People constantly try to pigeonhole musicians by comparing them to others or dismissing them as derivative, Getintothis’ Andy Holland discusses why.
Musicians and music writers can be the most annoying people to attend gigs with. Just ask anybody who has attended a gig with either, and they’ll tell you.
It’s because we’re always comparing whoever is onstage to somebody else; usually some obscure artist only we and a few other sad bastards have ever heard of. We say, “They’re too derivative“. We do this in a desperate attempt to appear cool and intellectual – it doesn’t work, of course. We merely come across as wankers.
As we get older this syndrome only gets worse. When you’re a teenager, it’s far easier to get excited by new music, because everything sounds fresh and original, mainly because it’s harder to make comparisons.
However, as one gets older and one’s record collection grows more vast, the reference points become more complicated. We start comparing the stuff we’re hearing to genres we had previously had little knowledge of; Peruvian psychedelia, crunk core, shimmer pop, baroque disco, Morricone film soundtracks… and the list goes on.
As much as it’s irritating to everybody else, it’s hugely annoying to us too, because it’s symptomatic of being a music fan; always desperate for that fix of something brand new, something that is so novel and inspired that it’s as if it has arrived from somewhere else entirely.
What we’re really doing is trying to recapture that feeling we had as a teenager again. That lightning in a bottle moment. The problem is that there is only so much that can be done in popular music this far down the line, and a line-up of vocals, guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums has pretty much said all that it can say.
Or so you’d think anyway, but you’d be wrong.
So what if you hear a new band who sound a bit like My Bloody Valentine? The truth is it doesn’t really matter. Musicians have always ripped off the past. The music we heard when we were growing up was stolen from the past too, it’s just that we were too young at the time to realise. Let’s take Oasis, for example.
Nobody could ever have accused Oasis of being original, but love or loathe them when they first arrived on the scene they were exciting. Did they sound like The Beatles? Actually not much, they sounded far more like The Sex Pistols with daft lyrics and catchier melodies.
The bottom-line is that it didn’t matter. They were new enough to inspire many to pick up a guitar and start a band. Their music was accessible and easy to imitate. There are people gigging all over the country now who were probably into Oasis when they first started playing music.
The similarities are usually cosmetic. New musicians may be performing something that sounds reminiscent of something from the past, but the fact that they’re doing it now, in the present, changes it entirely. It is happening in a different context, therefore it has an entirely new meaning.
Punk in the 21st century is not the same as punk from the 1970s, which was a reaction against dinosaur prog bands, perceived hippie betrayal, and a crumbling urban infrastructure. All of those things are arguably just as present now as they were then, but the punk musicians of today come from a different kind of mindset; they’re far less inhibited about their audience knowing that they’re adept on their instruments, and unlike the punks of the 70s they have the whole of punk’s history to draw inspiration from.
Styles of music come and go out of fashion; for instance, right at the moment there are a number of bands experimenting with drone, krautrock-influenced beats, space rock, and psychedelia. The latter has always been popular on Merseyside to some degree or another, but it’s very much in vogue throughout the whole indie scene now.
Liverpool band, The Vryll Society have updated shoegazing (Ride, early Lush, Slowdive, etc) for the 2010s, but sound equally reminiscent of bands like Hawkwind, Neu!, and British psychedelic music. None of this matters of course, because they still sound fresh. The same goes for Brighton’s Toy, who share similar influences, but remain equally unique.
Hooton Tennis Club are a classic example of how influences don’t really matter. They too have a slightly psychedelic sound, but their guitar style comes out more alternative rock. The most obvious comparison one can make is to Pavement, but whereas Pavement are pure Americana, HTC are always extremely British. Their music always has a solid sense of place, not matter how American their inspiration might be.
The fact is that all music has to come from somewhere. There are very few purely original artists in popular music history; even somebody as weird, original, and random as Captain Beefheart wore his influences on his sleeve. Trout Mask Replica might come across as totally unprecedented but the Captain still relied on Howling Wolf for his vocal inspiration, and he was definitely listening to Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler too.
Trout Mask Replica might seem extreme and ‘out there’, but that’s only if you listen to it as rock/pop record; it had numerous precedents in the avant-garde, free jazz, and modernist music worlds. It even recalls some of the rawness of early field recordings of American folk blues.
This is why we try not to be so quick to dismiss any new band as derivative. Even the best musicians have to start somewhere, it takes time for them to develop and explore more territory, absorb new forms of music, and adapt them into their own style. That has always been the way.
So why do we have this constant need to compare and contrast everything we hear? It’s human nature, of course, but it’s the music industry that loves comparisons and genre classifications because it helps them to sell stuff. That’s why it’s always attempting to draw together disparate artists and pretend that they’re part of a ‘movement’, Britpop being a classic example. It’s like that famous website that is constantly urging you to buy albums that you would never consider listening to. That’s what it’s all about really. Retail.
But why must we put our artists into boxes to confine them into being part of a ‘movement’? Why attach labels to everything? If anything, doesn’t that cause music to stagnate and go round in circles? Musicians often very quickly move on from their initial influences and develop into another thing entirely, so why pigeonhole them so early?
Isn’t music far more complicated than any catch-all ‘label’ can convey? We believe it is. Labels ought to be confined to supermarkets; music might do better without them.