Art as unironic imitation and nostalgia

We’ve seen the future, the future is mixtapes?: If hip-hop is performance, and performance is art, and art is imitation, and imitation is flattery, if there’s no such thing as originality, and the most we can do is improve on what we steal, then hip-hop, in the end, is a fickle mistress.

This is the era of mixtapes where sites such as DatPiff ( host thousands of mixes created by aspiring kids in their bedrooms. Then, promoters come along and book shows based on download numbers, and soon the guy from Chicago who recorded his own lyrics over a few of his favorite songs is out on a national tour.

The show for Chance the Rapper this past Saturday at Assembly was sold out—a pretty amazing feat for a 20-year-old with nothing more than two mixtapes to his musical résumé, neither one especially hard-hitting nor innovative. Taking the stage, Chance didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands or where to look in the crowd, but with his limited experience as a performer, how could he? The deejay hit play on the mixtape, and Chance stood up there and rapped along. That’s what got him the gig, and in the end, it’s all he had. The set was over in 30 minutes—in fact, it was shorter than the actual mixtape, which at least ran 53 minutes. I’m not going to bombast him for killing hip-hop; it’s not his fault. He’s a victim of a gimme-gimme music culture that’s based on business, not music, and it burns through enterprising adolescence just as quickly as it can find it. Remember Kreayshawn? I’d make the list longer, but I can’t remember any further back than that.

In any case, the rate of fad bands rising and falling with the blogs and festivals cycle is starting to look like a growing, war-time death toll. What does it mean for hip-hop? I don’t know. The bigger question is what will Chance do when the tour is over and another one-hit prodigy takes his place? Maybe he’ll step back into the audience from whence he came, grateful for the ride, and maybe you’ll be up there next. Just know that you’re not going to ride it out past spring. (J.B.)

If the show Fitz: Standing atop a vinyl bench seat at Ace of Spades last Tuesday, watching Fitz and the Tantrums espouse its brand of what is generally being referred to nowadays as “neo soul,” my thoughts were occupied by two things: First, concern over whether it was a good idea to be standing on top of a springy, raised platform with a full beer, in the presence of music that cannot very well not be danced to; second, thoughts on the difference between a nod and a rip-off when it comes to a “retro” sound.

To wit: If Daryl Hall of Daryl Hall & John Oates (you know, that band all the kids are listening to these days) had possessed cheekier dance moves in his heyday and scaled up on the Motown sound just a hair, Fitz and the Tantrums might never have had reason to exist. Fitz et al. nod vigorously to bygone eras, borrowing with both hands from ’60s R&B, right on through to ’80s dance rock, and whether it’s novelty, nostalgia, enjoyment of a new strain, or some combination of all three, Sacramento, on this particular weeknight, was buying all of it: The 1,000-plus sold-out crowd hung on every synth-drenched note that the very-Los Angeles band flung at them, waving their arms in synch with lead singers Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs, and gleefully obliging when the duo attempted to teach them a little step-touch choreography. Halfway through the set, the band marched right into a cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” propelling the crowd into a collective tizzy.

It’s not difficult to enjoy Fitz and the Tantrums, nor to understand why they’re a hit, once you see them live. They’re riding high on the coattails of the soul resurgence of late, and they take it way over the top, but the music is so thoroughly unironic—so not tongue-in-cheek the way, say, “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk is a little ersatz with its nod to the ’70s—that what seems to hold a lot of potential for cheesy unhipness on paper just comes across as a lot of fun. Plus, you really can’t beat (or imitate, even,) Scaggs’ dance moves or her prowess with the tambourine. Heading out on tour this fall with Bruno Mars isn’t going to do much for the band’s street cred, but you get the impression that Fitz and his tantrums really couldn’t give a damn. (D.D.)