Thursday, April 23, 2020

Taking a Barthes (the voice in pop music)

AGAINST THE GRAIN: Thinking about the Voice in Pop
Melody Maker November 20th 1993
(part of a Melody Maker multi-author feature package/cover story about Vocal Heroes)

by Simon Reynolds

Most rock-crit doesn't have much to do with rock as music. Usually it's amateur sociology, or Eng-Lit analysis of lyrics, or biography/gossip. But even those who do grapple with music-as-music seldom get much purchase on the Voice, beyond saying a particular voice is 'great' or 'original', or gushing superlatives.  And that's because the Voice is a mystery, defying analysis.  It's hard to say why one voice leaves you cold and another pierces the marrow of your soul, gets in your pants, fits you like a glove.

The few who have attempted to "explain" their preferences often fasten on Roland Barthes concept of"the grain of the voice".  The French critic argued that what got you about a much-loved voice wasn't what the singer did expressively, it was the stuff of the voice itself: its texture, its carnal thickness. In instrumentation, the equivalent of 'grain' is timbre, i.e. not the way Hendrix bluesily bent his notes to express emotion, but the "colour" and consistency of his fuzz-tone and feedback.  For Barthes, an accomplished vocalist who's adept at manipulating the conventional mannerisms of 'good singing' in order to emote, can actually be less moving than a stiff, unwieldy singer. The proficient vocalist suppresses "the grain of the voice" by being too eloquent, too fluent in the language of singing.  For "grain" is the body's resistance to the singer's breath, resulting in "language lined with flesh": the listener is always reminded, blissfully, that this voice isn't pure soul, but comes from deep inside a specific human body.

But critics often misconstrue 'grain' as synonomous with 'grit'. Aretha Franklin is often acclaimed as a grain-rich singer, but to my ears she's all bombastic virtuosity and pyrotechnic passion. Certainly, the octave-spanning acrobatics and mannered idiosyncracies of consummate singers like Tim Buckley can astound and enthrall, fill you with awe.  But often, a weak or limited voice can be more heart-quaking: Barney Sumner, Alex Ayuli from A.R. Kane, even a one-note droner like Lawrence of Felt. Neil Young is a case in point, not just for his torn-and-frayed drawl-whine, but for his guitar 'voice' too: his wracked, wrenching one-chord solo on "Southern Man" communicates more grainy anguish than a century of Clapton's addle-daddle nuances.

Barney Hoskyns' book From A Whisper To A Scream is a rare attempt to elucidate the Mystery of The Voice. Hoskyns also cites Barthes' 'grain', but he's a bit biased  towards technically superb and Black voices. If the greatest singers combine virtuosity and grain - Al Green, Van Morrison - I'd like to redress the balance and state the case for the deficient, unfluent singer.  Like early Morrissey: what struck a deep, carnal chord with miserabilist youth like myself was the lachrymose, mucus-like quality of his voice, so vividly evocative of drowning in self-pity.  There's a similarly clotted, inconsolable but luscious, almost edible thickness in Stevie Nicks' singing on Rumours and Tusk, and in Kristin Hersh's voice on the first three Throwing Muses albums: again, it's the viscosity of the voice, the way it resists the singer's expressive range, that's so blissful. But as Morrissey got "better" as a vocalist, he became merely plummy in his plaintiveness.

Iggy Pop's voice also declined as it got more singerly.  On the Bowie-fied solo albums, Iggy sounds like a cadaverous supperclub crooner, Jim Morrison's corpse. For the real animal you have to turn to The Stooges first two albums: the Sinatra-on-barbiturates of "Ann" and "Dirt", the feral, masticated vowels of "Loose", and above all, the breath-sucking, beyond/beneath-human gasps at the climax of "TV Eye" (which get my vote for Greatest Vocal Moment of All Time). Johnny Rotten seldom gets his rightful acclaim as a vocalist, although Dave Laing has pinpointed the gratuitous way he rolled his "r's" and over-emphasised his consonants: a grotesque, thrilling parody of rock aggression.  But it's on "Bodies" that Rotten truly plumbed Iggy-esque nether limits, gargling lines like "gurgling bloody mess" to bring home the abject horror of human biology. In recent years, only Kurt Cobain (who's gotta a lotta grain) has reached, or retched, such extremity.

