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Music Education

So What Is Hyperpop Anyway?

Keeping abreast of all the latest buzzwords in music can be disorienting. The growth of internet subcultures has created a bourgeoning vocabulary of microgenres with differences too minute for the average normie to grasp. Metal is usually the butt of the jokes about this (blackened death-doom: a real genre name), but electronica is guilty of much the same sin. If you were to ask me to differentiate Chillwave, Synthwave, and Dreamwave I wouldn’t be able to give you much more than ‘I don’t know man, it’s kind of like Duran Duran with no hooks.’ I’m not sure whether the same can be said about Hyperpop. Love it or hate it, the music is… distinct.

Hyperpop is a quasi-genre of delusional gay screeching atop loud, sometimes unpleasant noises. Big names in the field include 100 Gecs, Charli XCX, Sophie (RIP), Dorian Electra, Slayyyter, Hannah Diamond, etc. The sound is polarizing. Many people love it, and just as many are utterly bewildered as to why someone would be interested in such an unquestionable train wreck of a music scene. Now, considering that delusional gay screeching is both my native genre and primary form of communication, I thought I’d take you on a trip through the historical roots of this kind of music, and see what it is that makes Hyperpop unique.

Industrial

Arguably the earliest precursor to Hyperpop is traditional industrial music. While heavily associated with 90s alternative metal and rock, the original wave of Industrial musicians worked in what we would now refer to electronic music. The progenitors of this sound, British group Throbbing Gristle, were fairly low-volume and subtle. The music was less punishing than the noise music that would come later, and the overall effect was more creepy than destructive. This style was initially tethered to art galleries and the weird hipster parts of West Germany, but it would spill over into dance and metal music in the 80s. Hyperpop sensibilities fall firmly into the dance music side of things, which is where the association between gay and trans subcultures and noise music first developed. Gay clubs in the Chicago area began playing exaggerated and energetic forms of early Industrial music and imported obscure experimental recordings from Europe into America for the first time. This “Wax Track” Industrial is an important touchstone for Hyperpop and related genres.

Electroclash

This is probably the most obvious forerunner to Hyperpop. Electroclash was a very small scene and has been talked to death, so I’ll be brief. At its core, this music is a stylistic fusion of 80s New Wave and 90s Techno that emerged in the early 2000s. It used the technology and sound palate of techno but was more geared towards song structures and weird artistic experiments, the artistic ethos of the new wave. Like New Wave, it also utilized visual and multi-media aspects, and a lot of the hype for Electroclash came as much from breakthroughs in fashion and video as it did from the music. As a result, the term was almost immediately rejected by those it described, and it has gone down as a quintessential example of blogosphere hype that the purveyors of Hyperpop might note.

Electropop

The most recent and significant influence on Hyperpop comes from the barely past-tense genre of Electropop. This is less a genre and more of a descriptor for a specific era in mainstream pop from around 2009-2012. This includes artists like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Kesha, and a host of less remembered and less liked imitators. If you do a quick survey of the age and, let’s be honest, sexuality, of most Hyperpop artists, you probably know where this is going. Most Hyperpop musicians would have been tweens to young adults when this hit the mainstream, and the nostalgia factor for this music bleeds over into Hyperpop. A defining feature of Electropop is the kind of surreal sincerity of its stars. All of these women gave off the impression that they were smarter than the music they made, but they did so without ironic detachment or devaluing trashy pop music. Lady Gaga was also many people of our generation’s introduction to the very concept of gay people, giving her music a kind of cultural importance to a lot of young queer people. I suppose Katy Perry introduced kids to queerness as well, but let’s just say “I Kissed a Girl,” is not even the most questionable song on that topic she released

Hyperpop

So now we get around to the history of Hyperpop itself, and to tell that we have to talk about one Mr. A.G. Cook and the PC Music label. Cook is the founder of PC Music, an indie label in Britain, and the proximate cause for this whole genre. He rose to prominence as the attaché and producer for Charli XCX, and his personal collaboration with SOPHIE cemented this status. From here, he has basically become the A&R master of Hyperpop, identifying relevant artists and networking them together While the label doesn’t have any big-name signees, the orbital of remixes and collaborations orchestrated by Cook encompass basically everyone who could conceivably be called Hyperpop.

