Monday, June 17, 2013

Another Man magazine, 2012

by Simon Reynolds

“I was at the forefront of a new black British generation who had a double identity, a double culture,” says Dennis Morris, the legendary photographer whose 1970s camerawork gave equal time to reggae and punk. “One minute I’d be hanging with the Sex Pistols, the next I’d be on a plane to Jamaica. Bob Marley would ask me, ‘what you think about these punks, mon?’ and I’d go, ‘they cool’. He’d say, ‘but the swastikas?’ and I’d be, ‘nah worry, mon. It’s just for the shock value.’

Sixteen years old, armed with a Leica, Morris first met Marley and the Wailers in 1973 and was invited by the then barely-known group to accompany them on the Catch A Fire U.K. tour.  A few years later Morris made his professional breakthrough when his shots of the Wailers appeared on the front of several music papers in the wake of their epochal July 1975 show at London’s Lyceum.  Reggae fan John Lydon noticed Morris’s gritty reportage-style work and when the Sex Pistols signed to Virgin Records the singer asked for him to handle their first photo session. 

Morris and Lydon immediately clicked: not just because of the shared passion for Jamaican musics but because of an affinity between Irish and Caribbean immigrants as victims of discrimination in the U.K. Lydon would go on to title his memoir Rotten: No Irish, No Black, No Dogs after the sign that racially prejudiced landlords put in windows. Dennis and Johnny also frequented the same parts of East London: Morris grew up in Dalston, Lydon attended the nearby Hackney Technical College, and unbeknownst to each other they’d gone to many of the same clubs. Morris spent much of 1977 following the Pistols around, at a time when “God Save the Queen” made the group lightning rods for rage from the great British public. “For me it was a dream scenario, the equivalent of photographer heroes of mine like Larry Burrows documenting the Vietnam War, or Don McCullin’s work in Northern Ireland.”

At the end of a chaotic American tour in early 1978, the Pistols split in bitter disarray and Lydon returned to London with no idea what he was going to next. “He was pretty distraught, the Pistols meant a lot to him,” recalls Morris.  Around that time Morris was asked by Virgin Records supremo Richard Branson to come on a trip to Jamaica. Reggae was at the peak of its creativity and spiritual militancy and Branson planned to scoop up the cream of roots’n’dub talent for a new Virgin imprint, The Front Line. Morris would photograph the signings for album covers and promotional shots. “I said to Branson, ‘why don’t you take John too? He loves reggae and knows a lot about it. And he’s looking for something to do’.”

Within days, Branson, Morris, and Lydon, plus DJ/film-maker Don Letts and music journalist Vivien Goldman, arrived in Kingston, Jamaica. “First thing that happened at the airport was this group of Rastas saw us and they were, like ’hey Johnny Rotten mon! God save the Queen!’. And we looked at each other and smiled and were like, ‘we gonna be cool here’.”

Life in JA slipped into a luxurious and leisurely rhythm: Branson had booked an entire floor at the Sheraton, Kingston’s flashest hotel, and Lydon and his companions lounged by the pool, where they chatted with visiting reggae royalty while gorging on lobster. (Much to the distaste of the devout Rastafarian musicians, for whom shellfish—“anything that crawls or creeps”—was forbidden by ital, Rasta’s dietary laws).  The reggae greats—U Roy, The Mighty Diamonds, The Heptones, The Abyssininans–trooped to the Sheraton because word got out that there was a crazy Englishman offering big money for their music, cash in hand.   “I think it was Big Youth first. He comes to the hotel with a cassette player and we’re all sitting around the pool listening to his tape. Richard Branson says, ‘Yeah, l like it... but what do you think, John?’ And Lydon goes, ‘yeah, yeah, it’s great’. So Richard says, ‘okay, what do you want for it?’ Big Youth says, ’20 grand’. And Branson, says ‘Fine... Come back tomorrow and I’ll have it for you’. Off he’d go to the bank. After that we had people coming to see us every day.”

