Trends at this year's Coachella Music & Arts festival speak to a larger split in what's 'cool' in today's music market.
2012 looks a lot less like the future always predicted in movies-- you know, the one where electronic rave music has completely destroyed any remnant of guitars and live drums, and kids wear glowstick pants and do designer drugs shaped like popular animals. In fact, this vision of the future always seemed decidedly rooted in the 80s, when most of these things were already happening. But the weirdest part about today's music landscape is the strange dual fads that seem to be forever intertwined in this year's big summer music festivals. Coachella (that purveyor of chic cool) was the first indication of the trend-- with a focus on bands like The Black Keys and Avicii as acts to see, it was hard to tell what the popular musical trend of the summer-- and subsequently the year-- is supposed to be.
One of the central points of music conversation always seems to be longevity. The difference between a fad and a style with staying power usually rises to the top of any argument for the validity of a new artist. The summer of chillwave came and went with nary a tear spent for the seemingly unstoppable mainstream rise of the Neon Indians of the world, only to be crushed by the resounding bass wubs of a new summer festival king. Perhaps "new" isn't the right descriptor. Although the loose and painfully vague (and specific all at once) word "dub-step" somehow emcompasses everything from James Blake to Skrillex, it seems to only indicate a likely deafening roar of lower frequencies in short, calculated blasts synced up to your drug experience. The prevalence of EDM at an outdoor music festival, and not only matching but superseding certain mainstage acts in popularity is strangely European. When did American kids get the idea that losing eight hours in what seems like two minutes of music was more fun than lighters and listening to "Lonely Boy?" This notion is slowly creeping up to the mainstage, and Coachella is the first classy North American festival to let it happen full throttle. What's going on here?
Rave culture has been undulating for quite some time, but only recently have we seen an epidemic of kids flocking to a specific genre of music rooted in house and EDM. Larger musical events now include headliners like Swedish House Mafia, Avicii, and Justice, who draw crowds as passionate as the typical guitar-n-drums festival fare. Although a few hit the main stage, most of the revelry is reserved for places like the Sahara Tent, a special kind of auxiliary location in the Coachella schematic. Electro/DJ act Morgan Page opened up the tent one day with his set, and had much to say about the culture. "The set-up in the Sahara Tent is insane" he told us. "You feel like a part of something in the Sahara tent that's a little different." Page played to a rabid crowd, despite his early time-slot. Every time I passed the Sahara Tent, it was crammed to the brim with kids dancing, often the loudest thing on that side of the grounds. Was it the "main" attraction of Coachella? For many, I think the answer is yes.
Page also talked about the importance of the visual impact of Sahara acts-- connecting with the audience often meant an elaborate stage show, lights, props, and more. In Avicii's case, it was a two-million dollar 3D mapping device shaped like a head, which he stood atop while performing. Naturally, it didn't work the first weekend due to technical difficulties. Dual electro-act Nero noted that a lot can go wrong with a big show, but all of the Sahara artists were taking big risks for a reason-- emotional connection with the audience depended on a memorable show, just not one or two hit songs. A marked difference from the main stage, where the connections were almost all song based, with visuals functioning as mostly an afterthought except for headliners.
This style is sharply contrasted with the recent popularity of folk and blues in the mainstream, particularly the retraction of whatever alternative rock was in the early aughts in favor of folk giants (Mumford and Sons) and blues bashers like Black Keys and Jack White. Who would have thought five years ago that the Black Keys would sell out MSG in the same year as bands like Swedish House Mafia are poised to do the same? It seems possible that pop is beginning to move past its auto-tune fixation and into a dual era of interest (or just a fractured one). Who is the winner, acoustic or electric? And in reality, do we really need to pick one?
Electronic music has seemed to peak several times already, somehow finding new ways to pigeonhole itself into subgenres. One such recent wave of stylized "nuance" (using the term loosely) is the phenomenon of misappropriated dub-step or as my interns so lovingly refer to it, "bro-step." This bass-heavy wub-motif has all but conflagrated the youth enthusiasm for electronic artists, making it easier than ever to be labeled things like "sick" and "crushing it" simply by applying the correct amount of tension to your build up, and the correct amount of "dirty" to your bass noise. It always seems to feel like the "disco" of our time.
