The new music counter culture – ‘Life’ by Knower 2016
By Greg Scorzo –
When reflecting on “Life” by Knower I realise that in general, Pop music is a strange beast. On the one hand, this music can, more than any other genre, capture the sparkling electricity of a generation’s concerns and aesthetics. On the other hand, the most “popular” pop music tends to be forgettable. Compared to what doesn’t totally please the crowd, the ultra-mainstream normally doesn’t fare well with music fans over time. Stacked up against Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa, Englebert Humperdink and Herman’s Hermits are nostalgic curiosities. Kraftwerk, not Donna Summer, is the quintessential 70s dance music, paving the way for subsequent generations of pop and electronica. Late 80’s fringe acts like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine are now the beloved and influential touchstones of the pre-grunge era. Music that was obsessed over by most late 80’s teens is now largely embarrassing. When was the last time your favourite musician said they were deeply influenced by New Kids on the Block, Milli Vanilli, or Paula Abdul?
When most people really love a pop song, that means hardcore music fans will probably either hate it or forget it within a short span of time. There are a few exceptions, but that’s generally how things go in the world of pop music appreciation. Widespread appeal tends to kill the lasting impact of pop songs in the memory of knowledgeable music fans. What normally sustains this impact is when pop is particular rather than universal, expressing not an anthem for humanity but a small and magical corner of the world; a corner that gains legendary status over time. Unless you’re in the handful of exceptions, being hugely popular tends to make you unpopular with music connoisseurs, as the years go by.
Music fans may temporarily fawn over the music trends of the ultra-mainstream. But they mostly respect it’s fringes; especially those artists and bands that bravely venture into the aesthetics of the odd and the new. That’s why everyone loves the 60’s. For the first time, a good deal of mainstream pop music aspired to be art music. The non-mainstream competed with the ultra-mainstream for the youth’s attention. It was even cool to be catchy and strange. Musicians understood that the two weren’t mutually exclusive. Even the Beach Boys understood this.
In the decades between then and now, most kids haven’t been that bothered about their pop music being ground breaking or artistic. That’s probably as true of 1976 as it is of 2016. The more music universally appeals to kids, the more it seems laughable to grown ups, about fifteen years later. Many of those grown ups were those kids.
This oversimplifies things, of course.
Occasionally, something intended to be a party anthem turns out to be a daring and iconic work of art (think Michael Jackson’s Thriller video). Other times, works intended to be experimental wind up taking the charts by storm (remember The Downward Spiral and Anti-Christ Superstar albums from Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson). Sometimes even a performer using sex to sell crappy music becomes a beloved LGBT icon (Madonna). There’s no telling what odd things can happen in the pop music world. They just don’t happen all that often. Like the art world, things are boring most of the time.
But not all the time, thankfully.
In the late 70s, you had the culturally disruptive forces of punk and industrial rock, musics that celebrated urban grime, white noise, and aggressive emotional ambivalence. But your average kid of that time, we should remember, was more enamoured by Disco. Your average kid a few years earlier swooned to sensitive singer-songwriters and wholesome teeny boppers, musicians like David Cassidy and Carly Simon. The weird kids liked David Bowie, Gong, and Tangerine Dream. In the 90s, it was the weird kids who loved Beck, Bjork, and Aphex Twin when your average teenager was grooving to Hanson and the Spice Girls.
The outsiders always love the music that will, in subsequent years, be beloved by influential musicians and critics; it will be the culture the culture of the future actively revisits. This is true of Television as much as it is of music. The one 1990 television show that inspires compulsive viewing from a 2016 audience of multi-generational Netflix fans is David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
I remember loving Twin Peaks when it first aired, in April of 1990. For a few months, it was a media sensation because people had never seen anything weird on television before. But there was an irony lost on most of it’s viewers. It’s first season wasn’t really all that weird. It was just a creative take on a television genre (the night time drama) that was typically predictable, wooden, badly written, badly shot, and badly acted. It wasn’t a strange item on network television because of it’s surrealism (it was more quirky and intriguing than surreal). It was unusual mostly because it was just very good.
Twin Peaks didn’t become truly bizarre until the beginning of it’s second season. That’s when it became something like a typical David Lynch film; the sort of film nearly every film buff reveres today. But this was not the case in October of 1990. As soon as Twin Peaks became genuinely freaky; as soon as it became the very thing people supposedly loved it for being, they mostly hated it. It became a joke. Most of it’s initial fans went back to their preferred, critically-acclaimed night time TV dramas, China Beach and Thirtysomething.
Do you remember Thirtysomething?
I didn’t think so.
But you may remember this cultural artifact from that same year.
At the time “Ice Ice Baby” was released, it was the enfant-terrible of pop music’s ultra-mainstream. In the autumn of 1990, Vanilla Ice was like Elvis; the generation defining bad boy of modern pop music. Thankfully, he was soon eclipsed by Kurt Cobain the following year. Vanilla Ice quickly became a joke, much like Twin Peaks. 1991 was an important year in pop music because for the first time in over a decade, a rock God seemed to have an active dislike of the ultra-mainstream. I was never a fan of Nirvana’s music, but they did have one quality I respected: They wrote songs about how most kids like really shitty music, most of the time.
Kurt and company understood that young people were rarely the vanguard of edgy culture. After Vanilla Ice, you couldn’t really trust youth culture’s musical sensibilities. The relationship between music fans and pop was starting to feel like an abusive one. Nirvana (and alternative music generally) temporarily restored some faith in my generation’s taste. But that was before Kid Rock. Before Limp Bizkit. Before 9/11. But then the internet replaced the TV and radio as the sources by which people heard about (and got excited by) new music. Pop became disentangled from youth. Now, pop musicians are typically 30 somethings. Middle aged and young people listen to much of the same music. The time to “settle down” with career and family has been delayed about 10 years.
Meanwhile, Nirvana’s disdain towards the ultra-mainstream is just the mainstream of serious critical opinion. The ultra-mainstream of the past, if enjoyed at all retrospectively, is referred to with terms like “cheesy pop.”
Normal people (i.e people who aren’t hardcore music fans) hear cheesy pop in office cubicles, played inbetween Ed Sheeran songs. They learn about music the way I did when I was a kid; from the radio and TV. They don’t make their own Spotify playlists. They might (Shock! Horror!) see a band on Graham Norton and then download that band’s album from itunes. They may even bond with their kids over Beyonce (but not Rhiannon). Many of them own a Peter Andre CD from the 2000s. Sometimes when they’re lonely, they touch it.
I hope (with all my heart) that these people enjoy themselves. I don’t hate cheesy pop, the way I did when I was a kid. I’m indifferent to it. But as a young person, I thought it was symbolic of the dumbing down of mass culture. Now, I understand the obvious truth I couldn’t see then; plenty of intelligent and kind people like Vanilla Ice. I can’t look down on them anymore than I can look down on people who wear toe shoes. When I look down, all I see are my own shoes. Hence, I prefer to look ahead.
In looking ahead, I’m interested in what music afficionados find loveably cheesy and what they just find stupid, as time goes on. Sometimes I’m confused by their choices. Today for instance, many people who know good music have a fondness for “She Drives me Crazy” by the Fine Young Cannibals. To each their own.
To me, this song sounds badly made, badly performed, and generally ridiculous. A lot of it’s fans agree. Yet they can forgive these qualities, because it reminds them of a time and a place. Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” is another story. That song still produces genuine hostility, maybe because it reminds people of a time and place they wish they could forget.
Whether you liked either song in 1990, you heard both if you had any exposure to mass media. There was no online music service where you could only listen to music reccomended to you by people who shared your tastes. You couldn’t wrap yourself in a musical bubble of your own creation. You had to drive to record stores. Sometimes, you bought an album just because you liked the musician. And sometimes it was just because you liked the album cover. You had no idea what it would sound like. It was always a surprise. Imagine that!
As a kid, I used to wonder if there was a great pop band out there that I would never know about; a band I would love if I ever (improbably) had a chance to hear them. I imagined it being a band that few people had ever heard of, a band that wasn’t signed on a major record label, and who maybe recorded from their garage. I’d sometimes wonder if this was the band making the pop record that would most artfully capture the zeitgeist of our time; an historically important album no one (ironically) would get to listen to.
Then I grew up and online music happened. I found a band like this called Knower, with the main difference being you can hear them quite easily.
I love this band because, more than any other pop act I know of, they always surprise me. Every one of their songs makes me look at “that kind of song” in a new way. Sometimes it’s because of the unusual and evocative jazz harmony they employ. Sometimes it’s because a song will have layers of sound juxtaposed against lyrics that add an exciting dimension to the emotions in the timbres. Sometimes it’s because the band effortlessly sways between the fun, the melancholy, and the weird. Whatever they do, they always manage to have that elusive quality so much mainstream and art pop lacks: when you hear their songs, you want to nod your head and sing them (even if, like me, you can’t sing). That’s the highest compliment I can give a pop group. The only two other bands that make me want to sing (badly) this much are The Police and the Beatles.
Knower consists of Genevieve Artadi and Louis Cole, two of the most creative and skilled pop musicians working today. Unlike what you might expect upon hearing their music, these two are not rich and famous. They are not signed to a major label. They write and record music in their home. They talk to their fans on Facebook (without fear). And although they make money through gigs and sales, most of the time, you can listen to their music on the internet for free.
Unlike both the Police and the Beatles, most people today don’t know who they are. Even people who would be huge fans if they did. Pop music fans aren’t discussing Louis Cole’s corn dog outfit or what Genevieve Artadi had in mind when she made the music for that promo where a giant penis blows up the world. Instead, pop lovers are talking about Beyonce and Lady Gaga and (especially) Taylor Swift. Because this discourse happens primarily on the internet, chatting about these musicians is more than simply discussing their music with fans. People want to be friends with their favourite pop musician. Some people even want Taylor Swift to send them Christmas presents. They want this because occassionally, she does.
As far as I know, no one has asked Genevieve or Louis for Christmas presents. I don’t think most fans would want either of them to have to spend more money. Genevieve and Louis are not beloved, billionaire celebrities. Moreover, you can actually play their music on Spotify. They’re not afraid to lose money if you hear it and share it with your friends. If you’re a fan, they don’t patronise you. They don’t pretend you’re their best friend and try to make you cry on film, as a testament to their greatness. Genevieve and Louis are thus far more contemporary than Taylor Swift. Trying to become a Christ-like figure to your fans is so 20th century. It’s so Oprah. It’s so 1989.
Comparing Knower’s Life album to Taylor Swift’s 1989 is a bit like being alive in 1967, comparing Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to Somewhere my Love by Wayne Newton.
Actually, it’s more like an alternate 1967 where the Beatles are an unsigned band, recording bootleg reel-to-reel tapes in some abandoned warehouse in Liverpool. Wayne is a global superstar. John and Paul have day jobs, working at a museum. George drives a cab. And Ringo can’t get hired as a band teacher at a private school. He interviews for state schools, instead.
I make this analogy because we should pause to remember all the things Sgt Pepper was (and is). It’s not just a great pop album; it’s a generational touchstone. It’s not a generational touchstone merely because it skillfully engages with the concerns and aesthetics of the hippie culture. It’s a touchstone because it turns that engagement into pop wizadry; music magic which effortlessly conjurs a giddy, precisely detailed carnival ride of sound that makes it’s questions come alive in your ears. It does this through a combination of wilful elusiveness and wink and nod showmanship.
Most impressively, Sgt Pepper isn’t quite what its supposed to be. It’s not a typical record of that acid drenched period between the British Invasion and Prog. It’s not a cliché. It’s not Jim Morrison. But there is a framing (and re-framing) of those sensibilities; an endlessly creative zest for playful, carefully constructed, and accessible re-imaginings of what a pop song is. Sgt Pepper is both surreal and catchy, high brow and head banging, and it manages to be furiously fun without you ever really figuring it out. It’s tender and mournful in moments, and no matter where you are in the record, everything feels very loving; like music made by kindly uncles walking you through an amusement park, giggling and making faces at you.
In this way, Sgt Pepper both captures the mercurial creativity of it’s time, and aspects of that creativity which express the grand mysteries of pop music; like pop’s ability to be sad and uplifting, joyous and strange, and yes, rock and pop at the same time. As Sgt Pepper’s final track ends in an abstract swirl of tense, other-worldly noise, it doesn’t matter whether or not you get 1967. Sgt Pepper gets you. And then it gives you 67, as if it might as well be 2016. Sgt Pepper makes it’s perspective feel palpable, like it’s part of the present you live in, no matter where or when that present happens to be.
But here’s what’s important: In spending all this time describing Sgt Pepper, I’m not just describing that album. I’m also (mostly) describing Life, the new Knower album. It’s that fucking good!
Although it sounds worlds apart from the Beatles, Knower exude the same visionary sensibility as the record that gave the world A Day in the Life.
Like that record, Life contains immaculate production design combined with parodoxes; songs that are both zany and earnest, ironic and heartfelt. Some of them are funny. And some of them make you want to cry. But unlike the Beatles, Knower are great with clever chord progressions and electronica grooves. Coming fifty years later, they have a much richer history of pop to draw on.
Like their fab four predecessors, Genevieve and Louis have crafted a compelling, highly detailed music that captures something fundamental about being alive at the time in which they record. It’s a pop music about life in the social media age; with all the jaded boredom, political cynicism, and surprisingly timeless tribulations of love, not to mention the difficulties crafting an internet based career without expectations of fame and fortune. Of course, many electronica influenced pop albums deal with similar themes. What seperates Life from the rest is it’s artistry; the confidence and creativity on display as it careens from the first track to the last. Like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Kraftwerk, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Nine Inch Nails, Bjork, Apex Twin, and Marilyn Manson, there’s a sense, when listening to it, that it’s re-inventing music you’ve heard before. And in the process of doing so, it’s also making a statement about what it’s like to hear music today.
That, of course, is yet another of Knower’s paradoxes. They’re not making a universal statement. It’s not a statement about what its like to be ANY old boring son of a bitch who works in an office somewhere. It’s a statement about what it’s like to be a creative person, wearing your heart on your Facebook threads and bandcamp posts. It’s about being an artist who may work in the same office as the boring son of a bitch, but who at night, can create the most amazing art with a laptop and a copy of Garage Band (in the garage, no less).
Today, this is counter-culture. Unlike the 20th century, it’s no longer gender benders or drug takers or people who choose to love 2 people rather than one. It’s not people who hate bankers or who want to halt the developing world’s industrialisation so they can save the planet. It’s not nudists or vegans or people who like to wear gimp masks and be spanked. It’s not otherkins. It’s not even fat people. It’s artists who aren’t rich and famous, but who are good at what they do, who manage to do what they do (without starving).
These people often look normal. You could be standing next to one at Starbucks, waiting for an iced caramel macchiato. Or YOU might be this person, yourself. You might have a beloved fan base of people who adore your work, even though you blend in with society on the streets, rarely, if ever, being recognised.
This is the new hippie. This is the new punk. Hippies and punks are old school. The new counter-culture doesn’t announce itself as such. It doesn’t have a uniform. That’s so 20th century.
Great artists are always one step ahead. Being one step ahead often means being unknown, except for the people in your own little corner of the world. They come to see you because you’ve made that corner magical. And if you’re lucky, they may even give you some magic of their own: money.
Here are the 1st 3 tracks from Life.
If you want to hear the rest, you can listen to it for free here.
If you’d like to hear another Knower album, it would be a good idea to buy this one. Paul McCartney and Ringo Star don’t actually need your money. Neither does Taylor Swift.