Sunday, September 12, 2021

Cruel Poptimism

I am sometimes said to have coined the term "poptimism". At this point, I am used to being the Default Accused when it comes to coining genres and repeat-offender neologizing (quite a few things have been attributed to me that really weren't my responsibility). But "poptimism" and "poptimists" - these were terms I did use starting in the early 2000s, just before that whole debate really kicked off big time. They were intended as mildly insulting terms to describe a stance fashionable then that argued that all years were good years for music - there was no such thing as a bad year - the idea was to break with the manic-depressive bipolar idea of pop-rock history, in which there were peaks and troughs, and pivotal years (all these silly cyclical theories that years ending in '7, or whatever, were years of revolution). "Poptimism" was jibing with the idea of a steady-state flow of musical bounty, a level supply (some folks pointing to how if one area you were focused on went fallow, then you should just look elsewhere in the genrescape).  

Needless to say this sort of eclectic, diverse-portfolio, keep-calm-and-carry-on-consuming sensibility didn't really gel with the way my nervous system is wired. I also didn't feel it was fundamentally true - in any culture field, there's rhythms of acceleration and hyperactivity, followed by doldrums and dearths...  periods when it feels like everybody is firing on all cylinders and sparking off each other, but then the idea-flow reaches a temporary impasse, a flatness... I prefer that kind of feeling of, and feeling for, history - hence the mild jibe at what seemed to me a slightly forced optimism about pop, which often came out less like manic excitement and more like stolidity. 

Then the argument about poptimism versus rockism got more heated (there was an alternative formulation, rockism versus popism, rockists versus popists, which I kinda preferred, liking the echo of "papists"). The pejorative was cleverly seized upon and turned into a positive identity, a banner to wave in a battle (a battle, ironically, for an end to battling and side-taking). 

But as I say don't know if I was the first to use the term. It seems like a somewhat obvious formulation that someone else would have formulated (c.f. post-rock) much earlier and that lodged itself in my brain to reemerge and be repurposed

However if I did in fact come up with the word, I came up with it long, long before the early 2000s. 

The other day I stumbled on a use of it in a review from 1989!


"nostalgia for a period of poptimism you never even lived through yourself"

But that's not even the first time I used it - see below, which is 1987. 

Being used in reference to Swing Out Sister, who were sort of Late New Pop, makes me think that I  probably picked up the word during the early 1980s, it seems like a term Morley or Adrian Thrills or someone like that might have bandied about when bigging up Haircut 100. Here it just means a kind of lighthearted bounciness.

Thursday, September 2, 2021


 I did an interview December 2018 with Beatrice Finauro of Dry magazine (Milan) about trap / mumble rap - and why it was my favorite music of recent years. Here it is - resequenced a bit - and with a riff woven in from a separate interview with an Italian journalist that touched on the subject glancingly, and a few other stray thoughts.

Is trap a heresy, a new classic canon or both things at the same time?

On one hand, trap is just rap – the same old, same old. Gangsta rap, part 12. If you listen from a distance, you won’t hear anything you’ve not heard before. But immerse yourself in the music, and you hear a host of micro-innovations. Most of them are in the domain of vocals – the creative use of Auto-tune and other vocal processing, the emergence of ad libs as kind of antiphonal commentary on or reinforcement of the lead vocal, the blurring of rapping with singing so that you can’t distinguish between rhythmic speech and melodic trills. 

Listen to the almost choral weave of voices in Migos - the main rap, the ad libs (often shouted or whooped or gasped nonverbal eruptions of pure jouissance), and then the rippling hyper-Autotuned backing vocals - again, wordless moans of ecstasy that sometimes resemble psalms or monastic chants. This is a new thing in music. And just as striking and interesting, it's a new kind of melting, woozy subjectivity for hip hop masculinity - almost effete at times. 

This new subjectivity and the vocal modes that have emerged alongside it seem to have been produced by changing drug use patterns  - the different vibes  generated by drugs like Xanax and Percocet. Although purple drank has been a southern  hop hop staple for a long while. But these numbing anxiety killers and pain killers have turned rap of the Migos, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, Rich the Kid, Travis Scott type into a kind of ambient music - or even Ambien Music.  It exists in a zone between faded and fey. 

