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  1. Marvin
    Marvin May 1, 2013 at 7:22 am . Reply

    A month ago I read David Byrne’s “How Music Works,” and in the year before that I got caught up in Amanda Palmer’s whole kickstarter album thing (and really enjoyed it, the songs themselves and all the attendant hybridity), which involved reading a lot of what she has to say on various subjects, and on reflection you’re quite right: even when professional popular musicians talk at length about music, they rarely actually talk about the music itself in the ear-trained, music-theoretical sense that informs one’s appreciation of difficult forms like modern jazz and a lot of classical material. At least not to their fans…maybe to one another?

    (All the Attendant Hybridity is a great name for a painfully self-aware art-rock band full of people wearing chunky glasses, by the way. You’re welcome.)

    Instead they talk a lot about building identity and community, about reaction to the cultural milieu, about the issues surrounding the production, consumption, and distribution of music and art, about the creation and management of a persona as a performer and as a public figure, about the challenges of writing and performing songs alone or in collaboration, and so on. Byrne writes extensively about what it means to have and make “a scene.” Palmer talks about wanting to be a kind of den-mother rock-star presiding with subversive benevolence over her own little artists’ community. They’re worried about the problems of soul-crushing conformist dreck too, but they’re looking for answers (I think) along some (real? perceived?) axes of value expressed in the hybridity of pop music as they see it.

    So I think the split you’ve observed is definitely there. I’m not sure I’m convinced that the highest of high arts better serves us in this vale of soul-making than something gritty and populist that gets down into people’s lives — I have to think about that and about my own prejudices — but I think the mindfulness and work that goes into acquiring a skill definitely does. Though I also find myself suspicious of the idea of “soul-making,” lovely though that sounds. I can’t help thinking of those lucky people trained to have and appreciate the best of everything who nevertheless seem to have little soul to give back to the world…but that might just be my prejudice again. I must think about it some more.

  2. Marvin
    Marvin May 6, 2013 at 12:45 pm . Reply

    Thank you for your patience and indulgence. I think this is going to be a series of about 10 comments of varying lengths. Still pretty rambly, I’m afraid. It’s turning into an exercise mostly for my own benefit, I think.


    First things first: some points of agreement.

    I agree that we should aspire to be more than consumers of TV dinners (literal or metaphorical) in all parts of our lives, or as many parts as we can manage.

    I agree that it makes sense to have standards of quality for art and music; sometimes it’s legitimate to say one thing is better than another. (I started to give an example, but then started hedging it with qualifiers…my confidence in my own ability to do this well is not high.)

    I agree that the arts — in the making and appreciation — can and should contribute to the process of self-examination and self-improvement, both individually and collectively.

    I agree that the deliberate cultivation of good taste — or failing that, at least a strong sense of personal taste — is a worthwhile activity and an important part of growth and self-discovery. In theory it’s something that happens naturally as you learn more and more about a field of interest, and such learning is also worthwhile and important.

    I agree that there’s a lot of predictable sameness in popular music (I assume we’re still sticking to “western music”) compared to the music that generally gets categorized as fine art. The Beatles and Stevie Wonder have a lot more in common than Wagner and Monk.

    Hm. Now I fear the rest of what I have to say might amount to a lot of quibbly nitpicking. Maybe if we’re lucky it’ll turn out to be productive nitpicking.

  3. Marvin
    Marvin May 6, 2013 at 12:48 pm . Reply


    Earlier I mentioned needing to address my own prejudices, so maybe I should lay them out here (as I understand them) before moving on.

    You may recall from past discussions that I’m wary of drawing hard distinctions between high and low art. In particular I’m wary of how such distinctions can be used by privileged classes to dismiss the work of minorities and marginalized people, and I’m wary of how aesthetic quality and expense is used to glamorize and justify power.

    (That being said, I also know that I need to be wary of engaging in “guilt by association” thinking. As much as possible the music deserves to make its own case for itself.)

    To be clear: I *know* that that is *not* what you’re trying to do. I don’t think you’re trying to dismiss anyone or glamorize power…I’m just describing my own mindset.

    Nevertheless, classification schemes that take the form “Real X should be the way I want it, and other things claiming to be X should be reclassified as Y,” immediately make me raise an eyebrow. Sometimes such arguments are good, but the more complex, subjective, and politically loaded the topic becomes, the higher my eyebrow tends to go.

    So my first reaction — and please bear in mind that I’m still describing my own first reactions, which I know to be highly colored by my own prejudices and inclinations, and not something that I think is a grand and definitive conclusion — to seeing someone divide the world of music into “real” music and popular music, and then allowing the first category to retain the noble title of “music” while the second is recategorized as hybridized entertainment product (HEP), is exasperation.

    At the same time, I remember and respect J.S. Mill’s famous dictum: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinions, it is because they only know their side of the question.” I’m keenly aware that there are gaps in my education, and I’m anxious not to play the pig.

    And I sort of resent the fact that I find myself questioning the degree of my own piggishness (despite knowing that such self-examination is probably worthwhile, and despite knowing I’ll probably come out of it with some new-found appreciation for something you’ve clued me into, Gord, because that’s how these things seem to go). So I want to think I’ve successfully identified that defensive impulse within myself and corrected for it in my response, but you know…maybe not. Defensive, peevish resentment is such a … piggy … emotion.

    So those are some things I know to be going on in my head at the knee-jerk level of response.

  4. Marvin
    Marvin May 6, 2013 at 12:50 pm . Reply

    COMMENT #3 OF 10 – USAGE

    You asked what we mean when we talk about “music,” but what do we mean when we talk about “popular” music?

    I might be privileged to not feel particularly assaulted by the worst of corporate-driven pop music, aka HEP. I’ve barely listened to any K-Pop or J-Pop. I’m completely clueless about who’s on the Billboard charts, and although I like a fair bit of pop music I’m nearly always 10 or 20 years behind the times (or more, depending on the sub-genre). (Which, it suddenly occurs to me, probably means that my understanding of the term might owe more to my own sense of my sentimental tastes than to anything like a comprehensive knowledge of the field.)

    For instance, I know the name of Justin Bieber, but I think I’ve successfully managed not to hear what he sounds like (except in the sense that he probably sounds like everyone else in his boy-band sub-sub-genre). Most places I go are not terribly obnoxious about blaring music at me, and as a 40-something white man in the US, I’m privileged in the sense that an awful lot of what does get pumped at me is aimed straight at my presumed demographic, which means it’s often bland, but also often sufficiently familiar that it’s easy to tune out. Or maybe that makes it all the more insidious — I can’t quite decide. Maybe it just means I’ve been bludgeoned into aesthetic submission and don’t even realize it. But on the whole, I do not feel particularly put-upon or distracted by the state of early 21st century popular music.

    Rather, when I hear the phrase “popular music” I think of the folk and blues that I grew up on, the ragtime that I learned to play on the piano as a kid, the kind of jazz you can dance to, sensitive girls with guitars in coffee shops, and my grandmother’s battered old collection of illustrated Stephen Foster sheet music. I think of childhood days when my uncle, a professional opera singer, and my dad, a self-taught amateur guitar player and warbler of bluegrass tunes[*], would sit in the living room drinking beer and sharing music and bouncing back and forth between opera, lieder, hymns, and the southern folk music that was our shared heritage.

    And thinking of hymns reminds me that sacred music, taken collectively, seems to straddle the line between fine art and pop.

    And of course there’s rock music, rap, punk, new wave, country & western, funk, etc. In addition to the big names I think of the independent artists I’ve discovered by word of mouth or on the ‘net, people lucky to make a living and clearly not making much money for or from corporations.

    So by “popular” I mean a domain that covers everything from what a village washer-woman would have sung to her babies as she worked 500 years ago to, alas, Justin Bieber today. And the idea of taking all that and inventing a term like “hybrid entertainment product” to divorce it from “real” music just doesn’t make sense to me, even though HEP is often a pretty accurate description of what’s going on in a given case.

    Maybe this belonged under my list of prejudices.

    [*] I’ve suddenly remembered that my dad was a music major, concentrating on saxophone at Southern Methodist University for a year before he dropped out and joined the army to become a radio technician and an electrical engineer.

  5. Marvin
    Marvin May 6, 2013 at 12:53 pm . Reply


    In the previous comment I described the vision I have of popular music in my imagination, and I implied that I think it’s a fairly diverse and interesting collection of things. I think, however, I can see how you — or anyone with advanced musical training — would see things differently.

    Because whether we’re talking about rock, country, blues, dance-band jazz, funk, folk, etc., we’re often talking about music that is unified by a fairly small number of pretty predictable traits. A handful of chords that aren’t allowed to become too complex lest they sound pretentious (or worse, uncool); heavily telegraphed key changes; predictable verses, bridges, and choruses; melodies in familiar modes; shitloads of pentatonic; lyrics with familiar sentiments; vocalists histrionic and/or affected in their delivery; rhythms that tend to be 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4, where 6/8 is borderline exotic; omnipresent back-beats and desultory fills.

    There’s probably more variety if we focus strictly on traditional musics and folkways of the many regions that constitute Europe and the Americas, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that they all tend to stay pretty close to home, stylistically, within their respective spheres.

    (Fucking pop music. I’ve almost convinced myself to give it up. Courage, Marvin!)

