By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
It's easy to mistake Fischerspooner's plundering of early electro-pop as a superficial trope on '80s boredom and malaise. Actually, it's much deeper: They don't just talk about it, they embody it.
Back when punk bands became "new wave" bands by substituting keyboards for guitars and drum machines for drums, the transition wasn't necessarily reactionary. Emergent post-punk bands like Tubeway Army and the Human League went electronic with an intuition that the alien timbres of electronic instruments could better express the nihilistic themes of punk that were already wearing thin by the dawn of the '80s--the fatal contradiction of punk being that a completely nihilistic group of goombahs at least cared enough about something to put flesh to metal and wood, rather than just offing themselves, as the lyrics liked to threaten.
Punk's contradiction was resolved in new-wave synth-rock, the ambivalent sound of unevocative keyboard burble, robotic sequencing, and affectless vocalizing. In punk, there was a troubling constant: the warm gesture of hand hitting guitar, the moist distortion from a singer so eager to get it all out he's practically fellating the microphone. But with the muted attack of new wave's synthesizers and the calm regularity of its drum programming, human gesture was gone, negated. What was left was a true void--vague lyrics slowly falling through an imagined space like half-deflated balloons, a universe of symbols completely disconnected from their creators.
New wave's birth was a pragmatic solution to an artistic conundrum, a happenstance crossroad between the art and technology of the time. Its subsequent commercialization was aided by the fact that cheap synthesizers were now everywhere, which allowed punk's dark tendencies to slip into popular culture like a chump with a fake passport. America's ears were already attuned. At the same time, though, punk was reuniting with its long-lost gay father, Romanticism, and each would be baffled by the resemblance between them, if secretly questioning the provenance.
This is the history that Fischerspooner seems to be mining.
A thumbnail sketch will tell you what you need to know about Fischerspooner with some thumbnail to spare. They're sort of a cosmopolitan version of Insane Clown Posse, a hazy collective of dancers and multimedia dilettantes headed by ex-art-school dudes Warren Fischer and Casey Spooner. Sonically, their record is a tepid broth of recycled bass-synth ostinatos and ineffectual disco vocals, flavored with electronica's equivalent of salt and pepper--digital vocoder and Roland Space Echo. Live, though, their makeup-reeking histrionics successfully channel the aesthetics of MTV's early days, when video seemed to imbue the most mundane gestures with an otherworldly mystery (for example, David Byrne's spastic hand-jive in "Once in a Lifetime," or Adam Ant's Brigadoon-on-Quaaludes antics). FS flog the dead horse of postmodernity by refusing to acknowledge anything besides the rotting artifacts of the past. Yet, at the same time, they unwittingly posit a much more interesting idea, which is that you can never enter the same cultural river twice.
But an interesting idea doesn't necessarily produce good art, which makes it really difficult to talk about Fischerspooner's debut, #1 (Capitol), in any serious way. By that, I mean the music, not the stage show or the cover art or Electroshock at large. Sometimes boring records can short-circuit your brain like this: If there's nothing going on musically, then what ephemeral notion are people responding to when they listen to the stuff? On what strange fiction is its popularity predicated? Now we're in the realm of cultural anthropology, hacking our way through other people's inner worlds with a dull machete, and that's problematic even when you're thinking about something as relatively stable as Star Trek porn. I watched FS on Last Call with Carson Daly, and their performance-art routine was so mind-numbingly pretentious it actually took me aback for a minute. Too bad there are no instructions on their record for how to bring the spectacle home with you. Even a package of Sea Monkeys tells you how to do that.
So we're left with the music, as inert and inscrutable as it is. Fine, then. This is a pop act that's defined by its frenzy of appropriation, sifting through junk culture in an attempt to find meaning, while ambivalent toward the meaning that the sifting itself has created. But sometimes history talks back.
