Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Residue of the Past

The chorus of “Inténtalo” by 3BallMTY evokes memories of childhood for me. The weakness of the singer’s voice produces the effect of listening to music on the radio in El Salvador in the 1970s. The voice seems to come from far away, quiet and thin, reproducing the distortions in fidelity created by the technological limitations that were part of Salvadoran media at the time.  For reasons I can’t define, it reminds me specifically of listening to Celia Cruz y La Sonora Matancera as a small child—although to mention these bozos in the same breath as the incomparable combination of Celia Cruz and La Sonora Matancera is pure blasphemy. But the very tenuousness of América Sierra’s singing in “Inténtalo” is part of its appeal. Against the abrasively precise electronic sounds of the music, her singing strikes a sweetly archaic tone. Its combination of electronica and old-fashioned singing has made it a commercial success, and I always turn it up when it comes on the radio. (A brief aside: although I link videos in this blog so that you may listen to a song if you want to, I don’t ever mention them because they are visual interpretations of the music, which is exclusively an auditory medium and I like to treat it as such. The video of “Inténtalo," however, is a special case. This fucking thing made me want to hate this song; everything about it is detestable. So if you’re on the fence about this song and you want a reason to dislike it, watch the video.)

The antiquated flavor of América Sierra’s chorus is somewhat similar to the musical structure of the singles by Mumford and Sons, which have also received considerable airtime recently. Mumford and Sons is of course a willfully old-timey band. Eschewing the emphasis on bright rhythms that dominates much music today and relying on peripheral instruments like the banjo and stand-up bass, Mumford and Sons need only a barker with a speaking-trumpet charging two bits a gander to achieve the early-twentieth-century aesthetic they’re aiming for. But the rawness of their lyrics bespeaks twenty-first-century sensibilities. They are a very contemporary band whose musical inspiration comes from an earlier era of popular music.

Unlike the complicated ways sampling deals with history—something I wrote about in an earlier post—this persistence of an older musical diction in contemporary music speaks to the deep residual elements in culture as a whole. Raymond Williams describes this feature of culture as the continuation of meanings that were generated in earlier social formations that keep having relevance for us because they represent lingering forms of human experiences, aspirations, and desires that the dominant culture of the present derides, ignores, or even fails to recognize as such. Williams' understanding of residual culture involves a much longer historical time frame than what I’m addressing here but it is nonetheless helpful for my purposes. If contemporary popular music is successful while emphasizing elements of an earlier period, it is because we feel in that musical language the unfulfilled strivings of the past, even if the present remains mostly indifferent to them.

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