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5/17/2006

On Isms and Onanism

Dear THE INTERNET: Make the ideas stop. Sorry for the "numerals," I just have a bunch of stuff I want to puke up, & I'm going to serve it in slightly different flutes.

I.

Every time I go to post about what the whole Merritt/Rockism/other provacatively-titled Slate articles/Hopper/S F/J hootenanny, some other musk enters the room; I choke in wonder, etc.

By way: I went to an n+1-sponsored discussion on the state of literature last night. Literature's not exactly my world, but the concerns were general enough to resonate with issues, ahem, outside of literature; interestingly, actually, one guy mentioned music criticism as some last bastion of true appreciation through a kind of considered, empassioned fandom.

Of course, it was a completely misguided characterization, as the SlateDebates have made absolutely obvious. Music critism, or like, Music Criticism on the level of Ideas or Philosophizing or Theorizing or Characterizing (whatever you want, as long as it's in caps) seems basically irrelevant to the general music-listening populace, something Frank Kogan laments in Real Punks Don't Wear Black. I'm always disappointed (and sometimes surprised) by what readers on Stylus--a free outlet for music writing--gravitate towards. I can tell you pretty certainly that it's not "idea" pieces; readers rarely seem to want to think about music as a set of abstractions or social conditions (they'd rather just live those conditions without consideration). And in a sense, what I take to be the really wonderful, heroic, brave gesture on the part of people like Chuck Eddy or Frank Kogan to divorce the intellectual from the academic seems to bother people even more; lit-crits have the decency to know their tiny fucking place in the world, whereas these guys are, what, intellectual missionaries? Martyrs? Lost causes?

I recently asked a friend for advice about writing for a certain music magazine, to which he responded, in part, that the watchwords are "lucid" and "accessible," which I basically (and probably appropriately) see as code for keep your ideas to yourself. Because really, these debates aren't doing anyone any good. It was inspiring to read someone like Jeff Chang basically throw up his hands on the whole thing; in a sense, it's all one can do--let the useless parts die without dignity.

II.

Of course though, there's gotta be something of consequence in here.

And of course, it's how we're dealing with who we and what we're looking for when we listen to music--the most interesting questions of all. Actually, the best thing a girl said last night at this lit panel was "you guys are talking an awful lot about writing, but you're not really talking at all about reading." It's why the toughest, most unresolved questions surrounding this whole thing are absolutely NOT dummy dum dum dums like "what is rockism?" and "is it good or bad?" but "why are we concerned with it?" What kind of fears and insecurities lead us to actually--hold on--formulate some grand scheme in which making certain value judgements about art and music is Bad or Wrong? Aren't those like, totally dated concepts?

III.

Okay, some specific comments I was interested in dealing with:

Pitchfork-er and ILM-er Nitsuh Abebe had snappy things to say about Merritt:

"Why are we concerned that a middle-class white person might have tastes that align with middle-class white idioms? Why is this any different than pointing out that Jay-Z grew up in a Brooklyn project and has tastes that come from a particular hip-hop idiom and culture? I mean, to put it bluntly, I feel like white people often try to make themselves neutral, to kind of run down their own particular experience and culture as non-experience and non-culture -- often (maybe) out of fear that admitting they have a culture means further dominating everyone else's, further oppressing everyone else's. They want to step out of the game and act as neutral parties observing everyone else's culture. But that's even worse, because it puts them in an even more dominant position, and a patronizing and untruthful one, too."


Cultural studies, welcome. It's the same thing academics talk about with regard to race theory and in gender studies with regard to "straight" or "normal": the position of dominance can only really stay dominant by going invisible. The problem I'm having is that it presumes some sort of logic for all these things--that there's actually some line between your statistical identity and these artistic "idioms." While there's something in that idea, I guess the issue I'm having is that creating a logic like that seems to only re-erect boundaries between people and what they would reasonably be listening to.

In an equally frustrating statement, Carl Wilson said, that an exclusive alignment with those "idioms" that Nitsuh talks about "may well indicate a sense of distance from and perhaps a lack of curiosity about black experience."

So now we have a good handle on what the black experience is? And the white one, too? I mean, does my interest in Fela Kuti mean I'm interested in the black experience? It's a hell of a lot different than the Cam'ron one. Is it an interest in the African one? The experience of rhythmic music? My passion for the history of Nigeria? My desire to appropriate and colonialize the radical funk of natives? Fuck if I know, but I think it's really dangerous to say that Merritt doesn't care about the black experience because he doesn't like hip-hop--it's just reductive. Do I not care about the white experience because I didn't get through the entirety of the new Taking Back Sunday or Thursday or Saves the Day albums?

Furthermore, when I am listening to Fela, where am I belonging? Am I a joint-rolling anthropology professor canoodling students? A laid-back guy who just digs on grooves? Racist? Of course not; I'm none of these. To say that I'm any one of them is only to belittle my appreciation to the music. But then, I can't say something like, "Well, I like Fela because his music is raw; I like the collective frenzy of it, I like the trance-like purity of it, I like the primal passions" because that sounds racist to people, even if it's the same goddamn reasons I love Animal Collective or taking a long bicycle ride or sex. We're stuck in a rut of self-policing; it feels like the reasons that we're freely allowed to like music are rapidly dwindling.

IV.