    And then there’s a plethora of really rather short songs, where even if the song is interesting it often ends right when the mind is starting to expand, a case of aestheticus interruptus more or less guaranteed by the form. Faced with so much sameness, disdaining hybridity and focused purely on the musical aspect, the trained ear yearns for something daring and new. Like Sherlock Holmes it needs work, else it starts to go mad.

    How about some testimony from my own life.

    A couple of weeks ago — before you’d posted your series about what we talk about when we talk about music — Sturdy Helpmeet(tm) and I were vacationing in Baltimore. Our last evening there we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves and we didn’t have much energy to do it with. But our hotel was in a nice neighborhood, within easy walking distance of the symphony hall, so we decided to go to a performance. That night they were doing a compressed version of Wagner’s Ring cycle, a kind of greatest hits medley. (The first half of the program was a percussion concerto called “Der Gerettete Alberich,” about which more later.) I’d never heard Wagner except on CD or in TV broadcasts (and at the end of the movie Excalibur, a very silly thing that briefly becomes sublime at the end when Siegfried’s funeral music plays), which was one reason I wanted to go.

    Hearing a live orchestral performance of Wagner felt astonishing. In fact, it made me feel physically ill. Not in an “I don’t like this music” kind of way, but in a “goodness gracious this might be too rich for my palate” kind of way. I remember thinking at the time, very specifically, “I’ve been listening to too much pop music through cheap headphones and computer speakers. My ears must have been starved for these frequencies. I feel like someone who’s been living on Twinkies suddenly trying to eat a sumptuous gourmet dessert, whose body is rebelling at the intensity of it all.”

    Now, I don’t know if that sense of being blown away can really be said to translate into authentic aesthetic appreciation. Being a medley of major themes, this was a performance of the fun, easy bits of Wagner, and feeling overwhelmed isn’t the same as understanding. But I liked it. And I felt nourished. And I found myself questioning the ratio of pop to difficult music in my life.

  6. Marvin
    Marvin May 6, 2013 at 12:55 pm . Reply


    By contrast with the Wagner medley, the percussion concerto that started the evening was mostly lost on me. I don’t know if you’ve heard “Der Gerettete Alberich,” by Christopher Rouse, but it’s meant to be a musical interpretation of the career of Alberich as the lone survivor of the death of the gods after the end of the Ring cycle. My knowledge of Wagner wasn’t good enough to follow the musical variations and humor based on his themes, and my appreciation of advanced percussion wasn’t good enough to grasp what the soloist was doing as he jumped from instrument to instrument and from idiom to idiom.

    (There’s one section where Alberich is supposed to have joined a human rock band, and the percussionist plays for a bit on an ordinary rock-style drum kit. The audience was cued to watch for this in advance, with much nudging of the “aren’t we hip?” sort. My reaction was, “Yep, that’s how the classical crowd sucks the life out of pop music, all right.” Although, maybe technically that counts as sucking the life out of classical music.)

    What does this have to do with economics? I would have to do a lot of work, and probably spend a bit of money, to become musically smart enough to appreciate “Der Gerettete Alberich.”

    In Part 1 of your series, you write: “But mainly, the parallel is between Budweiser and pop music… though the biggest difference is that both craft beer and organic food cost more than the junk food… while most truly outstanding music sells for basically the same price — or cheaper — than the mass-produced stuff.”

    And this is where I have a quibble. It’s true that a CD of Thelonious Monk costs about the same as a CD of The Monkees. But the cost of enjoying and understanding Monk isn’t just the price of the CD: it’s the time and effort that goes into understanding modern jazz music well enough to follow Monk. If we accept that music, and art generally, can be located on a gradient of difficulty that corresponds to the amount of training and effort needed to appreciate it — and I think we can — then it follows that more difficult music is more expensive.

    And what about a live performance? Live music is expensive, and pop is the cheapest if you’re listening to small time local performers. If you can find a jazz club these days, the door price might not be too bad. If you can get to a student performance at a college, it might even be free. But to hear top jazz or the classical repertoire, and to hear it performed well by professionals, is pretty expensive (though maybe not as expensive as an A-list touring pop band). And it comes with a middle-to-upper class white-collar dress code. And you’re probably going to be making a trip to the better part of town.

    If you have to go to college to learn to appreciate something, then that costs a lot of time and a lot of money. If you want to acquire that appreciation on your own, without guidance, then that arguably costs even more time (but less money, with luck). It gets worse if the actual appreciation part of the process requires a special environment. And although we can blame corporate mass media for aggressively pushing The Monkees at the expense of The Monk, I don’t think we can blame them for the underlying problem of economics that, it seems to me, has always prevented most people from acquiring advanced levels of taste and access to the best music and art.

    You’ve argued that the effort is worth it, and I agree, but I’m not sure you’ve given enough credit to the cost of the effort — the explicit cost of formal instruction, but also the implicit opportunity cost represented by time spent fully focused on pleasure and autodidacticism — in the life of a person who might only be able to afford occasional distractions.

    So rage at the money-hungry corporations and the mass media, but rage also at the social order and the politics of class. Thanks to the mass media it’s as easy to buy good music as bad[*], but the inability of many to *participate* in good music is a side-effect of a much bigger and much older problem.

    Of course, given my own middle-class white male privilege, it would be disingenuous to excuse my own shortfalls of taste — and they are legion — on any lack of opportunity. But the same cannot be said for many of my fellow citizens.

    The good news is that one can learn slowly, in baby steps, and each step taken results in pleasure and insight gained. And thanks to the Internet, more and more people are finding ways to bypass the mass media’s old methods of filtering and distributing music. But we have a long way to go if we want to give everyone the opportunity to be musically literate.

    [*] Actually that’s not entirely true. You’ve heard of food deserts, right? A big problem in the US. They’re regions where systemic poverty means that grocery stores don’t bother to open full locations within reasonable walking or even driving distance of the inhabitants, so everyone is effectively denied access to fresh produce and must subsist instead on the processed food they can get at corner stores. The same problem applies to record stores and bookstores. You’d think the Internet would be an equalizer, but communications companies often don’t provide premium services to poorer neighborhoods, so the inhabitants are stuck with dialup and spotty mobile coverage. (For the longest time my mother-in-law could get cable TV, but not cable broadband or DSL.) Which makes finding and downloading good music that much more difficult. It also makes it more difficult to learn how to get past the ISPs’ corporate web portals that push lowest-common-denominator pop culture as a “feature” of using their services.

    So even if recordings of Bach and Beyonce cost the same at the point of sale, they are not equally easy to acquire and enjoy.

  7. Marvin
    Marvin May 6, 2013 at 12:59 pm . Reply


    Do we agree that the vast majority of people who write and perform popular music — as I understand the term “popular,” just like people who write and make “real” music, don’t make much money? And they know they’re not going to make much money and count themselves lucky if they can have a living doing something they like?

    It seems worth mentioning. If the people who make a lot of money in popular music are a tiny percentage of the whole, then maybe heavy-duty money-making shouldn’t be considered one of the defining characteristics of popular music. Rather, it’s a defining characteristic of being a mass media corporation.

    And there’s the question of the moral status of patronage. If today’s popular music ought to be reclassified as “entertainment product” because of how it’s made and sold, what does that say about every piece of fine art that was commissioned by an aristocrat, a wealthy merchant, or the Church? What does it say about any artist or musician working under the patronage of some autocratic individual or institution? How much music art and sculpture, now classified as fine art, should be called indoctrination product or glamorization product?

    None of this is to suggest that corporatism, consumerism, and a cultural marketplace subject to the balance sheets of a few plutocrats are good things, but I’m not sure I’d trade these problems for the problems of an earlier age. The prevailing structures of power are a problem for the arts in every age, I think.

  8. Marvin
    Marvin May 6, 2013 at 1:03 pm . Reply


    That’s it for tonight. I need to perform more surgery on the remaining verbiage, but I thought I should post something. Cheers. =)

  9. Marvin
    Marvin May 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm . Reply

    Aside: I must try desperately not to get captured by the comments & forget about finishing my original thoughts.


    I seem to be hung up on economics (where the currency is not just money, but also time, attention, and access to teachers and resources), and I fear it’s all just a tedious elaboration of the basic point you already made when you said that nobody has the time to be a gourmet in everything. Nevertheless, the shortage of epicurean expertise in the world cries out for explanation, and I wonder if blaming Mammon and mass media is just a little too easy. (Then again, sometimes the elephant in the room really is the elephant in the room.)

    So, from my digression on economics above it seems to me to follow that: if art that is about the form of art, or music that is about the music and nothing but the music — the form and structure of the music — is among the most difficult to understand and enjoy, then it is also among the most expensive to understand and enjoy. The more difficult and specialized something is, the smaller the audience will be. And small audiences selected on the basis of wealth tend also to reflect the “winners” of whatever political, social, and economic conflicts stratify society. There will be exceptions — the poor person with time on his hands who uses that time to acquire an expertise, or the obsessive who sacrifices other considerations for the sake of an expertise — but in some ways the question “Can I be good at X?” will boil down to “Can I afford to become good at X?”

    Put another way, if we imagine music becoming more and more pure as it becomes more difficult, more and more about itself as it sheds the hybridity of social context and external interests, then I suspect it creates its own new social context as it does so. As it ceases to reflect any of the social contexts in which nonspecialists live, it becomes a creature and a product of a narrow and specialized class, speaking chiefly to those capable of sharing its language and values.

