How Ariel Pink Helped Me Recover My Faith in Rock’n’Roll

I think I may finally have started to get excited about music again in a way that I wasn’t sure was even possible for me anymore. And that’s pretty reassuring because I thought I was past it at age 34, that I was becoming too jaded and too cynical to ever really lose it for a band or an artist again.

A couple of months ago I was pointed in the direction of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti by a personalised recommendation on Spotify’s homepage, the result of the site’s collaborative filtering algorithm that decided that I would probably really like to hear their 2010 album “Before Today”. I remembered AP being name-dropped on some websites that I liked — and finding myself intrigued by all that acclaim I thought, well, why not give this chap a go? (In fact at one point I had Ariel Pink confused with Big Pink and, having transferred Ariel Pink’s remembered praise to the latter band, ended up buying one of their albums from the discount bins of HMV. I ended up liking it, so it was quite a serendipitous purchase.) It took a very few listens before those fantastic melodic hooks of his began to worm their way in earnest into my subconscious– and a few more after that before it finally got through to me that, music-wise I’d finally stumbled onto the real thing here. After years of searching I’d finally discovered an artist that had *it* — and not only did he have *it*, but he also really got it; that is, he completely fucking understood what it is that music is supposed to be doing right now, at this very moment in time. And the reason I knew that he got it was that listening to him helped me  clarify things for myself to the point where I got it too! I can see that some of you are sceptical (for the purposes of this rhetorical device I’m rather optimistically assuming that more than one person is going to read this), so let me take a few paragraphs to elaborate.

The Post-Derivative

The biggest obstacle to being the next Kate Bush or David Bowie or Lou Reed for today’s bright young musical wannabe, driven on by his or her feverish creative urges and a generous dose of inter-generational envy to justify him or herself as an Artiste and to do so by making a *Big Meaningful Statement*, is that nowadays it’s just too difficult not to sound like someone else, maybe even someone who you’ve probably never heard before and whose influence you’ve only caught third or fourth hand. So that in the end you feel yourself creatively hamstrung by the fact that most if not pretty much all of the interesting sonic possibilities that the standard permutations of guitar, drums, bass and vocals have to offer — and a good number of the non-interesting ones too alas — have already been staked out. Let’s face it the thin metallic base of that particular toothpaste tube has been well and truly squeezed to within the last few nano-particles of paste and you either buy a new one or just let your teeth rot.

Well then, why not make a virtue out of necessity: from the fact, by now unavoidable, that whatever you do, whatever radical, uncompromising direction you’re thinking of taking your music into, the authentic and deeply felt expression of your fractured outsider soul, you’re just going to end up sounding like the deeply felt expression of someone else’s soul anyway?  That you’re never ever going to sound *far out* or *extreme* in an age in which Japanese noise groups like Merzbow are used as bywords for hip and edgy music by people who don’t really listen to music anyway — in much the same way the same types of idiots were namedropping metal or hardcore punk groups starting ten years ago and in the process helped to divest them of much of the edginess or danger that they once possessed. So, given the current situation and the artistic constraints that you will necessarily find yourself operating under, why not go all out with it and revel in your second hand status? Why not push the envelope from within the confines of genres and musical styles that sounded dated pretty much as soon as they came out?

And that’s what AP does. He plunders from the past but with such panache and such wild fantastic abandon that playing around with sounds that could so easily be dismissed as stale and irredeemably corny, Ariel Pink instead transforms such unlikely source materials into music that is deeply compelling. And this is a great example of what I in my madness have started to call post-derivative music (it’s called post-derivative as a way of marking the fact that we’ve arrived at a point when to call something ‘derivative’ is no longer just a way of dismissing it nor is that label anything to be ashamed of as it once was).

Post-derivative is essentially a way of describing music that sounds dated and obsolete (and indeed purposefully so) and yet is at the same time manifestly contemporary and therefore exciting and relevant. More than that: it’s music that sounds familiar, and even intimately familar, because of the deep seated memories that it evokes, and yet that jars with you in ways you can’t quite put your finger on —  like a bad, unsettling dream that you’re not really sure if it’s a dream or not. It’s that uneasy feeling that the Germans call Das Unheimliche, the uncanny, that you get when you start to experience what had previously seemed commonplace with a sense of puzzlement and steadily creeping nausea. Now that can be a hard trick to pull off, making Das Unheimliche-y retro-contemporary music, but the Brian Jonestown Massacre managed to do it very well for a time; taking their musical cues from the dirty, druggy, drone-y sound that the Stones and the Jesus and Mary Chain unleashed onto the world decades before, they had the knack of making it all sound seedier and far more deranged than ever before.