Also, there's a split between UNDERSTANDING and APPRECIATING. As critics, I do think we should have an understanding of what is out there. When I self-consciously exploded the range of the music I listened to, it wasn't in an effort to broaden my tastes so much as figure out what they truly were and how I functioned as a listener to a lot of different musics. Of course, I do like a lot more different kinds of music than I used to, and that's wonderful. The creepy thing is that the Liberal Critic will tell that it's okay to not like everything, but if you don't like something, you run the risk of getting called out for being narrow-minded. Someone will think that no, you just don't understand it, because if you really did, you'd obviously take a liking to it. Sasha asks: "Do we expect critics to have an unusually catholic range of hearing?". I honestly think that the answer, for most people, is Yes.

V.

There's something sad and creepy about it that Simon touches on in a recent post:

"This sort of primitive and quaint (and naff) rockism is very much an adolescent attitude, really (whereas the pop-ist sensibilty has always struck me as a post-adolescent reaction against the opinions/tastes formed during sixth form/high school and university years. Unfortunately the reaction often takes the form of a dis-intensification--adolescence is nothing if not a time of urgency and intense emotional investments, whereas in the phase of post-adolescent young adulthood (which lasts until late thirties or beyond these days) that dimension to musical cathexis usually disappears, especially as the onset of relative affluence encourages a music-as-smorgasbord eclecticism."


One of the reasons I love the Animal Collective is that they sorta dare you to; their music is wilfully adolescent. It's excited. It's tumultuous. All of these characteristics are unfashionable in listeners, I think. Which is why, if you have the same response to, say, the Marit Larsen record, you can be a poptomist, but liking the Animal Collective is somehow a statement because they're Indie and stand for something (or something). I don't feel green when I listen to them, I feel happy. But I think there's a sense in which being excited is really frowned upon; like the critical detachment necessary to try to understand something is dependent on a kind of anhedonia--"If I get too excited, I won't be able to say anything about it, because my excitement is impressionistic and not cogent, and that's not criticism, it's fandom."

I find this very sad.

I don't know where I'm going with all this, but I do know that recently, my Catholic hearing has slid over for my adolescent appreciation, and it makes me fucking delighted. My friend Andy asked what I had been listening to--"The Soft Boys and the Minutemen," I answered, to which he said "Wow, it's like 19-year-old Mike Powell all over again." And I didn't realize the gravity of that until now; the Soft Boys do make me excited, and while I might want to spread the love to interested parties, I don't feel like my love is of any particular critical consequence. But it's important to who I am as a listener and my understanding of what I look for in music; in a way, it's reactionary. I want to remember what it feels like to really give a shit. It's why I listened for a long time without ever writing a word--words, what are they doing here? I think I'm going to work on a questionnaire about this.

So,

Down with -isms for right now. Let's ask what matters. After the talk last night, my friend Brandon, who works for Basic Books, gave me a copy of Terry Eagleton's After Theory. Page 21, ahem:
"We need to imagine new forms of belonging, which in our kind of world are bound to be multiple rather than monolithic. Some of these forms will have something of the intimacy of tribal or community relations, while others will be more abstract, mediated and indirect. There is no single ideal size of society to belong to, no Cinderella's slipper of a space. The ideal size of community used to be known as the nation-state, but even some nationalists no longer see this as the only desirable terrain."


Imagine away. From the comfort of an armchair. Somewhere else, people are actually trying. Let's not forget our responsibility to what we care about, okay?

3 Comments:

Blogger Alfred said...

I'm almost done with the Kogan book -- at last. It seems like you and him have both, with different styles and varying degrees of success, attempted Notes Towards a Visceral Listening Experience, one in which creating, and then DEFINING, a context -- one in which quasi-Superwords like "romance" play an integral part -- is essential to opposing the "social terror and social stratification" (Kogan) into which most published rockcrit (ok, and literary) falls helplessly. The trouble is, I'm not sure you and Kogan know what "romance" is, and maybe that's the point: this quixotic attempt at defining what an armchair is without succumbing to either structuralism or relativism. Insofar as you create thoughtful rockcrit, it's worth the attempt, n'est-ce pas?

(Kogan doesn't entirely convince me, needless to say. Lots of his essays hint at the origin of Rosebud, but at the end of each chapter another door closes. I don't deny that that's the point, but it irks me nonetheless.)

(btw excuse the vagueness)

10:17 PM  
Blogger blackmail is my life said...

Dude, buy Class Notes by Adolph Reed, Jr. Lucid stuff that demystifies the Henry Louis Gates/Cornel West "black experience" monopoly and normative racial aura. If you're looking for something "heavier" I'd recommend Stirrings in the Jug (dude's a major Ralph Ellison fan.)

Full disclosure: Reed was also my thesis advisor/mentor while I was at the New School Grad Faculty.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

[D]oes my interest in Fela Kuti mean I'm interested in the black experience?

Yes! Specifically, your interest in Fela means you are interested in the "black experience" of Fela Kuti. And when you listen to Cam'Ron, you're showing your interest in the "black experience" of Cam'Ron. All art asks for some form of empathy; in fact that is its purpose: connection, shared experience, "belongingness."

Luckily race, while important, is far from the only thing we get out of great art like Zombie or Killa Season. What's reductive is treating racial codes as always primary. (Stephin Merritt seems to be guilty of this, as are some of his detractors.) The music is "black," but it's also political, personal, dance-inducing, funny, trancey, etc. etc. Listening to Fela doesn't somehow magically make you (or me) non-white, but it does provide an occasion for empathy and communal experience--not "beyond" race, but not limited to it, either.

3:44 PM  

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