    To choose to work at the highest level, to seek the respect of admiration of one’s peers and colleagues (and conscience!) at the highest level, then, is an economic choice, not just an artistic one. Because it will influence the amount of work required not just to create, but also to acquire and appreciate the end result, it’s a choice made not just in terms of one’s own life but also for others. Typically this choice is seen as a noble one: the true artist turns his or her back on fame and wealth to pursue a unique and elite vision, and elitism is noble, especially if it appears to be mingled with sacrifice.

    [Aside: “appears to be” is what I originally wrote, and I’m going to let it stand even though it makes me cringe now after reading your description above of the real sacrifices made by artists to achieve this high level of performance and composition. My bad. I’ve been focusing too much, perhaps, on the challenge posed to people when it comes to appreciating great art, and not enough on the challenge of making it. Back to my original flow…]

    But if we conceive of music and art as having a very non-abstract moral purpose [like, say, the social roles you cite from Bill Cole, but also something more individualistic], something that contributes to the improvement of people generally, then there’s a moral cost to choosing to do work that most people cannot appreciate. On the other hand, there’s also a moral cost to failing to do your best work, failing to create an object or work of the highest possible moral value. We might say there’s a question of whether to approach a high-stakes:high-rewards strategy or a low-stakes:low-rewards strategy, or maybe finding a blend of the two.

    Maybe…a hybrid?

  10. Marvin
    Marvin May 10, 2013 at 2:04 pm . Reply


    Sorry for yet another long wait, but I wanted to get this part done before tackling more of your excellent comments. And we might be moving from the “Marvin argues with Gord” stage of the discussion to the “Gord educates Marvin because he’s been thinking deeply about this stuff for longer” stage of the discussion, so I thought I should try to finish my original thoughts and observations before I risked losing them. :-)

    On one level, I really don’t have any argument with what you say about hybridity in your original posts. As I said when I mentioned David Byrne and Amanda Palmer a while ago, it’s easy to find examples of pop musicians who don’t really talk about their work in terms of the music so much as in their sense of the “message,” the persona, the presentation, and so on. They talk about who they admire and the feelings they’d like to evoke and the statements (political, social, emotional) they’d like to make. They talk about what gives them pleasure, about the sounds and instruments they like, and sometimes even genre-specific musical techniques, but it still tends to be about ways to color the performance and not about what music can do strictly as music, bracketed away from all the attendant hybridity.

    And I think the comparison with vaudeville and circus acts is apt. Big stage shows are definitely theater of a sort, and among the rootsy “Americana” bands that I’ve seen in Austin it’s not uncommon to see performers deliberately adopt a kind of “Ye Olde West Medicine Show” pose — usually with a wink and a smile. (ZZ Top combined the two trends and took them both over the top back in the 70s when they toured with cacti and longhorn cattle on stage, a regionalist affectation that I can’t help but love for its sheer absurd corniness.)

    And I think it’s true that compared to a “pure” artistic form, hybridity involves compromising, or at least limiting, the elements that get combined to create a show. A musical or an opera will not interrogate character as well as a Shakespeare play, a play may not interrogate character and historicity as well as a novel, and eventually you reach a point — if your goal is an examination of the human condition — where nothing will do but scholarly nonfiction. If your goal is pure musical invention then you branch down a different path, but still a path of shedding performative elements that don’t contribute to one’s particular end.

    But I still want to think that hybridity can be a positive good because it seems to me that hybridity is where we live as human beings. “All the world’s a stage,” is true in some important ways, and if we want to connect with one another as human beings, it’s not the kind of stage where we can perpetually efface ourselves in service to a higher aesthetic ideal. Conversation on the Internet would seem to be a classic example: minus the theater of gesture, facial expression, and tone of voice (and beer) amicable communication quickly turns into acrimonious competition unless we exercise enormous care. Loss of that side-channel of hybridity costs us something important.

    (Of course it goes both ways. The practice of taking enormous care in writing is valuable for the sake of clarity, depth, and the discovery of one’s own foibles, so sometimes the hybridity of face-to-face conversation is more a barrier than an aid to communication. And sometimes the look on a face matters more than the words.)

    I think that our inner lives are well understood as hybrid productions as well. “Parting is such sweet sorrow” captures much of the event, but the event is not a well-turned phrase. It’s flushed cheeks and a pounding heart and sweaty palms and an earwig of music you heard earlier that evening and the burning memory of a touch and the cacophony of competing narratives of hope and recrimination in your brain. The event is such a hybrid production that we turn to art and meditation and science to try to take it apart and figure out how the bits work and then re-express it, or sometimes only pieces of it, in new ways, and depending on the piece(s) and person(s) in question, maybe an aria is the way to go, or an instrumental solo, or a poem, or a novel, or a painting, or a junk sculpture, or a pop song.

    [Aside: Or maybe heavily hybridized pop music is just what you get when the musicians are from art and design schools instead of music schools. (It happens.)]

    So I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying it seems to me that hybridity in popular music, in order to make sense and not just to be a pejorative, needs to potentially encompass everything from basic songwriting and stagecraft, what might be the bare beginnings of “persona,” all the way up to the most cynical aspects of public relations, merchandising, and media manipulation. And it seems to me that somewhere below the threshold of corruption the hybridity itself probably allows for the expression of multiple scales of value.

    If we go with Bill Cole’s four categories of music (folk, classical, religious, dance — which I’m not sure is entirely exhaustive, but for now I’ll take it), then it seems to me that moderate to high levels of hybridity are built into three of those categories, with classical being characterized in part by a deliberate flight from hybridity in order to pursue technical excellence and innovation. Which raises a question for me: should we see a hybrid form as coarsening the purer elements it employs, or should hybrid forms be considered a default mode of culture, with the purer offshoots being deliberate and narrowly focused refinements? I don’t know if it makes much difference in practice — and maybe hybrid and pure forms exist side by side, sometimes informing one another, as far back as we can see into the mists of antiquity — but I can see arguments running both ways.

    Suddenly I have in image in my mind of a bunch of prehistoric cave-people sitting around humming and singing to each other a song that’s been around longer than any of them can remember, but one of them just happens to have really good pitch and it’s driving him crazy because no one else is quite in tune, so he’s weeping and begging the rest of the clan to let him teach them how to do it right, for Crom’s sake have mercy.

    [Another aside: It occurs to me that the classical religious music that I suggested ought to be called “hybrid indoctrination product” might, in some cases — because the religious component is a fixed text that everyone takes for granted, for instance — have a functional hybridity that approaches some low limit that approaches negligibility, leaving the classical elements to dominate; but that might also depend on how the music is deployed, whether to an audience of cognoscenti or to a less-comprehending audience one intends to awe.]

    Looking at the four social functions that you cite from Cole — praise, dancing, storytelling, and transcending the quotidian — it seems to me that popular music (as I understand the term) handles the first three pretty well on a fairly regular basis. (Also it seems at first glance that the categories are not mutually exclusive, so it’s a system of classification that invites hybridity, after a fashion.) I suspect pop music sometimes attempts the transcending function (some of the longer noodlings of the band Yes leap to mind) but with very mixed results.

    (I think dancing is important, by the way. Not just highly choreographed or artistic dance, but even ordinary old shake-yer-booty-to-the-beat stuff. Music gives us means, motive, and opportunity to take pleasure in the bodies we’re going to live and die in, so it’s not an opportunity to be squandered lightly.)

    What do I think good hybridity in pop music looks like? I’m going to resist the urge to pepper you with examples and instead stick to one, and explain why I like it: “What’s Going On,” by Marvin Gaye (and Obie Benson and Al Cleveland). Arguably it should be treated in terms of the concept album of which it’s a part, but all I have right now is the single so I’ll stick with that.

    Instrumentally it sounds to me like a Motown love song, especially 40+ years down the line, albeit a strange one, half-happy and half-sad, with a few jazzy elements albeit very, very light ones. It includes a layer that makes it sound like a party or gathering is going on in the background, a bit of production that seems to me designed to anchor the song in a welcoming social space, a context of community and openness. Vocally, Gaye and his backup singers use the techniques typical of the Motown sound for soul and R&B. It’s a storytelling song that captures, in a very compact way, a moment of massive social distress and distrust, but it acknowledges both sides of a divide and doesn’t just yell at somebody. The lyrics are touching but not especially poetic apart from the song. It’s also pretty good dance music, not very fast but not too slow either. And I think it functions as a kind of praise song, if we understand the object of praise to be Love with a capital-L, and not the naive childish “All You Need Is Love,” kind of love, but the sacrificing, courageous, nonviolent resistance kind of love.

    I don’t think it quite manages to transcend the quotidian, but I have to say that for me, since I spend way too much time being angry about politics and the state of the world in general, it’s a song that these days shakes my perspective every time I hear it. If my quotidian state is often one of anger and despair, then this is a song that, for a few minutes, helps me escape that state. (I realize this is totally a subjective thing.)

    In terms of commercial hybridity, the song would have shared in Marvin Gaye’s celebrity as a Motown star, and now it also basks in the glow of Gaye’s death in the way “Imagine” basks in the glow of Lennon’s. (Which is a horrible way to put it, but I can’t think of one better.)

