Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Art of the Pastiche

Tremendous oversight, perhaps, or just post-(re-)moving, I have neglected this vehicle of thought for far too long, probably.  But here I am, again, and now I am ready to hit the road again (as far as writing on here is concerned).  I've actually been meaning to write this entry for awhile now (a very long while, come to think of it), so here it finally is.


All music is derived.  Yes, it's true.  No artist is completely original.  Not even the Beatles.  Shocking?  Perhaps to some, but it's the truth.  Most artists try to brand themselves as entirely unique: after all, if you're the first one there, you're at least going to get the title of "progenitor of ______ genre," if not "Godfather and King of _______ genre."

But what of the musical pastiche?  Surely no one would ever consider engaging themselves in the art of the pastiche if it got one nowhere.  Utterly useless.  However, music is luckily one of those things where as long as it's good, it's good.

I suppose I should clarify as to what a musical pastiche is.  A pastiche is basically an artistic work which borrows heavily from themes present in earlier works.  So a musical pastiche is simply some work (song, obviously in the context here) that borrows heavily from other themes.

How does one make a pastiche not come across as a trite, meaningless wankery?  Well, the obvious key is that it simply has to be a good song.  While not very helpful in the sense of getting to the heart of a good pastiche, it's true.  It has to be a good song more than anything else.  However, a few identifying characteristics:

1. As a musical pastiche, you can borrow heavily from a certain style or genre, but please, never make it a complete ripoff.  Not only would you get your bum sued in a second (lawyers are prone to do that these days) but you'd also be derided in critical circles as nothing but a copycat...which may or may not be true given the circumstances.
2. The song should attempt to align with the genre's characteristics as much as possible.  While this sounds exactly like the first point, it actually travels a lot deeper than that.  Say you're doing a music hall pastiche (will come back to this later, too...).  Do you write lyrics that would befit a Joy Division song?  No sir, music hall is lighthearted.  Singing about how the world is a heartless place like that would do no good for your song.  Do you make your song sound like music hall?  Of course, or else it wouldn't be called a pastiche of music hall.  It would be just some derivation of music hall, and who could be credited with a sub-genre if you do so.  But that's not the point.
3. The pastiche is usually outside of the grasp of the artist's usual work, but by no means should the genre pastiched be too far out of the ordinary.  This means someone, like Arcade Fire, for example, cannot dabble into rap-rock and get away with calling it a pastiche.
4. Every pastiche is essentially a tribute to the source material, and should thus do it proud in some way.

There are few rules to the art of pastiche, but it's incredibly hard to pull off without coming across as meaningful and honest.  A couple that come to mind are explained below:

The Beatles is chock full of pastiches, but McCartney is probably the most willing (or perhaps guilty, depending on your attitude towards the man) when it comes to pastiches.  "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" was a sendup of reggae, while "Martha My Dear" and "Honey Pie" were the sendups of music hall (see?  It returns).  "Honey Pie" is perhaps the best example.  Stealing everything from lyrical plot to soundscape, it is unmistakably music hall.  Yet, it is a whimsical tune that stands well and still sounds unmistakably like a Beatles song.  While perhaps sticking out like a sore thumb on other records (other Beatles records, even), it integrates remarkably well into the record (perhaps because the album itself is essentially many different pastiches, it blends into the woodwork, being one itself).

A more modern example of effective pastiches:

James Murphy has been sticking pastiches on most of his LCD Soundsystem records.  "Never As Tired As When I'm Waking Up" was a straight send-up of the Beatles in their the Beatles era, drawing heavily from tunes like "Dear Prudence" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."  However, James Murphy as LCD Soundsystem never pastiche-d as boldly as they did on This Is Happening.

"Drunk Girls" is as it sounds: a song about drunk girls.  Musically, it's almost indistinguishable from the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat."  Spiritually, they're the same: the omnipresent theme of self-discovery and self-fulfillment, one via drugs and one via getting it on.  Out of the two major pastiches on the record, this is perhaps one the more "shameless" pastiches of the three on the record (the third, not discussed here, is "Somebody's Calling Me," a song that essentially cops Iggy Pop's magnificent "Nightclubbing"), but the song is too raucous and joyful to submit to cheapness.

"All I Want" is the true pastiche on the record.  If you've listened to David Bowie's track "Heroes," you know it's probably one of the greatest songs, ever.  "All I Want" is Murphy's attempt at distilling what makes "Heroes" so damn good and make it his own...and Murphy does find success.  It's a somber affair overall in "All I Want," but the feeling of catharsis that is somehow pulled off makes the song one of the most affecting in LCD Soundsystem's catalog, and is what allows "All I Want" to even hold a candle to "Heroes."

With such blatant callbacks to particular songs on the record, James Murphy certainly put those songs in danger of being completely meaningless and underwhelming.  Perhaps it's a testament to his skills as an artist and songwriter that he managed to avoid frivolity from happening at large.

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