I just went out and paid like $560 for a synth and for the past year I’ve been recording extensively with Garage Band, working out drum machines and sequencing and what not. And guess what? So is everyone else. Bands with synths and drum machines are pretty much standard in 2009. In mainstream music too – nothing special. But 10, 15 years ago, it would’ve been seriously weird (or just downright impossible) for an indie-rock band (or “indie” – in terms of vibe or genre – rock band) like MGMT to have a hit single with heavy reliance on synths and dance music drum machines.
But not 20, 25 years ago…
Okay, big deal, music goes in cycles, nothing new. In the 80s everyone was nuts about synths and drum machines too. So…Does that mean that in the decade we’re going to get rid of them again? Did I just waste a whole lot of time and money?
For some reason, (Nirvana?) the mid-to-late 90s effectively made the use of synthesizers and drum machines in rock a serious no-go. The music of the 80s then (and still to a large extent, now) seemed goofy, often shamelessly commercial and misguided – at least at first glance. Of course, it was also host to all kinds of great music from the likes of Sonic Youth to Prince to Michael Jackson to Jesus and Mary Chain to The Smiths to The Cure to Black Flag and on. But then there was “Don’t You Forget About Me”, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and, uchhhh, this. And unfortunately the sour taste left by the aforementioned – especially in terms of their cheesy, lazy and generally stupid and exploitative use new technology like synthesizers and drum machines – generally provoked a contempt towards all those things for the better part of the 90s.
I guess by 2000 we were ready to bring them back again, and Kid A was definitely a strong (and commercially successful) beginning to that movement, which later gained momentum with the popularity of indie bands and artists coming out of Brooklyn, Toronto and Montreal like TV On The Radio, Broken Social Scene and Wolf Parade. The fusion of dance music and indie rock kickstarted by James Murphy and his DFA label was a major movement as well.
So why would we get rid of them again? What sense would that make?
Well – look at Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Their songs have dance drum machines and synth and glam rock and new wave influences – just like MGMT, TVOR, LCD Soundsystem etc. Just compare “Hot’n'Cold” with “All My Friends” or something, it’s the same aesthetics, just tweaked a little differently. “Hot’n'Cold” is more conventional in structure, it’s got the quieter verse, the big blasted hooks in the chorus, the easy narrative. “All My Friends” is longer, the composition is experimental, the lyrics less organized and far more complicated in their sentiment. Even so, it’s the same colors just painting different pictures.
Lady Gaga and Katy Perry are mainstream artists who are taking cues from what began in indie rock and in the ‘legitimate’ art spheres and commodifying it. This is what always happens. Pitchfork kind of got it right in their recent article “The Decade In Indie”
in which Nitsuh Abebe wrote about how music in the 80s was very polarized and then in the 90s, after the success of Nirvana, all the indie rockers got scooped up by major labels and indie culture sort of blended in more with mainstream culture. It starts with crossovers like Nirvana then Dinosaur Jr. and Husker Du, but pretty soon they’re tweaking this and people want that…and eventually you get to Nickelback. And then the cycle begins again.
So what does that mean for us indie rockers and/or hipsters?
It means that we might get sick of all these synths and drum machines pretty soon. And that sucks for me and everyone else who spent money on wacky technology the past couple years. Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are just the beginning. In the next couple years it’s likely going to spread like a virus and pretty soon dance or indie rock could become just as cheesy and defiled as modern punk (that is excepting Jay Reatard) or grunge. We’re likely to all (re)develop a gag reflex whenever we hear synths or drum machines because it’ll remind us of all the shitty music that just tossed them on as if to say, “Look how like everyone else we sound! This is what you guys like – right?”
Alternative? Who knows. It’s not like we’re sick of electric guitars just because Ashley Simpson’s band plays them. Maybe it won’t have anything to do with the technology this time around but merely the application of it.
Let’s hope so.
Tags: mgmt, will the 20-teens spell the death of synths and drum machines...again?