Re-use, Recycle, Remix

Exploring musical innovation in a time when no note is forgotten

Play a game with yourself: Pick any contemporary performer and see if you can explain the music to a stranger more easily by listing three new acts or comparing the sound to three much older acts? Any exceptions?

Call it the Pandora Revolution.

Like a psychic radio, Pandora is the Internet service that guesses your musical taste based on your previous selections. While listening, I would catch a great song that sounded like vintage ’60s, ’70s or ’80s music, yet turned out to be some baby band—Marah, say, or Gaslight Anthem—effortlessly capturing the old Bruce Springsteen sound of the ’70s and early ’80s far better than the living Springsteen.

The result: A lot of today’s best and most interesting artists create a sound less in conversation with their contemporaries than one intentionally built out of the past. This is different from the music of the past 40 years, which aspired to sound new before eventually morphing into the nostalgic sound stamp of its time.

One result is that boundaries have vanished. Rock used to see enemies. Disco sucks and all that. And it was true, at least for a few more years. Then rock bands such as Blondie began happily incorporating disco and hip-hop, and rappers helped themselves to samples of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

But genre snobbery—like each generation’s need to mark their independence with new musical styles—died a slow death. And the final victory of the current mash-up sound probably came in 2004 when Danger Mouse fused the Beatles to Jay-Z. The Grey Album used music that was separated by a chasm of time and genre to create new music that could please all.

Increasingly, today’s most interesting popular music seems to come from studied choices of how to use the past. These days, artists often evolve by trading influences. Local heroes the Killers are a perfect example. They premiered well aware of their debt to ’80s new wave, and then in interviews for their second disc acknowledged a conscious shift to the sounds and themes of Springsteen.

Other relatively new bands, such as LCD Soundsystem, create discs and songs that can channel to near mimicry influences as specific as Bowie’s Berlin years with Eno. The White Stripes’ debt to Led Zeppelin can be equally unnerving. Cat Power can go from a Dylan folk disc to one steeped in Al Green’s Hi Records sound. A review of the new Arcade Fire disc, The Suburbs, in All Music Guide noted how the band traded “in the Springsteen-isms … for Neil Young.” That connoisseurs’ distinction as well as being compared not to peers but acts decades older, keeps Arcade Fire in accord with the way bands now think.

I am not the only one to notice this reliance on the past that almost pushes beyond tribute. To some, this new music, which I find exciting, can sound mixed from too familiar ingredients.

Perhaps, the ultimate imitator in 2010 is Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga channels Madonna on every level—sound, stage show and attitude—to an extent so total that before her recent sold-out appearance at MGM Grand, longtime music critic Doug Elfman exploded in the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “Lady Gaga is a disgusting metaphor for our times. She is a successful mimic who has snatched fame by abandoning her own actual talents, then copying Madonna, while projecting a public image of out-of-control megalomania.”

Elfman is right that Lady Gaga is a metaphor for our times, in that she uses the past to create herself rather than look to her contemporaries for inspiration. Lady Gaga shares more with Madonna than she does with an act like Gaslight Anthem, who share more in common with Springsteen than they do with the Killers, who in turn owe more to Duran Duran than they share with Muse, who owe more to Queen than to any peer.

What will the next Lady Gaga album be? She could record a disco or a punk album with total consistency. And she would not be the first. Moby followed a dance record with a punk one. Gwen Stefani happily rocks out with No Doubt while producing dance hits on the side. And, after five discs, Pink has managed a career without ever actually settling on a sound. Emo punk bands routinely have members spinning as DJs. Lady Gaga’s popularity, it is safe to say, does not depend on her current Madonna-like dance sound as much as interest in her creativity. Fans are often bonded far more to an artist than to a musical style. The cry of “sell out” is no longer heard when a rapper works with a metal band, or a rocker goes alt-country. It is all part of our new mash-up sound.

The excitement I hear in the best of today’s music—LCD Soundsystem, Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire, Muse, Cat Power and many others—finds what is new in how the deck of the past is shuffled. Is there a problem when artists seem to value sonic originality less than their predecessors? Young people don’t need to ask such questions; Lady Gaga, the White Stripes and Arcade Fire all sound new enough to justify to their spot on the iPod. As for the old folks, instead of telling the kids to turn that noise down, as parents have for generations, they can now hear their favorite sounds of the past made new again.

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