I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound To the memories of yesterday’s clouds I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound And now I’m set free I’m set free to find a new illusion
— “I’m Set Free,” The Velvet Underground
“As time goes on… the universe becomes more and more what experience has revealed, less and less what imagination has created, and hence, since it was not designed to suit man’s needs, less and less what he would have it be. With increasing knowledge his power to manipulate his physical environment increases, but in gaining the knowledge which enables him to do so he surrenders insensibly the power which in his ignorance he had to mold the universe.”
One of my favorite pieces of Mark Richardson’s writing is his 2012 essay “I Wanna Live: Two Songs About Freedom” for the now-dead column Resonant Frequency. In it, he waxes eloquent on the two-chord song, especially Bowie’s “Heroes,” Cat Power’s “Nothin But Time,” and LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”:
[There] is something especially powerful about music with this harmonic structure. In my mind, when I’m listening — and especially if it’s a song that wants to comment on something about “life” — the two chords seem to say, “Sometimes it’s like this, and then other times it’s like this.” Day and night, love and fear, yin and yang, life and death.
Camera Obscura’s breakthrough Let’s Get Out of This Country was released ten years ago this June. Had I known of the record at the time, it would likely have been relegated to the category of guilty pleasure: something to be listened to but not shared; something enjoyable but not worthy. Rock music, especially after a nineties-alt makeover, was still seen as one of the few genres worthy of critical seriousness. Let’s Get Out of This Countrywas a hybrid pop record low on existential angst, with a penchant for cute sentimentality in place of masculine affect.
Except it’s currently 2016, the so-called poptimist war waged and won, and some part of me still feels the same way as I would have then: reticent to endorse this album, conscious of social judgments against it. It is, today, entirely acceptable within circles of music snobbery to commend the merits of Beyoncé, Britney, and Bieber; positive reviews by traditional tastemakers from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork asserts as much. Cheesiness, cheeriness, and the cliché (if ironically attended to) are in vogue, and fandom of pop acts serves as a signifier of democratic discernment, of unbiased and open-minded opinions. As Lindsay Zoladz writes in her self-introduction as music editor to Vulture,
“I’ve recently started to suspect that bragging about cultural omnivorousness has become its own form of snobbery, and that the new face of music-nerd elitism is not the High Fidelity bro but instead the Twitter user who would very much like you to applaud him for listening to Ke$ha and Sunn O))) and Florida Georgia Line and Gucci Mane and …”