What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 5 — What I Listen to When I Listen to Popular Music

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series What We Talk About When We Talk About Music

This post is part of a series. Since the posts build upon one another successively, I suggest you start with the first post in the series.


In Part 3 of this series, I insisted that I actually do consume some of what everyone surely agrees is “popular music” by my definition of it–a hybrid form of performance art incorporating not just music but other performing arts, from theater and narrative storytelling and verse to fashion, makeup, dance, and more hyperreal narrative arts that are relatively new to the world, such as video and internet presence-management.

But I also insisted that when I consume it, I “listen” in ways that are much more like the way most people listen to popular music. That, for example, I don’t listen to a rock song the way I would a Bach Cello Sonata or a John Coltrane album.

I think that listing examples might be foolish–since, as I noted earlier in this series, one’s individual taste is idiosyncratic in many ways. And yet, I feel like sharing a few examples, not only to drive home the point that I do listen to some popular music, but also to emphasize that this mode of listening is not necessarily inferior to the mode by which one listens with a trained ear to music that demands one.

I do both. I think people who can do both lead richer lives. Of course, we must, as I noted in Part 4 of this series, resign ourselves to some degree–unless something really unexpected happens–to being someone who eats TV dinners in most areas of our lives, while rising above that in just a few areas.

Maybe you’re someone whose music is like TV dinners, but who approaches other areas of your life with the mindfulness I hold as so important. That’s fine. The one thing I think is truly, devastatingly tragic is the person who eats TV dinners in all areas of his or her life. Don’t be that person: you were put on this planet for more than that.

Anyway, some examples.

Nick Drake: Place to Be.

Nick Drake is probably the most heartbreaking popular musician I know. Not because of his personal story, the lack of recognition for his work and his premature death by suicide… I mean his work. Where most guitarists settle for three chords and a few licks, Nick Drake mastered the guitar. He plays it beautifully. I think his lyrics rise above the common mass, too; they express sentiment, not sentimentality, and the also refuse to take refuge in the illusion of normality. Drake was obviously depressed, and music strikes a chord with anyone who has struggled with that demon. His lyrics are intelligent, inventive, and haunting, even after a major auto company tried to use his music to sell cars. Yes, even “Pink Moon” still shines bright.

Mouse on Mars: Schnick Schnack. It sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard, right? Music is made of timbre and tone and rhythm, and one can be a virtuoso in creative their own instruments and playing with sounds.

This music refuses to be interchangeable, even though it’s extremely rudimentary in terms of most of its structural, harmonic, and melodic aspects: you cannot imagine a different group just playing the same way but singing different words over it. It is quite insistent in its timbral and textural identity and uniqueness. And if you speak French, it kinda-sorta tells a story in the middle, but not really. Narrative is irrelevant here. The story is about what Mouse on Mars sounds like, and how nothing else on Earth sounds like it.

Portishead: Glory Box. This whole album sounded unlike anything before, in that the musical content actually fit the dark gloominess of the songs. The lyrics and the music were weirdly off-center and unpredictable. The video is mediocre storytelling, but even it is ambiguous, strange, and inconclusive. A lot of people talk about musical lyrics as “poetry” but they’re distinct forms–with poetry usually being much more powerful, ambiguous, muscular, and weird. Portishead’s lyrics are still song lyrics, but they hang closer to the best traits of contemporary poetry than most lyrics in my opinion.

Hum: Mrs. Lazarus:

I’m not usually into heavy guitars, but this band was so consistently lyrically inventive… and they made the music actually fit the narratives they played with, which are some of the most unusual in popular music. I mean, this song is about some kind of time machine-riding man who keeps returning to the past to be with a woman he loved once, and loves still, but who has died. And it’s not nostalgic or sentimental… it’s just kind of weird and painful and loopy.

Yo La Tengo: Sugarcube. For one thing, the video? It shows what happens when the band is willing to throw evertything else out the window and refuse to stint on the video in the name of hybridity. They are mocking a lot of people, but they are also mocking themselves, gleefully… and most notably, they are mocking the hell out of the corporate, industrialized identity-manufacture of the pop music business. And why wouldn’t they: unlike many of the musicians they lampoon, if they found themselves having to pass as plain-looking (or slightly geeky), middle-aged office workers, their looks, at least, would ensure success for as long as they kept their mouths shut.

I’m also predisposed to like Yo La Tengo because they actually can play their instruments. I’ve seen them live. They not only can play their own instruments at a much higher level than most rock musicians I’ve seen play, but they can also play one anothers’, and do so live, onstage. If I had to choose only one rock band to ever listen to again, it would probably be Yo La Tengo, because, in a way, they distill all the component parts from the genre, sum it up, reformulate it, play it with a rare degree of proficiency–in other words, they approach this in the most music-like way of any band I know–and they do so dressed the same as I am on a given day, with a grin on their faces that suggests nonetheless that they know taking this stuff too seriously is like arguing with your TV.

That’s enough examples, I think.

You’ll notice that in many of the above cases, if I don’t mention the music, I talk about narrative, or some other component of the hybrid form that I feel is good enough to stand out as exemplary. So, yes, when I listen to popular music, I listen in much the same way as others–though the exception is that I have pretty high expectations for the narratives, for the dancing, for all those other components. This, in fact, is why I despise most popular music. If a group does amazing narratives and so-so music, I might like them a lot. If they do narratives and music both at the so-so level, I have no interest… but such bands or performers normally (and routinely) top the popular music charts.

I could go on about the composition professor of mine who was a huge fan of Tom Waits, or how a brilliant jazz guitarist from of mine once described Guns’n’Roses’ Appetite for Destruction as “classic sleaze rock” (and he could play all the songs off it).

Or I could list off more songs, more performers whose work I have enjoyed in the past, but I feel like doing so strays from my point, which is that as much as I enjoy all of the above, and plenty of other stuff, I still often find myself hungering for music that nourishes me in ways that the above examples just can’t quite manage.

Or I could post some examples of music I listen to as “music,” if readers are interested, as a kind of counterpoint to this post. I imagine anyone who’s been reading my blog very long at all has a pretty good idea of what I’d post, but I’d be happy to oblige, for the sake of balance.

But in any case, for this post, I think I’ll just stop here.

Series Navigation<< What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 4 — Music and IdentityOn Listening >>

88 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 5 — What I Listen to When I Listen to Popular Music

  1. 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.

    1. That’s interesting… since I pay less attention to what famous popular musicians say about their work (because mostly the few times I have I’ve heard very little of interest… ie. very little about the music) it’s good to have confirmation by someone else. I was struck in recent readings about the world of contemporary visual art that suggest similar things about the importance of creating a “scene” and a “following” and a “persona”… and I confess, even in a field like SF publishing I think there’s a degree of persona-building that helps one get farther than one otherwise would. I won’t name names for now, but it’s not hard to see a correlation between how much someone sells and how famous they are online–and quality of the work doesn’t seem as big a factor as fame in some cases.

      (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.)

      It is, actually. But I won’t be starting any art-rock bands, despite my chunky glasses. I’ve had enough of playing in rock bands for a lifetime, I suspect. (In fact, the never-got-written Part 6 installment of this series was going to be titled “Things I Learned Playing in a Rock Band” but the relevant material ended up in the other posts, and all that was left over were a couple of slightly snarky observations… so I binned it.)

      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.

      Well, some of them are, anyway. But yes, I’ve noticed that even people whose music is like half an inch away from what they’re criticizing, are still eager to label the stuff they don’t like soul-crushing conformist dreck. At least when it’s commercially successful. It doesn’t drive them to innovate much, but it is a concern I’ve seen.

      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.

      … including the work of learning not just to sound out words, but also to read; or not just to sit quietly when complex music plays, but also to follow it and hear it; not just to sit in front of the TV letting easy sludge be poured into your head, but seeking out something novel, unusual, and challenging from time to time? These are skills I think are important, and I think most people never have had them; but I think big companies would prefer to keep it that way, since crap is easier to manufacture and market–and to replace when you’ve used up one creator and need another.

      I’m also dubious that popular music really (“something gritty and populist”) actually “gets down into people’s lives.” Popular musicians love to assert this, implying that “high arts” are somehow detached from people’s lives, too abstract or ethereal or whatever. That strikes me as bollocks. The best of the high arts just explore these things from perspectives that are usually more nuanced, complex, and challenging, which is also to say, for human minds, more nourishing. One could sympathetically call TV the opium of the people–that is, the “pain-killer” of the people–but in the end, that still makes the big corporations drug pushers.

      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.

      I am suspicious of the supernaturalist vocabulary, but if you were to define “soul” as whatever it is that develops in a person beyond their raw hardware and firmware (evolutionary programming, etc.), I don’t have a problem with it. Art is not all there is to that, of course–relationships, experiences, knowledge, and much more factor in. But I’d say art is a much more important part of all that than is recognized in the cultural sphere you and I live in.

      And as for the people who seem to have so little soul to give back to the world: I’m tempted to quote C.S. Lewis and suggest they might be worse if they had grown up with no high arts in their lives, but that seems disingenuous. (Like much of what Lewis wrote.) I’d rather say that arts is a part of it, not the whole. Today most everything seems debased in the name of Mammon (as Allen Ginsberg would put it), and it’s in that context that the people you’re talking about function. (The social acceptability of not giving to charity, or of being ridiculously opposed to the idea of taxes, for one thing. People probably have not become more cheap, selfish, and brutish; they’re just less embarrassed about being seen as such in public.) I don’t think the arts could ever fix humanity, but could it help people to examine themselves–and those around them, and the world around them–more? I think so.

      That said, the bourgeois novel tends to do this than “popular” science fiction, as Darko Suvin points out… so… hm.

      1. Ok, I wrote a long and rambling response but then got too sleepy to edit it into anything coherent, so I’ll try again tomorrow. In the meantime, I will concede this: I deserve to be slapped for the cliche “something gritty and populist.” Ugh.

          1. My apologies again. You might have to wait till the weekend. I’m discovering why you, at the beginning of this series, complained about struggling to put it all together and eventually decided to split your thoughts into five separate posts. I keep finding more questions and complexities…it’s a three paragraphs forward, two paragraphs back kind of thing.

            Maybe I should reassure you at this point that I’m really not looking for ways to wind you up or to just lash out in defense of my own musical tastes. I’m trying to be more thoughtful than that, and well, we all know how awkward that can be.

            In the meantime, some nice music while you’re on hold…

            Cue: The Girl From Ipanema

            Dooo doop de doo dah, laaaa lah de lah lah….

          2. No worries Marvin, I’m a bit busy too, and don’t mind waiting–and don’t imagine you’d be in it just to wind me up. Feel free to take your time, as I know the difficulties involved in writing about this stuff! (Took me three weeks or more to write these posts.)

  2. 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.

    COMMENT #1 of 10 – PRELIMINARY HOUSECLEANING

    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.

    1. Marvin,

      Ahhhh, I’m flashing back to the New Sophists’ Almanac. Thanks for the lengthy comments, I’ll try do them justice in my responses.

      First, on the points of agreement, things that strike me:

      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.

      Precisely. There is, implicit in this, the understanding that not everyone can be gourmets in everything. Life was too short even before the possiblity of a canon became untenable. But it’s way too short now.

      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.)

      Note that I actually avoid saying any particular music is better than any other directly. I think there are probably endless levels of “better” or “worse” that even I could apply to music I dislike: for example, Madonna’s albums are “better” than Justin Bieber’s. Bieber is a great example as almost everyone who can spell their own names reviles him.

      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.

      Ha, and I’m also finding personally that having come back to music, I’m undergoing a lot of personal growth. It’s not the only cause, but it does seem to be one. Recently I read somewhere (Phil Barone noted it in a forum on Sax on the Web) that I think it was Joe Allard or Victor Morosco used to have all his sax students do psychotherapy, because people working through and confronting their shit tend to be better musicians, too. Not ure if that’s true but therapy does make you more honest with yourself which is necessary if you want to get better at something.

      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’m torn on whether to stipulate that one also would need to engage in study as part of that deliberate cultivation. I think it’s hard to become truly knowledgeable about something without study, which is why I find it funny when people who are “music” experts don’t know what a C7 chord is. They’re usually experts who the who’s who, and in how they feel when they hear musicians they like who are famous. But given a new group, out of the blue, they tend mainly to find analogies of tone or sound… which isn’t bad, but is only one level of awareness.

      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.

      Yes, though I think maybe it might be more useful, in retrospect, to talk about how certain forms of “music” (my sense of the word) prize spontaneity and creative production as an ongoing, virtuostic process–the craft of the artist–while popular music tends to emphasize strictly the emotional experience of the audience in the context of the “show” (the hybrid performance).

      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.

      Knowing you, I’m sure it will be! :)

      One thing: I responded to this comment prior to reading your other comments, but I’ll go read them all now before commenting at all. Hopefully that’s the best way to approach this.

      1. If nothing else it will give you a chance to correct me where I’ve misunderstood your intent or even the basic concept under discussion. On the question of quality, for example: from your extended analogy with food, where “real” music is nourishing and hybrid entertainment product, which most people call music but maybe shouldn’t, is more like processed junk food, I found it very difficult to glean anything except the intention to erect a single sliding scale of value. (With perhaps more scales of value being introduced as the music gets better, that is, sufficiently complicated to merit them.)

        Granted, your food analogy is hedged in with lots of qualifications, disclaimers, and scare quotes, so I know you’re making a great effort not to oversimplify or to dismiss anything out of hand. (Not the way I’ve dismissed Mr. J. Bieber out of hand, for instance, without even listening to him. The poor kid must be traumatized. Also, oversimplification would be very unlike you, I think. :-) ) At some point, though, one must weigh the central theme against the disclaimers and decide whether it still stands or whether the disclaimers add up to a kind of meta theory that displaces the original conceit. (Does that make sense?)

        What else… Above where I talk about the deliberate cultivation of taste and/or learning, I think I’m assuming some study is involved. How much of that study is pure music theory and performance vs. music history vs. just listening to a lot of stuff might depend on what one is trying to accomplish, I suppose.

        Finally, I like the therapy idea. It reminds me of those old school martial arts masters who require their students to do zen, not so much for religious reasons but because it’s a way to cope with all the mental shit that comes up as a consequence of constantly pushing oneself into domains of discomfort and failure.

        1. “It reminds me of those old school martial arts masters who require their students to do zen, not so much for religious reasons but because it’s a way to cope with all the mental shit that comes up as a consequence of constantly pushing oneself into domains of discomfort and failure.”

          Thank you for those words–they’re the most useful ones I’ve heard all day. I just went through a fairly intense period of work, family, and learning and let my meditation practice lapse. While it didn’t end badly, it might have been easier had I not.

        2. Cool, then I’ll go piece by piece. But it’s 3:00am now, so I’ll get back to it slowly… I assume you’re getting notifications when I post?

          The extended analogy about food: well, I think maybe there might be room to argue for a single sliding scale of value, but one that integrates what I mentioned in my comment about forms of music serving social functions. I prefer to sit and listen to complex music, some people prefer to dance. I might argue that there are different function groupings, and that they serve different aspects of people; so that the folk music is social, the classical is cerebral and psychological in the deeper sense of the word; that the gospel is, well, I don’t want to say spiritual, so instead I’ll call it philosophical; and the dance music is physical. There’s potential for overlao in all cases.

          So maybe a better analogy than TV dinners is that popular music is a bit like the last food group supplanting all the others. It’s like meat. A world where everyone eats only meat is not optimal in so many ways, and some of those ways, I think, translate. This analogy might work better, but for one thing: the discomfort people feel with the TV dinner analogy seems, to me, suggestive of my being on the right track. Some people do speak of popular music they like in elevated terms, but most people don’t. They may get defensive when others denigrate it, but the way they talk about the stuff they like suggests they don’t like it for reasons that have much to do withthe musical content, anyway.

          I agree that “study” might be formal (which necessarily includes tons of listening) or might just involve involve tons of listening. But since comprehension is necessary for functional listening in most music that doesn’t take of extreme hybridity, I’d say some theory and skills acquired (possibly only) through that kind of study, are probably necessary for deeper than a rudimentary understanding. Or,maybe I could caveat saying that anyone who doesn’t learnt his stuff has trouble finding why to persist with it, or what to listen to.

          The therapy idea: yeah, like you I think it’s a great, succinct way of putting it. Thanks for that. Now I need to stop commenting and do something else!

  3. COMMENT #2 of 10 – MY PREJUDICES

    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.

    1. Hey,

      Okay, I think I can respond to your comments piecemeal without losing much clarity and throughline, so that’s what I’m-a-gonna do.

      As for this comment above: I can understand you being wary of the distinctions I draw. Hell, for that matter, I’m wary too. Part of the struggle here was trying to draw distinctions that don’t necessarily play straight into the things you note mine does.

      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 your first reaction makes sense. I am also leery of this sort of thing: the risk is that it’s really just a “No true Scotsman” argument, isn’t it? That’s kind of why I tried to ground it all in more objective terms: the relative degree of hybridity, the relative degree of complexity and challenge to a listener, and so on. I think it’s difficult, if not impossible, to avoid this to some degree being an apologetics for the music I favor, and a diatribe against that which I think gets in the way of that being more accessible, more shared, more able to contribute and resonate in society… I’m recalling Kant writing somewhere or other that while we cannot imagine our individual aesthetics are reflective of universal truths, nonetheless we are bound to speak of them as if they are.

      (Food, too. The other day my housemates were discussing Mexican restaurants in Saigon. One said that a certain place was good, and I disagreed. He was annoyed, and told me I ought to note that it was subjective opinion I was stating… and then we had a good laugh when I reminded him he hadn’t stated his (equally subjective) opinion as such either. So I think Kant was onto something there.)

      Anyway, since I see the dominant form of (extremely hybrid-format) “music” as ultimately toxic to the less-hybrid forms–even despite the complicating factors you mention below–and definitely toxic to the cultivation of the (basically, the musical literacy) necessary to appreciate more challenging music, I am likely to engage in screeds against it.

      So you’re right to call me on boiling down my previous distinction–between a higher degree of hybridization, and a much lower one–into “music” versus “product”… sort of. Except of course that in my experience, those senses of what’s being produced actually do often carry over into actual practice. Jazz musicians may on some level see albums as products, but more often they see them as statements, and certainly this is many multiples times true of the most significant albums in the genre. John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and My Favorite Things; Miles Davis’s The Birth of the Cool, and Kind of Blue, and Bitches’ Brew; Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus; Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. Or in European music, one could cite any number of composers whose work was not just product, but was seen as a personal, artistic statement–one that was produced at great personal cost in terms of study, attainment of mastery, and so on–and as a statement of a new way of doing music altogether. Obviously not all works do this, and not all artists attain it. Perhaps not all of them even aspire to it… but they all recognize it.

      (Which speaks to some of your comments later, but I’ll get into it when that point comes up.)

      What’s missing with, say, an AC/DC album? I think your Wagner anecdote suggests you would probably agree something is, when you set AC/DC down beside music that has that aspiration. But what is it? This is where, for me, it’s dangerous to get into ethereal definitions of what art is, and more useful to focus on the hybridity thing. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is, yes, the world’s bestseller jazz album of all time. But at the time, it was also a profound statement about how jazz could be done. Davis dispensed with complex chord changes and high-speed lines and suggested melodies could be worked out on a simpler background, to different–and potentially more enchanting–effect. Kind of Blue engaged in a kind of hypertextual intellectual and artistic dialog with the contemporary artists and their music, and with the tradition as a whole. It was a webpage with a bunch of links, most of them reading “NOT THIS” and linking to things, but managing at the same time to be a positive statement of what one could do instead.

      And this is true of a lot of other kinds of interesting music too, things you include in the term “popular music” that I don’t necessarily, or which I do while maintaining, as I do, that something being highly hybrid isn’t necessarily pejorative. I could list all kinds of hybrid entertainment product creators I have respect for in some sense or other.

      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.

      Ha. Well, yes. And it also sort of suggests one has touched a nerve. When someone points out that something I like–for example, those Sweet Onion kettle chips I was eating a little earlier this evening–I feel more resentful than when someone suggests a dish of aloo gobi is trash… because, deep down, I know the former is true and that I am eating trash, whereas I don’t think aloo gobi is trash, and am inclined to just think whoever believes that is a bigot or a fool.

      Knee-jerk responses are often useful in telling us about ourselves, especiall the things about ourselves that make us anxious, uncomfortable… things we ought to look at, perhaps. (Mine too.) Most people don’t realize that, though.

      But I realize you do.

      1. I am truly out of time for this evening, but I thought I should mention that AC/DC has a song called “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.”

        Just in case you were wondering what angry diminutive Australians in short pants thought about the matter.

  4. 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.

    1. Here’s the thing. I mix and match my terms because the “popular” music I’m talking about is the epitome of hybridity and also because it is so highly commodified that it demonstrates my point for me. But I will say that I am not necessarily opposed to including a lot of the things you include in “popular” music as “popular” music. (It’s not a pejorative.) A lot of that stuff, also, is much less hyper-hybrid, and shows fewer of hyperhybridity’s pitfalls.

      For one thing, a lot of that stuff precedes, and doesn’t participate directly in, the commodification of music (and more generally of culture). Bluegrass tunes are heritage. Gospel numbers too. The washer-woman’s songs are hybrid but not in the extreme way that “popular music” in the commercial sense today implies. I could construct arguments explaining why: both dance bands and sensitive girls with guitars in coffee shops actually have to learn to play an instrument, and have to acquire at least a little musical theory and skill to do what they do. I don’t see a useful way to differentiate between good classical piano music and good ragtime–after all, Joplin saw himself as a “composer” in the European sense, or so I’ve read. The distinctions break down, and people have always sought to do so–Mozart including the clarinet in the orchestra was a radical move. (I hope I’m remembering right and it was Mozart.) The clarinet (well, chalumeau?) was a street instrument, considered only good for folk music. Medieval and Renaissance composers used popular (and even drinking) songs to write sacred music, and Mahler slipped snippets of street music into his work too–again, if I remember right.

      So the creative breakdown of these boundaries has happened in all kinds of music, including what I consider to be the least pronouncedly hybrid (or most purely “musical”) of forms.

      There are other models that are useful for prying apart all these kinds of music, meanwhile; models that don’t denigrate dance–though I’m not one for dancing myself, it’s an important behaviour displayed in basically all human cultures–or ceremonial uses of music or what have you. I remember this model from a book on Coltrane’s music by someone named Bill Cole. Cole sets out a quartet of music categories: folk music (in African-American music during Coltrane’s life, that was primarily blues music); classical music (the culture’s most rarefied artistic form, in mid 20th century African-American culture, that’d be improvisational jazz); religious music (Gospel); and dance music (R’n’B, and later funk, but also jazz dance bands could work).

      Note, though, that each of those forms, a function in human culture is served: to give people something to praise with, to dance to, to tell stories to (folk), and to transcend the quotidian (jazz). None of those forms is primarily predicated on the function of earning phat cash for someone. Whereas, what I call “popular music” in my screed, well… But money comes up again, we’ll discuss that later. What other functions does “popular music” in the Bieber sense serve? I find it filling silence, interrupting reflection and thought; I find it supporting a more generally commercialized identity-as-product manufacture system (ie. telling people the range and types of people they can be, instead of inviting them to discover who they actually are and want to be).But primarily, I find it making money for big companies. That’s why the system of commercial culture can exist at all… by jettisoning traditional cultural institutions that served human needs, and replacing them with simulacra that seem like they ought to, but in reality arguably don’t do so.

      But we’ll return to that eventually, I’m sure.

      By the way, your old man apparently was cleverer than me: it took me three years to realize I should quit music and study something else… and when I did, I moved to English Literature, of all things!

      1. Aieee! So many comments! On comments on comments!

        Anyway, a lot seems to be explained about our different perspectives if we assume that you and I started with different concepts of pop music as targets of our respective perspectives, or at least different scopes within the general concept. [A spectacularly bad sentence that I will leave in place for its spectacular badness.]

        I think I can agree that there’s a subdomain of popular music that’s pretty toxic. I’m not sure if it’s the music itself, or the combination of the music plus cheap delivery systems plus something else about the way society is changing…I have to think about that some more.

        And thank you for the Bill Cole reference regarding social roles…I think that will be very useful when I finally get around to discussing hybridity (which won’t be tonight — I’m running short on time again, though I did manage to add one more major comment to the pile).

        Regarding the commodification of popular music: I’m not sure I’d let folk, gospel, and blues off the hook too quickly. They’re traditional forms filling social roles, but it’s my understanding that — at least for middle-class people who could afford it, knew how to play, and could keep an instrument in the home or the pub — popular music has been commodified in the form of published sheet music for a few hundred years now. And “folk” are very good at selling their narratives about themselves to themselves (and to others). And the traditional music that I heard growing up has been commercially commodified at least since the beginning of radio, and of course it was absorbed alongside a lot of other more recently produced hybrid entertainment product that I was also absorbing at the same time.

        So I feel I need to try to take those factors into account as I try to give an account of myself. And then there’s the problem, possibly even more germane to your concerns, of the commodification of the population as consumers of hybrid entertainment product.

        I’m uncertain if tomorrow will permit me to add another big comment to the series, but we’ll see. I feel like I’m coming down with a cold, or it might just be an attack of late spring allergies. I do get notified of your comments by e-mail, so no worries there.

        Cheers!

        1. Marvin,

          Yes, so many nested series of comments!

          Anyway, a lot seems to be explained about our different perspectives if we assume that you and I started with different concepts of pop music as targets of our respective perspectives, or at least different scopes within the general concept. [A spectacularly bad sentence that I will leave in place for its spectacular badness.]

          It’s just a blog comment section. No worries, I got your idea.

          I think I can agree that there’s a subdomain of popular music that’s pretty toxic. I’m not sure if it’s the music itself, or the combination of the music plus cheap delivery systems plus something else about the way society is changing…I have to think about that some more.

          Can we agree that that is the dominant form of popular music in the developed world today? Ha, no, probably not. Can we agree that this is the form of music that dominates and shapes most profoundly the understanding of music developed by young people living in the mediasphere? That most young people aren’t, say, downloading and listening to copies of Ralph Stanley or the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, but are following the dominant fashions determined (essentially) by major record labels?

          And thank you for the Bill Cole reference regarding social roles…I think that will be very useful when I finally get around to discussing hybridity (which won’t be tonight — I’m running short on time again, though I did manage to add one more major comment to the pile).

          No worries.

          Regarding the commodification of popular music: I’m not sure I’d let folk, gospel, and blues off the hook too quickly. They’re traditional forms filling social roles, but it’s my understanding that — at least for middle-class people who could afford it, knew how to play, and could keep an instrument in the home or the pub — popular music has been commodified in the form of published sheet music for a few hundred years now. And “folk” are very good at selling their narratives about themselves to themselves (and to others). And the traditional music that I heard growing up has been commercially commodified at least since the beginning of radio, and of course it was absorbed alongside a lot of other more recently produced hybrid entertainment product that I was also absorbing at the same time.

          I dunno. People keeping an instrument in the home or pub still had to learn at least enough to play a little to enjoy that sheet music. Their understanding of music was shaped by that, and they could appreciate someone who really knew how to play. Exposure to music as something people actually do, rather than some magical commodity that god-like beings create somewhere in the Big City and which comes down magical pipes to Central Nowhere, Midwest, is part of what I’m talking about. Ha, were I a Marxist I’d say people have been alienated from the means of the production of music, in a way that makes musical revolution much more difficult if not impossible. You have to be lucky to be exposed to the presence of instruments, to have access to learning music, and it’s all so expensive now. (Except, of course, guitars.)

          So I feel I need to try to take those factors into account as I try to give an account of myself. And then there’s the problem, possibly even more germane to your concerns, of the commodification of the population as consumers of hybrid entertainment product.

          True. Indeed, I was trying to get at that in the fourth post in this series–the one about my experience of using music in branding myself also implicitly involved me being branded by a company into a specific consumer track… and that essentially falling apart when I encountered music that existed effectively outside of that system. No merch? No backpatches? What do people who listen to jazz do to display this music listenership as their identity? Oh, wait… that’s not what it’s about. They’re actually listening to the music? Why? What’s so… holy shit. How did he do that on the saxophone… I see it, for me, as a kind of jailbreak from the system.

          I’m uncertain if tomorrow will permit me to add another big comment to the series, but we’ll see. I feel like I’m coming down with a cold, or it might just be an attack of late spring allergies. I do get notified of your comments by e-mail, so no worries there.

          No worries, there’s no hurry here.

        2. Oh, also, on letting those popular musics off the hook too easily: well, I’d also emphasize that gospel music is one thing many older jazz musicians credit as the root of their interest in music. Max Roach, Elvin Jones, John Coltrane… and those just come to mind from one documentary I remember on Roach. Gospel music was community music, and it was participatory a lot of the time, the way sheet music and mom and pop in the living room with the piano and a C-melody sax were. Likewise, while Coltrane hated “walking the bar” in soul music joints as he did early in his career, he learned a lot that that continued to be part of his music, so one could also argue that the popular music and the “art” fed into one another in important ways just half a century ago. That’s dead and gone as far as I can tell, as is the sense of music as participatory. Most people I know even with a little musical experience–playing something in band–don’t experience music as participatory except in the way TV is… if you choose to talk at it from the couch. Music is, for the vats majority of people I know, consumer product.

          For that matter, so is everything else. (From democratic rights and the services bought with taxes, to their own identities–to a certain degree anyway.) IT’s a bit harrowing when you realize it.

          1. Big question first: “Can we agree that [toxic pop] is the dominant form of popular music in the developed world today? Ha, no, probably not. Can we agree that this is the form of music that dominates and shapes most profoundly the understanding of music developed by young people living in the mediasphere? That most young people aren’t, say, downloading and listening to copies of Ralph Stanley or the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, but are following the dominant fashions determined (essentially) by major record labels?”

            Answer: maybe? (God, that must be frustrating.) Part of the problem for me is that I don’t know many kids today (not having or teaching them, myself) and I’m really not familiar with what they’re listening to, and I don’t know how what they’re listening to plays out in conjunction with other influences in their lives. I can at least agree that corporate-made or corporate-filtered pop-culture, including music, TV, anime, movies, video games, YA books, etc. dominates the youth mediasphere.

            (So, my reluctance has a lot to do with my inability to confidently claim that I know or perceive a thing from personal experience, and not just a perverse contrariness. I hope.)

            But for the few kids I do see, I get the impression that anime and collectible card games are more important than the Billboard Top 40. Then there’s that interview with Branford Marsalis you posted: if kids are churning through pop music and treating it as disposable, then how much influence can any given band have on one’s identity, except maybe as a temporary marker in the endless Lord-of-the-Flies jockeying for status that is so much of youth culture (and which, as far as I can tell, is a state of affairs that precedes modern mass media)?

            If I were to look for a specific problem, I think I would instinctively focus more on people’s alienation from the means of cultural production. Musical fads come and go, but being able to play or not play, to make or not make, a thing for oneself seems like a more permanent state of being for a person. (Which is why I love Amanda Palmer’s “Ukulele Anthem.”)

            And the Internet makes things weird. My 14-year old nephew is a huge consumer of anime, but mostly it’s fan-resubbed anime that changes the plot and dialogue to make it more funny and arguably more interesting. Ordinary anime that I enjoy bores him because it’s not outrageous enough. Is that passive? Active? (As for music, I think he likes whatever pisses off his mom. Another music major, btw.)