Jamaica in the 1970s was a land of crazy mixed-up contradictions: deep mystical vibrations coexisted with fast-money hustling, sun-kissed upfulness clashed with life-is-cheap bloodshed.  The island was “under heavy manners”, the state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Michael Manley to suppress violence between the ghetto gangs that supported the country’s rival political parties. “One time we went up to this mansion in the hills at night. Then coming down the hill we hit a roadblock. This was a time when it was like martial law in Jamaica, with curfews. Up in the mansion, we’d all been acting like bad boy Jamaicans, smoking spliffs. But when these soldiers started poking guns in our faces, demanding ‘what you doing in these streets?’, we were like [Morris puts on a posh, super-polite, tremulous voice] ‘we’re English, we’re English, we’re just going back to our hotel’. We were terrified. Saw our lives going down the pan. They searched the car and then said ‘get out of here’.” 

Another occasion when Morris and Lydon were made painfully aware they weren’t in Blighty anymore was at a big sound system in Trenchtown. “All the reggae dances in Jamaica are open air, unlike in the U.K. where the clubs and ‘blues’ parties were indoors.  And in Jamaica, when the selector drops a good tune, all the gun men point their weapons up and fire into the air. But we didn’t know that, so first time that happened—BANG BANG BANG--we were on the floor, cowering! Scared shitless, we were.”

That wasn’t Morris’s only up-close encounter with fire-arms during the trip.  After a photo session with The Gladiators, the band quizzed him about the record industry and told him about their management contract. “I said, ‘that doesn’t sound too good, you should really be getting this, and that...’  Few days later there’s a knock on my hotel suite door and two guys burst in: one holds me down, the other puts a gun to my head and snarls ‘don’t come down here telling my group what to do’.  I remember telling him ‘Go on then, pull it, pull it’.  The two guys look at each other and I can tell they’re thinking, ‘this guy’s got some balls’. So then I say, ‘Listen man, I wasn’t trying to take your group away from you..... ‘. We worked it out in the end. But that was what it was like those days in Jamaica—dodgy contracts and dirty deals left right and centre, between bands and their managers and the labels, just like in The Harder They Come.”

Meanwhile Johnny Rotten was having his own problems with a conniving and unscrupulous manager.  Former manager, to be precise: Malcolm McLaren was trying to piece together his movie project The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle and sent a minion, John “Boogie” Tiberi, to Kingston to film the ex-Pistol being confronted with the cryptic question “Who killed Bambi?” When Lydon refused to cooperate, Boogie was reduced to snooping around the Sheraton poolside area and trying to shoot footage of the singer surreptitiously. “We saw the bushes moving and realized we were being watched,” laughs Morris. “So we pushed him in the pool.”

The Jamaica trip wasn’t all stoned shenanigans, though. During the three week stay, Lydon began to formulate a sound-and-vision for his future. “John was picking up a lot of information, a lot of vibes,” says Morris, pointing in particular to times spent hanging out at Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s famous studio The Black Ark, where legend has it that Lydon recorded a vocal for a track that never saw the light of day. “Scratch was the most charismatic figure we met in Jamaica, a total genius.  And I think it was at the Black Ark, and going to sound systems, and just hanging out in Jamaica, that led John to conceive the idea for Public Image Ltd.”  Immediately on his return to London, Lydon hooked up with his reggae-fiend pal Jah Wobble, who taught himself to play bass. He also recruited ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, who has said that “the whole reason PiL worked at all was that were all just total dub fanatics.”

Morris was virtually a member of the group, serving as its unofficial in-house art director. He designed the PiL logo, punningly intended to resemble an aspirin. He did the photos and cover art for the debut album, which saw Lydon jettison the stereotypical punk look for zoot-suit sharpness. And he came up with the radical packaging of Metal Box: three 45 rpm discs encased in a matt-grey tin canister.  During this period Morris also worked as an Art Director at Island Records, where he oversaw the careers of The Slits and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Then he got signed to Island himself as the guitarist in Basement 5,  often described as the black PiL.

