The phantasmagoria of Australian electro

I’ve just published an essay in Arena magazine on Australian electro. Here it is in full, over the fold:

The Retro of Australian Electro: why the sounds of the 1980’s define Australian pop music, why no-one’s much writing about it, and what this tells us about Australian music and criticism


There is a phenomenon in popular music which might be called the “Weird Al Moment.” Named after its greatest exponent, the strange genius known as Wierd Al Yankovich, the Weird Al Moment speculatively describes that instant when a certain act or style of pop music has reached a level of mass hysteria ripe for effective satire. For Yankovich, in 1984 (“Eat It”) and 1988 (“Fat”) that style and act was Michael Jackson, while in 2006 it was white rappers and Eminem (“White and Nerdy.”)


In 2009, the song is The Lonely Island’s “Jizz in my Pants” and the style is electro. The song, the handiwork of Saturday Night Live comedians Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone, applies locker-room humour to a backing track that so mimicks the conventions of the current craze in retro pop-electro that‘s Jennifer Maerz called it “pure electro-trash.” By early 2009, the single had roared into digital download popularity in Australia, gaining “high rotation” broadcast airplay on Foxtel’s Channel V and of course millions of digital downloads, both legal and otherwise – eventually reaching No 46 in the singles charts at the time this essay was written. In fact, it was doing better here than in the US.


Satire is a comedy of recognition, and the popularity of “Jizz in my Pants” in Australia reflects the appeal of the style here. Indeed, it may even offer a way to understand the current moment for a style of music that, for all its apparent popularity, many critics and music fans find faintly silly, even intellectually ridiculous: “electro”, “electronica” or simply “dance.”


The word “electro” is a word worth exploring, even if it is unnecessary to embark on a long discussion parsing the term from the various micro-styles that proliferate in contemporary music criticism – with its constantly morphing and often-ridiculed terms of art like “folktronica” (indie- and folk-influenced electronica – see Fourtet and The Books), “emo-crunk” (an emerging sub-genre in the hardcore movement) and the mysterious “grime” (really, just drum’n’bass-influenced British rap). The term “electro” itself, as understood by contemporary music critics, first dates from the early 80’s and is typically characterised by the use of computerised dream machine beats (like those of classic Roland drum machines like the TR-808) and early-generation analogue synthesizers; foundation artists included Afrika Bambaataa and Mantronix. Latter-day followers and borrowers include French dance-floor destroyers Justice, New York’s former indie rock darlings Of Montreal and British hybird synth-rockers Late of the Pier.


In Australia the term is similarly equivocal and difficult to define, sharing some of the motifs and instruments of 80’s new wave with flourishes and stage orchestration borrowed from rock; hence, it’s not hard to discover echoes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood in the bombastic vocal style of The Preset’s Julian Hamilton, or significant hints of early INXS (say, the Underneath the Colours album) in Cut Copy. What we can confidently assert is that the trend is an international moment championed by hipsters around the globe: the sorts of people that Mark Pytlik of Pitchfork describes as “electro, French touch, and new wave revivalists for whom fashion, irony, and self-consciousness represent swords to live and die by.” Thus “electro”, once a small subset of the larger concept of dance music and electronica, had by 2007 moved to the center-stage of contemporary music, where its various tropes (mono-synth basslines, 808’s with reverb snares) began to infect wholly unrelated spheres of pop (for instance, New York hipster indie-rock).


While the obsessive search for influences in contemporary music gets a little tiring, it occurs for a reason. So much of the popular and critically-attended-to contemporary music in the 2000’s sounds like updated tropes of 80’s songs that by 2009 it was possible for one critic, Adam Moerder, to write of Late of the Pier’s Fantasy Black Channel that it “strives to compress the 1980s into a dozen MP3s, unzipping hedonistic nostalgia for a generation of consumers entranced by the pop styles immediately preceding their birth.” Underpinning all this is a recognition that the current moment in contemporary music is somehow impossible to understand without a recognition that it is a retro instantiation: an 80’s trope, a nolstalgia for the near-present.


The idea of cycles in popular culture has long intrigued historians. Just as world economies seem mysteriously to fluctuate in long-term cycles of boom and bust, so does popular culture sometimes seem to repeat itself, at any rate in rhyme. Contemporary popular culture even has a word for it, already used in this article: “retro.” “Retro” the word has been in use in journalistic argot for decades, and merits a discussion in the 1994 Fowler‘s; it is also, naturally enough, the title of Elizabeth Guffey’s 2006 book examining the phenomenon she calls “the culture of revival.”


