Sunday, 8 November 2015

现实 | Great expectations

Posted by: Ryan O'Riordan

For those of you who were beside yourselves with grief that there wasn't an update from me last Sunday (and let's be honest that probably wasn't anyone), it's OK, I actually have a good excuse this time.

To cut a long and miserable story short, I was in Ireland for a family birthday last weekend and the day we were due to fly home, our flight got cancelled because of fog. The cancellation was made even better by the fact that we had been in the departure area for around five hours by that point. 

What a weekend.

Anyway, we both know that you're not here to read about my budget re-enactment of The Terminal. What you're here for (hopefully) is to read a blog. Which requires me to write about something. So let's do it.

Those of you with good memories, and a worrying obsession with me, will remember that the song I stuck at the end of my post 'Running in Circles' was Realiti by Grimes. Since then, I've become rather fond of Grimes' music, described by herself as 'post-internet' and described by me as 'sick'. I'm not entirely sure how to describe what it actually sounds like though. Spotify call her 'witch-house', but what's that supposed to mean? Basically, she likes synths, she likes putting effects on her voice and she likes singing in such a way that you have no idea what she's saying most of the time. All of which is fine by me, and by the 1.8 million monthly listeners she has on Spotify. 

She made three albums of this ethereal kind of stuff from 2010 to 2012: Geidi Primes, Halfaxa and Visions, each more accessible than its predecessor, to the extent that a few of the songs from Visions were hovering very firmly on the edge of mainstream pop music. In my opinion someone more firmly in the mainstream than Grimes could have released something like Oblivion and scored a hit with it. Or maybe I know nothing about how to get a song in the charts.

Anyway, I suppose people assumed that Grimes would carry on making this kind of vaguely danceable psuedo-pop for the rest of her career. From the point of view of the aspiring indie cool kid she must have been a godsend. Here was music that you could get away with playing around your friends who are into dance etc. and (this is key) was obscure enough for you to feel superior to them.

However, everyone's flannel-patterned bubble was burst when she released the first single from her eagerly-anticipated album Art Angels. The song's called Flesh Without Blood, and I don't think it would be too much of an overstatement to say that it provoked some major soul searching among her fans.

A quick look at the comments on Grimes' Facebook page and the song's video on Youtube reveal this:

  • "This is boring... not something you can vibe out to... And it sucks cause you were the only artist this year I was really anticipating...Realiti was good though..."
  • "Someone's been listening to Shake It Off"
  • "Something about the song and the video feels so...manufactured compared to her previous album and videos. Does anyone else get that kind of feeling?"
  • "I want the good old Grimes to come back. I don't like the way she took, it's a way that thousands of musicians already took. Really, this sounds boring as fuck. RIP"

Now, as much as I'm sure as you're enjoying this little Grimes-based history lesson, there is a point hidden in here somewhere.

I like to think about how much say fans should have, if any, in the musical direction of their favourite artists. It's a weird symbiotic relationship: artists rely on fans for money, and people want to consume music. Problems seem, to me, to arise when the two pull in different directions. Changing sound is like Schrödinger's cat for artists. Either it works and you get to explore the music you want to, or it doesn't and you rush back into the studio to record a 'back to basics' album. 

Perhaps the solution lies in the artist's motivation for the change. If they're changing how they sound because it's part of their growth as an artist, or a natural evolution of what they've done so far, I probably wouldn't criticise them even if they were no longer for me. To return to Grimes for a moment, I'm not the biggest fan of Flesh Without Blood. I do like it, but not as much as I like Oblivion or the re-recorded Realiti on the new album.

However, I think that to criticise her as a sell-out or whatever after making a song like Flesh is to ignore where, in my eyes, she's been heading musically. As I said before, anyone in the charts at the moment would have had a hit with Oblivion or Realiti. Also, a quick look at her playlist on Spotify will show you Trap Queen, Whip My Hair and Fast Car (which is an absolute tune). The point I'm trying to make is that a move into poppiness from Grimes shouldn't have been a huge surprise.

Maybe you can take exception when an artist's change in direction looks like a blatant chart grab. Not that there's anything wrong with being commercially successful, or aiming there. However, I look upon Taylor Swift getting rid of her guitar as one of the decade's foremost musical tragedies. I mean, she was already successful - are synthesisers integral to her self-expression? The important thing is that I am upset and she should change deal with this.

Did you see that? I parodied the point of view I'm attacking, and as we all know that means it's now completely refuted forever!

I wish it was as easy as that. 

In any case, I can (just about) see both sides of the argument. It's understandable for people to get upset when someone who's been making their favourite type of music suddenly stops. This artist might have provided the soundtrack to your life, and you'd prefer it if they didn't release an album using the kazoo as their main instrument thank you very much.

However, I feel that it's not worth getting too worked up over. If an artist I liked changed tack, and I really couldn't get into it, my reaction would be to keep listening to what I had liked. Basic advice I know, but you'd be surprised at how many people seem to forget that, and go straight for the "OH MY GAAAAWWD YOU'VE LITERALLY RUINED MUSIC I  CAN'T BELIEVE I EVER LIKED YOU" reaction.

It's one I think it's best to avoid.

Ryan's listening to: 'Dead Fox' by Courtney Barnett

Read my previous post here.

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