Does any of this music have a future? Internet microgenres are pretty limited in their scope, and despite the insistence of many critics, it doesn’t appear any closer to the mainstream in 2021 than it was two years ago. Personally, I have my doubts about whether Hyperpop will ever become the dominant ethos of radio pop. However, this disguises something that’s perhaps relevant: the defining ethos of mainstream music is Hip-hop, and it has been for some time now. I am hardly the first to point out that mainstream pop radio is an increasingly desolate wasteland of people who are not actually famous. The only big names I can really think of to emerge from radio pop in the last 5 years are Dua Lipa, Lizzo, and Billie Eilish, and of those three, Lizzo got her start on the independent hip-hop circuit, and Billie Eilish would honestly be considered a Hyperpop artist if she didn’t have such universal support from the industry. Pop is rapidly becoming a secondary genre, in the vein of country, metal, and what little remains of rock, so why not declare that the independent artists are the scene? In that sense, Hyperpop isn’t Pop Music’s future, it’s pop music’s present.

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Band/Artist Profile

Silver Apples: The Sounds of 60s Glitchpop

I have a special place in my heart for primitive uses of now commonplace technologies. There’s something so delightful about past people marveling over the revolutionary changes that, say, the microwave, will bring to our lifestyles. This extends into music. Electronic music technology was available 80 years before anyone had a clue what to do with it. Double credit for hippies convinced that synths will be the next brain-expanding discovery in the counterculture. So, given my interest in these kinds of cultural artifacts, I was surprised when my brother forwarded me an apparently prominent band in this genre whose name I’d never heard before: Silver Apples. This mystery was compounded by his only description for it, “It’s like straight up Glitchpop, but from the late sixties.”

Let’s make our introductions, there are two apples in this bunch, Danny Taylor and Simeon. They have a pretty standard hippie story until about 1967 when Simeon started to incorporate an audio oscillator into their psychedelic rock band, which promptly drove away everyone but Taylor. For context, an audio oscillator is not strictly an, uh, instrument? It’s a piece of technology used in telegraphs and radio transmissions to produce regular intervals of electric current. Like, if you set it to the right frequencies, it makes a sound, but only in the pattern of a sine wave, with a cyclical change in pitch and absolutely no change in timbre. It almost comes off as the endless repetition of a two-second recording, because the oscillator creates an identical cycle of sounds until the frequency or amplitude is changed. This limitation is doubled by the fact that there is only one audio setting total, and that is the sound of blooping robot noises.

So how does one go about making a disassembled telegraph into a musical instrument? Well, the honest answer is probably some form of now illegal drugs, but more to the point you stack like thirty of these things on top of each other and hook them to the same control panel, which is exactly what Silver Apples did. Now, for a bunch of technical reasons I’m not going to get into because trust me, you do not care, this machine is technically a form of very basic synthesizer. I did not know it was possible to make a homemade synthesizer, but Simeone managed to make one. Like most homemade instruments, Simeon’s synthesizer had its eccentricities. For instance, it wasn’t controlled through a keyboard like most synthesizers, it was controlled through a panel of telegraph levers that could be set on or off. This effectively means that playing Simeon’s “instrument” was like playing one of those flash game pianos that set each key on your keyboard to a note, except your playing it with sticky keys on, so to stop a note from playing you have to press the corresponding key. Oh, and each note isn’t one discreet pitch, but a sine wave of pitches oscillating from one extreme to the other.