The once-obscure, now-celebrated German critic Walter Benjamin had a theory about retro in popular culture which he called the “phantasmagoria”. This idea describes the consumer lust many of us feel for the products of our childhood: that dream landscape of consumer objects, floating in that so-far unlocalised part of our brain where favourite childhood memories mix with brand loyalty to create fetish objects for adults out of the venerated consumption goods of their youth.


Benjamin, being a highly-educated German Marxist Jew, had a pretty weird phantasmagoria by contemporary standards, getting obsessed by things like rare book collecting and elaborate displays in fancy shopping arcades. But if you transpose the pattern to the consumption idols of contemporary 30- and 40-somethings, it’s not hard to think of similar fetish goods: say, Adidas sneakers, 80’s pinball machines and 70’s Moog synthesizers. These examples are not chosen randomly: all were the subject of nostalgic attention in the 1990’s Beastie Boys house publication Grand Royal magazine. (Just to square the circle, Weird Al himself was also interviewed in Grand Royal, with hagiographic devotion.)


In contemporary art history, the phantasmagoria of the recent past is apparent everywhere one looks. The conceptual art revolution that began with Duchamp is still going strong in the time of Banksy and Martin Creed. It’s impossible to understand Shawn Gladwell’s reified skateboard videos without the concept of retro; likewise the Darth Vader masks and BMX bikes that brought Ricky Swallows to attention. In 2008 both the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the State Library of Queensland staged the “international blockbuster exhibition” Game On, which documents and indeed revels in that paradigm example of contemporary entertainment innovation, the computer game. Game On begins its survey in 1962. Of course, many contemporary cultural expressions are even younger: the now venerable internet site YouTube, which essentially introduced the mass market to online streaming video, was created only in early 2005.


Benjamin’s theory of the phantasmagoria also has intriguing parallels with contemporary research in the neuroscience of music, which has uncovered not just the extraordinary intellectual complexity of making, playing and listening to music, but also the tendency for the songs of our adolescence to dominate our later musical tastes and interests. While David Hume was undoubtedly correct when he claimed that taste could be educated, modern-day audience surveys by statisticians and economists are discovering that, in Andrew Pinnock‘s words, “most people’s cultural consumption preferences are settled by the age of about 25.” This is one reason why popular music is so embedded in what both marketers and academics call “youth culture”: in Simon Frith’s words, it helps to “shape popular memory, to organize our sense of time.”


All of which is a rather roundabout way to approach the particular aesthetic and popularity of contemporary Australian electronic and dance music, as evidenced by the huge popular appeal of acts such as The Presets, Cut Copy, Midnight Juggernauts, Sneaky Sound System and Muscles. One way to understand them is as exemplars of a certain demographic or even pharmacological trend. But there is also an important sense in which the music of all of these acts is retro, in a way that parallels the garage revival in rock several years earlier.


This music is popular. The Presets’ Apocalypso was the fifth-best selling album in Australia last year, with three singles in the top 100. Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colors came in at a more modest but still highly respectable 31st; while Sneaky Sound System’s 2 moved less units than their record-breaking debut but still ended well up in the top-selling album charts. Meanwhile, brash newcomer Muscles has racked up nearly 2 million song plays on his MySpace player.


The scene also draws critical and industry acclaim. In Ghost Colours, for instance, was ranked Number 4 for 2008 in that online bible of worldwide music hipsters, Pitchfork. Both In Ghost Colors and Apocalypso were short-listed for best album in the Australian Music Prize. And The Presets took home three ARIA’s, including for Best Album and Best Group.


The final and perhaps most interesting reason for interrogating the current success of Australia electro acts is simply that no-one else much has. By some kind of natural osmosis towards rock and roll, electronic acts in Australia are often considered to be less worthy of serious criticism or discussion. Much as popular music itself is given short shrift in the broader currents of musicology, elecctronic acts are often glossed over by the “serious” end of the contemporary music press – lumped in with pop acts or Lonely Island-style novelty songs.