Texturally the floaty, wafting, twinkly IDM-ish sounds in the production make trap one of the last remaining bastions of minimalism in modern music, which otherwise tends towards maxed out digitalism. Trap has digimax's hyper-real contoured gloss, but in combination with minimalism - so you get this killer combination of spare and sumptuous. Trap tunes often consist of just a few vaporous sounds looped and these highly repetitive vocal hooks, and often there are a rather small total number of words in the entire lyric. It's a break with the whole tradition of MC lyricism, it's much more about texture and mood, and these sing-songy, rippling hooks. This is music that invites you to trance out, to listen in a semi-attentive stupor. Tracks ooze out of the car speakers to cloud the vehicle's interior - and especially if you're driving at night, it's like you're gliding along inside this futuristic glowing capsule. 

Adam Harper defined the characteristics of Hi-Tech aesthetics Vs Indie aesthetics. I think some of the features of Hi-tech, such as the harsh vision of the future, being decadent, excessive and aggressive, and originally linked by Harper to artists such as James Ferraro, Laurel Halo and Oneohtrix Point Never, can be also attributed to the trap genre. On the other hand, we have the supposedly warm, benign, archaic and, I’d say, lifeless realm of Indie to which the trap is opposed. In your opinion, which are the main trap’s features and where does trap lie in the contemporary ecosystem?

The supposedly subversive or parodic elements of vaporwave or hi-tech / hi-def – to me they pale next to the reality of what is streaming out of the mainstream airwaves. Which is to say the hyper-reality of it -  a lifestyle that is fantastical, psychotic... What could be more insane or morbid than the subjectivity in a Drake record or a Kanye song? The black Rap n B mainstream is further out sonically and attitudinally than anything the white Internet-Bohemia has come up with. Rap and R&B, Travis Scott, the Weeknd, Cardi B, Migos: is already the Simulacrum, is already decadence. I call it Weimar n B.

Trap spans from the original formula, such as the one of Gucci Mane, T.I, Young Jeezy, to the Ebenezer’s one, influenced by R&B and Gospel, to London’s Drill and so on… And each country has its own version. Is there a common ground, rule or standards that is cross to the different types of trap?

There are certain beat patterns that recur (yet also a surprising diversity of grooves and feels). You can connect trap back to early 2000s sounds like crunk and New Orleans bounce – the idea of the Dirty South – to labels like Cash Money. 

I suppose if there are two things that define all 21st Century hip hop is that it doesn’t use samples very often and it breaks with the looped breakbeat approach of classic East Coast Hip Hop. The beats are programmed and relate to a longstanding Southern U.S Hip Hop tradition that was rooted in drum machines and 80s Electro. Trap is part of that, as was the related L.A. sound of Ratchet as pioneered by DJ Mustard. But in a larger sense it’s all trap, it’s all gangsta rap, it’s all rap. There’s an absolute continuity, a changing same to quote Amiri Baraka.

Why does trap have such an influence on kids?

Kids want something that feels now and that belongs to them, and trap is the most convincing and intoxicating contender for that role. Most other forms of youth music are static or overly shadowed with heritage and history.

The other thing is that trap is one of the few music around that drips with a disruptive and illicit jouissance. Trap – especially Migos and Young Thug, but all of it – is ecstatic. The performers seems entranced by themselves, in a swirl of ecstasy and glory. Think of the feeling in Rae Sremmurd ‘Black Beatles’ . The fact that their trope for that feeling of excess, triumph and abandon is rock stardom tells you something. This is supplying what kids got from the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin: a fantasy of a life without constraints.


Anonymous Luke said...
It's unfortunate that your point about mumble rap representing a new subjectivity for hip hop masculinity didn't make it into the published interview as it is one of the things that I find most interesting about mumble rap too. Especially when it is contrasted with the typical portrayal of hip hop masculinity which still found a place in the published piece.

