Historically speaking, music has had a tendency to follow the binary model of low art/high art. You had your complex arrangements and compositional experimentation for the more pretentiously (or at least intellectually) inclined, and your fun warbles for people who couldn’t care less and just wanted to dance. There were, of course, artists who blurred and straddled the line, but for the most part it held true – Ice Cube wrote with more complexity than Lil Jon, David Bowie was more experimental than Iggy Pop, and then there was Patti Smith and there was Cyndi Lauper.
Now, however, I see more and more artists moving between these two realms, and sometimes fusing them both within a single work. Take, for example, Adia Victoria.
Meet Adia Victoria: An Artist Expanding
Adia Victoria’s 2016 debut album Beyond the Bloodhounds contains a “gothic blues” sound that offers both depth and span. It combines an obvious lyrical and compositional intelligence that appeals to the literati with a charging country vibe that hooks those looking for nothing more than toe-tapping and foot-stomping.
While it only took me a listen to become a convert to the Adia Victoria faith, it seemed rather obvious where her subsequent work would take her. Either she would embrace the darker edge of her sound that can be heard notably in songs like “And Then You Die” and “Howlin’ Shame”, leading her down a kind of raw, almost post-punk path, or she would attempt to capture the airwaves with more traditionally countryfied, pop-friendly tunes like “Dead Eyes” or “Sea of Sand”. Neither path would be wrong, but neither would have been complex. It’s just that – when presented with two rather clear auditory persuasions – a musician usually chooses one or the other.
I did not see her follow-up EP How It Feels coming.
…that intelligence is still existing within a structure that will play to the footstompers. It has the danceability of a surf-rock release, but it also has the brains of a Jeunet.
How It Feels is comprised of one original and three covers (one by Serge Gainsbourg and two by Francoise Hardy), all of which are sung in French over arrangements that feel more like grandiose cabaret than country-dreampop.
If the selection of covers don’t give it away, let me say it explicitly – this is an art album. It’s got smarts through-and-through.
But that intelligence is still existing within a structure that will play to the footstompers. It has the danceability of a surf-rock release, but it also has the brains of a Jeunet. This is a smart work for smart people that can be listened to and enjoyed by everyone.
Increased Access for Artists and Audiences Alike
Geography, genre, social circles – these are losing meaning in a world where every artist can experience every sound; in a world in which listeners are no longer cornered by the radio.
That’s harder to do than you might think, and in fact the music industry has long struggled to keep the two in separate corners. They can market one, or they can market the other, but they don’t know how to succinctly pitch both. That’s part of the reason it took everyone so long to realize that Nine Inch Nails wasn’t just another heavy metal band. It’s hard to sell screams and smarts.
But we’re seeing it more and more. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., for example, jumps genres a dozen times and is so manifold and layered that its potential for deep analysis is virtually endless. At the same time, he can fill a stadium with people who can’t get enough of yelling “Be Humble, Sit Down!”
“We’re never allowed to spread out. We’re never allowed to be complex,” Victoria tells us in an short self-interview film she released alongside How It Feels. “And that’s why I make my art. That’s why I seek out different languages. Because I want to live a million lives before I die.”
While the hunger for complexity in art is certainly nothing new, the high art/low art lines are becoming increasingly blurred because of the access afforded by the internet. Geography, genre, social circles – these are losing meaning in a world where every artist can experience every sound; in a world in which listeners are no longer cornered by the radio.
We’re spreading out, at least in terms of taste. We’re becoming more complex, in everything from our artistic expectations to how we discover and consume music. And with our increasing access to perspectives not our own, each of us might get the opportunity to live a million lives, if only through song.
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