Bad Chemistry

They ain't heavy; they're the Chemical Brothers: Tom Rowlands (left) and Ed Simons

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

You've heard the Chemical Brothers' new album before, even if its handlers at Astralwerks would have you think it reeks of newness. Whatever else Surrender may be, the album is the sound of British DJ-programmers Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands recycling every alt-rock, dance-floor, and TV-ad riff of the last four years. Why, one is compelled to ask, do people pay for cultural product that is already ubiquitous? Why see Star Wars when you can get it for free in your Happy Meal? Why buy the 'N Sync single when it's three minutes away from playing again on your radio? It's as if individual consumers can't believe what they already know to be true. You have to see Big Daddy yourself to reaffirm that it's exactly what you thought it would be--the sentimentality, the tit jokes, Adam Sandler's Chester-the-Molester cheeks.

Whoever is in charge of this sort of thing is getting better at it. It took punk rock 15 years of trickling down through a thousand older brothers' record collections before Green Day finally saw some green. True enough, big beat (read: U.K. funk without soul) hasn't reached Nirvana yet. Fatboy Slim and his Chemical brethren lack strong identities and heavy radio play (in the U.S., anyway), although MTV has been kindlier to their food-court sounds. With the exception of Prodigy, no electronicareerists have hit the American Top Ten, although Surrender certainly seems to have a shot. The music has quickly penetrated the culture's ears nonetheless; Slim's "The Rockafeller Skank" has become the "Me and You and a Dog Name Boo" for navel-pierced middle managers everywhere.

Just as the British blues movement of the early Sixties offered us John Mayall as the next Jimmy Reed, big beat would have us believe that five decades of R&B, three of funk, and two of hip hop have been preparation for this banality. As with the video system George Lucas has created to replace film prints in the movie theaters, there's a sense of imminence and momentum wound up in big beat's campaign--the Force is with it. Martinican cultural theorist Franz Fanon once wrote, "However painful it may be for me to accept this conclusion, I am obliged to state it: For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white." He might have been writing about radio.

The point isn't to fetishize race (need it be said that big beaters are overwhelmingly white?) or make claims for any sort of musical "purity." All art is hybrid, and any trip to Detroit will reveal that some of the finest modern African-American music is as resolutely anti-emotional as Surrender. There is a temptation to claim that big beat deracinates hip hop and makes it Euro. But that's too easy an answer (even for me) and it really applies to the Brothers' last record more than this one.

No, Surrender submits whatever hip-hop influences were previously evident in the pair's work and makes them irrelevant. It picks out any flecks of innovation from a colorblind array of genres--techno, Britpop, breakbeat--rendering them equally free of personality. Advertisers love this sort of music, which is propulsive without depth or reflection. And as these musicians make at least as much money off of ad agencies as they do off the general public, it makes sense that they would release discs that sound more like portfolios than albums, with a bit of "diversity" sprinkled in to impress the men upstairs.

Which is what Surrender is, really: a plea to rock the moola with Saatchi and Saatchi, an attempt to fatten the Simons-Rowlands account to Fatboy proportions. The album really works best as an advertisement for itself. The first track, "Music: Response" starts off promisingly, toying with retro-disco trends in French and German dance music. Next thing you know, that BIG BEAT kicks in, begging us to throw up hands while a robo-voice instructs us that this is "music that triggers some kind of response." Self-reflexivity is, alas, the only hip-hop or punk thing about the album. But where John Lydon once mocked, "This is what you want, this is what you get," Surrender tells us, in all apparent and unfortunate sincerity, "I got what you want, I got what you need." Diet Coke now! The Funk Soul Beverage! The Chemical Brothers are like those ad executives who bone up on Guy Debord, manipulating the subversive potential of hip hop and the desire for liberation that dance music nourishes. They make genuine response feel like slimy collaboration.

Like free-market ideology, Surrender seems to presage its conquest of consumers, (check out track titles such as "Under the Influence," "Out of Control," "Let Forever Be"). And there's not one sound here that I haven't heard used elsewhere to more honest purpose in real advertising. True, the "Brothers" possess so little personality on their own that Mr. Rowlands's tinted spectacles are played up in magazine articles as if they signified something other than the accessorizing of poor vision. But the record is so doggedly arena-friendly, so determined to pander, as one song puts it, to "The Sunshine Underground," that you can only imagine the musicians' individual geekiness as part of a larger design to win alt-rock fans who think of themselves as unconventional.

To seal the sale, the record is duly littered with celebrity cameos that feel like Woody Allen popping up in a Japanese Nikon ad. Hey, there are New Order's Bernard Sumner and Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie (on "Out of Control," in which they invoke the song's title repeatedly, as if it were "Pepsodent" or "Glade"). And there's Oasis's Noel Gallagher--uncredited, for some reason, despite a hit collaboration with these big beatniks a couple of years ago, on "Setting Sun." Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue drops in, as does Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, whose gorgeous, spooky voice isn't heard often enough, and whose unfortunate propensity for mannered Los Angelese ennui is encouraged on "Asleep from Day." These tracks, on the whole, will rock commercials harder than the rave tent, and are aimed at the same audience that buys Volkswagens because of the catchy song in their spot.

But I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to tell the Chemical Brothers what to sell or who to sell to. All I know is that one four-bar phrase from Marley Marl or Jimmy Castor kicks their entire oeuvre's ass. And now that I've provided them the A&R research, we're sure to hear those guys on the next album.

Correction published 10/6/1999:
Owing to a reporting error, this story confused the identities of the two members of the Chemical Brothers. Tom Rowlands is the member of the duo who wears glasses, not Ed Simons. Additionally, the song "Under the Influence" was mistakenly referred to by its working title, "Influenced." The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.

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