Daydream Nation / Noise and Jpop

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

CJ Marsicano of Stuck in a Pagoda with Motoko Aoyama writes about how Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation will be inducted this year to the Library of Congress. He’s closed off for comments, otherwise I’d be raving about it there – but this also gives me a chance to tell all you faithful readers out there to buy the album, listen to it, and be awed at this expression of Sonic Life. If Congress now approves of it, so should you. (I guess.)

I noted last year when Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet was inducted, which amused me to end… but this is different, even bigger. This feels like the cosmos shifting closer to perfection as one of the greatest albums of all time is getting the recognition it deserves.

I must confess: I haven’t listened to a Sonic Youth album since Washing Machine and the only track I remember from that one is “The Diamond Sea” (which is on the CD my wife and I gave out at our wedding – the 20-minute version was the soundtrack on a Flash photo album I made). Quite frankly, I think that their last great album was Goo – though Dirty had some incredible flashes of genius as well. However, the albums that I did listen to frequently, from the eponymous EP up to Goo, were the soundtrack of my life for much of my twenties. Sonic Youth were the greatest band in my estimation, and Daydream Nation their bravest, most daring work (with one possible exception – see below).

Daydream Nation is the seminal discovery of my musical life. The opening track of “Teenage Riot” is sheer brilliance, anthemic and laconic at the same time. “Total Trash” is a remarkable track for the way it builds up, crashes down into a shambles, and then recoheres at the coda. (Which makes me suspect that it tries to recreate the structure of another work about total trash, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.) There are songs like “The Sprawl” which bask in the beauty of the electric guitar’s open vistas, as well as more accessible tracks like “Candle” which rein in those impulses for alt-rock perfection. The trilogy that closes the album, while perhaps overlong, ends with a powerful burst of punk rock defiance in the skronky “Eliminator Jr”.

But it’s more than an album. It’s a doorway to a new perspective on the world. While I had been enjoying noise and feedback in music I was listening to at the time – perhaps most notably with Public Enemy and Nation of MillionsDaydream Nation made noise into a distinct aesthetic, a way of understanding music. After listening to this album, music truly changed for me – as did the whole creative process as both audience and producer of such.

Noise as an aesthetic was a true epiphany for me: by encompassing dissonance as a mode of beauty and inquiry, it opens the possibilities of what can be achieved. Created and heard properly, noise isn’t an act of alienation solely, but also of implication: to listen to feedback and have it leaving you breathless is something transcendent and beautiful, not just for the sheer kick of that ethereal sound but also the never-wavering awareness of how strange that kick can be. Think I’m exaggerating? Read the Free Noise Manifesto.

Noise is the intellectual and aesthetic dance between ironic distance and the visceral embrace, between the chip of ice of observational truth and the orgasmic immersion of a work that possesses you. It guides my attitude towards writing – especially my constant dalliance with hypertexts such as the generators that I’m constantly throwing on this blog – as well as my appreciation for the absurd and the surreal.

It also informs my attitude towards Jpop.

No, seriously.

From the outside, one would think that liking alt-noise and that kind of music would make me a music snob, that I’d look down at Jpop as so much manufactured, predictable corporate muzak drivel. Far from it. The members of Sonic Youth knew that the interaction between commerce and art isn’t hard-and-fast, that artistic purity is a chimera and the pose of the tortured, isolated artiste is self-serving at best. Trash – in the sound, in the culture – is where the true action’s at. Sonic Youth often riffed off popular culture in their songs, from the horror movie aesthetic of Bad Moon Rising to the oblique criticism of rap in “Kool Thing” (which came about from an interview Kim Gordon once conducted with LL Cool J for Spin). Their fascination with Madonna led to Ciccone Youth and The Whitey Album – which included a stunningly karaoke version of “Addicted to Love” – and they considered signing with DGC as a case of “buying in”, not “selling out”.

Further, if traditional music is a subset of noise – as “What Is Free” contends – then the acceptance of noise as a creative expression should also make one more open to kinds of music that would otherwise be dismissed. That is, if one will not dismiss music for sounding too noisy and atonal and dissonant, one can also not dismiss music because it sounds too traditional and predictable and manufactured. Both biases are built out of a kind of elitism that a true noise aesthetic would consider hopessly myopic. (At least, that’s what I’d contend.)