Along with a critical language for the mystery of the individual voice, we also lack a history of vocal trends.  Why, for instance, has the early 70's blues rock voice resurged in the last couple of years? Why does it resonate with grunge youth?  I'd also like to understand what happened to the black mainstream voice. As soul evolved into 'urban contemporary', rural grit got replaced by jazzily urbane, slimy smoothness. Swingbeat groups like SWV, Bell Biv Devoe, Jade etc have eerily futuristic production and kicking beats, but the singing's putrid and pukey (aren't Boys II Men the absolute pits?!).

While swingbeat singing is all elegance and over-expressiveness, rap is a haven for 'grain', in so far as it's vocal but non-melodic. Rhymin' finesse counts for a lot, but for me it's the stuff of the voice that grabs. My current fave is Snoop Doggy Dogg, sidekick of Dr Dre and currently taking off as a solo mega-star despite being charged with murder.  Like a lot of black people in Los Angeles, Dogg has a Southern accent, giving his voice a sidling, serpentile quality that's seductive in its menace.  Ragga's rasping, patois insolence is also full of grain, harking back to the gruff-but-luscious 'talk-over' voices of early Seventies reggae (mainstream reggae singing has gone slick and oily like US soul).

But ultimately you can't legislate about the voice: one person's 'grain' may be another's bland white bread of the soul. When it come to the voice, preferences are idiosyncratic and unjustifiable. Something in the singer's body resonates inside your body, reopens wounds and triggers pleasure-centres, and who can really say why?


interesting to reread this in light of -

my relatively recent (last 16 years or so) interest in "extremes of the human voice" / mouth music / vocal manipulation, extended vocal techniques 

my ardour for Auto-Tune, which Barthes probably would not have liked at all since it enforces a new kind of grainlessness - puts a blatant layer of digi-mediation between the listener and "the cantor's body", and which also enables / encourages extremes of legato and hyper-melisma.... all those wobbly jellyfish like ornaments and slip-and-slides in R&B singing  - which would seem to intensify all the singerly dramatic artistry that he dislikes in Fisker-Diskau

then again AutoTune misused creates a new vocabulary of digital distortions, which perhaps offers a kind of post-carnal or dis-emboded surrogate for "grain" - glitches in the transmission medium itself

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Dancing on the Edge: from avant-funk and mutant disco to the postpunk revival

director's cut, Index  magazine, 2001
by Simon Reynolds

Centro Fly, Manhattan, Winter 2001. Tonight the club's mainfloor hosts a night called GBH--shorthand for Great British House. If the night was actually based in the U.K., the name would be mildly amusing--it's the abbreviation for "grievous bodily harm," an indictment roughly equivalent to "assault". There's also a faintly amusing echo of the veteran punk band GBH. 

This club, though, couldn't be more harmless, less punk. The music chugs along efficiently, a cautious composite defined mostly be what it's not (not too deep, too druggy, too gay, too hard, too organic, too anthemic). Groove Armada's "Superstylin'" comes on, and the residual tang of "vibe" in the dancehall vocal only serves to emphasize how deracinated and over-processed the rest of the track is. As for the crowd, they're smartly dressed but not flamboyantly styled, and impossible to gauge in terms of subcultural affiliation;  their celebration never reaches the level of abandon, let alone frenzy. 

I'm actually here for what's going on in the basement, the 2step night Drive By (where UK rave veterans Shut Up and Dance are spinning) but on a strange impulse I climbed the stairs to monitor the vital signs of house culture. And I'm ambushed by an unexpected fury of disgust, unable to understand why I find GBH's sub-Dionysian bustle so snugly smug, such a personal affront. And from there it's a short step to wondering: how come I ever got the idea that dance culture was meant to be an arena for danger in the first place? Right now, none of the styles of postrave floor fodder that rule the clubs--"progressive," trance, filter house, tech-house, hard house--substantiate the notion of dance-with-edge. 

Flash back, ooh, 23 years.  Disco is still at its height, and although discophobes are calling for its death, it actually seems, in 1978/79, that rock is the one that's ready for last rites. Out of those mobilized by punk, the smartest minds are arguing that traditional rock'n'roll is exhausted and the way forward involves embracing  the rhythms and studio  techniques of  disco and dub.  This "anti-rockist" vanguard--Public Image Ltd, Talking Heads, Gang of Four, James Chance, Pop Group, A Certain Ratio, to name just a few--share David Byrne's belief that "black dance production is a bigger revolution than punk."
But they don't want to simply copy black dance music as closely as possible, in that time-honored, over-reverential white bluesman/blue-eyed soul/wigga tradition; they want to mutate it, warp it, infect its upfulness with angst, militancy, and political despair. 

