Normalizing chaos, saving the world

Sorry I've been gone so long. It's been a busy, busy week, and it's still getting busier. Expect a long-ish piece on Ted Leo soon, but for now just chew on this.

A good friend of mine recently posited a thermodynamic theory to me (the second law? I don't know). For anyone who knows anything about science it's probably rather basic, but for a liberal arts man like myself it was pretty groundbreaking. The theory, as I remember it, suggests that the universe is in a natural flight toward chaos. The example given to me is to think of a piece of wood. We burn it for heat, and the wood is gone. Of course, the Law of Conservation rules that the wood is not gone, rather transferred to heat. For our purposes, though, the wood is useless. We'll never get that back.

But the kicker is that it is man's inclination to try to organize this chaos. At his onset, man relied on nothing but solar energy. But as technology progressed we allowed ourselves to transcend its supply, and now we have such luxuries as nuclear energy to provide for us. Of course, technology allowed us to surpass solar energy's affordance, and now we deal with overpopulation. With nuclear energy came easy, affordable living, but also came nuclear bombs, nuclear wars, and the current crises we refer to as our politics. We keep supplanting our problems with bigger ones, and eventually we're going to run out of solutions. Cool, right?

So naturally I broke this down into how it translates to music.

I've written before (and undoubtedly will again) about a developing divergence in the scope of music history: The pattern either regresses back to a re-imagined beginning (think TV on the Radio, Yeasayer's latest), or launches itself into digital expansion (namely Animal Collective).

But for these purposes it's better to view the two as either a post-modern regression to democracy (TVOTR) or a more natural embodiment of anarchy (note: I'm differentiating here between the organic features of a re-created tribalism and the natural features of a sonic expansion a la Animal Collective. That is, the course of events that have happened organically and those that would naturally follow in linear history).

In the beginning, Animal Collective did embody chaos. Their early material (which I suppose means anything pre-Merriweather) sounded painful, like Avey Tare was ripping the lyrics from his throat and their PA system broke before the recording but decided to leave the grating distortion and feedback in for kicks. That was chaos, that was the burning wood. That stuff, those noises, they were unusable goods. And that's what makes Animal Collective's early material so mesmerizing: the fact that out of all that hellish noise and distortion they were able to locate and synthesize parts of pop music. They found a way to organize the un-organizable, displacing our chaos to another level.

And don't be mistaken: It all comes back to pop music. No Age (who admittedly are much less a 'noise' band than they were several years ago) have no qualms admitting their affinity for pop music. What saves noise is its ability to create melody, or even purpose, from destruction. That's what differentiates a noise band from plain white noise.

But the problem we run into now is that bands lose sight of the end-game. They hear Strawberry Jam as the gestation of something new, not the apocalypse it truly is. The xx are the immediate example, and partially the reason for this post. No, I won't make the claim they sound anything like Animal Collective (though I suppose I could. I mean, who doesn't these days?), but they use the same spacey sounds and minimalist drub without the earthly disorder to lead it anywhere. There is nowhere to go from here because the sound is detached from its roots. Animal Collective was the apocalypse, but the xx is the end (same effect, but there's no brilliant explosion from which to draw something new).

And so it goes all over the place. There are countless Crystal Castles and xx off-shoots that write distortion-heavy pop, but are ultimately limited by their means. They use the tools (again, I mean the distortion, sound effects, etc.), but don't start from the same state of chaos that gives Animal Collective its solid ground. It sounds oxymoronic, but without the chaos there is no order. When we lose sight of the disorder and tumult that drove our predecessors to this point, we lose sight of how to rectify our plight (Think of the mid-'90s pop-punk scene. Worthwhile efforts by a young Green Day, NOFX, Rancid, what have you, were ruined by pansies—I'm looking at you, Good Charlotte and Simple Plan—who wore the same clothes, used the same guitars, but wrote sappy emo songs that lacked the ruffian chaos that drove them there). We run out of wood so we burn plastic for heat. And without getting overly dramatic, that plastic (the disingenuous novelty of misled bands) poisons us. And that does not bode well for indie music. Whatever that means, anyways.

Of course, it's never as cataclysmic as it sounds. Rock 'n' Roll and hip hop have been in this state for years, and they still stumble across worthwhile acts. But the success rate is much lower and they don't undergo the same kinds of paradigmatic shifts they used to. Everything starts to sound the same, and before you know it we'll be looking for something new to solve our problems. They're a lot bigger now than they once were.


  1. I should add that Merriweather is another (perhaps the biggest) example of the chaos being subsided. It's a pop record, and that's why it's so divisive. And say what you want about their Fall be Kind EP, but it was a lateral move from a band that's always pressed onward. The same thing happened with Modest Mouse on Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Merriweather should be proof enough that the chaos has been sublimated, even if the xx aren't.

  2. You posted that comment while you should have been studying for your Poli Sci 103 test. Shame on you!