When Artist Change Outfits
This word originally appeared in my Fall 2017 Harvard Crimson column, "Difference Tones," which can be found here.
A temple draws us to God, and a kitchen draws us to the stove. What is our gaze directed to when we step into the sonic space of music? We often conceive of space as a parameter we inhabit. However, space inhabits us as much as we inhabit it. For example, it only makes sense that the organization of a Harvard student’s dorm room is such that the desk, bed, and drawer the most accessible parts of the room. Thus, in the creation of the dorm room, the space inherently draws the student towards that desk, bed, and drawer.
What of sonic space, then? Just as the dimensions, furniture, and flow of a room draw us to its original purpose, sound is a type of space, one with timbre, rhythm, and time organizing the listener’s experience. Some sounds draw us towards focus: white noise machines, gentle piano-solo music, cocktail jazz. Some sounds draw us to exercise: driving beats from hip hop or EDM. What, however, are we being drawn to when an artist takes their music in a dramatically different direction? When Bruno Mars drops “Uptown Funk,” when Taylor Swift releases “Look What You Made Me Do,” or when Bon Iver imagines “22, A Million”?
I will run with this last example, Bon Iver, to claim that when we are faced with an artist’s stark change in sound, their music often surrenders a static definition of genre, and takes up a more dynamic one. It presents a dynamic genre-ness that is defined less by sonic properties and more by the culture and values that shaped it. The significance of this dynamic definition of musical genre is that it surrenders the effort of serving a singular, insular purpose, and instead opens a dialogue across artistic spaces.
Bon Iver had been known in the indie-alt circle for their imagery of natural spaces. Song titles like “Perth,” “Minnesota, WI,” “Hinnom, TX,” “The Wolves,” and “Wisconsin,” paint vivid pictures of outdoor landscapes and the solitary openness one can experience in them. The instrumentation is adorned with acoustic timbres and tight, simple harmonies. Vast landscapes are depicted by expansive reverb and long resonances. Thus, it came as a shock to many when the group released their latest album, “22, A Million,” in 2016. The acoustic timbres were gone. Vocals had been processed and cut through digital harmonizers and samplers. Reverb was tight, making the sounds feel close and punchy. The titles were void of any dialect that would be found outside of an online chat-space. For instance, “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” and “715 - CR∑∑KS,” are the opening tracks of the album.
Do we conceive of this as the new Bon Iver? Per the latest Taylor Swift slogan, are we being told that the old Bon Iver is dead, and cannot come to the metaphorical phone? If Bon Iver is a sonic construction of acoustic guitars and mountain ranges, then perhaps so. However, “22, A Million,” does not kill off these effects, but rather, translates them to organize a new, more digital, sonic space. The geographic imagery and expansive acoustic resonances create a greater sense of “vastness.” This vastness is not lost in the digital electronica of “22, A Million.” Rather, it is translated onto the digital landscape. Instead of the quiet, removed fields of Minnesota, WI, we find ourselves in an equally, if not even more, removed space of the deep web, where one might encounter virtual glyphs like “21 M◊◊N WATER.” Rather than expansive, cold, resonant piano chords, we hear the chilling, lonely, but large vocals of a single Justin Vernon, copied and pasted onto seven different pitches through digital harmonization. Geography of the natural earth is replaced by the geography of the internet. Yet the vastness remains, and is even amplified.
What does this say about genre and the music we enjoy? Seeing beyond the physical sonorities and looking to the intentions behind them allows us to see music as a product of a living, breathing, ever-shifting, human being. Though Bon Iver suddenly came forth last September with a radically new sonic outfit, our reaction does not need to engender alienation or distance from them. If anything, we understand Bon Iver’s “vastness” much more now that it has come into another artistic space. This column will explore difference and “new-ness” through the medium of sound and music. The goal is to find, and fall in love with, encounters with the unfamiliar. Even more so, to love these encounters without refusing the familiarity and history that formed us, though it may seem so different from what we are faced with.