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Popular rock, on the other hand, is aggrandizing the past like never before. None of it is revolutionary. Today's rock is firmly focused on the fusion of blues and soul perpetuated in the 60s and perfected by ripoff legends like The Rolling Stones. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but real artists straight up steal from their heros. The winners tend to steal from the obscure. Thus Coachella was a strange combination of retro-rock and electronic, more suited for an identity crisis than a festival who, technically speaking in terms of execution, has its shit together like no other. Other Lives didn't get to see too much of the other performances, but lead singer Jesse Tabish did feel like his band's classical-folk leaning styles didn't quite belong in the big festival setting. "And yet, people showed up, they cheered."
Other Lives may be an anachronism, but they've toured with the once upon a time "future" of popular music. The nexus of rock and electronic, ironically, also had a headlining spot at Coachella. Radiohead, often credited with shifting an entire paradigm of criticism with their often fellated Kid A, combines rock and electronica with an unparalleled amount of success. No band today can say they successfully made an album of off-putting post-modern poetry with a drug-addled background of bleepy-bloops sound as good as these guys, especially after they wrote all those classic-rock-y songs on The Bends. Their fans are almost as split as the audience of Coachella on what's hip, just in terms of their discography.
As many of you know, this is the same band.
And it's been awhile since Radiohead were the only ones blurring the line. There's been almost two decades of confusion on the matter. Dislocated genre signifiers have become the norm, not the exception. An easy pigeonhole usually spells death for the buzz of a band without two or three "mashed" modes of creation-- Passion Pit, Foster The People, Electric Guest to name a few. Three bands that had big singles that, while they seemed to occupy at least one thing sonically, could only be described with the vapid, vacuous nonsense word "indie." I wish I could strike it from the dictionary.
Coachella had other strange wonders brewing, you just had to look for them. In one of the campgrounds, Jazz-hop band Badbadnotgood was busy fulfilling some of the qualifications for the reunification of fads in an acoustic setting. They are a live trio that recreates popular hip-hop/electronic tunes with a jazzy backbone. But for all their musical prowess, no one seems as enthusiastic about it as they are with those creating their own discourse with modern popular music, by either sampling it, smashing it into a bass noise, or ignoring it all together.
My real problem with all of this is the timing-- both the electronic and the retrospective have seen meteoric rises in the past two years with tastemakers, and neither seem complementary in the slightest. The new landscape is further confused by the fact that most people seem to think rock, as a format, is dead, and technology killed it. Rock 'n roll has been proclaimed dead several times over, a "rock" song in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 is a rarity (especially if it isn't by a legacy act), and although we're still seeing blokes like Jack White find success, it's through innovative business practices and an ear for sonic mutilation of old musical tropes. Still, the mainstream remains relatively unaware of the taste-war brewing between these two strange camps of obsession-- obsession with the past, and the future-- obscuring what we can (or should) deem as hip in the present. It used to be that the kids told us what was the current sound, but in a world where the methods for musical consumption are reaching infinity, and the gatekeepers no longer feed us from their radio pulpits, who's to say we can't have two kings of cool? The Internet alone is making claims for at least a dozen.
It's weird that neither the Brochella or Coolchella mode of music are as pervasive in the true mainstream yet (although they're creeping in slowly). Shortly after Coachella, Avicii planned a significant stadium tour, only to be thwarted by poor ticket sales in secondary markets. It seems, despite the stark competition for the next radio throne, neither contender is making a dent on the recycled stuff at the top of the heap, and that's the most alarming part of it all-- despite a dual effort to move the conversation, and a million ways to do it, top-tier mainstream music seems more static than ever before.
I suspect it won't be long before the top collapses, and we're left to figure out the rest for ourselves. But in the age of "me," Myspace, Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter, it feels like the right time for a change in the traditional top-down approach to popular music.
Obviously this conversation is far from concluded. Feel free to chime in below.