“All original thought is effectively dead.” I would attribute this quote to a face, but this little zinger has been spit out and reprocessed so many times it has become about as dead as the original thought it’s supposed to represent. Well, not dead maybe, but it’s at least become a household idiom (that is, if said “house” is situated in the angsty nihilism of the college campus).
Ever since the modernist boom of the early 20th century, which was a cultural movement that called for a wholesale coup d’état of tried-and-true artistic conventions in favor of outside-the-box experimentation, the knights of the intellectual round table have segued into discussing postmodernism. And, in short, postmodernism is the belief that all fathomable modes of formal innovation have already been deflowered, and that all we can do now as artists is play mix-and-match with the modernist devices our artisanal forebears have so generously handed down to us.
Of all the art forms, music has probably had the longest shelf life in terms of legitimate innovation (that is, if you boot video games out of the equation). This is largely due to technology’s inextricable role in sonic evolution — with the invention of each new instrument, a new genre (or two, or five) has followed. The electric guitar? Hello rock‘n’roll. The synthesizer? Late ’70s New Wave and electro-pop. The drum machine, the music sequencer and any other techno-apparatuses of the digital age? The birth of electronic music.
The sampler occupies a paradoxical spot on this timeline of musical modernization, as it paved the way for a “new” genre (bastard pop, mash-up, Girl Talk-ianism, whatever you want to call it) comprised of noises that have already been made by other people, serving as a sort of ambiguous hinge between modernism and postmodernism.
Theater’s implicit niche as the “timelessly nostalgic art form” prevents it from being too developmentally dependent on technology, and relatively recent technological advances in film (like CGI and digital rotoscoping) have served to evolve aesthetics rather than create new genres (unless you count “the Pixar movie” as a genre). But the perpetually shapeshifting state of music technology kept it a relatively fluid art form up until about the mid-’90s. Suddenly, computer programs and digital sound processing have given us the ability to synthesize any noise our hearts desired. And I guess my question to the future of formal innovation in music is this: What’s next?
Technology has bestowed upon us a sort of platonic dream machine — a wish to end all wishes. And while digital audio programs can (and will) be infinitely revamped, it’s hard to imagine any device that could drastically revolutionize the course of music history (barring the idea of a contraption that enables us to hear in a new dimension and/or induces synesthesia). It seems, at this point, that we’ve sufficiently emptied our bag of tricks.
Just look at the past few years: All of the major musical “movements” have been little more than mass pilgrimages to the nostalgia bank. Last year, it was the rootsy folk-rock revival, with rustic-minded artists like the Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and The Dodos dropping name-making records. A few moments before that, it was the disco revival, with dance-punk babies like LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture adding a Gen-Y edge to the bouncy synth-pop and post-punk of the late ’70s. Hell, at this rate I wouldn’t be shocked if 2009 ended up going down as the year of the “revival revival.”
Postmodernism seems to have reached such full swing in the field of music that we’re even getting what are fundamentally “pastiche bands” — bands that harness their appeal by subjecting us to a giant game of spot-the-influence. Indie rock outfit Tapes ’n Tapes wears its patchwork quilt of influences on its flannel-wearing, counterculture sleeves, functioning as a sort of walk-through museum of the college rock circuit. Like Quentin Tarantino flicks, these quintessentially postmodern bands specialize in the flattening of musical history, compressing decades of formal innovation into one nifty little MP3 file.
As an artist, this notion that original thought is effectively dead is particularly alarming. What’s the point of calling myself a creator when all I’m really doing is making club sandwiches from unconsciously pilfered fragments of shaved ham and stagnant culture? When my film history GSI told us we’re nothing more than passive receptacles of a consumerist society, my artistic ego flipped a shit. I went down the whole “I’m just a genetically predisposed bundle of automatic responses to stimuli, caught in the pinball machine of natural law” rabbit hole — and that’s never any fun.
But then I thought about some of my favorite bands — bands that continue to produce (in my opinion) seminal records after this postmodern hump. The Flaming Lips may not have invented psychedelic pop, but I think it can be unanimously agreed upon that no album in existence sounds anything like The Soft Bulletin. And while Animal Collective hasn’t technically invented a genre, the band has managed to craft an exotic sound that’s undeniably its own.
Cynics and theorists can continue to hammer out proofs that original thought is effectively dead — in a way, I agree with them. But in the end, music is all about the x-factor; something much less tangible than any Sony Acid Kit. And if I can create anything that gives people the same kind of shivers I get while listening to a song like “Phantom Other” by the Department of Eagles, I’m not going to give a flying fuck that I’m ripping off Paul McCartney a little bit.