Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Genre-bending redux...

Another band that I find fascinating and insightful is Portishead who know how to bend genres with the same verve and sophistication as the Cinematics. I almost always sense something creative and beautiful in these experiments with genre-bending - something of God's bigger picture - because not only do these artists know how mix cultures and insights together, but the sum of the whole is usually much more interesting and challenging than the individual parts.

Think of what Chuck Berry created when he tapped into early country and western sounds: "Maybelline" and "Johnny B. Goode." Elvis did the same thing when he took his white boy gone to Pentecostal church sounds and blended it with the groove of downtown Black Memphis: it is no accident that all his early records were a country/gospel tune done with a blues emphasis, or, a blues song reshaped by a country sensibility. Think: "Good Rockin' Tonight" or "That's Alright Momma" or even "Hound Dog."

That same experimentation has been at work as rock has matured, too: clearly the Beatles and Dylan used genre-bending to create a new synthesis that explored our human experience more deeply than simply playing within the confines of rock or folk. "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" were the birth of what Dylan called the Beatles energy with an American sound to his wild ass Beat poets meet Woody Guthrie groove. Same with the Beatles whether that is their Motown sound, "Got to Get You into My Life" or their acoustic, Dylanesque "You Got to Hide Your Love Away." Throw in my boy George Harrison's "Within You and Without You" or "While My Guitar..." and the synthesis is complete. (Interestingly enough, brother Bob is STILL at it even at this late stage of his game. Hallelujah!)

This same commitment to genre-bending is at work in the best music of Marvin Gaye, Simon and Garfunkle and Led Zeppelin in the 7os, Springsteen and Madonna in the 80s, Nirvanna and the Lilith Fair women inspired by Sarah McLachlan in the 90s and U2 as well. And thankfully there are always those out on the periphery - like Portishead and the Cinematics (or Zappa, Tim Buckley, Joni Mitchell, Gil Scott-Heron, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, the Clash, Beck, etc. in their day) who are finding exciting and respectful ways (rather than rip-off/exploitation) of working with hip hop/dance groove/techno sounds into their own hard edged alternative visions.

And while some may shake their heads, I see the hand of God at work in all of this: in fact, it strikes me as one contemporary encounter with Psalm 85:

Show us your unfailing love, O LORD,
and grant us your salvation.
I will listen to what the LORD will say;
God promises peace to the people, God's saints—
but let them not return to folly.
Surely God's salvation is near those who are in awe of the Lord...
Compassion and justice meet together;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
and generosity looks down from heaven.

One of the challenges for me - and for many - is to awaken from the distractions and seductions that fill reality so that we can see, name and claim God's healing and hope-filled presence amidst what might otherwise seem bleak and corrupt. Genre-bending music is one of the ways my eyes, ears and heart have been opened to the joy that is present even within the sorrow. In Robert Lipskey's, The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art, he makes a similar observation for those artists who first experimented with cubism - which broke the mold and allowed abstraction to mature - but kept on exploring. Their goal was to "perceive the plastic expression of the tragic... and express it. The artist sees the tragic to such a degree that he (sic) is compelled to express the non-tragic," said Mondrian. Lipskey puts it like this:

One of the tasks of the spiritual in art is to prove again and again that vision is possible: that his world, thick and convincing, is neither the only world nor the highest, and that our ordinary awareness is neither the only awareness nor the highest of what we are capable.

So, commence au genre-bending that we might have eyes to see!

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