All New Music Is Bad (Except for Desiigner)
How the collective desire to consume everything all the time has made music fans not able to understand anything at all.
Hello, my name is Drew. I would like to tell you about a little bit of music, and in the process hopefully make some sort of point about… something. This column will appear regularly on Noisey, unless no one reads it, in which case it will one day stop appearing or be replaced with something else. Its title, "Future Days," comes from the Can album of the same name, and if you haven't heard that record you should drop everything and listen to it right now. But when I'm not talking about Can, you're under no pressure to listen to what I'm also listening to, and by absolutely no means will I ever ask you to agree with me, as I'm frequently wrong. Noisey doesn't allow people to post comments on their website, so if you ever want to tell me that I'm being a big dumb idiot about music please text me, my number is 828-675-8574.
Now that we're all on the same page, I'd like to tell you about new music. It's bad. Now I'm not saying that new artists are bad––far be it from me to say Lil Yachty or Arca or the Crutchfield sisters are any better or worse than Kool G Rap or Faust or Bikini Kill––but technology, the music media, and perhaps modern society itself have colluded to create an environment that is in and of itself not actually conducive to enjoying new music.
The "feed" mentality fostered by social networks such as Facebook and Twitter has only reinforced this attitude, creating a digital environment in which all media––YouTube videos, news articles, memes, photos of your high school friend's new baby––must compete for your attention alongside completely disparate forms of media. Much of this stuff we're meant to engage with once, maybe assessing it with the mild critical thought it takes to click "like" or draft a snackable comment once we've reoriented ourselves within the comfortable linearity of the feed, then scrolling to the next post that the feed has deemed relevant to our interests. The image of millions of people sitting at their laptops, visiting their feeds daily so that they may consume whatever content comes their way, is similar enough to that of pigs lined up at a trough that it makes me never want to touch a computer again. (And yet, I make my livelihood writing the very content that shows up in these feeds, and in all likelihood you probably reached this article by clicking a link in a feed of your own. Like Gucci Mane talking to Marilyn Manson about the Flaming Lips, you and I both contain multitudes.)
At some point during the 2000s, the internet helped people decide that both recorded music and news were no longer worth money, and instead should be extremely, tragedy-of-the-commons-ass free. As music publications left the rigid timetables and relatively fixed lengths of print for the 24-hour news cycle dictated by the web, they quickly discovered––much like basically everyone else in the media––that one of the easiest ways to keep the lights on was to churn out a steady stream of posts. While in the print days a music publication might focus on only a handful of artists per month, as these same sites started publishing online they became financially incentivized to cover multiple new artists, songs, music videos, and albums per day (along with keeping the conversation about popular-but-dormant artists alive through posting stuff about tour announcements, a musician's latest endorsement deal, and which indie rocker got caught posting on what alt-right-affiliated message board).
If you're running a music website, new songs and music videos are great for fast posts, especially if the artist you're covering is already a known quantity. If Kanye puts out a new song, you can embed said song, then type something––literally anything––in the post, make sure you put Kanye's name in the headline, and traffic is all but assured. When the goal is to maximize revenue through speed, people tend to take the path of least resistance. When the entire music media's model becomes based on the path of least resistance, it fosters a mentality where we gravitate towards both the familiar and the disposable––sure, that new Drake song was swell, but 45 minutes later when Game drops a new freestyle referencing analingus (Note: I'm not going to google it, but I'm pretty sure Game is pro-ass-eating), we've all moved on.
The problem is, it's hard to be surprised when you've been conditioned to only engage with the things you like. The Spotify New Music page, for example, tends to be populated with tracks and albums from ostensibly disparate acts who nevertheless seem conjoined by a shared musical aesthetic, combining a sense of big-sounding bespoke craftsmanship with an inoffensiveness hits the sweet spot between "too boring" and "so caustic someone might turn this off." To wit: On a recent Friday, the Spotify New Music tab showcased new singles from Linkin Park, Trey Songz, and Lana Del Rey, and despite coming from completely different musical worlds all three felt as if they'd been designed to snugly fit onto a playlist together. Which is why, when I recently clicked "play" on Desiigner's new single "Outlet" while thumbing through the same New Music page on the Spotify app on my phone, I was in no way prepared for what was about to hit my ears.
