I mentioned in my review of Locked Out from the Inside and Only Revolutions at the start of the year, that I had been doing some thinking about what I think makes music good. This is linked with my distinct apathy towards the Arcade Fire, which I talked about a bit last June. That apathy has since extended (to varying extents) to Broken Social Scene and Pavement. You would think that, as big fan of indie music who even likes Neutral Milk Hotel, I would love these bands and any more like them that I’ve not discovered yet. I alluded to the reason why in June and I wanted expand on that a little more having given it a bit more thought. Today seemed as good a day as any given that nothing else has happened of note that I want to blog about this week.
The first thing that I feel I need to make clear is that I don’t dislike any of the bands I am going to talk about, or indeed any bands similar to them, in fact I do find their music quite pleasant. I just don’t love them in the same way that people think I should. When I first started listening to the Arcade Fire I thought I was missing something because they simply didn’t stand out in the same way I thought they should. The music didn’t grab me like music from Porcupine Tree or the Flaming Lips does. It took me a while to realise why the music was little more than quite pleasant but nothing special, in fact it took until I listened to You Forget it in People by Broken Social Scene.
One song on that album stood out for me; Anthems for a Seventeen Year-old Girl, the rest was ok, but nothing special. I soon realised that the reason it stood out was because it was packed full of emotion. Perhaps it was technically less interesting than the rest of the album, the lyrics are fairly simplistic and the overall message is pretty obvious, but that didn’t matter. For the first and only time the album made an emotional connection with me. I could feel the sense of loss and of regret, it was heart wrenching and I realised what had been missing from the rest of the album and from most of what I’d listened to from the Arcade Fire. It was what had been there in the Flaming Lips and Porcupine Tree. It’s what made bands like Nine Black Alps and Biffy Clyro stand out to me. Emotion.
Art is all about creating an emotional connection between the audience and the artist through the art. Good art is deeply moving because the emotions that the artist is pouring into the art are effectively expressed. Ultimately this is more important than creating complex, intellectually interesting art; complexity has to be aimed at creating deeper, more complex emotions, it is not an end in itself. A simple painting of a sunset which inspires awe is more effective than a complicated, technically brilliant painting which loses any emotion in the complexity.
This inevitably applies to music; a good song is one which invokes strong feeling in the listener. The purpose of a piece of music is to establish that same link between the artist and the listener through the music, so when I listen to the Arcade Fire and simply shrug apathetically I know that the music has failed. There is no emotional connection, there is no passion, and there is no reason to keep listening. By contrast I can listen to the Decembrists (a band that I have not mentioned yet, but rank alongside Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd and the Flaming Lips as one of my favourite bands) and feeling the emotions that are surging through the songs. I can listen to the Flaming Lips and get feel buoyed by the sheer joy of their music. The more I listen and the more I pay attention to the complexities of the song, the stronger the emotional connection.
When I listen to a new band I look for this emotional connection. I try to experience the emotions of the artists through the music. I don’t look for the technical quality or the lyrical complexity because that’s meaningless without the emotional connection being established. The kind of indie music which the Arcade Fire exemplifies is simply trying too hard. They over-think the music and end up sounding aloof and disconnected. The music might be technically brilliant, but it’s all for nothing because I simply could not care less. No emotional connection has been established, so all the technical brilliance is all for nothing.
Of course some of the song from the Arcade Fire and other such bands do have emotion and I can connect to them, it’s just that for the most part this is severely lacking. I am making very general statements and there are exceptions. It would also be a mistake to say that this lack of emotion makes these bands bad. I don’t dislike them; I just think they slightly miss the point.
Art is an expression of emotion, once you let technicalities get in the way of that expression; you have missed the point of what you are doing. In trying to be all clever and artsy, this particular brand of indie music has forgotten what art is. It doesn’t necessarily make for bad music, but it does make for bad art.