Polystylism in Pop

Something interesting is happening in pop music right now. But to talk about it, I first have to talk about academic music—yes, academic music—for just a moment. But feel free to skip to the bit about Janelle Monae and Daft Punk if you like.

When I was a composition student at the University of Michigan about ten years ago, I was very excited about polystylism and eclecticism. Within that department, there was a very explicit and rather self-conscious effort to bring together “high” and “low” forms of music, and to try and put them on more of an equal footing. The result was a kind of scattershot invocation of a variety of musical influences and references, careening unpredictably from style to style like a bumper car in a centrifuge. This kind of music could be incredibly exhilarating or extremely frustrating, sometimes both at the same time, but at the time I loved it. William Bolcom was the composer on faculty most engaged with this kind of thing, but it was definitely on everyone’s mind.

Now, polystylism seems almost like a historical footnote. Even some of the composers most commonly associated with the movement, like Alfred Schnittke, turned away from it in their late careers. In fact I’m not sure it even qualifies as a “movement” so much as a set of disconnected impulses that happened to roughly coincide in time—a case of convergent evolution that is now on the brink of extinction.

To be sure, eclecticism is alive and well, but in different forms. In new music now, you’re more likely to see a more specific kind of eclecticism, where influences and references are carefully selected rather than sprayed with a machine gun. In general, this seems like a smarter and more successful tactic, one that makes it far easier for a composer to develop a distinctive voice (that ever-valuable commodity).

But I think there are also deeper, thornier issues behind the near-disappearance of polystylism. For one thing, I don’t think it was ever very effective at doing the cultural work it purported to accomplish. Rather than erasing or blurring distinctions between “high” and “low” art, instead the jarring juxtaposition of styles often seemed to reinforce these boundaries. In theory, it was a well-meaning attempt to move away from the idea of the composer as a figure who stands outside of pop culture. But in practice, the facile and entitled way composers often invoked pop culture cemented this outsider status. In other words, all styles (regardless of cultural origin) were seen as fair game for the (usually white, male, highly educated) composer to make use of, comment on, modify, and/or judge. (For better or worse, the finale of Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience has always been the quintessential example of this for me. Sure, ending your magnum opus with a reggae song is a brilliantly gutsy move, in a way. But that doesn’t change the fact that, in the end, it’s not a very good reggae song.)

Okay, I’m going to talk about pop music now!

I want to contrast this academic, problematic kind of polystylism with the kind of polystylism that is happening in pop music today (though I don’t think anyone is really calling it that). One of the common complaints about current pop music is that it’s all hopelessly retro, and that we haven’t seen anything genuinely new in about 20 years. Pop music is eating its own tail. The irony is that this kind of self-aware self-referentiality is exactly what was prized and heralded as a savior of concert music a few years ago. Additionally, by commenting on pop culture from within, pop music polystylism may be capable of expressing certain things that concert music polystylism can’t.

Certainly pop music is concerned with a narrower range of styles than concert music—styles that more naturally harmonically and rhythmically connect to one another. Pop music production has also evolved to a point where it’s possible for a mix to feature an almost overwhelming number of independent sonic layers. Janelle Monae’s “Q.U.E.E.N.” is a great example of this, seamlessly transitioning from a guitar riff that recalls “Beat It”-era Michael Jackson, to slinky synths that wouldn’t be out of place in a vintage Prince song, to a laid-back ’90s R&B beat that features Erykah Badu, etc. This is all undercurrent—subtext, maybe—until the final minute of the song, when Monae “flips it” and makes it clear that this was what she was trying to do all along. “Categorize me, I defy every label,” she sermonizes over Motown strings. Lyrically referencing Marvin Gaye, she recasts Gaye’s social commentary as something current, ongoing, and more broad, encompassing gender as well as race and class. She’s able to do this because this is her musical heritage—she’s not an outsider looking in.

The situation with Daft Punk’s already ubiquitous new album, Random Access Memories, is a little more complicated. The album evokes a huge swath of music from the ’70s and early ’80s, and at first listen this seems to be the goal—to create a convincing simulacrum of the light-hearted, fun, danceable music of that era. In the pursuit of this goal, Daft Punk were also in a unique position to enlist the aid of contemporaries from that period, figures like Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, and Paul Williams.

But there’s also a palpable strain of melancholy that runs through the album, something that suggests that this kind of nostalgia may be more sinister than it first appears. On the bizarre and mesmerizing “Touch,” featuring lyrics and vocals by Williams, styles are nested within styles, linked by a series of sonic reveals that are at first captivating but are almost exhausting by the end. Williams sounds drained by it too: “A door behind a door / Touch, where do you lead? / I want something more.” It’s almost Gnostic in its perpetual search for a “more real” reality, suggesting that this quest for true authenticity might be doomed from the start.