"Outlet" can be hard to listen to if you don't know what's coming. The G.O.O.D. Music signee comes at you from all angles, gurgling and growling over himself as he spazzes at the top of his lungs for two and a half minutes, screaming about dealing and stunting and shooting and issuing the Obama-esque threat to sicc a drone army on anybody standing in his way. Producer SpinKing's nu-reggae sample lurches in and out of the mix with the unpredictability of a drunk driver, acting nearly independently of Desiigner's vocals. The whole thing is borderline noise-rap, boosted by a bombast that feels almost totally out of step with the ambient-trap demurrals and thundering whimsy that have come to dominate rap radio in the wake of Desiigner's thundering breakout "Panda. Where current hits like Migos' "Bad and Boujee" or Kyle and Lil Yachty's "iSpy" succeed in part because of their synthy, garage-rap minimalism, "Outlet" feels massive, like a Nigerian pop track whose low end has been run through a perpetual motion machine.
Regardless of Desiigner and SpinKing's intent––far be it from me to claim they weren't going for the Billboard charts on this one, or that my initial response to the track was a universal one––the song was simply too weird for me to process while wading through the New Releases tab on Spotify. It was only when I reapproached "Outlet" a few days later, spending an hour marvelling over its oddities rather than treating it as something I could half-pay attention to and absorb alongside tastefully inoffensive singles from artists such as the Dirty Projectors, Axwell Ingrosso, and Jidenna, that I fully came to appreciate its warped charms. In fact, I'm gonna go listen to it now. BRB.
Now certainly, there are many artists who thrive within the streamlined homogeneity of the feed, especially now that services such as Spotify and SoundCloud try to intuit what a listener's next favorite song will be before they've even heard of the artist. The Chainsmokers have made themselves superstars through anticipating and manipulating the algorithmic whims of the music-as-content economy. But regardless of what a geeked-up tech bro in an American Giant hoodie might tell you, this is absolutely not how music works.
The problem with the concept of "new music" dovetails with the uniquely modern problem that since we live in a society that treats "experience" as the primary form of social capital. Under this way of thinking, listening to more and more new music becomes a currency of sorts, something you can use to fill in empty air between gulps of craft beer at the bar. The problem is, as Mark Grief writes in his new book Against Everything, accruing experiences simply for the sake of having experiences is ultimately a hollow pursuit. "You amass experiences," Grief writes, "and inevitably learn they're not enough, and never will be enough. You dwell on the album of your past, and are dissatisfied." So if you're going to be dissatisfied no matter what, why not stick with something you enjoy when you find it, rather than moving on to the next thing as quickly as possible?
I'm not writing this to yell at you or somehow scold you for existing in a capitalist society, or even to tell you to stop engaging with the unmanageable volume of new music like you were trying to catch up on a week's worth of tweets. I half-assedly zip through new music all the time––it's how I found the new Desiigner song! But there's a certain joy to be found in exploring a piece of music for its own sake, rather than in the deadening, flattening context of the feed.
Before the internet, there was a certain sense of "labor" associated with finding new music––a person had to travel to the record store and spend money that they'd earned at their job on a couple records. They knew they'd never get that time or money back, so in its place they assigned a certain value to whatever they'd just bought. Even if an album was weird or outright sucked, a person had an incentive to listen to it as many times as they could stand in order to justify their purchase. Now that we live in the age of illegal downloading, free mixtape websites, and streaming services offering us unlimited music for a fixed monthly cost, we're never going to get back to that place, and frankly I don't think we should. Instead, it's up to us to assign a new sort of value to music, one based not in simply encountering and discarding new tracks but instead appreciating the fact that the amount of music we have to listen to these days is robust and essentially free, and therefore we have a historically unprecedented ability to find stuff that we really like. If there are a million songs out there and we find one of them that really means something to us, we should savor it, rather than allowing that which we might find truly worthwhile to simply slip back into the flotsam and jetsam of the stream, simply in search of the next hit of experience.
- Gucci Mane
- the chainsmokers
- kanye west
- the internet
- marilyn manson
- Lil Yachty