Two songs from this punk-funk moment seem especially emblematic, and could be said to have changed my life. PiL's "Death Disco" was actually a UK Top 20 hit in the summer of 1979, and I can vividly recall the pained expression on the presenter's face as he announced the group's appearance on Top of the Pops (England's equivalent to American Bandstand).  "Death Disco" shattered the show's merry light entertainment atmosphere: over Keith Levene's soul-flaying guitar and Jah Wobble's dark-surging  disco-style "walking bassline", ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon howled muezzin-style as he anatomized the horror of  looking into his mother's eyes as she lay on her deathbed.

The other funk noir tune is "Dance of the Screamers" by Ian Dury & the Blockheads, who weren't generally thought of as part of the post-punk vanguard. Indeed by 1979's Do It Yourself they'd crossed over as massively popular entertainers in the UK: the once-menacing Dury clasped to the British public's bosom as the chirpy Cockney king of comedy-rock.  "Dance of the Screamers," that album's stand-out song, is no barrel of laughs though. The sound is slick disco (the Blockheads were shit-hot, session-quality funkateers) but the lyric devastates the party vibe, reimagining the dancefloor as a killing field for social cripples and lost 'n' lonely losers desperate for love. Eventually Dury abandons words altogether, his hoarse howls of agony sparring with Davey Payne's freeform sax-blasts.

Dancing in the dark (figuratively and literally) to "Death Disco" and "Screamers"--this was my introduction to dance music. Later I fell for the punk-funk paroxysms of Delta 5 and Gang of Four, the  polyrhythmic panoramas of Talking Heads' Remain In Light, the dark absurdist "mutant disco" of Was (Not Was), the Chic-for-sociopaths of Defunkt. The latter, hailed at the time as funk's very own Sex Pistols but now almost totally forgotten, was formed by James Chance's  estranged horn section (New York between 1979-82 was a hotbed of groups based around the notion of dance-with-edge). Leader Joe Bowie defined the group as a revolt against the sedative culture of disco: "We've got to wake up again and Defunkt are part of that resurgence of thought."

By 1983, though, the notion of avant-funk or punk-funk had run out of steam, trapped itself within its own cliches: sub-Miles trumpet-heard-through-fog, neurotic slap-bass, guttural pseudo-sinister vocals,  Ballard and Burroughs references. The leading edge of white alternative music recoiled from the dancefloor. Groups as diverse as The Smiths, Husker Du, REM, Jesus & Mary Chain, restricted their influence-intake to the whitest regions of rock's past: The Byrds folk-rock, Velvet Underground, rockabilly. Still, the core contention of the punk-funk project--that rock's hopes of  enjoying a future beyond mere antiquarianism (the Cramps, the White Stripes) depends on assimilating the latest rhythmic innovations from black dance music--never entirely disappeared.

What happened was that the next-wave of postpunk groups, like Scritti Politti and New Order, fully embraced the latest black dance styles (electro, synthfunk) and their tools (drum machines, sequencers, Fairlight samplers), infiltrating their doubt or dread into the mix via the lyrics and vocal approach, but not tampering with the music to any great degree.  Other ex-punks (Paul Weller's Style Council, Simply Red) just took on blackness wholesale: the music, the lyrical language, the soul style of vocalisation. And for quite a long period in the Eighties, this was the consensus: that the best white artists could do with black music was try not to fuck with it, for fearing of fucking it up. Emulate, not mutate.

This "soulboy" consensus was rudely shocked by the arrival of acid house in 1987. Gospel-influenced song-based house was highly palatable (Weller even made a deep house record) but the harsh futuristic attack of the Roland 303 acid bass was greeted with appalled incomprehension: "it's so cold, so mechanistic---where's the soul?!?!". To which my response, was "exactly, exactly, and who cares?", Hearing the early Chicago acid tunes was like the totally unscheduled resurrection of avant-funk, half-a-decade after its demise, and half-a-world away from its birthplace in Britain and Germany. In songs like Phuture's "Your Only Friend" and Sleezy D's "I've Lost Control", you could hear uncanny echoes of PiL, Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo: the inhibited and coercive treadmill rhythms, the constipated basslines, the desolate dub-space. Even the  imagery evoked by the track titles or stripped-down vocal chants--trance-dance as control, a sinister subjugating form of hypnosis; scenarios of mindwreck, abduction, paranoia---was just totally 1981.  And as it happened, some of the acid house pioneers were influenced by the early avant-funk and synth experimentalists, from Throbbing Gristle to German outfits like DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses (both huge on Chicago's early Eighties dancefloors).

