Feb 02

King Of The Boots

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GIRLS ON TOP – “I Wanna Dance With Numbers”
All Girls On Top’s bootlegs – except “We Don’t Give A Damn About Our Friends”, of which more below – make divas work against an unsympathetic, raw, backdrop, and this is the prime example. The singers are metaphorically stripped, and naturally sound more vulnerable on bootlegs. Whitney here sounds desolate, completely adrift in Kraftwerk’s unsympathetic soundworld. It’s the sonic equivalent of ‘heroin chic’ fashion shoots, perhaps – by showing the model imperfect, even damaged, you collapse the distance between her and the viewer, make her more human and appealing. But at the same time you appeal to some people who get off on seeing women looking fucked up. Bootlegs, to stretch the metaphor, walk a similar line, between democratising the pop process and offering pop up as something for hipsters to sneer at.

I think – with some exceptions – that the positive, democratising tendency is the one driving the bootleg scene. It’s my theory that the underground – of whatever genre – is at its healthiest when it acknowledges popular developments, and draws from them, maybe eventually giving something back for the mainstream to assimilate. To pick an example from the post-punk scene – Orange Juice are one of my favourite bands because they tried as hard as they could to swipe and learn things from soul and disco: the results may have been desperately unfunky but they were infused with a lightness and directness which made the band stand right out from their peers.

Back then, though, you could hear a Chic bassline and try to play it yourself, just like you might try to play a Clash guitar line. The problem with trying to draw on pop now is that the sound and feel of a Max Martin or Jerkins production – the things that make them fantastic – cost a fucking bomb. Bursting with ideas it may be, but the platinum-card cost of machine-pop is as much a barrier to bedroom acts swiping from it as any ideological considerations. Bootlegging gets round this by simply lifting the whole lot and turning it into something else.

But that something else is still pop. Bootlegs keep – enhance, even – the key aesthetic of modern pop: that it is music where artistic autonomy is redundant. This is why most of he best-known bootlegs splice entire tracks: the process of sample selection is almost irrelevant, there’s no scope for even DJ auteurism to creep in. When you listen to “I Wanna Dance With Numbers” you are listening to an artwork with no fixed artist. Richard X (the nearest thing to an auteur on the bootleg scene) is the creative arranger but its not really his personality or performance you’re responding to, it’s Whitney’s and Kraftwerk’s. But neither Whitney or Kraftwerk’s performances were ‘meant’ for this context. Bootlegging is the near-death of artistic intention – its twitching vestigial traces remain only as the track choices of bedroom hackers who mostly say it’s all just a laugh anyway, innit?

SUGABABES – “R Freaks Electric?”
KYLIE MINOGUE – “I Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” (Live At The Brits)

But artistic intention’s a tricky bugger to get rid of entirely. Girls On Top’s finest five minutes is “We Don’t Give A Damn About Our Friends”, a bootleg of Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me” with a distorted rip of Tubeway Army’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric”. Where other Girls On Top tracks are stark, this is orgiastic: soul-bitch sass meets roughed-up electro sex. And unlike most bootlegs, which front-load their thrills so listeners get their novelty-hit quicker, it builds to a fantastic climax.

Meanwhile the Sugababes’ record company had a problem. The girl band had enjoyed an enviable rep for making moody but modern pop and for having ‘real talent’ at the same time – in other words, they were pop it was OK for anyone to like, innocents in the cynical biz, best mates, unmanufactured. This rep had been torpedoed by the defection of original ‘babe Siobhan and her replacement with a girl called Holly, who had been in – oh horror! – an early line up of Sugababes antithesis Atomic Kitten. The game seemed to be up. What should Virgin Records do but relaunch the band – next month – with a cover of “We Don’t Give A Damn…”.

In marketing terms, this is genius – the Sugababes, having been exposed as uber-fakes, now embrace their fakeness by doing a cover version, and a cover version of a bootleg at that. But they also come across as uber-hip, too, by riding this particular trend, and they get their realness back because “R Freaks Electric?”, even with bored-little-madam Sugavoices, is going to be the dirtiest thing in the Top 40 by a mile. (And the best).