To recap and to expand on the definition of the post derivative: you take a familiar sound with all its attendant socio-cultural signifiers (audio-signifiers? audiofiers?) — the varying degrees of rebellion and druggy/sexual undertone that were there from the beginning and that were inherited to some extent from the blues and from jazz — its associations with a youth culture that in its infancy was still mostly about carefree teenage fun (and that in fact invented the teenager) and the tantalising prospect of endless leisure time (though in the end that prospect could only be lived vicariously via the closely documented lifestyles of the rich and famous) — and then, and this is the fun part, you drag it through the muck and the squalor of the intervening decades, during which all those early hopes and aspirations were crushed definitively, once and for all, and the extent of the corporate cynicism and the physical-sexual-substance abuse that had been fuelling the whole industry of dreams from the start could no longer be overlooked.

If you’re going to do this post-derivative thing well, then you want to do more than just smugly embrace the cultural detritus of the past with feigned nostalgia and the fulsome mockery of previous generations’ bad hairstyle, drug and wardrobe decisions. It can’t be a total put on and it can’t just be all ironical. Instead your aim is to create a dialogue with the past, or even better, a confrontation, a therapeutic process that serves to overcome the disappointment and the sense of being cheated that the popular culture of the post war period left behind like a poisonous residue or a tragic hangover. Kitsch is an essential ingredient here too, since you’re essentially referencing the more ephemeral and generic aspects of the music of the past rather than any kind of genuine and “timeless” emotive core, and so you will of necessity tend to exaggerate somewhat and pick out those things that are perceived as vulgar.

OK then, you say. What you’re talking about isn’t anything new, it’s all been done before, so why the fuck are you getting so excited? And in truth there’s no end of examples of similar kinds (similar on a first approximation that is) of re-visioning and re-contextualising of past sounds in the popular music of the past few decades; indeed that sort of thing’s been pretty much ubiquitous since sampling really began to take a hold in the early 1980s.  But I would argue that there’s something quite different going on here or at least a very profound shift of emphasis with artists like Ariel Pink and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. And how could it be otherwise given how utterly, mind-numbingly different the current musical and cultural milieu is to anything that came before? All in all there’s a real cultural urgency to coming to terms with popular music’s past right now — with the hefty burden that rock’s (and soul and pop and funk, etc) myriad cultural triumphs would seem to place on our shoulders — to figuring out how to go about countering the “anxiety of influence”. That urgency has never been as insistent as it is now. These days we’re so afflicted by this disenchanted attitude of, ‘look everything’s been done before and what’s more it’s all been done to death, so what’s the point?’, that it’s genuinely robbing this generation of the sense of a distinctive voice of its own and the motivation to go about looking for one. And this slightly perverse trick of sounding like the past — but uncannily so, with a level of attention to detail that can only have been borne of love and obsession — while still managing to sound completely modern at the same time is, as it turns out, one very effective way of challenging this current climate of musical lethargy.