            Then there’s the question of alternatives. I never felt like I had to wear a G’n’R jacket to keep from being beat up at school, and I wasn’t saved by jazz, but I do remember discovering Queen while living in a small oil town in the middle of west Texas, full of old-time religion and where Conway Twitty reigned supreme as far as pop music was concerned. And for me that was a revelation and a life-saver. I didn’t wear any Queen gear — I couldn’t have found it out there if I wanted to — but I listened to those records over and over.

            So if I’m stuck in a small community that’s suspicious of outside influences, and my choices are between authentic local folk and gospel (“We have both kinds of music, Country and Western!”), all of which tends to revolve around the same handful of themes, I don’t know if I’m ready to complain if some mass media corporation suddenly brings me the Beatles, Bowie, Pink Floyd, Queen, and so on.

            And this is the problem I have with the idea of traditional music forms filling traditional institutional social functions. Sometimes traditional social functions are fucking balls, man. Stealing silence and the opportunity for reflection while coercively determining identity sounds a lot like religion to me, the narrow small-minded small-town kind.

            Which doesn’t mean that mass media is good or that toxic pop isn’t bad, just that in the broad picture, when it comes to top-down cultural models, the choices are often between bad and less bad, and I’m not always sure how to weigh the two. Gospel inspires some African Americans, but it makes others feel trapped and confined and really damn conflicted about the situation.

            And one thing for me that’s still a matter of uncertainty is how to draw the line between toxic and non- or less-toxic pop where mindless distraction and identity-formation are concerned. Are we going to go back to the greasers and the jocks, the mods and the rockers, the glam and the punk and the thrashers and the new wave and East Coast vs. West Coast rap…? Justin Bieber is easy to pick on, but is he worse than young Stevie Wonder or the Jackson 5? (“YES!” my brain screams. “YOU FOOL, YOU GO TO FAR IN THE NAME OF INQUIRY!”)

            (I really need to write the comment about hybridity so that we’ll have more room for writing other comments.)

            Even for people who can play an instrument… If my childhood piano lessons are anything to judge by, it’s very easy to learn that one’s job is simply to reproduce the score written in front of you, whereas actually making new music is for specialists who know better than you what is good for you. Music theory can be presented as rote memorization that enables you to name the bits of the sheet music you’re looking at; it’s certainly not an invitation to waste your time improvising. In the age when new pop and classical music was distributed chiefly on paper, I wonder how many performers received music in just that way. They might have had greater appreciation for really good musicians, but were they more free to form an identity in the face of dominant modes of culture? (Just because I know how to read doesn’t mean I feel like I have license to think, speak, or write.) How does one measure that?

            Hunh. Well, I don’t know if laying out a big list of Things About Which I Am Uncertain really helps anybody, but it’s something,

          2. Answer: maybe? (God, that must be frustrating.) Part of the problem for me is that I don’t know many kids today (not having or teaching them, myself) and I’m really not familiar with what they’re listening to, and I don’t know how what they’re listening to plays out in conjunction with other influences in their lives. I can at least agree that corporate-made or corporate-filtered pop-culture, including music, TV, anime, movies, video games, YA books, etc. dominates the youth mediasphere.

            (So, my reluctance has a lot to do with my inability to confidently claim that I know or perceive a thing from personal experience, and not just a perverse contrariness. I hope.)

            Well, then, an experiment:

            I just checked how many seeders all Miles Davis stuff on isohunt max out at. It’s 190 seeders, and that’s for an anniversary edition of Kind of Blue–the best-selling jazz album of all time.

            Now, let’s say, Beyonce: even if we ignore the alleged sex tape, there’s still 267 people seeding her latest album, and almost as many people seeing her complete discography as there are seeding the top Miles Davis album.

            I know, I know, probably people into jazz are also more likely to buy, but I still think this is indicative of something. (Popular things get stolen. Unpopular things, people don’t bother. Many really important contemporary jazz artists don’t even come up on a torrent search, whereas many minor pop musicians are well-seeded.

            From a cusory glance, artists like

            But for the few kids I do see, I get the impression that anime and collectible card games are more important than the Billboard Top 40. Then there’s that interview with Branford Marsalis you posted: if kids are churning through pop music and treating it as disposable, then how much influence can any given band have on one’s identity, except maybe as a temporary marker in the endless Lord-of-the-Flies jockeying for status that is so much of youth culture (and which, as far as I can tell, is a state of affairs that precedes modern mass media)?

            To some degree it probably does precede modern media, though it is almost certainly exacerbated by it, and by the negative elements in our system of schooling. But you miss the point when you ask how any one band could have an influence on identity when kids churn through it: actually, that’s kind of the point. No one band is hoped to do so: that would make that band too powerful and too capable of negotiating for a bigger cut of the pie. Record companies want hot sellers, but they want most of them to be ultimately disposable, and as Cyndi Lauper recently mentioned in an interview (aired on NPR as part of ON THE MEDIA–link here but it’s not showing up unfortunately), this is made explicit by the constant threats she faced being told that if she didn’t do as she was told, her career would be “over.”

            I’d say it’s by design that a kid’s identity is now linked to a genre or subgenre, not to a particular group or performer. Someone likes “punk” or “hip-hop.” And that mode of self-identification seems to be going very strong. (This also helps explain your perception that CCGs and manga are a bigger deal: music has been effectively reduced to virtual irrelevance. That doesn’t contradict my point, so much as support it.)

            If I were to look for a specific problem, I think I would instinctively focus more on people’s alienation from the means of cultural production. Musical fads come and go, but being able to play or not play, to make or not make, a thing for oneself seems like a more permanent state of being for a person. (Which is why I love Amanda Palmer’s “Ukulele Anthem.”)

            And the Internet makes things weird. My 14-year old nephew is a huge consumer of anime, but mostly it’s fan-resubbed anime that changes the plot and dialogue to make it more funny and arguably more interesting. Ordinary anime that I enjoy bores him because it’s not outrageous enough. Is that passive? Active? (As for music, I think he likes whatever pisses off his mom. Another music major, btw.)

            This is a world where music majors are destined to suffer. :)

            Then there’s the question of alternatives. I never felt like I had to wear a G’n\’R jacket to keep from being beat up at school, and I wasn’t saved by jazz, but I do remember discovering Queen while living in a small oil town in the middle of west Texas, full of old-time religion and where Conway Twitty reigned supreme as far as pop music was concerned. And for me that was a revelation and a life-saver. I didn’t wear any Queen gear — I couldn’t have found it out there if I wanted to — but I listened to those records over and over.

            So if I’m stuck in a small community that’s suspicious of outside influences, and my choices are between authentic local folk and gospel (“We have both kinds of music, Country and Western!”), all of which tends to revolve around the same handful of themes, I don’t know if I’m ready to complain if some mass media corporation suddenly brings me the Beatles, Bowie, Pink Floyd, Queen, and so on.

            Even if it’s into an environment where big companies put that country and western music in the first place? Because, while Nashville was probably smaller in that time, it was still very, very much a business. Country music is, to me, the most overt of the manufactured-identity musics. It’s so suffused in narrative that is so divorced from any reality–of the singer, of the listener, of the society–that one can’t help but notice it. Country was also immensely popular where I grew up, by the way. Saskatchewan and Texas were almost polar opposites politically, socially, economically… and yet, both places gobbled up the offerings of Nashville. For complex reasons that have nothing to do with the music, and everything to do with the narratives, and of course the costuming.

            And this is the problem I have with the idea of traditional music forms filling traditional institutional social functions. Sometimes traditional social functions are fucking balls, man. Stealing silence and the opportunity for reflection while coercively determining identity sounds a lot like religion to me, the narrow small-minded small-town kind.

            Which doesn’t mean that mass media is good or that toxic pop isn’t bad, just that in the broad picture, when it comes to top-down cultural models, the choices are often between bad and less bad, and I’m not always sure how to weigh the two. Gospel inspires some African Americans, but it makes others feel trapped and confined and really damn conflicted about the situation.

            Yes, that’s true, and I’m not always sure how to weigh the two either. I haven’t responded to your comment concerning religious patronage of classical music, and my response is bound to be complicated. Goodness knows it’s ironic that I could happily listen to the Bach B-Minor Mass (as my wife and I did while cooking dinner earlier this evening) while I repudiate the institution of the Catholic Mass. I’ll think more about that, but the long and the short of it is that there is this sort of compromise everywhere. It’s part of history and culture and heritage. This is why, at least for me, it’s possible to listen to murder ballads and Jesus songs and appreciate them as artistic statements, and as inherited cultural material, without thrilling to the tale of a misogynistic murder or feeling like I ought to shout “Hallelujah!”

            And one thing for me that’s still a matter of uncertainty is how to draw the line between toxic and non- or less-toxic pop where mindless distraction and identity-formation are concerned. Are we going to go back to the greasers and the jocks, the mods and the rockers, the glam and the punk and the thrashers and the new wave and East Coast vs. West Coast rap…? Justin Bieber is easy to pick on, but is he worse than young Stevie Wonder or the Jackson 5? (“YES!” my brain screams. “YOU FOOL, YOU GO TO FAR IN THE NAME OF INQUIRY!”)

            (I really need to write the comment about hybridity so that we’ll have more room for writing other comments.)

            I don’t know early Stevie Wonder. I’ve always seen young Michael Jackson the way I see young Mozart: basically, a kind of sad novelty kiddie-show. Is Bieber worse? I’m not sure that question is so relevant. I am certainly not crusading for the prevention of pop-music-influenced identity formation. In fact, I think I’m more rebuking society for letting it get to the point where that’s the only social function music is commonly afforded anymore: it’s just an identifier of to which social tribe one belongs. Which is a bit like debasing food and cooking to the point where the food groups are the basis of social tribes, and people eat from that food group only, at least in public. It’s simply bad nutrition. Even arguing that people should eat all four food groups misses the point: that food can be nourishing and wonderful. And it doesn’t always take hours and hours in the kitchen. (Though today it did for us.)

            Even for people who can play an instrument… If my childhood piano lessons are anything to judge by, it’s very easy to learn that one’s job is simply to reproduce the score written in front of you, whereas actually making new music is for specialists who know better than you what is good for you. Music theory can be presented as rote memorization that enables you to name the bits of the sheet music you’re looking at; it’s certainly not an invitation to waste your time improvising. In the age when new pop and classical music was distributed chiefly on paper, I wonder how many performers received music in just that way. They might have had greater appreciation for really good musicians, but were they more free to form an identity in the face of dominant modes of culture? (Just because I know how to read doesn’t mean I feel like I have license to think, speak, or write.) How does one measure that?

            That’s a testament to how most piano teachers, and music teachers in general, are not very good. This is something that hit me really, really hard recently, during exchanges with a saxophone mouthpiece manufacturer I’ve been corresponding with occasionally. The long and the short of it was that in the space of a few short emails, he helped me solve a problem with my sax tone that four sax teachers (all saxophonists, two of them at the university level) failed to help me with. It was simple, quite elementary, and the improvement after one small change in how I position the mouthpiece was quickly astonishing. I mentioned this and he simply said, approximately, “That’s because most of them never bother to think about that. It’s easier not to.”

            (In their defense, only one was a jazz player, and that one did point out other things I should have been doing which I am finally really doing in earnest now but wasn’t then. The reasons for that are complex, but not germane to this discussion. But the other professor’s conduct is germane: he was constantly hell-bent on teaching me what he felt I should learn, that is, making a “legit” or “classical” sax player out of me, something I did not want and had no use for. This programmatic teaching, the top-down and the “right way” conception… it’s all of a piece if you ask me.)

            The thing is, most music teachers are not teachers. They are people who play an instrument and need to make a living in a society where musicians don’t really make a living wage. So they teach. Many try to teach well, some don’t. But precious few are trained at all in pedagogy, and fewer still engage with the teaching, and with the playing, with the same ferocity. My experience is that most people who teach music are disappointed people who once wanted to be professionals.

            For me, I’d been playing music for five years before anyone assigned me to compose a new piece of music on my own. This is not how music is taught when it is taught well–even little kids within the Orff system are taught and expected to improvise in a rudimentary fashion early on, for example. And even in mediocre jazz education, kids are encouraged to improvise, and instructors choose pieces that are doable for those students.

            Oh, and new classical music still is predominantly distributed in the form of sheet music! Ha.

            Hunh. Well, I don’t know if laying out a big list of Things About Which I Am Uncertain really helps anybody, but it’s something,

            No, there are good points above… :)

  5. COMMENT #4 OF 10 – MUSICAL COMPLEXITY

    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.

    1. 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.

      Well, here’s an example of what I’m talking about. You’re right, but the above also illustrates how dominant modes warp the range of possible in people’s minds. The idea that chords are indispensable; that lyrics and narrative content of some kind are necessary (“What’s the song about?”); that rhythms should be metrical in ways that can be written down, or are regularized… none of that relates so much to how people did “popular” music six or seven or eight centuries ago. There’s a kind of superstructure that took form bit by bit, call Western harmony. Wagner rides that thing right out to its farthest edges, breaking it in spots. Popular music sits right at the complacent center, asserting, “This is what music is.”

      So much so that when most people encounter music from outside that system–“non-Western music” they call it, as if that stuff were some tangential minority of stuff–they have no idea how to listen to it because, though it uses lots of the same fundamental structures as other music–repetitions, melodic structures, scalar patterns, formal structures (if not harmony)–it isn’t packaged in the Western-harmony way. And, more alarming to me, people working in those musical traditions seem to conflate “modernization” of their musical systems slapping some chords in back, and regularizing the melodies to what Western music-trained ears would expect. Basically, Mozartifying it. This was painfully common in Korea, as was the whole, “Let’s play ‘Hey Jude’ on traditional instruments! See, we’re hip! Our music is relevant.” Sadly, “Hey Jude” sounds like shit on a gayageum, flattering neither the song nor the instrument, and “fusion” traditional Korean music sounds like cheesy, “Asiatic” New Age music.

      But that’s the parameters I set for this discussion, so I’ll leave it alone.

      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.

      They do. But remember, my definition of “hybrid” allows for other value than the musical stuff. I don’t listen to and enjoy Ralph Stanley’s albums primarily for the musical content; it factors in, but so do the narratives, the mood, and other things. I agree with you, that there are commercial things that force sameness–the max lengthfo radio being the most desperately sad one, but also all kinds of other things. And that these things do limit the quality of the creators’ work.

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

      You won’t regret it. :) Well, maybe you will, but it’s not like it’s a vow. I wonder if you could do a month of listening to 80% less-hybrid music and 20% whatever you feel like. Or, hell, a week of just 100% “minimally hybrid” music and no “popular music.” Wonder what that would be like for someone who doesn’t normally do that. And I like the term “aestheticus interruptus.” Surely, people who are trained with music tend to be more novophilic–they want novelty–whereasI’ve read statistically most people tend primarily to listen to whatever they listened prior to the age of 25. (Or something like that.)

      The Wagner thing: yeah, you know, I have this box set of Wagner DVDs, the whole Ring cycle, which I got as a present long ago. I wanted to watch it, but knew I’d need to set time aside to focus on it. Now, I have the time, but I couldn’t fit it into my luggage, so… it sits in a box in Seoul. Kind of heartbreaking. I’ve resolved to get it and bring it when we visit, whatever else I have to do.

      I can suggest that a lot of Wagner in one night, and especially someone picking out “the good bits,” could end up being too rich for a lot of people. I tend not to like Greatest Hits medleys of any kind, to be honest, for this reasons. It’s like a chocolate buffet. Chocolate isn’t enjoyable when you’re having a ton at once. It’s not designed for that… and especially when you’re eating only the heaviest, most stunning ones. Fatigue is a factor that creative musicians understand and account for in their work… and then other people go in and muck it up by just including “the good bits”. If jewelers did this, rings would be pure diamond all the way around and look ridiculous.

      Anyway, your feeling of being someone who lived on Twinkies and then suddenly eating a sumptuous gourmet dessert… I know the feeling, in a different way. I’ve never listening to jazz and to great saxophonists, but lately, I’ve been listening to many more, different ones. Players I should have checked out in my formative years, but who I always listened to only in a cursory way, comparing to Coltrane and then discarding–and I don’t mean nobodies, I mean Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Charlie Rouse, Chris Potter… all kinds of amazing players from whom I’m learning things now, and could have learned from and enjoyed in the past. (And that’s not even to get people playing other instruments whom I should have been more aware of, but barely checked out. Clifford Brown comes to mind immediately. Damn, man.) Now, I feel like I only ate food with coriander and hot peppers in it (and only if it was served sans rice), and I’m having pesto and Peking Duck and blue cheese for the first time in my life. Even a gourmand can “eat wrong” according to whatever terms I’d hold up as “healthy eating,” in other words. I’m not an exemplar and I’m far from doing it perfect.

      1. One week is too easy. I can easily devote a week to nothing but jazz and/or classical music, and I have. I’d have to aim for a month or more to make it a challenge. I might also have to temporarily amputate most of my music collection as it appears in the digital domain — too much temptation to stray, otherwise. (It’s easy to avoid junk food if you don’t buy it, but once it’s in the house all bets are off.) But it would be a great excuse to buy new tunes. A harder challenge might be to only listen to music actively — don’t play it as background music. Only play it if you’re really going to listen. Must think some more about this….

        (Thinking about Wagner, please remind me. Am I correct to remember that the Romantic movement in music really upset a lot of people, who complained that they didn’t like feeling “forced” to feel a certain way by music? I seem to recall that Beethoven caught some flak that way, and then Wagner caught a fair bit more of it.)

        You know, way back at the beginning of this exchange I — proceeding from a different initial concept of what might constitute “popular” music — was going to ding you for preemptively excluding non-western musics from the discussion. I had a snarky line in mind about how if musical purity is what matters, then hitting a log with a stick in search of the perfect timbre must surely be more musical than an improvisational jazz quartet. But then I thought: Marvin, don’t be an ass.

        But I take your point: the hegemony of middle-of-the-road western musical formulas limits our sense of the possibilities if we’re not careful, and it distorts what it appropriates.

        I’m reminded of a couple of stories about the bluesman Lightnin Hopkins. One was that he’d keep playing a line until he’d finished whatever thought (verbal or musical) was on his mind, frustrating bandmates who expected him to change key at the traditional points. “Lightnin change when Lightnin goddamn wants to change!” he is reputed to have said, in a variety of colorful ways. There’s also a Buddy Guy cover of “Sally Mae” out there where he introduces the song by talking about how awkward Lighnin could be. I forget the exact words, but he says something like: “We’ll fix it here, but Lightnin was always like, you know, some old broken windshield wipers where one goes this way and the other goes that way…but I love him for that, though.” Now I want to say, “Well Buddy, if you love him, don’t fix him; have some fun, play like that yourself and see what happens.”

        1. One week is too easy. I can easily devote a week to nothing but jazz and/or classical music, and I have. I’d have to aim for a month or more to make it a challenge. I might also have to temporarily amputate most of my music collection as it appears in the digital domain — too much temptation to stray, otherwise. (It’s easy to avoid junk food if you don’t buy it, but once it’s in the house all bets are off.) But it would be a great excuse to buy new tunes. A harder challenge might be to only listen to music actively — don’t play it as background music. Only play it if you’re really going to listen. Must think some more about this….

          Well, don’t torture yourself. :) Even I sometimes put “difficult” music on in the background, when I am familiar enough with it that I can follow along without devoting all my attention to it. (Miles’ Kind of Blue is like that: I’ve heard it so many times now that I don’t need to focus my attention to know precisely where we are in the album, and to start singing along spontaneously.)

          (Thinking about Wagner, please remind me. Am I correct to remember that the Romantic movement in music really upset a lot of people, who complained that they didn’t like feeling “forced” to feel a certain way by music? I seem to recall that Beethoven caught some flak that way, and then Wagner caught a fair bit more of it.)

          Hmmm. What you describe about people not wanting to be told how to feel sounds suspiciously more 20th century to me… I specifically remember John Cage complaining that romantic composers seemed to be dictating to him “how to feel.” In Europe at the time, German romanticism seemed to sort of steamroll all kinds of music, by being extremely powerful, extremely structured, lush, rich, and overwhelming for the listener. French composers like Satie and Debussy reacted to that by going for something more “pretty” than “powerful” and stripping music down to basics–a lot of solo piano, and (comparatively) more sparse arrangements, as well as a greater freedom from the then-starting-to-break-down rules of tonal harmony. There were French composers who were sucked into the Romanticism thing, but with Satie and Debussy others followed in breaking away from it (while, obviously, retaining some influence from it). Or that’s my understanding.

          You know, way back at the beginning of this exchange I — proceeding from a different initial concept of what might constitute “popular” music — was going to ding you for preemptively excluding non-western musics from the discussion. I had a snarky line in mind about how if musical purity is what matters, then hitting a log with a stick in search of the perfect timbre must surely be more musical than an improvisational jazz quartet. But then I thought: Marvin, don’t be an ass.

          But I take your point: the hegemony of middle-of-the-road western musical formulas limits our sense of the possibilities if we’re not careful, and it distorts what it appropriates.

          Right. I find it sadly provincial and closed-minded when jazz fans only listen to jazz, too. It’s just that while I know record labels in, say, Africa, affect the way people see music, I don’t know how much the systems in North America and Korea and places like that are in place there, and how effectively they wipe out traditional forms of music. I’ve seen plenty of African drumming groups, but whether they’re the few musicians who specialize in a world where most kids sit around listening to Salif and Toure Kunda and Angelique Kidjo, or people who come to the tradition like many, I don’t know. Africa’s also a big place, and things are probably different in every country, region, and city. The trumpeter Hugh Masakela talked about how even a kid from the shittiest township could become a jazz musician if she or he wanted to, and so could a kid from the richest family. He seems to have seen jazz as a great leveler, in his country. (Which IIRC was South Africa.)

          I’m reminded of a couple of stories about the bluesman Lightnin Hopkins. One was that he’d keep playing a line until he’d finished whatever thought (verbal or musical) was on his mind, frustrating bandmates who expected him to change key at the traditional points. “Lightnin change when Lightnin goddamn wants to change!” he is reputed to have said, in a variety of colorful ways. There’s also a Buddy Guy cover of “Sally Mae” out there where he introduces the song by talking about how awkward Lighnin could be. I forget the exact words, but he says something like: “We’ll fix it here, but Lightnin was always like, you know, some old broken windshield wipers where one goes this way and the other goes that way…but I love him for that, though.” Now I want to say, “Well Buddy, if you love him, don’t fix him; have some fun, play like that yourself and see what happens.”

          Indeed. That’s one thing I’ve noticed in older blues recordings, as opposed to more “modern” ones: there’s an increasing rigidity of form in later blues which I don’t find in the old stuff, and I don’t think it’s an improvement. (I get the same from to Mississippi Fred McDowell.)

          And your story bring to mind–though it’s almost unrelated–the trend I see even in blues (and which is evident in classical, with a similar story about Paganini, and in jazz though we don’t have a story like this): remember the one about Robert Johnson meeting the devil at a crossroads at midnight and selling his soul to the devil in exchange for a virtuoso skill on the guitar? Okay, I’m not sure Johnson could keep up with modern jazz guitarists, but that’s beside the point: the way he played was both remarkable to the people around him, and different than the other musicians around him (Hence he was influential.)

          Going with my narrower definition of [toxic] “pop music,” the absolute impossibility of such a legend arising — what, Justin Bieber sold his soul to the devil in exchange for amazing… what, blond hair? the ability to lip synch to computer corrected tracks of his singing voice? I suppose someone could circulate a rumor about people like Beyonce or some very good rapper, but I think there is, in this “toxic pop”, an explicit absence of, let’s call it, a sense of wonder that was at least possible in most musics of the past. (Because, after all, hybridity necessitates all kinds of things that make it unlikely to be possible. People seem to regard Madonna as some kind of virtuoso, but I’ve never heard anyone speculate about how she got so good at whatever it is she’s good at… or even be able to state it in a coherent fashion. They just sort of say she’s “awesome” and I get the sense it’s the sexy image, the commercial success, the fact she doesn’t let her age slow her down (good for her, on that), and that she puts on a good stage show. But that stuff to me mostly seems more like something I’d go to see if I went to the circus: the sexy blond doing acrobatic tricks on the high wire, with all the spotlights on her. It’s a very different part of my head than the one that relates to music.

          Which is to say, my impression of big pop music shows strike me as having more in common with circus shows than performances of music. Which I guess is where the whole sense of hybridity comes from. I could say more, but I’ll leave it out for now, for fear of suffocating the discussion.

          1. …remember the one about Robert Johnson meeting the devil at a crossroads at midnight…?

            You know, the older I get the more I wonder if the whole “crossroads” story wasn’t a joke that got misinterpreted by white fans and folklorists — less “Oh my god he’s so good” and more “Oh my god he used to suck but he went and practiced hard for a while so now he’s fine…but we’re still going to tease him about it.” Plus maybe a bit of “Wow, people really eat that story up — tell it again.” (Not to diminish Robert Johnson’s accomplishments, but considering the breathless way stories like that get told sometimes, I have to wonder.)

            That’s one thing I’ve noticed in older blues recordings, as opposed to more “modern” ones: there’s an increasing rigidity of form in later blues which I don’t find in the old stuff, and I don’t think it’s an improvement.

            Is it a response to context? I imagine it’s easier to be loose if you’re one guy with a guitar than if you’re leading a group on a bandstand. And then I suppose there’s the commercial angle: people recording music probably want something predictable to work with. Still, I think there’s something magical about the tightness of a great blues band that works within a strict structure…it’s not worse or better than a more laid-back country style, just different.

            And it’s interesting when the impulses clash. John Lee Hooker was a bit like Lightnin’ Hopkins in his disregard for bandmates’ expectations, I think. I once saw him play a show with really too many backing musicians — I think everyone in central Texas just wanted a chance to be on stage with him before he died — and he was very tolerant of the crowd, but he also clearly did not give any fucks whatsoever, and everyone else just had to keep up.

            On the other hand, even bands that tend to keep to a tight structure also have ways to accommodate the need for spontaneous storytelling. I once saw Buddy Guy musically heckle a bunch of frat boys who were right in front of the stage but not paying the proper attention. “Time for a history lesson, boys. Can you tell me who wrote this? [plays a lick] What did you say? Wrong, fuckhead! Let’s try another…”

            Hrm, I’m not sure if that actually addresses the phenomenon, or if it just happens to amuse me. But I think or hope that new contexts give rise to new forms of flexibility.

            People seem to regard Madonna as some kind of virtuoso, …

            Yeah, I never understood that either. Or Camille Paglia’s fascination. Maybe Madonna just had the good timing to be mining disco during a resurgent gay rights movement? On the other hand, I can’t really think of any reason to think my appreciation of a salacious story told by a rural guitar man over one funky beat is somehow superior to another person’s appreciation of a sexy song by an urban disco/techno queen over another funky beat.

          2. … remember the one about Robert Johnson meeting the devil at a crossroads at midnight…?

            You know, the older I get the more I wonder if the whole “crossroads” story wasn’t a joke that got misinterpreted by white fans and folklorists — less “Oh my god he’s so good” and more “Oh my god he used to suck but he went and practiced hard for a while so now he’s fine…but we’re still going to tease him about it.” Plus maybe a bit of “Wow, people really eat that story up — tell it again.” (Not to diminish Robert Johnson’s accomplishments, but considering the breathless way stories like that get told sometimes, I have to wonder.)

            That’s quite possible. In fact, I rather like that reading, now that I’ve heard it. But I can’t help but wonder; in Paganini’s case it was meant more the way people have generally taken it, and also to reflect how disturbing it was to be in the presence of outright, full-on virtuosity.

            That’s one thing I’ve noticed in older blues recordings, as opposed to more “modern” ones: there’s an increasing rigidity of form in later blues which I don’t find in the old stuff, and I don’t think it’s an improvement.

            Is it a response to context?

            I imagine it’s easier to be loose if you’re one guy with a guitar than if you’re leading a group on a bandstand.

            That’s true, but Mississippi Fred McDowell’s first recordings reveal that even large ensembles can be very loose and

            And then I suppose there’s the commercial angle: people recording music probably want something predictable to work with. Still, I think there’s something magical about the tightness of a great blues band that works within a strict structure…it’s not worse or better than a more laid-back country style, just different.

            Hmmm. I want to say that the older I get, the more I am able to respect a band being tight, and together, but I have too many memories of playing in a rock band that, at times, was incredibly tight and together, mainly because we just played the same fifteen or twenty-five songs ad nauseam. Being tight and together isn’t a great achievement when that’s all you’re doing, in other words. (It impresses me more when it’s a jazz group and they’re all spontaneously improvising and somehow being “tight and together” while also manufacturing practically the whole thing on the spot.)

            Like, say:

            … or MMW, who are scary live:

            … or, say, Branford Marsalis’ tenor battle with Courtney Pine, “Dewey Baby,” which I’m pretty sure I linked in one of the posts in this series.)

            On the other hand, even bands that tend to keep to a tight structure also have ways to accommodate the need for spontaneous storytelling. I once saw Buddy Guy musically heckle a bunch of frat boys who were right in front of the stage but not paying the proper attention. “Time for a history lesson, boys. Can you tell me who wrote this? [plays a lick] What did you say? Wrong, fuckhead! Let’s try another…”

            Ha, that reminds me of the jazz combo that used to play at the bar on campus when I was in grad school. When the Swing Dance dorks showed up and annoyed everyone, the band started occasionally to play tunes like “Take Five” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” because those idiots couldn’t dance in anything but 4/4. They were making the point that the music was there to be listened to, that it wasn’t big ban music designed for dancing. Hell of an amusing show, both times I saw that.

            Hrm, I’m not sure if that actually addresses the phenomenon, or if it just happens to amuse me. But I think or hope that new contexts give rise to new forms of flexibility.

            I’d say “gives rise” is probably too passive. New forms of flexibility are eked out by musicians. It’s an active, conscious thing, when it happens. One that is often opposed. (Charlie Parker’s music being called “Chinese music” in a pejorative sense, for example.)

            People seem to regard Madonna as some kind of virtuoso, …

            Yeah, I never understood that either. Or Camille Paglia’s fascination. Maybe Madonna just had the good timing to be mining disco during a resurgent gay rights movement? On the other hand, I can’t really think of any reason to think my appreciation of a salacious story told by a rural guitar man over one funky beat is somehow superior to another person’s appreciation of a sexy song by an urban disco/techno queen over another funky beat.

            I dunno. I think probably it’s tied up in a desire on the one hand to celebrate a strong female icon, and to recognize that because she was promoted and sold in a certain way, she was tied to a certain cultural zeitgeist–essentially, the shift from feminism being critical of sexuality in the heteronormative mainstream, to the current sense that sexuality (including the most common form, heretonormative, cisgender sexuality among women) is crucial to the feminist project.

            Also, because academics seem to be as ignorant and consumerized about most things as the rest of us — many of them like Madonna, and so want to read her in complex ways — but also because a lot of academics seem eager to be seen as “hip” rather than isolated from society, up in their ivory tower reading Henry James and Aphra Behn.

