Music by the numbers vs. a touch of soul

For decades electronic music has been accused of being “soulless” yet so much of the best electronic output has been chock full of the strongest emotional appeal and soul dredged up right from the gut. Instead it’s some of the most popular mainstream music that has had every ounce of soul or meaning sucked from its’ marrow.

Softsynth has recently read illuminating articles on Dr. Luke (in Rolling Stone) and Black Eyed Peas’ Will i am (in various wire stories) where each practically reveled in their absence of heart and/or soul. The former sees creation of a good song as a science, the latter as part of some mathematical equation. In neither case is there any room for deeper meaning either in the chord structure or lyrics.

One of the more frustrating things about the knock on electronic music is its lack of any emotion beneath the surface, behind the machines. The implication being, music made by machines rather than by bashing a fretted or skinned instrument cannot, by default, possess heart, soul or feel. Bullshit, says we.

Emotion is transmitted through song in various ways, through a powerful vocal, a moving melody, a sad minor chord, an imperfection in recording, a meaningful lyric. Even the earliest electronic music grabbed at something heartfelt – even the music that formed the stereotype of the soulless automaton like Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream. Listen to early Kraftwerk now. Listen to the vocal delivery. For all the robotic aspiration, they couldn’t help but convey real emotion though chord progressions or a clunky, sometimes awkward, often plaintiff vocal. Listen to a track like 1978’s “Warm Leatherette” by The Normal – again, on the surface a cliché of the soulless song but upon listening to the track, this listener feels angst, claustrophobia, and a little titillated. Because the inspiration for the song was a combination of punk ethos and experimentation sound-wise. It was an entirely organic, sincere and very human process that achieved that song, even if the instrumentation in itself is “synthetic”.

Flash forward a couple of years to Yazoo. Or Soft Cell. Electrosoul in the former case, beautifully dirty, dirty sleaze in the latter. Reeking with emotion and feeling and energy, these bands took the art of electronic music with a soul to a new level. While bands have branched in many directions within the electronic world in the years since, one finds raw emotion musically and lyrically that drives the movement ever forward.

Yet what has the top 40 wrought in recent years? What have the Dr. Lukes or wil.i.ams brought to this green and pleasant land? Songs wrung through a processor. Stripped of anything remotely organic, anything that might open the door to a sense of humanity behind the mixing board. A plethora of songs (we would say, an all-time record) about dancing and clubbing – essentially, songs boiled down the essence of movement. Not content with songs that are “mathematically” created to simply yank out the basest human (read: pre-teen and teen) response – i.e. to move, almost involuntarily, to the syncopation, now the songs themselves are *about* that zombie-like involuntary shuffle. And what is the logical conclusion of this disturbing trend? Witness one Rebecca Black singing about partying and dancing it up on her favourite day of the week. Thanks Mr. i.am and co. Your legacy is a dark and dire one.

Now, far be it for us to say songs about “nothing” or even songs that simply inspire us to move are an inherently bad thing. Dance music forms much of the backbone of electronic music, certainly on the more melodic end of the equation. Music that is often build around a beat is naturally going to bring about its own involuntary physical response. In reviews on this blog we’ve often used the term “you can’t help but start to move when you hear the track”. Sometimes frivolity has its place and if we can’t retreat to music of all things for escape, for abandon, then where are we? Softsynth is not such a music snob as to ignore this important and entirely valid role music plays in our lives, and where would any pre-teen/teenaged generation be without its disposable pap? Whether David Cassidy, The Monkees, the Doobie Brothers, Rick Astley, Samantha Fox, the Spice Girls – on and on down through the years – each generation needs its by-the-numbers bridge music. But when this form of music becomes the norm, the standard by which all successful music of the day is viewed; when the cynicism of the megaproducers is worn so nakedly, so brazenly and their machinated formulae are pumped through their resident hard-bodied cyphers (see: Britney Spears, Fergie) and this is held up as the inevitable ideal to aspire to, individual taste be damned (is there even an individual taste in 2011 any longer or is there now just the amorphous body public?), what is left? Where does music go from there?

So when next someone decries “machine music” as having no “soul” its best remembered that it’s not the true electronic artist sucking the life from the dried, decayed corpse of popular music but the mainstream cynicism of the producers who rule the musical world, unchallenged in their royal standing. In fact, in the end it may be the purist electronic artists that keep the flame of humanity burning when the rest have succumbed…

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One Response to “Music by the numbers vs. a touch of soul”

  1. You said it. Additionally, mainstream music is often the result of the work of dozens of people: songwriters, lyricists, performers, producers, studio techs. Who’s the artist in all that? It’s music by committee, and it usually sucks.
    However, most, if not all, of the artists you discuss and review here do all their own work–they write, record, produce, and often market, everything themselves. There’s little to no outside influence, so the work is more purely their own. I suppose it’s the same with any indie musician or band, which is the great appeal of those artists over somebody who’s sold out from day one to a big label.

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