New in the OC Weekly — a piece previewing next week’s VNV Nation concert

We were trying to work out an interview feature but the timing wasn’t there! So my piece is more of an overall introduction to VNV for those who may never have heard of ’em. The introduction:

Too often, all one has to do is utter a genre name, and the stereotypes fly forward. Say a band is “industrial,” and everything from people in black clothes beating on pipes to Trent Reznor wannabes comes to mind. In all cases, the image is of tortuous rage and depression.

That’s why VNV Nation, founded by Irish-born Ronan Harris and based out of Germany for many years, deserve far wider credit than they’ve received outside of their dedicated fan base. More than any other band tagged with the industrial moniker (purists consider them to be more of a sub-genre: EBM—“electronic body music”), VNV Nation match their relentless beats with a feeling of inclusive hope instead of solitary despair.

Can’t wait for next week!

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Listen to Listen Again — including me on VNV Nation

So I posted the transcript of my piece some time back but now you can hear the whole evening from everyone, as I learned in this e-mail from co-organizer and presenter Josh Kun:

this took longer than we had hoped, but the audio from the Redcat
event is now up at the site of The Popular Music Project at the
Norman Lear Center
check here–http://www.learcenter.org/html/projects/?cm=pmp/audio
and here– http://blog.learcenter.org/

we are working to get the lists of presenters on the site as well but
for now–

Elijah Wald, 1938
Neal Pollack, 1958
Josh Kun, 1962
RJ Smith, 1966
Oliver Wang, 1968
Janet Sarbanes, 1970
Alice Echols, 1971
Anthony Miller, 1971
Ann Powers, 1974
Judith Halberstam, 1980
Eric Weisbard, 1981

Pt 2
Oscar Garza, 1983
Karen Tongson, 1988
Christine Balance, 1993
Rod Hernandez, 1997
Randall Roberts, 2005
Robert Fink, 2006
Ned Raggett, 2007

Give it all an ear! There were some absolutely killer presentations and it was a treat to be a part of it all.

My presentation for Listen Again at Redcat on VNV Nation’s “The Farthest Star”

But first, a photo, taken by my friend Aileen — thanks again! — during my presentation. Blurry but I like blurry! The time in the background indicates how much time I had left.

Me presenting on VNV

And yes yes, all the 420 jokes, very clever. (If you don’t know what I mean by 420 jokes, be glad. Seriously.) Anyway, Redcat is a wonderful venue, the staff were sharp, professional and friendly — that’s Jeff there sitting next to me, keeping an eye on levels and raising and lowering the volume of the song as needed — and the whole experience, as mentioned earlier was grand. Lord knows I was nervous as hell while reading through it, but folks said I handled it all very smoothly. Perception is all!

So, here’s how to recreate the effect — load up VNV Nation’s Myspace page, which at the present time still has “The Farthest Star” as the lead single. As soon as it starts playing, read along in a measured fashion, with appropriate pauses noted. The whole idea of five minutes to present on a song grew out of what Joshua Clover called ‘critical karaoke’ — talking about a song during a song as it plays — so why not karaoke of critical karaoke? If you like.

The text below is as I wrote it, though I made a couple of on the fly changes, which are incorporated as I can recall them. Enjoy!

VNV Nation call themselves futurepop. This is important and I’ll yet explain why. But let’s talk about pop first, the way that this song, “The Farthest Star,” builds and begins with some pure pop drama.

*the beats begin*

The feeling is immediacy, a combination of things that are obvious, from trance, from industrial. It’s a big part of why I love it. So too with Ronan Harris’s voice and wonderfully obvious lyrics.

*Harris sings the first three lines of the song*

The words are almost designed to be written on a 10th-grade-textbook cover in a moment of boredom, to be quoted on a Myspace profile. It’s a combination of so many perfect tropes I still marvel at it, unironically – will to power, rising above yourself, confronting the ‘truth,’ self-motivation as reason for achievement. Harris’s speak-singing was once described by writer Josh Langhoff as the ‘impassive offspring of Neil Tennant and Craig Finn’, and all three of them love their anthems. Langhoff also noted that anthemic touch that makes things monumental in VNV’s best work – establish a pattern, then do something simple but effective to lift it higher. So that’s why the chorus works for me so well.

*Harris sings the chorus in full for the first time*

The imagery of the farthest star appeals to the astronomy buff in me, I admit – the one who watched Cosmos wide eyed as a young boy, listening to Carl Sagan speak on the reach and range of the universe. Electronic music formed the backbone of that series’ soundtrack, appropriately enough, but it was more of the contemplative variety, while elsewhere in my life disco rhythms could be heard all over the radio. So maybe everything about what VNV call futurepop is really just nostalgia, and I’m only reacting to a dead form – but then why were the thousands of people I saw at their show in June so whipped into a frenzy by the band, nearly all of them much younger than me? Why did I keep going back to their Myspace page and listening to this song again, and again, and again? It’s because they do know pop so well, as another dramatic moment like this shows:

*just after the second chorus, the music drops away to a quiet synth part and a soft delivery of a few lines by Harris*

In this moment of sudden restraint, space opens up…and then the future of futurepop comes to me, a sense of the future I dreamed of as an eighties kid, beats and synths and more somehow always looking ahead, driving outward. This song, more than any piece of art last year, reinspired me and reinvigorated me when it came to engaging with life, politics and more, a personal recharge that seeks to reach all the universe even though it never could. That the lyrics reference a ‘we,’ not an ‘I’ or a ‘you,’ may only be a dream of inclusiveness in the end but it’s a fantastic dream. And when the third chorus hits, I’m always left perfectly speechless.

*Harris sings the chorus for the third and final time*

A final teasing out of that astronomical metaphor, the sound swirls out slowly and slowly, trying to reach that end point, and trying to show and sound that there’s a reason to stand by your ideals, your loves, whatever they are. It’s simple, it’s basic, it’s glorious. And it is pop. Thanks very much!

And there you go!

So if you’re near USC on Jan. 22nd, I’ll be speaking there

As you can read here:

Ready, set, reinterpret! All pop music, past and present, is fair game on this night of live, rapid-fire music criticism as the members of a distinguished panel of writers, musicians and scholars have five minutes each to persuade the audience to reconsider a series of pop tracks — and find in them hitherto undiscovered pleasures. This high-spirited confab celebrates the publication of Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music, a collection of writings drawn from the Experience Music Project Pop Conference. Panelists include Ann Powers (Los Angeles Times), R.J. Smith (Los Angeles magazine), Oliver Wang (Soul-sides.com, CSU-Long Beach) and Ernest Hardy (L.A. Weekly), among others.

Full list of speakers:
Christine Bacareza Balance (UC Riverside)
Alice Echols (USC)
Robert Fink (UCLA)
Oscar Garza (Ciudad magazine)
Judith Halberstam (USC)
Ernest Hardy (LA Weekly)
Rod Hernandez (Cal State-Dominguez Hills)
Josh Kun (USC)
Anthony Miller (Los Angeles CityBeat)
Neal Pollack (alternadad.com)
Ann Powers (Los Angeles Times)
Ned Raggett (ILM-ILX website)
Randall Roberts (LA Weekly)
Janet Sarbanes (Cal Arts)
RJ Smith (Los Angeles magazine)
Karen Tongson (USC)
Elijah Wald (UCLA)
Oliver Wang (Cal State-Long Beach, Soulsides blog)
Eric Weisbard (editor, Listen Again)

Should be fun. 🙂 The song I will be presenting on is the one I’ve been trying to talk about one way or another for some months, VNV Nation’s “The Farthest Star,” which you can hear via their Myspace page.

Hope you can make it!