If this sounds like a bit of a hot mess, you would be correct. While the music itself definitely has telltale signs of the technology used to create it, the overall effect is more calculated than you might expect. The lyrics, which yes their music has lyrics, were often written by non-musical poets the group was friends with, and Taylor is a decent art-rock drummer, comparable to her fellow female drummer in a male band, Mo Tucker. This means that their music is not an avant-garde experiment with emerging technologies, if it was it would have probably been listened to by a hand full of college professors before being forgotten. No, Silver Apples are a pop band… somehow. I can’t explain it but the whole is radically different than the sum of its parts here, and with early electronica, there are a lot of parts.

Does all this add up to Silver Apples being good? Well, to be honest with you I’m not sure. The band is certainly interesting, but there are some serious flaws. For one, I question their decision not to hire another singer, because Simone and Taylor have fairly limited ranges both vocally and in terms of expression, which isn’t great when the primary instrument is so monotonous. Also, despite the lyrics being contracted out, they are still not great. Don’t get me wrong, the lyrics have unparalleled camp value, but I’m not quite sure if “The flame is its own reflection,” is really the deep meaningful poetry Simeon thought it was.

Criticisms aside, I think there’s something to be said for primordial uses of basic musical elements. Listening to music like this reminds us that our current techniques for assembling sounds into songs are not final. Even fundamental concepts like pitch and rhythm are, at best, oversimplifications of the truth. Pitches can in fact be cycles, rhythms can be oscillations, and sometimes, music can spring from a Frankenstein’s telegraph someone built in their backyard.

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New Album Review

Pinkshift: Saccharine Album Review

Punk is a reliable genre. Get the right instruments, three chords, some personal lyrics, and an attitude together and you have 95% of what you need for a post-hardcore album. With that accessible and, let’s be honest, quite basic formula, it takes an inventive band to really stand out in the field, and any group that doesn’t have a vision for their music is unlikely to get noticed.

So, what is it that Pinkshift is doing to get your attention? Well, their music is just so intensely sweet… Saccharine, you might say. This doesn’t mean their music is unserious or lightweight per se, in fact, they have more of an edge than you might expect, just that there’s a certain queasy pleasantness to it. The ep gives the aggressively upbeat and positive energy of a close friend on the verge of a total mental breakdown. There’s a compelling tension between the mall punk aesthetic and the understated, quietly dissatisfied lyrics, something like Avril Lavigne covering The Dead Kennedys. However, what Pinkshift nails in their music is a total lack of irony despite this rather angsty dissonance. There’s no sense that Pinkshift is above the kind of music they’re making, just an earnest and melodic sound.

This is a debut Ep, so doubtless Pinkshift have more to give. There are a few moments on the album that hint towards more musical complexity, especially on the one instrumental passage. It will be interesting to see if they embrace this or double down on streamlined punk formulas. Either way, take some time for this album, it’s only a 15-minute commitment.

Categories
Music Education

Eastern Religion in Rock Music (feat. The Indigo Girls)

Two women in casual clothing play guitar on a stage
“Indigo Girls,” Credit: Cornfusion [Flickr]

Many of our first introductions to the varied religious traditions of East Asia do not come from books or school, let alone Asian people themselves. While there are a variety of ways that people first meet Buddhism, Hinduism, or any of the number of religions thrown into the grab bag of ‘Eastern Religion,’ many of our cultural ideas about Asian and Indian spirituality come from the rock and roll. This association seems set in stone, but if you give it more than a passing thought it’s actually… really weird? Psychedelic rock was not always associated with Eastern spiritual movements and considering that the philosophical backing of the New Left was largely atheist, it’s fairly confusing that mainstream artists leaned so hard into other culture’s religious traditions.

The counterculture of the sixties has largely defined rock music in the traditional telling, and it co-opted many real religious traditions that actual people have practiced since the dawn of time, religions which Western people usually treated with at best indifference and more often with outright derision. Now the basic woke impulse for this is to simply write this phenomenon off as some indeterminate form of cultural appropriation, which I guess is what I did prior to hearing the song “Galileo,” but more on that later.