            I noticed a really troubling trend in postmodernist criticism when I was an undegrad: that they always seemed eager, when talking about genre (say, SF) to talk about TV shows, and not about the cutting edge fiction. They were much happier to talk about gender or the construction of racial identity in Star Trek than to, say, crack an actual SF novel and see what people were writing about in their own day and age. There was a sense in it of them slumming, going to what they saw as the lowest common denominator, and then holding it up triumphantly as being reflective of postmodernity itself. All kinds of arrogance and anxiety all bundled together on display in that sort of thing… it was a really big turn-off, and one of the reasons I turned my back on the idea of literary studies in the academy, because it was clear that Po-Mo would remain ascendant for the foreseeable future, and I didn’t want to spend my professional life battling with its legions of devotees.

  6. COMMENT #5 OF 10 – ECONOMICS I

    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.

    1. Marvin,

      I’m back at replying to these comments, though I’ll take my time and please do sketch out the rest of your points first if you like.

      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.

      I haven’t listened to Rouse, though with the magic of the internet, I will be able to listen to the piece you mention tonight. Or at least, however much of it is up on Youtube. The trap set thing sort of turns me off, though I can say that contemporary composers are in a bit of a difficult situation. There is certainly a pressure to be neoromantic, to pander to an audience with a very low common denominator. There are excellent composers alive today, but that said, I’m not claiming all composers’ work is worthwhile. Some contemporary composers really suck. (No idea what I think of Rouse, so I’m not talking about him specifically.)

      (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.)

      I think it’s the latter. But I would.

      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.”

      True. And you’re right to point out the economics, though, at the same time, I’ll point to my high school. I don’t know about all Canadian schools, but I know my school had courses for students about art appreciation. They were, well, basically useless, and seen as such by everyone involved. The teacher felt it was a waste of his time and treated it that way, since he preferred to expend his energy on band courses and extracurricular music programs. And understandably, in some ways: he was getting students whose total exposure to music beyond the media was learning recorder in elementary school and having to play “Hot Crossed Buns” for a grade. They couldn’t read music. They already had it in their heads that any music outside of what was on MuchMusic (Canadian music video channel) was “boring crap.” They were a hostile, captive audience.

      So there’s the case that some of that expense ought to be spent in school, except that we live in a society where fluency in the arts (and math, and science, and even language) takes second fiddle to… well, lots of things.

      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.

      Well: it’s not really a false dichotomy, though: I left out of the food side the fact that when you move from buying preprocessed foods to eating, well, “real” food, you also have a learning curve and there is a time expense. In my house, the housemate who’s the biggest “foodie” was talking to another of us about the difference between pre-mixed spice paste mixes and mixing one’s own spices for a curry. One didn’t see a point, and also said that he had trouble getting it right (though, note, he has tried); the other took it for granted that there’s a learning process but it can be gotten right, and more importantly that there’s a pleasure in doing it oneself. It was interesting.

      So there’s a parallel there.

      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.

      Yeah. I have to beg out on my experience not being like that. I’m guessing Saskatoon and Austin are probably at opposite ends of the spectrum, in fact: where I lived, smaller-name popular music concerts were relatively inaccessible for underage kids (because they were often given in bars with an age restriction to get in), while jazz and classical concerts were cheap and easy to go to, as well as centrally located (on major bus lines). Also, we were in flyover country: the number of big-name acts who came to town were very limited. When MC Hammer came (he was still MC Hammer at that time) even people who didn’t like his music went to the show, because big shows were very rare. Meanwhile, the annual jazz festival put a lot of the biggest names in jazz onstage, at rates even I could afford with paper route money as a high schooler, annually, and the local jazz club brought in tons of big names all the time. I imagine Vancouver and Toronto were probably more blessed with big names, but we had lots of big acts come to our little jazz club. And the orchestra had a youth discount (as well as a discount for uni students and even one for university students studying music!), and cheap seats–most orchestra halls offer cheap seats–and if you got tickets for that part of the hall, everyone was in jeans and T-shirts. No dress code, not at all. (The same is true in Seoul, and I imagine in a lot of places.)

      There was more of an expense in Seoul, as there were only a few places to see jazz and classical music and especially with the jazz there were stupidly expensive cover charges for entry into the club. I actually blame the clubs in part for the lack of interest in jazz in Korea: they make it so only people who truly love the stuff will show up at a club. Some of them, anyway. But in Canada, there was none of that: seeing jazz and classical music was cheaper and easier for me than popular music until I reached the age of 19. Not that my friends cared: for most of them, music was something on tapes and CDs anyway.

      So I don’t know.

      But you’re right: there’s an expense involved that isn’t created by big companies. An inherent expense that is tied up with the difficulty of it. The thing is: there’s an expense involved in knowing how to cook good food, too. It takes time, experimentation, some wasted food when you mess up (ie. when you learn through errors), and research, cookbooks, and so on. Some people go to college to learn how to cook professionally. That doesn’t exonerate companies for creating an environment where unhealthy garbage is passed off as food, or for exaggerating the difficulty, or creating the belief that it’s normal to not know how to cook good food for oneself… something that, even a century ago, would have left people bewildered. (Just as, a century ago, people would have been shocked to find that people had to go to someone else and pay them to do clothing alterations. Off the rack manufactured clothing is only about a hundred years old as a concept. While there’s nothing wrong with off-the-rack as a concept, there’s plenty wrong with it in practice, and that’s pertinent in ways I feel are analogous to the music business.)

      I understand, though, your point about how corporations and the media aren’t the sole problem, that the social order and the preexistent politics of class are part of it too. (The former, though–the social order–it seems to me is very strongly tied to corporations and to education.)

      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.

      Indeed. I’m at the point now where I’d probably be happier doing that kind of work: helping young people get in touch with music and literature in ways that their education, and the media in which the spend their lives immersed, don’t suggest to them. There are media literacy programs in some cities: I’d like to be part of an arts literacy program somewhere, and I think it’d be wonderful and fun. I have no idea where, though. Did you ever see the documentary El Sistema, about the program of the same name? Some part of me wants to get involved in something like that, even if it’s more on the side of just exposing kids to more than just Britney Spears and bloody Justin Bieber.

      And yeah, I understand the idea of culture deserts, and it makes sense: in some ways, I’ve lived most of my life in them, though I appreciate that in some ways that was not the case during the time I lived in Saskatoon (from the middle of high school till the end of undergrad). Most of Seoul is absolutely a culture desert… and the degree to which this results in part from preconceptions created by entertainment companies distresses me.

      Not that Saigon seems much better so far, but of course, it depends what culture you’re hunting for. I was hoping for a few really great jazz clubs. There is, supposedly, one. Haven’t managed to get there to check it out yet, but I will do so soon. The owner, a saxophonist, sits in regularly and seems very good at the horn:

      Though, as I search around, I see a lot of stuff that sounds more like funk and fusion, which… well, it’s not what I’m hungry to listen to…

      But… aha, there’s a big band here:

      Perhaps I could talk their leader into adding some charts I’ve arranged to their repertory, once I get a few written. (I’m currently struggling with reharmonizing–of all things–Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” If that surprises you, well, Ms. Lauper will come up again in response to another comment of yours, sooner or later.

      1. And, brief note:

        WordPress is eating the formatting on these comments. I’ll try sort it out soon so they’re more readable. All HTML is being cut, including embedded videos, blockquotes, and so on. Very annoying. Not sure why this is happening.

  7. COMMENT #6 OF 10 – ECONOMICS II

    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.

    1. Woo! I got the HTML back into comments. Apparently the default setting for one plugin changed at one point, when I updated. Argh. Anyway, it’s sorted now, and as an added bonus, I think I figured out why my website has been using WAY too many CPU minutes. I think… I’ll try sort it out tomorrow.

      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?

      Well, there are degrees. I’ll relate one example: sax players tend either to have to be at the top of the heap, or to have to play in “popular music” groups, in order to get any income from playing music. That is: popular music may pay shit for most people, but at the B-list or C-list level, it still pays better than classical and jazz. (And frankly, even many very famous composers have long had to teach at universities in order to make a living.)

      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.

      I would spin it rather that heavy-duty money-making is a characteristic of corporations that sell interchangeable, formulaic pop music, if that makes sense: the corporate profits are both the result and the cause (in a homeostatic loop, can I say? a feedback loop) that emphasizes the interchangeability and the formula in order to maximize long-term profitability of the corporation, and likewise the profits (and the attendant culture of celebrating performers even when they are musically mediocre) tends to ensure an endless supply of people who either aren’t musicians but wish to be famous as such, or who are musicians but want to make money, or some combination of both.

      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?

      A fair question. I’d reply by suggesting that not all composition has constantly been subject to patronage, and that patronage in the past didn’t hyperdetermine content the way corporate product-control seems to (from what Cyndi Lauper had to say in that excellent interview I mentioned somewhere up-thread).

      European musicians like Bach, Ockeghem, and Josquin de Prez were all able to create wonderful works of music–secular and sacred alike–while working under the system of patronage, in part because, like poet laureates, not all of their time was taken up writing for the Church. (The Church supported them on condition they wrote a certain amount of sacred music, but secular work was also possible.) Just as we don’t dismiss the work of a given poet laureate because they’re under a government’s patronage (because, after all, most of the poems written in that time are their own, undirected artistic output) the same is true, to varying degrees, of musicians subsisting under patronage.

      And frankly, because of the musical culture at the time, the composing of masses was something competitive, to the point where you can’t get me to go to a Mass in a church, but I listen to Masses composed by these composers all the time, because they’re so gorgeously-done, truly masterpieces of musical invention. The Bach B-minor mass is one example, and Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum is another. Composers writing masses were often busy showing off how badass they were, how much they could do and get away with. Miss Prolationum for example involves a bunch of canons: canon at the first, at the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and, yes, the seventh. If you know anything about composing, you realize just how incredibly badass that is, especially for an early-Renaissance composer, in a world where tritones (a flat fifth interval) are still considered Satanic. There’s all kinds of messing around with mathematics (well, lengths of notes and melodies and so on) between the canons, too (see here for more)… Enough so that when I first encountered this piece as a wannabe composer in 1992 or 1993, I was overwhelmed with just how badass Ockeghem had managed to be… over four hundred years before. And also overwhelmed by how it also manages to be a truly gorgeous, transcendentally timeless piece of music:

      Likewise, while some jazz musicians got financial aid, and others were motivated by a desire to be saleable, most of what I’ve read and see in my life suggests thatmost jazz musicians–even those who did have patrons like Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (who patronized people like Bird and Monk, and whose name is referred to in tons of song titles)–didn’t tend to be subject to the patron’s artistic direction: Bird and Monk weren’t pushed toward a particular style, nor were they imitated by younger artists primarily for the purposes of attracting patronage.

      Which is to say, the patronage system ain’t as simple as all that. But you’re right that the pop music marketing system isn’t as easy as I’ve suggested either. The differential remains relevant in my mind: people low down on the scale of pop music can still sort of pay the bills if they work hard,and are flexible and resourceful. That seems less true of the “art” musicians.

      And the other thing that is “new” in our age is that the term “artist” gets applied to far less astounding performers than in the past. We love to throw that word around now: “recording artist” is something that even Justin Bieber gets called with a straight face. It’s a bit like every burger slinger in fast food being called a chef, or, more fairly, like everyone who makes drip coffee at a diner for a living being called a barista. (I would love it if people who were trying to be artists were as common as baristas, and we’d perhaps be in a more engaging, colorful world if it were the case.) But I find it sad that artists never fought for the protection of the term. One could argue that it’s too subjective a thing to fight over, but how objective is the line between an excellent professional cook and a chef? Protected terms are not protected because they are objective, but because people inside the circle realize that dues-paying is part of the process. Businesspeople don’t, and mostly don’t care to acknowledge it, because dues-paying also means one gets invested in the quality of one’s work.

      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.

      Yes, I agree, and they are all problematic, just as power structures are problematic for most human endeavours… but I persist in my belief that the current ones are more problematic, for the reasons outlined above.

  8. ~ INTERLUDE ~

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

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

    COMMENT #7 OF 10 – THE PRICE OF ABSTRACTION

    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?

    1. Aaaargh! Lost a very, very long comment I was writing in response to this. Trying again.

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

      I’m glad I got busy to give you chance to finish up your original series of comments, then.

      COMMENT #7 OF 10 – THE PRICE OF ABSTRACTION

      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.)

      Your objections and comments seem fair to me. I agree on some level it’s not only Mammon media… but I also suspect that Mammon media exacerbates it excessively, and has especially come to do so in the last fifty or so years… probably right on the same schedule of the hyperprocessing of food, actually.

      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?”

      Yes and no. Anne’s comment earlier in this discussion speaks to this to some degree. The audiences for the most radical, difficult music of the 1940s–bebop–were not exclusively (or, at first, even significantly… as far as I know, anyway) white, wealthy ones. They were urban, and it’s not like all the blacks in Harlem were living in grinding poverty, but they weren’t, you know, universally rolling in dough, either. Miles Davis is a poor example–he was a dentist’s son–but plenty of musicians who mastered bebop lived in effective poverty (due to drug addiction).

      Which is to say, we can invoke class both in terms of audiences and in terms of performers, but only to some degree. The cost of mastering something can be considerable, and yet the thing will achieve some degree of popularity nonetheless, if the social environment facilitates it.

      (One great example is how jazz was selling bigger in Japan than in America in the 1990s. I mean that more jazz albums sold annually in Japan than in the USA, at least according to some article I read at the time. Some of that may be related to differing attitudes towards piracy, but I think it’s also linked to different cultural attitudes towards, virtuosity on the one hand, and what I suppose one could call virtuosic, obsessive consumption on the other. (Otaku have a relatively bad rap in Japan even now, but they are a social niche, and obsessive consumptive patterns in other areas than the traditional otaku ones seem more socially acceptable, not just in Japan but also in Korea, which are much less socially acceptable in North America. In other words, the social cost of being a jazz nut in Japan was probably lower in the 90s than it was in America at the time. My guess, anyway.)

      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.

      I don’t know. I mean, yes, sure, but everyone’s initiation is at some point blind. I didn’t get into Wagner or Stravinsky or Coltrane or Miles Davis or Monk because I knew all that stuff. I got into them despite all my musical training–the implicit training from media, and the (poor, but scanty, thank goodness) explicit training from school courses in art/music appreciation I got as a kid.

      Maybe part of the reason for that is idiosyncracy. I’m a tinkerer, which is why I’m a passable cook and understood as much music theory as I did when I started university, despite only a few months’ explicit training. I always pull things apart when I can see they’re done well, even when, like with visual arts, I have no foundation or background. And I’ve always had a very strong regard for people doing truly difficult things well, and a poor regard for people doing things that seem to me not to be difficult, but getting praised for it. (When I see rock bands with screaming fans, and it’s clear they only know three chords, I feel disdainful more than anything; anyone can do that shit, I think to myself, and I know from experience that I’m right.)

      But I think there’s also the question of social environment. Both the case of Japan (in the 90s re: jazz consumption) and the case of the audiences for early bebop in New York City suggest that the economics of mastery aren’t in and of themselves the sole determinant. Social standards must come into play, and the thing I see shaping those standards more than anything is… you guessed it. Media.

      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.

      Yes and no. Cecil Taylor certainly thinks so, but Branford Marsalis excoriates him for the attitude, in a lengthy interview I linked recently over on my Tumblr. Marsalis argues people can appreciate and get into complex and difficult music if the musicians are enjoying themselves and the process of making the music. I’m not sure I credit that capacity for 100% of how people get into jazz, but I think it’s part of it. Nobody laughed aloud at the Matthew Shipp concert I went to back in Montreal (a solo show, but this will give you some idea of the pianist’s approach), but they did feel something powerful.

      I think, and I think it’s come up in this comment thread before, that the economics we’re talking about also link to the economics of the small-venue, live music culture that has all but died in a lot of places. As an example, I just took a look at the jazz club I was going to in the early 90s, which was constantly having gigs with instrumental jazz and huge names… these days, there’s few “jazz divas” but also pop music, celtic groups, and so on. Nothing against diversification, but this is the place I saw Jane Bunnett and Dewey Redman, where I saw Tiger Okoshi, and Trevor Watts’ Moire orchestra from London, and so many other really significant jazz artists of the time. (Likewise,the jazz festival had brought in tons of big names when I was a teenager; these days, not so much… something I blame on the Canadian government banning cigarette companies funding the arts, but doing nothing to fill the void left behind.)

      And I think that’s another thing that may relate better to economics: recordings have seriously damaged the small-live-music-circuit, and jazz lives most truly and most vibrantly in the live show… the same, I’d say, is true for “classical” music. Part of the engagement necessary to get this is one of making space for something, or of entering special spaces for the music. That’s something antithetical to both the commercialization of music, and to our download-anywhere-enjoy-now culture.

      (The same culture that lets me listen to Matthew Shipp here in Vietnam right now, so I’m not slagging it, but it does affect how we interface with art and culture, and I think it does erode the, could I say, “sacred spaces”… which is telling, I think, in relation to your comment about the singer who performed “Halleluia.” I don’t mean concert halls are literally sacred spaces, but they’re certainly derived from churches, and are places we go mentally and emotionally prepared for experiences outside, and above, those of the ordinary realm.)

      [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…]

      The two are, I’d imagine, closely connected–though sometimes the hardest work is making it seem effortless. And the best improvising musicians radiate a sense of wonder and focus that is very, very contagious.

      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.

      I certainly wouldn’t push an understanding that includes only a “very non-abstract moral purpose” for music; I think it also relates to joy, and to liberation. I always cringe when I hear people talk about how this or that illegal drug ought to be legalized because that liberation is only possible with that drug, because I always find myself wondering: where’s the work? Where’s the sweat? Liberation is never free, as I understand it. It always takes work.

      The “moral” cost you discuss links back to the TV-dinners analogy this way for me: it relates to things like one’s experience of liberation, of joy, of awe. I think we live in profoundly awe-starved times, actually. We’re all sardonic and clever and all-knowing. We refuse to be impressed by anything… including really, truly impressive things.

      Maybe…a hybrid?

      Aaaaack! Kill it! Kill it with fire! But not all of it. Just the tentacled parts that squeeze the life out of the vital, messy, wild stuff. (For that matter, the “trad jazz” museumization that has excluded all the best experimental jazz. And, fuck Ken Burns for uncritically buying into the “chauvinism” of the Young Lions of Jazz movement… for all the good they did, and there was good, their ignoring (and in Wynton’s case, actively marginalizing from even historical record) their experimental predecessors was just rude.)

      1. Though… as one often finds, looking more deeply, one finds things more complex. I still find Wynton Marsalis aggravating in ways–the selectivity of what he acknowledges being part of it–but he comes off at least as more sympathetic and passionate in the interview I linked. (The “chauvinism” is mentioned in the later commentary in the series of posts, amid a balanced assessment of the “Young Lions” thing. I’m now looking back into Wynton’s catalog to see if maybe I’ve been too anti-Wynton’s music, judging it on the basis of his public historiography, which arguable is separable if one wants to be open and learn from things and so on.)

  10. COMMENT #8 OF 10 – HYBRIDITY

    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.)

    1. 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. :-)

      Sure. I am enjoying the discussion and having my own ideas poked, reality-checked, etc. Also, I would never presume to be educating you. I have been thinking deeply for a long time, but that doesn’t mean I have thought from every (or even necessarily from many) angles.

      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.

      Well… I want to clarify: I don’t think anything like a “pure” music is actually possible, just comparably more hybrid versus less-hybrid. And hybridity could, conceivably, enter into musical performances for less-hybrid music (say, jazz) to a greater or lesser degree, too… and does, always, to some extent. (The usefulness of the distinction, I think, is primarily in sussing out the importance and relevance of emphasis.)

      And so I agree that hybridity can and is a positive good, and it is where we live as human beings for at least part of our lives. I just think that it shouldn’t steamroller the bridges to the places we don’t live day-to-day, and I feel the hyperemphasis on hybridity has done so.

      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.

      Sometimes. But ironically I’d hold this conversation up as a wonderful counterexample beyond the sense of writing requiring care and allowing clarity, depth, self-reflection, and the other benefits of written interaction you mention. We have moved into realms of discussion I think most people never approach in speech, partly because this conversation is discontinuous (and so the time investment is possible) and partly because of the ease and endless capacity for reference — you and I can both refer one another to many written or audible examples of ideas we’re discussing.

      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.

      Yes, I have no argument against that. I would agree that we shouldn’t want that eradicated or cut out of culture like a cancer. But neither should we allow it to engorge to the point where it starves art for nutrients and oxygen, especially when that engorgement is happening at least in part as a function of profitability… which to at least a significant degree it is.

      Which is the harder part of the analogy that I didn’t explore so much, from what I recall about what I wrote: a society subsisting on TV dinners is also going to be sicker than a society that eats healthy, home-cooked, organic food on a daily basis. Not necessarily much sicker, depending on how one thinks of “home-cooked” food: it’s possible to have organic deep-fried chicken one has cooked for oneself on a daily basis, but nobody really does that. (Well, nobody who has embraced food in the way I am talking about when I say “foodies.”)

      I agree Bill Cole’s four categories are neither exhaustive nor are they mutually exclusive. Honestly, I would argue hybridity in a general sense is probably the default form of culture, but the hybridity we see in popular music moves way beyond that. It is unprecedented, I’d argue, that the primary determinant of whether one ought to go into music is one’s bone structure, or how long one’s legs are. (To point an accusatory finger at K-pop for a moment.) American pop music is less extreme, but still pretty extreme compared to the past, when people were allowed to look like average folks and pursue a career in music.

      So I’d say contemporary forms of commercially-defined hybridity are not really in qualitatively or quantitatively anything like the forms of hybridity in the past. Your question about whether we can see it as coarsening the purer forms, versus being a human default, misses this distinction.

      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.

      Well, we know (almost) nothing about neolithic people’s musical aesthetics, or did when I studied music anyway, aside from a few finds of what may have been prehistoric flutes, but we do know that other cultures with very rudimentary technology, their sense of music has been comparably complex to that of European music, but focused on rhythm instead of harmony. That Marsalis interview discusses the rhythmic complexity of West Africa’s traditional musical forms, and I’ve read similar things about other musical traditions in so-called “stone age” cultures.

      At the same time, I’d add that music in a lot of those cultures is woven more deeply into general life than in the “modernized” world. It is not a commodity, but a component of human being and doing, inevitably participatory and generally collaborative.

      [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.]

      Oh, yes. I doubt you remember my comment years ago (on a certain mailing list, ahem) but for years I’ve thought that it was the Church that invented a kind of consciously-controlled, repeatably deployable psychedelic experience fundamental to modern media. That sounds like a very Marshall MacLuhan sort of thing to say, but it also seems true to me. But of course, I’ve dealt to some degree with the question of patronage; it doesn’t dismiss the charge, but it does subject it to a big question: if you are complicit with the system but make something transcendent, knowing it will be used for propaganda, but also knowing it’s the only way the art will (a) get made and (b) get in front of an audience, then to what degree can we dismiss the art?

      It’s funny: today we were talking in my crit group about perceptions of genre fiction from without, and of “literary” or “mainstream” fiction from within the genre fiction ghetto. One thing that came up is that “lit-fic” people tend to be dismissive of genre, while genre people tend to be resentful of lit-fic. Oddly, this seems to be reversed: personally, I find pop-music people tend to be more dismissive, and “art” music people, when they’re really into it, are very in love with the music and very sad (of not resentful) of how poorly it’s fared in the competition with crap. Wynton Marsalis’s comment in the interview I linked is probably the most positive, in claiming that the job of modern jazz players is to keep the flame burning so jazz is still around when people feel the urge to check out that good stuff.

      I’m also increasingly leery of my characterization of the social function of jazz (Cole’s African-American “classical” music, though others have termed it that too) as “transcending the quotidian.” That may be one function, but it’s not exhaustive, or even universal. Branford Marsalis actually put it well in an interview I saw as a teenager: he described listening to jazz as “dancing with your mind” and asked why we shouldn’t have room in American culture to dance not just with our bodies, but also with our minds — to interface with music in a playful manner not only physically, but also intellectually. We could argue that people listening to song lyrics are doing that, but I’d say they’re not interfacing with the music intellectually.
      (And I’d also argue that the less hybrid, the more purely the intellectual interfacing is possible… If it’s not clear why, ask me.)

      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.

      Precisely. There are mixed results on both sides, of course, but if you’re already so compromised in your instrumentation, your methodology, your palette, your vocabulary in generally, it’s just way harder. It’s possible–if you’re an absolute genius or work incredibly hard–but the time scales on which working musicians operate make it extremely unlikely to happen often.

      (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.)

      I hate dancing, personally, but I wouldn’t disagree. I just think in this day and age, people are taking much better care of their bodies than their minds. Which, you know, is not surprising given the sort of civilization we live in. (One where, to be functional, people need to spend vast amounts of time working alienated from the fruits of their work, often alienated from their own interests, and struggling to maintain a status quo that in the end is mildly unpleasant–at least–for everyone. It’s no coincidence that we refer to avant-garde jazz and composed music of the 1960s and 1970s as “revolutionary” and little wonder it got assailed so harshly in the 1980s.

      I’ll have to listen to the Marvin Gaye song, as I’ve heard it occasionally, but have never listened too closely. (I have nostalgic sympathies for Motown music in general, but am not overall familiar with Gaye’s music.) Your commentary is part of why I’ve become uncomfortable with “transcending the quotidian” being the primary function of “classical” musics like “classical” and jazz.

      Also, your description of the hybridity in the Gaye song fits with my sense that there is such a thing is “good” hybrid music, even if it’s mostly nothing to do with the music. Transcending your quotidian state, versus reaching states of intellectual challenge and engagement (and attendant fulfillment) you never imagined were possible, is maybe what I’m talking about. Argh. Not expressing it well. I’ll go look at the song tonight, after I practice, which I must do now as people are going to be watching the last Dr. Who in the living room and the current Who really rubs me the wrong way, so I want to be anywhere but here when they do watch it!

  11. 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.

    1. Marvin,

      I’m gonna just wait for you to finish posting your comments, and then wade back in! No rush, I just don’t want to pile more on at the moment, and happen to be a little busy anyway! :)

  12. COMMENT #9 OF 10 – IDENTITY AND SOUL-MAKING

    [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.

    1. It is to weep. I wrote a REALLY long response and then discovered that in Mac in Chrome accidentally hitting ESC means your comment is lost to the ether, instead of closing a system message popup as it would in Ubuntu. Sigh. I’ll try again tomorrow.

      1. Aiiiee! I hate it when that happens. I just spent the weekend lowering the tone of western civilization by attending live motorsports, so once my brain recovers from the fumes and the heatstroke I’ll try to respond properly to your latest comments.

    2. Hey Marvin,

      Okay, so, we agree: people whose experience of music is limited to its commodified, “popular” forms today are missing out on what music has to offer, and that producers have a vested interest in keeping consumers’ tastes predictable. But, as you say,

      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.

      Well, it’s not just about managing consumers. Consider the task of “managing” (in the corporate sense, not the “manager” sense) a group of young people who see themselves as rockers being, you know, rebellious, wild, radical, whatever, but who may be willing to tone it down or play ball to get a deal with a major label. Contrast this with the task of “managing” a group of highly-educated, professional musicians who not only see themselves as artists, but see themselves as spokespersons and torch-bearers for a whole tradition of artists, as well as ultimately record-keepers for their society (or their ethnic subgroup within that society… much more so when you consider how systematically and oppressively that subgroup was silenced and subjugated, not just artistically. While one should respect Cyndi Lauper’s resistance to the execs who threatened her in order to get her to follow orders from up top, one should also recognize that such resistance is par for the course for almost every major jazz musician, and against a lot more forces than just record execs. (Cops, club owners, governmental bodies–consider NYC’s notorious cabaret card system.)

      I wouldn’t say there’s exactly a conspiracy against artists, but I would say artists are likelier to be a pain in the ass for anyone who is seeking to mass produce music. Easier to cut them out of the loop–and, indeed, to redefine the terminology… which is what calling people like Justin Beiber “recording artists” effectively has done.

      That said, I think narrowing of tastes isn’t just about marginalizing “uppity” artists. It’s also about ensuring a high degree of interchangeability between acts, since the sustainability of any given act is relatively lower than a music company would prefer. Bands break up, performers overdose or retire or decide to have kids or whatever. One needs to have a steady flow of young people willing to sign on the dotted line to fill the space that opens up each time. In the US, there tends to be some expectation of musical ability–far more than in the Kpop scene, believe me–but it’s still laughably rudimentary compared to the background and training anyone needs if they want to be active in the “music” (in my sense of the word) scenes. When you’re dependent on, you know, actual talent and even excellence to get new acts that keep the outflow of product and the inflow of cash, it makes your work that much harder. If you can lower the standards, then not only is it easier to sell mediocre stuff (because listeners don’t really know better) but it’s also easier to swap new performers into your product line as needed.

      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.

      Yeah, it’s true. This is also what most jazz musicians end up having to do–the independent businessperson thing, I mean. (Composers either do screenplay or other commercial work on the side, or else they go the academic route.)

      I know nothing about the role of music journalism in making things popular; back when I worked in music stores, music journalism seemed relatively less important, but the Internet has changed things in so many ways I don’t know enough now. The Net surely has changed things like buzz, and popularization, but I don’t know how much exactly. Still,. I think my anecdote may help:

      When I worked in a record store, I discovered that album releases became events basically because record companies convinced store owners which ones had been planned as events. The sheets that would come to the shop, soliciting preorders for big release albums, would outline how much money had been spent on promotions–posters, TV time, radio play, big appearances, and so on. And in the individual stores, the big-event releases–the ones where a whole store window would be dedicated to the new Britney Spears album, yeah, this was that long ago–became that because the record companies would send a bunch of posters, play copies, T-shirts for staff to have for free on condition that they wore it to work on release day, and so on. They would sell the albums to the stores discounted, too, relatively speaking — for relatively less revenue per disk–because the volume that sold made it worth it to everyone.

      In other words, if the company wanted yoiu to become popular, they would spend money on it and you would achieve a certain degree of success. They had a pretty good sense of the range of people who could achieve popularity given that support, and limited their expenditures very carefully to those people alone. What little music journalism I read at the time — in Rolling Stone and in Billboard, which was thoroughly a trade magazine in those days — suggested that the music criticism and so on came long after the decisions had been made, and was in fact very often blindly celebratory of whatever happened to succeed most out of the fixed racket competition. Maybe things have changed since, but at the time, music journalism seemed a very much after the fact sort of thing, and definitely complicit with the system and the corporate agenda.

      So, plenty of agreement, then.

      But when it comes to identity-formation and soul-making, things can get very complicated very quickly.

      Of course!

      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.

      Well, now, don’t misread me. I’m not saying the conflict and tension proceeds from the culture industry’s prepackaging of identity for young people. Rather, I’m saying that this prepackaging is presented as a solution to the (yes, probably inescapable, in an industrialized society, anyway) problem…

      This is a problem because it’s a simulacrum of identity. Identity can’t be bought: it needs to be made, and the way to make it is to build it… it takes effort, sweat, and coming to know oneself.

      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?

