Tuesday, February 7, 2012
A few days ago Wolves In The Outhouse played a well-publicized, apparently wolf-themed gig with Chelsea Wolfe in LA. For those of you who haven't heard of her, Wolfe writes pretty standard singer-songwriter stuff reminiscent of that disgusting "freak folk" thing from 6 or 7 years ago, but she laces it with inoffensive atmospheric noise and some vaguely metallic electric guitar riffs, while shamelessly copping imagery from black metal, neofolk, and goth. Half a decade ago it would've been kinda weird for a solo artist, even one as painstakingly edgy as Wolfe, to play a gig with an extreme metal band, even one as flaccid as WITTR. But now it seems perfectly natural. Something is wrong here. Of course, I'm not at all against cross-genre performances or collaborations, but I'm sure as hell against what this performance represents--the scooping-out of formerly rich musical genres into hollow vessels for a homogenized, affected gloom that renders them all commensurable. How did this come to pass? I think we can get to the heart of the matter by focusing on one little adjective.
For the last couple years, the internet echo chamber has resounded with the flagrant overuse of the label "dark," as well as cringe-inducing synonyms like "occult" and "doom-laden." Hack critics and cynical culture salesmen bandy about variants on "dark" as a kind of catch-all descriptor for everything from extreme metal to hardcore to indie rock. They say it as if it actually told us something about the music. But nothing could be further from the truth. "Darkness" is such a nebulous concept that it's virtually useless. Mayhem is dark. So is Throbbing Gristle. So is The Cure. So is Tom Waits. So is Schoenberg. Of course, these artists exude completely different feelings, have completely different sets of thematic concerns, and work with completely different musical vocabularies. "Darkness" isn't an emotional affect, isn't an atmosphere, isn't a proper mood--it's a tone, a shade, the shadow of a shadow of a feeling. When we say that something is dark, we're saying little more than "it's not cheerful." Sure, there are times when it makes sense to say that, but writers who treat this as some sort of substantial statement about a band are fucking idiots, or really fucking lazy.
I'm not just ranting about bad writing, though. I have two concerns. First, all this babble about "darkness" makes a fetish of it. It's as if "darkness" were a real aesthetic quality with some kind of inherent value, as if its mere presence made music good. Eg: "Dude, how can you say Leviathan is for posers? That shit's so dark!" With this attitude holding sway, "darkness" has become a stylistic condiment to be liberally sprinkled on almost anything. Just look at the new roster of "dark-core" bands on Southern Lord. A few of these bands happen to be really good, and seem to come by their atmosphere honestly (APMD, Xibalba), but take a look at the rest. The Secret? Nails? Seven Sisters of Sleep? A couple tremolo riffs and some "occult" imagery on their merchandise doesn't make these bands anything more than mediocre screamo, powerviolence, and sludge, respectively. (SSS goes beyond mediocre. When I saw them live they lived up to their name, literally inducing me to doze off while standing up.)
"Darkness" has become a brand, a buzzword, something to be touted in press releases and in a body of critical writing that has increasingly come to resemble said press releases. Just head over to Pitchfork and read their new shit on Factory Floor--they work "dark" into the first fucking sentence, and it's prominently featured in the link to the article. When you read that a band is "dark," it's not just a feeble attempt at describing their music, it's a signal that the music is pregnant with cultural capital.
Second, lumping together disparate genres under the risibly nebulous heading of "dark music" disregards the fundamental differences between them, obscuring the distinct ideals and musical strategies that make each style what it is. Finding common ground between genres is fine, but it's folly to look for commonality in a pseudo-feeling, in an aesthetic concept so devoid of content that its embrace is all-encompassing. It's not just stupid, it's pernicious. Why? Because people start mistaking a trivial point of convergence between far-flung bands for some kind of essence shared among them. "It's all just about the darkness, dude."
That sure makes things easier for the dilettante. Black metal is "soooo craaaazy" and a real trip--if you just forget that it's a glorification of war, a religious invocation of Satan or Odin, and an expression of total scorn for the comfortable world of liberty and equality. Death metal can be great fun at parties--if it's just about zombies or whatever instead of graphic accounts of murder and rape. Neofolk is really nice background music--if, to you, the Algiz and the Sunwheel are just edgy "occult" symbols that you can't wait to purchase on some new Mishka crap.
Thinking in terms of "darkness," then, allows listeners to hear their own garden-variety malaise and rebelliousness instead of hate, bloodlust, elitism, nostalgia, total alienation, and any other number of genuinely challenging emotions and ideals. And then the trendy kids seek out worthless bands that channel the "darkness" without any of the cognitive dissonance or complexity. Even worse, they treat the music as a vehicle for dark vibes while paying almost zero attention to the music itself. Bands that can write songs are ignored. Bands that can pay a good graphic designer thrive.
Of course, this isn't just about "darkness," per se. My goal here was to diagnose a cultural disease--the reduction of strongly defined musical genres and subcultures to a single set of empty gestures--by working up from its most prominent symptom. All sorts of current musical and cultural ventures contribute to this flattening effect without necessarily using the word "darkness." If you're still not quite sure what I'm on about, there are some websites that embody it. Just take a look at Cvlt Nation or Actual Pain, or the aforementioned Mishka. And for the record, FUCK THAT SHIT.