Thus, the fascination for Jpop can be part of a noise aesthetic precisely because it’s so manufactured, because it’s so traditional and manipulative in its handling of music. On a conceptual level, a noise aesthetic makes Jpop fascinating for the way it mechanizes the process of producing and marketing of music. Jpop is the antithesis of the organic power of Borbetomagus and an extended Neil Young guitar solo, but by being antithetical we can learn from Jpop as a sort of negative space to the positive space that “organic” noise inhabits.

Granted, this means taking Jpop not just as a kind of music and a means of producing music, but as an overall (sub-)cultural aesthetic… but the same holds true for noise as well. That’s the point – noise opens up the way we accept music, not just for the music itself, but for the cultural and conceptual underpinnings. As a means of inquiry, the noise aesthetic encourages listeners to be both cold-blooded critics and passionate fans at the same time: the snaking feedback of Sloan’s “I Am the Cancer” is a fierce beast that one listens to for its technical prowess, but which also stirs awe and makes the poignant lyrics powerful in a way that traditional musical approaches couldn’t capture.

Such a stance admittedly isn’t all that different from what many kinds of criticism, especially music criticism, encourages. But the noise aesthetic makes those twin impulses stand out more for the context it inhabits in the larger culture, for the way it exposes false distinctions and presses against limits others would considered fixed but are practically nonexistent in the noise aesthetic. It’s easy to listen to a traditionally “beautiful” song and be swept away by it without ever really tearing its components apart and wondering why it works that way. It’s much more difficult to be so unreflective and mindlessly accepting when the music is heavy on feedback and reverb, built off an atonal melody, and threatens to make your ears bleed by its defiance of traditional musical structures. (I could get into the whole punk roots of alt-noise, but this entry is already running long.)

So when I listen to Berryz or SweetS or Zone, the music is absorbed as “noise” in the broadest sense of the word. I enjoy the harmonies and the melodies, but also take it apart in my head the way I take apart the feedback and hiss on a Pavement or Sonic Youth song. I not only bask in whatever in the noise speaks to me, I contextualize it as noise – that is, as part of a greater system of meaning than traditional musical standards allow (which scorns Jpop for its lack of purity the same way it scorns noise for its refusal to follow the rules of what’s “musical”). And in this way, Jpop isn’t just about the music, but the music as a manifestation of a broader system, the music as a means of both cultural and personal inquiry. (Why does it work as popular music? Why does it work for me as popular music?)

Noise makes Jpop valuable for me because it doesn’t draw the lines, because it doesn’t dismiss the value of the music or its milieu. And the results of this openness, of this refusal to be boxed in by stupid, myopic standards, can be found throughout my writings for Cult of Pop.

Daydream Nation also opened up new vistas I otherwise wouldn’t have been as open to – and not just in the realm of the noisy and the noise-related. For starters, it paved the interest in my two favorite science fiction writers, Philip K. Dick – who was the focus of the concept album Sister – and William Gibson, whose original cyberpunk trilogy inspired the track “The Sprawl”. Also, the cover illustration is one of the Kerze series by German painter Gerhard Richter. I remember seeing one of the other paintings in the series at the Chicago Art Institute and falling silent in front of it. Nowadays I always carry around a postcard with a copy of Richter’s excellent 804 Lesende, a painting I visted quite often at the SF MOMA during the six months I lived in the Bay Area.

And CJ, I’ll have to disagree with you on which Sonic Youth albums are better than Daydream Nation. For me, at least, the only SY album that’s anywhere near the greatness of Daydream Nation is Bad Moon Rising. That album is noisier and creative in its use of said noise, more conceptually coherent, and a stronger work of cultural criticism. Best of all, where the Swans’ Filth captured the terrifying nature of evil, Bad Moon Rising is the musical equivalent of how evil can be seductive and alluring. It still gives me chills, listening to it.