      Well, in fact, I’ll say this: as effective as my G’N’R posture was in warding off bullies and turning a few girls’ heads, it didn’t help me much personally. I was as lost as ever. What did help me was the discipline and struggle to learn the saxophone — the sweat and sacrifice it took, and the positive feedback that came through. What helped me was D&D games where I could exercise my imagination and explore stories. What helped me was writing stories and poems and publishing them and dealing with both the dickheads who mocked me for it, and the occasional praise I got for the things I wrote. This is what I mean by the vale of soul-making: one finds out who one is by doing shit, by getting into shit, in an active way, rather than as a passive consumer.

      And I know what you’re thinking: D&D doesn’t help a kid not get bullied. It’s true: it can in fact attract more bullies. But doing something one loves can invest one with confidence, with a self-respect, with a sense of discipline that help one to deal with the shit a young person must face. (People tend to credit only athletics for that, and while I was thinking as I just went to get a drink of water that probably this does click well with your own experience of martial arts, assuming I remember right and you started when you were younger, I’d say music can do it to. The arts are a long-hallowed path through the “vale of soul-making.”

      Normally, I’m also very dubious (like you) about such flowery language, but I like the termini this case because I think the development of our identities is so fundamental to who we are, how we live, our politics, our health, our freedom as people, that it should be seen as sacred in some way. Certainly, it should be more evident who absurd that a simulacrum-like shortcut presented by the culture industry is even offered.

      Now:

      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?

      This is a harder to question, in part because I’m dubious about the way I presented Cole’s model. That model was only even supposed to be provisional, incomplete, and functional — useful for one aspect of this discussion, not as a defining model for the whole. Still, I think I can make it work, if we think hard enough to define “transcending social context” in such a way that it really does cover more than just some airy sort of “good” function.

      Here’s a sketch of the range of things that “transcending the quotidian” might work:

      – giving a person an experience that puts them in touch with music in a fundamental form — a form not subject to fashions and trends, music that actually is (on whatever timescale we humans operate on) “timeless” in ways that most of the music that surrounds us on a daily basis decidedly isn’t.

      – putting someone in touch with reality in an altered way. Music, after all, is highly abstract, and to listen to music can be akin to doing advanced mathematics, or certain forms of meditation where one is exerting a consciousness and awareness and sensitivity one normally does not experience.

      – putting someone in touch with history in a way that mainstream society doesn’t offer. I’ve read plenty of times African-American jazz musicians talk about how learning jazz music, and its history, is about learning the history of blackness in America, as well as coming in touch with the trans-Atlantic roots of the African-American experience. (And when you do study the music, this is appreciable; there are distinct things about jazz rhythm and West African rhythm that are more similar to one another than they first seem, but are mutually just purely alien to European traditional culture. Eerie , beautiful, and haunting aspects of history we don’t talk about — and which don’t fit into any of the conventional narratives of the African-American experience, positive or negative, from any point of view — live in that music. I’m a white Canadian, so I can’t speak authoritatively on any of that, but as someone living in the American sphere of influence, I have heard the ancient voices and the ghost rhythms resonating and see how they connect to who I am and where and how I live today. And that shit is *important*.

      – music itself can be, experientially, a crucible for experience that does map onto day-to-day life in a potentially radical, potentially transformative way. Two examples: one is that the US State Department sunk tons of money sending jazz bands to the nonaligned third world during the Cold War, not only to show off how “integrated” America was (not really) but also because they believed the experience of jazz–radical individualism in a context of collective cooperation–was an appreciable model for democracy, and that audiences could grasp and appreciate that. It’s a positively utopian conception of jazz theory and structure, and that’s interesting. Similarly, pieces of music can illustrate other political or social issues in a forceful, experiential way: if traditional mainstream jazz embodied principles of democracy, then the atonal avant-garde embodied the clash and grate of the civil rights movement, of anger at the resistance to change, and the radical alternatives to mainstream approaches to social change. (Something not lost on Archie Shepp, among others–he fused spoken word of a very political nature–black rights stuff, mainly–with atonal, avant-garde jazz.) I could argue that European classical music also followed something like this — the breakdown of traditional tonality happened in step with the breakdown of traditional religion and political systems, and, again, arguably the aesthetics not only reflected it, but facilitated it. Which, well, yay.

      You’re right, though, when you say this:

      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?

      Well, I think the functions I described as being offered in art music might be, to some lesser extent possible in popular music. But I think at the same time, it’ll be very rare that popular music can achieve it to anywhere near the degree that music where “music” is the focal emphasis can do. The example of Living Color is an excellent one: while they were a big deal for being an all-black hardrock/metal band at the time, and their lyrics (and videos) were (at least sometimes) famously political:

      … the music, the stage demeanor, and much more were utterly conservative. Musically, they state the status quo. (At least in this song.) The content of the lyrics is subservient to the (familiar, unsurprising) musical form and the rhythms of tonal harmony (which is why the lyrics look somewhat less impressive out of context, like read on a screen). And none of this is criticizing the band: they were a good band for their time, and apparently trailblazers in some ways. But the form, and the industry, both impose limits on how deep they can do into things.

      It puts me in mind of something Darko Suvin wrote in this book, about how the bourgeois novel was inherently supportive of the status quo through a just-so story that argued radical change was not just impossible, but also undesirable. Utopian novels, on the other hand, repudiated the status quo in favor of imagined possibilities of plausible radical alternity. Interestingly, Suvin notes that no text is wholly one or wholly the other: all texts are defined by how they manage the tension between the two, though of course lots of why we consider now “bourgeois novels” are very strongly on one side, and a few utopian novels are mostly on the other. But plenty of texts have conflicted relationships with these two impulses. So it is with music. Living Color may be more balanced than most popular music, but that doesn’t put it on the radical alternate side of things.

      (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.)

      For the record, jazz people count Louis as jazz, even though he was popular at times!

      I like the idea of webs of narrative, though I want to emphasize that while people who do get into music do learn about, you know, figures and their lives, fundamentally it still often ends up being about the music itself. Not all narrative is verbal, in other words: some of the narratives with which we engage in music are wholly nonverbal, in the logical, mathematical, yet also unmistakably narrative structures underpinning harmony and structure and other “abstract” features of music.

      Not sure I’m saying that in a way people can grok, let me know if not.

  13. COMMENT #10 OF 10 – WRAPPING UP

    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

    1. Great stuff, Marvin. Thanks for the response! I will get back to replying to these tonight or tomorrow. I’ve been dealing with a lot of stuff, some personal and also some just trying to get some writing done, but I intend to reply to a couple of your comment chunks soon!

    2. Hey Marvin,

      So, I’m finally here, responding to the tenth of your original series of comments. Whew!

      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.”

      Well… I dunno. I’m not happy with that for the same reason I’m not happy with the dichotomy that classes “people” as outside “nature”: people are as much an expression of nature as jaguars and the platypus, and music that is about music is as much about people as is the heavily hybridized stuff. It’s just about different aspects of people, with different emphases, and so on… if that makes sense?

      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.

      Maybe. Like I’ve said before in my comments, though, one difference is that the Church often hired serious musicians, and also liturgical forms because, in a sense, the “standards” of the compositional vocabulary the way that simple Broadway tunes became a significant part of the formal vocabulary upon which small-group improvisational jazz was built from the 1940s onward.

      I would hold up Bach, Ockeghem, Josquin, and others as examples of composers who worked in sacred forms and who did very good work in them. (And while I can’t recall any secular work by Ockeghem, Bach and Josquin both did secular work of comparable quality and value.)

      But I think you may be referring to liturgical music outside of that Catholic, European tradition, and from what I’ve seen, yes, I can agree some of it would be toxic. (That said, I’ll also point to elements of Gospel music — the stuff we stereotypically see African-American church choirs singing on TV, or, you know, in Sister Act or whatever — and say, there are elements of African music that have survived there. Like the one woman always singing too high for her range, and a little out of tune? That’s a very West-African thing, though in West African music it’s not perceived as out of tune, it’s just a coloration of the pitch. The rhythms — layerings of duples and triples of rhythm — also hearken back to Africa, and represent things that have survived an enormous onslaught… which is why, at least at a distance, Gospel music seems powerful even when it might be banal, or repetitive, or whatever.

      (In a way that the John Denver-esque music on the Catholic Church post-Vatican II has never, ever been. While I (despite being atheist) don’t think a return to the Latin Mass would be a good idea for the laity, I do think they screwed up BADLY when they threw all that great music out the window and brought in the acoustic guitar strumming in its place. Going to church and hearing Josquin or Ockeghem weekly — or a good black Gospel choir — would have made church that much less banal, mediocre, and hellish for me. There’s be something there, at least, despite all the crud. But maybe that’s just familiarity-bred contempt, and maybe had I grown up with black choirs singing Gospel, I’d be all conflicted about that instead. I dunno.

      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.”

      Really? I’ve never seen such a thing! But then, as I noted, my dichotomy isn’t “classical” versus “pop” — it’s between music that’sabout the music, versus music that’s (by virtue of being heavily hybridized) about other things primarily. And it’s not really a dichotomy, but a sliding scale… it’s just that the music industry has sort of nuked the middle of the scale, so we have things at the extremes and think that music is naturally one or the other, right?

      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).

      Well, if we use an open-ended definition of “transcending” maybe, but that’s not the senses I meant, and not the senses I outlined in a comment written after you wrote this.

      (Though, again, I’m not truly happy with this “function” of “classical musics”… it was just sort of suggested as a placeholder, I think, for more complex functions I didn’t want to outline at the time.)

      In any case, because I don’t think of it as a dichotomy, I also don’t think it’s impossible for someone working in the more hybrid side of things to create something that has a transcendent function of whatever kind. It’s just much, much harder… probably we could say that as one increases linearly toward greater hybridity, the difficulty of making a music that has outstanding music, that effectively activates those functions I described, becomes exponentially more difficult. You theoretically could create a musical that is a good musical, but also contains truly great music, and dance, and a wonderful narrative, but to do that is so much fucking harder that maybe one or two people will ever bother to try, and maybe one person, someday, will actually do it. However, that’s not compatible with the business model, so I’m not holding my breath.

      In that context, your anecdote about Tim Minchin reminds me of Billie Holiday, who, I should not, was an extremely musical singer. There’s a reason horn players all listen to and admire her, unlike some jazz singers. Her sensibility is impossible to fault, basically. I don’t know Minchin, but I am willing to believe that he could be someone who is effectively working in that troubadour tradition–the people who somehow artfully use hybridity to achieve amazing artistic feats, including some degree of touching the transcendences I outlined in my comment.

      Minchin’s song choice suggests a kind of play on meta-narratives: anti-religious themes and atheist commentary, but also, that human yearning for the transcendent itself. He creates ambiguity, and in the referential net he has created, the meanings of the words expand somehow, like in a vacuum, taking on some kind of bewildering other sense. Of course, we could also argue that the transcendence he achieved was probably primarily of a theatrical kind: of the kind, say, we might see others reproduce in a stage performance with no music. (That is, it’s less the music and more the theatrical, more the philosophical juxtaposition, and all that. Which isn’t a criticism.)

      What I can say is this: the classifications in some sense don’t matter. Minchin’s performance falls somewhere along the scale, along with everything else, and perhaps his performances also oscillate in their position along the scale, from moment to moment… probably they do, since, as I’m realizing, oscillation is crucial to skillfully doing anything.

      (Last night I saw a band playing here in Saigon, and they were pretty oscillation poor: the main sax guy was a hot-shit, runs-like-a-sports-car-fleeing-the-devil sort of player… and that was all he did, constantly at ff (high volume). The guy probably could play in other modes — melodically, harmonic invention, whatever–but all he did last night was fast runs, and the odd Kenny G sounding lilt when he had to play the head of a given tune. The kind of band where nobody was listening to one another. There wasn’t enough oscillation along any of their musical axes to warrant or necessitate listening: it was autopilot all the way, and dead somehow.)

      As for this:

      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?

      Some of that is the dire straits “classical music” is in now. Some of it runs counter to the art of the music, too. Last night, there were a lot of Koreans in the house, and the sax guy I mentioned played the most famous Korean folk tune, Arirang. But he just sort of quoted it, and went back to his runs. No development, no stretching it further or making something new out of it. And it’s not like it’d be hard: it’s a fucking pentatonic scale. Every kid learning jazz improv could do something with it. It was pure fanservice, like a lot of the concert… and when I walked out, Jihyun–who isn’t trained in jazz, who isn’t a player, who hasn’t studied it, but who listens to it a lot–said she felt it wasn’t really jazz.

      Fanservice, I don’t know. I don’t see it in Mahler, or Bach, or in Coltrane or Sonny Rollins. These people looked at what they were doing as art. Too much fanservice in the jazz world, and a black musician would get called “Uncle Tom.” (See Miles Davis’ Autobiography for his controversial classifications of who was and wasn’t one.) The composers who did engage in schmaltz and fanservice type composing have never interested me, and have often been the least interesting ones. But I will say, that’s different than rejecting all composers whose work represents cross-pollination of any kind. I’m crazy about Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring — to the point where my newest short story, in this collection — explores occult intricacies in its notation — and, you know, that whole piece is an assemblage of Russian folk songs… (Of occult resonance, in some cases, ha.) Mahler and Beethoven worked with folk/popular melodies occasionally. They did amazing things with them. And, likewise, Rahsaan Roland Kirk borrowed from Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, which in turn seems to have relied on African-American music (spirituals) though to what degree is technically unclear. (But clearly he did draw on things he’d heard in America, including black spirituals.)

      Crowd-pleasing is different, but I guess I’d say it’s a question of whether the artist invites to listener to greatness of some kind… or panders to the listener. There’s nothing wrong with musicians having fun together, and a lot of the best bands do laugh and joke and engage in musical in-jokes and so on. I guess the best parallel I can think of is: if someone writes a book in a way that assumes the reader is well-read and well-educated and literate and intelligent enough to grasp at least some of the referential net that’s being cast, and designs it to generate pleasure and fun and excitement within that context, that’s a kind of fanservice I am all for. If one decides the audience is inevitably going to be ignorant and illiterate and that, you know, fuck complex metaphors or difficult vocabulary, people won’t bother if you use that shit… if someone writes like Dan Brown, ultimately, well… that’s a kind of fanservice that cheapens the music, and insults the audience without them even realizing it.

      Interestingly, though, as I’ve said this all maps out onto a scale. There are degrees. I think the middle has been nuked, but I also wonder if there’s another reason we both are talking about this as existing on an either-or scale? Hmmmm.

      1. Just checking in so you know I haven’t forgotten about you. I’m re-reading the whole conversation and also reading a seriously long-ass interview with Branford Marsalis that you posted a link to way up there somewhere, and which I’m enjoying tremendously. So for now I can only take issue with one small thing, where you said “I would never presume to be educating you,” to which I can only say, Where the evidence is clear, no presumption is required. You should be charging tuition. :-D

        1. Hey,

          No worries, I figured you were catching up on other stuff, maybe mulling my comments a little. The Branford Marsalis interview is well worth the time, though of course I can think of other questions I’d be asking him. The Wynton Marsalis interview over at Do the Math (this one, with all the exntended appendix posts) is also well worth the time. It helped me get more sympathetic with Wynton Marsalis, even if I still have serious issues with his historiography.

          And in fact, anyone looking for a musical education could do worse than to subscribe to Do the Math… personally, I’ve started trawling through the interviews (there’s an index of them here) and haven’t read an unimpressive one yet. (Don’t be scared off by the transcriptions, seriously.) I would be a charlatan and a joker charging anyone tuition when someone like Iverson is such amazing content out into the world on such a regular basis. And hey, I’m learning from the exchange, so I hope we don’t start charging tuition… I can’t afford it myself. So let’s call this “civilized exchange” instead. :)

      2. So Friday night, in a pizza joint and for no cover charge, I watched a nice little jazz trio led by Jeff Lofton play standards in a bebop style for 2-3 hours. Then I thought about Justin Beiber driving a chrome-plated Lamborghini, and I said to myself, “You know, Gord really has a big fucking point.”

        Sorry for the long delay (and for what’s about to be a bit of a ramble). I’ve been reading the articles you linked at Do the Math and pulling out classical recordings that I haven’t listened to in a while, to see how they strike me in light of our ongoing conversation.

        Put another way: I’ve been trying to consciously form a first approximation of the depth and breadth of my overall musical ignorance, and the result is breathtaking in its size and scope. Especially if I switch my mindset from “Am I enjoying this?” to “Do I really understand this?”

        In many cases I find that I can easily enjoy something because it’s familiar or because the melody, rhythm, and harmonies seem to tell a clear story in my mind. I listened to Dvorák’s 9th Symphony and Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, for instance, and I found them both beautiful and stirring and accessible, so much so that I’m lulled into thinking I know what’s going on. But if I compare my understanding of these works with, say, my understanding Pink Floyd’s Learning to Fly — which I learned several years ago when I was noodling around on an electric guitar — or with any comparable blues-rock based pop song, then there’s just no comparison.

        Then if I move on to something like Liszt’s Sonata for Piano in Bm, I realize just how completely I’m out of my depth. There’s huge drama here to pique the narrative sense, and I can appreciate it if I give it my full attention, but what’s happening musically is quite beyond me.

        Most of the jazz I’ve heard falls somewhere between Rodrigo and Liszt to my ears in terms of its accessibility and difficulty. It’s all beyond my real skill for understanding in varying degrees — sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot — but I can enjoy just about all of it.

        And then there’s something like the Matthew Shipp performance you linked to ‘way up above in a previous comment, which forces me to struggle for the words needed to convey my lack of comprehension. You know how in Charles Stross’s “Laundry Files” books, whenever he describes a person possessed by a demonic infovore from another dimension, he portrays them as having glowing green worms squiggling behind their eyes? Transpose that image to the world of sound, and it pretty well describes the way that performance sounds to me. But that comparison seems uncharitable, so maybe this is better: I feel reduced a dog trying to decipher an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine. For that matter, a self-assembling Rube Goldberg machine.

        But it did lead me to a video in which Shipp talks about Black Flag and Henry Rollins’ support of jazz, which led me to a video showing Henry Rollins talking about the state of music today, in which he sounds a lot like you but perhaps with more of a “glass half-full” perspective (or maybe just a willingness to write off the unsaved as unsaveable)..

        And that in turn led me to several other Henry Rollins videos, which eventually led me to a video of Eddie Van Halen playing his signature piece Eruption at some concert years ago. And it turns out I can only stand a few minutes of this, because it also makes me think of glowing green squiggly worms behind the eyes, but not in the cool, mysterious, WTF way it did in Matthew Shipp’s case; rather, more in a “banality of cosmic evil” kind of way. “Eruption” sounds like Hitler’s kind of rock and roll to me. (Although I find it strange that I was never a Van Halen fan when I was growing up…and I wonder how that bullet managed to miss me. I did flirt briefly with Van Hagar in a teenaged moment of weakness, but that was cured by liberal injections of Prince and Talking Heads. But maybe from your point of view that’s less a cure than an induced coma.)

        Anyway…

        Saturday night Sturdy Helpmeet(tm) and I watched Soderbergh’s new biopic film Liberace: Behind the Candelabra, and suddenly I realized that Van Halen isn’t Hitler-rock so much as it’s Liberace-rock.

        Which made me think: Jesus! What if it’s ALL Liberace-rock…and I just haven’t noticed?

        And: Wait…wasn’t Liberace on TV all the time when I was little? Shit, he was on PBS when I was little. How many people grew up thinking Liberace was art? How many grown-ups thought he was art, just like they thought he was straight? After which I curled up into a ball and whimpered for a while.

        All of which is a long, tedious wind-up to me saying: you’ve pretty much convinced me of your central thesis. Although I still wonder if the problem of identity formation — learning to root identity in unique personal experiences and accomplishments rather than convenient cultural markers — is really any worse with pop culture than it would be without it (but still with the full weight of tradition, church, ethnicity, and so on). If the moralists of every age preceding ours wrung their hands at the problem of making people pay attention to the things that really matter — and that’s the impression I’ve gathered over the years, though I don’t think I could substantiate it with an easy citation — and if those same moralists were probably wrong half the time anyway, then maybe the problems of mass culture are not really worse, except in the sense that they’re ours. I don’t want to privilege the present, but neither do I want to give the past a free pass.

        Or maybe that’s just me trying to salvage a bit of optimism.

        Regardless, and speaking very broadly indeed, I feel like I now perceive two big positive feedback loops at work. One is the feedback loop of artistic elitism that drives classical music and jazz to new heights of experimentation and accomplishment. The other is the feedback loop of commerce tinged with populism (or maybe false populism), that drives pop music to new depths of disposability, meaninglessness, and even deceptiveness.

        The first feedback loop produces excellent but often inaccessible (either because it’s difficult to understand or just plain difficult to afford) music; the second loop provides easy-to-grasp and easy-to-get but often very poor music, and a hidden cost of consuming poor music is that it’s time that could have been spent learning to appreciate something better…but only if you know something better is out there, and only if you have the means to get hold of it. (And thus “the middle has been nuked,” as you put it. Though I think…hope…that these days the middle is colonizing the internet like shrews in the the underbrush after an asteroid strike.)

        So the challenge, I suppose, is to create a motivating force for aesthetic exploration and a concomitant mechanism of aesthetic mobility, because I don’t think it would be enough just to discredit or dismantle mass culture, even assuming that such a thing is possible or desirable. If we convince a Van Halen fan that Van Halen actually kind of sucks, he’s not likely to immediately start listening to Coltrane and Dvorák; I think he’s more likely to stew in resentment until he finds another band to enjoy that sounds kind of like Van Halen. On the other hand, if we can seduce him with something that’s just automatically more enjoyable, then he might wean himself off Liberace-rock.

        (Heh. I’ll let you know if that ever really works for me.)

        And then there’s the problem of elitism itself, because I suspect that the commercial elites running toxic pop music are bedfellows with the cultural and political elites that fund symphony halls showing “best of Wagner” concerts and donate to PBS so that programs like Ken Burns’s Jazz can be put on the air while at the same time lobbying their congress-critters to gut, privatize, and commercialize public education. I think that one of the better bits in David Byrne’s About Music is when he talks about the history of artistic philanthropy, the kind of thing where powerful people decide to make fine art and fine music available to the masses on the theory that it will morally improve them, because there’s something essential about upper-class culture that’s bound to rub off on the peasants if only the peasants can be enticed to sit still for it. Byrne argues that this never works because (a) the classist essentialism underlying the concept is absurd, and (b) people have to be actively taught to understand art that doesn’t already fit pretty neatly into their own milieu. It’s not enough just to coax people into sitting still every now and then for what you think is “good” art — it’s too much like showing a dog a Rube Goldberg machine.

        So if you really want to reach people with art and music, you’ve either got to pitch your point of view in a language they can understand (usually a variant of popular culture) or you’ve got to invest heavily in the infrastructure of really good artistic and musical education (teaching a small percentage of a school to march at halftime during football games, for instance, does not constitute a good music program).

        (And from my own experience described at the top of this comment, the distance between merely enjoying and actually understanding can be pretty great, even if you’re genuinely interested in something more than Liberace-rock. Do I know what Rodrigo or Dvorák actually want to say? No…or not yet, anyway. Which makes me think that the presence of a commodified mass culture is maybe a secondary problem next to the absence of truly aggressive arts education programs in schools and communities. Perhaps its presence exacerbates the problem by fooling people into thinking they have art when they really don’t, but removing it wouldn’t alone solve the problem.)

        But I think I’ve already said most of this already — or rather you have, and I’m just rephrasing it — so hey! maybe I should actually respond to some specific stuff.

        Well… I dunno. I’m not happy with that for the same reason I’m not happy with the dichotomy that classes “people” as outside “nature”: people are as much an expression of nature as jaguars and the platypus, and music that is about music is as much about people as is the heavily hybridized stuff. It’s just about different aspects of people, with different emphases, and so on… if that makes sense?

        Yes, it makes sense, and from that perspective I’m not very happy with the dichotomy either. I think when I wrote that I had in mind a book I have lying around the house called Telling Stories, Writing Songs, and I was thinking about the way singers and songwriters are often called “storytellers” in the context of popular and folk music. Arguably a piece like a Chopin nocturne tells a story, but not in quite the same direct and verbal way that a song like If I Needed You tells a story. Of course there are excellent verbal songs in classical music and jazz, but those forms can get away from the direct and verbal pretty easily, but it seems like it’s much more difficult for popular music to do the same. (Which I suppose is an argument for acknowledging the limitations of popular forms, rather than constructing a dichotomy based on a presumed function.)

        Really? I’ve never seen such a thing!

        I feel like everything I’ve ever heard or read about Italian opera includes something about how the composers’ best melodies end up becoming part of popular culture, but maybe I’m misremembering, or maybe it’s just a bit of puffery that shows up in liner notes and documentaries.

        Interestingly, though, as I’ve said this all maps out onto a scale. There are degrees. I think the middle has been nuked, but I also wonder if there’s another reason we both are talking about this as existing on an either-or scale?

        The anticipation of opposition? :-) You expecting defensiveness because you’ve seen it before; me being a bit defensive because I’m anxious about my…shit…status, or something? And because, in spite of ourselves, we’re culturally trained to expect art to be divided into high and low with fences and guards and checkpoints making sure nothing creeps across the borders?

        And…hrmm. As I said above, I want to think that “the middle” is alive and well and being enabled by new modes of production and distribution that bypass record labels and other cultural barriers. But suddenly it occurs to me to ask: what would the middle look like, anyway?

        1. So Friday night, in a pizza joint and for no cover charge, I watched a nice little jazz trio led by Jeff Lofton play standards in a bebop style for 2-3 hours. Then I thought about Justin Beiber driving a chrome-plated Lamborghini, and I said to myself, “You know, Gord really has a big fucking point.”

          Hahaha. Yeah. When it hits, it really hits hard, right?

          Put another way: I’ve been trying to consciously form a first approximation of the depth and breadth of my overall musical ignorance, and the result is breathtaking in its size and scope. Especially if I switch my mindset from “Am I enjoying this?” to “Do I really understand this?”

          Which, you know, isn’t necessarily the only way to look at it besides “Am I enjoying this?” But it is a useful one sometimes. If you read the interview with Marsalis on DTM, you see one point where Iverson readily admits he’s never quite understood what was going on in one tune, and Marsalis explains it at length. Yet Iverson clearly sees the tune as an important enough work to discuss, analyze, and try to figure out.

          I think that may be something; if you feel like it’d be really interesting to know what is going on, how something is done, that may be a (weak, not so great) index of whether the music at hand is interesting or not. I certainly enjoy things that I don’t consciously understand, even in a schematic sense. (Or, rather, that I don’t quite consciously analyze to the point where I could explain it to you without listening again, Matthew Shipp being a case in point.)

          There are certainly different levels of understanding attainable, though all of them do take some investment of energy and time. On some level, I’d say with the Dvorák and Rodrigo, you do know what’s going on; you can feel and sense some of it. On some level, harmony is built at the intersection of sound and human cognition, so that we can instinctually feel certain things without consciously understanding. It’s like, when you encounter a cadence in music without knowing what a cadence is, you can still feel it coming, and feel it resolve. Harmony as a way of making music isn’t universal or instinctual, but harmony is constructed in conscious interaction with human brains, so that I’d argue growing up in a society where that is a major musical structure, and hearing it, you internalize enough to “get” some of it without need to “learn” it.

          That’s what’s harder in, say, the Matthew Shipp: there are tension-release points, but they don’t (in the stuff I’ve listened to, at least) work so explicitly as the harmony in Rodrigo or Dvorák. Though of course both those composers, in their orchestration, are doing subtle things we may not consciously register, but feel, too. (Density of the tones used to lay out the harmony, number of timbral colors layered together and how, and so on.)

          I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I think there are other ways of coming at this than feeling you do need to know a lot of music theory. Knowing music theory never hurts, and opens up levels of appreciation one may not have been able to access without it, but I find is really masterful musical creation, one can sort of instinctively sense when something incredible is going on. I’m perhaps not any less out at sea than you are when it comes to Shipp, and your “Laundry Files” characterization of his work both amuses and and rings true: but I know something is going on in there, something complex and noteworthy and something that interests me, when I listen hard.

          But it did lead me to a video in which Shipp talks about Black Flag and Henry Rollins’ support of jazz, which led me to a video showing Henry Rollins talking about the state of music today, in which he sounds a lot like you but perhaps with more of a “glass half-full” perspective (or maybe just a willingness to write off the unsaved as unsaveable)…

          That certainly sound like Henry Rollins. I’d no idea that he was a supporter of jazz music, not that it necessarily surprises me.

          And that in turn led me to several other Henry Rollins videos, which eventually led me to a video of Eddie Van Halen playing his signature piece Eruption at some concert years ago. And it turns out I can only stand a few minutes of this, because it also makes me think of glowing green squiggly worms behind the eyes, but not in the cool, mysterious, WTF way it did in Matthew Shipp’s case; rather, more in a “banality of cosmic evil” kind of way. “Eruption” sounds like Hitler’s kind of rock and roll to me. (Although I find it strange that I was never a Van Halen fan when I was growing up…and I wonder how that bullet managed to miss me. I did flirt briefly with Van Hagar in a teenaged moment of weakness, but that was cured by liberal injections of Prince and Talking Heads. But maybe from your point of view that’s less a cure than an induced coma.)

          LOL. Yes, the banality of cosmic evil. Except, of course, to me cosmic evil ought not to be banal; it ought to be awe-inspiring. Which is why no heavy-metal or hard-rock tribute to Lovecraft has ever felt Lovecraftian to me in any sense.

          Anyway…

          Saturday night Sturdy Helpmeet(tm) and I watched Soderbergh’s new biopic film Liberace: Behind the Candelabra, and suddenly I realized that Van Halen isn’t Hitler-rock so much as it’s Liberace-rock.

          Which made me think: Jesus! What if it’s ALL Liberace-rock…and I just haven’t noticed?

          And: Wait…wasn’t Liberace on TV all the time when I was little? Shit, he was on PBS when I was little. How many people grew up thinking Liberace was art? How many grown-ups thought he was art, just like they thought he was straight? After which I curled up into a ball and whimpered for a while.

          Now you have my laughing my guts out. Welcome to my world, Marvin. Terrifying, isn’t it?

          All of which is a long, tedious wind-up to me saying: you’ve pretty much convinced me of your central thesis.

          Oh, no. Now you’re in trouble.

          Although I still wonder if the problem of identity formation — learning to root identity in unique personal experiences and accomplishments rather than convenient cultural markers — is really any worse with pop culture than it would be without it (but still with the full weight of tradition, church, ethnicity, and so on).

          I’m not sure it’s worse, and you do have me thinking about that more. But I do think it’s problematic how compartmentalized it has become, and it troubles me how overtly (and, I think, consciously) this is exploited for the purposes of money-making.

          I can’t remember but I think I mentioned John Taylor Gatto’s thing about how all of the things in public human life — learning, community, identity — have been replaced by simulacra of themselves. Maybe it’s idealistic, and overlooks the bad parts of those things in historical experience. But bad for you or not, organic corn bread is better than TV dinners, and I feel like there was at least a grit and binding even in church communities that is lacking in modern urban life. I have a sense that we see some of that in the blogosphere: in churches, there was at least a space where people were forced to coexist despite differences, rivalries, etc. In the blogosphere (and a lot of modern pseudo-communities) we just ignore people whose views offend us. Which maybe not be good for us: when I was brewing in Korea, I found myself in social situations talking to people whose views trouble me, but who were also by and large very decent people. The work of sorting through that and figuring out how to be social with them was good for me, in the end. Not easy, but good for me.

