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Stop Me If You've Heard This One

By Conrad Amenta | 21 December 2007

It's fitting that we take a moment during our year-end retrospective to remember that for all the amazing music released this year the indie crowd is still as attuned to a song's status as a single, and as likely to prefer something recognizable to something new, as any other group. Say what you will about there being a time and a place for new music, but the impulse to hoist songs again and again like flags onto the tip of a popular pub night's top is as frustrating and counterproductive in the sense that it ignores the mountain of unheard music below as is the conservative tendency to repeatedly and unquestioningly venerate a song of supposedly canonical worth. This isn't to say that any of these songs are not deserving of the exposure that subsequently destroyed their appeal. Only that they've been trampled under the Chucks of dance floor hordes into a featureless grey amalgam of spilt beer, gum, and dirt, so thin as to disappear into the cracks in all those rubber soles. We've been desensitized to the ostensibly chemical lurch some of these songs once catalyzed in our brainpans; our lost love for the overplayed was first reduced to a Pavlovian recognition of sign and signal. We are informed with all the creativity of a hand-held bell jangling that it's time to lose control which, of course, makes that loss of control impossible.

As far as distillations go, I'd venture the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" as diversity's anathema. Tie what you will to Jagger's straightforward appeal for release, and with the rise of conservatism in the West in the latter half of the 20th Century there's no famine of evidence that he was tapping into a pressure keg of repressed, quasi-confused sexuality. But whatever substance there is to the historical footnote is reduced by process of over-saturization to the instinctual requirement that one respond to that opening riff with scripted excitement, a reassertion that "this is real music." I wonder, when "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" comes on the radio, if there's a person left in my city who leans in for the volume knob and cranks it, who responds to that rote 4/4 backbeat. It only takes a cursory glance through the windows of cars in traffic to see that I'll never be a populist mayor in this town. Heads are going. This isn't elitism; I envy the connection.

Overplaying music concretizes its authenticity in a self-legitimizing way, the way commercialism suggests that if you buy the only product available to you then you support and in fact demand a system of limited choice. If "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is the untouchable paragon of rock's continued vibrancy, sexism and stagnation be damned, then "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is the bridge between the mummified frame of Charlie Watts and the mesh trucker hats and Vice Records roster that lay ahead. The macro playlist demands gross oversimplification; that "Love Will Tear Us Apart" has dated production that can't help but thin what might have been thundering club rhythm might be the rein that keeps Joy Division from being wholly subsumed into the New York/Toronto style machine, replicated seemingly ad infinitum across the continent's stratum of indie nights. In Ottawa attendance at these dance sessions outstrips that of the band whose set precedes. The assumption may be that hearing -- and recognizing or reacting to -- "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is somehow more authentic, or perhaps simply more entertaining, than hearing a touring band making music in the present. It could be that knowing one likes something in its first second simplifies and ossifies a process of assessment that allows a band to fall on either side of a point bordered by steep slopes down to "shite" or "awesome." It could be community-based: we both recognize this song, so we've connected (let's dance to it). In either scenario personalization and arbitrary taste -- the mapping of one's intellect onto the facilely recognizable -- is the first thing to go.

Responses to each type of listening are tailored appropriately: to watch a band play live is to cross arms and nod, detached, as if engaged in an analysis for which a bobbing head plays metronome. To listen to "Love Will Tear Us Apart" across club speakers is to pacify one's need to ensure one's declared tastes are in good standing, to simply dance, or to become a passive consumer of music. That these separations exist is something for someone else to write about, but it's the impulse to overplay that draws the lines between in permanent marker. One is not better than the other, but only through overplaying are our responses made mutual. Difference is subsequently ostracized.

There isn't one album on our year end list that I do not find at least interesting and worthy of multiple listens, if not unquestioning fandom, in its entirety. We're inundated with quality; I can't help but feel that were the Beatles to have written something from Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, it too would enjoy at least the kind of reverence today enjoyed by something as arbitrary and shitty as "Buffalo Bill." But if the buzzwords of today's music listening discourse are "access" and "choice," then the impulse to overplay, to rely on a single, takes on a new form of intentional limitation and becomes the satiation of our most vapid consumerist principles: the affirmation of some companies' assumptions that we are incapable of enjoying something without utterly taking ownership of it, without purchasing it. Music has become less performance, less the pursuit of that transcendent moment, than an allaying of tensions and disparities on Facebook profiles.

We spend our time at CMG quantifying and qualifying. Like it or not, it's perfectly understandable that some might see us as putting the complex into convenient and well-labeled boxes. But it's precisely the multitude of our quantifications that renders that prescriptive process harmless. There is an irony to the notion that a song like "Take Me Out" can so obediently be danced to by the very people who might suggest that a collection of singular music reviews is narrow-minded. What the alternative to a cyclical feeding of the overplayed might look like is anyone's guess, but surely something of a more diverse profile might inspire more enthusiasm or inspiration, while still being danceable. Think of these statements less as a defense than as a postulation of what the dance floor might look like when diversity is as amplified as the opinions we so proudly contribute to musical discourse by god-given right.