Sunday, November 07, 2004

My hours have gotten weird again lately--too much time off does things to my body clock that makes it difficult to adjust to worker-bee time, though thankfully my job grants me incredible lassitude in re coming-in hours. So I'm writing this on basically no sleep (I'm trying to readjust myself by going to bed early tonight after not going to bed the night before after not waking up till mid-afternoon yesterday), but I'm seized with the idea anyway.

A few minutes ago, I went to a newsstand and passed an indie rock magazine I can't recall the name of. The point isn't the title; the point is the headline, which was, "The Postal Service: The Band That Wasn't There." Harmless enough, sorta descriptive, a mild joke on their status as a by-mail duo, fine. But when I glanced at that headline, one of the first things I thought was, "This is very, very rockist."

Let's pause a second so I can make something clear: I didn't, and don't, mean that as a pejorative statement, or a negative judgment, or a call-to-arms of the anti-rockist brigade (which, as Ben Williams pointed out in Slate, is quite a few of the better known critics right now anyway, and ergo pointless to call into service over the cover of a small magazine, not that I could "call them into service" in the first place anyhow). I like the Postal Service--I voted for their album in the Voice poll, though I probably wouldn't now--so there's nothing negative going on there. I don't know the magazine and have no negative feelings toward it, but even if I did, it would be beside the point. I'm talking about a commonplace mindset here, and I'm not attacking it. I just think the headline delineates what it is in a way that's cleaner and easier to discuss than, say, Ashlee Simpson has been lately, though I still think Kelefa did a fine job with it.

So, what's rockist about it? Simple: the idea of casting the Postal Service, who are in essence an old-fashioned synth duo (Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Eurythmics), as a band--a rock band, we can believe, given the magazine's bent and the fact that the model for "band" as we think of it tends to be the rock variety. It certainly isn't the jazz variety; usually those get dubbed "combos" or something. "Band" is a rock word--not exclusively, of course, but I think in this case it's fair to say that's how it's meant. The joke of the headline is that because Gibbard, who lives in Seattle, and Dntel, who lives in L.A., work through email and sending tapes back and forth, they are operating like a certain kind of band but at a remove--which is different from the other synth duos I mention above, who mostly work in close quarters and live near each other (at least while they're creating music). If they were to call the Pet Shop Boys a band, though, I'd think it was rockist, too (with all the same caveats about it not being a negative judgment outlined above). Not damaging or even wrong--just operating under a dominant paradigm that a "band" is a group of people who ideally operate in real time in real space playing non-prerecorded music (or integrating live playing on top of prerecorded playing).

I think this way myself a lot of the time; I don't always think rockism is "wrong," per se, because the reasons that paradigm got large is that the music produced by its practitioners was, to my ears certainly, often better than a lot of whatever else was around--not always and not exclusively, but frequently enough that I'm not puzzled people accepted it as a or the center of popular music, though I don't think it's a very useful way to look at or hear things anymore, given that rock no longer holds a premium on interest or excitement the way it once seemed to--and given that, again to my ears, it's become more questionable just how firm its grip on those things was to begin with. Not as in, "All rock sucks"; as in, "It turns out that rock wasn't always everything." Not as in burn down the academy, as in expand it and maybe remove some of the stuff that's gotten fustier with age.

Back to the magazine cover. Here's a thought experiment: Imagine if the dominant paradigm for what we think of as pop was the synth duo (some of you probably do already, but bear with me), and that the magazine I saw took that as its subject. In fact, let's get ambitious. Let's give the magazine a name: Synth Duo. And let's figure the magazine incorporates into its coverage not just synth duos but synth trios (Le Tigre), synth quartets (Kraftwerk), duos who don't use synths per se but have the same basic idea going on--the Handsome Family don't play what we think of as "synth music," but they use laptops to create what amounts to alt-country, so they'd get thrown in there too. And rock bands that use a lot of electronics in a way that draws attention to them as electronics (as opposed to the synths being meant to evoke or buttress acoustic/electric instruments, not act as purely electronic ones)--U2 might qualify, Radiohead certainly would. In short, it would be like many mainstream rock-centered magazines, concentrating on what the editors/readers qualify as "rock" and throwing in likely-seeming outsiders as well. (The Synth Duo equivalent of the avalanche of Loretta Lynn-produced-by-Jack White rockmag coverage in 2004 might be a bunch of stories on Liza Minnelli in 1989, when the PSB-helmed Results came out.) And let's say they put Radiohead on the cover, with the headline, "The synth duo that wasn't." You would pass it on the newsstand, read the cover, and think, "This is very, very synth-duoist."