December 17, 2004

The fourth element

Jane "Felizitas" Dark weighs in on genre, sonic form, and social content over at the corner of Frere and Jones. An intriguing theory, it's more or less on the mark, but to get there it ricochets off some soft targets.

As loathsome as the term "Intelligent Dance Music" is for reasons both aesthetic and ideological, it's always been my understanding that the phrase is at least partially rooted in Warp Records' Artificial Intelligence compilations, which conjured the idea of music made by sentient machines. I'd be curious to know, because I've never seen a definitive citation: which came first, Artificial Intelligence or the term "Intelligent Dance Music"? (It's entirely possible the album title derived from the then-nascent appellation, but I can't say either way.)

It's true, of course, that "IDM" is an insipid idea. Countless critics have pointed out that it automatically posits itself as the other to a strawmannish "dance music" which is a priori "unintelligent," and the discophobia I've seen on the IDM listserve over the years suggests that the very existence of the term helps to propagate this prejudice.

But Felizitas makes a leap when she argues that hip-hop was IDM's primordial foil, the original bogeyman, as opposed to techno or disco. (And I'm not just saying that because Autechre claim to have been B-boys back in the day; I find IDM's latter-day enthusiasm for old-skoolisms as nauseating as I suspect Felizitas does.) The tools Felizitas singles out as core components of hip-hop, the turntable and sampler, weren't really IDM's original instruments. IDM (let's say: the Black Dog, Autechre, and Aphex Twin, as reference points) evolved out of the machine music of Detroit techno and Sheffield bleep; it was a music of grooveboxes and, later, software patches, but never so much of the cut'n'paste methodology of hip-hop. (Obviously early hip-hop and electro privileged drum machines and arpeggiators as well, but that's not the point Dark is making.) Some IDM did foreground sampled and chopped beats, of course, like Squarepusher's drill'n'bass carpal-tunneling abuse in step-time of the command-V function, but I'm still not sure that's enough to make him an Elvis.

As a biographical note, I thought hip-hop was "real music" long before I thought techno or "IDM" was, but that may just be more proof that ass-backwardness is historically conditioned. But it also makes it hard for me to accept the necessary linkage between the music sometimes called IDM and the ideology behind the name.

IDM is a tough partner for a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-genre, simply because IDM isn't exactly a genre. It's one of those genre/not-genre things that plagues us in the memetastic era of accelerated information and formal slippage. Almost absurdly nonspecific, the term is a kind of umbrella covering any number of sounds that listeners want to position against a debased opposite. These days, through received wisdom and reification, IDM generally refers to grainy, schizophrenic (and yet strangely rhythmically impoverished), masturbatory software experiments that go tizz-a-whack-a-chikka-chikka-bzzzzz-skiflapple-narg, often to the accompaniment of a plaintive four-bar melody. (I'm sure there's some good stuff, too, but I haven't heard any recently.) It's a lot easier to define what IDM isn't (deep house, hard techno, Hot 97 hip-hop) than what it is.

But the sins of IDM, as identified by Felizitas, are the sins of reception, no? IDM itself is sort of a fake genre, a transparent overlay fans use to map a prejudicial worldview onto a complicated pop landscape. Few artists have ever called themselves "IDM," and it's a stretch to blame the artists whose work gets branded as such for the whitewashed tastes of its self-avowed fans. (Surely not every white kid who picked up a sampler and/or laptop after, say, 1989, grew up denouncing hip-hop as "not real music.")

But this whole essay is sort of going the wrong way. My intention isn't to defend IDM – because I hate the term and, for the past several years, 99% of the music that gets identified with it. Instead of an argument with Dark, then – because, mostly, she's right – I offer what I hope will be a useful complication: genre and their reception can open up a rift that creates supplementary social content. Musicians create sonic form and certain elements of its social content, but as critics, publicists, and fans add other elements, the social form gets awfully blurry. Perhaps a theory of genre needs to address where the genre ends and its caricature begins, or in other words, what is the scope of genre itself? How do you measure the mixture of sonic form and social content (or sonic content and social form) in such a way that it pours out into a single pint (imperial, if you will) of genre?

A few related questions:

Are there always racist undertones to exclusionary aspirationalism? Possibly, though race and class get mixed up here. Let's not forget that Detroit techno's middle-class originators favored European synthpop, dressed in GQ fashions, and named their clubs things like Charivari, in the effort to distance themselves from black underclass aesthetics. So perhaps hip-hop was always a foil for techno, though it's a complicated relationship.

Was the shortlived "intelligent jungle" movement mainly a response by select whitefolks to a largely black jungle scene? Intelligent jungle/artkore/etc, as much as they opposed the "artless," thuggish vibe of common-denominator jungle, were championed by artists like LTJ Bukem, Alex Reece, etc., which makes me suspect that in this case "intelligent" wasn't expressly a racially coded term. Simon Reynolds has written extensively on the plague of "progressivism" that besets all vital underground cultures, but I don't recall if there's a racial component there.

