On change and the insecurity of electro fans

In the on-going cataloging of 2009 releases in the electronic community, the last week has brought news of two of my very favourite bands in the studio (or shortly heading there) to produce new content for ’09. VNV Nation is about to head on in to record newly written material for the upcoming Of Faith, Power and Glory, the followup to the awesome Judgement. (In addition to a cast-offs/live tracks/varia album Reformation we will see in coming weeks, for the collectors.) Also in the studio are Mesh, my so-called “second favourite band” (truth be told many bands have held that description at one time or another) who are well into the recording process for the followup to the incomparable We Collide, one of my favourite albums of all time. However, when reading about the Mesh sessions on Side-line.com, I was unnerved to see them describe the album-in-progress as “grittier and rockier (sic)”. Now I’m all about the grit and the rock, but this has become shorthand among many electronic artists, code words for “more organic” or “less of what has made this band the band you’ve enjoyed up to this point”. So why would I react this way? Aren’t artists supposed to grow and change and bring different things to the table?

I have written before about the freak-out among some fans of Apoptgyma Berzerk’s recent-ish shift into more pop-rock away from the more industrial/darkwave electronica for which they have been historically known. I have more specifically questioned this overreaction as small-minded. And yet, I do the same with artists whim whom I have a more meaningful history. I still haven’t gotten over the sight of drums at Depeche Mode concerts. The proliferation of guitars and even drums on Goldfrapp’s new album made it a sour experience for me. And I’m not alone. When electronic artists head down organic road fans get their backs up, on the soft side, and go into full-blown hissy fit in other, harder-edged cases.

But isn’t this a natural part of the history of music? The Beatles and the Beach Boys went through world-affecting, substantial changes in 1966, so much so that one can divide their histories into two distinct sections. Was there this level of nonacceptance when the changes happened? (Maybe there were, but as McNutt noted, few would now admit to not having been on the Revolver/Sgt. Pepper bandwagon today.) I know there was the well-documented backlash to Dylan’s “going electric” but it wasn’t sustained. When his new material landed he was transformed into a new artist, accepted by all but the most hardcore fans of traditional folk.

I think the issue comes down to subgenres (and sub-subgenres). If Christina Augiliara morphs from teen queen to sexually adventurous, pierced dirrrty girl, to respected artist with jazz and big band influences to techno lady, who is vested enough to care? If the Killers change from Duran Duran wanabees to Springsteen protegees, and back again, while some may wince, who will lose sleep? Mainstream artists, largely thanks to the immediacy of the internet age, and the shortened attention span of music listeners, no longer seem to form emotional attachments to their fan base. The very nature of mainstream, chart-oriented music often means a lowest common denominator approach on the part of their corporate masters (this is not a dig; anything striving to appeal to a mass audience has to, inherently smooth off the edges, as it were). Thus, we form the kind of attachments as we would to any other mass-marketed product, and when was the last time you wept for the change to the scent of Downey fabric softener?

Niche artist fans, on the other hand become more vested in “their” bands. There’s more at stake, more of a relationship developed. And in the case of electronic music fans, I would add, a level of insecurity. For decades fans of electronic music have been told music made largely using machines isn’t “real” music and it certainly doesn’t fall under “rock music”. This can’t help but make some fans feel a little shy about proclaiming to the heavens, “I listen to machine music!” Even the even-handed Pitchfork subtly mocked electronic music as “nerd music” when discussing They Might be Giants (though to be fair, it’s hard to discuss TMbG without the word “nerd” coming up) in the Pitchfork 500. Even many electronic musicians get clearly insecure about the music they perform (in the case of the aforementioned Depeche Mode, singer Dave Gahan, after partying with the members of Guns ‘n Roses and other “hard(er) rock” bands in the early 90s, suddenly grew his hair long, developed the merkin-beard and wanted to be a “serious” “rock” musician; songwriter Martin Gore takes an almost sad, insecure pride in the fact that he “hardly plays keyboards during live shows anymore”, just on a few throwback songs). Rare is the Phillip Oakey (Human League) or Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure) who takes an unabashed pride in the instrumentation they choose.

So, it’s little wonder that a little insecurity may lead fans of this genre (and its many subgenres) to be protective of the bands they love, and to worry about being abandoning by them, throwing to the winds all they love about the artist in question.

I’ll try to remember that when I next feel the urge to roll my eyes at the Apop fans dealing with the popification of the band they knew and loved. 

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5 Responses to “On change and the insecurity of electro fans”

  1. So long as the quality of the songs remains the same, I don’t really care what instruments are utilized in the recording process. In the case of Depeche Mode, however, it seems that the further they lean away from pure electronic music the more unlistenable I find them; to the point that this band, my favorite from the moment I first heard them as teenager, only warrants an accidental listen these days, when a track pops up in the shuffle . I think a lot of it had to do with Alan Wilder’s departure.

    APB’s slow separation from pure electronic music also seems to be marking a slow separation of songs demanding multiple (even back-to-back) listens. I loved “You and Me Against the World” immediately. “Rocket Science” will require some patience, and some tracks from the album have already been eliminated from the iPod.

    Maybe some bands do their best work with a synthpop/futurepop/darkwave sound, and when they “grow” they actually transform into something else we’re already hearing somewhere else…and maybe not listening to.

    –B

  2. Oh–one more thing:

    I think it’s remarkable that DM stopped making music I listen to after Gahan moved to LA. Similarly, I heard it through the Iris grapevine that Stephan Groth has been living in Atlanta, GA. Coincidence?

  3. I believe Mesh simply want to strip down the smooth production..and why not, when Nine Inch Nails stripped down it proved to be great. Garbage was still Garbage on Bleed Like Me. So I’m not worried, Mesh is a very smart and talented group. Their my #1 and proud of it. Too bad I live in the US and have only experienced the magic live once. I’m saving my pennies for a big trip : )

  4. softsynth Says:

    Fair enough on the Mesh point (though while I liked Bleed Like Me I thought the album lost some of the essence of Garbage and it remains my least favourite of the four albums as a result despite great songs like the title track).

    Like I said, Mesh is one of my very fav bands and they have a lot of leeway with me. I’m just exited about the new product at this point, and whatever they do instrumentally, will sort itself when we see/hear it.

  5. An interesting point about genre insecurity. As long as the essence of a band is still there, everything works from a songwriting perspective, etc then I’m happy. The urge to drop the synths usually comes from artists of a certain age looking for more credibility like one of your examples of electronic integrity Vince Clarke did when Erasure put out the acoustic/country album a couple of years ago. If only I could forget it.

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