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.