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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Real Bands? Fake Bands?

posted by on October 28 at 13:14 PM

Yesterday, in the comments to this post of Built to Spill doing a live cover of “Paper Planes” by M.I.A., there was some discussion about what exactly makes a “real” band.

Sam kicks things off with what I read as sarcasm:

that’s REAL music though, they’re using guitars and drums and stuff.

Kerri Harrop responds:

That song is a hit because of the Clash. The Clash, like Built to Spill, played real instruments.

Cosby breaks it down:

@7: the clash (played real instruments) = real
big audio dynamite (used drum machines) = fake

also, were kids really getting pumped up to ‘straight to hell’ before m.i.a.? it’s arguably one of the worst songs on arguably their worst album. ‘straight to hell’ would have retained b-side status if it weren’t for samplers, recontextualization, and futuristic fakeness.

It all dovetails nicely with this choice quote from Megan Seling’s interrogation of Against Me!’s Tom Gabel: “We’re not the Backstreet Boys. We’re a real band.”

Do drums and guitars a “real” band make? Are the Monkees “real” because they played guitars? And if drums and guitars are “real” instruments, which instruments are “fake”? What about composers who write music but don’t play it—are they “real”? Is Gabel right, is it merely a matter of writing one’s own songs? M.I.A. wrote “Paper Planes”; the Clash wrote “Straight to Hell”—so, they’re both “real”? How long of a sample do you have to use before you’re not a “real” band writing your own songs? Are Public Enemy “fake,” whereas James Brown is “real”? Are the songwriting teams that write the Backstreet Boys’ pop songs the “real” band? Or are the pop stars “real” for their ability to sing (surely the human voice is a “real” instrument, right)? Is attempting to parse “real” and “fake” in an artistic/commercial medium like pop music just a fucking ridiculous endeavor?

RSS icon Comments

1

Few things piss me off like 'guitars and drums and stuff' being the only instruments considered real. There's no such thing as a fake instrument. Songs played on a synthesizer are real songs.

Judge the song by the song, not the means of creation.

Posted by Abby | October 28, 2008 1:48 PM
2

When it gets down to it, they are all real. It's more shades of gray though than black and white. Bands feel more real when they play all their instruments, write their own songs, and have heart and soul to their music. They feel less real when they don't play their own instruments and/or have other people doing their song writing for them.

I don't think it's fair to throw Tom Gabel's quote into this comparison, he was talking specifically about the control a major label has over a band. A band like the Backstreet Boys, who were manufactured, were controlled by the label on who they worked with, songwriting, touring, etc. Whereas a band like Answer Me!, which started out as friends playing buckets on the street and paid their dues over a decade of playing small punk shows, writes all their own songs and picks the direction their music goes in. They have creative control when they are on a major (or so Gabel would argue and his critics would doubt).

Posted by dan10things | October 28, 2008 1:50 PM
3

If the Monkees were a "fake" band because studio musicians laid down the tracks on most of their hits, does that mean that the Sex Pistols were also a "fake" band because Sid Vicious couldn't play a goddamn note and had his parts filled in by an off-stage bass player at their live shows?

And where does "cred" fit in? (Haw! Just kidding.)

Look, the only thing "real" musicians get upset about is practicing for years and years to learn how to play an instrument, only to have some joker with a laptop step up, press "enter" and claim to be a "musician." It's like a printing press claiming to be a writer!

But from the listener's end, I don't know that there's much difference. So whatever.

Posted by flamingbanjo | October 28, 2008 1:52 PM
4

I think it's real if you like it. What does your heart say?

The more you put your original take on something, the less it approaches being someone else's.

Great post.

Posted by trent moorman | October 28, 2008 1:55 PM
5

If it moves you, that's all that matters.

Posted by Finn | October 28, 2008 1:59 PM
6

@3: The Sex Pistols were definitely a fake band. I've always referred to them as The Monkees of punk rock.

Posted by A | October 28, 2008 2:02 PM
7

Ah I love it when people start trying to define art!