Research into New Age spirituality and Eastern religion in America is plentiful, and you must forgive me for barely even scratching the surface of scholarly literature on the topic (I am but a humble blog writer with other essays to write), but what research I could find for free with an NC State login on Jstor usually identifies the rise of new-age religion with the decline in doctrinal Christianity, which makes sense. Winston King has attributed this to a search for a more flexible undefined vocabulary for expressing spiritual concepts, a vocabulary supposedly worn down by years of biblical literalism, which is probably fair enough. This was an interesting idea on its own that I wanted to share with you, but if we take a textual reading to the music that introduced Americans to Eastern religious concepts, we can see evidence for King’s claim.

The first person most of us think of when it comes to Eastern spirituality in rock is probably George Harrison. He was one of the most prominent advocates for Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, and he was the only one of the Beatles for which, as one writer so tactfully put it, “The Hare Krishna stuff wasn’t a phase.” His music probably makes the best case for King’s analysis of Western people wanting to energize belief with new vocabulary. Harrison did not follow any discreet religion and often mixed Eastern and Western religious language to create an emotional through-line for his presumably Western listeners, most notably in the song My Sweet Lord. Additionally, if you wanted to make an argument for Harrison appropriating Eastern religion, there is a lot to work with. While Harrison had the money to visit India multiple times, he never really entered the religious tradition or converted so much as he took language and ideas to suit his purposes. I will leave further discussion of the permissibility of that practice to Twitter.

If we end our discussion in the 60s, we might make the mistake of assuming Americans either abandoned interest in Eastern religion or hold that interest in the same unevolved sense of romanticization that Harrison used. Even though counterculture spiritualism unambiguously exited the mainstream, and new age religion makes the news most often for anti-vax scandals, there has been at least some maturation in American’s approach to other culture’s religion. This is where the song Galileo by the Indigo Girls comes in. Unlike 60’s religious experimentation that equated Eastern religions with recreational drug use and did a poor job distinguishing between different religions, Galileo is unambiguously about the philosophical implications of Buddhism. The song takes the same level of spiritual uncertainty and angst people apply to Christian theology and applies it to Buddhism, asking questions like “How long till my soul gets it right, does any human being ever reach those kinds of heights except for Galileo?” The song is also distinctly positioned from an American perspective, referencing milestones in Western intellectual history to frame its spiritual questions instead of presuming knowledge about the East. The song isn’t predicated on the novelty of other belief systems, instead, it assumes the audience has at least a passing familiarity with concepts like reincarnation, and then uses that knowledge to ask other questions.

Your mileage may vary as to how much you can enjoy Europeans and Americans using Eastern vocabulary to frame distinctly Western arguments. However, regardless of how you come down on that issue, I think it is worth considering the progress made since the sixties. While George Harrison was generally respectful, I’m not sure you could say the same about Donovan or the number of better-off forgotten faux hippies of the era. And listen to the Indigo Girls if you get a chance.

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Band/Artist Profile

Olivia Rodrigo and the Trajectory of Indie Pop

Alright, so if you have listened to either of Olivia Rodrigo’s newest singles you might already know where I’m going with this. The newest Disney-affiliated teen pop star Olivia Rodrigo sounds eerily like the current biggest name in indie, Phoebe Bridgers. This is maybe not the most startling observation, as they both make personal, emotional power ballads with a pop sheen, and Rodrigo has cited Bridgers as an influence. However, I think it’s worth taking a minute to ruminate on what this similarity might mean, and what we learn about the future of both pop and indie rock because the gap between pop and indie rock has traditionally been miles wide. What shifted in publishing trends in the last decade or so to make this possible?