The Internet and its Overall Promotion of Degeneracy and Squalor

What you have to really take into account however, if you want to understand the necessity for artists like Ariel Pink and the profound pop cultural savvy that they can bring to the table, is the hugely distorting influence that the internet has had on culture as a whole and on music in particular over the last 15 years or so: both on how we listen to it and the overall value that we place on it, spiritual and economic. We’ve reached a point now where — thanks in very large part to the internet, the effect of online forums like 4chan and the wide availability of, and easy access to, pornography regardless of how niche and regardless of how improbable the sick perversion that it caters to — it seems that there are very few real cultural taboos left and that pretty much everything is up for discussion and public appraisal. I’m constantly struck by our readiness as a society to openly discuss topics that were until very recently completely off-limits in any sort of public forum and that could only be broadly, vaguely alluded to — topics like incest, paedophilia and fringe sexual practices — as well as the forthrightness with which we now treat sexuality and refuse to be ashamed about enjoying masturbation or oral or anal sex. Nowadays you can show your Grandmother a pornographic clip of two Brazilian girls eating human excrement from a glass chalice, film her reaction — which will very understandably be on the perturbed side — and rather than being accused of abusive inter-generational exploitation and the desecration of sacred familial bonds  you might actually end up with a very popular youtube video out of the whole thing. We live in a era where Mexican drug gangs and Babylonian goddess initialed Islamic terrorists continue to release footage of men being beheaded or skinned alive over the internet at a prodigious rate so that it’s just stopped being news now; an era when putting out a sex tape is no longer the positive career boost that it used to be for aspiring starlets but only because it ‘s very rapidly become passe and not because of any censorious moral backlash, and a former adolescent idol like Miley Cyrus can make the transition to a voracious cunt fingering sex kitten in the blink of an eye and have run out of shocking things to do outside of a drug overdose in a matter of months. Even Hollywood movies have finally started to treat female sexuality and homosexuality in an unabashed and upfront way that would have been pretty much impossible even ten years ago.

It’s obvious that if popular music is still to approach anything like the world-rattling levels of artistic and cultural relevance that it managed to sustain over the course of four whole decades  —  and which it held on to until very recently — then there can be no complacency. I mean, it’s not like our best musicians and artists/aesthetes can just sit back and voyeuristically take stock of the new social developments, this new uber-sexualized zeitgeist or blandly participate in proceedings the same way any other civilian would — they absolutely need to be at the swollen and tumescent vanguard of this thing and offering themselves up as vessels of higher knowledge — you remember what Blake said about the road of excess, right? Because otherwise popular music, rock and roll, or whatever you want to call it risks becoming as obsolete and irrelevant in what were formerly its most forward thinking and creative manifestations (the heirs of David Bowie, Nick Cave,the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, etc) as poetry and modern art have become for most people, both of which are now the reserves of small, mutually back-slapping cliques and over privileged wankers. And yes if that were to transpire then it would be profoundly ironic given that the influence of popular music from rock and roll to disco, punk and hip hop has been instrumental in helping us to get to where we are now in terms of our current cultural broadmindedness and levels of tolerance. But like I said resting on laurels is no kind of option here: look at how rapidly Jazz went out of fashion back in the day after having made almost as deep an impact on 20th century occidental cultural mores as rock or pop did a generation later (why do you think they called it the Jazz age?), and it’s never ever managed to claw its way back again.

Why I Love Ariel Pink

Nowadays we live in a kitsch-worshipping culture that wholeheartedly embraces the aesthetic of the Charity store/thrift shop and not just because of the whole nostalgia thing, the fact that everything comes across as so obviously second hand, but also because of the low-price/thrift aspect: the cheapening of music, film, TV as economic commodities that inevitably followed on from the success of online file-sharing in the late 90s. Music has arguably become too easily available, too accessible, not to have been drained of a good deal of its former mystique, and to be regarded as far more disposable than ever it was in the age of vinyl, the cassette or even the CD. And one effective aesthetic strategy for acknowledging this next stage in our collective relationship with popular music, in which we’re all forced into confronting the fact of its essential transience, is to hark back to the kind of throwaway trashy music we all  used to think was “worthless”, that seemed to have its own version of “in built obsolence” written into its DNA, things like jingles, or daft europop, the kind of cheesy pop/guilty pleasures type stuff that serious rock fans would sneer at once upon a time, but then afterwards pretended to like, as long as it was understood they were doing so ironically.

 

Coming back to the ostensible subject of this long rambling article, or rather to the core inspiration behind it all: yes I got that all that, all the preceeding, from listening to two or three Ariel Pink records — pom pom in particular — after years and years of the latest hyped up records passing me by and leaving me cold. It’s via Pink that I came to understand how it is that an artist can create music that sounds vital and cutting edge even today, as part of a music scene that I had all but written off. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the man can write a cracking fucking tune.

Look, the age of the outsider musician is not over, the wellspring of creativity hasn’t dried up even if they’ve co-opted much of what once considered edgy and outre and sanitized it to fuck; but it needs a singular talent, because even though the age of the outsider musician may  not yet be over, artistically speaking there’s very little low lying fruit left, and only the equivalent of a Bowie or a Beefheart will do. Ariel Pink may well be that man.

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