    It’s also worth noting that Berry Gordy refused to release the song because he thought a protest record wouldn’t fit with the image of the Motown product; plus, he didn’t like the “jazzy” ornamentation that’s scattered here and there. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, Gaye had to go on strike, and Motown’s vice-president had to step in and go behind Berry Gordy’s back, to get it released.

    So it seems to me that in “What’s Going On” we have some of the best and worst of pop music hybridity together here in one song. To me, at least, it’s a small but multidimensional work that fills many functions and rises up to become more than the sum of its parts. At the same time the circumstances of its creation are an example of the artificial constraints put on music and creativity by corporate branding and a money-making soul-music machine that, ironically, placed money ahead of both soul and music (Or tried to…it turned out that this particular machine wasn’t quite monolithic. Not then, anyway.)

  11. Marvin
    Marvin May 11, 2013 at 4:18 am . Reply

    Comment 3.1 – Usage – reply to replies

    [We seem to have run out of room in the nested commenting scheme at “comment 3,” so I’ll reply here to your latest reply up there. Clear as mud? Groovy.]

    Re: Beyonce vs. Miles Davis on isohunt — Well, yes. Easy stuff is more popular than difficult stuff. That’s evidence for the dominance of popular culture over high art, which I don’t dispute, but there’s not enough detail there to tell us how genre might be causing young people to aesthetically ghettoize themselves within the domain of pop music. On the other hand, in torrent terms Kind of Blue is doing really well for an album that’s 50+ years old. Maybe that’s cause for hope? (Or more likely, sadly, it’s just an outlier, an exception that proves the rule.) And Beyonce is old enough that it’s probably the mothers torrenting her these days, not the kids. (Though a lot of those mothers were kids back when she was in Destiny’s Child, so eh, six of one, half-dozen of the other.) Anyways…

    Re: Cyndi Lauper — What a great interview! She makes me think of what an Amanda Palmer would endure without the Internet to give her an end-run around record labels, especially with her desire to combine visual art with music and to craft her public persona in ways empowering to others and not just for short term profit. I’d say she offers another really good example of a pop artist using well the multivalent possibilities of hybridity.

    And Lauper’s experience also provides a great example of the perfidy and general cruel stupidity of the music industry.

    Re: This is a world where music majors are destined to suffer. — Yes, alas. And I think that you’re right to note that I’ve helped make your point for you, at least in part, so thanks for clarifying the issue of genre churn vs. specific bands. Of course it’s not just music majors suffering; it’s any sensitive soul. It’s anyone who thinks we should read Jane Austen more than J.K. Rowling, look at old masters more than pop art, watch Laurence Olivier more than Robert Downey Jr., and so on, which is why I tend to think that the perfidy of the media industry is one piece of a bigger puzzle. Maybe it’s a bigger piece than the tip of the iceberg, but it’s hard to say just how big compared to other social forces at work. (I need to re-read Paul Fussel’s Bad: The Dumbing of America.)

    Re: mass media vs. west Texas and Saskatchewan — I can’t speak for Saskatchewan, obviously. But what I was trying to say is that without the media conduits that provided Nashville product, there would also have been no New York product, no London product, no Toronto product, no Detroit product… Meanwhile, the small towns of west Texas would have still had the folk and bluegrass and white gospel — all the stuff that made country & western seem familiar and welcome in the first place, and the values that C&W claimed to perpetuate. Country blues probably would have remained “other side of the tracks” music. And while that might have been more authentic from the perspective of a cultural anthropologist, I don’t think it would have been more liberating for kids growing up and searching for what to be. Having a half-dozen musical identities to choose from is far from ideal, but it’s arguably better than having only one or two.

    Then again, maybe the absence of mass media would have empowered those locals who cared to teach and share superior kinds of music. They did and do exist, so I don’t want to sell Odessa short in that regard. But I can’t help but suspect that such instances form a smaller percentage of the infinite alternate universes than the percentage that represents the alternate universes in which the pre-existing monocultural tendencies persisted and ossified to an even greater degree.

    Re: Does genre exacerbate the Lord-of-the-Flies character of youth culture? — Maybe it does. But how and why are important, and I want to think about it a bit. I have an idea percolating that should go in the next “major” comment, #9, about identity. Don’t let me off the hook on this one.

    Re: Is Justin Bieber a victim (a “sad, novelty-kiddie show”)? — Maybe. I guess he’s 19 now? But I watched a bit of one of his videos (maybe an older one) and I was reminded of the poor girls who excel in pre-teen beauty pageants, a mesmerizing horror.

    Re: music teachers — Your point is well taken. And I’d guess that many music students aren’t really students, either. They’re kids going through the motions because someone ordered them to, or they’re so anxious to rock out that they won’t slow down to learn how stuff actually works, because nobody has set a good example of what cultural striving can be.

  12. Marvin
    Marvin May 16, 2013 at 12:41 am . Reply


    [Mother’s Day and birthday-related shenanigans accomplished…back to work! Er, “work.”]

    On the simple side of things, it’s easy to agree that if a person only knows the genres of pop music that typically appear on commercial radio and TV, and especially if a person only listens to music in one or two of those genres, and especially if a person really only pays attention to the “flavor of the day” pop-stars, then that person is missing most of what music has to offer. And it’s a deficit a person might not even suspect unless he or she can acquire an educated/elevated perspective from which to view the field of possibility.

    And it’s easy to agree that producers of pop music have a vested interest in keeping their customers’ tastes predictable. The business of art is intrinsically uncertain, so the more the world of music can be shaped to behave like a commodities market at the points of production, distribution, and sale, the more stable one’s business will be. If a recording company has to do business like an independent art gallery or a gourmet restaurant, it can expect to go out of business pretty quickly more often than not. But if it can operate like a hog farm or a petrochemical company, or better yet a diversified corporation with subsidiaries that deal in a wide range of commodities, so the business doesn’t fold if country-western suddenly tanks while hip-hop skyrockets, then that’s a viable long-term proposition.

    It’s less clear to me that a mass media corporation has an interest in keeping customers’ tastes narrow (relative to popular entertainment in general, I mean). You’d think they’d want people to fear they’re missing something if they’re not buying from all genres instead of just one, and that might explain the music industry’s fetish for cross-over collaborations.

    But everything I’ve read about what it’s like to be a popular musician in a traditional recording contract suggests that commodification is what it’s all about, since “make good art” isn’t a business model. That’s why performers and bands that have long careers tend to hire their own people or create their own companies or, if they’re too small for that, become really sharp independent business-people.

    I think music journalism tends to reinforce the commodity business model, perhaps not always intentionally, since even music critics looking for new sounds and messages tend to buy into the genre-based labeling of pop music, tend to ignore jazz and classical, and still routinely publish lists of best-sellers rather than lists of “best to hear.” (Not that they don’t make recommendations based strictly on quality, but bestseller lists are updated constantly and they inform what’s put on the radio and what goes on store shelves.) So in this sense music journalism tends to be complicit, at least in part, with the corporate agenda.

    So I think we have a lot of points of agreement about the downsides of the business of pop music, at least the “toxic” variety. But when it comes to identity-formation and soul-making, things can get very complicated very quickly.

    For instance, there’s often a cause-and-effect or chicken-and-egg problem to unravel. Does the misleading deployment of pop-music genre categories really exacerbate the dysfunctional aspects of growing up (bullying, cliquishness, etc.)? One could quickly veer into West Side Story with such a theory. Or does it just provide a convenient bit of set-dressing for conflict based on difference that would happen anyway around race, class, gender, and sexuality, not to mention personal history? Pretty much everyone is prone to some amount of negative, status-seeking, or defensive behavior, especially at a young age, but a somewhat smaller percentage, it seems to me, are prone to instigate physical bullying and violence.

    My own experience with bullying suggests that it was being a loner — not having a group of friends around most of the time — that made me vulnerable to bullying. I looked like a “soft target,” and in my case it’s hard to imagine that a change of clothes to reflect a particular pop sensibility would have changed that. I don’t think those kids picked me to target because of my musical tastes, which were mostly invisible since I didn’t have any of the right fashion accessories to make a musical statement. What did change things was fighting back (although I still had to be on my toes). In your case, with the protective camouflage (is that a fair way to put it?) of Guns & Roses, was it the pop-affiliation that helped, or was it the pose of an angry young man on the verge of lashing out, that just happened to be rendered in the idiom of the day?

    I mean, I think it’s a pretty old practice to tell victims of bullying to toughen up, and that the first step of toughing up is to act tough — don’t display weakness. Without the extra touch of a band’s patch we’d still use posture, gaze, fashion, voice, and mannerism to do this. And what I feel like I’ve learned about the time before mass media is that bullying and abuse have often if not always been rampant, not just between kids but from parents, teachers, employers, priests, masters. I’m just not sure modern pop music has much exacerbating left to do.

    On another tack, what does it mean for music to contribute to identity-formation when it’s music that also transcends social context? How does that kind of transcending really happen?

    It’s easy to see how popular music would contribute to identity, whether for good or for ill, by telling you stories about yourself and others, or by reinforcing a bit of conventional wisdom (or a disruptive narrative) by setting it in a halo of pleasure or beauty. But the kind of music that is strictly about the music seems a bit more problematic in this respect.

