Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Sound and the Fury

So I'm reading de Boer's exegesis (and going down the rabbit hole of associated links) of how critics and fanboys have perhaps drunk too much of their own haterade, and can only defend "their" music by disparaging other genres and those fans.

I'll admit right up front that I have no clue how the average music fan consumes their musical product these days, but I suspect it is nothing like it was -- wait for it -- back in the day. It was easier to become an obsessive back then, and therefore either a more astute appreciator of music, or inspired to learn an instrument and start writing your own material. There were fewer toys and things to distract from the listening experience, and fewer choices and distribution outlets for material.

In other words, accumulating a significant collection of music to have on hand for repeated listening involved waiting for payday, figuring out how much discretionary income was available for whatever was being promoted that was worth taking a shot on, and then driving to the nearest record store. Now you can pull up a download site and start pulling, it's up to you whether you want to be an honest broker and pay for it. You can literally accumulate a library of music faster than you can listen to it.

(And we won't even get into the social phenomenon of music; I assume that for those of us who enjoy listening on our headphones, it's completely different stuff than we would listen to with other people in a social situation. On weekends, my wife and I like to have a nice breakfast together, and I Bluetooth my laptop library through the sound bar, essentially a jukebox. I find the things we both like; I know she doesn't want to listen to Orange Goblin and Coroner and Mastodon, not that that's breakfast music anyway. But it's the moments by ourselves when we are most open to the different and new, while in social situations the inclination is to put something on you figure everyone is familiar with and will like.)

Having more options and distractions of every type pushes music to the side. It is no longer the transcendental experience it used to be, when the sounds and arrangements were fresh and new. Social media has furthered the impulse to quick, brainless pronunciamentos, corralling of hivemind, rather than honest attempts to be objective about an inherently subjective area.

Personally, I think music critics should know how to play an instrument or several, should be conversant with the history and context of the genre of music they review. Playing something, even poorly, forces you to listen to music differently. To learn to play someone else's song is to train your ears and brain to disassemble it, and your fingers and ears to reassemble it. Even though I've been playing guitar for a full thirty years now, I played bass for a few years prior, and drums for a few years before that. That trains you to pick each instrument out of the mix, and as you listen to a song multiple times, you start cycling through the various instruments with your ears.

I can't think of any critic or magazine or site that I turn to regularly for reviews; there's just no point to it anymore. Occasionally if I encounter a review of an off-the-beaten-path album that I've already listened to, I'll check it out to see what the reviewer thinks. But -- and this is important to note, apparently -- I am neither gratified by a review that agrees with my impression, nor offended by a review that dismisses something I like. The best you can hope for is something that is well-written, entertaining, and perhaps catches some insight you missed. It seems to be more about being part of an event or trend though, than in sharing useful and informed observations.

Critiques against "rockism," or against a young black musician who plays metal differentiating himself from cultural assumptions by asserting his distaste for the preponderance of simple arrangements, nonexistent melodies, and bullshit lyrics of most rap and hip-hop, smack of mere contrarianism. The urge to smack readers upside the head with the cold fish of "betcher surprised I took this stance" is already old, in a young and still evolving medium.

They seem to be worried, these critics, about catching the Next Big Thing before someone else does, or about finding a Hidden Gem that's been cleverly in plain sight all along. Or they have a sociopolitical axe to grind. Trust me, when I say that the Black Eyed Peas' music is a steaming, runny dump into the collective ears of America, I give less than a red-hot monkey-fuck about the cultural, racial, or political implications of the musical content. I am simply saying that they are lazy, careless, derivative hacks who, in a rational world, would not be let anywhere near devices that create sound, where hapless human beings would have to hear their sonic mess. That's all.

"Rockism" is nothing more nor less than an insistence (however unrealistic) of authenticity, at least how the rock fan understands that term. Ideally, the band or musician should write and play at least the majority of the material that is released under their name. This is an expectation the pop fan simply doesn't comprehend or care about, but it is core to the rock fan's ability to identify with and support the musician, if not the music itself.

Being a clear diehard rockist, I never thought I'd say this, but both sides have valid points. The rock fan dismisses the likes of disco and Mariah Carey because they are transparent marketing ploys; since Carey and many of the various disco divas tended to be more the face of the product than the true creative force behind it, it's easy for the rock fan to assert that virtually anyone can cut a doctored track written by committee, so there's no point in giving any of these individuals any adulation.

But what the pop fan gets that frequently escapes the rock fan is a much simpler tenet -- that a good song is a good song, regardless of who made it or how. There are no concerns about "authenticity" or "integrity," at least until the performer gains a fan base. The pop fan is also okay with the ephemeral nature of the music, a burnout of the song in six weeks or so of heavy rotation, after which the song is played out and only occasionally revisited, sometimes ironically, but eventually with some brief, thin nostalgia.

Rock and metal fans are much more attached to the musicians and the music. There is much more of a sense of permanence. People have put in work, perhaps thousands of hours and many years of practicing, rehearsing, touring, writing, developing a whole host of skills that a spoiled pop brat just hires people to do for them with a snap of the fingers. There is a definite working-class ethos behind that philosophy, but again, it can come at the expense of missing out on songs that, while not monumental achievements, are still valuable pop confections.

I remember when I graduated high school and went to college for a year, my first experience in a dorm setting, was a real eye-opener. At that point, I had gotten into a rather unfortunate preference for what might best be characterized as "hobbit rock":  the pretentious, bombastic, early-70s prog wankerings of groups such as Yes, ELP, and Jethro Tull. Being raised mostly on AM pop, R&B, and country music, the virtuosity and ambition of these musicians excited my imagination, and some of it still does to this day. Some of the other dorm rats were from Los Angeles, and turned me on to early hair-metal bands like Dokken, harder metal bands like Iron Maiden, and punk bands like Dead Kennedys and MDC.

But when you're 18 and in college, your mission is to Get Laid. And even then I knew that that was not going to happen by bringing the girlies over and playing them Tarkus or Thick as a Brick. They weren't even ready for Dokken and Maiden at that point. This was 1985-86, so you either learned to put up with Madonna and Tears for Fears and all that hairspray synth-pop, or you were going to spend your weekends with Rosie Palm and her five sisters.

It takes some seasoning and maturity to get over oneself and one's prejudices, the need to assert your likes by shitting on someone else's. This doesn't mean you can't talk some neck about a band you don't like; when I say that I think the Black Guy Pees' music is lazy, hacky shit, I am not kidding. That is not schtick. But by the same token, if someone came up in comments saying, "Hey, I loves me some Fergie!", I'm not going to get into a flame war over it. Chacun à son gout and all that.

Still, the one core value of the rock fan that I think is worth paying attention to and upholding is that of the self-directed creator, the musician writing and performing their own songs. That doesn't at all mean that sampling, electronic instruments, and even song doctors can't be used to create something new and cool. But if everyone sampled, who would create new things to sample? You can see the almost Dickian level of internal recursion here.

Perhaps instead of hewing to a metric of "good" and "bad" it might be more useful for critics and fans to look at whether something is interesting or not.

1 comment:

Brian M said...

"Interesting" works for me!