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Earthly limits of music

There is no such thing as new music any more, ponders Lachlan Cameron.

It seems that everyone’s still looking for the ‘next big thing’ in music. Unfortunately though, this quest for revolutionary music has, since the beginning of the 21st Century, been completely in vain. In terms of genuinely novel sound and style, massive musical innovation appears to be a thing of the past.

Think about it. What was the last huge shift in the musical paradigm? EDM? Noise Rock? Math Rock? Death Metal? Whatever it was, it probably happened in the late 1990s at the latest. Since that point, the development of musical sound and genre has only occurred through ‘micro-innovations’. The huge paradigmatic shifts brought about by The Beatles and The Clash just don’t happen any more, because musicians now are working with well-established musical techniques. The Beatles defined pop music, The Clash built punk, but now we’re running out of ‘new music’ to construct and create.

And who cares? We live in the twenty-first century, where every new creative endeavour is a messy, ironic pastiche of the long line of great art that came beforehand. Every stand-up comedian constructs their own voice, knowing that they’re kind of ripping off George Carlin. Every author writes knowing that their novel is a bit too much like ‘Tender is the Night’. And in exactly the same way, every musician composes their music with a kind of fatalistic acknowledgement that they’re playing with the exact same material that their favourite artists played with. The definition of music is now entirely dependent on its similarity to other, established, genres.

On top of this postmodern mess, the barriers of what constitutes musical sound have been pushed, stretched and chewed. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It just means that we’re running out of new sounds. Vocalists can croon, scream, shout, whisper, screech, or mumble – and it has all been done before. Now that white noise is used as a musical technique, the boundaries of sound have reached their limits. The tonal palette of music has become so broad and diverse that it appears that there’s very little room for any significant further experimentation. (Granted, I can’t wait to be proved wrong. The second we find some alien species that communicates through some new kind of vibration, I’ll be there with a tape recorder, losing my shit).

Music now isn’t limited by imagination but by the human ear. When coupled with artists’ realisation that there isn’t room for the creation of a brand new genre, things start to get surprisingly interesting. Seeing as musos no longer strive to create something brand new, the scale of innovation has become so much smaller. Bands find their niche by blending sub-genres, instead of creating brand new ones. For example Death Grips, a group that’s been touted as one of the most innovative and exciting groups of the last few years, is the product of introducing noise influences to hip-hop. Blending one with the other doesn’t broaden the spectrum of what music can be, but rather it fleshes out what already exists within that spectrum. Die Antwoord is weird as all hell, but when you get down to it, it’s just EDM mixed up with rap and a terrifying visual aesthetic. The edgy electronic minimalism of Tim Hecker is just John Cage or Steve Reich, adding a dash of experimental electronics to add an extra dimension to the texture. Individual songs and artists can no longer exist in a vacuum. Everything comes from somewhere else.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad thing. When artists can’t just rely on the fact that something’s ‘brand new’, they have to depend on their ability to write well within or between genres. And that’s why this whole situation is so exciting. Now that bands don’t feel the need to innovate, they can finally focus on making the best music they can write, rather than just trying to create the newest, biggest thing. Nothing is new, so now music needs to be better in order to succeed.