12 Jul 2011

Postmodernism as Topic #2: The Go! Team Listen To Yr Childhood

I belatedly return to a subject that I embarked upon a while ago in reference to Deerhoof’s new record Deerhoof vs. Evil, which is an exploration of postmodern practices and concerns as the topic, not just the aesthetic or process, of pop music. The Go! Team, whose 2011 album Rolling Blackouts is quite possibly their best yet, have self-consciously crafted an unmistakable signature sound, yet their approach goes further than that. At many levels, the Go! Team represent the postmodern age, through postmodern means (form as well as content), referencing other postmodern media in a thoroughly postmodern game of signification. Just a cursory listen to Rolling Blackouts could demonstrate several layers on which the tenets of postmodernism are being addressed as well as merely inhabited. The main ones that I want to discuss are: the creation of a sonic ‘frame’ through which a ‘listening’ to the early 90s is pre-mediated, and a direct engagement with the musical language and cultural meanings of TV theme tunes.

Listening to the ‘90s

Evidently, the Go! Team have hybridised a personal style from a huge array of musical markers, mainly drawn from the 90s and late 80s. So, on a very basic level, the music that they’re already referencing is music which already operates from a postmodern standpoint: early hip hop in particular - both dance and politically oriented, also sample-heavy dance, sample-heavy indie music like Beck, and hybrid pop acts like Saint Etienne. Elements of these are rolled together with moments of indie pop and shoegaze into what might be a very disparate and confusing mess, jumping from style to style with the only unifier being a kind of vague theoretical vintage. I would argue, though, that the Go! Team’s sound, despite their changing vocalists and frequent instrumentals, is always totally unmistakable.

What the band do is to impose a listening frame on what is, at its heart, a riot of eclecticism echoing rival pirate/college radio airwaves. Listening to the Go! Team is listening, not directly to this music itself, but to a hypothetical 'radio' through which samples and fragments blaze. We are not given all these retro signs in a blank pile to sift through, we are instead fed them through a production style which writes meaning onto them. The signature Go! Team production, with its hyperactive treble and clattering drums, clearly evokes the transistor radio or boombox; we are presented with a fantasy consumption context which goes as far in interpreting how we should feel about this 90s music as the actual process of composition or the lyrics.

The way that sounds are layered, in particular the regular conjunction of ‘hard’ hip-hop sounds with super-sweet ‘soft’ sounds, is also very important in pre-empting how the listener is meant to interpret these retro signs. There is very often a three-layer texture of produced ‘sample’ - involving brass or other more complex instrumentation - beneath the ‘band’ layer, which is most clearly indicated in the very raw and human drum parts, and perhaps beneath all this lies vocalist Ninja’s rap parts, very often indistinct lyrically. What this texture suggests is that, through the production-invoked ‘boombox’ speakers, we are listening to the traces of yet another boombox, playing out the unintegrated and unaltered sample at the core of the track, to which Ninja, and very often a chorus of voices, chant along.

The Go! Team - Apollo Throwdown by thegoteam

The immediate invocation is that of the playground, and the combination of hard and soft very strongly implies a kind of playtime posturing - a tough attitude struck within a very childish world. In maintaining this collage-like dislocation, and channeling it through a distancing frame which suggests its own specific context, we are being invited to listen to ourselves listening (and perhaps singing and dancing along) to this music as children. In this way, the music has its own 'nostalgic' properties inscribed onto it, despite the fact that it is really all original and contemporary. We are listening, not just to a musical milieu that we might be familiar with from childhood, but to a musical milieu as digested by someone for whom this music means childhood.

TV theme tunes

This is where the concept of the TV theme tune really becomes important. The group's dependence on this genre as a key departure point throughout their work is hardly a secret. TV themes borrow from a wide range of musical styles specific to the time, whilst almost completely dislocating them from their actual cultural context. A residue of the original cultural meaning is maintained, but this is combined with new imagery and narrative to suggest a whole range of different meanings. The theme is then so totally invested with the very specific associations of the show that it cannot easily be reconsidered in reference to its original genre.

Kids TV themes in particular inhabit a very unique, playful mood. They move pop outside of the personal and subjective realm, away from sex and hedonism, to a universalised and righteous joyfulness. With their specific associations with the kind of scenarios which could only really resonate with children, these themes have access to meanings that are quite far removed from any mainstream pop music.

The melodies on Rolling Blackouts, as with all of the Go! Team’s output, carry that very particular, innocent feelgood logic, which might risk being totally devoid of meaning without the meticulous mediation of the band's concept. The new album does brings in a lot more sung vocals, which often fit right on top of these very distinctive melodic types. The vocal parts on ‘Secretary Song’, ‘Buy Nothing Day’ and ‘Ready To Go Steady’ are all superbly addictive, but they don’t diminish the TV theme qualities of the tracks. Instead, they resonate even deeper with the kind of remembered (or imagined) cultural moment in which TV themes could still have vocals without sounding ridiculous; these days this applies exclusively to kids’ programmes. The key musical topic is that same righteous joyfulness, while the addition of lyrics and a singer pulls the songs back towards the adult world, in a fascinating assessment of the role of these sentiments within our contemporary ‘grown-up’ lives.