Although authenticity might be out of reach, accuracy is not, and I wish that more concert music composers would adopt Daft Punk’s meticulousness when exploring other styles, rather than the casual, slapdash referentiality that comes so easily. Granted, not everyone has access to the finest studio musicians in the land, but we are privileged in other ways, and we ought to use that privilege responsibly.

9 thoughts on “Polystylism in Pop

  1. Alex Temple

    I have a lot to say about this issue, but no time to organize my thoughts right now. In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on Mr. Bungle’s “Goodbye Sober Day”:

    Reply
  2. Dan VanHassel

    A large part of the problem with works like these is; who are the musicians who are playing them? Daft Punk created effective disco-era music by actually working with many of the studio musicians and composers from that time period. However, the typical musicians composers like William Bolcom are working with are simply not able to play convincingly in many of the styles that he and others are asking of them.

    There are two sides to this problem. The first is that it is wholly unreasonable for composers to expect conservatory-trained classical musicians to be able to effectively perform rock, hip-hop, reggae, or whatever other styles they want. These performers have trained their whole lives to be able to perform in a particular way, and I think it is the composer’s job to write something that acknowledges and takes advantage of that training. I recently attended a colloquium with George Lewis where he talked about his approach to writing as composing for particular “bodies”. This struck me as a very nice way of approaching this issue, as every musician embodies their own training and way of interacting with their instrument. It is still possible to write highly effective polystylistic works that take advantage of this, with Schnittke being perhaps the most prominent example.

    The other side of this problem is from a performance training perspective. It is changing slowly, but conservatories are still woefully inadequate in providing the diverse training that will be necessary for the professional musician of the 21st century. To have a truly thriving musical culture the training for performers should reflect, at least somewhat, the diversity that exists in America today. For starters, every musician should, at the very least, have experience improvising and should study in depth some musical tradition other than their own. There are still way too many performers who get by only learning a very conservative slice of the classical tradition.

    Reply
  3. David Kanaga

    I wish more concert composers would use the ‘recording studio as an instrument’ (and yes IMPROVISE accordingly) — it seems like this is one of the biggest differences between the academic and popular paradigms, and is a big ‘advantage’ for pop in a way, a more ready acceptance of new materials… pop musicians are maybe more likely to PAINT music (on a gradually accumulating self-performing canvas) as opposed to WRITING it, and this tendency seems pretty good for the bodies involved..

    ), and you can really hear the notation as an intermediary, like you say, isaac- the groove is flat.. composition for structure rather than bodies (dan- i was at a few of those g. lewis berkeley talks, too, very good!) — i also think this meticulous ‘accuracy’ daft punk’s achieved, and j monae, too, can’t be notated, only played/produced… and as for ‘inaccuracy’, maybe ‘casual’ exploration actually has some life to it when it’s improvised right onto the ‘tape’ without being filtered through notational structuralisms first?

    i hope pop music does escape this ‘retromania’ tho.. it doesn’t seem destructive enough.. or old enough..

    for what it’s worth, i enjoy jumping around styles.. it’s too easy and fun to ignore, and i find it doesn’t tend to turn into a trite surface effect as long as i really play with the materials that are making the sound.. people are bodies, instruments are bodies, too. none of this is concert music, i’ve basically forgotten how to compose.. just frozen improv now, maybe building up again from here. improv- sometimes it works the first time and never again.. and it’s like painting, that’s ok! just means– keep moving on..

    Reply
  4. Alex Temple

    OK, I’m back!

    My first question to you is: how exactly are you defining “polystylism”? At first it seems like you’re using it to refer specifically to eclectic music in which stylistic references are “sprayed like a machine gun” rather than “carefully selected” — but you also use the term to describe Janelle Monáe, whose music is a lot closer to the “carefully selected” end of the spectrum. (I haven’t heard the new album, but I know The Archandroid pretty well, and based on your description, it sounds like they’re similarly put together.) If you’re asking whether or not polystylism is still culturally relevant, what polystylism is has to be clarified first. Personally, I think it makes sense to define it not in terms of how dense or varied the styles being referenced are, but in terms of what the listener is supposed to focus on. If a piece/album expects you to to pay attention to style as a topic — if the contrast between different styles is an important part of what the music is about — then I’d call it polystylistic.

