As I gear up for a Dynamic Range Day post this coming Friday, I want you to Turn and Face the Strange in the meantime.
I've been a Depeche Mode fan from the first record. I really like(d) their ever-changing sound (at least until the early 90's), tasteful, yet cutting-edge use of technology, and impressive songwriting chops (even Vince Clarke's early 'throwaway' pop ditties - I'm an Erasure fan as well). So when 'Spirit' dropped last week I listened to it the day it came out and again this past weekend. After those two run-throughs I can say is that it sounds just like the last several releases, all of which have sadly lost most of the qualities I mentioned above.
The new single 'Where's The Revolution?' sounds to my ears like a copy of 'I Feel You' that they released in 1993 - 24 years ago. The remainder of the songs are derivatives of the 'I Took My Eurorack Modular to the Blues Jam' or 'Clever Repetitive Sequences with Anxious Lyrics' tactics found on the last several outings. Yes, Martin Gore's songwriting is still there, but it feels like he's cruising on autopilot. Dave Gahan still sounds like Dave Gahan. The production is (as usual) immaculate and punchy. It's unfortunately another exercise in repetition from one of 'the top acts'.
A couple of weeks ago, Song Exploder profiled the Sleigh Bells song 'I Can Only Stare'. I'm not a huge Sleigh Bells fan, but did like their last release so I was eager to hear what the new tracks sounded like. As I got a glimmer of the song and it's big kick drum and reverbed clap and synthy synths my expecations sank and all I could think was 'it's another overproduced Pop Charter'. During the interview Alexis and Derek talked about the genesis of the song starting out as 'shoegaze' guitars, and aping Johnny Marr and The Smiths. Other than a brief part of the demo, none of that is noticeable in the final release. For all their explanation about trying to capture youth and crushes and emotions, all they did was make yet another EDM Pop Anthem. Why?
This trend of 'staying put' or 'following the leaders' in today's music is unsustainable, and it has to stop. Rarely do I hear a tune that makes me want to listen to it again because it's either so poorly mixed and/or mastered that it's just grating to listen to, or it's so formulaic that it's gets lost in the din. Usually it's both. The 'established' acts are circling the wagons trying to stay relevant, while the up-and-comers are either so transfixed on creating the 'soundtrack for the lifestyle' or emulating what someone else is doing that it's all just so predictable and disposable. None of them will dare try anything unproven...
Concepts can only run so far. Like a lot of TV shows that get a few seasons in, the Idea Well starts to run dry. The initial ideas that made the show new and exciting start to get old and stale. So the powers that be, desperate to keep things above water, break out the safe and tested techniques to keep the train on its tracks. Sometimes they'll find a gem or two which gets them out of the rut and into some unexplored territory that reignites the love affair, but most of the time it stumbles and falters and gets kicked to the curb by something else. This is Pop Culture in a nutshell - trends ebb and flow, mutate and recycle, always fueled by the lure and mystery of the unknown and unproven. They grow and expand, ultimately to be expelled to the scrapheap of history, hoping to be rediscovered at some future point to be shoehorned back into society.
Artists have always scoured for that undiscovered and unknown to breathe life into their creativity and expression, so when did we suddenly decide that we didn't need to experiment anymore?
Every movement needs sparks to ignite it and tinder to keep it moving forward. I'm personally convinced that Jungle/Drum and Bass/Dub(insert suffix here) started because someone triggered a Hip Hop loop at the wrong speed and that same person had the guts to say "that's brilliant!" and kept it in the song. How many tracks, ideas, and genres have been inspired because of that Happy Accident? Every facet of modern music is standing on the shoulders of giants who pushed for louder, faster, slower, quieter, listenable, unlistenable, or just plain crazier to keep the fire burning.
Stop thinking about what might get you the money, and the clothing line, and the houses, and the cars, and all the materialistic claptrap. Stop being concerned about the charts and the plays and the downloads and the likes and the social notoriety. Stop worrying about failure. Those ideas in your head that you think nobody would care for for? That 'new sound' you've been playing around with? That experimental project you never finished because you thought no one would listen? Just get them out there.
Because if you don't, nobody else will.
The technology is on your side, Dear Artist. You can record it on the cheap and then get it out there to the biggest audience in history. You can promote it to the Nth degree with mere keystrokes from your Smartphone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can get every idea out of your head and blast it into orbit on a regular basis. You are in control. You have all the power. You can call each and every shot. Your ability to make your mark on the world has never been better.
So what's holding you back?
Scared? So it sinks into oblivion - at least you tried. Keep trying until the fear is replaced by excitement.
Think there's too much music out there? Yep, there is, and a lot of it is repeats and replicas as I mentioned above. Give us something different and you have a better chance at grabbing attention.
Already 'established' and don't want to 'upset' your audience? You're underestimating them, but if you must pay fealty to your fans then do it as a side project. What you do there might influence your 'Establishment' to even greater levels.
Don't know how to get it recorded or out there or heard? You have the same access to the same Interwebz I do. There's a lot of info out there - start researching, then get to work.
Don't really care? You're the perfect instigator for change. Bored people make great disruptors - try it for a lark to see what happens.
Just want to make Pop Fodder® and be like everything else? Go for it and best of luck, but remember that even if the Road Well-Traveled has the most traffic, it also has the most tolls.
We need you Dearest Artist, because if we're not careful that torch will go out...