It was only right and proper, then, that the pan-European subcultural upsurge triggered by acid house allowed many original avant-funkers to resurface. Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H. Kirk formed Sweet Exorcist and made some of era's classic "bleep techno";  Graham Massey, 808 State's musical genius and future Bjork collaborator, was formerly of minor avant-funk outfit Biting Tongues. Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV's Genesis P.Orridge, Soft Cell's Dave Ball, Youth from Killing Joke, 400 Blows's Tony Thorpe, Torch Song's William Orbit, Quando Quango's Mick Pickering.... there's an endless list of avant-funk veterans whose dormant careers were instantly revitalized by the new context created by the synergy of house and Ecstasy. The concept of "rave" itself, with its multiple connotations of madness, fury, and deranging euphoria, seemed to me like pure punk-funk in spirit: the ultimate merger of aggression and celebration. 

Between 1991 and 1993, as rave turned to hardcore, hardcore to  jungle, it really did seem like the reactivation of the avant-funk project, except on a mass scale. This was a populist vanguard, a lumpen bohemia that weirdly mashed together the bad-trippy sounds of art school funk-mutation with a plebeian pill-gobbling rapacity that recalled the vital vulgarity of Oi! (In the early Eighties, your 23 Skidoo art students and your Oi!-punk proles would have been deadly class enemies). In particular, the transitional sound of "darkside"--febrile hyperspeed percussion, ominous basslines, dizzy sensations of harrowing bliss, a haunted/hunted vibe of spooked-out paranoia---was uncannily redolent of  the soundtrack of my youth: Death Disco, Pt 2.  Indeed "darkside"'s  reflected a moment circa 1992-93 when Ecstasy abuse was starting to exact its heavy toll, transforming many into braindead zombies and a few into actual real-deal corpses.   

*                  *                           *                           *

To be a participant in the underground rave scene of the early Nineties was electrifying, like being plugged into currents of revolutionary energy. The sensation was explosive: energy exploding into public space (with illegal raves and warehouse parties), energy exploding across the airwaves (with pirate radio), energy exploding through the music itself, which felt like it was propelled pell-mell by a mutational momentum that was uncontainable.

And then a strange thing happened--all that unruly, turbulent energy, and all that borderline-criminal activity, started to get orderly and organized. Clubs and labels became business-minded, looking towards steady long-term profits rather than quick killings, and thinking like corporations rather than buccaneers. Raves in the "darkside" era  became too edgy for all but a diehardcore of headstrong nutters, and alienated by the moody, paranoid vibes, many ravers returned to the clubs, with their safer atmospheres and  predictable satisfactions. Gradually, the punk principles that informed the original rave scene ( the crowd-as-star, the anonymity of producers and DJs, "faceless techno bollocks") faded with the emergence of a global circuit of superclubs and a hierarchy of superstar DJs: pseudo-personalities like Paul Oakenfold, Bad Boy Bill,  Lottie, Paul Van Dyk, Dave Ralph, who travel the world earning fat fees and racking up the Air Miles. 

The music changed too, the fever and fervor of hardcore rave gradually tempered into something milder. On the global quasi-underground of superclubs, the dancefloor is dominated by the whiter-than-white sounds of trance and its mature cousin "progressive" (the sound made famous by Sasha & Digweed at the late unlamented Manhattan superclub Twilo, among other places). Anthemic and sentimental, trance has a certain cheese-tastic anti-snob allure: in some sense, it is still music for ravers. Punkless and funkless, "progressive" is definitely a post-rave style.  Musically, it's somewhere between a de-anthemized trance and a house music utterly purged of blackness, gayness, sexuality, humor. What's left is a faint aura of ersatz futurity, spirituality, cosmic-ness. Sleek, abstract artist names like Evolution, Breeder, Hybrid, Moonface, Quivver, Lustral, and vapidly big-sounding track titles like "Force 51", "Syncronized Knowledge",  "Gyromancer", "Enhanced", "Carnival XIII", "Descender", "Supertransonic" seem almost subconsciously designed to to avoid conjuring real-world evocations or resonances.

 Purging all the aspects of rave that harked back to earlier youth movements like hippie and punk, progressive has achieved a blank purity, sterile and non-referential. It's the nullifying soundtrack for experiences sealed off from everyday life--the sanitized debauchery that superclubs are in the business of  catering for, despite their front of co-operation with the authorities against drug use. Beyond "edge" in the subcultural sense, the very sound of the music lacks edges --your typical progressive track is a featureless miasma of samey-sounding texture and mid-tempo surge-pulses,  blurring indistinguishably into the next track as DJs compete to perfect the craft of the seamless, pointlessly prolonged mix. It's music that doesn't explode with crescendoes and climaxes, but slow-burns, simmers. And this  implosive aesthetic mirrors the way the club industry has successfully corraled and contained the once anarchic energies of rave.