Throughout this period Morris was the court photographer at King John’s house in Gunter Grove, Chelsea. Here Lydon entertained a rotating retinue of guest luminaries--ranging from punk chanteuse Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex to reggae stars like Gregory Isaacs--with Guinness from kegs stowed in the living room and the bass-thunder of the latest Jamaican imports played through his  massive hi-fi system. Documentation of this golden period for postpunk music can be found, along with shots of Lydon’s working holiday in JA, in the photographer’s new book A Bitta Pil. “Gunter Grove was this massively creative hub, just buzzing,” Morris recalls. “And I was there, taking pictures.” 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

essay for Sleek magazine, Germany, early 2012

by Simon Reynolds

“Brand New You’re Retro”, sneered the British rapper Tricky back in 1995.  This taunt, directed at some unknown adversary, could easily be repurposed as a general indictment of pop culture in 2012.  Tricky’s cutting catchphrase conveys just how often the superficial appearance of freshness and novelty masks recycled derivativeness and stale familiarity. 

Another line in the song “Brand New You’re Retro” speaks of “a dread of the past and fear of the future.”  There’s no shortage of future-fear at the moment:  anxious uncertainty rules the day, tomorrow looks less and less likely to be an improvement on the present.  A shaky Eurozone; nuclear war in the Middle East looms as a possibility; economists wondering whether economic growth is an unsustainable dream;  an environment that, frankly, looks fucked. But “dread of the past”? Quite the opposite! Here in the 21st Century, we’re obsessed with 20th Century pop culture, mesmerized by its mythic giants and fascinated by all its obscure corners and forgotten figures.  Perhaps it makes perfect sense: future-fear and nostalgia are two sides of the same coin, in precarious times people look back to a past that was more stable. But if you’re the kind of person, like me, who looks to popular culture for forward-looking energy and the promise of endless renewal,  all this retrospection and rehashing just adds to the gloom. 

Take pop music. The 2000s were consumed by a long Eighties revival that took in synthpop, postpunk, and most recently goth/ industrial/EBM (with acts like Zola Jesus, and Xeno & Oaklander). Now, right on cue, we’re seeing the start of Nineties-retro: bands inspired by  grunge (Yuck, Joy Formidable, EMA), shoegaze (Cults, M83),  and early house (outfits like Miracles Club and Teengirl Fantasy,  labels like  100% Silk and Ecstasy Records).  Yet you couldn’t say that current music is unified by a dominant “Nineties-flashback” character, because virtually every other decade of pop history is getting ransacked too.  “Revival simultaneity”, I call it: a temporally confused music scene where Fifties rockabilly-influenced artists like Dirty Beaches coexist with Sixties garage inspired bands like Thee Oh Sees, Sixties psychedelia-homaging outfits like Tame Impala,  late Sixties folk-rock-oriented ensembles like Fleet Foxes, 70s raunch rock resurrectionists like The Black Keys, 70s punk invoking groups like Wild Flag, 80s hardcore rejuvenators like Fucked Up.... and on....  and on.  Disparately dated, diversely derivative, these groups have created a musical landscape that lacks anything that could be construed as a Zeitgeist. What, one wonders, will future generations find in this era that’s distinctive enough to be worth reviving? Or even feel nostalgic about?

“Pop will eat itself” , a saying coined by the British music journalist David Quantick in the Eighties to describe the effect of sampling on music, has spread so far and wide that it’s a cliché now.  In the trendy Manchester market Afflecks Palace, I saw a T-Shirt slogan that declared “Fashion Will Eat Itself”. But the truth is that fashion was munching on its own flesh long before rock and pop got into auto-cannibalism. Fashion started revisiting its own history as early as 1967, but in recent years its cycles of recycling seemed to rotate ever faster.  Every few years it seems, grunge and Goth, Sixties style and Seventies chic, come around again. Punk, apparently, is next up, with black leather and spikes strutting down runways soon courtesy of fashion houses like Gaultier, Burberry, McQ, and Balmain. Meanwhile, vintage clothing just keeps getting bigger, to the point where high street clothes manufacturers have started slapping the word “vintage” onto their merchandise even though they’re obviously brand-new rather than original garments from the past. 