    On the one hand, I can see an argument that such music, by not being about a *verbal* narrative, would at least allow a person to explore a domain of aesthetic pleasure without being obliged to receive another person’s verbal thoughts and feelings. In this case it’s the absence of something that gives the mind room to expand and grow and maybe realize, “Hey, the possibilities are infinite.” That alone, that shaking from genretic slumber, would justify characterizing pure music as a way to improve the soul.

    On the other hand, it seems (to my outsider eyes) that the more one studies performers, composers, and theory, the more one enters into a new social context. Partly it’s the social context of a person who makes a life out of studying music; but it’s also (or so I imagine) the social context of one who hears histories and arguments and personalities when listening. Narratives of persona and politics (personal, professional, public) and perhaps even commerce would inevitably become part of the experience, alongside the experience of music-as-music, turning what was pure music into a more hybrid experience. Maybe it’s a more scholarly hybridity, less compromised by some celebrity’s public relations and marketing; and surely the act of learning itself is positive in a soul-making way; but is there any reason that active-learning approach, applied to popular music, wouldn’t be as soul-making?

    (Granted, a lot would depend on whether you chose to study Justin Bieber or Living Colour or Louis Armstrong or, say, [somebody’s] folk-music of the [whatever] era.)

    So there’s a question: does the experience of transcending social context through music depend to some degree on an ignorance that accompanies a moment of “aha!”? Does it matter if the “aha!” happens when listening to classical, jazz, or a popular performer whose style or message happens to be new to the listener? Or is the transcendence a function of the absence of a narrative payload, so to speak, in the music; and does a Catch-22 exist where the music becomes burdened with narrative the more one learns about it? (Not that it becomes any less good, but that the opportunity for some kinds of transcendence has passed.)

    Or are there multiple forms of transcendence through music? One might be the transcendence from narrative into abstraction, but another might be the (more prosaic?) transcendence from a single narrative into a web of narrative, or even just the experience of being jolted out of one’s everyday narrative. Pure music would seem to facilitate the former; a broad appreciation of popular music (beyond just the “toxic”) might facilitate the latter; and I expect there’d be some overlap.

  13. Marvin
    Marvin May 16, 2013 at 5:44 am . Reply


    I don’t know if I’ve come to any grand conclusions, but I find myself with this phrase in my head:

    “Popular music is about people first, and music second. Classical music (including modern classical, improvisational jazz, and experimental stuff I don’t know how to name) is about music first, and people second.”

    The two categories aren’t impermeable to one another, and I suspect that history might lead us sometimes to misclassify things. For example, I suspect that a lot of liturgical and sacred music, though classical in composition and form, and although categorized as classical music in the public imagination and by historical habit, is functionally pop music — maybe even toxic pop — because of the banality of its sentiment, the frequency of its repetition, and the means and motives of its deployment. For a less politically fraught example, there’s also the case of popular operatic arias becoming things that ordinary people sing in the streets, or while they work, blurring the line between popular and classical music; but even if the music is from a light opera, its popularity doesn’t stop it being “classical music.”

    From the other direction, I think that a pop song, thanks in part to the hybridity it can summon, can do some of that “transcending the quotidian” or “transcending social context” work that we usually reserve for higher art, though a lot of that might depend on the performer, the audience, and the moment (but then we’d expect that, what with the hybridity and all).

    I remember a couple of years ago I saw Tim Minchin play in Austin. Minchin’s act was a mix of stand-up comedy and comic songs, with a few sentimental songs thrown in as well. (He doesn’t like to be restricted to just one thing.) His topics were generally aimed at puncturing sacred cows: lots of skeptical, atheist, and anti-religious themes, with a generous dose of general social commentary on the side. The crowd loved him.

    When he came out for his third encore, he said, “On nights when I make it this far, I like to close the show by murdering Cohen.” So he played…”Hallelujah.” (Still rolling your eyes? Ok, I’ll give you a minute….)

    For some reason the timing was perfect. Maybe the audience was so tired from laughing, or maybe Minchin’s piano and voice were sufficiently understated, that the song seemed to slip right past our cynical “oh fuck, not that overplayed mess again” filters. Or maybe we assumed it would quickly be turned into a gag — but it wasn’t, and after a moment we were hooked. Minchin sang the verses, and the entire audience spontaneously and softly sang the chorus. Now arguably I’m easy, but by the end of that song I was weeping, and I wasn’t alone. It was joy and grief and “holy shit what just happened” and “oh my goodness, I’m surrounded by such beautiful, beautiful people” all mixed together.

    I don’t know if I’d call that transcending social context — maybe it was hyper-awareness of social context, some opposite extreme from transcendence — but it was electrifying, hair-standing on end, heart-in-throat stuff. It was also showmanship and theatrical hybridity in spades. How should we classify something like this? Was it just the gullibility of the crowd, or did pop music achieve something truly good and worthy of the name of art?

    I worry about that. Deliberately crowd-pleasing acts — and for that matter, pleasure itself — seem to make us suspicious (rightfully so, much of the time). Popular music is full of crowd-pleasing gestures, some of which are astonishingly cheesy and even cynical, but classical music is not exactly short of melodrama, schmaltz, and humor, even if sometimes you need to know a bit more music history and theory to appreciate it. If the crowd-service is just playing the right song at the right time, if the pleasure is deliberate and transparent, does that invalidate the song in some way?

    It’s a self-centered question because, let’s face it, a lot of my pleasures are cheap, easy, deliberate, and transparent. :-D

  14. Marvin
    Marvin June 9, 2013 at 12:04 pm . Reply

    I think I see (or rather, hear) what you mean by comparing the swing-i-ness of Son Seals vs. the Kinsey Report. If I use my fingers to beat a triplet for every quarter note, then I can far more easily find Seals working to that framework than I can the Kinsey Report. (And on a variety of songs, not just the ones I posted.) And I think (or feel, not that I’ve researched this at all) that Son Seals is more the norm for both acoustic and electric blues.

    Which is why I like the Kinsey Report, I think: they seems a little bit more urban, a little bit more “industrial” than most of the other blues I hear, which tends to be infused with a kind of pastoral nostalgia, where the singer might have moved north to work on the Cadillac assembly line, but his heart is still in Mississippi (“where the fat is at”. The KR is more “square” and even brittle in its rhythm, but against the backdrop of a lot of other blues this becomes novel (or so it seemed to me years ago when I first heard them). To me they still sound just a bit different, not quite R&B or soul or funk or rock, but right out on the edge of what could be called blues, a bit unsettled, with a post-Cadillac sound that can no longer reach back to the farm for touchstones of reassurance, and in that sense it sounds very real and honest to me.

    Of course, that’s assuming the relative squareness is intentional and not just a representative of a chronic failure to swing. And I have to confess that I do find myself listening more often to Son Seals than the Kinsey Report. I’d say that compared to the “industrial” Report, Seals is more “country” (more rootsy in terms of the blues idiom, that is, and not more country-western). And I think that regional or provincial rootsiness is part of what I and a lot of other casual blues fans are looking for, whether we’ve thought much about it or not. But the Kinsey Report makes a nice change from the usual, within that narrow sphere, and I like it for that.

    None of which is to suggest that this kind of rhythm is more accomplished than what happens in a more technically challenging jazz format, just that it makes me really happy.

    (Then again… I seem to be the sort of person who, in a city full of good restaurant choices, will somehow manage to drive a foodie coworker to a smoky neighborhood dive bar for burgers. Not out of spite, but just because he refused to make up his goddamn mind, and at the end of a very long day during a business trip a sign saying “Burgers and Cocktails” looked really good to me. And I enjoyed my meal immensely. So, you know, consider the source.)

  15. Marvin
    Marvin June 22, 2013 at 7:23 am . Reply

    Howdy, Gord —

    A brief detour back up the thread before I return to your latest posts…

    My goodness, I think you’ve led me to what Lovecraft and Mies Davis have in common: it’s precisely their use of space; Lovecraft was purple, yes, but he wasn’t bombastic: there was always a kind of vague shadowiness around the terrifying things. Like Miles’ music: the “coolness” in it — something that seems to have obsessed Davis — was implied to be lurking in the interstitial spaces between the things he chose to play.

    Cool. (Or should that be “awesome!”? Maybe…groovy.) My understanding has always been that what’s “cool” is what remains hidden. A mysterious stranger is cool; an open book is not. But the mysterious stranger is cool only if he’s attractive, so there has to be some kind of hook for people to latch onto before you can tantalize them with hidden depths. And coolness is a trap, too, because unless the depths continue to unfold in ways that point to new mysteries, the coolness just turns into a kind of withdrawal. Or worse, emptiness.

    (Failing to understand the need for attractiveness and to work at continual unfolding is probably why so many people who try so hard to be cool — I’m thinking of my sad 7th-grade self, and shuddering in horror — fail so miserably at it, coming off as merely brooding and pretentious instead.)

    Dipping into a more recent post:

    (Huh, and see, there’s another piece of the puzzle for that jazz alt-history SF novel I’ve been thinking about writing after the current novel project. Yeah, of course it is. This conversation has been so enriching for me. Thanks, Marvin!)

    You’re welcome! And it’s a relief to hear, if I’m honest, because as this conversation has rambled on I’ve started to worry that I’m forcing you to waste time (out of the goodness of your heart) beating a dead (to you) horse while I flail around trying to catch up. I feel like I’m learning a lot, so I’m glad you’re getting something out of the exchange as well.