          If the moralists of every age preceding ours wrung their hands at the problem of making people pay attention to the things that really matter — and that’s the impression I’ve gathered over the years, though I don’t think I could substantiate it with an easy citation — and if those same moralists were probably wrong half the time anyway, then maybe the problems of mass culture are not really worse, except in the sense that they’re ours. I don’t want to privilege the present, but neither do I want to give the past a free pass.

          Or maybe that’s just me trying to salvage a bit of optimism.

          Very true. I’ve been thinking a lot about nostalgia versus criticism vs. respect for the past, and how hard it is to balance all those. I’ll be posting soon about the endemic sexism in the world of all the jazz artists I admire from the 50s and 60s. Quick: name the finest female alto sax player of that generation… or of ours? Without Wikipedia, that’s not easy, which is really, really problematic.

          I think you’re right about the two positive feedback loops. I hope you’r right about the middle colonizing the net like shrews in the underbrush after the asteroid strike. But how we can create the motivation… that frankly is something I think will require waking people up to the generalized proliferation of simulacra in all aspects of their lives, placed there by corporations. And that may well be too disheartening for most people to even consider acknowledging. It’s happening slowly, bit by bit: people are curing meat at home, brewing beer, building a musical creative commons, making stuff. Maybe through the route of craft, we return to a world where art, too, is valued. I don’t know. It seems like one of those things where the loss was rapid, and the rebuilding will take a long, long time.

          And then there’s the problem of elitism itself, because I suspect that the commercial elites running toxic pop music are bedfellows with the cultural and political elites that fund symphony halls showing “best of Wagner” concerts and donate to PBS so that programs like Ken Burns’s Jazz can be put on the air while at the same time lobbying their congress-critters to gut, privatize, and commercialize public education. I think that one of the better bits in David Byrne’s About Music is when he talks about the history of artistic philanthropy, the kind of thing where powerful people decide to make fine art and fine music available to the masses on the theory that it will morally improve them, because there’s something essential about upper-class culture that’s bound to rub off on the peasants if only the peasants can be enticed to sit still for it. Byrne argues that this never works because (a) the classist essentialism underlying the concept is absurd, and (b) people have to be actively taught to understand art that doesn’t already fit pretty neatly into their own milieu. It’s not enough just to coax people into sitting still every now and then for what you think is “good” art — it’s too much like showing a dog a Rube Goldberg machine.

          So if you really want to reach people with art and music, you’ve either got to pitch your point of view in a language they can understand (usually a variant of popular culture) or you’ve got to invest heavily in the infrastructure of really good artistic and musical education (teaching a small percentage of a school to march at halftime during football games, for instance, does not constitute a good music program).

          Yes. I think in fact something like El Sistema is the likeliest approach; but you’d have to make people aware of their poverty, and that’s so counter-intuitive I feel like it’ll take generations before the richest nations will even be able to see themselves that way.

          Yes, it makes sense, and from that perspective I’m not very happy with the dichotomy either. I think when I wrote that I had in mind a book I have lying around the house called Telling Stories, Writing Songs, and I was thinking about the way singers and songwriters are often called “storytellers” in the context of popular and folk music. Arguably a piece like a Chopin nocturne tells a story, but not in quite the same direct and verbal way that a song like If I Needed You tells a story. Of course there are excellent verbal songs in classical music and jazz, but those forms can get away from the direct and verbal pretty easily, but it seems like it’s much more difficult for popular music to do the same. (Which I suppose is an argument for acknowledging the limitations of popular forms, rather than constructing a dichotomy based on a presumed function.)

          Well, yes. But to be frank, even in the range of stories that get told, popular music is pretty limited. There’s bawdy songs, there’s love songs, there’s break-up songs, there’s songs that are basically “doing the dozens”… I think we could probably create a taxonomy without much work, and “Other” would be a small category indeed. Remember, the cost of hybridity is simplification applied to all axes, so it’s not just simplified music, but also simplified storytelling.

          I feel like everything I’ve ever heard or read about Italian opera includes something about how the composers’ best melodies end up becoming part of popular culture, but maybe I’m misremembering, or maybe it’s just a bit of puffery that shows up in liner notes and documentaries.

          Maybe. I don’t know. I know some people sing “Ave Maria” and “Oh Sole Mio” but not that often. About as much as people sing, say, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’a amore…”

          Interestingly, though, as I’ve said this all maps out onto a scale. There are degrees. I think the middle has been nuked, but I also wonder if there’s another reason we both are talking about this as existing on an either-or scale?

          The anticipation of opposition? :-) You expecting defensiveness because you’ve seen it before; me being a bit defensive because I’m anxious about my…shit…status, or something? And because, in spite of ourselves, we’re culturally trained to expect art to be divided into high and low with fences and guards and checkpoints making sure nothing creeps across the borders?

          And…hrmm. As I said above, I want to think that “the middle” is alive and well and being enabled by new modes of production and distribution that bypass record labels and other cultural barriers. But suddenly it occurs to me to ask: what would the middle look like, anyway?

          Oh, Jesus.

          That’s a truly excellent question, for which I am not sure I have any answer. I feel like a lot of musicians have mapped out what the middle might look like, but it might not be recognizable to us right now because we’re too up-close and because our brains immediately sort of perform the kind of dichotomizing function.

          I’ll think more about that and see if I can’t find something useful to say about it… but now it’s time for me to go do my own daily saxophone practice. Three comments on my blog, and that’s my afternoon gone… in a good way.

          1. (This next bit is a response to your latest response up at comment #4, since the blog software doesn’t seem to want to let me continue in the thread up there.)

            I never knew the story about Paganini and the devil. After reading more about it on the ‘Net I wonder if the man had enemies in addition to rapt admirers, people with a stake in keeping a diabolical reputation alive.

            Being tight and together isn’t a great achievement when that’s all you’re doing, in other words. (It impresses me more when it’s a jazz group and they’re all spontaneously improvising and somehow being “tight and together” while also manufacturing practically the whole thing on the spot.)

            That’s a very fair point. And I love the examples you give, especially MMW with that Hammond organ sound. (I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to just whip out the organ like that on an unsuspecting friend, mind you. But I love that sound.)

            The examples of great blues-band tightness that immediately leap to my mind come from The Kinsey Report…

            …and from Son Seals.

            Granted, these groups have spent years playing the same songs over and over together, but I swear there’s something in there that just crawls up inside me and lodges between my spine and my diaphragm and grabs on and doesn’t let go. Maybe it’s the specific funkiness more than the relative “tightness,” but it’s something I feel like I almost never get from rock bands, even very tight ones like Rush or ZZ Top, even though they’re among my favorites. I’m not sure if even bands with “funk” in the name deliver it as reliably as Chicago bluesmen. And I don’t know if I get it from the jazz examples you posted, much though I like them, but maybe that’s just because they’re operating on a level to which I’m insufficiently attuned.

            I’d say “gives rise” is probably too passive. New forms of flexibility are eked out by musicians. It’s an active, conscious thing, when it happens. One that is often opposed. (Charlie Parker’s music being called “Chinese music” in a pejorative sense, for example.)

            Yes, I agree. That’s a much better way to look at it.

            (And now I’m responding your comment immediately above, under my #10.)

            LOL. Yes, the banality of cosmic evil. Except, of course, to me cosmic evil ought not to be banal; it ought to be awe-inspiring. Which is why no heavy-metal or hard-rock tribute to Lovecraft has ever felt Lovecraftian to me in any sense.

            There’s a tension in the idea of cosmic evil: if something that’s vast enough or transcendent enough or complex enough to be called “cosmic” nevertheless just wants to eat your brain, then you quickly get tired of it — it will become banal even if it was awesome on first sight. “Oh my god, that’s unspeakably awesome…my puny life pales into insignifi — Dude! Not the brain!” Even if the “evil” in question is indifference rather than malice, the horror that results is in the sense of our own smallness and meaninglessness (much like Sartre’s Nausea). Which is why, I think, attempts to portray cosmic evil with bombastic music falls flat…it misses the point.

            Welcome to my world, Marvin. Terrifying, isn’t it?

            It is! But who wants to confess to being terrified of Liberace? Clowns, sure, but…Liberace?

            I feel like there was at least a grit and binding even in church communities that is lacking in modern urban life. I have a sense that we see some of that in the blogosphere: in churches, there was at least a space where people were forced to coexist despite differences, rivalries, etc. In the blogosphere (and a lot of modern pseudo-communities) we just ignore people whose views offend us. Which maybe not be good for us: when I was brewing in Korea, I found myself in social situations talking to people whose views trouble me, but who were also by and large very decent people. The work of sorting through that and figuring out how to be social with them was good for me, in the end. Not easy, but good for me.

            I suppose for most of history “church community” was also just “community” — the people whose company you couldn’t escape and had to get along with in order to survive. A situation that gives rise to its own host of illusions and dissatisfactions, but I agree that it’s not an improvement — or a sustainable way of life — to mask our real dependencies and personhoods with disposable online networks of “friends” and a politics of appearances that masks reality with pablum.

            Maybe through the route of craft, we return to a world where art, too, is valued. I don’t know. It seems like one of those things where the loss was rapid, and the rebuilding will take a long, long time.

            Like after an asteroid strike. Which I think is a pretty apt metaphor for the onset of the industrial and information ages, measured against the long timespan of human biological and cultural evolution.

            But I find optimism in things like Tumblr, Bandcamp, Kickstarter, IndieGoGo…cat GIFs and JawnLock and fan-art, even. Maybe that’s perverse of me. Virtuosity as a major feature of art has taken a big hit at the popular level, but it feels like we’re being colonized in a way from the ground up by people who almost instinctively recognize the corporate simulacra as false and who know how to turn it into raw material for real emotion and communication. At least, that’s how it feels in my living room on a lazy evening when Sturdy Helpmeet(tm) and I snuggle up with our laptops.

            Not that that’s a substitute for an education in history, interpretation, and technique, of course. But I think (hope!) that it will be the soil for a new birth of virtuosity and complexity that will ultimately link up with tradition. Bearing in mind, of course, that many will be called and few chosen. (Fingers crossed.) Maybe in a hundred years someone will read this conversation and others like it, and she’ll say, “But they had art, just not as they knew it.” (Or not. That sounds disturbingly like a statement of faith.)

            I think in fact something like El Sistema is the likeliest approach; but you’d have to make people aware of their poverty, and that’s so counter-intuitive I feel like it’ll take generations before the richest nations will even be able to see themselves that way.

            The weird thing is, I think people feel their cultural poverty intensely but often don’t know how to describe it. I know I struggle with it (both the poverty and the describing).

            But to be frank, even in the range of stories that get told, popular music is pretty limited. There’s bawdy songs, there’s love songs, there’s break-up songs, there’s songs that are basically “doing the dozens”… I think we could probably create a taxonomy without much work, and “Other” would be a small category indeed. Remember, the cost of hybridity is simplification applied to all axes, so it’s not just simplified music, but also simplified storytelling.

            True, but sometimes simplicity lingers, and sometimes simplicity is what’s needed to get a person’s attention and to get them thinking. Thanks to the sheer volume of pop culture, the “other” category can still be pretty interesting, I think (the perils of relativistic time dilation, the uneasiness we feel when dismantling traditional gender roles and romantic tropes), and it’s not like the ups and downs of love are foreign to classical art and music. The trick — from the point of view of someone who thinks there’s good stuff to be found — is to find the good stuff when there’s too much deceptive marketing and you don’t have decades or centuries of curatorial filtering in place to weed out the dross. (Which I think/hope the Internet will be able us with, in spite of some governments’ and corporations’ attempts to stifle and blinker our access.)

            I guess I feel that the hybridity and simplicity of pop are not problems in themselves — they’re just the inherent limitations of the form — but they become a problem when mass culture threatens to overwhelm everything else and distort our concepts of value. Which is a problem, and I think you’ve described it very well.

            And thinking about that reminds me that I want to return to what you said about the band Living Colour up above, so I think that will be my next stop. Maybe it’s a way for someone like me to approach the middle from below, so to speak.

          2. (This next bit is a response to your latest response up at comment #4, since the blog software doesn’t seem to want to let me continue in the thread up there.)

            Yeah, sorry about that, for some reason the plugin for editing comments is on the fritz. I’ve gone ahead and disabled it, for now at least. Also, sorry for the delay: life’s cropped up in a few ways at once, and while it’s been nothing terribly serious, I have been pretty busy lately.

            I never knew the story about Paganini and the devil. After reading more about it on the ‘Net I wonder if the man had enemies in addition to rapt admirers, people with a stake in keeping a diabolical reputation alive.

            There’s a wonderful story by Carol Emshwiller in her collection Report to the Men’s Club and Other Stories, titled “The Paganini of Jacob’s Gulch” which pretty much runs off that idea–though it assumes that the animosity is in part due to a response to virtuosity, and of course, the guy does in the end seem capable of anything, including diabolical powers, through his playing. But you may be right that it was as much quotidian animosity that kept the mythological accusations alive.

            Being tight and together isn’t a great achievement when that’s all you’re doing, in other words. (It impresses me more when it’s a jazz group and they’re all spontaneously improvising and somehow being “tight and together” while also manufacturing practically the whole thing on the spot.)

            A side note to that earlier comment of mine being: this is what I was talking about in my comment comparing the Kinsey Report song you posted to the Son Seals track. 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 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.)

            That’s a very fair point. And I love the examples you give, especially MMW with that Hammond organ sound. (I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to just whip out the organ like that on an unsuspecting friend, mind you. But I love that sound.)

            LOL, sorry. Man, MMW are really together. And the thing is: they’re like that live, and they’re like that at great length, live. Both times I saw them live in Montreal, they played 90-minute+ sets, and played three or more of them, with maybe a 20 minute break between each at most. And they basically never relented. While I may respect John Zorn to some degree–there was an intellectual intensity in what he did too–he played 50 minutes, then left the stage, returned for a second bow, but didn’t even play a single note as an encore. It felt a bit incongruous for an audience who could have paid like $5 less to see MMW play their asses off with irrepressible joy, until they had no fucking notes left, and then play more.

            Which is to say, if they ever play in Austin, do what you can to get there and see them!

            As for the lack of that something special in rock bands, even great ones, that you’re hearing in the Son Seals at least, I’d say it’s this: they break apart more during the measure, so the downbeats, when they come together at the 1 of the measure, hits harder.

            Also, the organ, man.

            There’s a tension in the idea of cosmic evil: if something that’s vast enough or transcendent enough or complex enough to be called “cosmic” nevertheless just wants to eat your brain, then you quickly get tired of it — it will become banal even if it was awesome on first sight. “Oh my god, that’s unspeakably awesome…my puny life pales into insignifi — Dude! Not the brain!” Even if the “evil” in question is indifference rather than malice, the horror that results is in the sense of our own smallness and meaninglessness (much like Sartre’s Nausea). Which is why, I think, attempts to portray cosmic evil with bombastic music falls flat…it misses the point.

            Yeah, exactly. Well, in bombastic exposition also. 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.

            It is! But who wants to confess to being terrified of Liberace? Clowns, sure, but…Liberace?

            Personally I find little to differentiate between the two…

            I suppose for most of history “church community” was also just “community” — the people whose company you couldn’t escape and had to get along with in order to survive. A situation that gives rise to its own host of illusions and dissatisfactions, but I agree that it’s not an improvement — or a sustainable way of life — to mask our real dependencies and personhoods with disposable online networks of “friends” and a politics of appearances that masks reality with pablum.

            Right. We’re lucky in a way that we could go out of the church–or, lucky that we’ve come full circle to whatever existed prior to the rise of cities and administrations and centralized governments and state religions, when all kinds of people believed all kinds of things and what mattered was the stories that bound people together, the narratives that gave the world meaning.

            Which is to say, life in a church community is like life in any other community: it’s deeply problematic, but many of the problematic things are inescapable if you’re living among humans. So the problematics of church music can be compared to the problematics of jazz music. Once again: name five major female bebop artists of the 1940s and 50s.

            Maybe through the route of craft, we return to a world where art, too, is valued. I don’t know. It seems like one of those things where the loss was rapid, and the rebuilding will take a long, long time.

            Like after an asteroid strike. Which I think is a pretty apt metaphor for the onset of the industrial and information ages, measured against the long timespan of human biological and cultural evolution.

            But I find optimism in things like Tumblr, Bandcamp, Kickstarter, IndieGoGo…cat GIFs and JawnLock and fan-art, even. Maybe that’s perverse of me. Virtuosity as a major feature of art has taken a big hit at the popular level, but it feels like we’re being colonized in a way from the ground up by people who almost instinctively recognize the corporate simulacra as false and who know how to turn it into raw material for real emotion and communication. At least, that’s how it feels in my living room on a lazy evening when Sturdy Helpmeet(tm) and I snuggle up with our laptops.

            Not that that’s a substitute for an education in history, interpretation, and technique, of course. But I think (hope!) that it will be the soil for a new birth of virtuosity and complexity that will ultimately link up with tradition. Bearing in mind, of course, that many will be called and few chosen. (Fingers crossed.) Maybe in a hundred years someone will read this conversation and others like it, and she’ll say, “But they had art, just not as they knew it.” (Or not. That sounds disturbingly like a statement of faith.)

            I like he metaphor too–it’s yours, by the way!–and I hope your optimism is warranted. Maybe it is. Some young people do manage to eke out an understanding of things just by listening their ears off, autodidacts, and there are figures out there–unsung, underpaid, and likely to be unremembered–who work in the trenches, hawking private lessons to interested comers who want to learn bits and pieces of how to do this or that. (I’m thinking of my own jazz and saxophone and school band instructors, and community directors.)

            I think in fact something like El Sistema is the likeliest approach; but you’d have to make people aware of their poverty, and that’s so counter-intuitive I feel like it’ll take generations before the richest nations will even be able to see themselves that way.

            The weird thing is, I think people feel their cultural poverty intensely but often don’t know how to describe it. I know I struggle with it (both the poverty and the describing).

            Maybe. 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.)

            But to be frank, even in the range of stories that get told, popular music is pretty limited. There’s bawdy songs, there’s love songs, there’s break-up songs, there’s songs that are basically “doing the dozens”… I think we could probably create a taxonomy without much work, and “Other” would be a small category indeed. Remember, the cost of hybridity is simplification applied to all axes, so it’s not just simplified music, but also simplified storytelling.

            True, but sometimes simplicity lingers, and sometimes simplicity is what’s needed to get a person’s attention and to get them thinking. Thanks to the sheer volume of pop culture, the “other” category can still be pretty interesting, I think (the perils of relativistic time dilation, the uneasiness we feel when dismantling traditional gender roles and romantic tropes), and it’s not like the ups and downs of love are foreign to classical art and music. The trick — from the point of view of someone who thinks there’s good stuff to be found — is to find the good stuff when there’s too much deceptive marketing and you don’t have decades or centuries of curatorial filtering in place to weed out the dross. (Which I think/hope the Internet will be able us with, in spite of some governments’ and corporations’ attempts to stifle and blinker our access.)

            I agree: “Other” can be compelling, and occasionally people do interesting takes on the more familiar categories. (A lot of songs by the band Hum are actually love songs in disguise, but the disguise is a dense layer of science references, SF metaphors (time machines, technological resurrection of the dead, etc), and weirdly imagistic word-painting, along with some brutal honesty here and there, so it’s more interesting.

            But as I say, I worry because what I see out there is more and more an embrace and celebration of the dross, and not even just in a flippant, ironic sense: the flippant irony seems to have come full circle and nobody knows whether they themselves are being ironic or not. (That, at least, is what the whole “hipster” fashion aesthetic looks like from this side of the pond; but while many people hate so-called “hipsters,” I’d say they hate them for carrying the zeitgeist to a slight extreme, not for their aesthetic on a fundamental level. Then again, me, I was shocked to hear of hipsters being common: I was like, “Young white people who are embracing jazz and Harlem Renaissance culture? Seriously?” I was thinking of the swing dance renaissance around the end of the 20th century, following that Swing Kids movie, so it didn’t seem totally crazy. Then I googled the term, and, well, sigh.)

            (And, I’ll add: yeah, the ups and downs of love aren’t foreign to classical art and music, but in classical art and music it’s usually about more than just that, right? It’s not just “about” the lyrics’ narrative.)

            I guess I feel that the hybridity and simplicity of pop are not problems in themselves — they’re just the inherent limitations of the form — but they become a problem when mass culture threatens to overwhelm everything else and distort our concepts of value. Which is a problem, and I think you’ve described it very well.

            Thanks, and yes, I agree. People like Iverson and Brad Mehldau — like many jazz musicians before them — have demonstrated that phenomenal things can be done by an inventive mind who takes on a simple, familiar form. (And as Mehldau claims, not all forms in hybrid “pop” music are as simple or straightforward as they used to be… he claims it, I’d need to hear more to know whether I agree.) The problem is when the hybrid stuff chokes off the space where the other stuff used to live, and chokes off in our heads any sense of music as anything but interchangeable commodity.

            And thinking about that reminds me that I want to return to what you said about the band Living Colour up above, so I think that will be my next stop. Maybe it’s a way for someone like me to approach the middle from below, so to speak.

            Now you’ve got me curious… looking forward to it!

        2. One second thought, I think I’ll make a new post in the series, about this question of what “the middle” might look like. Seems fitting, and seems to deserve its own post.

          1. Awesome! I look forward to it. And I see that my attempts to embed videos of The Kinsey Report and Son Seals (as examples of really tight, funky blues bands) above failed, and for some reason I can’t edit the comment. I was trying to link to Poor Man’s Relief and Bad Axe, respectively.

          2. Those are interesting examples, and I can tell you right away — within a measure or so — why I respond to the Son Seals and am unmoved by the Kinsey Report track. The reason is rhythm, something touched on in the Marsalis interview I believe you read earlier (if I remember right).

            That is, in the Kinsey Report song, there’s a squarishness to the beat, where in the Son Seals, there’s a triplicity to it. That is, while both songs are “in four” (1-2-3-4 is the pulse of each “measure”) if we were to put a single beat under the microscope, we’d find that in the Kinsey Report track, it subdivides into units divisible by 2; but in the Son Seals tune, it’s units divisible by 3. I should note, this track was my first hearing of the band Kinsey Report, so I looked around a bit, and I can’t say everything they do is lacking some degree of triplet swing… but it’s pretty subdued when it is present, and often plays off against a squarishness, which is an odd effect. This is what makes Kinsey Report sound so much more “country” (in the sense of Country/Western music) than Son Seals, where the swingingness is really prominent throughout the band (again, in this track at least).

            (I’m simplifying because, even with threes, there can be a squarishness. Listen to computer-generated jazz and you’ll know precisely what “square swing” means. The reality is that the triplet (usually presented as two eighth notes, one worth two-thirds of the triplet and the other worth the last remaining third) is also an approximation, and you need to zoom down to finer and finer fine-grained rhythmic differentiation to notate things precisely, except if you go that deep, you find the value of the swing is dynamically shifting in microscopic ways… so nobody bothers, really, to explore the deep, bewildering fractality of swing too much, since it’s not a fruitful way of learning to play it; instead, we focus on “feeling” it and on vaguely-defined “values” of swing — “playing just behind [or ahead of] the beat,” old-timey swing, and so on.)

            Neither approach is better or worse, by the way: plenty of incredible music comes in both forms, or mixes and matches them, or slams them together in interesting ways. Basically European “classical” music up until not long ago was nearly all squarish in rhythmic conception–the triplets were superimposed upon square structures–and European folk music, though it did weird things with rhythm, could not be said to really have swung.

            But swing, being the main rhythmic dialect in my preferred musical homeland, is what I respond to immediately. I also think, though, that a band that can swing freely and land on the downbeats together, presents itself as being “tight” in a way that is far less astounding in a band where not only the downbeat but all the other beats are, by general agreement, in the same, non-complexified, non-fractally elusive and slightly unpredictable, place. If that makes any sense.

            (Of course, I’d imagine that accomplished musicians like Iverson would point out that when you play together with other people and when know what you’re doing, you make adjustments and they make adjustments–assuming that kind of togetherness is what you’re explicitly going for; but there’s a degree of skill required that is impressive; it strikes me as more rudimentary to get the beats right when this kind of adjustment (and this constant low-level shifting) are not something you need to deal with.)

  14. 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.)

    1. Hey Marvin,

      Yeah, we like what we like. And as I say, I’m sure some of my music choices would also put off people who know more about music than me. And, you know, Brad Mehldau is a way more accomplished than I am and finds beauty and relevance in songs I find uninteresting. Which is to say, there’s a subjective thing not to be ignored… and I suspect that becomes increasingly true the more hybrid a work is.

      I agree that Kinsey Report definitely straddles more lines; I could hear a fair bit of R’n’B and definitely funk in their music. Son Seals is unabashedly blues, in the sense of it being “country” and “folk” and all that. Having just had a gumbo for breakfast (leftovers from my afternoon-long cooking session yesterday) I have to say, there’s something to be said for “country.” (Ha, then again, some might argue the best gumbos to be had, are found in cities.)

      Anyway, like I say, music isn’t a contest. Or if it is, that’s mainly true for musicians, who either are competing for audience, or competing against their own expectations, or whatever. I wouldn’t judge you for enjoying Kinsey Report, but I can say Son Seals speaks deeply more to me. I’d go out of my way to see Son Seals live, but I probably wouldn’t for Kinsey Report.

      As for a “more technically challenging jazz format”–well, some of that may be in your head, too. It’s sort of like the difference between a gumbo I made yesterday, versus a gumbo by someone who’s really familiar with the dish and has made it a million times and has fine-tuned what gumbo is and can be, someone who is in control of all the flavors and nuances and so on. My gumbo was good, but it’s not like I elevated it to a new level by achieving a particular type of smokiness; I was happy about the color, but it’s not like I could do much about it if I wasn’t. The spice was a little too much, though it tasted good at the time. I was just happy the roux turned out okay, and didn’t get burned…

      In one sense, the “purer” music forms end up being kind of like high-end cooking in this way: you simply expect the people cooking to be in far more fine-tuned control of every aspect of what they’re doing, so they elevate things like swing or tuning to an art form. But also, one’s palate may sometimes fatigue. I also crave burgers sometimes, it’s just, well… why not an avocado burger? (There’s a place down the street from our house in Saigon that makes a great avocado bacon cheese burger. It’s all I can do to limit myself to one a month.)

      Likewise with music: I’m not always up for gourmet… but I find more and more than I crave the good stuff, and that I often prefer silence to the greasy spoon stuff when I’m not in the mood for concentrating too hard. (Like with movies: I am really, really going off watching things I know are trash when there are so many good things in the world to consume. Why would I waste my precious hours on a shit film when I could be watching a good one, or reading a good book, or writing, or doing practically anything else? Well, sometimes a cheeseburger is nice… as an indulgence. As a food group, though, it’s a deadly habit.)

      1. Hey there! Sorry for the long delay, but it’s been a busy couple of weeks at work, with a bit of travel as well.

        You’re right, of course, that music is not a contest, and certainly not for me, but I think the burger incident just demonstrates my ongoing anxiety (a very old anxiety, I should add) that I might be the kind of person who’s congenitally prone to slumming and therefore should Not Be Trusted.

        That being said, I’ve been listening to a ton of Living Colour to see if my memories hold up, and I’ve finally written my mini-treatise, so here goes. :-)

        —————-

        On approaching the middle from below: the case of Living Colour

        So, off the top of my head I’d guess that a middle ground between “high” and “low” art would need to be occupied either by high art that lowers itself to become more accessible, or by low art that punches above its weight, so to speak, to provide something that you don’t get from its peers. I think Living Colour fits easily in the second category, and maybe even in the first if you squint. (Not that I necessarily approve of the division between high and low, but since we seem to keep coming back to it…what the heck.)

        When I gave the example of Living Colour a while ago, I really just pulled them out of the air as a band I remembered being political and interesting (in contrast with the less interesting toxic pop of Justin Bieber, say). But until I made that comment, and until you called me on it by dissecting the video for “Cult of Personality,” I honestly hadn’t heard them in a while. So for the last week or two I’ve been listening semi-obsessively to their first three albums and reading up about the band to check my memory. Some interesting interviews for background information about the band:

        Bombsite: Interview with Vernon Reid (Spring 1993)

        LIVING COLOUR: VERNON REID INTERVIEWED (1993): Black, white and everything in between

        The band: Corey Glover | Vernon Reid | Will Calhoun | Doug Wimbish | Muzz Skillings

        In my poking around I learned some things I hadn’t known about them. One, I didn’t know that Living Colour had reformed a dozen years ago, toured frequently, and released two new albums in that time. I have no idea yet if the new albums are any good, but I’m guessing you haven’t listened to them either, so I’ll stick with the early stuff (the first three albums — Vivid, Time’s Up, and Stain).

        Two, there exists an organization called the Black Rock Coalition that works to support black rock performers and to fight the habit of the recording industry and performance venues to marginalize black performers into niche categories apart from “mainstream” (white) acts. Living Colour originally emerged alongside the BRC, and Vernon Reid (LC’s guitarist) was a founding member of the BRC. (I didn’t know the BRC existed until I looked up LC on Wikipedia.)

        Three, Living Colour’s band members appear to be people with training and experience in jazz, fusion, funk, and “world music” in addition to rock and roll. Their side projects away from Living Colour tend to be eclectic and improvisational. I haven’t listened to that other work, so I don’t know if they’re especially good by the standards of those other forms, and I don’t think it really matters when judging any particular Living Colour song. But they’re people making a good faith effort to stretch themselves musically, and knowing their backgrounds might make a difference when trying to discern intent.

        So Living Colour strikes me as an interesting group just by virtue of being who they are. But what about the songs?

        The example of Living Color is an excellent one: while they were a big deal for being an all-black hardrock/metal band at the time,

        After reading about the Black Rock Coalition, I think it would be more accurate to say that Living Colour was a big deal for managing to actually land a recording contract and some playing time on radio and MTV. The members of Living Colour would say that they’re not particularly distinguished by being a black hard-rock/metal/punk band — others came before and others have come since — but that the recording industry almost never supports a black act unless it can be slotted into a soul, R&B, or (now) rap category that will then be marketed chiefly at black audiences. They were a big deal for being a black rock band marketed to white audiences, and one of their goals was (and remains) the elimination of that sense of novelty.

        In other words, I think they’d agree with you about the negative aspects of the recording industry and artificial genre-based constraints in popular music.

        and their lyrics (and videos) were (at least sometimes) famously political: [video: “Cult of Personality”]

        I think it would be more accurate to say that LC’s lyrics are almost invariably political. On the first three albums, out of 39 songs there are exactly three that can be called love songs, and one of those (“Love Rears Its Ugly Head”) is a humorous but uneasy and unsentimental look at the way unquestioned assumptions about gender roles and relationships can screw up a seemingly promising romance, so it’s at least somewhat political. (The other two love songs sound fairly dated, and are unremarkable compared to the rest of LC’s work.) “Solace of You” sounds like a love song, but it’s about solace in the face of bad politics, and it’s not clear whether the “you” in question is a person, music, community, or a higher power. There are a couple of songs about sex, but one (“Under the Cover of Darkness”) is about layers of perception and the oxymoron inherent in the phrase “safe sex,” while the other (“Bi”) is about hypocrisy, confounded expectations, and being the Other caught between two defensive polar opposites. The songs are not just the self-indulgent lewdness one gets from AC/DC or Van Halen.