Vintage chic extends beyond clothes to retro-styled décor and accessories of every kind imaginable: the hip fad for archaic appliances like manual typewriters and outmoded formats like cassette and vinyl; period-look spectacles;  beards and moustaches beamed in from 1969 or 1975;  retro toys, retro games,  and even retro sweets.  ETSY, the online marketplace for handcrafted goods, is where the fetish for “dead media” and antiquated production techniques converges with nostalgia for childhood to form the  aesthetic I call “cutesy-poo”:  posters depicting reel-to-reel tape recorders, belts whose buckles are made from the plastic shells of cassettes, notepads with covers repurposed from 1970s school textbooks and children’s fiction paperbacks,  letterpress cards and silkscreen T-shirts that juxtapose birds, deer,  or narwhals with turntables, typewriters, or cassettes. Then there’s the huge  vogue for digital photography apps like Hipstamatic,  Instagram, and ShakeIt, which give your pictures the period ambience associated with the film stock and cameras of the  ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s.  The popularity of this kind of ersatz-analogue “instant nostalgia” has led to gadgets like Fuvvi’s The Bee, a miniature-sized simulacrum of the Super 8 camera that digitally simulates the grainy, jerky look of 8mm home movies.

Dead media and archaic formats have featured in cinema, like last year’s Super 8, a homage to early Eighties Spielberg centered around kids who are amateur movie-makers and which features clumsy appearances of Walkmans and other antiquated technology from that decade.  But obsolete media are also at the fore of a separate trend in movies that The Guardian newspaper dubbed “retrovision”:   films that aren’t just set in the past but are made in the style of that era, to the point of deliberately adopting the technical limitations of the time.  Hence Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, a pair of 1970s-style horror movies with digitally-faked production defects and even fictitious trailers for similar films to play in the middle of the double bill.  Michel Hazanavicius studied the camera angles and stylistic quirks of the silent movie era to make The Artist, his own mute and monochrome version of that bygone genre.  The approach has crept into TV too: Mad Men, not content with fetishizing the clothes, furniture, décor, and cigarette smoke of the early Sixties, is also shot on film to enhance the time travel effect, at a time when high definition digital cameras are the norm in TV.   Retrovision, though, is separate from two other backwards-looking trends in mainstream movies: the endless stream of remakes and cinematic adaptions of TV shows of yesteryear, and movies that are heavily referential (and reverential) to past eras of movie-making, such as Drive, an exquisitely put-together piece of nothing that homages Walter Hill’s The Driver from 1978.

Retrospection in pop culture isn’t a new development, off course. There have been revivals in pop music going back as far as the early Seventies (when Fifties rock’n’roll made a comeback), while film-makers like George Lucas and John Carpenter often make witty, affectionate nods to the Hollywood pulp movies that thrilled them as kids.  What’s new is the scale and intensity of the looking-back: the mania in “retromania”. In the Nineties you started to get a new breed of geek-scholar forming indie bands or making independent movies: figures like Quentin Tarantino, who’d worked as a video store clerk, or Pavement, who worked in record stores.  In those pre-filesharing days, it was only people whose day jobs gave them unlimited access to the artform they were obsessed with and the time to listen to a huge diversity of the genre’s output,  who were able to develop a special kind of meta-consciousness that  would  lead them to make music or movies dense with references and allusions. But the Internet has made all that hard-earned knowledge available to all, and at zero cost, for those who are prepared to download illegally (which is almost everybody).  