    Now that that’s out of the way: yes, it’s definitely possible for polystylistic music to reinforce cultural prejudices. Early Schnittke does it a lot: if you read his comments on his own pieces, he’s always insulting the non-modernist styles that he alludes to, calling them “vulgar” or “banal.” And Bolcom certainly wasn’t doing much to dissuade people who think of classical musicians as clueless, privileged culture snobs when he chose to set a poem that displays cringeworthily archaic attitudes about race (“I am black, but oh! my soul is white…”) as a stiff, soulless R&B song.

    BUT: there are plenty of other ways that musicians have used polystylistic techniques. For example, John Zorn’s Spillane uses styles with strong cultural connotations to evoke the world of mid-century crime fiction. Evan Ziporyn’s Tire Fire reveals connections between minimalism, gamelan music and psychedelic rock that might not otherwise be obvious. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free mashes together rock, doo-wop, lounge music, Stravinsky quotes, atonality, Sprechstimme and improvisation in a gloriously anarchic free-for-all that perfect captures the spirit of the late 60s counterculture.

    Admittedly, Zappa didn’t come from a classical background. But it’s worth noting that young composers now have a very different relationship to pop music (broadly defined) than their parents’ or grandparents’ generation did. They’re much more likely to have grown up playing it, or at the very least to have grown up listening to it constantly. It’s not foreign to them; it’s a big part of what formed their musical imagination.

    On that note, I think “authenticity” is something of a red herring. After all, nobody is born with their own pre-existing musical style. Everyone’s musical mind is formed by their experiences as listeners, and every musician is working within, or against the backdrop of, or in reaction to, received conventions — whether they’re the conventions of electronic dance music or the conventions of New Complexity. So I think the question to ask isn’t “is your use of this style authentic?”, but “how well do you understand it?”, “how much have you transformed it?”, and “what kind of meanings are you producing if you use it?”

    One final thing: I haven’t heard the new Daft Punk album, but in general, don’t think it makes much sense to conclude that nostalgia is somehow “sinister” just because an album that makes reference to music from the early 80s has a palpable strain of melancholy running through it. I’ve written in defense of nostalgia before, and you can read it on my blog if you’re so inclined. In the meantime, I’ll just point out that a lot of the music of the early 80s itself has a palpable strain of melancholy running through it. Just listen to Thomas Dolby’s achingly lonely first album, The Golden Age of Wireless — whose title is itself nostalgic for an earlier era: the 50s and 60s, when Vladimir Ussachevsky wrote Wireless Fantasy, a piece that looks back nostalgically to an early 20th-century radio broadcast of the Prelude from Parsifal — and of course Parsifal takes place in an imaginary past that already sees itself as corrupted and fallen in comparison to some impossibly distant, inaccessible golden age. “Man hands on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf…”

    Reply
    1. Isaac Schankler

      Thanks for this food for thought! To answer your first point, I think part of the difficulty I have with defining polystylism is that it’s a lot more fluid than it seems at first, because myriad stylistic influences creep into things no matter what. But I agree that conscious and conspicuous evocation of different styles is probably a good line to draw, and on that rubric, the new Janelle Monae track (I don’t think the full album is out yet) definitely qualifies. The stylistic references start out subtle, but at the end she calls attention to them directly in both the music and the lyrics (name checking Marvin Gaye and Bernie Grundman, for one). It’s definitely more overt than The Archandroid.

      One thing that I didn’t mention that’s also important is that there’s also a visual polystylism that’s conveyed through fashion and design in her videos. (Like the mirrorface guys in the “Tightrope” video that are taken straight from Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place.”) For whatever reason this kind of thing is a lot more common and accepted than musical polystylism?

      As far as Zorn / Ziporyn / Zappa / Mr. Bungle are concerned… I don’t know if they totally escape the trap that Bolcom falls into. I remember when that Mr. Bungle track came out, and talking about the way Mike Patton uses the Ramayana monkey chant… and there are issues of cultural appropriation there too, though maybe negligible ones in comparison to Bolcom’s musical blackface. But I can’t help but feel like there’s still something showoffy and entitled about it, and I’m not sure it effectively expresses what it intends to, or even what it’s intended to express other than “hey, look at me!”

      There’s also the fact that all these works are at least 10 years old. It seems like this kind of polystylism peaked in the late 90s, and I’m curious to know why.

      I agree with you 100% about authenticity.

      Final thing about your final thing, I don’t think there’s anything bad about saying that nostalgia can have a sinister tinge. It’s both seductive and fatalistic to believe that everything good happened in the past, and the works I know that deal with nostalgia in a mature and clear-eyed manner — including the ones you mention — are aware of this irresistible folly and include it in their representation. What’s more sinister than corruption and decay?