Part of progressive's selling point is its image as streamlined pleasure-tech. The tracks are mere components for the mixscapes assembled by the ultra-skilled technicians who travel the global superclub circuit. Temples of  too-easy hedonism like Gatecrasher, Cream, Ministry of Sound, actually use their very leisure industry corporate-ness as part of their image and sales pitch: the logos, the slogans like Gatecrasher's "Market Leaders In Having-It-Right-Off Leisure Ware," the merchandising and spin-off compilations, all communicate the sense of quality guaranteed, a reassuring predictability. You get what you pay for, the superclubs and superjocks seem to be saying; your precious leisure time is safe in  professional hands. But Progressive  embodies the ultimate vacuousness of pleasure as its own justification. For without difficulty (the physical commitment of actually journeying to a remote rave, or a shady club, say), you get what you pay for and nothing more. The "surplus value" that came with participating in the rave underground--with its possibility of either wild adventures or a total bust--has disappeared as an option.  The superclubs are like department stores or shopping malls, the dancers like consumers or spectators. Factor in the Ibiza-isation of dance culture, and the Spring Break-isation of Ecstasy, and you have a depressing picture: the transition from rave as counterculture to clubland as a mere supplement or adjunct to affluent, aspirational, enjoyment-oriented lifestyles. A dance "culture" without even the transcendent escapist frisson of the original disco. Because with lives so well-adjusted and abundant, why would you even need to escape at all?

I have this far-fetched theory that Daft Punk's album of last year, Discovery--with its titillating infusions of late Seventies AOR, soft-rock, and lite-metal, its evocations of Frampton, 10CC, Van Halen, ELO, Buggles, and the actual recognisable Supertramp keyboard lick on "Digital Love"---was trying to make a point: that dance music right now has a lot in common with American rock at its most toothless, radio-programmer-castrated, emollient (all those groups ruled the radio roost during the punk-never-arrived-here FM void of 1976-80). Almost as if, by making this unhappy resemblance blatantly obvious, Daft Punk could somehow prompt a real Dance-Punk into existence. Well, I said it was far-fetched theory.

Another abreactive symptom of this dawning sense of dance culture as a dead end, as a new decadance, is the resurgence of interest in the original dance-with-edge: avant-funk, mutant disco, early Eighties proto-house. Compilations like In The Beginning There Was Rhythm: The Birth Of Dance Music After Punk,  Disco Not Disco, and  Nine O'Clock Drop (complete with compiler Andrew Weatherall's sleevenote railing against the way dance music has become "the soundtrack to complete an easily assembled life(less) style.... the soundtrack for ad agency pick and mix culture snitches"). Reissues of 23 Skidoo, Cabaret Voltaire, ESG.  Clubs like Mutants and Transmission. Then there's the plethora of contemporary groups who are taking cues from the early Eighties: Playgroup, with their loving pastiches of New York mutant disco and synth-funk, their Pigbag and Specials homages; the  Kraftwerk circa Computer World meets Todd Haynes circa Safe anomie & modernity of Adult; the art school bop and Sprockets-funk of Berlin's Chicks On Speed; Le Tigre's lo-tech agit-funk, all spiky riffs and rad-feminist sloganeering.

Angular, scrawny, not-quite-fluid, early Eighties postpunk dance is a world away from the plumply pumping satisfactions of modern dance music, the supple repleteness of its production. What seems appealing to contemporary ears about that period of punk-funk is its very failure to be funky in a fully-realised fashion.  And that brings us back to the original question of what the white boys and girls can bring to the party? Precisely their alienation, their awkwardness and unrelaxedness, their neurosis, their inability to swing (think David Byrne's persona: the geeky consumer-commuter burb-dweller straining to "stop making sense," trance-out). It was this very Euro-WASP stiltedness and coldness that was so inspiring to the original Detroit techno people (a paradox that Carl Craig crystallized with the insight: "Kraftwerk were so stiff, they were funky"). Rave culture once offered a transgressive ecstasy, but after ten years of professionalisation and technical refinement, rapture has become routizined, bliss banal. No wonder that a new generation is rejecting the very notion of trance-dance as narcotic, lulling, null, and grasping instead for some kind of edge. Rather than the ease of release offered by house music in its many forms, tension and unease seem desirable again, for their own sake.

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