Having total access and instant access to all this previous creation makes it very tempting to kick-start the creative process by reworking something you’ve found, rather than attempting to dream something completely new into existence, ex nihilo.  If you’re not feeling terribly inspired, what better way to get the juices flowing than by flicking haphazardly through the archive until you find something you think most people won’t have seen or heard, or that you can tinker with slightly until it’s “new enough”?  Or if you’re feeling slightly more energetic, you can take a bunch of separate old things and combine them into a new-ish composite. It’s easy to tell that this is how a lot of  “creatives” today operate just by looking at the fonts and imagery used on so many album sleeves, book covers, band flyers, etc. Digital technology not only makes it all too easy to roam the online archive looking for “inspiration”, it vastly facilitates the procedures of cut-and-paste,  tweaking, processing, and so forth.

People who work with visuals—fashion, design, pop video—seem to have the least amount of qualms when it comes to appropriation.  Designers don’t hesitate to recycle, say, the modernist typography and graphic style of the early 20th Century.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the famous slant-wise Constructivist poster by Rodchenko--a Bolshevik woman shouting agit-prop—get ripped off: it’s been used in countless flyers for concerts, on record sleeves (most famously Frank Ferdinand’s debut album), and book covers (most absurdly, on a business self-help book Recommended: How To Sell Through Networking and Referrals). As for pop video...  Let’s look at the case of Beyonce’s “Countdown” video, controversial because of its borrowing of moves from an experimental ballet choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.  But the video was omnivorous verging on indiscriminate in its appropriations, managing to also cram in allusions to Audrey Hepburn in Funny Girl, Monica Vitti in Modesty Blaise, Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, and Diana Ross in the  Supremes.


Quotation and homage go back a long way in the arts,  it’s true.  But what was once a sophisticated, marginal and relatively infrequent practice has escalated to the point where it verges on becoming a dominant, epoch-defining sensibility. Digital culture is synonymous with practices like mash-ups,  YouTube parody, fan fiction, videos woven out of found footage (such as Lana Del Rey’s promos for songs like “Video Games”).  The ever-growing vastness of the online archive, combined with the speed and slickness of techniques of sampling, cut-and-paste, etc, has led to a situation where creativity has been supplanted by recreativity as the new paradigm for culture-making.  Visiting a California art college recently, I met a young performance/video artist whose work involved him singing the entirety of the musical Hair under the blazing desert sun: a project that combined the camp of  Glee or vogueing with the physical ordeals undergone by 70s artists like Chris Burden.   When it comes to parody and reenactment, the possibilities for recombination are limitless. But what is this kind of work really saying? What is it actually bringing into the world?

In his famous prose-poem manifesto Junkspace, the architect Rem Koolhaas argued that  “regurgitation is the new creativity; instead of creation, we honor, cherish, and embrace manipulation.” And yet what Koolhaas characerises as a gigantic cultural garbage heap, might also be conceived as something  more like a flea-market: a disorderly sprawl, the bulk of which consists of worthless detritus, but which always holds out the possibility of finding  strange treasure. A hell of a lot of ideas and images, personae and styles, were churned up during the 20th Century: maybe it makes sense that artists are now less interested in making the totally  new and more attracted to strategies of sifting and sorting, mixing and matching.  Some of the best musicians of the last half-decade—Ariel Pink, Vampire Weekend, Oneohtrix Point Never, Gonjasufi, Grimes, Gang Gang Dance, and many more—are effectively rag-pickers who pore through the mountainous debris of 20th Century pop culture, whether it’s digging for weird records in thrift stores or trawling through YouTube for vintage video clips.  

Filtration, pattern recognition, an ability to surf the choppy sea of information and chart a unique and personal course through the ocean of overload: this is what is required of the modern artist.  Baudelaire, writing in the context of the 19th Century city with its bombardment of stimuli, described the modern artist as “a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness”. Today you would have to update the metaphor and talk of the contemporary artist as a search engine endowed with consciousness.  "I can hear everything,” declares a voice at the start of Gang Gang’s recent album Eye Contact. “It's everything time."  The challenge now is turn that into opportunity, not a paralysing predicament.

