This morning, I listened to a song called “Don’t Leave Me” by an electronic band called Dreams.
Dreams is a duo from Portugal who makes minimalist electronic music. “Don’t Leave Me,” from their latest release, Forgotten Thoughts EP, is a mesmerizing parade of droning sounds with the vocals diplomatically placed at ear level with the rest of the instruments. The lyrics are inaudible, aside from the title phrase that appears intermittently. Overall, it’s a simple and pleasant enough song but it got me thinking about laziness and the way we perceive it in music.
There’s a fine line between minimalism and laziness. It’s easy, as fans or critics, to mistake one for the other. It takes discipline for an artist to hold back from using all their tricks at once, repressing the urge to flap their arms and shout, “Look at me! look at all I can do!” But it’s important that we know that they’ve invested something in their work, that it was more than just pushing a few buttons.
As recording and production technology gets more advanced, the music making process becomes simpler and quicker. Suddenly, it feels like artists can create music with less physical effort than ever before. And as the electronic music genre becomes increasingly over-saturated, the distinction between minimalism and laziness becomes even more significant.
Hearing it this morning, I kind of felt grateful that the song didn’t attempt to do more with itself. It’s not a profound listening experience but I instantly got the impression that Dreams decided not to do more with the song.
They left it where they liked it which we can read as a sign of modesty and intelligence. Despite having the tools and knowledge to lace the track with more parts, more harmonies and more instruments, they didn’t.
It’s possible that you feel just the opposite about “Don’t Leave Me.” The simplicity may seem contrived and the overall effect unimpressive. That’s why this concept is so interesting. If you choose to ignore how much work it took to create the song and focus solely on the song itself, you might find yourself liking a lot more music. But if you’re critical of the artist’s process, how much they sampled, how much they created, how many decisions they made or didn’t make, you’ll probably end up a curmudgeon and possibly, a music snob.
Does it really matter how much work an artist puts into their music?
Or is that the beauty of experiencing music, that we have a pure relationship with the music and how it makes us feel?
Isn’t the listening experience independent of any background information?
Is Girl Talk any less creative for the fact that he doesn’t really create his own sounds (in the traditional sense)?
Is electronic music lazier than other types of music?
Take something like tempo as an example. We might listen to an album like 100 Days, 100 Nights by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings and talk about how diligent and impressive the drummer is with rhythm.
But we would never compliment an electronic artist for having drums that arrive at each bar on time because it’s something that technology can accomplish effortlessly. It almost seems like a stupid point to make.
Obviously we wouldn’t give an artist credit for the work done by technology.
And yet, by ignoring the work put into the creative process, that’s precisely what we do.
It’s important to admit that music technology has been evolving for a long time outside the realm of strictly ‘electronic music.’ These technologies, whether auto-tune or tempo correction, are available to everybody.
But electronic music is unique in that it creates sound exclusively (or at least primarily) in the realm of digital production.
What makes these concepts so relevant today is that the gap between ‘electronic music’ and ‘non-electronic music’ is smaller than it’s ever been. Bands like Dreams, or any number of bands you read about on this site, don’t adhere strictly to either genre; they meld synthetics and organic instruments into one sound. The distinction is becoming archaic.
Maybe we should blame hip-hop for planting the seeds thirty years ago, pairing Run-DMC with Aerosmith and setting off a chain of events leading to the inevitable destruction of the perceived barriers between genres.
It’s a new dimension of originality where inspiration isn’t digested and regurgitated as much as it is cut out of a magazine and scotch-taped to other inspirations.
Today we understand that the music we listen to might not be wholly original in the traditional sense. We might recognize lengthy mashups, but samples can be tacit. You can listen to “Paper Planes” plenty of times without knowing “Straight To Hell.” Some artists might go out of their way to clarify their samples and their loops, their equipment and their sources, but it’s not standard practice. Simply put, it’s not really a culture of bibliographies.
So what do we do?
On one hand, you think, “Who cares if music is lazy? Who cares if music is unoriginal? Who cares where the sample comes from, or if it’s a sample at all?” Listening to music isn’t about deconstructing the parts that make it; it’s about your reaction to the pieces as one singular construction.
On the other hand, what if we’re falling for music that isn’t creative, music that counterfeits innovation without putting anything into it.
There’s no reason to force ourselves to dislike something we innately like but it’s important to remember that streamlined technology in music creation shouldn’t make music easier; it should make the decisions in the creative process more weighted and our criticism of those decisions more meticulous.
Simply put, our rubric for criticizing contemporary music has to change. We can’t judge modern music the same way we used to. It’s a completely different realm of originality and creativity. Not better or worse, just different.
Maybe the flare of technology in music will eventually die down. Maybe sampling will someday become taboo and we’ll revert to organic instruments, celebrating a renaissance in unprocessed sound while we stamp Barry Bonds asterisks on every piece of music made during the sampling-era, as if to label it ‘impure.’
Maybe it’ll catalyze a second golden age in the tape cassette industry, effectively bankrupting the creators of ProTools and Garageband, who will face senatorial hearings, charged with tricking a generation of artists into thinking that making music could be easy.
But until then, we have to find new ways of rewarding originality.
Written 2010 for InYourSpeakers Media.