Regarding the dichotomy between 'conscious' hip hop and mumble rap, it is a necessary distinction, but i like to think of mumble rap as 'unconscious' hip hop not because it is anti-woke or anti-progressive, but in the psychoanalytic sense. If conscious hip hop is superego music, and the majority of other hip hop ego music, mumble rap is id music. From all the non-verbal sounds, the adlibs, the mumbling and so on, to those problematic lyrics which often come across as more the product of free association than conscious boasting.

SR replies 
I like the idea about it being 'unconscious' rap, stream of unconsciousness, letting fantasy and the id come out to play

The ecstastic blurry moans and gurgles and the Tourettic ad libs, they seem to release psycholibidinal energy in spurts and spasms, it's very much some Kristeva semiotic material being let loose, strings and blobs of jouissance

Reminds me of Tim Buckley's "Starsailor" the track

The babyvoice Playboi Carti just makes the regressive tendency manifest...

Thursday, August 26, 2021

the richness and range of reggae

Big Youth

Natty Universal Dread

Various Artists

A Jamaican Story

Uncut, May 2001

by Simon Reynolds

In Jamaica, the DJ isn't the guy who spins the records (that's the selector), it's the bloke who chats over the music. As misnomers go, it's a good one, though, since DJ is short for disc jockey, and the whole art of reggae deejaying is vocally riding the riddim – whether it's a loping nag as with the mellow skank of Seventies reggae, or a bucking bronco as with digital dancehall.

Alongside U Roy, Big Youth was one of the first and greatest roots-era DJs, his smoky voice unleashing a gentle torrent of prophecy and prattle: "one love" beseechings, get-up-stand-up exhortations, Psalm-like chanting, but also boasts, children's rhymes, laughter, shrieks and grunts. As a less musically compromised natty dread soul-Jah than Bob Marley, Big Youth was a potent icon of radical chic for white youth during the punky-reggae era; John Lydon was a fan, and even persuaded Virgin to sign the DJ for their Front Line reggae imprint.

Songs like 'Is Dread In A Babylon' and 'Every N***** Is A Star' capture the militancy of a period when Jamaica was feeling the cultural tug of post-colonial Africa while remaining geopolitically very much within the American sphere of influence/interference. Perhaps that's one reason Big Youth forged connections with the US's own black "enemy within", interpolating lyrics from The Last Poets into "Jim Screechy".

Worth acquiring just for the glorious rhythm tracks over which Big Youth toasts, Natty Universal Dread is Blood & Fire's best since their Heart Of The Congos reissue, and, typically for the label, this three-CD set is a beautifully designed fetish object.

Trojan's A Jamaican Story is a curious looking thing, by comparison. Culled from this veteran label's formidable archives, its cardboard chest contains 10 smaller boxes, shiny packets that look like bars of Ritter chocolate. Each of these three-CD micro-boxes is devoted to one era or aspect of reggae history: ska, rocksteady, lovers, DJ et al.

Unlike the Big Youth set's exhaustive annotations and accompanying essay, there's minimal information provided, just a rudimentary sketch of the specific genres. You don't even get dates of recording/release, or the identity of the producer and the engineer who did the mix (absolutely crucial information with dub). Truthfully, it's hard to know who A Jamaican Story is targeted at. Reggae fiends will want Blood & Fire-style data overkill (plus those vintage photo overlays and deliberately faded-looking graphics that emphasise the sense of bygone times), while neophytes are hardly going to shell out a few hundred quid for this 30-CD colossus.

All that said, it's impossible to quibble with the quality of music here: Story is a treasure chest. Its span stretches from Desmond Dekker to Scientist, a sonic journey from ska's two-dimensional cartoon jerkiness to dub's haze-infused chambers of deep space. Story also serves to remind just how much Jamaican pop falls outside the rudeboy/rootsman dialectic-there's goofy instrumentals, novelty songs, topical social comment, pure dance music, and love song after gorgeous love song.

What's faintly terrifying, though, is that, as crazily copious and encompassing as it is, A Jamaican Story still warrants that indefinite article: 500 tracks long, it only skims the surface of reggae's ocean of sound.