The show opened with lights. Bright, colorful lights projected toward the audience and flooded the Beacon Theater with red. Band members Joe Newman (guitar/lead vocals), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards/vocals) and Thom Green (drums) were backlit black forms. The audience members were eagerly hovering above their seats in silence. Then, in unison, the band members smoothly sang the words “Tra, la, la, la.” Their melodic voices diffused throughout the room like the hazy lighting. The audience’s roar added to thick sound. I was enveloped by alt-J.
Alt-J played a sold out performance of their new album, This is All Yours with some singles from their old album An Awesome Wave at the Beacon Theater on November 16th. Alt-J is considered an “indie rock” band. This category is extremely broad and diverse, and alt-J explores it constantly with their unusual, experimental sounds. Indie rock is defined by its non-specificity because most of its adherents tend to mix and match genres and create “noise” previously unheard of, and thus uncategorized. Alt-J is a mixologist of sound. Most of their songs do not follow the typical verse-chorus form of popular music. Their music fluctuates from one tempo to another, combines unusual sounds, and refuses catchy beats. The lyrics seem to float among the sounds, drifting in and out.
The unique noises projecting from Newman’s guitar affected the audience. One cannot “dance” to an alt-j song. Audience members were swaying, pulsing, twitching, thrashing. My friend and I both woke up the next morning with sore necks. Thom Green’s aggressive symbol playing in Breezeblocks enraptured us and apparently compelled us to whip our heads back and forth on each note. Unconventional music causes an unconventional response.
Allmusic.com defined indie rock as “free to explore sounds, emotions, and lyrical subjects that don’t appeal to large, mainstream audiences- profit isn’t as much of a concern as personal taste.” Indie music isn’t necessarily unique; it just has a freedom that allows it to be eccentric if the artist chooses to be. It is independent from large, imposing music corporations. Due to the exploratory, experimental nature of indie music, it doesn’t always find commercial success. But when it strikes the right chord that resonates with mainstream audiences, it revolutionizes music.
Is pop music, then, simply a music-for-profit industry? Popular music seemingly adheres to strict guidelines of what is catchy, marketable, and appealing to as many people as possible. It blares a certain beat that a listener can bob her head to, but that does not necessarily have meaningful lyrics or a unique sound. Record company behemoths mass-produce music, so they are not concerned about the artistic worth of every beat. The popular music produced by such companies is more of a moneymaking machine than music. If pop music is more concerned with profit and less concerned with the artist’s tastes, is there really such thing as a pop “artist?” Or are pop singers really just music entrepreneurs trying to make money, not art? It is after watching performances like alt-J’s that are so unique, so divergent from the noise that popular radio stations emit daily, that one can see the soullessness and cultural worthlessness of pop music. It is true that popular music makes a distinctive mark on culture, but it does not necessary challenge it in the way that unusual, abnormal music does. It is a product of culture rather than a producer. If songs never diverged from the formulaic, catchy beats produced by influential record companies, music culture would never change or progress. However, pop singers are not talentless. They just use their talent to create capital and entertainment, not stimulating, interesting, thought-provoking art.
Alt-J is valuable to pop culture because they challenge it. It is necessary to deviate from mainstream culture in order to improve it. The margins chip away at the edges of society until they reach the middle and the progressivity that they practice can create a new modernity. Alt-J formed in 2007 but did not sell anything in America until 2012, and this year they played a sold out tour to American audiences. Alt-J became popular without following rote musical formulas. Their successful yet indirect path into the American music scene has altered popular music and forces rigid record companies to soften to creativity in order to compete with changing culture.
In the middle of the show alt-J played Matilda, one of my favorite songs from their album, An Awesome Wave. The band members belted out: “This is from Matilda” over and over with an alternating slow and fast tempo. They repeat that line fifteen times without really explaining who Matilda is or why this song is dedicated to her. But for some reason, I found myself screaming her name along with singer Joe Newman. The incessant repetition of this line combined with the movement from a slow, dramatic pace to a quick, impassioned pace creates a feeling that does not need to be explained with lyrics. Alt-J is typically stingy about lyrics; their music is more focused on sounds that have an emotive quality. Abstraction is generally an unattractive quality to mainstream culture so the fact that alt-J found success creating abstract music shows that it has an inexplicable appeal.
Alt-J’s music videos provide no more concrete explanation to the meaning of their songs. While alt-J’s music is abstract audibly, their music videos are abstract visually. For example, in the video for Hunger of The Pine, a man runs through the forest dodging a stream of arrows. Then arrows start to hit him; they pierce him over and over again but he continues to run away. His agony is contagious and the song’s effect is deeply unsettling for the viewer. The song has nothing to do with arrows or violence but is about the torment one feels when yearning for someone else. Alt-J uses violent imagery over ghostly sounds to allow the viewer to feel the song, not just hear it. The artist forces the listener to empathize with him.
My friend and I were in awe after the concert. We had just spent about two hours experiencing alt-J’s torment, anger, anguish, and elation. The show ended with white, ecstatic lights that mimicked the passion of Breezeblocks. The fervent crowd cheered as they flailed wildly to the music. The band belted out the final lyrics, “Please don’t go, I’ll eat you whole, I love you so, I love you so, I love you so” and after Newman, Hamilton and Green walked off the stage, I felt like saying the same thing.
Feature photo source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alt-J#mediaviewer/File:Alt-J_performing_April_2013.jpg