ZONING OUT (published as Leave Chillwave Alone)
Village Voice Pazz and Jop 2010 issue,   Jan 19 2011

by Simon Reynolds

Last summer, Pitchfork launched Altered Zones, a site dedicated to the "explosion of small-scale DIY music": all those recent protean micro-genres that reach a hardcore audience through ultra-limited cassette or vinyl releases, but accrue a much larger listenership thanks to blogs and file shares. What was intriguing was the decision to outsource the content—MP3s-with-blurbs, video premieres, artist-curated mixes, the occasional profile—to an "international team" of 15 blogs. Deftly balancing deference and co-optation, the move was a tacit admission that something was going on that the webzine itself couldn't quite handle, and a shrewd enlisting of those who could.

Altered Zones is invariably called Pitchfork's "sister site," but the missing word here is "younger"—there's an age difference large enough to be considered generational, maybe even epochal. Pitchfork thrived through adapting the print-music magazine to the Internet; its mindset still belongs to the era of criticism. But Altered Zones is an expanded version of the MP3 blog, with a sensibility that could be fairly described as post-critical: You'll almost never read a negative comment (MP3 blogs, by definition, don't post sound files they don't rate), and nothing gets graded on a 10.0 scale.

Founded by people whose formative musical experiences occurred before the Internet really took off, Pitchfork retains an attachment to notions like "importance" and "significance," along with such related pre-Web concepts as the geographically located scene, the gig as a privileged site where the community forms around a band, et al. But the Zones generation, artists and listeners alike, have never really known a time when music wasn't enmeshed with the Web. They have only a tenuous sense that music is something you pay for, and a much-diminished investment in live performance. In the '80s and '90s, Amerindie fans typically withheld judgment on a band's worth until they saw them "deliver" live. But when the Web is your primary new-music portal, live performance fades in importance. In the Zones, buzz bands are rarely bands as such: More often, they're just a guy in a bedroom.

The godfather of all this, of course, is Ariel Pink, who built a cult through mid-2000s albums The Doldrums, Worn Copy, and House Arrest, made at home on an eight-track, every last note played by himself. Like My Bloody Valentine with shoegaze, the sound Pink invented—'70s radio-rock and '80s new wave as if heard through a defective transistor radio, glimmers of melody flickering in and out of the fog—was so striking it could only become a chronic influence. Ironically, just as a legion of one-man bands emerged brandishing pre-faded sounds, Pink returned after a five-year silence with 2010's Before Today, an album recorded with a proper band, in a proper studio, and—in this realm, almost unheard of—with a proper producer. On songs like "Can't Hear My Eyes" and "Round and Round" (Pazz's #8 single, and Pitchfork's #1), Pink stripped away his trademark reverb-haze to reveal the formal perfection of his song structures in all their intricacy and ingenuity. As the title hinted, the album harked back to a lost golden age, approximately bookended by Rumours and Synchronicity, of professionally crafted, crisply produced pop-rock. That is to say, the very slickness and adultness that the lo-fi indie tradition originally defined itself against.

I wish glo-fi had caught on as the name for the genre spawned off those three Pink albums (a sound that Before Today ultimately leaves behind), since it at least captures something of their gloss and mess. But "chillwave" seems to be what we're saddled with, a term coined as a joke and wielded most energetically as a brick bat. For 2010 wasn't the Year of Chillwave so much as the Year of Chillwave Backlash, a flurry of jibes almost as formularized as detractors make out the music to be: obligatory reference to Hipstamatic + snigger at the name + invocation of nostalgia as a priori Bad Thing = entire region of music dismissed.