Posted by Shilo Urban | October 28, 2008 2:07 PM
8

If no one in your "band" plays a live instrument (one that requires playing as opposed to having a play button), you are not in a band. You are in a "group" and, if you're the only one in it, you're probably just a "singer" or, at worst, a "performer" *(if you don't sing). For me, it goes band is greater than singer is greater than group is greater than performer. There are good to great examples of all of these, but there are more great bands than great singers, a moderate number of great groups and almost no good performers. If you are on stage with a laptop or turntables and no microphone, you are a performer. Don't fool yourself into thinking you're a band - just try to be a great performer. And good luck with that.

Posted by danmohr | October 28, 2008 2:15 PM
9

is the question 'what's a fake band' or 'what's a fake song' or 'what's a fake artist'?

define 'band'. then argue.

Posted by chops | October 28, 2008 2:27 PM
10

Dan Mohr for the win.

Posted by Jeff | October 28, 2008 2:33 PM
11

i could get on board with #8.

Posted by chops | October 28, 2008 2:35 PM
12

@9: Look at the quotes. Sam is talking about "REAL music." Kerri is talking about "real instruments." Gabel is talking about "real band[s]." Cosby is talking about "real" and "fake" full stop. We can argue about all of it.

Posted by Eric Grandy | October 28, 2008 2:36 PM
13

Also @9, as per the last paragraph of my post, there's more than one question...

Posted by Eric Grandy | October 28, 2008 2:43 PM
14

"There are no fake parts of America..."

If you can hear it, it's real. No matter the instrument, no matter the people and their skills. Fuck all that. I press play on my stereo and I'm a goddamn band all by myself and a real one at that.

Posted by hearing | October 28, 2008 2:59 PM
15

the thing about laptop music is that it still takes talent. it really is misguided to assume that "just pressing play" means the "performer" is a real musician. not any fool can get a show by just pressing play. they have to write material that has to be good enough to listen to. that often takes time, practice and luck -- maybe more of all three than being what is required to play one instrument in a band that also only plays locally.

that said, i understand the sentiment being accusing someone or something of being fake. i do feel that way about the backstreet boys, for instance. but what about bjork? or jagger?

Posted by infrequent | October 28, 2008 3:16 PM
16

@8:
with regards to pushing the 'play button', there was an excellent article from about a decade ago in a music magazine called 'sweater' where bjork stated that americans have trouble realizing that electronic music is not made by pressing one button though americans have no problem realizing that special effects in movies (she used the example of 'terminator 2' in the article) are not made by pressing one button, someone actually does a lot of work with computers to make it.

the art vs. entertainment arguement is a good one and should be debated here, but i'm not sure if its applicable in the discussion of real vs. fake musicianship. there are plenty of acoustic guitar comedy acts (*yawn*) that i don't think anyone would classify as art more than entertainment. art doesn't make something real and entertainment doesn't make something fake, in my opinion.

Posted by cosby | October 28, 2008 3:23 PM
17

Yes, a fucking ridiculous endeavor as you guessed at the end of that paragraph, Eric, and yet people have to be reminded of it.

Though there is a "rock and a pop aesthetic" to quote Joe from SST (I agree with about a lot of it).

But I think I like Suicide more than he did.

And we have a lot of (yes, local) bands that strain their rectums purple to appear queerly flippantly "authentic" but hold no entertainment value for me, so fuck art anyways.

Posted by Chris Estey | October 28, 2008 3:51 PM
18

oh, i ruined my whole post. it should have said, " it really is misguided to assume that "just pressing play" means the "performer" isn't a real musician.

it usually takes more work, talent, and musicianship to just press play than to strum your guitar and sing at an open mic night. yet, one seems "real" and the other "fake".

Posted by infrequent | October 28, 2008 3:53 PM
19

Yeah, some of those questions may have been rhetorical...

Posted by Eric Grandy | October 28, 2008 4:00 PM
20

I think electronica is real music, just as I think DJs play real music. Samples are real, and so are beats. Fuck, all music is real.

The point I was pushing yesterday had more to do with the fact that M.I.A.'s smash hit probably wouldn't be such a hit without the Clash.

I thought it was a little unfair to compare Built to Spill's cover of "Paper Planes" with the original. BTS actually know how to play the sample that makes that song great. M.I.A., to my knowledge, does not.