Indie kids have a bit of a superiority complex when it comes to finding different music, and I include myself in that criticism. I mean, the entire function of this radio station is to play music that isn’t marketable enough to get on mainstream radio, this desire for unique sounds and genres is basically the definition of indie at this point. So, there’s a kind of knee-jerk reaction whenever any indie artist has a mainstream hit, or whenever an indie sound is adapted for pop radio, to instantly brand the crossover success as the most boilerplate reduction of both genres. This typified the treatment bands like Fun, Portugal. The Man, and most infamously Mumford and Sons got upon breaking the top 40. Even though some of these artists had genuine indie cred, their bands and sometimes the entire scenes they came from were instantly branded as everything wrong with indie music. The prejudice works the other way too, as traditionally indie outlets have maintained a serious skepticism towards Charli XCX until very recently, Lady Gaga’s Joanne, and basically any artist that comes from TikTok.

So, what shifted to make Rodrigo’s dabbling in Indie acceptable? Well, we probably have Lorde and (dare I say her name) Lana Del Rey to thank for that. Lana has been the only exception in terms of mainstream indie; she had a pretty big hit with Summertime Sadness and then continued to rake in critical acclaim straight through the present day. Lorde broke through in the other direction, as her debut was one of the biggest albums of the 2010s, and was immediately followed by one of the most acclaimed indie albums of the decade “Melodrama.” These two artists were massively successful, but they didn’t start a trend of mainstream alternative music in the way that Nirvana or The Strokes did. I don’t think Olivia Rodrigo is going to do that either, but between her, Billie Eilish, and whatever your favorite one-off Tik-Tok hit is, I think we might have a pattern on our hands. Predicting the future is a dangerous game, but I’ll take a crack at it and say we might see more indie-pop creep into the mainstream in the next couple of years.

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Music News and Interviews

Liz Phair is Still Weird and Releasing New Music

The darling of 90s of alternative rock, Liz Phair, is releasing her first album in almost a decade this May, and the singles so far are… interesting. Phair didn’t leave things on a great note in 2010. After widespread accusations of “selling out” on her self-titled major-label debut (which is an awesome album by the way), she decided to buck the system, defy her managers, and release the music she wanted to make. This would have gone down as one of the all-time biggest power moves in indie rock, the only problem being that the music she wanted to make was rap music so unintentionally horrifying that it put Death Grips to shame a full year before the band even debuted.

That was the last anyone heard of Liz Phair for almost a decade until she resurfaced with a new recording contract, and a suspiciously positive outlook on the record industry early last year. A pandemic delay later, and we got the first single, a tribute song to Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson titled “Hey Lou.” This seems pretty safe, right? A tribute to the favorite power couple of music nerds everywhere. Well, I guess so, but I still have my reservations. The music video and song paired together have a certain… fanfiction-y (?) effect that feels a little odd coming from an adult woman in her fifties. The effect is made even stranger considering that Lou Reed is dead, and Laurie Anderson is still alive, but it’s nothing inappropriate or creepy, just an odd choice for a comeback single.

Then, a few days ago, Phair uploaded her second single, “Spanish Doors” to her Youtube Music account, before, and I swear to you this is true, deleting it so quickly that there is zero press coverage of the song and I’m unsure of whether I dreamt it. The song wasn’t bad, in fact, I remember liking it, but it did have an uncharacteristic electronic production that gives me twitchy flashbacks to her 2010 album. I’m going to move on from this half-baked prophecy because I can’t even verify that this was a real thing that happened, but just know that I’m very alarmed.

I’m awaiting this new album in rapt horror. I love basically everything Liz Phair has released, including the nightmare of an album from 2010. There’s something of a loose cannon nature to her public image that has only intensified with age. I don’t know if she can match the artistic grandeur of her fellow chick rocker Fiona Apple, who just released her surprise return to music last year. Here’s hoping that Phair has been saving up a decade’s worth of good ideas, or at the very least, she will give us an album full of her very worst.

