Published Feb 01, 2000Northwest Florida wraps itself tightly around the Gulf of Mexico, populations hugging the coastline, the shore's white sand beaches distracting residents from the sad reality of the strip mall purgatory they call home. I'm here to push pencils and crunch numbers at a beachside resort for five mind-numbing weeks. On my daily trek from the hotel to the office, the rental car's stereo's malfunctioning CD player drives me near madness; resigned to cruel fate, I tune in the local top 40 station (Hot one oh seven point nine! The party of Panama City!) and what do I hear? Glitch music has washed up on the shores of pop America.
Glitch is definable as a rhythmic offshoot of musique concrete, one that's dependent on digital editing and the characteristic artefacts thereof. The popification of glitch is not exactly sweeping the airwaves, but the creeping inclusion of clicks, pops, cuts and other digi-burps on mainstream radio is an intriguing one. Take, for example, "Peaches & Cream" by 112, a quartet of handsome young heartbreakers in the mould of Boyz II Men. Setting aside the demonstrably horrific lyrics "I need it cause you know I'm a fiend/ Gettin' freaky in my big limousine" this track's instrumental is an artful gentrification of the leftfield stylings of mid- and late 90s European micro-processing producers. The song's bass line comes on like an Aphex Twin bass stab, all gurgling distortion accented by arrhythmic digital pops. Oval-ish processed beats skitter just below the surface, the granulated percussion serving as a necessary counterpoint to the vocalists' sweet/sick cooing. A drum machine set to "hand clap" locks the whole thing down, providing a head-nodding anchor for those pubescent girls more concerned with 112's choice of aftershave than with the band's instrumental backing. The song is produced by someone named Mario "Yellow Man" Winans, a protégé of P. Diddy's from whom more good things can be expected.
Back to the radio, and somewhere between the faux-barrio stylings of Nelly Furtado and the booty bump of Nelly, the parade of mainstream monotony is broken up by the newest single from, all of people, Ms. Britney Spears. What the vixen lacks in lyrical depth, she makes up for with the selection of the Neptunes as producers of "I'm A Slave 4 U." The Neptunes are Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, a duo from the post-Timbaland school of R&B and hip-hop production. The duo behind the sounds of Ginuwine's 1997 "Pony" hit a hind-grinding joint that you loved, admit it Williams and Hugo inject Spears's latest chart-topper with the cerebral beat granulation that, till now, has been the domain of the horn-rimmed-glasses-and-cardigan set. While little Miss Thang grunts and purrs her way through a stream of lyrical nonsense, the Neptunes make the track respectable, balancing lustful soul pop clichés with a contemporary digital rhythm structure. It's not exactly enough to make me rush out to buy the album, but it's better than, for example, Alien Ant Farm's cover of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal," a version so skull-fuckingly obnoxious that it actually threatens to do permanent damage to Jacko's public image. Imagine that.
There will be those who will mourn the co-opting of the glitch sound by mainstream producers, but pay them no mind. As with progressive rock in the 70s, contemporary glitch-ers threaten to process themselves into irrelevancy with each digital experiment. Fine is the line between refinement and exclusionism, and a good dose of audience awareness might just be the kick needed by a genre too far up its own ass. As British music journalist Simon Reynolds has written of intelligent dance music's insularity, "What's the point of having a revolution if nobody notices?"
Still, glitch protectionists are rightly wary of a pop-tastic take on their sound. Perhaps the most important attitudinal effect of digital imperfection is that it instils a humanity in the sometimes sterile field of IDM. If glitch is mass-produced by the continent's clutch of all-powerful mega-labels, the sound threatens to be sucked dry of its humanist impulse, sacrificed at the altar of commerce. Before Madonna gets her dirty little hands on glitch, it might behove the genre's visionaries to push the sound forward as has Christian Fennesz, whose latest offering (Endless Summer) is a post-glitch masterpiece of treated guitars and shimmering synthesisers. Whether from Fennesz or Britney Spears, the message is clear: glitch (as we knew it) is dead. Long live glitch.