        “Glamour Boys” is a humorous song about the New York party club scene, but it’s also a song about class, and about who can get away with faking it and who can’t. (It also sounds a bit like a blue-collar gay pride song to my ears, but I’m not sure if that’s intentional or if it’s just me reading too much into the song.)

        “What’s Your Favorite Color” is mostly silliness, I think, except for the obvious self-reference of Living Colour being (problematically for some) an all-black hard-rock/metal band. “This is the Life” is an inspirational song about the need to let go of resentment about might or should have been in order to deal with the life you actually have. And there are some short, trippy instrumentals like “Ology,” “WTFF.”

        But except for these (partial) exceptions, everything on the first three albums is either directly political or a portrayal of the personal, inner consequences of the politics of alienation and being the Other. Topics addressed include racism, the corrosive effects of consumerism and mass media on identity and activism, the evil of political inaction in the face of environmental and human rights catastrophes, proud mediocrity as a form of alienation and privilege, the drug war, drug abuse and suicide, gentrification, willful ignorance, the white-washing of rock, and so on.

        I would not be surprised if a lot of young people got their first lessons about some of these issues from Living Colour’s music, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

        … the music, the stage demeanor, and much more were utterly conservative. Musically, they state the status quo.

        That’s true, but I think the meaning of that conservatism is relative to context. In a social context where it’s just not done for a black band to play that kind of music (as far as most people know), then re-appropriating the sound and look of popular white bands of the time is at least a little bit subversive of the status quo.

        Another way to look at it is to observe that, in this case, conservatism serves the purpose of accessibility. To quote a line from their second album: “Why do we play this music? It’s our culture, so naturally we use it.” If the majority of your fellow citizens don’t take “your” musical idioms seriously, then it makes sense to try to communicate in one of “theirs,” emphasizing the idiocy of the false distinction between the two. Or, in the words of the Malcom X quote that opens “Cult of Personality”: “We want to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.”

        (Granted, this doesn’t serve one’s desire for pure musical novelty and experimentation. Rather, it reinforces the observation that pop music is more about the persona and the message than the music itself. But if you know that ahead of time you can make it part of your art, and Living Colour is a band that does that, I think.)

        (At least in this song.)

        But it does serve as an entry point to the rest of the album, which — although it stays pretty true to the metal/punk format — incorporates elements of funk, hip-hop, fusion, soul, R&B, Afropop, etc. (And maybe a hint of jazz, but my standards for bestowing that honor have inexplicably risen recently, so I’m reluctant to blithely include it in the list.) Still, if a Miles Davis album can compared to a web page full of links that say “not that,” then I think a Living Colour album can be compared to a web page full of links that say “also this.”

        And my memory — I was in college at the time, living in the dorms with a bunch of other undergraduates — is that people loved the first couple of albums not only because they rocked pretty hard, but also for their sheer diversity of tone and texture. Most of those people weren’t music majors, so our collective standards were arguably low, but it seems to me that anyone bored with radio rock really appreciated Living Colour. “Cult of Personality,” Vivid, and the other early albums worked as a way of introducing people to new things. (However, Vivid and Time’s Up probably do more of this than Stain, which is a much angrier, punk-sounding album overall.)

        The content of the lyrics is subservient to the (familiar, unsurprising) musical form and the rhythms of tonal harmony (which is why the lyrics look somewhat less impressive out of context, like read on a screen). And none of this is criticizing the band: they were a good band for their time, and apparently trailblazers in some ways. But the form, and the industry, both impose limits on how deep they can do into things.

        As true as that is, I think “Cult of Personality” still works very well to convey its message about the negative effects of hero worship on both the “hero” and the “worshipper.” It talks about how the relationship distorts perception at both ends, making it difficult to tell and hear the truth; about how it makes the hero both a target and a shill; about how it robs agency and identity from the worshipper; and about how it doesn’t matter much to the inherent corruption of the relationship whether the “hero” is a good or bad person. And there’s a line I really like that’s delivered from the hero’s perspective — “You don’t have to follow me / Only you can set me free.”

        To me the line suggests a subtle truth, that leaders themselves are damaged by followers who are too star-struck or too subservient to be critical, and it’s something over which they have little control. It also serves to undercut the fawning fan-band relationship that’s so typical in pop music, infusing the conservative cock-rock presentation with some needed irony.

        And that’s not too bad for a five-minute pop song. You could say more with a poem or an essay, but how many would hear it? You could be more musically inventive with a five-minute jazz improvisation, but how many would understand it? Not to slight poems or essays or improvs, but given the constraints of the medium and the milieu, “Cult of Personality” does a brilliant job delivering a timeless message to a large audience.

        (I also really like “Nothingness,” “Type,” “Open Letter to a Landlord,” “Funny Vibe,” “Love Rears It’s Ugly Head,” “Fight the Fight,” “Go Away,” & “Bi.” Actually I like most of it.)

        Summing up, I suppose Living Colour is a good example for making your case about the limitations of pop music, but they’re also, in my eyes, a good example of how people can make good art even within those constraints. Musically and lyrically they’re still more interesting than the vast majority of their peers in pop, and it seems to me that 25 years on, the issues they highlight are as relevant as ever.

        1. Marvin,

          Sorry for the delay in responding. It’s been kind of all around nuts here. The latest few adventures including actually finding out what it’s like to have ants in your pants first thing in the morning — tiny, tiny, tiny little ones and I mean like a hundred of them. (Short version? Fucking horror.) I had to hurry to change because we were headed early to the customs office to try sort out the import problem with some boxes we’d sent ourselves. (It’s sorted, supposedly; tomorrow we can pick them up and it’s only the fifth trip over in two weeks!)

          Anyway, since most of that is sorted out, and I’m working out ideas for a story, I figure it’s a good time to try repsond to this. You did a ton of research and I have to commend you for that. I’ve read the links you posted, and checked out a few tunes by the band on Youtube as well as thinking back to my own impressions of the band, who got famous when I was in middle school, just in time for them to come onto my radar before I stopped watching music videos on TV more than occasionally.

          And I should add, the impression I got (as a white teenaged boy in Saskatchewan) was, “Oh, a black hard rock band. Weird. And they’re pretty good.” It was that close to the surface: I thought of them in a category with Fishbone (which I’d mostly forgotten about till I saw the band mentioned in one of those interviews you linked) and that, I think, says as much about how they were marketed and talked about–as a sort of curiosity that somehow operated outside of the black culture industry (since black music was, by definition, R’n’B, Wyntonian re-bop, blues, funk, and rap music). I admired their apparent politicality, and all that. And when I heard tunes like “Solace of You” back in 1990 or 1991, well, you see, I was already listening to West African bands (especially, at that time, Touré Kunda) so I didn’t think of Paul Simon for a moment; but I can’t say I’m surprised that white rock critics would not imagine anyone listening to African popular music except through Paul Simon, not even African-American intellectual types who might want to, know you, be interested in trans-Atlantic rock music of another kind than the sort than the Beatles offered.

          (This, I should note, struck me as peculiar even in 1990, when I was starting in the eleventh grade and just had gotten access to a public library with a huge and wonderful collection of vinyl: Why wouldn’t one listen to African music, if it was available? It was so good! But I know from experience most people don’t hunt and gather when it comes to music, and cannot forget the shock one Tunisian friend of mine expressed when I mentioned liking Touré Kunda as a teenager, and having been blown away by a double-header concert by Salif Keita and Angelique Kidjo in Montréal. She looked at me like was some kind of alien, and said everyone listed to Touré Kunda back home, but she hadn’t met a [white] Canadian who knew who they even were.)

          Which is not to brag or claim enlightenment. My attitude was arguably racist (or ignorant, if we can differentiate the two) in that I often felt “black music” was better, that obviously African music was better. I didn’t quite stoop to thinking it was because Africans were more rhythmic naturally or something–it wasn’t like I was that ignorant–but I thought it especially understandable that black American rockers might listen to African popular music, and that somehow the rhythmic complexity of traditional African music was part of why jazz and African popular music were both so much better than the plain, boring rock white people were making.

          Not that my feelings have changed much. I mean, maybe this is a rigged game, but compare these two tracks:

          Or, because we have amazing luxury of time and energy online, one more amazing track from the same album that makes one feel like one has just fell in love with the universe — it even makes a lazyass like me want to dance, and to a beat that makes really human, natural, comfortable, and alive-to-the-senses dancing simply effortless:

          (Edit: I forgot to include the video embed above, and added it later, as well as a few more disparaging words about Guns’n’Roses below.)

          I know whose music sounds amateurish and square to me, and no amount of bad-boy lyrics, heroin, or hotel shenanigans makes those white boys any more impressive… from where I stand now, but also to my ears back in 1995, when these tracks of Salif’s first came out. Salif sounds like a musician; Axl Rose sounds like a petluant kid attempting to make music. To my ear, at least.

          (I link Salif more because he’s a favorite, though he came into my world years after Living Color and G’n’R had faded from it. I could as easily link Angelique Kidjo, who is an absolute killer live. It’s enough to make you want to go hang out in Paris, where all the great West African musicians seem to live.)

          (As a tangent is to also say something VERY crucial about libraries. I think I got my copy of Folon, the album the latter track is on, as a playcopy while working at a record store. (Remember those?) But most of my musical explorations depended on an incredibly-well-stocked library. Hell, even the so-so library in the smaller town I lived in until early 1990 contributed, by having copies of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane albums. The most famous ones, at least.)

          But it is also the result of racism, I think, in the industry and also in my own personal ignorance as a teenager, that I would see the lines connecting, say, Touré Kunda to an effort like Living Color’s “Solace of You,” while being inclined to not see them as connected to other rock musicians. Hell, I saw more parallels in what jazz musicians had been doing in the 1960s and 1970s, dashikis and the neo-African “imaginaire” and playing African instruments onstage, or even in what Courtney Pine was doing integrating bits and pieces of African music into his jazz concerts. (When I saw him live, he got the audience clapping triplets against square rhythms on one of his more African-inspired tunes.)

          Then again, I was shocked when Pine put out a reggae/acid-jazz album.

          Which is to say: boundaries are problematic things. Pine’s musical approach was ALWAYS influenced by the West Indian thing: you can hear here and there all the time before he stepped away from the “trad jazz” thing… I mean, listen to his most famous jazz tune, Sacrifice: it’s right there in the sound of the saxophone in the head, in what the bass and piano do under the majority of the head too (the repeating line). That sounded like something new to me when I heard it, and I recall all the sax players I knew thinking it was something: the song was an instant standard in my little jazz community, anyway.

          The thing is this: I agree with you that Living Color was interesting in its politics, and I would say that musically, they did get more interesting as they went along–just going by the videos avaiable on Youtube, I’d say my comment about their conservativism is — relatively — less true about more cuts off the second album, and arguably even less true of albums on the third one. Interestingly, the newer video (“Song Without Sin”) strikes me as much closer to the musical conservativism I remember from the earliest album.

          And… popular music is inherently conservative on the musical level, I should add. That’s true of the stuff I like, and that’s true of the stuff I don’t. (A rock musician might counter that jazz is conservative too; I can see why, but I’d argue that’s a superficial reading, and one promoted by the lasting influence of the “Young Lions” thing back in the 80s and 90s… but musically, jazz has a long tradition of radicalism and innnovation. It is inherently balanced between conservativism and neophilic, avant-garde exploration and experimentation.)

          What things I do find interesting in Living Color’s more interesting tracks (“Auslander” is one, and somehow it links to Les Claypool and Primus for me, which I thought of as a rock version of Jaco Pastorius; here’s “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver,” a familiar track). Note, the lyrics of the Primus song are pretty vapid, but I’m inclined to give rock music a pass just for being timbrally interesting or unusual (the atonal guitar solo is virtually transgressive in rock, surrounded by the iron-clad fascism of tonal harmony), since that’s so incredibly rare in rock… which is one reason I made it all the way through “Auslander.”

          In one sense, the more musically interesting Living Color got, the less commercial success they achieved. (And doubtless, the execs read this as there being no market for a black hard-rock band, but especially no market for a black rock band that branched out beyond straight hard rock… but, they may not be totally wrong.) In other words, that musical conservativism is probably inherent to the music to some degree, as well as the industry. Which is probably part of why so many of the musicians in Living Color do other stuff like jazz, funk, and other things as well as the stuff they do in Living Color.

          And while Living Color may be challenging and radical in other ways — challenging because they crossed musical boundaries that stifled the thinking of the white critics and probably a lot of their audience alike — I don’t find their songs particularly interesting on a musical level.

          Having said that, I want to back up and sum up what I’ve argued so far: that while it is not a moral failing for entertainers to engage in the kind of hybridized performances that combine different things, including music, and necessarily simplify all of them, and it is not a moral failing to like a given performer working as an entertainer in that business, it is a moral failing for society to mistake that entertainment business for art, and to fail to support its art, to keep art alive; it is a kind of mass impoverishment to which the modern world in general is quite resigned, an invisible poverty because most people don’t even recognize it. I am saying that the modern world is artistically and aesthetically emaciated, and that this is a crime.

          But that’s not to say that people doing less “hybrid” music cannot dive into the wreckage and make new things from materials they find there, anymore than saying a black hard rock band cannot challenge racist attitudes because American society is still way more bigoted than it realizes.

          There are a range of ways creative musicians can respond to this. I’d put two very accomplished jazz pianists as examples of the opposite ends of the continuum there: one is Eric Lewis, who brands himself now as ELEW; the other is Robert Glasper. Here’s a couple of samples of their approaches, and I bet you can imagine what I’m gonna say:

          ELEW:

          Robert Glasper:

          I intentionally include them both playing the same song for their second videos, and the differences are really striking.

          Now, I want to be clear: I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to any jazz pianist out there making a living, regardless of what they play. I’m not critiquing these guys as individuals, and I should also note I haven’t listened to their ouevres, either: they’ve both only recently come onto my radar.

          But I think I can say, on the little I’ve seen, that what may (may!) be a good career move doesn’t necessarily benefit the art form. Guy’s gotta make a living, but.

          ELEW’s synthesis seems to depend on moving from the less-hybridized end of the musical spectrum towards increasing amounts of hybridity. Lewis is an accomplished jazz musician, by the way; you can see videos of him playing straight-ahead jazz that show what he can do. But I have to say, while the stride piano version of “People are Strange” is certainly an improvement on the original song (which I find boring except as background in a vampire movie), his take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” reveals what he’s all about: that is, taking the trappings of rock and applying them to, well, playing rock songs on the piano. He does a few things that are, momentarily, musically interesting in his reinterpretation of the songs, but there’s a lot of superficial stuff in the video: the anguished look, the rage, the weird kung-fu/dancing girls/sexy Asian lady on the roof, the jittery shots with the piano, his samurai-stance at the keyboard. There’s a lot of it that feels like it’s for show, and frankly, the musical side of it leaves me pretty cold.

          Which is not to slight Lewis: I mean, according to him (when Ethan Iverson interviewed him on Do the Math, among other places) he’s playing all kinds of venues, private shows, and making wads of cash. Of course, you may notice he has a specific narrative, with titles and everything, but I wonder what the next chapter is. Maybe he’s smart and sees that coming, and as a strategy for getting past it. Maybe not. Personally, I suspect the novelty of having a dude play lightly jazzified piano solo versions of familiar rock tunes–while wearing armor on his forearms and making pained faces–will wear off sooner or later; but maybe he’ll transition, or find some way of keeping it fresh for them.

          (Or maybe he’ll transition to the jazz career he wanted. Or go into something else once he has the security and freedom to never have to worry. I don’t know.)

          Still, personally I’d be sad if jazz music went in that direction en masse, toward hybridity and toward the popular music aesthetic. Which brings me to Glasper, whose approach I find more salutary. Glasper seems to me to be doing what many more jazz musicians are doing: not really rebranding themselves in a pop music way, but going out into the world to find materials to carry back home and perform alchemy on. What I really like about the first track — the Radiohead song — is that the “fusion with hip-hop” actually involves a beatbox guy who, you know, has the ears and attention and listening skills of a proper drummer. Maybe that’s more common than I think, but I was shocked by the sensitivity of the beatbox guy. Likewise, I think Glasper’s take on the Nirvana song is very refreshing–the reharmonizations, the divergences from the original, the deployment of improvisation… it’s a really good track. Glasper doesn’t need body armor, doesn’t need kung-fu dudes or hot Asian ladies on the roof: the music is compelling enough. (This is nothing new, of course: Miles Davis took the Disney tune “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and after all, the tune I’m working on myself now, “Ornithology” is really just a reharmonization of the old showtune “How High the Moon”; but I think what people like Iverson in his band The Bad Plus and Brad Mehldau have lately been doing, along with Glasper, are promising. Mehldau has interesting things to say about structure in recent popular music–where traditional forms are more often lacking–that has me thinking.)

          That links up nicely to the quote you took from Living Color’s second album, here:

          Another way to look at it is to observe that, in this case, conservatism serves the purpose of accessibility. To quote a line from their second album: “Why do we play this music? It’s our culture, so naturally we use it.” If the majority of your fellow citizens don’t take “your” musical idioms seriously, then it makes sense to try to communicate in one of “theirs,” emphasizing the idiocy of the false distinction between the two. Or, in the words of the Malcom X quote that opens “Cult of Personality”: “We want to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.”

          (Granted, this doesn’t serve one’s desire for pure musical novelty and experimentation. Rather, it reinforces the observation that pop music is more about the persona and the message than the music itself. But if you know that ahead of time you can make it part of your art, and Living Colour is a band that does that, I think.)

          Sure. I’d argue that’s what ELEW is doing, too. But that’s also what Glasper does, and in a sense, I feel like maybe there’s a difference between surrendering to the norms of a culture where art is an endangered species and joining in as an entertainer, versus making a non-hybrid art in a world where some of the materials — some of your own culture — is that popular music stuff.

          I mean, it’s cool to be a good band making very-hybrid music–and Living Color was consciously programmatic, very consciously political and about their message. Nothing wrong with that, and in being interestingly hybrid Living Color would fit in with a lot of interesting bands… including some that fit with them just on the basis of being, you know, good at playing their instruments, like some of the ones I mentioned. I’ll add Yo La Tengo to the list, though YLT is less overtly political, except in their satirizing of the rock scene itself:

          Yo La Tengo’s another band that, like Belle and Sebastian, was hugely popular among people who were sick of radio music, back around the time I left Canada. (And when I got to Korea, the same people — people sick of radio music — were into Yo La Tengo there, too.) And of course, I think of teenaged me listening to Touré Kunda and smile.

          These groups are still way over on that end of the spectrum, which is not a crime or something–not anything we need to rescue them from, in other words. They’re not toxic pop, and that’s commendable: they can play their instruments, and all that. But I don’t know that they represent explorations of what we called, earlier in this discussion, “the middle.” Hell: I see ELEW as having jumped across the void of the nuked middle, pretty explicitly because he could better make a living over there; and meanwhile I see Glasper as having crossed that middle ground, then come brought back material (not just songs, but also musical approaches, like the idea of using a beatbox performer), which he then sets about to turning into a new kind of jazz… but it’s still jazz, and doesn’t, you know, feel like pop music at all. I can’t see young people who build their identities off hip-hop suddenly embracing his form of jazz; it seems more about breathing life into a venerable art form and valiantly fighting off apparent stagnation. (As well as, you know, just bringing in things he likes, and discovering what influences have made it into his head when he moved from playing jazz standards to writing his own stuff, as he says in the interview below.)

          So I don’t know. I’m struggling to imagine what the middle looks like. Take trained musicians, and ask them to make something that would fit in the middle, and what do you get? You get things that seem to fit on one side or the other.

          Maybe that’s the thing: maybe the middle that’s missing is us, the audience who is, you know, canny enough to listen to the good stuff on both sides and appreciate the good stuff on both sides? Maybe that’s it in a nutshell: we’re the missing middle. I don’t know.

        2. NOTE: I’ve re-edited this comment with video embeds repaired–more videos than I first intended, and a little more commentary added.

          Marvin,

          Been thinking a bit about my comment the other day, and wanted to add a few things:

          The “Blackness” of This Music:

          One thing that’s fascinated me about this discussion is how it sent me back to listen to popular music I have actually not re-listened to in ages, and hold it in my mind beside the things I enjoy, that enrich my life. One fairly consistent thing is that while I’m not a fan of every black musician, black musicians dominate in my musical pantheon, while white ones occupy a much smaller role… but also that I hear more life, complexity, and beauty in the “black musics” than in the “white ones.”

          Which, you know, when I hold it up in the daylight like that, makes me wonder whether part of this is racism on my part.

          Except, you know, I have a more critical viewpoint than that. Or I like to think so. I mean, I’m wary of the racialization of musical styles and genres; I realize that rock music was also invented in large part by black American musicians, and then repackaged by white ones. (The question of cultural appropriation and “stealing” is complex enough I’d like to leave it aside for the moment, because when we start talking about that, it leads to discussing the black culture industry, to discussing the question of “ownership” of artistic forms, and all kinds of thorny problems… no less, the obviously hybrid and mongrel heritage of all American music!)

          And of course, race is in part social: I’m sure plenty ofjazz musicians I revere were not “pure-blooded Africans,” given the horrifyingly exploitative conditions so many of their ancestors endured in American bondage over the centuries. So this isn’t, you know, a shit-headed claim that “black musicians are better than white ones because blacks have better rhythm” or “are more naturally musical,” or whatever I might have said when I was twelve years old and hadn’t yet examined these fucked-up ideas I’d gotten from my culture. Not at all.

          And another thing is that I appreciate white musicians working in the “black” genres too. (I’ve never wondered, “Can White Cats Play Jazz?” (though I once had a sense that maybe they’d never reach the highest levels of artistry in the field… silly, I know, but there you have it). I appreciate Joe Lovano, a killer tenor sax player I’m getting into again these days;I respect Steve Lacy, Bill Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Haden… and so did the many African-American musicians with whom they constantly worked.

          So what’s the deal? Somehow for me, music gets interesting sometime in middle ages, with the troubadours (whose work was hybrid as all get-out) but only becomes study-able by about the time of the renaissance; by the time of Mozart, though, that falls apart until the late 19th century, and then European music gets interesting for a while, until it tries to choke itself to death. I like some of that self-choking (Webern is a composer I retain a soft spot for) but a lot of it is barely listenable… it leaps towards the excesses of too-cerebral (not about the music) or too “classical” (tuneful and simplified).

          That dovetails with jazz’s rise, right? Jazz music, which represents the injection of one into the other: tin pan alley and singable tunes, getting deconstructed in increasingly cerebral ways, with an alien rhythmic system grafted on, or, rather, implanted, since rhythm in this metaphor functions more like a heart. It makes me wonder what (white) North American music would sound like had all the descendants of the Africans, say, been put back onto ships and sent to Liberia, or been given Alaska or Florida or something. Bizarre thought. Actually, I find it really, really hard to imagine, which says a lot about the contributions African-Americans have made to American culture. (Not just in music, but in culture generally.)

          (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!)

          Anyway, I can’t help but wonder. In that interview, Wynton Marsalis argues that the rhythm in jazz is the same pulse as in African music, just with the emphasis shifted. He also insists at one point that Iverson has the rhythms in him just from growing up in America, and talks about African sensibilities and their survival, like the strut of some black athletes when they’ve scored a goal or whatever. (Not knowing much about sports, I have to take his word for it, though don’t some white athletes do this too? Or did they obtain that ritual by imitating their black colleagues? I’d be willing to buy it: I don’t remember seeing much in old sports footage featuring W.A.S.P. or European athletes, for example.) Maybe that’s part of it: the surviving sensibility of that rhythm, and of the absolute relevance of music to life, that survives from the time when people just sang and made music all day long, no matter what they did. (Which is very characteristic of a lot of West African cultures, at least from what I’ve read.)

          I don’t know. It’s all kind of a wild stab in the dark at trying to figure out why the list of musicians I revere looks like it does.

          (And, as I think I mentioned somewhere lately, maybe here, when I see the list of jazz musicians revered in Korea, it’s always depressing: the black musicians seem to occupy the margins and the whites are at the center, which always make me want to ask, “Is this jazz we’re talking about?” Not that whites should be excluded, or necessarily could, at this point, but come on, the field has been dominated by African-Americans; to ignore them is, well… to miss out on so much. So much.)

          Other Middles:

          I’ve been thinking about the middles I mentioned, and that idea I suggested that the missing middle might be missing because the missing middle is a musically literate, creditable audience–that its absence is less a musical absence than it is our absence, in other words. This idea seems really, really important to me, though it may not ultimately be useful in the sense of of that parable the Buddha offered his followers about how, when you find an arrow in your chest, the main point is not to theorize about who might have shot you, but to deal with the fucking arrow.

          So I’ve been thinking about other middles, and what middles might look like. I think your example of Living Color, and my example of Robert Glasper, might be coming at the same notion: that if you mix the pure music with more familiar forms (like the Robert Glasper experiments mixing hip-hop and rock songs into jazz), or take a popular form and inject some of the purer stuff in (as Living Color does when it works in musical content from jazz, funk, African pop music, and so on), maybe you start to fill the middle. I’m wary of that, because down that road lies, well… acid jazz, for one thing, which ended up being way more acid than jazz. Or, basically, ended up “jazzy” pop music, except the “jazziness” wasn’t all that jazzy at all. Like:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyRPfK-U0Oc

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HH5lEIhjOHY

          I mean, I had a crush on N’Dea Davenport just like every other kid who bought their CDs back in the day, and it was nice that they opted to use a real drummer and an actual horn section, you know? And at the time I did imagine they were, you know, helping bridge the middle… like, enough to try assemble a band of my own to play this kind of thing. And I started hearing interesting things about how, when people danced to acid jazz, they “actually danced” (implicitly, it was suggested, this was a radical change from what people did when they danced to house and other “dance music” that was popular at the time. In fact, I seem to recall Courtney Pine saying that on same documentary about acid jazz back in the very early 90s.) Acid jazz excited me then, because I felt like it connected to things like what Miles Davis had been doing, bringing together chunks of popular music–sound, aesthetic, the clothing, some of the self-presentation, and actual musical material–over to jazz and reworking it to his own liking.

          Ha, I even listened to Marxman, because they were on Talkin’ Loud. Marxist Irish rap. No really. I was listening to this and Wagner in high school:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nG5sweyy3i0

          Ha, and I still have a soft spot for them. Their Marxist analysis of the capitalist state and its links to older forms of exploitation like slavery and imperialism seems just ever so slightly more historically aware of the processes of power than the Occupy Movement managed to be, you know? But, really, Marxist rap. Hm.

          Anyway, as for acid jazz and the middle: now, it does little to excite me. This was really just a rebranded form of popular music, neo-funk with a good groove, and the odd not-bad solo thrown in. Nothing criminal about it, obviously, but at the same time it isn’t anywhere near what feels like the middle to me. But maybe that’s just because I’m coming at it from the far side, I don’t know.

          But anyway, I’m starting to think the middle might look diverse. And maybe to some degree it is here, but we don’t exactly recognize it for what it is. (Or maybe we’re so mired in marketing and genres that it isn’t able to act like a middle.)

          When I started this comment, I wanted to offer some other examples of acts that seem to me to fit in that “middle” we discussed, for one reason or another. (And I’ll mention those below, in a bit.) But now, I’m kind of thinking the middle might in fact be things we can’t recognize because we’re not thinking of the middle functionally — as a middle ground, as a place of learning to listen–or, rather, relearning how to listen. I think of John Cage’s 4’33”–you know, the famous piece where the pianist sits at the piano and plays nothing? Sounds like performance art crap until you read accounts of the premiere, like this one:

          The first performance of John Cage’s 4’33” created a scandal. Written in 1952, it is Cage’s most notorious composition, his so-called “silent piece”. The piece consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds in which the performer plays nothing. At the premiere some listeners were unaware that they had heard anything at all. It was first performed by the young pianist David Tudor at Woodstock, New York, on August 29, 1952, for an audience supporting the Benefit Artists Welfare Fund — an audience that supported contemporary art.

          Tudor placed the hand-written score, which was in conventional notation with blank measures, on the piano and sat motionless as he used a stopwatch to measure the time of each movement. The score indicated three silent movements, each of a different length, but when added together totalled four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Tudor signaled its commencement by lowering the keyboard lid of the piano. The sound of the wind in the trees entered the first movement. After thirty seconds of no action, he raised the lid to signal the end of the first movement. It was then lowered for the second movement, during which raindrops pattered on the roof. The score was in several pages, so he turned the pages as time passed, yet playing nothing at all. The keyboard lid was raised and lowered again for the final movement, during which the audience whispered and muttered.

          Cage said, “People began whispering to one another, and some people began to walk out. They didn’t laugh — they were just irritated when they realized nothing was going to happen, and they haven’t fogotten it 30 years later: they’re still angry.” Maverick Concert Hall, the site of the first performance, was ideal in allowing the sounds of the environment to enter, because the back of the hall was open to the surrounding forest. When Tudor finished, raising the keyboard lid and himself from the piano, the audience burst into an uproar — “infuriated and dismayed,” according to the reports. Even in the midst of an avant garde concert attended by modern artists, 4’33” was considered “going too far”.

          Obviously, as the original commenter noted, Cage didn’t believe in silence: he felt that people needed to relearn how to listen to “music.” Which is interesting, and problematic, and challenging, and perhaps overreaching, but I think he might have a point useful to us within the context of this discussion. That brings to me to wonder whether the middle might not look like William Basinski’s disintegration loops (or his other music inspired by them), for example:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYOr8TlnqsY

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8Nut4jfWUc

          (That latter album is one I actually own; one lonesome night when I was on my own while visiting San Francisco (I’m pretty sure it was San Francisco, anyway), I happened to walk past a used CD store and walked in. I wandered over to the jazz section and looked for a few minutes, at which point I went to the counter and asked what was playing. It was this album by Basinski, and I was told half his life story by the enthusiastic clerk, and I picked it up immediately. Of course, Steve Reich, Gavin Bryars, and Pete Namlook prepared me for it…

          I ran across some videos today that reminded me of another form of “the middle” that existed at one time, and is gone now, but which reminded me of the performer you mentioned who sang “Halleluia” at that show. I’m not sure the name Slim Gaillard will ring a bell, but I remember seeing him as a kid on TV (maybe on Sanborn’s Night Music or maybe in some rerun from one or another show from the 70s), and being fascinated with his ” jive slango.” Two examples that show him melding stage comedy (ever-so hybrid) with actual musicality… and the second video was kind of haunting, after reading one of those interviews with Vernon Reid that you linked, and his discussion of the African-American roots of rock:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntUNRiC5-z0

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKdrnTTDTqo

          Note, at the time Gaillard was not taken as a clown, but as a comedian. He opened for Bird and people of a similar caliber, and as Hanif Kureshi notes in his book Something to Tell You, when discussing meeting Gaillard:

          There can’t have been many people alive with two pages devoted to them in On the Road… this was a man who’d known Little Richard and dated Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth.

