Living for the Future

Two weeks ago I discovered a rather “special” LiveJournal community of music fans. LiveJournal is an online network of bloggers who often write personal journal entries, do impressive graphic design and take mediocre digital photographs. Like all gatherings of real people on the internet, the site is prone to melodrama and inflated self-worth.

Arguably one of LiveJournal’s most attractive features is the option to indicate what music you’re listening to when you write entries. I know people who sometimes come up with posts just because they want everyone to know what song they’re playing. It’s arguably narcissistic, but much more redolent of the fact that people feel the music they listen to is fundamental to forming their identities—virtual or not.

The aforementioned community, called the “Fuck You Crew,” hosts simultaneously the most obnoxious and the most insecure music geeks on LiveJournal. To obtain membership, you submit a list of your top 10-20 bands, which are held up for approval—or, far more frequently, complete scorn—by the elected members.

Evidently, people really care about being able to join this group. The community journal is cluttered with immaculately formulated lists of post-punk, avant-classical, metal, indie and electronica acts, most of which are so thoughtfully “insider” they’re insipid. These lists are invariably attacked for being myopic, scene-dependent and safe. My issue isn’t so much that the Fuck You Crew have the nerve to condemn the lists themselves. It’s that they do so without a truly critical eye on the bands, instead stacking the lists against their own (presumably more diverse) versions in order to support the idea that they do indeed have better taste, and are thus actually the open-minded ones. In turn, many rejected hopefuls are genuinely hurt, thinking that they really aren’t good enough.

Even the pranksters who try to join, if only to defy the norm and quit on their own volition, take the time to compose lists that they feel are quality—playing along with the crew’s false game of “there is such a thing as unassailably good taste, and I am as good as if not better than you.” Few people ever seem willing to divorce themselves from “their” music.

Perhaps that’s why the list I gave them, which included the first names I could think of—John Zorn, the Icarus Line, Shabaam Sahdeeq, Vertical Horizon, Clara Schumann, Ice Cube, Alice Deejay, Keith Hudson, the Police and then Sting, among others—never once got dismissed as being insincere even though it made no “sense” whatsoever. Comments ranged from “Some okay, even pretty good stuff, utterly ruined by gay” to “I really hope you’re a lesbian, for your own sake” before I was finally banned for being a “stupid fucking white man.”

Sometimes I think people invest too much of themselves in the music they consume. What is music in the recording era if not a commodity, albeit a vital and extremely rewarding one? If you diss a musician’s favorite classical piece, like Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, they’ll probably shrug and wave you off for being an idiot. But knock a person’s favorite band and it’s like you’ve knocked off a limb. I don’t think it’s a holdover from rock’s “voice of a generation” rhetoric either; a person’s CDs or MP3s are practically a bodily extension. If music—not just the physical medium, but the expressive content—can “belong” to a person, can be attached to a self, then it naturally follows that criticizing the artist is like criticizing its fans.

A friend of mine recently articulated something that I’d previously been grappling with—the suggestion that music can be design and not art. He was referring to techno and dance culture, where quality corresponds on most levels to functionality, how well a track can create physical synergy between artist and audience. Tracks are DJ tools, product rather than artwork; performances are DJ sets, ephemeral rather than everlasting moments. Both signify a global rather than a singular worldview which encapsulates millions of individuals. You don’t embody the music as much as you’re embodied within it.

This is probably why I find kindred spirits in DJ mixes and twelve-inch singles as opposed to albums nowadays; because I treat music like food. Here the commodities really are commodities; they’re not commodities selling themselves as art. Paradoxically, they’re not inert; far from it—dancefloor music is alive, forces you to listen with more than your ears. What corner you inhabit depends on how you feel. Why else would U.K. grime artists like Dizzee Rascal and Wiley Kat have come up with the inhuman beats they rhyme over? They grew up listening to breakbeat hardcore and jungle, whose twisted beats became their “rhythmic code” (to borrow from Simon Reynolds).

Jungle says almost everything I feel as well—its obsessively tangled drums, alternately warm and oppressive basslines, and intrinsic anxiety (brought about by its own confused tension between art and formula) are like a physical reflection of me. Or maybe I’ve also taken on its outline to a degree. That’s probably why I’ve stuck with the genre as it’s lost all its hipster potential and sunk to the bottom of the dance hierarchy in the past five years. At its best, the music reminds me of more than myself, and makes me want to become better than myself.

—Staff writer Ryan J. Kuo can be reached at kuo@fas.harvard.edu.