February 26, 2018 by Darren Clarke
“I could tell the truth or I could tell a lie, or say the right thing, at the right time…” (Gord Downie, Coco Chanel No. 5)
When I set out to create a playlist made up of the best musical offerings of the current decade I definitely didn’t expect to have songs by Gord Downie on it. But I don’t know what I expected really. Initially I set out to craft a playlist from the decade right here, right now, because after undertaking playlists for the 70s and 80s I was a little tired of wallowing in nostalgia. But mainly I was curious. I was curious as to whether today’s music scene was as bereft of brilliance as so many of my friends claimed it was.
Of course it didn’t take long to recognize that this decade is as ripe with brilliant artists as any other. I would actually take it a step further and suggest that no decade is as abundant with fantastic artists and fantastic songs as the one we are currently sitting in. The reasons for this are both simple and complex but let’s begin with the simple. There is way more people kicking around. The population of the planet has pretty much doubled since 1970. More people equals more possibilities. As to the more involved reasons for the unprecedented abundance of great music we can start with what the critics of today’s music are literally, perhaps accidentally, correct about- Music ain’t what it used to be.
Where once we had but a handful of radio stations to choose from we now have seemingly an infinite amount of options. And no longer is the listener the passive, often frustrated, figure of days gone by. For example, both iTunes and Spotify provide active algorithms that respond to your past musical choices offering up other artists of similar ilk to check out as well as endless opportunities to expand your musical palette. Beyond the interactive nature of the music listening landscape there is the sheer volume of music available to consume. A listener can craft playlists that could potentially last for days (i.e. the entire 1,200 song Giving Today a Play playlist totals approximately 72 hours of music).
Plus, with recording hardware/software and distribution paths readily accessible to artists pretty much everybody can create and disseminate music. In this new world that tune you’ve listened to thirty times the past few days might have been made by the girl who just handed you your morning coffee, or that weird cousin who doesn’t come out of the basement for family gatherings, or your boss at work. Anything is possible. Creating music isn’t just for those anointed by businessmen as commercially viable. It is by the people for the people.
Of course there is way more to the story. This deluge of music can at times make it difficult to have meaningful music find meaningful ears. Where there is an abundance of the very good there is a corresponding abundance of the very bad. And with all this music we are challenged at times to take the time to devote ourselves to digging into and fully appreciating individual songs and albums as opposed to just shuffling mindlessly off to the next song, album, artist. Additionally, the diminishing of profits attached to music means many great artists are challenged to maintain their creative energies and focus while balancing the demands of earning a living via various non-artistic jobs. And we are losing our sense of common musical touchstones. There’s something kind of cool about everybody being able to sing along/air guitar along to Free Bird, right?
We could start there with the upside though.
Suddenly not every voice at the bar is requesting the band play Free Bird (notwithstanding the fact Free Bird is an awesome song) or American Pie. Accessibility to music, tons of music of all shapes and styles, creates a kind of artistic zeitgeist less rigidly attached to any one particular style. This is exciting in and of itself. The lack of musical partisanship allows for delicious turns of tune like Handsome Furs inserting, reckless, sweet and sour, electric guitar into a sea of 80’s video game electronic drums and synth on Evangeline, or Feist ending the sparse and sprawling, A Man is Not His Song, (what a song title) with a brief, chugging, rock’n roll march to oblivion, or three guys from Humber College in Toronto forming BADBADNOTGOOD a band that is as comfortable with Hip Hop as Jazz as Funk as pop music in general, allowing them to prolifically serve up warm, lush, trips through all that which makes the heart grow fond- love, heartbreak, friendship, hanging out, dancing, sex and of course absence. Absence. But the kind of absence that in being borne of disregarding traditional, artificial, borders, allows not only for great art to be born but great truth.
What is today’s music? I don’t know. But the great news is that you don’t have to know exactly what something is to love it.
So there’s a lot of great music to love in Part III of Giving Today a Play. There’s Aldous Harding’s ethereal yet infectious, groove, Blend. The video for Blend bears mentioning as I think it is provides an interesting juxtaposition of eras.
On its’ surface Blend showcases Aldous Harding in a minimal, cheerleader like, outfit adorned with silver stars and guns and holsters that would appear to make her an easy fit for Van Halen’s Finish What You Started video (circa 1988). And here’s the thing, Harding is gorgeous. But she’s not posing as a Van Halen supermodel side kick. She’s the whole show. Harding (who I will forever struggle not to refer to as Huxley) alternates between sexy, scary, precosious, thoughtful, beguiling, cute, threatening, ridiculous and profound. I find myself lost as how to describe what it ends up being other than an unapologetic, winked, collection of some of her possibilities/the possibilities of her, good bad and otherwise. Emphasis on the otherwise. In deconstructing the stereotype she is dressed as, in deconstructing her own possibilities/possibilities of/for her that she is mugging, Harding leaves us with all we really should have ever asked for in the first place, a damned cool tune.
It’s a Brave New World.
It’s also worthy of mention that the comments are blocked for the Blended video on Youtube. Knowing the emotionally frantic, egocentric, world of Youtube comments I’m sure many people would have many things to say about the video if provided the opportunity. But in blocking the comments there’s a statement being made- This is for you to consider, not comment upon. And that’s a great and timely God damned reminder for all of us that sometimes what we think doesn’t matter.
There’s more music to indulge in here, the sunny, jangly, bounce and endless skies provided by Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever whose albums spill over with splashingly splendid tunes to walk a dog to (feel free to borrow a dog if you have to). There’s Oddisee punctuating the playlist with delicious little breaks of of funk and soul. There’s Cat Power, barefoot on the beach, strolling into another decade before climbing up the night sky to paint twinkling stars and there is Feist, stripping everything down to expose how easy it is to locate the most gorgeous parts of having a heart beat and a desire to create.
I listen to today’s music and the first thing that comes to mind to me is space and nuance. In a world where population growth and technology have diminished the physical and mental space available to the average person artists have sought to compensate by exploring the space within. Space less encumbered by ego and anger, self-doubt and angst, space less defined by exclusion and more by inclusion, by welcoming. In shrugging off clearly defined party lines today’s music gives you one less, pointless, thing to obstruct the experience of appreciating art. What a gift. Wide open spaces, wide open places, filled with the finest designs of the dreamiest folks floating through space with us. Imaginings to immerse yourself as deeply as you wish while feeling no obligation to comment.
In the end this is not right or wrong or better or worse, it’s the right thing, at the right time.