    But if this ever becomes tiresome or a distraction from your real work, please feel free to say “It’s time to move on.” For my part, if I get to where I’m feeling worn out, I’ll do the same.

    But not yet! Back to the music (and back up the thread)…

    The “being together” thing is relatively harder when you’re playing within the rhythmic conception of the Son Seals tune, but even there, I’m guessing mostly they’ve played that stuff a million times before, and so on. It’s not a slag, it’s not an unworthy thing…but it isn’t what impresses me in a performance. Seeing musicians who haven’t played together make it somehow work can, though, even in cases where they’re playing music that’s not exactly my thing.

    I understand. But I also just realized something else that has been lurking at the edge of my consciousness for a while now, and which has been an undercurrent throughout the conversation: the frequency which which you describe what impresses you. Whereas I almost never ask of music, “Does this impress me?” Instead I ask, “Am I enjoying this?” and then if I hear something that’s undeniably impressive — to my ears, anyway — then I’ll think, “Wow, I’m impressed!” But being impressed is something that comes as a pleasant surprise (sometimes) after I’ve filtered for what I enjoy.

    So far I think I’ve been taking it for granted that this is a reflection of a difference in training — your history of formal musical education and autodidacticism, versus my history as a comparatively lazy layperson. But I wonder how much is temperament. [Insert an awful pun about a well-tempered connoisseur here.] I often joke how I’m blessed with the ability to be easily amused, but maybe that’s not a blessing from the perspective of cultural accomplishment.

    I also am thinking now of the night we saw Eric Johnson sit in with–who was it?–and I’m thinking about swing and it strikes me that the way Johnson plays “Cliffs of Dover” on Ah Via Musicom has a fair amount of that in it:

    And not just that: a lot of modern performances of so-called Celtic music (including bagpipe bands) has a swingy element to the rhythm. It’s not like jazz swing, exactly, it’s more squarish usually, but it is swing. (And may even be another part of the story of jazz, I don’t know, though I’m pretty sure the main root of swing is the melding of African rhythmic conceptions with European ones. To be clear, I’m not arguing swing is Scottish and was arrived at independent of African music; just that European folk music seems not to have been as primarily squarish (subdivisions of 2s, as opposed to 3s) as formal, composed music for a long time seems to have been.)

    Do we call it “lilting” when it’s Eurocentric and “swinging” when it’s Afrocentric? Though I suppose lilting has other musical connotations, but it makes me think of things that go “laa de daa de daa” with a kind of triplet feel but without funkiness or a backbeat.

    I find more and more that there’s enough of a gap between myself and people who grew up with the internet: they seem to find endless fascination in what even they freely admit to be garbage; they watch or listen, then mock, then consume it some more, and seem to sort of bask in the shittiness of it. (I’ve known many people of my own generation who consumed what was obviously (to me) crap with a vigor, but they themselves didn’t feel it was crap. The awareness that it is to some degree crap (corporate, retread, calculatedly stupid) seems somehow to have become a turn-on, though. It baffles me, but I see crap and “fail” being celebrated more and more.)

    I find it sad that I immediately think of Doctor Who. And not the shittiness of 1970s-era cardboard spaceships, but the shittiness of inexcusable 21st-century brainlessly sexist sociopathic self-important timey-wimey twaddle. (And there’s much worse stuff out there, of course, but Doctor Who has been a keen source of disappointment for me lately just because I loved the old stuff so much as a kid.)

    I suppose my optimism comes from watching what emerges from fan communities where, sure, people glom onto the stars and do the whole fanboy/fangirl thing, but people also start fixing things and exploring things in fan fiction and fan art that the corporate product fails to address.

    It’s not the same as having a clear, well-designed piece of art to begin with, and the good stuff tends to be hopelessly muddled together with the mediocre and the awful, and although I should immediately issue a disclaimer regarding my lack of expertise, it does seem like there’s a fascinating ongoing project of collective self-curation within fan communities that helps elevate the best while encouraging makers of the worst to keep trying. So an event or a relationship that ought to have been handled with depth and care but was neglected by the corporate process ends up being explored with almost fractal intensity and detail by the fans. Because when you start making stuff and start caring about it, even silly jokes and slashy pr0n fic contain the seeds of “Hm, next time I’ll do this a bit better. And then a bit more better….”

    When I’m feeling optimistic I feel like I see little baby Übermenschen running around all over the place. And then I read some of the comments on their blogs and tumlbrs and youtube channels and want to shoot myself in the head. So there’s a bit of good, and a bit of bad… But I don’t let it bother me too much since I remind myself that Sturgeon’s Law is always in effect. I think the Lovecraft phenomena might be a good example of this: dozens of pros and thousands of amateurs exploring every nook, cranny, and variation on the original themes that they can imagine until there’s a large body of really interesting stuff out there to enjoy and play with and learn from.

    I think another reason I remain optimistic about popular art is that, like democracy, it helps tell where people’s heads are at (whether for good or ill). The paradigm of the great artist pushing the boundaries of his form while exposing us to some grand essential truth about the human condition is all very good, but it seems to me an inescapable fact of history that thousands of years of high art have left most people’s lives not just unexplored but positively trampled in the mud.

    The role of industrialized mass culture in effacing the identities and voices of the masses by substituting it’s own commercial product is one of the evils you’ve described, and I think it’s an evil against both high culture and popular art. I think I persist in defending pop because it seems to me that it doesn’t automatically follow that something resembling “high art” is automatically the answer to both acts of cultural vandalism (against both the “high” and the “pop”).

    (Not that I’m accusing you of denigrating pop with a broad brush, to be clear. But I want to really celebrate it.)

    I keep thinking of the gay rights movement, of feminism, of the new atheist rights movement, and of how the personal is also political. I keep thinking of how the biggest factor in fighting homophobia and atheo-phobia is simply the act of coming out and making yourself known to friends and family, so that they no longer have the luxury of damning a group without simultaneously damning people they care about.

    And I keep thinking that every human being is faced with the challenge of coming out of his or her own heart every day; and I see no evidence that being literate and well-versed in the high culture that has been made to date is sufficient to facilitate and support this need (though undoubtedly it helps). So while it would be wonderful if everyone had the opportunity to study art and music with the depth it deserves, I can’t help but think that maybe it would be even better if everyone had just enough training to make three chords and the truth (their own truth), maybe with a bit of a beat, so that all their neighbors can hear it, or maybe just enough brushwork to make happy trees and fuzzy clouds, or broken trees and stormy clouds, so that all their neighbors can see it; or just enough facility with words or with Photoshop to create some little thing that captures the utter glee or abject disappointment that resulted from this thing they just saw at the movies.

    So I get excited about the idea of a high-tech, low-training popular art movement that helps make us known to one another. It’s not a substitute for the high, abstract art that takes years of study and mastery, but I think the world desperately needs healthy pop as well, all across the spectrum. We need our Dostoevsky and we need our gangster rap both. (Or at least I do.)

    1. Marvin
      Marvin June 23, 2013 at 1:10 am . Reply

      Huh, looks like I’m still really hung up on the class thing. Maybe that needs to be a long-term project for me to figure out. In the next-to-last paragraph above I think I might sound like I’m advocating an binary choice between deep, narrow study and superficial performance, but that’s not really my intent. It’s more that artistic self-expression is the flip side of artistic reception, and I tend to be in favor of whatever can make the former easier. The image of a large mute audience listening raptly to the virtuoso they (mostly, probably) barely understand is grand, but I also want the members of that audience to go home and shine for one another, and it seems to me that popular art and music ought to facilitate the latter. Toxic pop doesn’t do it, but other forms might.

  16. Marvin
    Marvin September 4, 2013 at 6:01 am . Reply

    Gord —

    I’m sorry about the ridiculously long delay. It wasn’t my intent to bug out so abruptly, but I went navel-gazing and got lost in the lint. Several things hit me very close to home, and what I thought would be a brief crisis of conscience turned into major exercise in procrastination.

    Thing the first, from John Taylor Gatto:

    Jacques Ellul, whose book Propaganda is a reflection on the phenomenon, warned us that prosperous children are more susceptible than others to the effects of schooling because they are promised more lifelong comfort and security for yielding wholly:

    Critical judgment disappears altogether, for in no way can there ever be collective critical judgment….The individual can no longer judge for himself because he inescapably relates his thoughts to the entire complex of values and prejudices established by propaganda. With regard to political situations, he is given ready-made value judgments invested with the power of the truth by…the word of experts.

    The new dumbness is particularly deadly to middle- and upper-middle-class kids already made shallow by multiple pressures to conform imposed by the outside world on their usually lightly rooted parents. When they come of age, they are certain they must know something because their degrees and licenses say they do. They remain so convinced until an unexpectedly brutal divorce, a corporate downsizing in midlife, or panic attacks of meaninglessness upset the precarious balance of their incomplete humanity, their stillborn adult lives. Alan Bullock, the English historian, said Evil was a state of incompetence. If true, our school adventure has filled the twentieth century with evil.