          So there’s an example of someone bridging the middle by being musically very competent–to a level most popular musicians today aren’t–but also doing comedy on a professional level, and doing the two within the context of a single performance.

          That’s not the only way to move out into the middle, of course: there’s Bugge Wesseltoft, which is branded and understood as jazz improvisation, except, you know, not so deeply informed by the African-American tradition. It draws on things like popular music, but also European classical music, and folk, and the avant-garde thing.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKqTIqy-Sx0

          Somehow that feels more accessible to me, for people who don’t have any background in jazz. It seems like a viable portal of entry.

          Then there’s the possibility that the middle is made up of various fusions, and that flexibly moving between them is how to buid a middle. The Norwegian Jan Garbarek also comes to mind:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nt4GKxd7Ms

          One doesn’t really know where to put Garbarek. He obviously has jazz chops, with a strong dose of classical training from the sounds of it–he sounds more like a jazz player a couple of minutes into this, though:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtH_g9RQvuQ

          and this sounds almost like a reinterpretation of a pop song (with more pop left in, mind, than most jazz musicians would leave in), except it’s not one, and the playing is pretty serious:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMCXJe9-gFA

          … but he performs all over the map: it always sounds like Jan Garbarek, of course, but he fits his playing into all kinds of really differen contexts. Some of it sounds like New Age music, and some of the things he’s done seem like fusion of Renaissance music with–I don’t know, free modal improvisation:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpsaoxvFv90

          And this song with Keith Jarrett is just, well:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZ88rj_fxCg

          Or mixing with the kind of Indo-Western fusion that John McLaughlin and the folks in his various “Shakti” groups have pioneered:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfxyjWyxEM4

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DM1zCKoR5Ok

          … or with, you know, Nordic folk music with, like, New Age and some kind of avant-garde that, instead of being atonal, is modal or, I don’t know, neo-primalist or something:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylaBbSDPslU

          There’s a lot of that in this live show, too:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD–5xBt50M

          Maybe there’s official terminology for that neo-primal thing, I don’t know, but I’ve heard it in some European stuff in the last decade or two, and it’s interesting. Transjoik is another group of Norwegians that does something like this, playing live music with loops of really old Norwegian folksong (“joik”) recordings, and when I saw them live, they had a live modern singer in the same “joik” tradition. They were unclassifible, ancient-new, weird, and cool.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTrO8mACVVc

          Steve Reich, too, seems to be one of those composers to whom plenty of pop musicians are eager to pay homage:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmWgIidnXX4

          Listen for the guitar sample here:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHixChYgGRI

          (The Orb is one of those groups I’ve long sort of found interesting, and not been sure why, beyond thinking the vintage of their samples is so much more interesting than the samples of comparable groups. They do something interesting with their meta, I suppose.)

          I also think a lot of the music that we agree is not “toxic pop” but also isn’t “pure music” could also live within the middle.

          And that may well be more alive and well in the USA than it is in Korea. The more time I spent outside that country, the more I find being there so long has subtly distorted my perceptions of the world in general. (To live there is to live in the place where the struggle to keep art alive seems, often, to have been poorly fought and, I’m sad to say, almost wholly lost.)

          One thing I will say is that in the end it will probably fall to the “pure” musicians to work harder to fill the middle, since they’re going to be the ones who will have to skill to branch out more, for various reasons; there are pitfalls there, one of which I think should be apparent among the musicians I mentioned in my previous comment, but the pitfalls had better not hold them back, or the middle will continue to yawn wider with each passing year. Or, at least, that’s what I fear.

          But listening to a lot of Jan Garbarek and some of these other examples since I first posted this comment, I feel some hope.

          1. And, aaaargh, for some reason the blog has stripped out the videos I embedded. Like, ten of them. And the HTML is all gone. I’ll add links tomorrow. Argh.

          2. Heh. Because of your earlier Facebook post (or was it a Tweet?) I was reading the “Can White Cats…” article and stretching out my lunch break just a bit…too…long… when the e-mail alert for this post came through, making me stretch it out even more. Jobs are clearly overrated.

          3. Ha, it was a Tumblr, but it ended up on Facebook and Twitter. (And thus twice on Facebook: I need to sort that glitch out.)

            Good article. I find it WAY too easy to spend WAY to much time sifting through the Do the Math blog… almost every post contains some kind of goldmine…

  15. 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. 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.

      1. Huh, looks like I’m still really hung up on the class thing.

        Yeah, kinda. :)

        Maybe that needs to be a long-term project for me to figure out.

        That’s intriguing. Like what?

        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.

        Hm. See, again, this idea of artistic self-expression: it’s funny. I got into discussions with writing friends about that, because for me, both musically and in my writing, it’s never just about self-expression. It’s constantly about me interfacing with things outside myself — the expression comes from the encounter with the other, whether it’s a tradition or part of one (Lovecraftian fiction, for example) or an historical problem (racism in the arts) or even just an idea that shocks me (like the Buddhist meditations on nuclear waste I read about years ago that led me to draft my short story “The Bodhisattvas”). For me, self-expression early on became, I don’t know, a dead-end? Not that there’s no room for that–for expressing a unique vision of how something could look or sound or feel like, but the idea that art definitively is self-expression seems to me to be one promulgated by artists who would prefer to maintain the mythology of the artist as genius; to me, art means most powerfully in a context, and usually that context is significantly laden with precedents, with counterexamples, with differing implicit proposals on how the thing being done could have been done.

        (The main difference being that with a lot of arts–most writing and visual art–the collaborations and refutations take place in the absence of the others to whom one responds, while in improvisational music, some of one’s collaborators (and occasionally even some of one’s forebears) are actually present and can interact directly.

        I realize I’ve left out something I wanted to say about the question of “being impressed” versus “enjoyment”… but that I shall have to save for another day. Or, rather, another night.

      2. By the way, I hope I didn’t sound too, I dunno, snarky in my “Yeah,” above. The more I talk about anything seriously, the more I discover my own hang-ups about things…

        Been thinking a lot about the YA-ification of adult consumers’ entertainment choices including but much beyond literary YA (and the perils of same); 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.

        And also, how compartmentalized intellectual life has become, I suppose. I’ve known people who read Proust or Joyce (or, you know, even Delany’s Dahlgren), but musically ventured no farther than Leonard Cohen or Tori Amos; or who listened to Shostakovitch but didn’t dare watch a Tarkovsky movie or read a little Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Zamyatin. (Then again, sadly, plenty of people who praise Orwell haven’t even heard of Zamyatin.)

        Anyway, on the YA-ification of adults, I dunno; I need to think more for now, it’s a complex topic and I need to think more about to what degree it’s a thing, and to what degree it signifies, but it’s another useful analogy. I feel like I’m arguing that reading Harry Potter is fine for kids, and okay for adults, but nobody would want to live in a world where the vast majority of what adults read is YA or juvenile fiction–simplified for youngsters, and thus sapped of complexity, nuance, less simplified, and more challenging to the reader. But musically, I’d argue that is precisely the kind of world we live in…

        Which just leads back to Gatto, and the recognition that the power-brokers in our world–especially corporations–have done everything they can to help us, culture-wide, toss out the window pretty much everything of value in the human world and replace it with a (profit-generating, less-nourishing) simulacrum of itself.

        I may get around to that eventually. 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.)

        1. Hi Gord!

          By the way, I hope I didn’t sound too, I dunno, snarky in my “Yeah,” above. The more I talk about anything seriously, the more I discover my own hang-ups about things…

          No, no, that’s fine. I’m sorry for being so slow to respond. You gave me a lot to think about, and then meatspace got kind of distracting. 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.

          This comment will still have to be brief-ish because meatspace is still being distracting, but I wanted to expand in my own way on this —

          I realize I’ve left out something I wanted to say about the question of “being impressed” versus “enjoyment”… but that I shall have to save for another day. Or, rather, another night.

          — because it occurs to be that it’s a bit disingenuous on my part to suggest that I can know that I enjoy something without also making some kind of evaluation of it, without knowing whether or not I’m “impressed” on some level, even if it’s not by the highest possible standard or even if it’s not entirely a conscious process. Why do I “know” that the opening guitar bits of “Voodoo Child” are pretty awesome, but the opening riff of “Sweet Child of Mine” is cloying and manipulative by comparison? Is it just my differing histories with the songs, or the different ways in which the bands involved were marketed, or something else? The riffs aren’t so different after all, so there must be some mechanism of judgment going on.

          Maybe it’s not a difference between “enjoyment” and “being impressed” so much as it’s a difference between not knowing why one is impressed, on the one hand, and understanding the means of aesthetic achievement (where the means include both the actions of the performer and the well-observed behavior of one’s own brain) on the other.

          And…I was on the verge of looking at the whole Wynton Marsalis controversy, but my Mom just showed up at the door. So…more later!

          Cheers,
          Marvin

          1. Hi Marvin,

            No, no, that’s fine. I’m sorry for being so slow to respond. You gave me a lot to think about, and then meatspace got kind of distracting.

            Yeah, it does that sometimes. Usually that’ a good sign about one’s life! :) Anyway, I should note that my newer comment was basically prompted by the fact that everytime I loaded this site’s backend, on the Dashboard the first thing I saw was that “Yeah” and I started to get a little apprehensive about how it read.

            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…

            No worries on the briefness of your comment, and I think you make an interesting point about the distinction between knowing why you’re impressed by something, and not knowing why but being impressed on some intuitive level. If it helps the discussion any, I’ll note that this is something I experience too with music, and in fact, is something I seek… that place where all my training gets me so far, but no further, if you know what I mean? I imagine eating becoming wearying for a food critic sometimes–I don’t mean as a mere food-blogger, but a true critic of food, who knows cooking intimately and knows why this or that dish is good, mediocre, bad, or excellent. What a taste novelty must have for such a person, right? I suspect that’s what goes on in the most avant-garde of music–the tennis without a net, which is for people for whom the presence of a net invokes boredom.

            Which is to say, when listen to the beginning of “Voodoo Child” you’ve arrived at that mystifying point where you know that thing is done well but you’re not sure why or how. For me, I know (and seek out) that feeling, it’s just that it’s much harder to mystify me because a lot of the structures and techniques used in a song like “Voodoo Child” are familiar to me. (For example, the way Hendrix makes the guitar sound like a voice, which (besides the groove) is the main feature that makes it interesting and attractive where the Guns’n’Roses intro is just weenie noodling. (I don’t know the technological side of it, I can’t do that on a guitar, but I recognize in the sound what he’s doing to make it sound like a voice singing; that’s something string players do in Indian music quite a lot–it’s seen as a criterion of success in playing a fair number of instruments in fact. And I aspire to do it on my horn, too…)

            Anyway, that is to say, I’m very familiar with that feeling of being partly or wholly in the dark about why something “impresses” me, but being impressed… going by instinct beyond a certain degree of understanding, but recognizing something amazing going on. Case in point, John Coltrane’s “Om.”

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xfi7MTaI9d4

            (It may be that even the members of Coltrane’s band didn’t know on a logical or theoretical level what they were “doing” there; I’ve read that definitely around the time this album was made, Coltrane had begun experimenting with LSD; the rumor that he was using LSD in the studio, with the rest of the band, may or may not have substance to it, but I think it definitely speaks to a sense among many listeners of being effectively baffled by what they heard. So much power, unsettling intensity, and so on. It’s pretty difficult to dissect, which makes it pretty difficult to analyze… which is, I think, why some people prefer to imagine it coming from the LSD.

            Not an album one can necessarily listen to every day, mind you. Or with company.

            Maybe it’s not a difference between “enjoyment” and “being impressed” so much as it’s a difference between not knowing why one is impressed, on the one hand, and understanding the means of aesthetic achievement (where the means include both the actions of the performer and the well-observed behavior of one’s own brain) on the other.

            Oh, and speaking of “Voodoo Child”–I’m not sure whether the results are tailored for me, but the fifth hit I’m seeing on Youtube when I look is this video:

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NfOHjeI-Bns

            … which I kind of feel says something about the leveling of everything else in the face of TV dinners. Not to begrudge her those millions of hits–I mean, most Korean women on Youtube have to put on fishnet stockings and a kilogram of makeup and a push-up padded brad and shake their butts at the camera to get a decent number of hits. She can actually play an instrument, and I’m sure it’s hard to make a gayageum do what she’s making it do. But I would argue that when the karaoke background covers her less–like, in a more realistic musical situation–the limitations of the instrument are sort of more obvious, as in this Eric Johnson cover.

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RD-vDoqV16U

            Those rhythms come out blocky and square half the time, and for reasons that seem tied directly to the nature of the instrument. Gayageums are really good for certain kinds of music, and not so great for others… like saxophones, and tubas, and electric guitars, and all other instruments in the world. I don’t doubt that someone could make the gayageum swing or rock, but I have trouble seeing why one would bother.

            Or, rather, I’m troubled that this seems to be the way to be cool, to do something new and “awesome” with the gayageum. McCoy Tyner’s adaptation of the Japanese equivalent (the koto) to modern jazz in 1972 (in the tune “Valley of Life”) involved playing music that was idiomatic to the instrument, and I find it much more effective. (To the point where I wish I could hand thus Luna woman a copy of the Tyner album… sigh, ages ago, I had a copy of vinyl, if you can imagine. It got lost, along with all my vinyl, in my move from Montreal.) I wouldn’t want to hand it to her to say, “You’re doing it wrong,” but rather, “This is one way of making that instrument fit in some other context, in an idiomatic way. Cool, huh?”

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_TBO8OXZOQ

            But when “rock music” (or smooth jazz, or the cheesier forms of fusion jazz (a la Spyro Gyra), or some other form of “easy listening”) becomes the default of “modern” and “Western” music, when one wants to branch out from traditional music (and one wants an audience) one ends up having to go there.

            Which is not to say the gayageum can’t do rock. The soundtrack for “The Music of Jo Hyeja” features some rock music where the gayageum fits perfectly, namely this song:

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyQoJj94Blw

            But sadly, most of what I saw in Korea was shaped by this dichotomy between people doing traditional music on traditional instruments, and people doing awkward attempts at “fusion” between [traditional] Korean music and “Western music” for which, the definition of “Western music” was usually simplified, vaguely jazzy rock music. So you’d see these ensembles of accomplished musicians who could do the traditional stuff really well, fighting their instruments to try make them fit into a rock ensemble… in which the guitar and synth would end up being present not just to make the result sound vaguely like rock, but also to cover up just how unidiomatic the music was for most of the instruments involved. Very few groups were willing to put the work in to design music that exploited the instruments’ strengths, the way Jambinai built up a new kind of gloom-rock around the specific features of traditional Korean instruments, from the ground up.

            Anyway, I should stop there…

            Enjoy your visit with your mom!

          2. Aaaand! Woo, I got the Youtube embed to work (finally)! In comments, if you want to embed a video, just paste the URL for the video page directly into the comment, on a line on its own, and it will auto-embed (or, failing that, provide the URL as a link). This seems to have changed in WordPress 3+, but I never noticed till now.

            I’ve also edited this earlier comment a little, in addition to re-adding the embeds that were missing last time I posted it.

    2. Hiya Marvin,

      Sorry I didn’t get to posting the video links, I was busy experimenting in the kitchen in the afternoon. Turns out it’s possible to make perfectly good risotto without rice… if you have steel-cut oats on hand. And this evening we watched a movie made by people I suspect love jazz as much as I do — Chico and Rita. Good film, I’ll post on it soon. But I figured I’d reply to this before getting some reading and writing done.

      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.)

      Well, it’s become something of an afterschool special thing in recent years, that the “cool” person’s coolness, that mysterious aura, actually just conceals not much of anything. That said, “cool” is one of those things that seems somehow to have been part of jazz when it was mainstream popular music, and to have been lost as jazz lost that popularity.

      Speaking of which: as usual I’ve been digging through DTM and the subject of jazz’s fall from popularity among African-Americans (and the form of popularity it did enjoy, when it was popular–which is somewhat different from what I’ve been talking about) is discussed in a way that was enlightening for me in this interview with Gerald Early. I’d say coolness has something to do with it, and groove, more than intellectual stuff. Which interestingly connects to something you say later on, so I’ll come back to this.

      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.

      Ah, don’t worry about that. This is an asynchronous discussion, and it’s not like I have a day job. If I need time, I’ll take it. But this is enriching, right now, and I’m glad you’re continuing to find that too. We can stop, or move on, anytime.

      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.

      It’s probably a mix of temperament and training. But I’ll clarify that it’s sort of like this: I think there are different kinds of enjoyment. Actually, the first phrase that came to mind was “levels” of enjoyment, but it’s a loaded phrase, so let me unpack that by coming back to a food metaphor. There’s, you know, the pleasure of a chilled cola on ice, or a good cold lawnmover beer, on a broiling hot day when you’re thirsty. Then there’s the pleasure a finely distilled liquor or a thoughtfully crafted, carefully blended sour beer where you spend an hour sitting there tasting it and marveling at the taste complexities and the nuances and all that. (The way I felt the first time I had a long-aged bottle of Duchess de Bourgogne, or how it felt when I shared a five-year-old bottle of Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise with friends a few months ago.)

      One might argue that I think of this in levels because I’m snobby, or because I want to privilege one kind of pleasure over another, but that’s not it. It’s that the latter pleasure is actually harder to reach a point where you can experience it, compared to the former. Lawnmower beers are easy; almost anyone can enjoy one, it takes little work and little experience. You mow a lawn, you want a cold one, you crack it, you drink it. You don’t need to train your palate, you don’t need to think about serving temperatures or letting it warm up, you don’t have to really think: it’s a simple, visceral pleasure… and not lesser for it. I myself order a can of Sapporo occasionally here in Saigon, because it’s hot and I could do with a cold beer and nothing better is available, but also because it’s pleasurable enough to have a Sapporo with a meal.

      But there is a hierarchy of skills that one can develop in terms of beer appreciation, and the lawnmower beer is level one. The Belgian (and now, American) sours are a bunch of levels up from that: they’re challenging, they force you to question what you thought beer not once, but repeatedly. You have to develop a relationship with them and that changes you… and you of necessity start seeing Sapporo or, you know, Shiner Bock, as a lawnmower beer. And if you’re a certain sort of person, you start hungering for more interesting things. Things that will impress you, because being impressed is a pleasure in itself.

      Which is why, I think, the desire to be impressed is such a big part of my aesthetics of music. Though, it’s probably also in part my distrust of crowds and popular opinion. People are so impressed by very rudimentary musical performances, and I’ve always found that unsettling–even before I got into music. I was impressed by grooves, or by unusual timbres, or by things that sounded “foreign” or “exotic.” I remember listening to CBC radio late at night and being shocked to attention by Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Peek-a-Boo” on my Dad’s old shortwave-capable radio, or a few years later, wishing I could find out more about this Suns of Arqa group that Brent Bambrys was always playing late at night.

      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.

      No, the distinction is more profound than that. African-derived swing seems to link back to African conceptions of rhythm, where you’re in the realm of 12s — because the pulse groupings divide evenly both by two and by three, and so you can do interesting rhythmic things by setting 2 (and 4 and 8) against 3 (and 6 and 12). It’s a fundamental, primary rhythmic feature of the music, not just in the way melodies are performed, but in the distribution of musical content in a collaborative ensemble. In other words, it’s a constructive feature like how harmony is a constructive feature in European classical music.

      The “swinginess” in European folk music feels to me more like some artifact left over from before rhythm got systematized in Europe, just as the modal scales used in folk melodies are a leftover from the time before tonal harmony was officialized. But rhythm in Europe traditionally was maybe more interesting than after tonality took over — certainly crazy things are visible in some early music notation, rhythms in old motets that modern vocalists struggle with because for them, singing seven notes against someone else’s five is alien and weird, because, you know, we’re all steeped in tonal structures and the squarishness is conventionally built into that.

      I’ll add that rhythm in Indian classical music is also extremely developed, far beyond what Europeans ever considered doing in their own music until very recently. Indian musicians even have a kind of “solfege” system for rhythm (comparable to our “solfege, “do-re-mi” for notes), and mastering that rhythmic solfege is a part of become a musician, from what I gather.

      It’s enough to make one wonder whether the relative poverty in European rhythm after the beginning of notation was what led to all the harmonic complexity that developed.

      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.)

      Yes, Mrs. Jiwaku and I didn’t get past maybe the end of Season 2, and then we just sort of simultaneously lost interest. We never even talked about it–we both just sort of switched off, and never switched back on. Several, if not all, of my housemates are big fans of it, but the few bits of the current Doctor I’ve seen have turned my stomach. I certainly see very little of what attracted me to the series when I was younger, during the time of the cardboard spaceships.

      The argument, “But it’s a kids’ show,” kind of angers me. Kids deserve good stuff. They deserve art, and goddamn it, they can appreciate and handle that. It being a kid’s show is no excuse for what is most objectionable. Jim Henson made kids’ shows that were made for kids, but without ever using that fact as an excuse for putting junk into the world. Sigh.

      I have little to say about fan art, or fanfic, or any of that, beyond thinking of what came up in an interview with Henry Threadgill (yes, again, over at DTM; I am becoming obsessed with that blog), who argued one should not learn or memorize the improvisations of others because it gets into your muscles and gets in the way of you doing your thing. Normally I’d be skeptical, and maybe part of me is looking for a reason not to keep working through the Charlie Parker Omnibook, but reading him carefully, he’s not saying we shouldn’t study others’ work–he’s cautioning being careful how much of what someone else has done you should let into your own playing:

      HT: You keep making replicas and variations of the same thing, and this is what’s been going on in the arts for a long time, you know. But the people who suffer are the young musicians, at the hands of the people who teach them and the people who hire them to make a living – it can destroy your development. It can take years to find yourself because of this. You’ve got to get through all that mess, if you’re lucky, to find yourself. Kids are practicing and learning Coltrane solos. What do you want to learn Coltrane’s solo on “Giant Steps” for? What are you supposed to find out? To engage and look at it and study it, yes, but to engage in it physically is contaminating yourself. You start practicing something, and practice don’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. You start putting things in yourself, and it’s going to take time to get things out of yourself. You might need a big enema for that.

      You know what I’m saying?

      You should only engage certain music on an intellectual level of looking at it and understanding it, but you shouldn’t put it in you. You figure out a little bit about stuff to do, but don’t steal that stuff, because that stuff is powerful. The people who you were listening to – that was some powerful stuff coming from them. Your muscles don’t have anything to do with your mind. They’ll take over. There are information cells in your muscles. You’re going to put information in your muscles that you’re gonna have to pay to get rid of.

      Remember, we evolved in time, we go through this period, a lot of stuff comes to us. We condense it, we throw out what we don’t need. Now you put some stuff in you that’s too powerful for you to expel, and it’s going to stay with you. You put some stuff in there that you cannot reduce down, and it’s going to stay in you, it’s going to keep getting in your way for a long time. You’ve got to be careful in your training.

      EI: You never learned any solos?

      HT: Hell, no.

      EI: Did you sing any?

      HT: Yeah, you sing everything.

      EI: So singing is better than playing?

      HT: Don’t want to put them in your muscles. You don’t want to imprint it that far. You start imprinting that far, you ain’t got nothing to play, you know what’s going to come out. You start falsifying and plagiarizing. No, no, uh, uh. No, no.

      I’m not against fanfic–I even have a little Mad Men fanfic I want o write, and think it’d be fun to write, where there’s an alien invasion of NYC and New Jersey is zapped off the face of the earth and Don Draper and Peggy flee the city, him advising her to do what he’s done once and is about to do again: invent himself an identity and stick to it. And I think I’d likely be flattered if someone wrote fanfic of my work someday, not that I expect that as being likely to ever happen.

      But I do think that beyond a certain point, fanfic trains you how to write fanfic. You either break away from it eventually and do your own thing–and that becomes incredibly hard–or else you don’t, and you write fanfic till you get tired of it. The problem with that is that I think the majority of people will go down that easier second path, and end up stifled.

      But I’m not really paying attention to the world of fanfic, and I don’t know much about the curation process. I just know that the fanfic I have encountered clearly involved way less revision and study of writing and dedication to producing outstanding work… and occasionally was celebrated anyway. But then, so are Dan Brown’s books and the 50 Shades books.

      And, ha, I find it interesting that you think it’s positive that the the fan-community curation “helps elevate the best while encouraging makers of the worst to keep trying.” To me, the latter seems problematic, in the way that any system without gatekeepers seems problematic. Sure, gatekeepers can be corrupt, or their tastes may be unfairly limited or narrow, but I dunno: hearing the stories from people who read slush for magazines, I kind of think maybe not everyone who produces the worst stuff needs to be encouraged. I think of students admitted into university departments they clearly do not belong in (tone deaf in a music department; unable to speak their own mother tongue passably but studying as a foreign language major) and I think sometimes discouragement is a mercy. The student I’m remembering in the latter case has wasted about a decade and a half of his life in misery, guilt, and pain because nobody was willing to convincingly discourage him from pursuing what he clearly is incapable of doing. I kind of feel guilty having been complicit in not slamming the door in his face–in not helping knock a few windows open for him, though to be fair I met him when he was eight years into his degree, and didn’t have the heart to tell him he’d wasted his time… plus he wouldn’t have listened by that point.

      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.

      That’s true. But you’re understating the proportion, it’s a bit of good, and a whole hell of a lot of bad. And, drowned in bad, I suspect a lot of people are developing a warped perception of what is good not only in “pure” artistic fields, but even in pop art.

      (The visual arts seem to be a really great example. I’ve always thought Warhol’s most famous and most popular work was flat out boring, and that people praised it mainly because it was known to be highly praised. People are so generally illiterate about visual art that, what can one say? One says things that sound knowledgeable, and praiseful. Not that I know much, and I’d be willing to listen to an explanation of why a painting of a soup can is successul and meaningful and should impress me. But, well… I’m dubious, and the explanations I have heard so far haven’t impressed me.)

      Lovecraftian fanfic is interesting, as it’s a thing I’ve been caught up in lately. But as another Lovecraftian writer I know has hinted, the more one does the Lovecraftian thing,the harder it gets to write one’s own stuff. Or, rather, the harder it becomes to stop doing the Lovecraft thing and put the energy into creating your own complex, vast, imaginative realities and so on.

      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.

      I’m going to challenge you on that one. I can talk about music, and about narrative. In terms of “high art” in literature, I think of the Ramayana, of the Mahabharata, but also of the novel, of poetry. Well, Ezra Pound certainly did leave a lot of people’s lives unexplored and trampled in the mud, but I don’t see that as universal… Pound strikes me as rather unusual in those terms. Wordsworth, Austen, Henry James, Langston Hughes, Graham Greene, James Baldwin: plenty of writers have looked into the lives of the “regular folks” and explored, and held up as worth of examination and recognition.

      And likewise, plenty of “high art” musicians have consciously drawn on folk traditions. My favorite composer, Stravinsky, whose masterpiece The Rite of Spring turned a hundred a few weeks ago, based most of that piece on folk melodies, though he did outright alchemical things to them. Mahler, Bartok, and many other composers were very much informed by and dependent on their folk traditions. Likewise, most American jazz musicians have been aware of, and in touch with, the American folk traditions, especially the blues.

      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”).

      You’re right, though I worry much less for pop culture for one reason, which will be clear when you try out the following thought experiment:

      Devise a program or system for killing off one branch of the high arts. Now devise a program or system for killing off its pop-culture equivalent.

      From where I stand, it seems much easier to kill off a branch of the high arts than to kill off a branch of pop culture. To kill the high arts, you simply ban it and catch and silence or kill the practitioners. Given that the high arts generally require some kind of training to do well, and that this training resides as a kind of torch passed from one small group within one generation to a small group in the next, if you snuff out the small group, the next generation will have no access to training, and no venue for their art. And people likely won’t protest it too hard, either.

      But to do the same to an equivalent branch of the low arts, you need something more invasive. You need to confiscate all the turntables and guitars in a society; you need to get into the heads of every single person. You need some kind of Orwellian state to achieve it, and even then, you likely won’t succeed.

      The “high arts” are much easier to kill off or cripple within a given society, which is why I worry much more about them. Pop culture will recover from the vandalism, as you call it, more rapidly; art, not so much. Thankfully, it currently is just vandalism, and not killing off art wholesale.

      Anyway, celebrating popular culture is fine; hell, some high art celebrates popular culture, too. (Some of it badly, some of it well.) And you know, pop and high art aren’t necessarily as separated as we’ve come to sort of agree they are in this discussion. The reflections of Gerald Early above on what it was about Sonny Stitt that attracted the older people he knew when he first got into jazz (the groove, man, and the tenor battles (“honking”), and the Jimmy Smith-style organ in the background) speak to this.

      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 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.)

      That’s beautifully put, though I also kind of wonder how true it is. I mean, if everyone had something to say, wouldn’t they be saying it with the tools we all have at our disposal? What’s the literacy rate in the developed world? Does widespread literacy help us come out of our own hearts every day? I look at the blogosphere, or the comments sections of forums, and think not.

      Whereas, I look at the blogosphere of brewers, or forums I frequent where homebrewers and musicians hang out, and what do you know: the tensions that do crop up usually crop up with the people who are trying to use the forum to make money; the people who are in it for the love of making great beer, or getting better at playing an instrument, usually seem to be dealing with others as if they were human beings, to an impressive degree.

      Besides, I’m skeptical that people can make the truth with just three chords. Why not two chords? Why not one chord? Or why not scrap the guitars and make the truth acapella? Which is not to say the truth cannot be expressed without an E-flat b9#11 chord; it’s to say, why three chords? I think there’s probably plenty of music in people that cannot fit onto those three chords, or that might come out better with some other simple folk form–modal scales, canons (singing rounds, you know) or some weird, finicky percussion pattern.

      Also, a thing I learned from writing, and which I think is true of life: characters are not compelling because of what’s in them: they’re compelling because of what happens between them and other people. Which is to say: there’s vulnerability between a performer and an audience, but also vulnerability between one person doing something creative, and that person’s collaborators. I think this idea that we each need to come out of our own unique hearts might be a little too individualistic for my taste. Part of playing music, for example, is interacting with others; that’s how one learns to listen, and how to harmonize, and tune with others, and blend dynamically. It’s a much more demanding form of “coming out of one’s own heart.” I think of the polyrhythm of West African music, and I feel like that might be a healthier model than the three chords and the truth model… I mean, if popular culture is to serve that function of helping us learn to be vulnerable with one another, and to see everyone else around as human beings… which is a fine goal.

      Utopian, even. And I’ve been thinking sadly about our relative lack of utopianism these days, so it’s not a pejorative. But there are attendant difficulties, and questions of an obvious sort. Especially the question of whether most people will ever really bother with three chords and the truth, or Photoshopping, or painting. We made literacy universal, and among the great things we got for our trouble, we also got Usenet.

      Also, as for high-tech: I’m simultaneously feeling driven to note that the modern saxophone is also high-tech–I am about as well equipped to fix mine as I am to fix the malfunctioning DVD player in our house… and, on the other hand, dubious about the idea that high-tech needs to be part of this “low-training popular art movement.” One of Mrs. Jiwaku’s great joys after coming to Saigon was going into a little shop and buying canvases and gesso and brushes and oil paints and starting painting, after basically not training beyond what she got as a little kid.