“It’s always good”, the press release quotes Richard X as saying, “When something with a bit of edge gets into the charts.” This is entryism in a Jive Bunny outfit (underground acts who borrow from the charts always want to get up there themselves) – but how edgy is bootlegging, and how edgy is it likely to stay? Three weeks before the Sugababes single sees release, Kylie Minogue does a live bootleg mix of her biggest hit at the BRIT Awards. It’s pretty good. A week after that, Kurtis Rush (one of the top bootleggers, responsible for the well-loved “George Gets His Freak On”) quits the scene – a “bit of fun” is turning before his eyes into a “marketing tool”.

The release of the Sugababes single – and the release of the Kylie record, no doubt, on some future B-Side once the samples are cleared – is the watershed for the bootleg genre, the moment it goes completely overground. What happens next? A rash of artist-sanctioned bootlegs, for a start, which we’ll probably get sick of before very long (most of them are likely to be along the lines of the way-overrated Pink/Rockwilder remix, where “Sweet Dreams” adds sod-all to “Get The Party Started”, Redman fills in a minute or two and the whole thing is a slow indulgent mess). Meanwhile the scene will keep on rolling underground – it’s just too easy to make these things, upload them, then delete them when your ISP starts sniffing around, by which point if they’re any good half the net will have access to them.

Artistically speaking, things will change – more showcase/show-off tracks like “Intro-Inspection”, more tracks with original input, more tracks which go further down the Richard X route and fuck pop up. In other words bootlegging will become more like avant cut-ups, more like hip-hop and sampleadelic disco, more like Kid 606. Already at the last King Of The Boots night you could hear in the Tom Middleton set traces of what we’ll call “Intelligent Bootlegs” – bootlegs of two slamming, and entirely credible, dance tracks with just enough interpolation of old pop to spice stuff up. Entirely risk-free, but it sent the crowd mad.

That sounds pessimistic, doesn’t it? The problem isn’t that there’s nothing new about bootlegs, but that what’s new is so nebulous, so tied into the vibe and enthusiasm and piss-taking of the scene, that it just seems too easy for bootleggers to go in lazier, well-trodden directions once that vibe and enthusiasm gets tested. Particularly if those directions seem to offer more skill, more creativity, more class and respect. If I had to be pinned down and say what’s new about bootlegging, I’d say it’s a combination of the whole-track sampling aesthetic and the keeping of original material to an absolute minimum. Those have given the most famous tracks their character, and meanwhile the cheapness and ease of bootleg distribution has given the scene the critical mass it needs to feel exciting too. Whatever happens next, technologically speaking the genie is out of the bottle. Which leads us nicely and finally to the most notorious – and somehow most typical – bootleg of all.

I said above: a good bootleg casts a new light on at least one of its component parts – and ideally that light should be a flattering one. Not because pop is automatically worthy of respect, let alone flattery. But because the secret ambition of a bootleg should be not to respect the original track but to replace it, to erase it from your memory, to be better pop. To be better pop it has to appeal as a track-in-itself, it has to trigger that brainstem reaction of excitement and wonder that good pop does – and it can’t do that if it relies for its appeal on taking the piss out of another record.

The best bootlegs are Trojan Horses – you listen to them a few times because of the funny, recogniton factor, but then something odd happens. You realise that whenever you hear “Hard To Explain” start you really want to hear Chistina Aguilera singing and not Julian Casablancas. You realise that you can’t even remember how “Genie In A Bottle” goes. And then you realise that you’re not listening to “A Stroke Of Genius” as two tracks any more – you’re listening to it as a great, lost but somehow hyper-modern girl-group or Blondie record, and the way the “ooh ooh ooh”s fit over the alcopop guitars tells you as much about desire and anxiety as any record you’ve ever heard. That was my story, anyway – and I hope I get to tell a lot more like it.


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    […] Popular Culture and Music Way back in 2002, Tom of freakytrigger fame wrote this entry giving a bit of history and context to the whole bootleg (craze?) genre of music perculating at the […]

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