Zero for Conduct: Thieves and Frauds of the Indie Music Scene

Claude Debussy was one of the supreme musical minds of the the last century. He was also one of its biggest scoundrels. A generally disagreeable, chain-smoking grouch, le muscien francais disparaged his contemporaries and collaborators in public and private (snubbing Proust and narrowly avoiding a duel with Maurice Maeterlinck), scoffed at past masters from Beethoven to Brahms, and jilted two wives (for more wealthy women) who both in turn shot themselves (but lived). His faults, however, were more social than ideological.

History is full of artists with despicable beliefs and behavior, and even if their racism or sexism or contempt for humanity can no longer hurt us, the artist’s work continues to be conflated with the individual and condemned accordingly. C√©line and Dostoevsky were vicious anti-Semites. Lovecraft considered black people inhuman. There are still people out there (misguided, methinks) who perceive Hitler’s love for Wagner as evidence of an inherent danger in his music: a danger great enough to demand total suppression of its performance, as if somehow encoded in the scores were calls for genocide.

How essential should the artist’s character be in the evaluation of his work? To what extent are the artist and his art distinct? These might seem like rather lofty questions to begin the discussion of two bands that are mainly listened to by bloggers and slender college kids, but coverage of their decorum has been scrutinized in the indie media during the past few months, and the unspoken conclusion often seems to be that the groups should be punished, perhaps boycotted altogether.

Crystal Castles are apparently the worst people in the world: alleged assholes in person and authenticated thieves in practice. There’s even a Myspace page devoted entirely to tracking the mounting accusations of CC’s misappropriation of other electronic artists’ music without giving credit. In a recent, commendable story, Pitchfork isolated what is and isn’t legal according to the Creative Commons License and, with Ethan Kath’s input (one half of Crystal Castles), absolved, or at least partly mitigated, the band’s actions. Still unresolved are CC’s usage of artist Trevor Brown’s Madonna image (above) for their first album; they should probably pay the dude some money.

In a less criminal ‘scandal,’ Andy Beta called out High Places in the Village Voice a few weeks ago for lip-synching during a show at Southpaw in Brooklyn. The accusation remains unverified, and even if the item received less coverage than the Crystal Castles debacle (partly because High Places are a less visible band), for a group with little actual music to discuss, the people have to have something to talk about. It’s the fans fault, anyway. If they didn’t demand instant access to a band the minute it had a hit CD-R demo or Myspace murmur, maybe the group would have some time to figure out a satisfactory stage set-up. A reputation for lip-synching can quickly become a knee-jerk association (‘High Places: the Williamsburg Ashlee Simpson’) and damage an emerging band’s credibility permanently.

For the record, I don’t give a shit. Crystal Castles and High Places are two of my favorite new bands and they’re responsible for two of the year’s most enduring releases. I do believe that artists should be compensated for the use of their work, and I don’t think artists should play pre-recorded music on stage if it involves deliberately trying to deceive the audience into thinking that the performance is ‘live.’ (And if they are caught doing that, a music journalist should expose them.) But the majority of the contemporary music I listen to depends heavily if not entirely on effects that are literally impossible (or at least extremely impractical) to reproduce on stage. That doesn’t mean that the performances have to be boring or, even worse, inauthentic.

Girl Talk concerts, which require little more than Greg Gillis pressing ‘play’ on his laptop and occasionally adjusting the levels or fading in a loop, are said to be unparalleled occasions of joy. The Knife, (objectively) best band in the world, have turned their live shows into a mind-altering Surrealist light spectacle. I see Animal Collective as often as I can, and although I trust their integrity, I can discern little relation between their incessant, obscured knob-fiddling and the mega-sound it produces.

But if you compare their performances to, say, D.A. Pennebaker’s David Bowie concert film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (’73), with Bowie’s myriad costume changes, his erotic antics with Meistershredder Mick Ronson, and the pure, glaring musicianship of everyone on stage, you might think: Hell, they don’t make ’em like they used to. And you might be right. But that’s not necessarily a value judgment. One of the boons of electronic music and studio manipulation is the creative access granted to musical minds that never had the opportunity (or talent) to become proficient with ‘real’ instruments. Whether or not you are willing to accept the two pursuits as equals depends on what you expect from music.