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Band/Artist Profile

Controlled Bleeding: The Band That’s Done It All

What’s your standard for a versatile Artist? David Bowie, Mister Bungle, Madonna, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Chumbawumba? Well, I’ve got a band for you that puts every one of these artists to shame, and they go by the delightful name of Controlled Bleeding. They’ve done it all: reggae, harsh noise, classical music, electropop, ambient, gothic dance music, stuff that no one can begin to categorize. They’ve done everything, and I mean EVERYTHING.

Now, if I was to give you some bad, but fun advice, I would tell you to go to your streaming service of choice and just grab an album of their’s at random to see what you get. This is my preferred listening method for Controlled Bleeding, but I feel obligated to give a content warning for some deeply upsetting sounds and occasionally gross topics. That out of the way, when you open up a controlled bleeding album, what do you get?  Well, if you are unlucky, you will be subjected to some of the most disturbing harsh noise on this side of the Japanese Border. Power Electronics was independently invented by numerous artists in the late 80s and Controlled Bleeding was one of them. But this music? This is the easy stuff; this is just what you sign up for when you listen to a band with a name like Controlled Bleeding. We haven’t even gotten to the weird music yet.

Most people allude to Controlled Bleeding’s versatility by pointing out their most unlikely musical experiment: Dub Reggae. It’s certainly a good clickbait tagline, a harsh noise band making reggae music. When you hear the actual music, it makes a bit more sense. I’m not an expert on this by any means, but from my limited knowledge, I know dub is the most experimental side of the genre, and many artists in that style would cross over into Western avant-garde communities to make electronic music. After listening to Controlled Bleeding’s “Dub Songs From a Shallow Grave,” I can tell you that darkwave and dub work surprisingly well together. It’s certainly not their strangest genre crossover. That honor goes to their classical album.

“Music For Gilded Chambers,” is pretty much just a modern classical album. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it’s honestly just goth-tinted orchestral music. The band refers to this as “Arguably the best Controlled Bleeding album,” on their Bandcamp page, which says a lot about their priorities. Many noise and metal musicians try desperately to be heavy and disturbing, but Controlled Bleeding is in it for the craft. This is ironic, considering that they are way edgier and more disturbing than any myriad of tryhard bands, but from all available interviews, it seems to be the truth. Controlled Bleeding tried to make the best of whatever style interested them, and there’s something refreshing about a band that is untethered from the expectations of a scene or movement.

And trust me, there’s more, so much. There’s dancefloor-ready electro-industrial; Lady Gaga style pop; ambient works; on and on and on. The band made so many albums that I can’t even give you a good estimate, and every time they pushed themselves to do something new. Try it for yourself, even if you don’t like what you hear, you will be thoroughly entertained by the experience.

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New Album Review

Genesis Owusu: Smiling With No Teeth

A man with gold teeth and facial bandages smiles at the camera
Album Cover For Genesis Owusu’s “Smiling With No Teeth”

Genesis Owusu is a Ghanaian-Australian rapper, singer, and songwriter. I can’t really tell you that much about his life or cultural context, because for all intents and purposes he just apparated into existence three months ago. His label is a persona non grata online, this is his debut album, and his music gives him very few contemporaries. All we really have to work with here are two interviews from The Guardian and Anthony Fantano, the content of his album, and the rather impressive word of mouth campaign surrounding it.

Owusu’s music is, in equal measure, hip-hop, pop, and rock. He described himself to the Guardian as “Prince, if he were a rapper in 2020s Australia,” which is a grand claim, though not an altogether inappropriate one. He has Prince’s combination of chameleonic versatility and instantly recognizable personality. Despite jumping from hardcore hip-hop to gospel to post-punk in the span of 10 minutes, his album has a stylistic cohesion exemplified by the sheer force of personality that is Genesis Owusu.

