicals listed above, Dr. Horrible does not explicitly acknowledge its parody status, except in its title. Nevertheless, it clearly plays on commonly recognized tropes of the musical comedy, intertwining them hilariously with those of comics and television. The result is something that cannot truly be slotted into any of the three media, a parodic hybrid that has become characteristic of...The Internet (dramatic thunderclap). Joss has always been a master of the ironic tribute, a form that affectionately satirizes its source material, and Dr. Horrible is no exception.

An example: The Act I finale ("A Man's Gotta Do") recalls, among many other classic musical theater numbers, the opening of Sondheim's A Little Night Music, "Now Later Soon." Each character presents his/her point of view in a solo, then the solos overlap into a trio texture for an exciting finish. Despite the overlap, every word is distinctly audible, and the contrasting personalities show clearly through. Consummate musico-lyrical craftsmanship, demonstrating a knowledge of the traditions of the genre, but capped with Dr. Horrible's exasperated "Balls!," in case the viewers accidentally started taking it too seriously.

This comedic-but-knowledgeable attitude is maintained throughout the musical numbers, with only a few breaks: the opening duet of Act II ("Any dolt with half a brain"), Penny's solo "Here's a story of a girl," the verse of Dr. Horrible's "Look at these people," and much of the final song, "Here Lies Everything." In fact, all of the songs sung by or about Penny are serious, musically foreshadowing her tragic fate and its consequences. Nevertheless, even these somber moments are leavened with...levity, one might say, by the visual accompaniment. The musical comedy is, after all, a comedy.

Or is it? Dr. Horrible is hilarious, of course. But Dr. Horrible isn't a comedy. An English teacher once told me that the difference between a comedy and a tragedy is that a comedy ends with everyone getting married, while a tragedy ends with a stage full of bodies. While this definition is facile, it does provide a way to view Dr. Horrible as a tragedy--Penny ends up dead, Captain Hammer weeping on a therapist's couch, and Dr. Horrible an emotionless shell. Not exactly a happy ending.

Which brings me back to my first anecdote. West Side Story has been hailed as the elevation of the musical comedy to an art form by the replacement of "comedy" with "tragedy." Frivolity is banished, in the end, by tragic death, no matter how defiantly we recall "I Feel Pretty" and forget the gang rivalry that has been tamed into finger-snapping dance routines. Fifty years later, another musical has dared to end without the rousing choral finale, with a lead struck down in the prime of life. Is Dr. Horrible the postmodern West Side Story for the internet age?

I submit that, yes, it does fulfill the same function. For those who grew up on self-aware musicals, television, and comic books; for a generation of pop culture consumers; for any participant in fandom, however tentative, Dr. Horrible can be that touchstone, that pinnacle of cultural evolution. In only 42 minutes. When our grandchildren confess to us that they are getting PhDs in internet memology, we can shake our heads and sigh at the downfall of memes after Dr. Horrible.

Is this paean ridiculous? Am I overstating the importance of an internet meme? Quite possibly. Nevertheless, that's the reaction this sort of thing demands. Either it is dismissed as just another meme among thousands, or it is worshiped as our Savior by thousands. I'm a fan of it, certainly. Just think about how many article possibilities are lurking beneath its smooth, polished surface, a surface that I have not yet begun to scratch!

Scratch away, readers.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Cause for Celebration

Act II of Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible exceeds all expectations (and it is certainly a welcome distraction from my field work). I may not specialize in musical theater, but I can certainly identify dorky fodder for musicologists when I see it.

Anyone more specialized in the genre care to comment?

Friday, July 4, 2008

The not beautiful in music

As someone who generally studies the uglier aspect of making music (i.e. blatant urbanity, consumerism, international tensions, etc.), I feel it is time for me to answer the question that is on everyone's mind: how do I weigh the not beautiful in the music I study. (Disclaimer: in many ways, this post is a continuation of Phil's non-answer to a vague trend in the musicology blogosphere and AMS list.)

For the last few weeks I've been in São Paulo, Brazil, the largest city in South America and the 3rd largest city in all of the americas, to finish up the ethnographic portion of my dissertation research. This city is urban in a way that only few cities in the world can approach: the air quality is terrible, there is far more concrete and high walls than I ever imagined, and there is a vibrant cultural and intellectual community including a very exciting music scene. At the same time, São Paulo also has the occasional logistical disaster (read: metro stoppages, and yesterday DSL failed in the entire state) and constant fears of crime exacerbated by social class divisions (sequestrados or kidnappings are fairly common for the elite as are helicopter flights to avoid traffic jams). I provide the above summation to give you an idea of the stark urbanity that currently informs my perspective on beauty, or lack thereof.

São Paulo was not originally part of my dissertation. I had originally planned to focus on the music industry in Rio de Janeiro, a place that is much more frequently associated with beauty and tourism despite its alarmingly high crime rate. For many reasons, I opted to spend a fair amount of time here because the city is so important to Brazilian cultural output. My tiny ethnography is now officially multi-sited. Isn't that cool? But what this means is that I've been spending a lot of time talking to music industry professionals all around a city known for its intense work ethic. Rarely do we talk about such ideas as beauty. The closest I've come to direct references to the beautiful in music are concepts such as "risk," as in this label took a huge risk on releasing that artist's CD, "performance skill," and "quality." They generally don't talk about beauty. Even the musicians that I have interviewed don't mention beauty as an overriding concept. They will use words like "exciting" or "interesting" to describe music that they like, but not beauty, even if they are trying to stir my interest in a new artist.

Just yesterday I spoke with a very prominent and successful individual in São Paulo's music scene (in a stunning apartment overlooking Ave. Paulista). When the subject of James Blunt came up, I could not suppress my disdain for his music, and he concurred. Then he said something that struck me as surprisingly in line with a concept that has dogged many a scholar in popular music studies (and this blog) for quite some time : "there is a big difference between the music that I enjoy, and the music that I dislike but I know others will enjoy." Was he directly referencing beauty or ugliness in any way? No. But his comment reminded me that in a place like the music industry, there is rarely time to consider such questions as aesthetics. Preferences and públicos (the Portuguese word for audiences) are always at the forefront, though. I guess nothing forces out aesthetic relativity like the world of cultural commerce. I can't say I have anything to complain about on that matter.