      Reply
      1. Alex Temple

        I don’t think “Goodbye Sober Day” is trying to “express” anything, but I don’t see that as a problem. It’s funny, exciting, surprising and energetic. Isn’t that enough? (Other songs on California definitely are expressing something — much of the album is in fact a beautiful, surreal and extremely cynical commentary on the very issues of nostalgia and authenticity that you’re talking about in your post. “Retrovertigo” in particular: “Now I’m finding truth is a ruin / Nauseous end that nobody is pursuin’…”)

        I’ve noticed that there are certain kinds of both music and humor that I really like, but that other people often react to by saying “that’s just showing off.” I love wordplay and puns (“groaner” puns just as much as sophisticated ones), and I see the kinds of stylistic juxtapositions and transformations that artists like Mr. Bungle do as being more or less the same thing. It has nothing to do with me being impressed; it’s playful, and it brings a smile to my face. Then again, I tend to react to overt displays of instrumental virtuosity by saying “that’s just showing off,” and I know there are plenty of people who are genuinely excited by that kind of thing too. My hunch is that “that’s just showing off” is such a personal and irrational reaction that it’s not very useful in critical analysis.

        About cultural appropriation — I think that term is too broad and simplistic to deal with the immensely complex ethical issues surrounding the interaction between different musical cultures. The problem with Bolcom using soul in Songs of Innocence and Experience isn’t that he’s white; it’s that he clearly doesn’t understand it, and that he’s using it to set a racist text. That’s why I said that the best question to ask is “what kind of meanings are you producing if you use it?” If Mike Patton used kecak to paint a condescending, primitivist picture of life in Bali (akin to Deep Forest’s depiction of the Ba-Benzele in “Hunting”), I would agree with you. If a lot of Balinese people considered kecak sacred and felt that using it in a secular context was an insult to Hindusim, I would agree with you. If it were completely unknown in the West and Patton were acting like he invented it himself, I would agree with you. But kecak is far removed from its ritual origins, and has been performed as entertainment for tourists for almost a century; and Patton’s transformation of it into metal is basically a musical pun, not an illustration of or claim about Bali; and far from claiming credit for it, he’s using it in a way that expects you to recognize its origin, because the pun doesn’t work otherwise.

        I’m totally with you about it being a problem to believe that everything good happened in the past, or to believe that only good things happened in the past. Nostalgia in politics can certainly be very dangerous for that exact reason. But I just don’t perceive most retro music to be saying those things. Some of it, sure — which is why I can’t stand Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll,” a song whose message is basically “damn kids get off my lawn.” But all the 80s-ish songs that have been coming out in the last few years (Big Boi’s “Shutterbugg,” Chairlift’s “Amanaemonesia,” apparently this Daft Punk album) aren’t wistful reminiscences about Reaganomics. They’re wistful reminiscences about certain rhythms and synth timbres, maybe, but I don’t see much harm in that, especially since for the most part they’re playing with the source material, adding to it and altering it, just like composers have been doing since the first Ars Nova monk decided to throw a folk tune into his motet.

        Reply
  5. Colin Holter

    As a footnote to this discussion, please allow me to cite Simon Reynolds’ excellent Retromania, a recent monograph that deals extensively with some of the issues being raised here (and that some of you have no doubt already read).

    Reply
    1. Alex Temple

      People love to talk about how music, language and culture are degenerating. But the thing is, people keep saying it, year after year, generation after generation. If everyone who’d ever grumbled about kids these days were right, we’d all be grunting and throwing poop at each other by now.

      Here’s a passage I ran into recently while researching sound logos:
      “It seems that everyone has climbed on the ‘nostalgia’ bandwagon. We have Gatsby clothing styles, films about the ‘olden days,’ books and articles with nostalgic plots, a revival of Scott Joplin ragtime due to the film ‘Sting’ and now even an attempt to try to cash in on the old ‘Hit Parade’ which has been dead since 1958.”
      —Harry Sosnik, “Nostalgia! Nostalgia! But Where’s Originality?”, Variety, 1975.

      The mid-70s was a period when Hollywood filmmaking was at its most creative and daring, when punk rock was on the verge of exploding, when minimalist composers were throwing out a decades-old story about ever-increasing complexity, when novelists were glorying in a wild new type of countercultural maximalism. But Harry Sosnik managed to look around and say “Nothing is original anymore.” Why? Because that’s what he expected to see. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing.

      There has always been nostalgic art, and there has always been radically innovative art. Those things aren’t going away. If you look around you and only see one, you’re either not looking very far, or not making a good-faith effort to understand what you see when you do. And anyone who’s convinced that the past was that much better than the present should probably reconsider their opposition to nostalgia.

      Reply
  6. Pingback: In Defense of Nostalgia, Again – Alex Temple, Composer

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