Laugh, dammit

This may come as a shock to no-one, and this may be a case of the last horse finally crossing the finish line, but I have recently developed a theory as to what is wrong with electronic music today. And by “what is wrong” I mean “why can’t anybody seem to sell anything.”

It’s a problem endemic to most genres – drum-n-bass, trance, synthpop, EBM, breakbeat, techno…

Nobody’s got a damn sense of humour.

Breakbeat probably comes the closest, and there are a few techno artists that have the whole nod-and-wink thing going on, but it’s often really hard to tell with instrumental music just how much wink-nodding is actually going on. Orbital, for example, is awfully wry, but if you’re not the sort of trainspotter that compulsively reads liner notes you might not be in on the joke. Fatboy Slim always seemed to have some fun with his music but also tended to beat the listener over the head with the gag, which as any comic (or anyone who watches Leno) could tell you doesn’t work.

Trance fails miserably. When there are lyrics of any kind they’re usually indecipherable at best or just nonsense at worst. Ethereal women singing 4 bars of touchy-feelyness, looped ad nasueum. When they actually try to have lyrics, we come to the sort of problem that plagues synthpop and EBM.

Ahh yes, synthpop and EBM. From the proletariat struggle against an industrialized society of the 80’s and the angsty cold-war imagery spawned by the Reagan/Thatcher era to the…um…same sort of thing except with retro cred of the current era, from the heartfelt love-on-the-margins tales of early depeche mode to the…uh…love-on-the-margins tales of love of current depeche mode, the vocal electronic pop/dance musics are stuck in this timewarp. EBM grabbed the cliches and ran with them, spawing thousands of acts singing about circuit boards and replicants, thoroughly beating the ideas to death with grim-faced precision. Meanwhile synthpop ran in place, with earnest boys with earnest haircuts and singing earnestly about earnest topics. Along came electroclash, which despite the hype was just 80’s synthpop through a po-mo filter. “Earnest” became “bored and ironic” and that was that.

No wonder nobody buys this stuff anymore.

Take a look at the electronic acts that have sold well: The Streets, The Postal Service, the Faint. The Streets have frankly the lowest production values I’ve ever heard on a major-label album. The Postal Service is fairly twee by way of subject matter and Ben Gibbard’s voice. The Faint sounds an awful lot like Clan of Xymox circa 1986. So why are these guys getting the sales, the radio play, the spotlight while bands with better production, better songwriting, and newer ideas aren’t? It’s all about the lyrics. While EBM languishes with war imnagery and borderline therapy poetry – this is how I feel and I’m going to sing about it occaisonally using deeply profound metaphor – the Streets writes songs about people having fun, living life and just generally doing what they do (of course his introspective tracks tend to be pretty dire). The Postal Service sings about the same heartbreak and lonely-boy topics as most synthpop
bands, but instead of tugging at the heartstrings they indulge in tounge-in-cheek hyperbole and goofy metaphor. Occasionally they slip into sacharinne sweetness, but even then they still do a a decent enough job with wordplay. They’re having fun. The Streets are having fun….while the rest of us are singing about the girl that broke our hearts and the post-apocalyptic wasteland in which we apparently live. Or, if you’re BT or his progeny, it’s a mix of superficial spirituality and isn’t this a cool noise-style production.

Loosen up, have fun. Even the political bands cut loose every once in a while. Even Public Enemy could have fun.

I can’t explain the success of the zillion awful pop records that come out every year, though.


  1. wonko

    Nah, I make up for it with funny music.

    I don’t find your lyrics of the insanely self-serious variety either. I’m getting mostly annoyed with bands that write horribly, horribly cliched or overwrought lyrics without a trace of irony while doing it. I do not believe it is still possible to consider oneself socially relevant while singing about replicants.

  2. bishop

    > I do not believe it is still possible to
    > consider oneself socially relevant while
    > singing about replicants.

    Ha! That is a great line.

    But, come on, the emergence of replicants has been one of the most important topics of debate in the 21st century.

  3. hey… maybe it’s also:

    1. That the fan base is tiny-Madison’s THRIVING scene is about 200 people tops–in other words–1/1000 people here (and one should note that the variation of taste within that 200 people is already such that not all of them like EBM or Goth or Powernoise or synthpop or more experimental etc. etc.. ). If your fanbase is generally that small, you aren’t going to seel mass quantities=100’s of cd’s–very easily;

    2. That is is often easier to steal the music than buy it;

    3. That most of the people in the scene aren’t wandering around with a lot of spare cash–especially these days;

    4. That the subset of people in the very small scene, who do have adequate spare cash, and who have the integrity to pay for the music they want is REALLY tiny..

    Basically, the overlap of the venn diagrams here is small.

    I think that this explanation is simpler and more likely than a collective lack of humor. Also, I doubt, if all the music and fans suddenly got in on the joke, that sales would spontaneously just rocket up because the music is all fun now.

    ps–I do agree that a bit more humor and fun couldn’t hurt.. but if all bands became the gothsickles (who are super humorous and fun!) then you’d saturate the music with that style…. and have the same problems…

    1. Ahh, thanks to a rogue plugin, a 3-year-old post comes to the front again.

      You’ve kind of missed the forest for the trees on this post. The point wasn’t specifically about sales – although that is relevant – nor is it specific to the very very tiny EBM/goth/noise/synthpo scene (hence the references to breakbeat and trance, which do sell and have audiences several orders of magnitude above and beyond the madison scene – hell, I’ve been to club nights bigger than the worldwide industrial scene). The point is that a lot of acts, especially in the electronic genres, take things, aprticuarly themselves, way. too. fucking. seriously. Wordplay is mostly dead. Irony is dying. Cleverness is dying. Electronic music overall is rife with too many people trying to be profound and doing a terrible job of it.

      Look, nobody said everyone has to be The Gothsicles. In any genre. But JESUS are there a lot of bands who take everything, themselves included, WAY TOO SERIOUSLY.

      1. Oh sweet jesus–this is from like a million years ago! (I somehow saw it on Facebook and thought it was from like yesterday without ever bothering to read the date!)

        In any case–I took the “sales” approach from this: “And by “what is wrong” I mean “why can’t anybody seem to sell anything.” ”

        So I focused on what seemed to be the guiding theme set up in the intro.. 🙂

        In any case–I totally agree with you that way to many acts take themselves way to seriously.. (I actually tend to think that MOST acts take themselves way to seriously…)–No argument from me there..

        I also think the 2004 context makes this much more understandable–back then, there was a sort of “ueber-bubble” of people thinking they were god’s gift to sound just because they could decide to form a band..

        Anyway.. I actually think we talked about this on LJ or some other forum back in 2004-ish… 🙂 and I think we sort of agred that the problem was that people just weren’t making very good music–they weren’t being intelligent about their music and had a process of making music that really didn’t pay much attention at all to the role of the audience–and what they might want or like–in it..

        and now back to work…

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