You might remember this song from such important cultural events as… a T-Mobile commercial from sometime in the early 2000’s. Really. Judging by the YouTube comments, a lot of people remember it from just that, and some have even spent the past decade searching for it. Well, T-Mobile fans, your search is over. It’s Royksopp, from the 2001 album Melody A.M., which is considered quite a classic in the annals of Scandinavian electronic music. This obviously beggars a conversation about how art and commerce have melded together into a new state of hyper-capitalist sensory-surround pop culture. It wasn’t that long ago that no serious artist would ever consider selling their music for commercial use, because it would disgrace them as an artist. It was called ‘selling out’ and anyone who did it was seen as a greedy hack who should just go jump off a bridge in shame. Remember when The Rolling Stones sold Start Me Up to Microsoft in the 90’s? They were one of the first major artists to license their music, and it was a real scandal. Well, now they have more money than God, and yesterday’s scandal is today’s best practices. Now, it seems like, if we have to see ads and watch commercials – and we do, oh, how we do – we can at least expect to discover some cool new music, and it’s a great way for artists to break out and get themselves out there, since nobody makes any money selling records anymore. Everybody wins! Hooray for terminal-stage capitalism!
It amazes me that Ladytron made their debut almost twenty years ago already. Especially since hearing them still makes me think “what is this cool new thing?” Of course, there is music made decades ago that still sounds like the cool new thing nobody’s discovered yet. Ladytron, meanwhile, has very much been discovered. They helped make electronic music cool again. Listening to Ladytron is like getting a lullaby from the world’s most soulful girl robots. If I have to think about the enduring musical legacy of the last 20 years, Ladytron is definitely in the forefront. I’m not going to try to take stock of that just yet, because I think I’m still too young to dedicate myself to nostalgia for my own lived years. But I also think that it’s already clear which works have stood the test of time.
A little while ago I decided to slowly start working my way into the Cure fandom. I can’t say I’m a dedicated, torch-carrying superfan but I did spend a lot of the past year listening to Lovesong. (Yes, the gateway Cure song.) One thing I found out – well known to longtime fans, I am sure – is that despite being somewhat ridiculous in image, they’ve been consistently sincere in their mopey romanticism, and despite a lot of personnel changes consistent in their sound. Obviously, Robert Smith is a little bit of a punch for being the emo kid who staunchly refuses to get a normal hair cut well into middle age, but apparently he and his fans are ok with that, and that’s admirable. A lot of us wish we were still the absurd little freaks we were when we didn’t know any better. As long as those sadboi anthems keep coming.
Do you like chillwave music? Okay, no one ever admits to liking chillwave music, not least because they’d be hard press to define what it is. But if you’re susceptible to those curated playlists with names like “Smooth Jazz for a Rainy Day” or “Music to Study To” you probably like chillwave. It’s basically a musical Instagram filter, and don’t knock it. It’s a proud tradition tracing its heritage all the way back to Brian Eno’s ambient soundscapes. Brian Eno actually didn’t invent the idea of boring music for boring places but he gave it a little gravitas and most-modern irony. Today we’re all in the business of curating the perfect musical ambiance for ourselves, and there’s a rack of composers writing music specifically for that purpose. I’m pretty sure that most of what ends up on those ‘rainy day’ playlists is composed by anonymous hacks, but there are some talents in the atmospheric soundpool who achieve real cultural relevance, at least in their native Scandinavia. Such as Royksopp, whose moody electronic compositions are some of the most acclaimed moody electronic compositions. They also make electronic compositions that are more dance-floor friendly, and they’re frequent collaborators with Robyn, which places them in a very hip echelon. And sometimes you just really need just the perfect music for drinking tea on a chilly fall day.
When it comes to sexually explicit material, few bands have been as gleeful with their shock tactics as Lords of Acid. That may be why they never broke very far out of the underground techno scene. In the late 90’s they saw the internet-porn-fueled future and they thought it was going to be a blast. They also knew that orgasmic female moaning was a surefire party-starter at least as old as Serge Gainsbourgh. No pretentious big ideas about broader social context for them, though. Nuance? Never heard of her! Drinking, dancing and screwing in smoke-filled dungeons is the only life that matters. There’s something liberating in that kind of mindless hedonism.
The tango of all things needs to be brought up to pace with the modern world. Honestly it doesn’t really need a digital update, given that’s it’s still broadly popular. But the French collective Gotan Project updates it anyway, with beats and samples. (Gotan is an anagram for tango, haha clever.) The result sounds amazing. Injecting a little tango or a waltz to a pop song has long been a means of adding some class and sensuality, but I guess that it works both ways too. If the tango has any sort of negative image problem at all – and for the most part it evokes nothing but passionate romance and artfully applied lipstick – it’s the Hollywood trope that learning to ballroom dance is something uptight divorcees do to get their groove back, akin to yoga retreats and going to Italy to eat gelato, aka a bourgeois white lady affectation and not at all hip for the digital generation. And frankly, that’s kind of okay. An ancient and storied culture doesn’t need to be commodified for the hipsters, although it may be fun to try.
But is he though? Lately Jack White hasn’t quite sounded like the Jack we’ve always known and loved. He’s had a crisis of conscience or something. He’s playing on guitars that he bought from a store and editing songs on a laptop like a goddamn normal-person now, apparently. He’s doing all the things that – in his head, at least – make him look like a “sell-out”. “Wait, what, so you didn’t record you new album on all-analog equipment in a basement home studio in a trailer park in Alabama while wearing your great-grand-uncle’s wedding tuxedo? Traitor!” Said no one. It seems that Jack White has come to the realization that at the end of the day, his obsession with authenticity impresses no one but himself. So he broke down and bought a guitar that wasn’t second-hand. Which is fine and I fully support him. No 42-year-old can be expected to be the same weirdo he was at 20-something. Oh, but what a fine weirdo! Let’s take a moment to appreciate just what an impact the early White Stripes records really had. They turned my life around, I kid you not, and I’m not even a musician. They brought a thrift-store sensibility, a well-defined visual and musical aesthetic, and a genuine love for oddity into the forefront of the cultural landscape at at time when lovers of the old and dusty felt most disenfranchised. They made me want to enjoy pop culture again. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.