      (And for the record, so far she’s mainly doing poppy art herself, mainly mashups along the lines of Barton Fink as played by Jim Henson’s Muppets, or Star Trek mashed up with Asterix, and so on. And they’re wonderful and funny and pretty much do what you’re talking about. But you know, the canvases cost $3 and the paint a little more, and the gesso is cheap. The financial barriers to entry are extremely low compared to a lot of places. And making that happen would have to be part of any movement of the sort you envision… and the low-tech seems to me an essential part of that.)

  16. 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.)

    http://youtu.be/W-9OrHd6QdM

    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.

    But…

    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”….

    Cheers,
    Marvin

    1. Marvin,

      Hey, thanks for the very candid reply, and plese don’t worry about the time lag. I’ve been thinking about our discussion here a lot over the past couple of months, as I begin to formulate my thoughts in a more general (i.e. extramusical) assessment of things, and this discussion has been invaluable to me.

      I can see now what you mean in some of your earlier comments, and believe it or not, some of it feels very familiar to me, too.

      I’m pleased to see you citing Gatto, for whom I have a great deal of respect. I want to read more of him, when I am someplace I can do so. (Here in Vietnam, I have a pile of paper books I must read before we leave, and that is what I read, along with the occasional ebook. It’s a good selection, but it does not include any Gatto. And sadly all I’ve read is Dumbing Us Down.) Gatto’s point is dead on, and you and I alike have experienced the disappointment that comes when one realizes the hamster wheel of academics leads only to more hamster wheels, or to disillusionment.

      “The new dumbness” resonates for me very well, not only in what I’ve seen around me, but also in my own self: it takes effort to want to consume more than the easiest things, to seek more than simple comforts. It really does. I have managed until middle age–which, as I write that, I feel dumbstruck–making do with so much that is trash, in disregard for so much that is not. (And while it wasn’t panic attacks, it was simply impatience, a kind of restlessness, an unwillingness to continue to stew, that made it impossible for me to ignore my “stillborn adult life.” (What a phrase!) We have, as a society, become exultant celebrators of trash… and Philip K. Dick comes to mind not only because some of his writing truly is trashy, but also because he knew that about us, and boiled the insight down into a single word, “kipple.”

      Alan Bullock, the English historian, said Evil was a state of incompetence. If true, our school adventure has filled the twentieth century with evil.

      Gatto nails it here, and it’s true along so many axes all at once: Not just in the sense elucidated by Ellul, but in a more general sense. We (modern North Americans) simply are not competent people. I don’t know if we ever collectively were, but we are certainly incompetent.

      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.

      This reminds me of nothing so much as what I’ve seen of religious people, especially those who, in losing one religion, leap to another religion, even one with fundamentally opposite assertions about the nature of the universe (as we’ve both heard people in the atheist movement note damningly, because it is damning).

      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.

      And I can think of a few heartbreaking examples, too, of how this deforms one later in life, but all those personal resonances aside: this all reminds me, of course, of the thesis of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Say what you want about the man’s procedures and credibility, but the take-home from that book was clear and obvious to the point of feeling puzzle pieces fall into place: violations of the status quo, especially violent ones, have been criminalized specifically so that the use of violence could be depoliticized. (A theme that links directly to the novel I’m writing now.) That’s not to exult in violence, of course: I would be happier if bloodshed were never necessary, but it seems to me that moralizing it to the point where one can assert is is always unnecessary (or that violence in any form, even verbal, is anathema) seems to me an infantilized position, as a martial arts enthusiast like yourself must clearly understand. (Are you still studying karate, by the way? I’ve wondered but never asked.)

      That infantilization is, in the end, tied to the real thesis of all of what I’ve written in this series about music: that we are infantilized as a society. Which is also to say that “dumbness” is taught, but it is also naturalized by the same process that infantilizes… or rather, its naturalization is the process by which we are infantilized. I remember my adult Korean students in a few successive classes being almost unanimous in their agreement that children are too stupid to even understand the take home message of The Muppet Movie, for example, and the irony struck me: that’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard, and you sound like little kids when you assert things so senseless as that.

      (Because, of course, when I think that latter part, I am participating in that same stupid myth that tells us kids are dumb, and am thus being dumb myself.)

      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.

      One side note: I’ve personally only seen those “gifted and talented” distinctions from the outside. Not because I lacked whatever was required to get into the group, I’m sure, but because I moved around so much, so constantly, that when I arrived in high school, I started in the eleventh grade, much too far along to have been streamed into such a program. And from the outside, the one thing I believed I saw was a haven: I was taking algebra with morons who found entertainment in holding a burning lighter to someone’s backside was the height of fun, so I envied with a passion those kids who’d arrived in freshman year, in time to be streamed into the group of kids who, you know, actually sometimes read books for pleasure, had a vocabulary commensurate to their age, and didn’t constantly copy their exam answers from others’ papers.

      But for all that, I perceived it as a social haven, and only once–when, in university, I had to drop my calculus class because otherwise I would have failed it–did I feel as if I’d lost out academically. (Because I believed, rightly or wrongly, that we’d had much worse mathematics instruction outside the “gifted” program than those kids in it got.) The academics was secondary to me, probably because the social side of things was more pressing. And this was in high school, when I’d effectively rebranded myself, and wasn’t subject to violence more than occasionally, and essentially was no longer a social pariah of any kind.

      The thing about Gatto’s ideas is: I agree with him in many ways. But as a longtime teacher myself, I also sometimes wonder the degree to which he is overstating his case. Certainly a lot of stupefaction has to do with school. I think some of it, though, is probably due to other factors.

      One of them, which I’ll be discussing at length in upcoming posts, is the cultural stupefaction that came with the social and cultural shifts, especially within the umbrella of the (depoliticizing, semi-religious) Human Potential Movement.

      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.

      I can relate, to be certain. My wife has been pursuing a regimen of watching “good movies.” Now, “good” is a subjective term, in fact a weasel word, so, what I’ll say to clarify it is this: she has been attempting to consume as many of the finest examples of film as possible–finest in terms of craft, in terms of narrative, in terms of acting, in terms of director’s skill, but also in terms of telling a challenging, powerful, and intelligent story: not all of those are necessary, either–at a rate of approximately one per day. Now, that doesn’t exclude films you or I would have seen: I mean, Reservoir Dogs is on that list. Pulp Fiction was on the list. But so are films by the Dardenne Brothers, by Woody Allen, by Bergman, the Coen Brothers…

      Well, I have to say: in one week, maybe six weeks ago, we watched three films in a row:

      • Le Fils (dir. Dardenne Brothers)
      • Stardust Memories (dir. Woody Allen)
      • Possessed (dir. Andrzej Zulawski)

      The last title may seem an unlikely third candidate, and it was, for Mrs. Jiwaku, too. (She hated it.) The thing is: after watching those movies, I found it difficult to watch the kinds of films with which I’d made do for so long. The movie “great films” we watch together, and the more we talk about them, the more it hurts to hear a cop character say, “I didn’t sign up for this shit,” or to see the same boring shots that dominate television. When we watched Iron Man III, I was offended by many things–I found the film unremittingly sexist, lazy, and illogical–but I was surprised by what turned off Mrs. Jiwaku most: she hated the cinematography. That, for me, had been transparent and “competent”… but then, watching a film like Le Fils, where the filmmakers see the images onscreen as more than just a mere “medium” for telling the story, but also as an image on a screen, that ought to be beautiful, I could see what she meant. The cinematography in Iron Man III (and in practically every film we’ve seen in the cinema since coming to Vietnam) has been transparently competent… in a way that reminds one of can-can dancers kicking in perfect synch, but with a bored look on their faces.

      I’m not saying everything that’s celebrated is good, by the way. Neither of us got much out of the Tarkovsky films we’ve watched. Not everything celebrated as great really is great. But there is great stuff, and there is a whole shit-ton of stuff that’s is basically lazy garbage, that seems to pass muster as, you know, mainstream, conventional; as transparently effective.

      In a sense, I could say it comes back to what Bill Hicks ranted about playing from your fucking heart. A lot of filmmakers, writers, musicians, and other creatives who seem not to play from their fucking hearts are the ones we are collectively celebrating, and it’s a bit like living in a world where TV dinner is served at restaurants that your friends al say are “good” places to eat. It’s a bit terrifying… and even worse when you find yourself waking up suddenly, and find that that’s not a plate you’ve been eating from, but a plastic tray, still warm from the microwave.

      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!)

      Well, but of course, for all that, fitness is part of mental function too. Even just having gone swimming a few times this pas week (yay!) I am finding my mind clearer, and the weight I’ve lost since coming to Vietnam has also somehow removed an impedimentary weight from my mind. Plenty of people who live the life of the mind also neglect their bodies, and that makes for a much shorter life of the mind, doesn’t it?

      But I know the answer for me is that I would prefer to have the mind I wanted, because I could settle for a body in only somewhat better health than I am currently in. Happily, I can work towards both now, but then, I am not working a full-time job, and I am afraid that when I do eventually return to full-time work, the cultivation of both mind and body I’m now pursuing may become unsustainable.

      On the third thing:

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

      I can relate to a lot of this, too. Let me tell you: the jazz improvisation course I just completed last week, in some ways it was a bit like a punch in the face for me. My own study of music included a lot of what you say: a fascination with the Big Picture (about which, I’ll add, they don’t teach enough in mainstream music education) and a penchant for getting good-to-great grades by concealing lack of comprehension behind aesthetic radicalism, bravado, and a certain degree of risk-taking. This is a procedure much more suited to a creative type, since a theoretician cannot usually bullshit past the gatekeeper of accreditation.

      A simple example: I was “into free jazz” in part because I liked a lot of it, but also in part because it seemed a shortcut to me past what looked like the superhuman task of figuring out how in the hell musicians like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane (prior to his launching into “free jazz”) achieved what they did. The welter of chord changes and harmonic complexity and pure technical command required to unravel and master all of that scared me, overwhelmed me, and though I had good teachers, none of them managed to break things down consistently to the level of, “This is how we do XYZ step by step, and how to master it.” So at some point, I figure I could just skip to the avant-garde since anyway it was the highest development of the music, right?

      Now, having taken a very basic intro-level course, I am kicking myself for that shortcut I made twenty years ago, when my fingers were more obedient, my musical mind sharper, and when I had so much time to master all this stuff–and so much time ahead of me in which to create music. But then, I took time off from the saxophone for various reasons, and cannot permanently second-guess myself about it. I am back to it now, and that’s what will have to do.

      This is why your comment about not making an organized attempt to study the humanities struck a chord with me: my attempt to learn about jazz, even at the time when I was a music student (but not in a jazz program) was very disorganized. In fact, my approach to everything intellectual has been rather disorganized. I sometimes feel as if, had I been more organized about it, or had I had mentors who could have modeled that kind of organization to me, I might have achieved something more than I have. I might not be holed up in an apartment in Saigon at the cusp of turning 40, trying again to write a novel that might or might not get off the ground. (A very frightening state to be in, I assure you.)

      As for the study of literature: well, the undergrad version is basically pure bullshit, anyway. And the secondary materials, well, I’ll put it this way: among the reasons I decided not to pursue a PhD (some good, some maybe not so good) was the observation that people who talked shit in fashionable jargon seemed to get applauded, while those who said interesting things in plain language seemed to get ignored. I was pretty disgusted with the intellectual crippledness I saw among professors in literature who would, with no sense of shame, advertise their self-limiting philosophical allegiances (and, often their own ideological blindnesses) as a matter of course: “Well, I’m a Lacanian,” or, “You see, I’m a Marxist-feminist-environmentalist.” I always wondered what was wrong with people who would adopt those viewpoints by habit or dependency, rather than doing what an intelligent adult would do–adopt the position provisionally, for the purpose of a discussion, and then set it aside to think further from other positions.

      I also found other people ahead of me in terms of knowing the right terminology, being able to drop the right names… but at some point, I realize that a lot of that was posturing, not because reading those authors was bad, but because it wasn’t actually helping them say anything new about the text at hand. I found that much more often than not, a mention of Derrida was really just a way of claiming credibility for oneself: discussing the critic’s own credentials, rather than the book. (That was a pretty off-putting part of grad school; that, and the degree to which the same people spewing poststructuralist references had taken leave of common sense. I remember one prof going on and on about the punk movement’s radicalism, and how superior it was to all that came before or after it, and finally cracking and pointing out that he was romanticizing punk and that it had led nowhere and for Chrissakes even the Paris Commune achieved more than punk, let alone [a welter of older political dissident movements, including the Lollards, I think].” That was sort of a big moment for me: I decided I didn’t want to have to be around people who were anxiously trying to prove their cleverness day in and day out.

      Also, my own essays were (until late in my MA program) often last-minute scrambles, and also often sought to address big-picture questions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: when you get out into the real world, you find that the academics (in literature, at least) who write and publish to an external schedule usually publish crap, and that quality academic work sometimes takes a long time; and also that truly outstanding work often does gesture towards big picture questions and issues. What I’m saying is, in part your desire to get at the big picture is good, as is mine, and that the fact this wasn’t nurtured and directed (ie. the fact we were helped to see that the way to get to the big picture is through the details) is part of the “dumbness” Gatto argues is taught and instilled in us in education.

      Seriously!

      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.

      Well, see, for me, that is what literature is about: it’s about figuring out what texts say to us today, as contrasted with what they mean to say, and what we can imagine people contemporary to their production would have felt they said. All that does open windows onto the bigger pictures of human nature. But that wasn’t actually all that apparent to me when I was a student, not even a grad student. I studied literature because I wanted to be a great writer, and figured it would help. I learned it didn’t, because literature study wasn’t about becoming a great writer. (And to this day, I use what I studied in music as much as what I studied in literature, in my creative writing.) But I’d say Gatto would probably want to reassure you that of course you didn’t know why we study literature, or where to begin: that befuddlement is the very purpose of having (and the ultimate goal for) literature classes in schools. Because, after all, so much literature is dangerously subversive. This, among other things, is pretty much declared in a film I’ve been thinking about a lot, Donnie Darko:

      There’s another great scene in Donnie Darko that I think sums up the purpose, for me, of studying literature:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAryr1htkDM

      … a discussion nicely unpacked here.

      But I’ll be damned if any discussion like that happened in any English class I studied in, at least not with any consistency. I tried to make it happen in classes where I was teaching lit, but it was sometimes like pulling teeth. (Especially in Korea, where students are accustomed to having the “meaning” of a text explained by the professor so they can memorize it and regurgitate it on demand in exchange for a mark… even into grad school, where students are sometimes penalized for regurgitating in insufficient detail the arguments their professors have made in published papers.)

      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.)

      Need I quote Socrates (or was it Plato) on the subject of the fact that the only way to be wise is to admit one’s own ignorance? I’ll simply argue that I think it’s not just a social phenomenon, but also a fact by implicit design (which trumps even the best teacher’s best intentions), that schools seem to be predicated on a system that punishes individuals admitting their lack of understanding, or their own need to go back to first principles. Asking, “Why do we study X,” in a context of enforced study necessarily gets interpreted as challenging or attacking the system, rather than as a real question… and sadly this makes it harder for anyone to talk about those basic questions. (Even when you try to do so, as I’ve tried, you often get, “Will this be on the test?”)

      I agree on the idea that philosophy is often more useful than literary theory in terms of figuring out literature. That much, I very much agree about. I feel like literary studies took a wrong turn about forty years ago, and still has not recovered… and may never do so, well, “never” being an approximate term… I mean, before it is wiped out as a subject of formal academic study, which I imagine will happen sooner or later, probably not in our lifetimes, but eventually.

      That said, I find English majors and philosophy majors equally prone to bullshit and bad writing. (*wink*)

      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.

      Ha, I did the same. There should be a term for that.

      As for the last, the guy you reacted violently to, talking about the guitar: the class-bully, and culture-bully. Hm. It’s a very, very interesting thing you describe, the dual attraction and repulsion you feel. I can see all you’re talking about, but for me, it felt like the rare instance of someone being frank about the fact that popular music has reached a nadir of musical competence. As someone who’s lived in a world where people who can (barely) play three chords on a guitar make piles of money, achieve lasting fame, and are celebrated globally–who, in other words, are musically far less competent than legions of people whose rewards for their skill are far lesser–I think the resentment is fair, but I also think he’s quite straightforwardly right: the guitar is our world’s most abused instrument, and the abuse itself represents what people celebrate most, indeed, what is synonymous with music for most people.

      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’m not completely convinced that he is doing this, mind you. For one thing, the MJQ and Almeida were minority musicians in America at the time, and jazz, though its practitioners were a somewhat heterogenous group by then, was clearly coded as “black” music in America too.

      As for “will be despised and ignored,” I’m not sure. I guess it depends whether you see him as a gatekeeper, or as a worn-out security guard in a small island that sees itself a beseiged. I imagine it’s probably the latter, and that what you see as arrogance, I see as bravado in the face of an unwinnable onslaught. Because even at this time, jazz was being steamrolled by rock music and other forms of popular music. It was not doing well, and that surely must have been disheartening: two decades earlier, the minimum requirement for making a living in the world of music was a much higher modicum of competence on an instrument, and in fact competence on an instrument was more common even among singers. (And as I’ve been learning lately, a lot of musicians were in fact competent on multiple instruments: you can hear Dizzy playing piano behind Miles Davis on one or two recordings out there, and you’d never guess it was a trumpeter doing it.)

      In merely objective terms–say, in terms of the harmonic complexity of the music held at the apex of popular regard–the standards had fallen drastically by the 1960s.

      (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?)

      Owch. And here, I’d believed it was because people preferred going to shows where they could see gyrating, half-dressed people accompanied by easy, rhythmic background noise, over going to shows where they would have to exert attention and brainpower on the most abstract and difficult-to-appreciate of forms of art. (Because music is more abstract and ephemeral; you can’t hold it in the air in front of you till you’ve puzzled it out, it’s long gone by then.)

      Ooops, I think I showed my fangs for a second!

      I am also not completely convinced that the announcer is taking necessarily about all the things you’re talking about. Sure, maybe some. But notice: you emphasize a lot of bands/performers that you know from recordings, primarily. He comes from a world where recordings are important, but also an adjunct to live performance, and a world where there was work for musicians, where there was also a demand for a lot more “virtuoso” musicians though that was in drastic decline by that point. That world was dying all around him, and it’s a short step from seeing that shift — a need for a lot of people who really have mastered their instruments, to a lack of need for more than a few groups of people with (frankly) a rudimentary mastery of their instruments, whose “product” could be circulated in recordings, and whose recordings became the primary experience of music for most people.

      (Which is another thing I didn’t discuss in this series, I don’t think, but which Iverson talks about somewhere when he discusses opera: that the life-changing musical experiences one has in life are almost always in live performances. In a world where recordings have supplanted that, and killed, in an important way, what was previously a vibrant live music culture, I can see it as easy to connect the two. Not just easy, but also fair: recordings of one-hit wonder bands were proliferating at the time, and the record industry was working double-time to achieve the state of affairs that I decried throughout this whole series of posts. And that seems to be part of the disgust behind what the announcer is expressing, to me.)

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

      Sure, man, Jobim!

      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.

      And hey, I’m sympathetic to this idea, you know, that he should respect the Volk and all that, except I don’t think he’s saying playing the guitar outside of a classical style is abuse. I think he’s saying, when you recgonfigure the basketball court so that everyone is in electromechanical battle suits, and the ball periodically detonates emitting a blast equivalent to a hand grenade, and there are gasoline sprinklers over the court that spray down flames at random intervals, well, that’s just not fucking sports anymore. Somehow, something about the wonder of a human doing amazing things with his or her body and mind gets lost when everything is amplified, is electrified, is simplified to the barest minimums.

      Or, to back up a few steps: WWF would have been as good an example. WWF isn’t sports, is it? I feel like that’s the distinction he’s drawing here, and that it’s not so far off from mine. I certainly see the 1980s sax solo in pop music as an abuse of the instrument. Would I have played such stuff, if it meant me making a living off sax playing (say, if it came into vogue again and I found a band I wanted to play with)? Maybe. But would I be participating in the abuse of my instrument? Yes. Playing something badly when you know it will be held up as a wonder is abusive, in my book. (So, yes, I see Dan Brown as abusive of literature, too. It doesn’t mean there are no tricks to be borrowed from him, but in all, his books are an abuse of literature, and an abuse of literacy.)

      I guess what I’m saying is that there may be a position between the two you mention as linked to your psychic scabs — resentment of this guy as a class oppressor, versus being the keyholder to the place where the grass really is greener. I get both of those positions, but it seems more fruitful to think about this guy as a guy, giving voice to his particular point of view, maybe revealing his own resentments and his own dismay at the direction the world has been going, and his own sense of powerlessness to do anything about it but to celebrate good stuff.

      It makes me think of the feeling of shock I felt, after watching some of those “great” films with Mrs. Jiwaku, and then watching some crappy one that I would likely not have seen as crappy before the experience: it was a sense of horror at how low my standards had fallen, but also a sense of horror that I hadn’t realized how low my standards — how low our collective standards — had actually been. I feel pain from it, and a horror more than anything, that I don’t see what there is to be done, beyond making good stuff; making movies where every damned shot is a revelation. Writing books that are as thoughtful and powerful and breathtaking as I can. Making music that doesn’t add to the hydra-like beast that already assails us, but instead reaches for something else.

      So I work on all of those. One script at a time. One tune at a time. One story at a time. What else can one do?

      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.

      All of this, I can very much relate to. It’s also no small part of the distress I feel.

      Thanks for writing this comment. More windows have opened for me, too look out of. To look onto the world from…

  17. 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. 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.

      1. I haven’t read any Chabon, apart from the first third of The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, which I brought on a summer trip a few years ago, enjoyed, put down when I got home, and never got back to. I intend to pick it up again, when I have that book in hand. (It was actually included in the box of books that you, Adam, and Julia sent over a decade ago!)

        I’ll have to check out Telegraph Avenue sometime.

        (Note: all the books in the sidebar under “currently reading”? I am actually reading all of those. Mainly the Moore/Campbell, the Pound, the Egan, and the Forsyth, though the latter is disappointingly schematic and dry. I’m amazed it was a bestseller, but then, this was the 1970s. I find it fascinating that so many would-be terrorist assassins were found carrying that book around, too.)

        (Note the second: I brought about sixty books with me here. I’m disappointed at how slowly I’m getting through them. It casts new light on the stockpiles of books I left behind in Korea, though, happily, this will, I suppose, make getting rid of what remains a much easier proposition. I’m torn between thinking it’d be cheaper to just keep them all, and ship them via shipping container to wherever Mrs. Jiwaku and I decide to settle, versus thinking it’s just time to divest myself of most of them (aside from my own publications and whatever isn’t available in electronic format), and commit to replacing whatever I actually want to read in ebook format if and when I am ready to read it.)

    2. Hi Marvin,

      I mean to post this yesterday as well, but I forgot.

      No worries, and a little Mark Twain is always welcome around here, by the way! (I really should read more of the man’s writing. I’m sure I’d like it. I haven’t gotten around to much, but he seems like the kind of guy I’d have loved to share some homebrew with.) Also, this definitely is not too mcuh of a tangent, but cuts right to the heart of things as far as I’m concerned.

      Also, tangentially pertinent on a musical level: by the time I was alive, I don’t think the term “oleomargarine” was still used, only Oleo. Where did I learn the term? From a Sonny Rollins tune, of course, indeed, one of the first jazz tunes I ever consciously listened to (if not the first). Here’s the exact version I mean:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7ah7unyXbA

      (The same anthology was there I learned the word “doxy.” Ha!)

      But more to the point:

      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?).

      I’m dubious that it would have, to be honest. Hell, even with a big administrative system in place, they couldn’t prevent more than one food manufacturer in Korea from putting rotten vegetables washed in raw sewage into a popular foodstuff for years on end (dumplings). (This is only to mention one example from my own experience: I almost surely ate some of those dumplings, unknowingly ingesting animal feces along the way.)

      And that’s with, you know, a paper trail, and inspectors, and so on. I’m sure some people knew, and were willing to shut up because the bribes were big enough, and the corporate folks were willing to shut up because the profit was good enough, but also because the boss said shut up. (The Korean word for whistleblower seems to be 내부고발자 — “internal accusation/reporting person” — and according to Mrs. Jiwau, it seems to have a neutral, but very much conspiratorial, connotation. The emphasis is on the “reporting” of the group of which one is a part, as far as I can tell–on the transgressive action, rather than on the public-service aspect of the act, like with “whistle-blower.” But, you know… she says it’s not really negative in connotation.)That said, I find fewer than 500,000 hits on Google for the phrase, for reasons I think are likely tied to the effectiveness of a militarized workforce where loyalty to one’s employer is construed, often, as something more like fealty than any employee-employer relationship I’ve ever seen back home.

      What I’m groping towards is that all of this links to the notion of high trust versus low trust societies: the question of how strong the social contract bond is between people outside of their families. Now, a friend of mine loved to cite how often lost phones got returned to expats, to the shock of the expats, back in Korea… whereas, if it was in a foreigner district that the phone got lost, it’d was lost for good. I’m not sure how he knows it was expats (and not the many, many Koreans in those neighborhoods) stealing the phones, especially given that the crime rates for every kind of crime except murder are higher, per capita, among Koreans than among expats there. But that said, I know what he means: there are plenty of good and decent individuals in Korean society, as in any.

      Some would argue that Korean society as a whole doesn’t exactly recognize rule of law the way we do, and that’s true. (Look at the traffic/pedestrian fatality rates–often competing with Turkey for worst in the OECD.) But what I’m really suggesting is that there are two cultures, not just in Korea, but everywhere.

      One is the culture of people like you and me, who know that selling something as X when it is really Y is wrong, and wouldn’t knowingly do it, and who are dismayed by (if also resigned to) being deceived in this way.

      And then there is that other culture, the corporate culture of those who would (and do) knowingly do it, and who justify it to themselves. These are like the businessmen Twain observed, who brag about their ability to fool consumers and sell them things that aren’t what the consumer thinks he or she is buying.

      Now, one could simply go back to that old notion that “all complex ecosystems have parasites”–and that capitalism itself is a complex ecosystem–except that seems to me to skip the fundamentally important question: what is it that allows people from the first group (who know they, and everyone they know, is being fed dumplings laced with animal shit) can be somehow convinced or coerced to behave as if they are members of the latter group–the group content to have a significant part of the populace of their own society fed dumplings laced with animal shit, sold as (and at the same price as) dumplings containing no shit, for a small but not-insignificant amount of profit that those individuals themselves do not enjoy?

      The answer to which obviously connects to some of the more heinous moments in human history, and we could just say that the relative goodness and intelligence of individuals diminishes exponentially, in proportion to the size of the institution they affiliate with, to whatever degree they choose to affiliate with it.

      (Which is also to argue that it’s in the interests of society generally to cultivate a sense among workers of not being beholden to their bosses to this degree, even if (and it’s a big if) it hurts productivity slightly.)

      But I think the answer also links to big questions we’re faced with right now. I sometimes think of corporations as proto-AIs that are running amok. We pretend that the CEO runs the system, but the CEO doesn’t. Policies can change, but the AI has been designed, from the ground up, to strip-mine. The AI doesn’t need breathable air, we do. The AI doesn’t need clean water, we do. The AI, lacking self-consciousness and a fear of its own extinction, does not care whether it crashes the climate. We ought to. But the longer we tether ourselves to these AIs, and pretend that their programming isn’t frighteningly out of step with what we want and need corporations to do, the closer we come to our own worst-case scenario: and then, eventually, we’re going to sit up and collectively say, “Aw, shit, this wasn’t supposed to happen.”

      The bright spot in all this is that the AIs could be reprogrammed, on the fly; it won’t be perfect, but we could code in something like Asimov’s laws of robotics; however, for that to work, individuals, all the way up to the level of CEO, would need to be responsible for the functioning of the AIs. Ultimately, shareholders would have to be responsible, too. But that violates a fundamental tenet of our economic system, and I’m sure any economist could explain why it’s a bad, bad idea.

      Just as I’m sure anyone in the court of any king over the aeons could explain why any other political system was a bad, bad idea.

      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.)?

      That’s a great question, and I think the real issue is the degree to which people have an instilled sense of willingness to sell quality product, versus whatever will make money. But I need to think about it, I think.

      I will say this: the commodification of everything is also the de-artisanalization of everything. This is the endpoint in a very long, long project. And while I cannot re-envision history in a way where one happens without the other, I can say it’s interesting that, having arrived here, many of those who can afford it (or who for whatever reason value a certain class of product) prefer to paying more for products that fall closer to the artisanal side of production. For example:

      I’m also feeling sadly insufficient in my understanding of economics, though–because economic theory often looks like theology to me, and because of the scary example of what self-directed study of economics did to Ezra Pound–I am leery about launching into a study of my own. Maybe I’ll be able to find a free course online: I’ve come across a lot of free academic courses over the last few months.

      Lots to think about here, anyway, and I’ll be turning it over in my mind a lot. I’ll Thank you, Marvin!

      PS: Oh, one more thing I wanted to say: while it true that everything suffers from commodification, it seems to me like the arts suffers more directly–like, right up-front–whereas the suffering in a lot of industries tends to be externalized to people on the other side of the planet, where we don’t have to see it.

      This wonderfully snarky post from Craigslist illustrates what I mean:

      We are musicians looking for coffee on Thursday evenings. This is a great opportunity to get some exposure and possibly get some tips. Unfortunately at this time we cannot afford to offer any payment but we do have an excellent space with great water. We are looking for coffee that is appropriate for a musical setting . If you have other ideas we are open to them.

      We have electricity and water available at no charge to you.

      In the past we have had coffee in our studio and have been approached by numerous coffee makers who are willing to make coffee with this same arrangement.

      If you are interested please send a link with a sample of your coffee. We will likely have those we are interested in come by and make some coffee in order to deem it appropriate for our studio.

      Again, no money, but you can put out a hat, and it’s great exposure.

      So, bring your cups, saucers and Coffee Machines down and join in the fun!

      If this goes over well, you could be featured as a guest brewer at one of our Coffee Open House nights.

      It looks patently ridiculous, but only because it inverts the standard sort of posting one sees, where there’s a coffeeshop with great acoustics (or a good sound system) and while they can’t pay, any band is welcome to come work for free play in their space on Thursday nights. Nobody would ask a barista to work unpaid in a for-profit establishment, but musicians get “invited” to these kinds of “opportunities” all the time.

      And while I am dubious about DRM and other controls on creative work, I can say that the reality out there is: you can pirate any book or album you want, unless it’s really, really obscure. (And I mean really obscure.) The fact we’re entertaining the idea that writers will simply have to make money in other ways is of course a consequence of technology, but it’s also a consequence of the commodification of arts and culture, and the immense devaluation of both. I mean becoming a barista actually offers less risk and more likely income for most people who actually try to make a go of it, than writing novels, or making music.

      Which is to say, coffee, as a physical property, resists the erosive force of absolute commodification, as well as the social response to absolute commodification, which is radical devaluation through piracy. For now, anyway, until someone designs a machine that can produce coffee from some abstracted schematic of the chemical state of the the ultimate sample of perfected coffee beans. Then, people will be downloading that, too.

      Which I suppose we could call the signal characteristic of alienation from the means of consumption, right? Opting out of the modes of consumption offered by capitalism, without opting out of consumption. Not quite what’s discussed here, but it seems like it’s on a track relatively like this whole series of posts.

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