Part of this problem is with music criticism itself. Serious writing and criticism devoted to contemporary music in Australia is fragmented and relatively pieece-meal. While the rapidly downsizing major newspapers still maintain full-time rock writers, like The Australian‘s Iain Shedden, the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Bernard Zuel and The Courier-Mail‘s Matt Connors, they tend to have space only for the biggest and most popular acts. The next rung down was once filled, in metropolitan centres at least, by the free weekly music newspapers known universally in Australia as the “street press.” These publications, such as Beat and InPress in Melbourne and The Brag and Drum Media in Sydney, offer knowledgable but hopelessly compromised writing that is often no more than poorly disguised cash for comment. Bad reviews of any band are rare, editorial is unashamedly driven by advertising and most writers are paid starvation rates at a fraction of the sadly irrelevant MEAA freelance award rates. Hence, the nation’s most influential music critic, Robert Forster, writes for the periodical The Monthly, while Australia’s best young critic, Ben Gook, can be found in a range of online publications including The Vine and Mess and Noise. (One of the best interviews with The Presets on the record is this one by Gook from April 2008.)


The result of a mainly rock-leaning music press in Australia is that the current moment of Australian electro ascendancy is not really receiving the critical attention it deserves. Take, for instance, the artist Sam Sparro, one of the most significant new voices in contemporary Australian music of 2008. Sparro, who sold handsomely and picked up a number of ARIA nominations, performs sophisticated R’n’B with a crooning voice the equal of R. Kelly or Usher. For this reason, he is largely ignored by the sorts of critics mentioned so far in this article, as well as the Tripe J network (they prefer the quirky Ibiza homage of Muscles). This certainly doesn’t worry Sparro, who is ubiquitous on commercial networks and has a demographic that doesn’t read wordy music websites. But his example does illustrate an Australian tendency to treat rock and roll – even outrageous, cynical pop rock and roll – more seriously than the various tropes of dance and electronica.


In contrast, the commercial imperatives of a rapidly transforming music industry have helped drive the current scene. The story of the current Australian electro moment is also one of old fashioned A&R, under the canny management of Steve Pavlovich’s Modular record label. Pavlovich himself is an enigmatic and controversial music industry figure. A former booking agent and concert promoter who went spectacularly bust in the 1990’s after the failure of his Big Day Out-challenging Summersault tour, Pavlovich reinvented himself in the 2000’s as a record label boss, signing The Avalanches and then a string of the bands who concern us in this article, including Cut Copy, The Presets and Muscles. Indeed, so meteoric has been the rise of Modular that it has become something of an international phenomenon, touring its acts to sold-out parties in Paris and London anchored by its own label-mashing floor-filling electro DJ’s, the Bang Gang Deejays. Indeed, this kind of experiential event is the hottest trend in marketing right now. As ever in the murky accounting of the music industry, Modular’s true profitability is hard to determine. It’s influence, however, is widespread.


It is precisely because of all this that the rise of The Presets is so interesting. As befits the latest installment of the popular music fairy-tale, the back-story to The Presets’ success has now passed into common legend. A dance-music inspired duo of classically-trained musicians, Kimberley Moies and Julian Hamilton met at the Sydney Conservatorium, whence they quickly began to write songs in a dance milieu of unrivalled melodic sophistication and erudtion.


Part of their advantage, in a genre populated by self-taught savants, was precisely their training – but another was clearly an innate understanding of the principles of live performance, particularly from Hamilton who bears a heavy responsibility as keyboardist / front-man in what remains a two-person live band. I remember seeing The Presets in mid-2004 at Brisbane’s tiny Rics Bar, where they effortlessly worked the small room as though it were a stadium while still managing to keep Hamilton’s impressive collection of old analogue synths from being overwhelmed by the surging audience. It is Moies’ dynammic rock drumming and Hamilton’s collection of old Junos and Korgs that gives The Presets’ beats and synth lines their characteristic toothiness and attack – but it is their attention to songwriting detail and sense of clever simplicity that allows them to dominate commercial FM radio playlists and win an ARIA for Best Australian Group.


Nothing is forever in pop music, and last year’s hot style will be this year’s fodder for yawning dismissal by the kinds of people who have better haircuts and more expensive jeans that you. Even so, the emergence of acts like The Presets and Cut Copy is a moment of real interest in Australian pop music – not just for the booking agents of music festivals, but in time for critics and musicologists too.


Ben Eltham is the National Affairs Correspondent for He writes about Australian arts and culture for publications including Artlink, Mess and Noise, and the blog Larvatus Prodeo.


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