by carl wilson

The New Protest Music = Faux-test Music

herbert.jpg

Today in Overtones in The Globe and Mail, two very different approaches to putting consumer-society critique to music, which start from a similar place - doing a little forensic investigation of a commodity to reveal its underbelly - but then go into two types of camouflage. In the case of Kanye West's Diamonds from Sierra Leone, the politics are all offloaded into the accessories, the title and the video and the remix, while the main track stays clear of the political element. And in Matthew Herbert's Plat du Jour themes about the politics of food production/consumption are woven deep into the DNA of the music, using sampling and other techniques (above, a shot of Herbert's percussionist playing a drum kit made of groceries, which reminds me of something), but the music itself is mainly abstract and instrumental. It ain't exactly Fight the Power, but in a time when political sloganeering in song is both commercially frowned upon and aesthetically pretty played-out, these "faux-test" song alternatives are a creative counter-strategy.

It also made me think about the limits of mash-ups and sampling in general, which I touch on here, but might post more about later. [... Read the piece? ...]

Stickin' it to the man with just a song title

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
Saturday, July 23, 2005
The Globe and Mail

People of a certain age often demand to know where all the protest singers have gone. But why write a political song when you can accomplish as much with just a political title?

Report on Business, the financial section that keeps it real, informed us last week that the diamond industry is choking on rap V.I.P. Kanye West's latest single, Diamonds from Sierra Leone. Its stark black-and-white video depicts African kids mining for diamonds and an American woman whose hand drips blood after her beau slips a diamond ring on her finger.

West's ire is aimed at “conflict” or “blood” diamonds. Such gems are mined in unstable nations, often in Africa by children under coercion, and the profits used by states and paramilitaries to fund brutal wars. West said backstage at the Live 8 concert in Philadelphia that since he wears so many diamonds himself, he felt obliged to consider their source.

Gem-trade spin doctors quickly got out their tongue depressors: “While we have not viewed Mr. West's new video,” pouted Carson Glover, of the DeBeers-run Diamond Information Centre, “the lyrics of the song certainly do not reflect the tremendous work the diamond industry has done creating a zero-tolerance environment.”

They certainly don't — mainly because outside its title the song doesn't mention conflict jewels at all. It was initially called Diamonds Are Forever, and built on a sample of the rah-rah-diamonds tune of the same name sung by Shirley Bassey in the old James Bond flick. In the lyrics West genuflects to the diamond logo of his label Roc-a-Fella, and otherwise congratulates himself on a very good year of multiple hits and Grammys. That's what you hear in the video.

The title change seems to have come after West's protégé Lupe Fiasco recorded an answer song to the same beat called Conflict Diamonds, pointing out the bleaker side of bling. Then West not only adopted the Sierra Leone title, but recorded a remix (which most people won't hear) in which he does address the issue, giving some of Fiasco's points added verbal flair.

Even in that version, blood diamonds occupy only one verse before West hands the mike to his patron Jay-Z, for another round of Roc-a-Fella pep talk (“I'm not a businessman / I'm a business, man!”).

Yet West still kicked up a ruckus in the diamond biz — where, by the way, Amnesty International says there remain serious monitoring concerns. And he did it without turning out a leaden, didactic single. The gap between his song and his video turns out to be a functional disjunction: Viewers at once take in the message and get their pleasure centres stimulated by West's lighter braggart's opera.

Most songwriters' “political” tunes are some kind of blunderful — what sizzles on the op-ed page or at a rally often goes soggy when sandwiched into metre and rhyme. West's solution of slapping a topical title and image over an otherwise irrelevant song almost qualifies as a breakthrough: Replace protest song with faux-test song and you can have your cake and interrogate its means of production too.

That sort of dietary analysis is the obsession of a less mainstream new record. Plat du Jour, by English electronic musician Matthew Herbert, is a concept album attacking the global food business, after the fashion of books like No Logo and Fast Food Nation.

But overstuffed Bruce Cockburn-style verses about The Truncated Life of a Modern Industrialized Chicken (as the first track is titled) are not on the menu. This is an instrumental album — that is, if you assume that 24,000 baby chicks, a chicken being plucked, a dozen organic eggs and a Pyrex bowl, for example, are instruments.

Don't answer till you hear it.

Herbert is a great manipulator of sound samples (he's worked with Bjork, among others), but unlike most producers, he makes it a rule never to sample other people's music, only found sound. On this album, he takes that constraint to the “turbo extreme,” stipulating he can use only samples directly related to the topic of a track.

The tune about bottled water is composed of water sounds; White Bread, Brown Bread samples toast and toasters; another tune uses the collective crunch of Herbert's live audiences biting into apples he handed out (over 3,000 in all); and the last track features a real battle tank driving over a recreation of a meal celebrity chef Nigella Lawson once made for Tony Blair and George W. Bush.

What results is moody or lush or febrile, but certainly not preachy.

There are several exciting implications. While musical sampling like West's use of Shirley Bassey has generated countless possibilities, it's also drawn us into a bit of a mirrored hallway full of music about music, at once insular and escapist. Herbert's field recordings instead point back out into the world.

In concert, as at the Mutek festival in Montreal this spring, Herbert has a drummer playing a kit made entirely out of supermarket products, a farmer's market set up in back and a gourmet chef cooking under large fans on stage to disperse odours timed to the sounds.

It's reminiscent of “industrial” bands 15 years ago dragging sheet metal, shopping carts and power tools up on stage. That approach would seem masochistically redundant today. Extreme sampling in pop, though, has just begun. In 2001, Herbert's fellow Bjork associates, the California duo Matmos, put out the amazing A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, making music from the sounds of cosmetic-surgery operations. But Herbert's explicit political rather than formalist agenda is a twist.

Plat du Jour has one sung lyric, about celebrities letting themselves be used to endorse junk food — a dud. Otherwise it's protest music that, uniquely, “shows” rather than tells. It's a kind of non-verbal musical documentary, especially if you listen while investigating the extensive background material on the website.

Bypass all that, though, and it's simply neat ambient electronica. Most of the sounds are too altered to recognize directly by ear — which makes Plat du Jour another kind of incipient faux-test music.

Next time some smug Sixties holdover asks where the political songs have gone, I look forward to saying they're still around — just being made out of pork sausages, sewage pumps, Coke cans and seven different kinds of pickles.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 23 at 2:53 PM | Linking Posts

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson