With A Spatula In Her Hand

R-Kelly2

My friend Marius Libman makes music under the name Copy. He’s vaguely successful, at least critically – if you’re not familiar with Copy’s music, imagine Giorgio Moroder italo-disco jams made using slightly older software so that it sounds somewhat grainy and 8-bit. Occasionally, Marius will illicitly remix the work of a famous recording artist and the indie label he’s on will release a mixtape on compact disc of these songs.

This is how I came to like some of the music of R. Kelly. I am fully aware that his music is stupid and that a healthy third of his lyrics do not actually rhyme (or to be more accurate, he repeats the same words a lot). If you’ve ever seen his recorded commentary for his epic video magnum opus Trapped in the Closet, one cannot deny that Mr. Kelly is the opposite of an erudite, well-spoken individual. His music is tawdry at the best of times and just god-awful at others.right 1A friend of mine named Dave*was Mr. Kelly’s personal assistant for a year, and apparently Mr. Kelly is more or less illiterate. This rumor has been circulating for years, and I was happily surprised to see that Mr. Kelly mentioned it in passing to the crowd at a Chicago youth event in an auditorium a few years ago.
Also interestingly, Dave has a boyfriend also named Dave.
Their names have been changed to protect their identities, but their names actually are both the same. This probably does them no good, as it’s rare enough to find two people who are dating who have the same name, but at least they’re not in Chicago.

That being said, he is tenacious and full of enthusiasm and passion for his work – as well as having hooks, hooks, hooks. It’s the kind of thing I never would have sought out intentionally, but I’ve found it infecting my iPod again and again on the way to work, as well as on my computer’s playlist. They are not synched.

This same thing happened with R. Kelly’s on-again/off-again collaborator Jay-Z a number of years ago. I’d intentionally ignored his music for years, but enough friends with good taste kept bugging me to check out The Black Album. I did, despite my loathing of the Annie sample that propped up Jay-Z’s breakout hit “Hard Knock Life” years earlier, and found myself hooked, deeply, for the span of a year or so – most intensely in the summer after I had finished grad school. That same summer found me trying to apply my highfalutin’ ideas about graphic design that were reified through the postgraduate experience with cold, hard, American capitalism in Los Angeles. I had a fair amount of luck, though primarily through dogged determination.

I hunted high and low for clients sympathetic to my cause with a constant Jay-Z soundtrack, and one resultant collaboration was with the fine artist and art educator David Schafer. David creates a lot of artwork that has a springboard in sampling both the audio output of artists like Yanni and Kenny G, as well as their visual likenesses. We connected about highbrow music – we both collected Moog records at one point – David having a vast collection and my focus being solely on the recordings of Yann Tomita. right 2This is not true of “Trapped In the Closet” Parts 1-22. At the time of this writing, Part 23 is as-yet unreleased.

 

Months after working together, David asked me: “What have you been listening to lately?”, and I confessed – just Jay-Z, day-in and day-out. It seemed to befuddle him. I had a rudimentary understanding of avant-garde/’thinking persons” musics, yet deliberately chose to listen to the most stupid shit possible. right 3Primarily because they were rife with samples for the kind of DJ Krush/Slabco rip-off electronic music that I was unsuccessfully making at that time.

This has happened time and time again. My Facebook profile reads “Graphic designer residing in Tokyo with questionable taste in music”. It’s true – when given the choice between listening to something that is definitely “good” or something that is catchy/awkward/uncomfortable, I go for the latter almost every time. Proof of music of questionable taste played in the last week alone:

1. R. Kelly
2. Kool G Rap
3. Skull Kontrol
4. The Wasted
5. RA the Rugged Man
6. Dododdodo
7. Infest
8. Tight Bro’s From Way Back When
9. Thirstin Howl III
10. Nitro Microphone Underground

I would define none of these musical acts with the quantifier “good”. They have not risen to the top in terms of good taste, nor are most of their albums worth a sustained listen. They have a few quirky songs, which I am fond of for assorted reasons, but as a whole, they cannot be holistically defined as worth further exploration. The few songs I have are good enough. Further research leaves me feeling deflated and unsatisfied.

 

And this is the tough thing about Experimental Jetset – I know that they are also not “great”, but I cannot help liking what they do. They are master formalists at expressing themselves within a very tight, predefined visual rubric, and that’s all well and nice, but the conceptual angle they bring into play in their work, particularly their self-initiated/gallery-oriented projects, is informed with a wit, acerbic sweetness and playfulness that I can’t help but like. And I may go to critic hell for this, but that’s ok. I’d rather have a drunken chat with R. Kelly or the members of Experimental Jetset than with most graphic design critics anyway.right 4Try it sometime – find your local design critic and have a few drinks – you may come away smarter, but did you have a good time? Investment in cultural communication should include a certain amount of joy, even if it’s the type that’s completely knowable, and that cheer is something that many critics lack.

At the same time, Experimental Jetset’s work is often a letdown over time – as clear and fresh as it appears at first, prolonged attention finds that their individual projects offer little in terms of visual depth, complexity and multiple layers of meaning. Almost everything about their work is revealed upon the first viewing. Their work lacks a robustness that commands repeat viewing, and in that way, tends to operate in the same way that tight pop songs do – they just get stuck in your head. There is something there, but it lacks the formal tendencies of less puritanical musics – works that make you sit and ponder. There is little sonic dissonance or ambiguity. The instruments were jacked straight into a ProTools rig instead of being filtered through the chance processes of more analog means. In this sense, it is more akin to the work of contemporary pop musicians (and this accusation could be leveled at just about anyone operating within the realm of commercial popular music at present).

This week has also found me listening repeatedly to the music of EJ’s Dutch kinsfolk The Ex, particularly their collaborative album with cellist Tom Cora Scrabbling At The Lock. The album was released in 1991, the same year that I graduated from high school and picked it up at a small independent record store in upstate New York. This album has offered something of sustained interest over the past twenty years of sporadic listening – aspects of sonic murkiness, production-wise, offer questions instead of direct answers, combined with virtuoso-like performance on an instrumental level. The lack of clarity presents something converse to the clear, definite, highly-compressed tones of R. Kelly’s work of even a few years past or Copy’s remix work. Both have faded from being immediately fashionable, though there is a resonance in the work of The Ex that will most likely continue for another twenty years, while R. Kelly’s work will just be noted in my mind as a passing blip in the continuum of odd music that I’ve engaged with over the years.

And in this way, it’s almost moot to be asked a question such as “What is for you Experimental Jetset?” It doesn’t matter what I think – popular taste will flatten the thoughts of individuals like a garbage truck. Popular taste has already determined that they are “good”, and any dissenting opinion, even one that accedes that Experimental Jetset are “just okay” will garner one few ‘cool points’ in the court of public opinion.right 5Daft Punk are perhaps better analogues to EJ – their work is omnipresent within the popular realm of what is defined as “good” music at present. Disney has signed off on this, as well, with the advent of Daft Punk’s TRON soundtrack (and their over-the-top appearances in the film).
A few years ago, it was tough to hit a club without hearing their music (or Justice’s), but they’ve surpassed that to the point of mass acceptance on a much larger level (i.e.: Michael Jackson). In essence, it doesn’t matter what one thinks about Daft Punk – you’ll just be subjected to it anyway. And this is how I really feel about Experimental Jetset – it’s just kind of there. It’s prevalent and accepted. I never would have given this much thought to their work on my own, but the question was posed and I answered as holistically and truthfully as I could.¬
¬ I also think Michael Jackson sucked.
But then again, you asked.


Ian Lynam is a graphic designer based in Tokyo. He is faculty in the MFA Graphic Design program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and adjunct faculty at Temple University Japan.

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1. A friend of mine named Dave*was Mr. Kelly’s personal assistant for a year, and apparently Mr. Kelly is more or less illiterate. This rumor has been circulating for years, and I was happily surprised to see that Mr. Kelly mentioned it in passing to the crowd at a Chicago youth event in an auditorium a few years ago.
Also interestingly, Dave has a boyfriend also named Dave.
Their names have been changed to protect their identities, but their names actually are both the same. This probably does them no good, as it’s rare enough to find two people who are dating who have the same name, but at least they’re not in Chicago.
2. This is not true of “Trapped In the Closet” Parts 1-22. At the time of this writing, Part 23 is as-yet unreleased.
3. Primarily because they were rife with samples for the kind of DJ Krush/Slabco rip-off electronic music that I was unsuccessfully making at that time.
4. Try it sometime – find your local design critic and have a few drinks – you may come away smarter, but did you have a good time?
5. Daft Punk are perhaps better analogues to EJ – their work is omnipresent within the popular realm of what is defined as “good” music at present. Disney has signed off on this, as well, with the advent of Daft Punk’s TRON soundtrack (and their over-the-top appearances in the film).
A few years ago, it was tough to hit a club without hearing their music (or Justice’s), but they’ve surpassed that to the point of mass acceptance on a much larger level (i.e.: Michael Jackson). In essence, it doesn’t matter what one thinks about Daft Punk – you’ll just be subjected to it anyway. And this is how I really feel about Experimental Jetset – it’s just kind of there. It’s prevalent and accepted. I never would have given this much thought to their work on my own, but the question was posed and I answered as holistically and truthfully as I could.¬
¬ I also think Michael Jackson sucked.

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