The most notable moment on Fischerspooner's album--an otherwise tedious sleepwalk of a record--is their cover of Wire's "The 15th," from the latter's 1979 album 154. This isn't surprising: Fischerspooner is riding the post-9/11 zeitgeist of New York City, a town that, once a horse's nose ahead of the rest of the world in rock innovation, is now retreating into its past with an avant-garde-scaled vigor for post-punk nostalgia. Fittingly, #1 is a thrift-store romp through musical kitsch history, not born of notions of "credibility" or even of escapism, but of garden-variety boredom.
Neither Wire nor Fischerspooner is particularly romantic, in the new-wave, plaster-gargoyle-store sense of the word. The studioesque sound of Wire's 154 was initially criticized as being too "cold" in comparison to the woolly timbre of their debut LP, Pink Flag. And FS's face-value take on Wire's "The 15th" is staunchly unromantic. To them, Wire weren't too cold--they were too human. Wire's midwifing of punk values via expensive technology--their brilliantly simple idea that the artful employment of machines best expresses the malaise of humans in a mechanistic world--is now fed through a methodology that is itself yawningly mechanistic.
Unless I'm getting it wrong. Maybe FS's "The 15th" is Romanticism in the original Rousseau sense--a world in which art and science are a giant bell jar, sucking the lifeforce from the human race. And who is a bigger casualty of this idea than art-school freaks, for whom artistic license is the freedom to say absolutely nothing? Listening to FS does kind of make me feel like I've just been injected with formaldehyde, for what it's worth. That is to say, it makes me feel arty.
Wire--also art-school dudes, but from England, where art schools are like our business schools--realized early on that the hermetic space of synthesized sound could be vastly more oppressive than a blaring wall of fuzzed-out guitar amps. Gradually, Wire added more keyboards to their sound, and as for the guitar...well, in short, they tried to play it more like a keyboard (Colin Newman's guitar riff on "The 15th" is a tight, staccato pulse). If Robert Gotobed's live drums weren't replaced by a drum machine, they may as well have been, as his percussion became more modular and less inflected. Wire's music didn't create a world in which rhythm was a metonym for the heart, as in African music; it was a world in which the machine was a metonym for rhythm--the oblivious hum of subway tunnels and hydroturbines, meditative and disconcerting.
The lyrics hum as well. Colin Newman's laconic wordage refined punk nihilism. In "The 15th," he plays gerunds like obtuse jazz chords ("Providing/Deciding/It was/Soon there"), savoring their ambiguity. The passive, past-tense verbs in the lyrics refer to an "it," whose identity is cloaked in a semantic fog: "Reviewed, it seemed/As if someone were watching over it/Before it was/As if response were based on fact." It's a corporate report as written by Samuel Beckett. The final frontier of punk expressiveness--beyond physical gesture--is eclipsed, as language itself is finally "synthesized," robbed of psychology and action. Not only is there no reason to act, there's no one to act, and nothing to act upon. Yet Fischerspooner treat these brittle lyrics as a bathetic conversation overheard from a ladies' room stall, or a disembodied voice on your answering machine, telling you to please hold for an important message.
FS also gloss over a crucial moment in the original recording that presaged post-rock and DJ methodology for the next ten years: the instrumental outro, in which the drums and bass disappear and later drop back into the song. The tension in this rhythmless break, and the surprise when it's relieved, is now hip-hop convention. FS apishly preserve the arrangement, but here, there's no momentum to be broken, there's no relief when the beat comes back in. We just don't care. Their take on the outro isn't just a fundamental misunderstanding of the song, but a misunderstanding of disco, let alone rock. It's a disappointment that's repeated again and again over the course of the album.
Maybe FS's received notions of Eurodisco aesthetics are truly a kind of meta-nihilism, and thus an appropriate artifact of our times. I'll hand it to them: I'm feeling pretty damn apathetic right now. I don't want to dance or listen. If this feeling progresses and I feel so apathetic that I can't bother to take this CD out of the player, then I'll really start to worry. It will mean the difference between not giving a fuck and not knowing what it is to give a fuck.