Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Electronic Pop

Compilations are recommendations in the way shows are - each artist piggy-backs on the other, synergizing fames. Usually there's some kind of idea to rally around too, so if you don't know any of the artists you can still dig that it's this new Electronic Pop that everyone's been talking about and maybe it's time to jump on that wagon.

Electronic-Pop. I love this record way too much. I bought it for 5 Euros in Nürnberg in 2006, at a record store called Musikundbuch. A gorgeous slice of unreproduceable 80s German cheese (käse?), I could (and sometimes do) listen to it all day. The label's called "Amiga" (Amiga! Wasn't that a video game company back in the day?) and it's got songs - glorious instrumental songs - by four artists: Julius Krebs, Key, Hans-Hasso Stamer, and Wolfgang Paulke.

Black-bearded, balding Paulke, whose two pieces, "Steppe" and "Frau in Blau", close the album, is the grandest of the bunch. He poses with an electric guitar, in front of an impressive bank of keyboards, knob- and switch-based synths, and patch-cords draped about, wearing an unassuming long-sleeved T-shirt with a brightly-colored (possibly pink?) scarf knotted about his neck just so, somehow giving an appearance of jaunty solemnity as it hangs straight down his front at no angle whatsoever, accentuating the challenge he makes with his eyes for you to find anything even the least bit frivolous about what he does in his Super Advanced Electronic Music Studio all day long. Yes, Wolfgang Paulke is an Artist. He announces his art ("Steppe" - so alien, so dark) with at least a minute or two of swirling wind-noises and processed modal guitar noodling before a stuttering programmed beat kicks in and completes the alien synth-scape for a short time, only to stop abruptly and leave us once again stranded above the Titanian methane-fields.

"Titanian methane-fields" seems a good metaphor for lots of the material on this album, or possibly "Martian sandstorms" or "Venusian cheese-scapes" - so many of these songs are just begging for lame fan-created youtube videos, panning through stills of fantastic scenes - countrysides with blue atmospheres, bubble-shaped buildings, and smooth-skinned humanoids with big, white-less eyes. In particular, two of Julius Krebs' pieces - "S E" and "Galerie" - conjure these visions with screaming guitar and lush melodies, all the cheesy slow parts of Satriani with none of the 64th-note grandstanding.

"Pop" situates these instrumentals in a world apart from the elite, and indeed they do go down easy, Paulke the sole cipher (he finds melody too common, preferring to construct his pieces elegantly from modes and snatches, using motifs as the building blocks for an elegant music that speaks to predecessors like Wagner and Stockhausen, and the distillation of their ideas into a distinctly populist but still ambitious vision by composers like Dick Hyman and Vangelis Papathanassiou). Key and Hans-Hasso Stamer bring a Tron-imated vibe to the middle of the album, giving us tuneful electro-disco instrumentals to accompany Sonic the Hedgehog as he leaps about the Berlin city-scape, drinking strong black coffee and getting his little round groove on. Key gets a bonus level-up for visual presentation: in their photo they've documented their stage setup, complete with coordinated outfits, stage lights, awesome synth-banks and a triangular, keyboard-themed sculpture thingy that sits between them on the stage, seemingly with no function other than to bear their logo and remind us all that the keyboard contains the Key - all arranged in an angular tableau. Truly, they are dynamic starship captains, pulsing their dance-waves throughout your body!

There's more to this album than meets the eye, however. A quick Internet search on some of the composers reveals a context I hadn't before considered. Here and here we learn of a recently released album that compiles music issued by the East German government in the 80s, and six of the fifteen tracks on the comp are from this record - Amiga was in fact "the rock and pop music arm of state owned record company VEB Deutsche Schallplatten". That's right, Electronic-Pop is a Cultural Artifact, and furthermore it's from what some would call a Police State. A sobering thought - and while I don't really feel qualified to make statements that are more than guesses about how the socio-political environment behind the creation of these jams informed the artistic decisions of their makers, I will go ahead and guess that making music on contract to a repressive state that includes artistic expression in its program of Hearts and Minds might account for a record that has this one's fascinating brew of hot and cold, professional and obscure, nearness and distance. We people make art, whether born of love, necessity or strategy, and we sell it or otherwise give it up to instant or eventual consumption and re-contextualization.

Context established, we see Electronic-Pop as a recommendation engine of a different kind - the power of the Compilation harnessed to glorify an unspoken Power in the background; to expose Approved artists in a system to which Commerce is a Dangerous Concept; to keep people happy and dancing and not too pissed off that they aren't allowed to go to Tangerine Dream concerts. It's a Repressive System, I suppose, and it seems unfair - I can't comment cause I wasn't there. The existence of this artifact highlights a deeper truth, though: you'll note that our Free society, with all its Choice, produces a stunning sameness of depressing stupidity in the Pop music department. While to be fair, each piece on close examination - Justin Bieber's "One Time", say, or Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" - is demonstrably the product of individual, thinking humans, the overall effect is one of buy, buy, buy, sex, sex, buy, sex, STOP THINKING ABOUT STUFF! Choice is the domain of those who control product and distribution, whether it's government or corporation, and the message remains under control at all times. I guess everyday life for me might be a little easier, or at least more fun, than it was for people in East Germany in 1985, but the message I take from this is to work hard to make my own choices, or at least understand who's making them for me, and what their motivations are. Take the FPE: I ask Frances to pick me a record and she does. I like ceding my freedom of choice to a 2-year-old; it feels liberating. Does she exercise wisdom in her choices, or are they random? Does it matter? Maybe the lack of wisdom is just what liberates these picks. Freedom takes work, man! Choice, the essence of freedom, thrives only when you demand it.