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More Thoughts on Music and Place


A couple additional points to my post of Sunday.

1. My original thoughts on the decline of modern songwriting and its rootlessness in regards to place came after reading this old blog post by the singer Tom Russell. Russell is a very cranky man who has something of a weakness for nostalgia, particularly where it concerns Bob Dylan and the great singer-songwriters of the 1960s. But Russell is also fundamentally right when he writes:

Sitting in the Hotel Congress “Cup Café” in Tucson, having breakfast and chatting with the waiter – a tattooed alt-folk rocker. We’re discussing “new folk” sounds. I’ve been checking out the new music of writers like Bon Iver, The Felice Brothers, Will Oldham, Fleet Foxes, Iron and Wine…and on. The exploration began when hearing the sounds and production on the Dylan biopic film soundtrack: “I’m Not Here.” My ear caught Jim James of “My Morning Jacket,” singing Bob Dylan’s “Going to Acapulco” accompanied by Calexico. Mariachi horns, powerful singing…it was novel and great. My perception was and IS…. there’s something happening with these folks. At least musically and production-wise. Hell, I can’t spend my life listening to Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” everyday. (But I might try.) The internet opened up world music to younger artists, and they draw from all influences: Haitian, West African, Mariachi, Flamenco, Ska, folk, blues…etc. They concoct their own hybrid sound. It’s fresh. But where were the songs? Where is the core of it all? I spoke out loud. The tattooed waiter passed by with a plate of pork cutlet and scrambled eggs – and pointed a fork. “There aren’t any songs.”

And give Russell credit, he is not only exploring new music, but has now worked with Calexico on his last two albums (to great effect on the excellent Blood and Candle Smoke; I have not yet picked up his brand new album, Mesabi..

Where are the songs?

What songs written by today’s young generation of musicians are future artists going to cover?

Sure, there are exceptions. I can think of interesting possibilities to rethink various LCD Soundsystem songs. Iron & Wine’s “Resurrection Fern.” Some of Bill Callahan’s songs. And others, no doubt. But can one seriously argue, for instance, that Fleet Foxes are making memorable songs? Who is really going to be inspired by the lyrics of a Vampire Weekend or Animal Collective song enough to cover it? Listen to the Russell clip above. A different genre, different songwriting expectations, these things matter.

But seriously, where are the songs?

2. In a Twitter post talking about my post, Nancy Nall noted that: “One thing Detroit hip-hop has is a sense of place, fershure”

Indeed, as much hip-hop does. In comments, Howard took me to task for not knowing much about hip-hop (though I think he’s still upset that I said Janis Joplin is overrated), saying that somehow I shouldn’t make cultural statements if I’m not familiar with all genres of music. Such a comment would make sense if I were Robert Christgau. Or if I was actually getting paid to write about music. Instead, I’m just some dude with an opinion who stumbled into a readership. God bless the blogosphere.

But back to Nancy’s excellent point. There’s no question that hip-hop is extremely place-based, ranging from the lyrics to the background sound to the accents. Why does hip-hop remain so place-based and indie rock does not?

I think the answer is probably class. Hip-hop is still a music of the street. Its creators are mostly poor people without much access to move around at will, or sometimes without even a home internet connection. These conditions create local music by necessity. While I don’t want to make broad statements about the class background of the successful indie-rock band, because I obviously don’t know the individual circumstances of its members, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that most come from significantly more privileged backgrounds than the average hip-hop artist. Those people can move to Portland or Brooklyn or Austin and make a go of it. If they don’t make it, they can always go to grad school and get that comp lit or American Studies degree.

After all, what has created a seeming disconnect with place among many young people? Probably the internet and the mobility of American society. The latter has always been around in one form or another, but today, what family has all its members within a 200 mile radius? Some, but not too many. Who bothers really getting to know a place, letting that place in all its glory and badness and weirdness seem into you, until you and it are inseparable? Having a consistent internet connection at home though, allowing someone to explore music from around the world, opening the mind to all sorts of sounds but also turning us inward and moving us even farther away from the streets and forests and deserts, I have to wonder about its impact.

Obviously, one can overstate these points. I am probably doing so. But, and maybe it’s because I’m a labor guy and think in these terms, I have to believe that class and income and the experiences that engenders are at the root of this significant difference between hip-hop and indie rock in terms of place and songwriting.

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