Posted by kerri harrop | October 28, 2008 4:30 PM
21

I agree with post 8.
When does the editing become the work of art? Is a producer tweaking the ProTools of my guitar tracks just doing the same as creating electronic laptop music?
There are far far more subtleties to crafting and shaping sounds from musical instruments (woods, strings, brass, reeds, keys, percussion) as far as human interaction, that twisting knobs or clicking a mouse.

Posted by D | October 28, 2008 4:33 PM
22

Really? I bet M.I.A. can play those three power chords.

And, although I never actually compared Built to Spill's cover with the original, I think all covers, by their very nature, invite such a comparison.

Posted by Eric Grandy | October 28, 2008 4:35 PM
23

Autechre sampling a chair leg snapping and manipulating the resultant sound into a glitch symphony >>>> infinite iterations of Jack Johnson earnestly strumming an acoustic guitar.

Fake/real in music is a spurious dichotomy that should've been ditched during Reagan's first term (come to think of it, so should've Reagan).

Posted by segal | October 28, 2008 4:45 PM
24

THERE IS NO SUCH THING. "Real" music is about the most subjective, vague, and pointless term *ever* invented for music. The only thing "real" is what the person feels when they hear it. You can't argue with a 12 year old kid that the Soldier Boy he's listening to is not "real". You can't argue to a 60 year old blues musician playing recycled riffs that his music isn't "real". If you feel it and it stirs something in you, that's all it matters. Fuck everybody else.

Excellent article, Eric. I always get fired up over debate topics like these, even though I pretend to be above it. ;)

Claims that people behind laptops are performers, not musicians strike me as some of the most ignorant music perspectives out there. So people experimenting with technology you don't understand doesn't qualify as "real"? Would you rather have hobbyists on accoustic powered instruments play regurgitated riffs that are poor reflections of their record collections? Is that "real" to you?

*All* music has merit. Your favorite musician probably listens to something you hate. If it made an impact in someone's life, then it has merit. If for any reason whatsoever it blips on your conscious, it had some impact to you. That's meritable.

And yep, things of merit are "real". Just because you don't like something, doesn't make it any less "real". Real is in the eye of the beholder.

Posted by Godsactionfigure | October 28, 2008 6:18 PM
25

I've seen more work put into loving music and constructed sample-based pieces than some punk bands put into their music. Yeah, i'ma have to say both are "real" though.

-j

Posted by a kid | October 28, 2008 9:14 PM
26

As far as just "pressing play," as an old-timey guitars and drums dude, I kinda feel like the laptop wizards and the plug-your-ipod-into-this D.I. guys have an unfair advantage when it comes to live performance: the music's going to be technically perfect (or as close to it as it was when it was being programmed/arranged/edited) and the same every time.

I'm not going to dispute that the Truckasaurus guys aren't talented. Obviously they are, even if they aren't my jam. But do they have callouses? Is there an electronic music equivalent of "Fuck, I broke a string, better move this arpeggio one string down and five frets up?" Is there an equivalent of practicing a solo for several weeks straight until you get it right?

Even if it doesn't make their music any less valid, from a songwriting and arranging perspective, I can see easily how a guitarist or a drummer who have worked really hard on their chops and stage presence and work hard as balls on getting through their entire set without fucking up can resent a dude who shows up and plugs an ipod into a D.I.

I think for the most part, when musician dudes gripe about people who "just press play," they aren't talking about people like Autechre or Bjork or Public Enemy, who are obviously hell of skilled and talented at what they do. They're talking about bottom-of-the-barrel crap like Leslie And The Lys.


Posted by J. Burns | October 28, 2008 10:59 PM
27

This is a dumb fucking argument for elitists and scenesters. If you like listening to it, who gives a shit? Am I worse than you because I like "fake" music?

Posted by urbancontra | October 29, 2008 7:12 AM
28

j burns -

1) bottom of the barrel electro crap still takes about as much (if not more) talent as botton of the barrel punk crap. in these cases the spirit is usually what is important.

2) some electro songs i've written i've slaved over for weeks to get right -- the equivalent of practicing -- and i have had things go wrong during live performances. i've had the "d" key go dead on my novation live. i've had a ms10 go out of tune, or just give up the ghost. i'm not sure recovering from bad luck is the sign of a real musician. different instruments require different talents.