Because, just as Ninja’s vocals evoke our own singing along to the music of our childhood on the playground or in the street, so the TV references are mediated by the presence of our own remembered selves, drawing strength and meaning from this - from what culture we then felt ownership of. ‘Bust-Out Brigade’ (my favourite Go! Team instrumental) is a superb case in point. It comes on like a classic 80s cop show theme, but its heroic and unironic horns are doubled by glockenspiels and the babbling of kids voices, instantly translating the heroics from the small screen to the reenacted playground fantasies of the next morning.

The Go! Team - Bust-Out Brigade by thegoteam

It might be interesting to think what these hypothetical TV themes say about our relation between nostalgia and the imagined culture of our past. The narratives and scenarios that these songs suggest (‘Lazy Poltergeist’, ‘Yosemite Theme’) are invented - they cannot operate nostalgically in the way that watching actual YouTube intros of 90s cartoons might - but they have written into them those ‘classic’ qualities which we will most readily claim for our imagined childhoods. In this way, they are endlessly evocative, and like Cindy Sherman’s hypothetical ‘film still’ photos, they fill in the spaces in the immense web of cultural meanings which we have already constructed, inviting us to imagine all kinds of strange specific associations (characters, storylines) from what is really just a collage representing a particular musical landscape.

Playground morality

What is the implication of the Go! Team’s adoption of a musical trope, and a melodic form, which has been used traditionally as a blank canvas onto which the most ridiculous or banal concepts can be poured? Is the evocation of the TV theme implicitly commercial, or apolitical, or insincere? It certainly relinquishes all the heaviness of personal investment on every level, rendering the Go! Team as very much a ‘team’ of musicians, without a strong subjective ‘I’, producing music which refers only beyond and outside their own collective group.

There is the potential with such a project to get lost in a net of self-referencing and meaningless semiological redirection (and this happens enough to other acts whilst still producing some passably engaging music), but the Go! Team do manage to project enough of a cohesive attitude onto their music to prevent this. The lyrics, song titles, and visuals guide those meanings, which are otherwise drawn from the cultural associations of the listener, towards the kind of playground utopianism that was made manifest on Sesame Street (and the kind of musical multiculturalism expounded by the Go! Team is very much more American than British in origin). Throughout all the group's albums, there is a constant call to arms. The invitation is to extend the kind of bold moralism which is very clear-cut in kids’ television - the ‘after school special’ - to adult life, and to remember what is imagined as the innocent, youthful ‘doing it right’ of our young selves within the potentially more morally ambiguous contemporary ‘grown-up’ sphere. (And this idea always reminds me of the ‘Sesame Street gone wrong’ aesthetic of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing).

It is arguable that, with a move away from post-modernism towards sincerity, with the return of folk influences in youth music, this is a very roundabout way of calling for aggressive social accountability. It does, however, creatively call attention to our own attitude to a classic moral crucible - ‘what it was like when we were kids’ - but switches the focus away from some conservative fantasy of by-gone politics and towards (what we imagine to be) the clean, innocent moral perspicacity of children themselves, endlessly tolerant and unconservative, but with the violence and the mercy of a superhero.

Distilling meaning vs. removing meaning

The Go! Team’s combination of a number of distinct sylistic tropes into a personal language which, I’ve argued, maintains a clear focus in terms of intended meaning, throws open a wider discussion of the practice of ‘hybridising’ a sound. To some extent, this is and always has been the very essence of creating meaning in pop music. It is more pronounced in some acts than others - some rely on it totally, especially if referring to one particular ‘retro’ temporally-located style, while some make use of it to synthesise a stylistic fusion which might never have been heard before.

What I want to say is that there is a big difference between distilling meaning from a movement that might have evolved organically - evoking the ‘sound’ of the 60s or 80s, for example, which might not have been formally codified at the time, especially in order to comment on contemporary culture or fashion - and simplifying a movement to its most superficial connotations, in order to ‘refer’ only to the movement in question. Many retro bands, or groups that hybridise a number of different styles, redraw their influences in order to foreground particular qualities, and thereby draw out meanings which might not have been considered originally, and might have particular resonance in today’s culture. Sometimes they may even begin by attempting to address a particular issue or idea, and choose their musical tropes in order to best articulate this. In some cases, also, old meanings are completely replaced with new meanings. This is a very valid and important way in which pop music speaks to society.

There are always those who argue, from a post-colonialist perspective, against the co-opting of ‘world musics’ in particular in order to articulate some concept that is at a complete remove from how the music would be understood by its original audience in its original context. In many cases, this is effectively denying anyone from any kind of subjective involvement with musics that aren’t entirely ‘native’ to their socio-cultural background. However, there are cases in which bands, possibly at the bequest of cynical record labels, deliver tired clichĂ©s - often derived from movements with particularly broad cultural currency, such as 50s rock ‘n’ roll and 60s girl groups, and anything related to Joy Division - with all the meaning scraped off, constituting mere empty ambience. It happens in other art-forms as well, for me often exemplified by the use of the word ‘Lynchian’, which almost always just means arbitrarily surreal with no justification, and has nothing really to do with any of the effects that David Lynch himself excels in.

The Go! Team are so successful because they not only set their music into play with all kinds of cultural meanings, but they also explore the very idea of pop culture signification, and its role in our concept of nostalgia. The assuredness of their collective vision is then powerful enough to invest absurdly uplifting and joyful tracks like ‘Buy Nothing Day’ with the kind of genuine meaning which prevents them from evaporating into ecstatic, effervescent nothingness.

The Go! Team - Buy Nothing Day by thegoteam

(and tomorrow - buy it)