Beyond his overall aesthetic, Owusu is also an extremely talented vocalist, in a way that feels almost out of place given that the current ethos of hip-hop focuses more on production skills than raw vocal abilities. Owusu has both, and this means he can bend his voice to fit the mood of the track. He can also sing his own hooks in a different register than he raps, allowing him to get through the entire album with a total of one feature.

However, the most engaging element of the music is the lyrical skill demonstrated by Owusu throughout the album. The album is set up to have recurring themes, lyrical motifs, and an ambitious sense of musical arc. This is not to say the album is repetitive, in fact, Owusu covers a long list of subjects, and on the occasions where he does repeat, he approaches the topic from an entirely new angle. Themes of depression, cultural isolation, and biblical references are mainstays, and the album has a few explicitly political tracks that hit hard as well.

Take a listen to this album, especially if you don’t catch that many hip-hop records. The music is accessible without sacrificing depth, and it has some surprisingly uplifting cuts towards the end. Personally, it’s one of my favorite albums of the year so far.

Categories
Music Education

Hip-hop and Industrial

A older man with dreadlocks plays a guitar
Al Jourgensen, a prominent Industrial musician, incorporated Hip-Hop elements into his music

“Al Jourgensen of Ministry,” by Al Case is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Traditionally, there is a fairly wide no-touching zone between rap and any vaguely “Heavy” genre of music. Today, terms industrial hip-hop and rap metal are associated with recent groups such as Clipping or Death Grips, or with early 2000s Nu-Metal like Limp Bizkit and Corn. There isn’t really any acknowledgment that industrial, metal, and hip-hop used to share both a musical ethos and a physical space. This ignores the complex history of musical influences, and the rather distressing reasons the genres split apart.

Industrial music was, in its very earliest conception, a European genre. All the “Old Gods” of industrial are European with nearly no exceptions. The genre was tethered to British modern art galleries and tended to be shocking for shocking’s sake. This isn’t to say the genre was bad, many first-wave industrial groups made excellent music, just that the genre can feel somewhat remote. This would change when Industrial was imported to America. European Noise and Industrial music came to America through the gay subculture in Chicago, centering around the now infamous Wax Track records, who imprinted Throbbing Gristle and signed new American artists who adapted those ideas into dance music. This style is still dominant in Goth clubs, from the New York to the Wicked Witch here in Raleigh.

What gets lost in this telling is the parallel history of the other style emerging from dance music in Chicago in the mid-80s: Hip-hop. While the hearths of Rap would eventually relocate to Los Angeles and New York City, there was a vibrant scene in Chicago, in nearly the same neighborhoods as early Industrial music was thriving. The extent of influence is contested by the few sources I can find that acknowledge any relationship between the two genres, and I don’t want to overstate the similarity, but early Industrial and Hip-hop music tell an interesting story of cross-collaboration in and of themselves.

The easiest point of attack for tracing the relations between the two genres is explicit collaboration. Multiple Industrial bands sought featuring credits from rappers in the 80s, including Ministry, The Damage Manual, and The Pop Group. The latter two worked with the in-house bands of the Sugar Hill Gang, while Ministry worked with the obscure Chicago Rapper Grand Wizard K. Lite. Going the other direction, multiple Rap groups pulled from industrial and metal aesthetics. Ice-T led the heavy metal band Body Count, most known for the song “Copkiller” which stoked controversy for obvious reasons. Beyond genre-hopping, groups like the Young Black Teenagers and Public Enemy fused elements of Industrial into their more hip-hop oriented style.

On a more granular level, Industrial and Hip-hop music share hardware and techniques. Sampling was pioneered in the late 80s and is a central technique to both genres. Industrial musicians like Tackhead focused on layering samples from unlikely sources, often political speeches, morality reformers, and the like, in ways that created abrasion and a level of irony. Hip-hop sampling generally has a more musical effect, focusing on creating a sense of rhythm or melody from a patchwork of samples, but the underlying technique is the same. The relatively marginalized positions of the black and queer communities also meant the literal machinery used to create electronic music was the same. Cheap 808’s were common among both genres, despite extreme technological limitations, and this gives the genres a common sound palate throughout the 80s before electronic technology became more accessible.