Last but not least, here’s my own highly biased list of other albums that belong in the Library of Congress: A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low-End Theory, X’s Los Angeles (though I personally prefer Wild Gift), Dinosaur Jr’s You’re Living All Over Me, Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, Pixie’s Doolittle. In a stranger world than this one, Pussy Galore’s Dial M for Motherfucker and Cypress Hill’s Black Sunday (though I personally prefer the first album) would also be contenders.

What the heck. My generation’s finally taking control of the culture, so it’s just a matter of time.

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12 Responses to “Daydream Nation / Noise and Jpop”
  1. Alice says:

    The new banner is just wrong.

  2. kk says:

    sonic youth eh, somehow i was amused when you said you listened to noise i thought more along the lines of boredoms, locust, john zorn, meltbanana etc. Everyone raves of sonic youth but they remind me of blondredhead (but i guess it should be the other way around) which already sounds too new york and art house to me. I should give them another chance but im sooo racist when it comes to music (sure locust and john zorn are american but i dont like them, and blonderedhead at least has a japanese national singer hah!)

  3. CJ Marsicano says:

    I didn’t even know my blog was comment closed. Hopefully it’s been fixed now.

  4. CJ Marsicano says:

    Aw c’mon Alice, what’s wrong with some Berryz booty? LOL J/K

  5. Alice:

    When I put together the Berryz banners for this week, I thought, “The Little Behind one will lose me readers.” Glad to see my instincts were right! That said, isn’t the “In Touch” one almost as wrong?

    KK:

    I actually used to have a couple of Zeni Geva albums, but in general I could never get into Japanese noise for some reason. I’ll probably be trying them out again as I dive deeper into the selections at emusic.com…

  6. kk says:

    Eh, i always thought american noise scene took themselves far too seriously. Boredoms, acid mothers all seemed to be doing it for the fun. While merzbow and masana…well they were always a little too noisy for my tastes, all the IDM it could be catchy but when it was 3 minutes of pure static with supposed pitch changes (which even listening a good 3 times i still cant really discern all that well) errr… But if you have zeni geva merzbow is a good place to look to he does some collaborations with them

    On another note in the new banner chinami looks like shes going to give miyabi a bitch slap for touching her.

  7. Rob L. from Iowa says:

    The greatest thing I ever saw was Thurston Moore being handed on his back across the mosh-pit crowd at the Warfield in San Francisco while playing “Teenage Riot”…

  8. niji says:

    WTF is that new banner doing without my Risako?!? Change it! NOW!!!

    LOL

    Seriously though, why the unfair treatment?

  9. niji:

    Changed again! Hope this is better… wait, it’s Maasa and Miyabi. No Risako. Oops.

    I don’t think any of the Berryz are on ALL of this week’s banners, which are being changed relatively often. After the Backstage with Maasa, though, we’re back to the top of the rotation. So “A Little Behind” WILL return!

    Maybe I should post a new blog entry, too, while I’m at it, it’s been two days…

    Nah, that can wait till tomorrow.

  10. niji says:

    Yes, I do know that none of the Berryz were in all of the ever-shifting headers. However, the other headers — those that I’ve seen, I mean — were at least either theme-centric or part of a symmetrical series, removing all probability of having the absence of any member misconstrued as an intentional act of disdain. That last one, on the other hand, just seemed way too overt in not including my Risako. Well, whatever. ROTFL XP

    Anyway, until when are you running this Berryz header rotation? And what exactly spawned this? I think I missed that discussion.

  11. Chuck says:

    Ray needs a reason to post pictures of Berryz?

  12. niji:

    The shots from the victory banner were from the slideshow at the end of the Making Of clip on the “Jiriri” DVD… There were three shots of the girls doing the peace sign and the most efficient selections (i.e., the most Berryz without duplicating any one girl) meant excluding the shot with Risako, Momoko, and Chinami. I guess I could’ve just included Risako from that shot…

    And the decision to do a rotating daily Berryz banner thingie just came from immersing myself in the DVD single. There was too much good imagery that I couldn’t limit it to two or three banners. And yes, I’d been waiting to spring that “A Little Behind” line on you poor readers since the very first time I saw the PV.