Oh yeah, I'm back.

Posted by philip at December 17, 2004 06:18 PM

And, welcome back.

Posted by: John Edmond at December 17, 2004 08:12 PM

I'll second that.

Posted by: jon at December 18, 2004 03:27 PM

of course it doesn't make him an Elvis, if you mean what Elvis was (a brilliant artist who took inspiration from everything around him, black and white) rather than what Elvis has become demonized as by know-nothings who assume that because he learned from black music he must have been, you know, a thief rather than an artist.

Posted by: Matos W.K. at December 18, 2004 05:12 PM

and yeah, it's obviously true that Elvis got shine where black artists didn't or wouldn't, but it isn't taking anything away from Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley or whoever to say Elvis deserved to be in their company anymore than it is to say I like Aphex Twin's best music as much as I like the RZA's. and no, it's not a "why all this talk about race, maaan?" kind of argument I'm making; just that "Elvis" has become such a kneejerk kind of thing to invoke. in the sense that he made a lot more money and got way more famous than other people who were darker of skin and equal or better in talent than him, it's a totally valid point. but the kind of (seemingly, in this case) dismissive, everyone-knows-he-was-just-a-carpetbagger tone is, I'm sorry, just at odds with historical fact. I'd say the same thing if it were something along the lines of what Yancey Strickler recently posted on his blog about hearing some people at a party say that ODB died of "rap-related causes."

haha, what the hell am I talking about '50s rock on YOUR blog for?!

Posted by: Matos W.K. at December 18, 2004 05:22 PM

Actually Philip isn't Simon's line on "progressivism" in "intelligent jungle" that it was a *speficially* black sort of gentrification? All the stuff about using real instruments and singers (which has never been a big thing in IDM). Of course you can contrast Bukem-style progressivism with the (by comparison) white progressivism of both drill'n'bass and latter day technoid d&b...

Posted by: Tim at December 19, 2004 04:40 AM

"Now it would be very lovely to pretend the answer was "techno," or "disco," but I'm having trouble really buying it." I don't see why this author has such a hard time buying this. I mean compare the trance/breaks/house of 1997 to AFX and which one sounds more intelligent? Anyway, nice to see you defending IDM, we all loved it once, to bad that Jane is correct when she notes that it has degraded. While I disagree with the racism (except in the sense that lunatic harness' melodies can bear a stricking resmelbance to Model 500's early work) the fact that IDM has no definable culture or message does seem to have left it empty, but hasn't that been the problem of techno all along? rock and hip-hop changed our values and more importantly our symbols of authenticity, but techno snuck in like a ghost and haunts us with a kinda evil step-son image it lacks rock's ability to conjure the revolutionary self, hip-hop's consciousness, I can't think of any social content that electronica has ever tried to prove.


Posted by: andrew jones at December 19, 2004 09:40 PM

Philip: My theory of genre: there are no genres, only communities of musicians. In this light IDM can be seen as an attempt to invent a community where there wasn't one.

Andrew: I don't know what you think "electronica" means, but if you think there's no politics in techno, please go listen to "Distant Planet," "It's a Cold World" and some of their offspring.

Posted by: at December 20, 2004 12:44 PM

my god, you all are really annoying

Posted by: Camille at December 21, 2004 10:35 PM

"In this light IDM can be seen as an attempt to invent a community where there wasn't one."

COME ON!! - the IDM kids are laregely grouped together cause there is such a huge community online. they are mostly IRC geeks and are constantly in touch with each other. To the extent that now its almost a incstous self fulfilling comminuty. The only people who buy stuff on say U-Cover or Planet-Mu are people who are being released on simlar labels. The rest of the music buying public is over it....Even the last BoC album was pretty poorly recieved outside geek circles.

There is fuck all connection between IDM and hip-hop. Its absurd to suggest otherwise.

Posted by: Luke at December 22, 2004 03:04 PM

this is the real luke. all the other lukes are imitators. people have been writing the article that boy wrote for what, about 10 years now, almost, when the term intelligent jungle come along. i think writers should hav a rule about no rehashing the same old boring articles you've read 100 times already.

uh, how you doing phil, you alright? happy christmas and all that.

Posted by: luka at December 24, 2004 03:31 AM

I always thought that there is something fascist on th term "IDM". It sublimates dance music (house, techno, you name it) as non-intelligent music, probably a phenomena that have its origins from some kind of hate against the "cool" kids. That´s probably why you hate the term, isn´t Phil?

Saludos desde la Ciudad de México ;-)

Posted by: Oscar at December 26, 2004 09:07 PM

Settle down ya'll and look at this British photo exhibition..Pogus Caesar has photographed many "black music legends" and his show pays homage to them.Dead cool I say

Posted by: Allende at February 23, 2005 06:47 AM



Posted by: SOFIA at February 9, 2006 05:14 AM
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