However, perhaps the most overlooked point of similarity comes in the form of political subtext. Industrial music in the 80s was explicitly revolutionary in a way that mirrored early Hip-hop. While British artists focused on more class-related issues, American groups took on issues of police brutality in solidarity with early Hip-hop. The album “Rabies,” a collaboration between the two biggest industrial stars of the 80s, Ministry and Skinny Puppy, is effectively a concept album about the oppressive impact of policing. Hip-hop and Industrial were also the two primary targets of Tipper Gore’s censorship campaign and were some of the first genres to be dogmatically saddled with parental advisory stickers

These are all obvious connections, however, there is a near-total dearth of coverage, either from academic sources or journalists, about the relation between these two genres. While I can’t claim to have nearly enough firsthand information to say for certain, I think I have a pretty good guess as to why. In the early 90s, Noise music developed a sizable white supremacist problem, and in parallel Hip-hop developed a homophobia problem.

While I feel woefully unequipped to truly tackle the issue of queerphobia in Rap music, the Nazi problem in Noise music is something that must be addressed. Early Noise musicians used fascist and Holocaust imagery in a tasteless attempt to shock audiences. While musicians like Whitehouse or Throbbing Gristle don’t hide their left-wing and anti-fascist beliefs, they used incredibly poor judgment in attempts to aestheticize what they thought to be a dead ideology. This created a space in Industrial, Power Electronics, and Metal communities for actual neo-Nazis and racists more generally to organize. Bands like Mayhem, Sol Invictus, and Death in June run the gamut from neo-pagan white “identitarians” to actual convicted hate criminals. Their continued influence in the community is unacceptable not only because their beliefs and actions are reprehensible, but because their supposed domination of the genre erases the contributions of black artists like Public Enemy to heavy genres. These groups did not invent extreme music, they merely appropriated it for their own ends, and it is time they are treated as such, regardless of their real or perceived musical contributions to the genre.

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Miscellaneous

O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack Review

A movie poster depicts three convicts escaping a chain gang

A recent episode of a musical podcast reminded me of a movie I hadn’t seen in years. O Brother Where Art Thou played on repeat in my house growing up. A loose retelling of the Odysseus myth in turn of the century Mississippi, the soundtrack included some of the first music I ever heard as a child. It was a movie so beloved by my parents that I mentally assumed it was an artifact of Southern culture as old as they were, from the nebulous time of “the 1900’s” before I was born. I was shocked to realize the movie came out in 2000 and was made by two Midwestern Yankees. The movie has been so thoroughly co-opted by southerners that it simply felt like it had always existed, and while I may have been wrong about the movie, this impression certainly held true for the soundtrack.

The music from O Brother Where Art Thou was recorded by folk music heavyweights like Ralph Stanley and Allison Krauss, but the songs themselves are as old as dirt. They include traditional hymns like “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Down to the River to Pray,” “Angel Band,” staples of the Carter Family like “Keep on The Sunny Side” and “In the Highways,” as well as numerous traditional pieces.

However, it’s their use in the movie that makes this compendium of standards so memorable. A song like “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” which my mother sang to me as a child is put to unconventional use when sung by the Sirens analog to seduce Odysseus and turn John Turturro into a frog. “O Death,” is sung in a similarly memorable (though admittedly problematic- see the podcast for details) scene where the Klan sings the song prior to an attempted lynching. These individual scenes and songs match the episodic nature of the Odyssey, and the attachment of images and narrative to folk songs has made some forgotten folk music rise from the ashes to be reincorporated into modern Southern culture.

The O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack is a meticulously researched and expertly performed work. If you haven’t seen the movie or heard these songs, I highly recommend them, and if you haven’t heard the music in a while, take another look, the album is rewarding time and time again.