by Cara S. Greene
In Chapter XV of his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argued that there is no such thing as purely passive spectatorship, that distraction and concentration have always been the mutually dependent and necessary conditions for interacting with art. He claimed that the spectator is always “using” and “perceiving” an artwork at the same time, and that habituated or incidental interactions with artworks are “true” modes of encountering them. Still, there’s a difference between actively considering an artwork and looking past it; even though artworks can be “absorbed” in different ways, passive engagement can be analyzed as a phenomenon in its own right. In fact, due to the proliferation of music production and exhibition in the last century, passive spectatorship--passive listening in particular--has become its own mode of artistic engagement, both theoretically and in practice. No longer confined to the concert hall, radio, or recording studio, music has become part of the experiential tableau, making passive listening, or at least sensory juggling, practically unavoidable. Combined with the deluge of new artistic material via social media and internet journalism, increased multitasking and shorter attention spans have changed the way contemporary listeners respond to musical subtleties. The music industry has kept pace by inventing gimmicks, such as “visual albums” like Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which offer simultaneous audio and video simulation. Sampling practices have become more indulgent, with artists recycling overt hooks from chart-toppers of the recent past, e.g., Jason Derulo’s allocation of Imogen Heap’s 2005 hit “Hide and Seek” in his song “Whatcha Say” (2010), or Robin Schulz’s use of Baby Bash’s earworm “Suga Suga” (2003) in his song “Sugar” (2015). Music’s techno-cultural swell has also prompted an artistic backlash: Macintosh Plus and Napalm Death, illustrative of the genres vaporwave and grindcore, respond to “passivity” itself, the former by exploring the aesthetic dimensions of relaxing enjoyment, and the latter by abrasively rejecting it.
Though the music of Beyoncé and Napalm Death represent two extreme ways of engaging with passive listening, the entire spectrum of popular music has had to reckon with the phenomenon. For instance, contemporary indie music falls somewhere between acquiescence and revolt. In his speech “Indie Goes High-Tech,” music writer Adam Harper explains that today’s college radio station is having an identity crisis: the old “Indie Aesthetic”--described as “low tech,” “naive,” “childlike,” “archaic,” “benign,” and “warm”--is being phased out along with the production techniques it arose from, and replaced with the “High Tech Aesthetic”: “glossy,” “metallic,” “technologically enhanced,” “complex,” “decadent,” “excessive,” and “almost aggressive.” In spite of this stylistic polarization, as well as the spectator’s diminished capacity to detect and appreciate musical details, some artists, like New York dance-prog band TEEN, have combined conventionality with nuance.
A distracted listener might deem TEEN’s music another addition to the millennial generation’s party playlist and dismiss or embrace it as such. This kind of diagnosis is attributable to the band’s reliance on synthpop conventions: drum samples, simple looped phrases, pitch bends, playful yelping, and floaty falsetto. These stylistic elements are the garments of ‘80s nostalgia, and TEEN—like countless other musicians today, both mainstream and marginal—reap the benefits of the analog synth’s value as a cultural relic. As a fairly standard feature of marketable music, TEEN’s electric harmonies could ostensibly find themselves on Urban Outfitters mixtape, administered by management to reinforce the brand’s cultural relevance and lubricate their consumer's shopping experience.
A critic might try to pluck TEEN from the growing heap of dance-pop bands and salvage their music by dissecting it scientifically. This active listener might suggest that not only is TEEN’s execution of electronic music conventions sophisticated and meticulous, but the band’s mainstream tendencies are often perforated by weird subtleties that break up the overall sound’s listenability. Take the single “Tokyo” from their new album, Love Yes: a conspicuous dance tune, “Tokyo”'s core is a clean, looped synth swinging in a 6/8 time signature. At various points throughout, the ease of the song is interrupted by digressions: blipping arpeggios—reminiscent of the intro to Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”—are layered on top of the synth undercurrent, syncopated quadruplet hits cut into the chorus, and the middle of the song opens up into an off-the-wall electronic effects solo, more evocative of Emerson, Lake & Palmer than CSS. The vocals and lyrical content are both catchy and clever. Doo-wop-style backup singing supports the lead vocals sung by Teeny Lieberson, who recounts the tragic-comedic story of a wife’s pursuit of physical agelessness to win back her estranged husband. All of these elements form a collage that captures the situation of women in the pop music industry; when creativity wears a flirty uniform, the seams can come apart. The song’s singularity manifests in these details, and their amalgamation distinguishes TEEN’s unique artistic style.
Though these identifying aspects are clearly discernable, they only stand out if you’re paying attention. If not, “Tokyo” can easily blend into the colorful spread of daily life, as a garnish rather than a dish in its own right. The fact is, music is everywhere, there’s a lot of it, and it’s always playing. Our growing disengagement with music-qua-music has galvanized audiophiles to “save” it from blind enjoyment and hasty judgment by explaining it. Culture and art critics write about music to effectively play it through a literary speaker, so that the work can be encountered and thought about in a different way. Writers isolate a cultural object to convince their readership to consciously (re)consider the work on its own, to acknowledge its particularity. While the passive listener may fail to hear what distinguishes the object, the critic tends to interpret or fetishize it, replacing the aesthetic experience with an intellectual one. The problem is, an art object is neither fully autonomous, independent of its social and ideological conditions, nor can it be discounted as simply a reproducible “thing,” prop, or tool. As Benjamin implies, it’s both. Consequently, the potential for a piece of music to function as an artwork hinges on the listener’s ability to pick up on the details that make it unique without removing it from its cultural and aesthetic context, and resist the critical temptation to dissolve it into discourse.