Chaos Theory: Elliott Smith

Here’s a lengthy Elliott Smith post. Yeah, that’s right, another one of those. Well, see it through, because it’s way over-the-top.

It started the other day when I, Chaos, started thinking about how Elliott’s musical production aesthetics have been propagated for commercial use in recent years. Hipsters and corporate shills have taken the Elliott Smith “sound” and use it to sell movies, cars, TV shows, TV ad products, and whatever else can accompany a music track. Which is okay on some level, because almost no one will ever mimic the intense mastery of pop song-writing that Elliott possessed.

I always found it confusing that Elliott Smith was grouped in with the “post-punk”, “indie-rock” crowd, and I just assume that happened because those were the scene circles the guy ran in. His music to me always reeked of a combination of accessible quality and sincerity not found even in The Beatles. The Beatles certainly were sincere, but their music didn’t have the same emotional depth. Now I’m not saying it didn’t have the same range — because between the 3 Beatles they certainly did have more musical variety — but they didn’t have the same depth of emotional character. Sorry guys ‘n gals, but I am convinced of this one-hundred percent! Those of you who don’t agree, I have to wonder about your overall ability to recognize artistic subtlety… Ahaha!

But my snooty musical opinion is actually kind of irrelevant to this post. What interests me about Elliott Smith today is how he influenced modern rock music, and subsequently the world of hipsterdome marketing. Almost every contemporary cutesy white-collar, drug-using hipster musician (and is there any other kind of modern rock musician?) either intentionally rips off some aspect of Elliott Smith’s aesthetic, or idolizes the man in musical stone — whether or not it is acknowledged.

What’s so funny (dare I say ironic?) about all this, is the complete insincerity with which Elliott Smith is referenced. As one of my friends pointed out, Elliott Smith’s music seems to be “dying with sincerity,” in contrast to the horrendously vapid musicians that have stolen and carbon-copied his basic audio production values. But again, it’s not just hipster/indie-rock musicians that leech on the ES monolith. The worlds of pop music and advertising (the same worlds?) are awash with direct references and rips from Elliott’s career.

A most blatant sacrilegious offense is the hackneyed soundtrack to the *sob* Oscar-winning movie from last year, Juno. In fact, the soundtrack is Juno — which does not actually make the movie worse or better, but actually makes it something at all. That is, without the cutesy rich-kid soundtrack, Juno would not even be a movie. The music paces the film, indicates the plot points and relationships, and is necessary for all transitions.

Hence I’d like to take a moment to talk about the Juno soundtrack. But before we do, please be warned: this example will make your soul a little bed-ridden for the next few days. (In other words, depression.)

Most of the soundtrack seems to rip off classic post-punk stuff, but there are a number of songs that are blatant ES cop-offs. The most flagrant offense within the soundtrack is possibly this one here, called “So Nice, So Smart”. Compare this shot of disease to the Elliott Smith track, “Crazy Fucker,” sometimes called, “Another Folk Song”. Their astute similarities in composition and recording dynamics could be a coincidence; but then again, this Elliott Smith song was available for download, on the website Elliott Smith B-Sides, many years before the recent double-disc Smith compilation, New Moon (featuring an overly remastered version of this same track), was released.

And what were the results of this?

The film’s soundtrack, featuring several songs performed by Kimya Dawson and her bands Antsy Pants and The Moldy Peaches, was the first number one soundtrack since Dreamgirls and 20th Century Fox’s first number one soundtrack since Titanic. Juno earned back its initial budget of $6.5 million in twenty days; during the first nineteen of which the film was in limited release.[1] The film has gone on to earn more than 35 times that amount, becoming the highest grossing movie in Fox Searchlight’s history. –Wikipedia


The reason Juno is such an easy culprit to point out is because it’s an obscenely corporate (right-of-center?) attempt to cash in on the post-Elliott Smith, Elliott Smith-removed, Elliott Smith aesthetic (what?!). And whether or not movies like this are a conscious rip-off of Elliott Smith himself, his actual music has been snagged for other productions after his death — such as in the hackneyed garbage, Georgia Rule, the TV junk-food formerly known as The OC, and some films by the excessively celebrated Gus Van Sant.

But here’s where my gripes get kind of… crazy. Elliott certainly approved of his music appearing in movies back when he was alive, in stuff like The Royal Tannenbaums, Good Will Hunting, and so forth. And I suppose most people would take those royalty checks. But as a result, the movies “cheated” a little bit and stole his magic for themselves. To emphasize this point, let me quote from Judith Williamson‘s Decoding Advertisements. This quote is more relevant to visual images used in advertising, but replace the terms for visual imagery with music and the message becomes rather stark:

Images, ideas or feelings […] become attached to certain products, by being transferred from signs out of other systems (things or people with ‘images’) to the products, rather than originating in them. This intermediary object or person is bypassed in our perception; although it is what gives the product its meaning, we are supposed to see that meaning as already there, and we rarely notice that the correlating object and the product have no inherent similarity, but are only placed together (hence the significance of form). So a product and an image/emotion become linked in our minds, while the process of this linking is unconscious. (Marion Boyers, 1978: p30)

To summarize: when we use powerful music, such as Elliott Smith’s, in advertising or movies (which are another form of advertising or propaganda in themselves) it makes the viewer subconsciously, unknowingly associate the feeling of Elliott Smith’s music with the movie or product which is using it. Unless one makes a conscious effort to acknowledge this process, one becomes affected by the product/film/ad in this way.

Advertisements, unable to actually use Elliott Smith’s music, have gone on to rip off his aesthetic as strongly as possible (although now it seems to just be the basic shitty post-indie-rock aesthetic, doesn’t it?). So for all the citizens of the world who love this aesthetic, you are probably buying the products that use these kinds of musical flourishes, whether you know it or not.

Oh well, whatever.


On a lighter note, the other day I was cruisin’ the Information Superhighway when I happened across a fairly recent, decent post dissecting the pop genius of Elliott Smith’s song, “Can’t Make a Sound”. I found it over on the Koax blog — a site linked to a site, linked to a site that I frequent. This article piqued my interest because, unlike typical gushing fanboy stuff written about Elliott Smith, it actually puts forth an interesting discussion about the late musician’s pop sensibilities as they were utilized on the second to last track off of Figure 8 (a track which my pal Nate has previously singled out as being his favorite Elliott Smith track, despite the fact that he’s not such a ginormous fan as me).

There’s a lot of this going on in the aforementioned post:

But the chorus is not expanded at all, it’s still the same two lines of melody that were present the first time. What’s different in its repetition, though, is the stomping guitar line, that overlays it, the arpeggiating rhythm guitar now asserting itself into the lead. The long notes of the melody –

Eyes locked and shining

have turned into a root that the guitar is now playing against. The guitar’s phrase fills the space after the first line, and the end of this phrase leads into the second:

Can’t you tell me what’s that burning?

And the chorus has again performed its function: again it ends with unexpected abruptness, again it leads us into a change in the character of the song.

Mr. Koax seems to agree with my friend Nate, that “Can’t Make a Sound” is one of the Elliott’s best songs. The post starts out by noting the lack of variety amongst pop songs and their verse-chorus formula and goes on to exemplify just how this song radically rejuvenates the typical method.

It’s a refreshing read on a played-out subject.


~ by chaosrexmachinae on October 2, 2008.

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