A fundamental human emotion, nostalgia is a perfectly respectable subject for art (see Proust, Nabokov, much poetry, and plenty of pop music, actually). For sure the gauzy sub-Galaxie wistfulness of all that beach pop gets tiresome. But the elegiac mode can also generate things like Mark McGuire's Living With Yourself, on which the Emeralds guitarist weaves "field recordings" of his burbling five-year-old self, originally taken by his father, into the rippling radiance of tracks like "The Vast Structure of Recollection." Living With Yourself, Emeralds's Does It Look Like I'm Here?, and Oneohtrix Point Never's Returnal (all released on the respected Austrian experimental label Mego) have similar temporal coordinates to Before Today, but draw on different resources: the late-period Krautrock of the Sky label, Manuel Göttsching, and soundtrack-era Tangerine Dream; New Age and the Ambient Series (Budd and Hassell as much as Eno). But the almost-clinical clarity of the textures and the mood-blend of serenity and sadness point to common ground between the instrumentals-only Oneohtrix/Emeralds sector and the song-oriented school of Pink.

That said, I don't think the N-word really has much to do with all the '80s ghosts haunting this music. From YouTube to sharity blogs, the Internet is an ever-expanding data sea, and these young musicians are really explorers, voyaging into the past and diving for pearls. Like the real ocean, it's full of flotsam, garbage, kitsch. But sometimes the plastic turns out to be the pearls. The paradigmatic move here is Oneohtrix-man Dan Lopatin's prising apart of Chris DeBurgh's sickly ballad "Lady in Red" to release the sliver of sublime that is "Nobody Here" (one of numerous "echo jams" he deposited on YouTube). But yacht rock and New Age were just the start of the '80s salvage trade. Hitherto disregarded genres of that decade like Goth and EBM entered the influence-mix this year, while How to Dress Well's gaseous take on r&b suggests that the '90s pop mainstream is next in line for archival extraction. Witch house belongs here, too, as just another "zone": Salem's Goth + screw + crunk cuts a diagonal through the '80s, '90s, and early noughties.

In "Hardcore Pops Are Fun," from 2006's House Arrest, Pink provided a kind of hymn/manifesto for this generation's ahistorical omnivorousness: "Pop music is free/For you and me . . . Pop music is wine/It tastes so divine." But he still had a foot in '90s irony ("Hardcore Pops" was actually recorded in 2001). Archness gets burned off completely in the music of those that came after him, replaced by an earnestness that aspires to spirituality. You can see the sensibility in both the music of key figures like James Ferraro and Sun Araw, and in the writing of Altered Zones contributors like 20 Jazz Funk Greats: hyper-referentiality without irony. From a distance it looks like postmodernism, but really it's something else: a mystical merger of Pop Art and psychedelia.

Earnestness is one of the defining attributes of "digimodernist" culture identified by the theorist Alan Kirby—other hallmarks are "onwardness" and "endlessness." On Altered Zones and its constellation of blogs, the flow is relentless: What matters is always the next new name, the latest micro-genre, another MP3 or MediaFire. Artist careers likewise are a continuous drip-drip-drip of releases, a dozen or more per year—there's no reason to edit or hold back, every reason to keep one's name out there. Stimuli streams in, largely via the Web; creativity streams out, largely via the Web. Today's musician is a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence. (That's me echo-jamming Eighties Baudrillard, by the way).

Which brings us back to Pitchfork's decision to create a sibling site. Why couldn't they just process the output from all these zones themselves, sort wheat from chaff? The answer perhaps is that there's just too much of the stuff, and that filtering doesn't seem to be quite the thing to do with it. This scene is about being engulfed and enthused, carried along by the currents of the new. Drifting not sifting. Before Today made the Top Tens of most of the blogs that make up this restless circuit, but, one senses, mostly out of sentimental loyalty to the forefather. Signed to a big label, touring to promote his big album, praised and profiled by big magazines, Pink no longer really belongs to the underground. Whether that now puts him in limbo, and whether any of his chill-dren (the most promising, Toro Y Moi and Neon Indian, both add Daft Punk to the mix) will follow him there, remains to be seen.