No Drummer, No Foul
A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to the Blue Note in Columbia to see Sleigh Bells, a new favorite of mine, perform live. Like any good American, I "shared" my ticket purchase on Facebook for the entire world to see, thinking I would get a few "hell yeah"'s or "who the hell are they"'s. Instead, I was met with derisive comments about the band from, not unknowing yahoos, but electronic musicians and professional sound engineers. One issue put forth was the fact that they don't hire a drummer when they tour. Another comment was that they simply hand over an iPod to the soundperson for the show and just say, "Play this," as if to imply they don't really want to do the work of playing "real" live music.
Once upon a time last century, yours truly started to slowly gain some traction for himself writing as a music critic, so writing about this sort of thing is probably one of my mostest favoritest things. My question is this: Why are we still arguing about what music is in 2012? I know the argument is not exactly that. It's more about what makes a band, or what makes a live performance. But in the end, it returns to how you define performed music, whether on record or in a live setting.
Have we forgotten about John Cage, somehow? Have we forgotten when U2 pissed everyone off in '93 by having the Edge do this?:
The entire rhythm section for Sleigh Bells is made on a laptop. For their current tour--something they didn't do in support of "Treats"--they have hired a second guitarist, expanding the onstage band to three, rather than two. When asked in a recent interview last month if they would consider permanently expanding the lineup of the band to include a more full live rhythm section, Derek Miller responded:
"It’s not something I foresee. I can almost guarantee that we will never expand past this lineup. I tried practicing with a drummer, but there’s way too much compromise, sonically. I’m a producer, so I’m into detail, and I can’t replace a [Roland TR-]808 with some guy’s right foot on a kick drum. I can’t do it. And I don’t want to stack it because it will never sound perfect, it’ll be kind of flammy."
In other words, asking him to add other musicians is a non-question. It would be like asking an actor performing a one-person show who plays several characters to add some actors to the show. Or asking a painter to stop using oils and add some watercolors now and again for variety. Or asking the Beastie Boys to get rid of their DJ and add a live drummer because that makes the show more interesting. It's just not a legitimate request.
Upon mentioning this argument to a fellow music critic, she replied, "Or maybe it's because it's an attractive female performing." Good point. Would more people in the band legitimize a woman singing hard rock-based music, because she herself, as the magnetizing force of the live act, doesn't cut the mustard? Are we still not past the idea that rock is a man's world?
Seems like the same sort of criticism that hip hop was getting when it came into its own in the 1980's. A turntable wasn't seen as a true instrument, and rappers weren't "singing," per se. Since it didn't fit the preconceived notion of performed music, it was dismissed out of hand.
I can think of a gazillion other examples of having to rethink artistic norms. What are some others?