Posted by infrequent | October 29, 2008 8:42 AM
29

ps -- the drummer for crystal castles last night sure had some talent for a just press play band... that was some serious click track action there. it's funny how electro bands get so much more cred for adding a live drummer.

Posted by infrequent | October 29, 2008 8:46 AM
30

i can understand the animosity that 'guitar and drum' acts have for laptop acts, but i don't think that difficulty equals enjoyability in a live context. i don't think that a one man band is musically better than a four piece rock band just because its harder to do. also, i will agree that laptop acts are typically more perfect in execution of their music and less expressive - just in the way the technology is currently, it's hard to have the same errors that guitarists have. there is no breaking a string, anything that goes wrong with laptops is typically a dire meltdown / showstopper. in that way, i don't think people listen to bootlegs of electronic acts live shows from city to city the way an obsessive fan would listen to rock acts to hear the nuances in each show - but the fact that electronic music shows don't have these slight differences from show to show doesn't make watching one show less enjoyable to me.

Posted by cosby | October 29, 2008 9:24 AM
31

Real is defined by the people making the music, not the instruments they play.

Posted by Rafael | October 29, 2008 11:41 AM
32

This argument is retarded.

Posted by Jeff | October 29, 2008 12:51 PM
33

A retarded argument? On the Internet?! I'm calling the authorities...

Posted by Eric Grandy | October 29, 2008 12:53 PM
34

back at you, #12.

Do drums and guitars a “real” band make?
musicians playing instruments together in the endeavor of creating music a band make.
an instrument is any device that produces musical sound. so a laptop can be an instrument.
an a capella vocal group is not a band, they are a group of performers.

Are the Monkees “real” because they played guitars?
yes. the monkees were a real band of poor to good musicians, playing together to create music. in addition to the four public-facing performers, the band 'the monkees' consisted of studio musicians that added instrumentation to recordings and live performances. not in the band, but a large part of the music-creation process, were a team of songwriters and producers.

And if drums and guitars are “real” instruments, which instruments are “fake”?
any device that produces musical sound is an instrument. a guitar, a trumpet, a laptop, a brick on a piano wire.

What about composers who write music but don’t play it—are they “real”?
yes. though i'd guess you'd have a hard time finding a composer that doesn't know how to play music.
maybe you know an example of a composer that sold a song by means of humming it to someone.

Is Gabel right, is it merely a matter of writing one’s own songs?
is what mereley a matter of writing your own songs?
a cover band is a band. and original band is a band.
a cover band is composed of musicians.
and original band is composed of musicians who also happen to be artists (songwriters).

M.I.A. wrote “Paper Planes”; the Clash wrote “Straight to Hell”—so, they’re both “real”?
yes.

How long of a sample do you have to use before you’re not a “real” band writing your own songs?
replace 'band' in this question with artist. and it's still subjective. you wind up trying to define art.
(is recreating a brillo box or campbell's soup label art or sampling?)


Are Public Enemy “fake,” whereas James Brown is “real”?
both are real.

Are the songwriting teams that write the Backstreet Boys’ pop songs the “real” band?
no, neither are a band. the songwriting teams are artists, while the boys are a group of performers.

Or are the pop stars “real” for their ability to sing (surely the human voice is a “real” instrument, right)?
they are real performers.

Is attempting to parse “real” and “fake” in an artistic/commercial medium like pop music just a fucking ridiculous endeavor?
yes. yes it is. please ignore everything above.

Posted by chops | October 29, 2008 1:29 PM
35

Wow. Really?

Posted by Eric Grandy | October 29, 2008 2:04 PM
36

Anyone who thinks "Straight To Hell" is boring has clearly never seen it used as an intro to a Pogues set.

Posted by Bryce Beamish | October 29, 2008 2:28 PM
37

yeah...

Posted by chops | October 29, 2008 2:35 PM
38
"Music is humanly organized sound, soundly organizing humanity."
-John Blacking
Posted by philip | October 29, 2008 3:32 PM
39
X-TREME 3D!
Posted by philip | October 29, 2008 4:03 PM
40

I stopped letting this argument keep me up at night in my early 20s. I suggest you do the same.

Posted by Dutch | October 30, 2008 8:20 AM
41

this conversation is asinine. are we in high school? the stranger is.

Posted by chunba | October 30, 2008 10:04 PM

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