    Ellul puts it this way:

    The individual has no chance to exercise his judgment either on principal questions or on their implication; this leads to the atrophy of a faculty not comfortably exercised under [the best of] conditions…Once personal judgment and critical faculties have disappeared or have atrophied, they will not simply reappear when propaganda is suppressed…years of intellectual and spiritual education would be needed to restore such faculties. The propagandee, if deprived of one propaganda, will immediately adopt another, this will spare him the agony of finding himself vis a vis some event without a ready-made opinion.

    Once the best children are broken to such a system, they disintegrate morally, becoming dependent on group approval. A National Merit Scholar in my own family once wrote that her dream was to be “a small part in a great machine.” It broke my heart. What kids dumbed down by schooling can’t do is to think for themselves or ever be at rest for very long without feeling crazy; stupefied boys and girls reveal dependence in many ways easily exploitable by their knowledgeable elders.

    According to all official analysis, dumbness isn’t taught (as I claim), but is innate in a great percentage of what has come to be called “the workforce.” Workforce itself is a term that should tell you much about the mind that governs modern society. According to official reports, only a small fraction of the population is capable of what you and I call mental life: creative thought, analytical thought, judgmental thought, a trio occupying the three highest positions on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Just how small a fraction would shock you. According to experts, the bulk of the mob is hopelessly dumb, even dangerously so. Perhaps you’re a willing accomplice to this social coup which revived the English class system. Certainly you are if your own child has been rewarded with a “gifted and talented” label by your local school. This is what Dewey means by “proper” social order.

    I remember struggling to get and measure up to that “gifted and talented” label (called “Pupils Excelling in Aptitude & Knowledge (PEAK)” in grade school and “Plan II” in college — barf), worrying about it, being proud of it, and being shocked and disgusted later to discover it meant so little. I regret to say that the “new dumbness” is a term that resonates uncomfortably as well.

    Thing the second, from you:

    I suspect what I’m really railing against here is sort of that: that no longer is it expected of literate, educated, and cultured people (and no more do they expect it of themselves) to try to self-cultivate a cultured literacy when it comes to the arts and entertainment… to cultivate in themselves itches that kid stuff cannot scratch, or to develop a taste for things they may not have enjoyed in a simpler, more black-and-white time.

    I don’t mean to say that I ever completely gave up, but I’ve certainly spent too much time reading silly things, watching silly things, and playing silly video games to hope to live up to any intellectual ideal I might set for myself or for anybody else. Certainly many of my tastes and habits are rooted in nostalgia and sentimentality rather than adventure and discovery.

    A few months ago Sturdy Helpmeet(TM) was talking about the ways in which people’s body’s are pictured and sold in mass media, and she asked me, “If you could have the body you really wanted or the mind you really wanted, which would it be?” And I was forced to admit that I spend a lot more time and money keeping my middle-aged body running (CrossFit, swimming, running, cycling, backyard calisthenics) than I do improving my mind. So maybe I already made that choice. (Sadly I actually possess neither. Ha!)

    And that leads me to thing the third:

    You’re right, of course, to challenge me about art, music, and literature, especially the novel, addressing the lives of ordinary people — that was a silly thing for me to overlook, and I feel like I’ve been worrying at some old scabs trying to figure out why I did.

    Hm. I’d be interested in hearing about that. When you have time, that is…

    tl;dr — Rookie mistakes are made by rookies. Read on for the long version…

    The first thing that cannot be overlooked in this case is simple ignorance on my part (or innocence, or “being out of practice,” if we want to be generous). I haven’t studied in an academic setting in over 20 years, and even when I was an undergraduate I didn’t make a particular study of the literature, music, or art except in the most Introductory/101 course kind of way.

    That crisis of conscience I mentioned above came in part because, if I’m (what feels like being) brutally honest, I was a terrible student, with a talent for getting grades masking my complete failure to figure out why I was in school, what I wanted to accomplish, or how to use the opportunity to build a foundation for either a career or a graduate course of study. My limited understanding of what I was doing included a naive and idealistic sense of higher education as a theologically inflected pursuit for capital-T Truth and capital-W Wisdom. I was obsessed with a vaguely mystical “big picture” at the expense of scholarly detail. At the end of my undergraduate career I graduated with honors but emotionally I was a flaming wreck, in a state of proud denial of my disillusionment.

    Nor have I made any organized attempt — key word “organized” — to study humanities since I graduated/burned out of college, joined the workforce, got married, and started living the life of a bourgeois householder. I will occasionally delve into something “advanced” just for the hell of it, but it’s generally not with any grand organized scheme or goal in mind. Often the impulse is fueled by a sentimental vision of what the educated person is supposed to be: “Oh, I think I’ll see if I can learn something about the ancient Greeks this week.” “I really need to read Moby-Dick again.” But then a cool new SF book will come out, or twitter will beckon, or a game, or I’ll remember the bike sitting in the shed.

    There’s another confession I need to make: I never really understood English/literature as a course of study. The hardest thing I ever did in school was think up essays to write about works of fiction assigned in a syllabus. “3000 words on Dante” — that kind of thing. I could answer a specific question on an exam — I tested well — but I could never think up a meaningful question for the purpose of answering it in an assignment, so essays always turned into traumatic last-minute scrambles. Thanks to my vaguely mystical preconception of Truth, everything had to be about something ultimate all the time.

    And when I went to read secondary materials to get an idea of how other academics and critics wrote about literature, all I could ever see was obscurantist jargon and some of the least appetizing prose imaginable. I can’t remember any teacher explaining how or why to study English literature (other than, “This is what educated people do”). I can’t recall anyone explaining interpretive movements or theories of criticism — or maybe I was just deaf to such instruction and unsuited to the discipline. Other people seemed to figure it out, after all, so why not me? Regardless, I was always so panicked trying to keep up appearances that it never occurred to me to seek remedial instruction or a guide.

    Inexplicably, I got decent grades — maybe I was good at intuiting and playing to teachers’ prejudices.

    So something important about the literary corner of the humanities just never made sense to me, but at the same time I put it on a very high pedestal — studying great works was how we unlocked TRUTH and proved ourselves worthy, after all. I understood wanting to wallow in literature like a happy pig in a mud-puddle of words and perspectives, and I understood wanting to learn more about a writer and the times in which she lived, and I even understood wanting to write, but I never understood the rules of the academic game and never even figured out how to ask the right questions.

    Maybe it’s because I was ashamed to admit I didn’t know — scratch the “maybe”: I know I was ashamed to admit I didn’t know — but also, I think, because I didn’t know the words needed to ask the question. “I’m hopelessly lost and don’t know where to begin” or “I don’t understand why we study literature,” would have been too embarrassing. “This is bullshit,” would have been too rude, and too much a confession of proud, shameless ignorance. And I didn’t know how to find a place in the middle where I could get what I needed.

    So rookie mistakes are made by rookies, and despite a few outwardly visible credentials that’s really what I am.

    (At this point I should attach a disclaimer to my hindsight: I did often enjoy my literature classes. The books were usually good and the classroom discussions were often fun. Sometimes I convinced myself that I had something worthwhile to say in an essay. But the gap between that and meaningful academic work, much less feeling at home in it, always seemed huge and uncrossable.)

    Philosophy I enjoyed, I think, because unlike in literature I could see a light in the forest. Eventually I liked it because it seemed endlessly deep. (Also, gratifyingly, it’s often not very hard to see the holes in arguments made hundreds or thousands of years ago.) The classes had an ethic that aggressively fought for clarity and against obscurantism. (Sentences should be straightforward and clear; jargon had to be defined and justified and used in the right context. Arguments required evidence and logic.) Sometimes philosophy even helped me figure out what was going on in literature…unlike what little I understood of literary theory. I acquired the prejudice that English majors could bullshit but philosophy majors could actually write.

    And philosophy appealed to my quasi-mystical desire for a Truth that stood above and unified science and spirituality. It tackled many of the same big questions that literature, art, religion, and even science claimed to address, but went deeper, or so it seemed. I still liked reading philosophy and literature when I graduated, but I was so burned out on school that I ran away from it like Forrest Gump from the army.

    Thing the fourth:

    In the meantime, does the guy commenting at the beginning of this remind you of anyone? (I ask with a grin.)


    I figure it’s a sign of how times have changed–not only for the worse, though mostly for the worse–that what he said about the guitar is something far fewer people would acknowledge as a valid description of reality. (My own experience in bands over the years suggests he’s quite right.)

    One reason for my long procrastination is that it took a while for me to figure out why I react so negatively, indeed violently, to this guy. And I think it’s because he’s an almost perfect, even archetypal, representation of the culture-bully, the class-bully (as opposed to classroom bully, something else entirely), that in my nightmares has always threatened to expose and ridicule me as a moral fraud and a mental defective. He’s the repulsively alluring gatekeeper to class, to high culture, and to gifted-and-talentedness, and I want both to be him and to put a knife into him.

    Which probably explains in part why not for one second do I think the announcer is really talking about the guitar or the state of its performance. Not that he doesn’t have a point in a trivial sense: if there’s a guitar in every bedroom, most guitarists will not be very proficient.

    But I think he’s using his position to signal that youth culture, lower-class culture, and probably even racial-minority culture are going to kept very firmly in their places. “See?” he’s saying, “the virtuosity of these musicians proves that your music and the experiences and points of view that accompany it can be despised and ignored, and they will be.” And I have to wonder if Almeida and the Modern Jazz Quartet enjoyed being used to send that particular message. It’s one thing to be praised for your skills, but quite another to be used to put other people down.

