Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The danger of loving the probable

When you flip a coin 10 times, your odds of getting ten heads or ten tails in a row are about 1 in 500. Your likelihood of getting six or seven in a row is, of course, much higher: about 1 in 10 and 1 in 25, respectively. So if you were to do a hundred such trials, chances are pretty good that you would get quite a number of sixes and sevens, an eight or nine here and there, and a full ten if you're slightly lucky.

Yet if you were to ask a hundred people to simulate a random sequence of 10 coin tosses in their minds, it's unlikely that you would get a single streak of more than five in a row. As humans, we are really, really bad at recognizing and recreating true randomness. And that's important to keep in mind, because the universe itself is random. It doesn't behave according to anyone's prescribed narrative, and history rarely follows a predictable sequence of events. In other words, if you're trying to anticipate where things are headed, it would be good to leave room in your calculations for some impersonal and objective metrics, because whatever you're capable of visualising probably won't be it.

The problem with indie rock, though, is that it's all about the highly subjective and deeply personal. The idea is not to make decisions based on concrete numbers and objective traits, but rather to correct the damage wrought by them. I'm sympathetic to this; I was attracted to this scene for these very reasons, even when they ended up working against me. When we were rejected by Secretly Canadian, for example, Chris Swanson made it clear that it wasn't based on any objective judgment of our talent or potential. He simply listened to his heart, and it told him we weren't the right fit.

Fair enough, but what if Secretly Canadian and all the other indie labels following their hearts out there are no different from those people tossing coins in their minds, whose seemingly random sequences betray an overarching homogeneity of thought once taken as a whole? We all want to discover and proclaim the ideal band, and we all have a fixed inkling of what that would look and sound like: familiar enough to be loved, yet unique enough to be respected. But when every band getting signed out there embodies this perfect combination, then the result is a boring, static mush.

A scene made up entirely of well-rounded individuals is, paradoxically, not itself going to be well-rounded. Without the occasional outliers taking things too far and giving us an improbable nine or ten heads in a row, we no longer get a diverse range of visions and perspectives. Just a predictable selection of signature quirks, each interchangeable with the next.

There's nothing wrong with loving the probable, of course. It's fine to want bands that we can visualise in advance. The danger only comes when our subjective preferences tweak the results to ensure that they get chosen all the time, every time, because history is disproportionately shaped by improbable events. Woody Guthrie couldn't have guessed that his successor would be a middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota, and back when rock and roll was synonymous with Southern rhythm and blues, the next big sensation after Elvis was unlikely to be four blokes from Liverpool. No improbability, no history.

So if we care about the future of music, perhaps each of us would be best advised to just relax, take our thumbs off the scale, and allow the momentum of concrete numbers and objective traits to take its natural course.

Update, November 25, 2011: It's official, I'm coining a new term, which I shall call "Bennett's paradox":
"A well-rounded scene must include those who are not well-rounded. If everyone is well-rounded, then the scene itself ceases to be well-rounded."
In a future post, I might write about why I think this helps explain not just the current state of indie rock, but also the current state of Western society as a whole. Until then... pass it on!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The problem with reclaiming music for the people

It's really interesting when you see the way we look at the whole history of music, we think of it all as being classical and then one day it was jazz and then one day it was rock and roll. But, in a lot of ways, I think what you're really seeing is the music of the people taking over. Taking the position it should have always had.
--Will Sheff of Okkervil River, in an interview with Pitchfork.
Homer: Oh, Lisa! There's no record of a hurricane ever hitting Springfield.
Lisa: Yes, but the records only go back to 1978, when the Hall of Records was mysteriously blown away.
--The Simpsons, in the episode "Hurricane Neddy."
So here's the problem with Sheff's statement: the history of music is actually awash in populist movements; it wouldn't be far-fetched, in fact, to say they've consistently outnumbered all others. The idea of reclaiming music for the people, of bringing it back to its folk roots where it rightfully belongs, has been around since early humans started carving flutes out of bones. If Sheff or anyone else has never heard of these movements, it's not for their lack of numbers, enthusiasm, nor even prominence. No less than the revered poet Goethe himself railed against the artistic liberties taken by Schubert in setting his poetry to music, for example. He much preferred the simple, strophic works of Reichardt and Zelter, which were more closely attuned to the feeling of authentic German folksong that he was after.

But of course, if you know your composers, then you already know how this story ends. You've heard of Schubert; you've likely not heard of Reichardt or Zelter. Here, then, is the great mystery: each generation might favour the backward-looking music of its contemporaries, yet remembers only the forward-thinking artists of its past. And as the present fades into history, the cycle repeats itself, discrowning yesteryear's populists and shoveling them underneath with such ferocity that when a new populist movement emerges, it looks around and genuinely believes itself to be at the forefront of rediscovery. What gives?

I have two explanations for this mystery. First, all populist movements share a common sense of aesthetics: simplicity and purity, as evinced by an artist's earnest conviction and lack of formal training. (Keep in mind that populist movements are urban, middle-class phenomena and distinct from the traditional music of rural folk they often seek to emulate, which tends to be less concerned with issues of authenticity and places a higher value on virtuosity.) There are only so many ways for populists to do simple and pure, though; by contrast, there are countless ways for visionaries to do multifaceted and challenging. Consequently, an established backward-looker won't sound all that different from an up-and-coming one and thus won't be missed, but each new forward-thinker is unique and irreplaceable. So over time, while the former simply rotate, the latter steadily accumulate.

Still, I think my second explanation is more likely, which is that backward-lookers always know who their audiences are, so they always know exactly which social language to speak in, which emotions to validate, and which well of shared values and cultural assumptions to draw from. Forward-thinkers, on the other hand, cannot foretell their future audiences, and thus are forced to express themselves in ways that transcend any particular time, place, or culture. So the populists of our own time will speak personally to us in ways that the visionaries among us simply do not. We might be convinced that this makes them superior and invincible. But our time--and our place, and our scene--can happen only once, and then never again. The future, however, is forever.

Will Occupy kill the indie rock star?

Indie rock is built on the romantic notion that heart and courage should count for far more in this world than unimaginative talent and routine effort. Certainly, this explains its historical appeal to college-educated young adults, many of whom have seen their lives stalled and creative passions stifled in unfulfilling careers. And ultimately, it is their salaries and prominent social status that have helped push indie rock to a level of cultural importance beyond its immediate capacities.

Today's college-educated young adults, however, are discovering that hard-earned credentials aren't enough to even grant them a first interview. Might the sting from this collective experience fundamentally change what this current generation will come to value in music? Bored with our careers, we once really loved the idea of a scrappy little band making the rounds, struggling to be heard, driven purely by earnest conviction. But now, with five or more job-seekers for every job out there, it seems just a little more crass that anyone should be asking for others' time and attention while feeling no need to match that sense of entitlement with superior results.

The worth of indie rock music is hopelessly tied to the goodwill that we feel towards its artists, which is not a sustainable economic model in the long term. It works only when times are good. And presently, times are not good.