The more inundated I am by journalism (and with the help of Jon Stewart), the more I realize how much of it is produced merely to fill a format (blogs, 24 hour news networks) and fulfill the expectations of the consumers that these formats create. If a music blogger has to publish twelve posts a day, of course something as paltry as Crystal Castles lifting a synth line for one of their tracks (that hasn’t even been officially released) or High Places bluffing a few instruments during their show (which hype-hungry music fans demanded they scramble together in the first place) become newsworthy: otherwise the music blogger wouldn’t have a job. Whether the supply or the demand came first is a chicken-or-egg question: do readers care about such petty (in my mind) intrigues because they’re not actually petty, or are they persuaded to care about them because the information is available and media today is increasingly, overwhelmingly actual and ‘vigilant’? (Music bloggers are exponentially less at fault than political bloggers; I’m still unsure if Gawker’s format is a contribution to the transparency of society or to its decay.)

Either way, I think it’s important to ask ourselves, when presented with some damning fact about an artist, why exactly we listen to music or read books or watch movies in the first place. Is it to see something new, to be challenged with a novel outlook or idea? Or is it only to have our current ones echoed and confirmed? Can the ineffable definition of beauty encompass images and thoughts that might be unpleasant? (Are we so primitive as to be unable to distinguish reality from representation?) And to what extent should the actions and convictions of its purveyors, the artists, be considered when regarding their product?

My responses to these questions are indulgent, but if Woody Allen’s marriage to his ex-girlfriend’s adopted daughter literally makes you unable to sit through one of his films (as it allegedly does to one of my particularly engaged feminist friends), or if you think your disavowal of the Rolling Stones’ lyrical misogyny (not to mention, racist; ever noticed the punctuation of ‘Paint It, Black‘?) is an effective political statement, then Godspeed.

Just don’t expect anyone else to take you seriously.

~ by ohkrapp on June 30, 2008.

4 Responses to “Zero for Conduct: Thieves and Frauds of the Indie Music Scene”

  1. I need an editor. Here’s an after-the-fact outline

    1. Example of offensive artist.
    2. Historical mention of rejecting artists based on their beliefs.
    3. SUBJECT of article (?)
    4. Example 1
    5. Example 2
    6. My response/rejection
    7. Defense of Example 2?
    8. Divergence from 7
    9. SUBJECT #2 (??)
    10. Conclusion 1 (to which subject?)
    11. Conclusion 2 (response to who?)
    12. Sassy last line

    Umm.. Well.. I need a little work on my coherence/thematic unity. i mean, who gets zero for conduct? the groups? the media? the listeners? i feel like kramer during his post office protest: ‘shouldn’t the bucket be on your head?’

    oh well. as long as you can extract something useful from it. kinda neat about that rolling stones song, eh? oh, you already knew that? nevermind.

  2. haha Don’t worry about it. This isn’t the new yorker. I see what you’re getting at in the post, but I can’t quite make the jump from people that won’t listen to Wagner because of his antisemitism and bloggers that bitch about High Places because they might have lip-synched one of their shows. It seems like the reasons people would have for disliking either artist would be very different. . . You do pose good questions (3rd paragraph) but, yea, you might not have answered them, or at last not as directly as you intended.

    for my part, the artist/art are separate.

    keep it up, greg, er, krapp!

  3. and even if the title is kind of confusing, it looks totally wicked next to that graphic!

  4. Hahahaha I know, right? The graphic rules! maybe i’ll just delete the article and let the readers draw their own conclusions from the image.

    re: the art-artist: i will consider whatever biographical information/testimony is available and let it have what effect it will on my appreciation of the artwork, but i’m never going to reject an artist because of his actions or beliefs. i might reject him because i think he’s boring, but not because i disagree with him or i think something he did was horrible. i certainly ‘trust myself’ reading mein kampf or whatever. i think if someone were about to shoot me and asked me first to look at something he had painted, i could share my genuine opinion of the work without letting my imminent death by his hand affect my critical faculties.

    Blogging is tough. Long posts like this are usually written a little at a time over a couple days, and I think the thread tends to get lost along the way. Whatever. Order is overrated! Long live free association! Blogging is soft-boiled happiness!

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