    (I mean, if jazz is now a white upper-class tool for disqualifying popular expression, then is it any wonder that jazz ceased to be popular?)

    So the music is wonderful, or it ought to be, but the announcer single-handedly turns it into the elevator music. Why yes, I too will give up the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the blues, folk, funk, Dylan, and the protest songs; I’ll give it all up for another rendition of something that sounds an awful lot like “The Girl from Ipanema.” Just for that man’s approval! Golly! How exciting! How fulfilling!

    (Annoying irony: I actually like “The Girl from Ipanema.”)

    Moreover, I don’t think I can bring myself to concede that any guitar was ever “abused” by being played in something other than a classical style. No instrument was ever “abused” by being played in a manner that didn’t fit another person’s preconceptions of what’s proper — that’s just an expression of entitlement. All the guy is saying is this: “Views I don’t approve of being promoted by music I don’t like constitutes an abuse of all right-thinking people like me.” Please.


    If I pick a little more at my psychic scabs, I’m also forced to concede that I want the approval and praise of the kind of people who get to speak like that. I feel like I’ve been taught to believe that the grass really is greener on the other side, and I want very badly to be worthy of it. High Art…up on that Athenian hill…maybe somebody like this guy really does have the key…! Sometimes I experience that desire as something positive and aspirational — Art! Culture! What could be better? — and sometimes I experience it as evidence of my own hollow, social-climbing pretentiousness, and it makes me feel dirty.

    The weird thing is, I think that 20 years ago, this internal conflict about high culture would have been entirely foreign to me. I would have seen high culture through the prism of my years as a student, getting (mostly) good grades and lots of academic approval within a system organized around satisfying my needs (needs defined by whom…?) as a middle-class white guy, even though I often didn’t understand what I was doing. Now I find myself sympathizing, even empathizing, more with the students who struggled to see the point of it all.

    I don’t doubt that part of this change stems from my middle-aged disappointment with myself, and maybe some resentful projection stemming from that disappointment. But I think a lot of it also comes from seeing schools treated more and more like prisons; from seeing the arbitrary viciousness of class and race warfare as it’s waged by the top; from seeing the kids in my extended family, both black and white, living in a world so far removed from the one I thought I grew up in that it’s almost impossible to comprehend…but maybe that’s just because I never really understood what I was getting when I was growing up.

    Gord, again I apologize for making you wait so long for a response, and now I want to apologize further for a response that’s all me me me me me. I don’t know how whiny and self-serving the forgoing stuff sounds to another person, but I have some suspicions. And still there are a hundred other more interesting things from our discussion (oh god I just looked at the one comment right before this one and aaaarrrrghhh) that I’ve left untouched.

    But if you were sitting back wondering (you know, a couple of months ago), “Where the f— is this dude coming from?” then maybe that answers it, at least in part.

    And now to post this before I chicken out and decide it needs more “proofreading”….


  17. Marvin
    Marvin September 5, 2013 at 2:00 am . Reply

    I mean to post this yesterday as well, but I forgot. It’s relevant to our discussion re: the evils of commodification, and I don’t know whether you’re familiar with it. It’s a passage from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.

    The changes in the Mississippi River are great and strange, yet were to be expected; but I was not expecting to live to see Natchez and these other river towns become manufacturing strongholds and railway centers.

    Speaking of manufactures reminds me of a talk upon that topic which I heard — which I overheard — on board the Cincinnati boat. I awoke out of a fretted sleep, with a dull confusion of voices in my ears. I listened — two men were talking; subject, apparently, the great inundation. I looked out through the open transom. The two men were eating a late breakfast; sitting opposite each other; nobody else around. They closed up the inundation with a few words — having used it, evidently, as a mere ice-breaker and acquaintanceship-breeder — then they dropped into business. It soon transpired that they were drummers — one belonging in Cincinnati, the other in New Orleans. Brisk men, energetic of movement and speech; the dollar their god, how to get it their religion.

    ‘Now as to this article,’ said Cincinnati, slashing into the ostensible butter and holding forward a slab of it on his knife-blade, ‘it’s from our house; look at it — smell of it — taste it. Put any test on it you want to. Take your own time — no hurry — make it thorough. There now — what do you say? butter, ain’t it. Not by a thundering sight — it’s
    oleomargarine! Yes, sir, that’s what it is — oleomargarine. You can’t tell it from butter; by George, an expert can’t. It’s from our house. We supply most of the boats in the West; there’s hardly a pound of butter on one of them. We are crawling right along — jumping right along is the word. We are going to have that entire trade. Yes, and the hotel trade, too. You are going to see the day, pretty soon, when you can’t find an ounce of butter to bless yourself with, in any hotel in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys, outside of the biggest cities. Why, we are turning out oleomargarine now by the thousands of tons. And we can sell it so dirt-cheap that the whole country has got to take it — can’t get around it you see. Butter don’t stand any show — there ain’t any chance for competition. Butter’s had its day — and from this out, butter goes to the wall. There’s more money in oleomargarine than — why, you can’t imagine the business we do. I’ve stopped in every town from Cincinnati to Natchez; and I’ve sent home big orders from every one of them.’

    And so-forth and so-on, for ten minutes longer, in the same fervid strain. Then New Orleans piped up and said —

    Yes, it’s a first-rate imitation, that’s a certainty; but it ain’t the only one around that’s first-rate. For instance, they make olive-oil out of cotton-seed oil, nowadays, so that you can’t tell them apart.’

    ‘Yes, that’s so,’ responded Cincinnati, ‘and it was a tip-top business for a while. They sent it over and brought it back from France and Italy, with the United States custom-house mark on it to indorse it for genuine, and there was no end of cash in it; but France and Italy broke up the game — of course they naturally would. Cracked on such a rattling impost that cotton-seed olive-oil couldn’t stand the raise; had to hang up and quit.’

    ‘Oh, it did, did it? You wait here a minute.’

    Goes to his state-room, brings back a couple of long bottles, and takes out the corks — says:

    ‘There now, smell them, taste them, examine the bottles, inspect the labels. One of ‘m’s from Europe, the other’s never been out of this country. One’s European olive-oil, the other’s American cotton-seed olive-oil. Tell ‘m apart? ‘Course you can’t. Nobody can. People that want to, can go to the expense and trouble of shipping their oils to Europe and back — it’s their privilege; but our firm knows a trick worth six of that. We turn out the whole thing — clean from the word go — in our factory in New Orleans: labels, bottles, oil, everything. Well, no, not labels: been buying them abroad — get them dirt-cheap there. You see, there’s just one little wee speck, essence, or whatever it is, in a gallon of cotton-seed oil, that give it a smell, or a flavor, or something — get that out, and you’re all right — perfectly easy then to turn the oil into any kind of oil you want to, and there ain’t anybody that can detect the true from the false. Well, we know how to get that one little particle out — and we’re the only firm that does. And we turn out an olive-oil that is just simply perfect — undetectable! We are doing a ripping trade, too — as I could easily show you by my order-book for this trip. Maybe you’ll butter everybody’s bread pretty soon, but we’ll cotton-seed his salad for him from the Gulf to Canada, and that’s a dead-certain thing.’

    Cincinnati glowed and flashed with admiration. The two scoundrels exchanged business-cards, and rose. As they left the table, Cincinnati said —

    ‘But you have to have custom-house marks, don’t you? How do you manage that?’

    I did not catch the answer.

    We passed Port Hudson, scene of two of the most terrific episodes of the war — the night-battle there between Farragut’s fleet and the Confederate land batteries, April 14th, 1863; and the memorable land battle, two months later, which lasted eight hours — eight hours of exceptionally fierce and stubborn fighting — and ended, finally, in the repulse of the Union forces with great slaughter.

    I ran across this quote in another book, about the history and too-often fraudulent manufacture and sale of olive oil, called Extra Virginity, by Tom Mueller. The big take-away seems to be that commodification ruins everything, including commodities — or what we’ve come to call commodities — without a combination of aggressive regulation and broad education. Even the ancient Romans had to have a complicated system of checks and double-checks to make sure the stuff they imported from Greece and Spain and Turkey hadn’t been adulterated along the way (and who can tell if the system really worked?).

    Which I suppose raises another question: is a “commodity” even a thing? It occurs to me that I don’t really know except in a superficial sense. Hogs, soybeans, petroleum, steel? Agricultural products aren’t a fungible commodity to the people who grow their own and consume them themselves, but they are for people who buy in bulk at the grocery store. Steel looks like a commodity unless you need a very specific kind for a very specific application, in which case it might become an artisanal substance. Is iron ore a commodity, or does it cease to be a commodity if you start paying attention to the ethics of its extraction (mining practices, labor laws, etc.)?

    Maybe that’s too much of a tangent, but I thought I owed it to you to introduce Mr. Cincinnati and Mr. New Orleans.

    1. Marvin
      Marvin September 5, 2013 at 2:12 am . Reply

      Also… have you read Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue? It’s full of the kinds of issues we’ve been discussing here, including the infantilization of adulthood and the idea that there’s been an apocalypse in the world of music, specifically popular music with it’s turn away from instrumental virtuosity (jazz) to hip-hop, rock, and R&B. I found myself alternately enthralled and annoyed by Chabon’s storytelling, but it might be worth your time.

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