Wednesday, August 30, 2006

'Maybe I just don't like Nintendo cover bands or looped Slavic poetry accompanied by fuzz-pedal sleigh bells'*
Always good to see arguably the most dedicated music fan in this city questioning his existence. All the more so when the frontman for the city's most beloved band is wondering about his own. Take it away Kevin Drew...

"None of us has any time any more in this band. There's lots of families and personal stuff, other bands going on, so Social Scene has become ... it's lost a bit of its love outside of when we're together, but when we're together it's there.

"It disappoints me a bit because I feel that if we all gave it 170% then we would be doing a lot better than we are. We were always a music band that loved music. And we've now gone into a format of playing the same songs all the time. It's great because we have rotating members so you always have different magic, and personality-wise it's difficult to always be on the road so it's nice to have different conversations. But we've been touring non-stop for the last four years now, so it's just at a point where we've got to find something new about it."

Actually, the best part is his next quote from The Guardian story.

"He is quick to point out that he has thoroughly enjoyed the past few years. 'But it's also been some of the most stereotypical narcissistic times in our lives,' he says."

That about sums it up right there, don't it? Not just of Drew's band, but everything that has come before, after and around it (not, of course, to place Broken at the absolute centre of this Torontopia stuff - spare me the outraged corrections, please). In fact, it probably describes every scene (capitalized and otherwise) that has ever identified itself as such.

So far as I can tell - and remember here that I'm a complete idiot - this sudden surge of sad-faced introspection has much to do with the fact that Toronto, the music that has been generated by its skinny and unwashed and the 'culture' that has come to surround said music, has so far yet to achieve whatever it vaguely set out to accomplish, in theory. That it has yet to culminate in World Peace (a loose term we'll use here to slyly refer to that which is surrounded by false hope). That not enough has changed. Or too much has changed. Or something. Theoretically speaking.

This is all very true. And, of course, all very stereotypically narcissistic.

The history of popular music (a loose term we'll use here to slyly refer to that which is surrounded by false hope) is generally believed to be one of Great Change. Elvis came along and everything changed. The Beatles arrived in America and everything changed. Dylan mumbled something about a one-eyed dog and everything changed. The Sex Pistols used a bad word on TV and everything changed. Nirvana wrote Smells Like Teen Spirit and everything changed. Janet Jackson was assaulted by Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl and everything changed. And so forth. Unfortunately, the history of popular music almost always shows that Great Change is almost always over-stated.

Take the case of Nirvana. The widely accepted story is that Kurt Cobain came along, destroyed Michael Jackson, routed manufactured pop and all those silly hair bands and brought about a renaissance for raw, authentic, socially aware rock n' roll, even making FM radio good again in the process.

What really happened is this: Smells Like Teen Spirit became a hit, Michael Jackson went crazy and teen pop - as it does every few years - over-saturated the market. Then Kurt shot himself and into the void stepped several dozen lookalikes, most of them inferior and equally bothersome to most as the silly pop songs Cobain apparently destroyed - silly pop songs that would also soon return to chart dominance. Ten years later, popular music was ruled by Puddle of Mudd and *NSYNC - a conclusion that was neither inherently better nor altogether different than the world Nirvana had apparently changed. (Oh yeah, and somewhere in there hip-hop became rather popular too.)

(By the way, Nirvana is basically the Michael Jordan of rock music. Came along, completely dominated the competition and achieved legend status, only to disappear and watch a generation of successors flail about trying to duplicate their respective glory. Nirvana beget Silverchair, Puddle of Mudd and Nickelback as MJ beget Harold Miner, Grant Hill and Vince Carter. When discussing the relative greatness of Nirvana and Jordan respectively, it's important to consider the horrors they inspired. Not enough people remember this.)

Consider it another way: Since Elvis debuted, how much has popular music really changed? All in all, not that much. There have been slight shifts in tone and instrumentation and technology. But the biggest hits now are not wordless operas performed by robots playing instruments made of plywood, leather and watermelon. That would be a dramatic departure from popular music's beginnings. But music, sadly, does not sound like that. Yet. (With the possible exception of your average Fiery Furnaces record).

Furthermore, since Elvis debuted, how much has popular music changed the world? And how much has the world changed in the first place? I mean, there have certainly been dramatic shifts, but there's still war, racism, famine, disease... I'm told there are even some poor people. Even here in Toronto. This probably seems all very defeatist, so let me clarify - I generally believe the world is getting better. But gradually so. And how much of that can be directly linked to musical inspiration? Probably not much.

Anyway. Still, change is good. Change is sexy. Changes makes people feel important. So whenever anything that resembles change is identified, it is celebrated and canonized.

Another example: the modern music industry's continuing adventures in revolution as chronicled by Wired magazine. The magazine's latest issue celebrates our hard-won victory over the traditional music industry and the old white men who have forced Puddle of Mudd records upon us for too long. It's a great idea. Inspirational stuff. And it's all the greater now, three years after Wired first proclaimed the traditional music industry dead.

Granted, the Internet has changed some of the ways the music industry does business (the same way it has changed the way almost every business - with the possible exceptions of big oil and major league umpiring - does business). But if you check around you'll see that the old white men who like Puddle of Mudd are still in charge. They may be down to, say, 89% of the market. But they're still doing pretty well. Lyor Cohen probably earned $2.5-billion last year. Down from his best years, sure. But we all have to make sacrifices.

Anyway. Where were we? Ah yes, changiness. And popular music's distinct lack thereof.

So, given all of this, how surprising is it that Torontopia (a movement almost inherently doomed in the first place by its wanky title) did not achieve World Peace? On a scale of 1 to 10 - 1 being not surprising, 10 being very - I'd say about negative-36. But that's just me. More importantly though, does failing to achieve World Peace render the whole pursuit pointless or a failure (or, for that matter, worthy of sad-eyed navel-gazing)? Probably not.

First and foremost, popular music isn't supposed to do much of anything really. It should be interesting and exciting and periodically scare the crap out of your parents. Oh, and it should also encourage recreational drug use (especially this). But that's about it. After that, make of it what you will. Feel free to place it within a greater cultural context or scrutinize it for clues to what the masses are feeling and thinking (note: in general the masses are pissed off), but don't go agonizing over World Peace. Or at least expect such a thing to result from a bunch of people singing silly little songs**.

Which reminds me: While in Winnipeg I picked up the new Hidden Cameras record***. Apparently they're very representative of this whole Torontopia thing, though this was not exactly a motivation for my purchase. Anyway. I was pleased to discover that, if it's not the best record Joel Gibb and his friends have ever made, it is at least my favourite record of the year so far. It made me feel happy inside. And nearly inspired me to pursue drugs on a recreational basis. I'm sure it would confuse my parents.

And well, that's enough for me. Sure, that's a stereotypically narcissistic conclusion. But I'm satisfied with that.

(For the record, there are few people associated with this city and its music who have more to proud of than Frank and Kevin. Sure, Frank kind of lost me there when he started posting gratuitously long entries with the words all fuzzed out except for random references to childhood sodomy... wait, sorry, that was Kevin... but otherwise I'm a huge fan of both.)

(* The title of this post by the way is a direct quote from Frank at Chromewaves. It is arguably the greatest observation about indie rock in the history of observations about indie rock.)

(** I want to save Africa as much as the next middle class white guy living in relative comfort and feeling guilty about it. But the video for that song is kind of funny. All videos for charity singles simply have to feature shots of artists singing into microphones with remarkable conviction while doing that thing where they clutch at the headphones around their ears. It's a rule now.)

(*** When in Winnipeg, I highly recommend Into The Music.)

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