Saturday, February 16, 2008

A terrific plumber

It's late, but I just found out about this Carl Wilson book -- (ostensibly) about Celine Dion -- which came out in December. I haven't read it yet, but after discovering this Crawdaddy interview (c/o John Mark), I really really really want to.

A few posts back, I hinted at my own internal dialogue on the question of taste (check down in the comments of this post). I swear I haven't been out searching for a book that expertly sinks its teeth into this complex issue -- no time -- but apparently I just found it.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

Celine presents some special qualities: everyone agrees that what she does is at a high level of musical accomplishment, for instance, no matter how much they dislike her, so that combination was striking to me; it raises a particular puzzle. (How can music be at once good and no good? What does the word "good" really mean?)

(These are apposite questions, but I feel I should interject that there are probably few music fans who would argue that "good" means "played with technical skill." (Maybe the real question is "what is technical skill"?) It's nice when interesting musical ideas can be combined with sophisticated physical execution -- but sometimes interesting ideas don't even need that. And sometimes something as hard-to-define as attitude trumps both the quality of the ideas and the execution.)

Most of all, though, as I say in the book, I think I had more of a personal grudge against Celine, and that edge made the project more compelling to me: why did she piss me off so much?

Yes. That is a really brave question for a critic to ask.

Maybe related: in grad school I came to the conclusion that it is impossible for a writer to achieve true objectivity when discussing art -- and the simulacra of objectivity that many writers actually attained was easily confused with boredom. When it comes to music criticism, I have always preferred writers who emphasize their subjectivity (see Lester Bangs, f'r'instance) -- including their failings and idiosyncracies. That way, I feel like I at least become aware of a specific context in which a given work succeeds or fails. And learning about the contexts for art is almost as important as learning about art itself. I guess.

Crawdaddy!: In your exercise to try to change your own taste, did you come any closer to being able to define what taste is, or how we develop our sense of taste? You quote the poet Paul Valéry, who wrote: "Tastes are composed of a thousand distastes." At the end of this experiment, do you agree with that?

Wilson: I think that tastes are composed of a thousand misunderstandings. And about half of those are wonderful misunderstandings, in which someone's imperfect expression of their sense of what it's like to be alive manages to squish itself into the tunnels of our own sense of what it's like to be alive, and we mistake their experience for ours, because music and pictures and words and so on have the power to simulate the experience of other minds, even though I suspect we're never really hearing what the maker thinks we're hearing. It's like taking things the wrong way the right way.

An interesting analysis, to say the least. And it raises the question of whether "communication" -- at least as it's understood within a language-based framework -- ever really happens in music. To put it another way: is "musical meaning" possible? (And if so, what is it? And if not, how do we determine musical "value"?)

And the other half of those are lousy misunderstandings, in which we take things the wrong way the wrong way, and imagine that another set of music and pictures and words represents an assault against us, that it's the manifestation of everything that makes our lives difficult. It has to do with how much code we share with the makers, to some degree, but also what pleasure we respect and what pleasure we don't. All artists, good or bad, are trying to build little machines that express meaning and give pleasure. What I've discovered, I think, is that this is very seldom done in bad faith -- or that, at least, whether it's in good faith or bad faith is generally irrelevant to our liking for it. I think Celine makes her music in as much good faith as, say, Ghostface Killah does. That I like what Ghostface does and not so much what Celine does has to do with a lot of social meaning and positioning that is implied by the trappings around each of them, and maybe with how successfully and creatively they do it, but it doesn't imply that there are bad intentions behind one and not the other. Maybe Ghostface is in his room laughing at his fans' gullibility. I'll never know. So taste is not moral in the way that much of the discourse around it implies. Art is always manipulative and taste is always a choice of collusions.

I do think that when you like something for being "not like" the mainstream, for being "not like" what people you don't like prefer, you're playing a status game and thinking very shallowly about art.

I love that metaphor of artists building "little machines that express meaning and give pleasure" -- though with all the "misunderstanding" referenced above, one wonders, again, how much meaning is really conveyed. (My own trajectory as an artist -- over the last ten years or so -- has been very much about becoming as interested in musical pleasure as I used to be solely in musical meaning.)

Amen as well to the bit about intentions. I guess we're into the issue of morality here; but if intentions don't necessarily have anything to do with the quality of the music, is "bad music" immoral? (Sometimes it sure feels like it is...)

Obviously I'm asking a lot of pompous, over-broad questions tonight. Sorry.

Anyway, if not intentions, then what about context (again)?

However, we're all aware that we need to be decent to people we don't necessarily love; that we don't need to love everyone in order to respect them. So I think what the book calls for is a bit of a renewal of the golden rule on an aesthetic level: you can say Rascal Flatts aren't your cup of tea, but you can still think, well, they're beloved of a lot of people who'd probably be extremely nice to me if I came into their house for dinner. And if we were eating some fried chicken and peas and chatting and they put on a Rascal Flatts record, maybe I'd have fun listening to it while I was talking to them. So there's a tone of contempt that we adopt about what we consider inferior music that I think is contextual: "This music doesn't make sense within my life." And maybe that does mean it's second-rate, or maybe it means that it'd be first-rate within another kind of life. The background sense that what we're debating is ways of living might make us slow down a bit in our snap judgments. It's probably not a way any of us can think all of the time, but like any sort of moral thinking, it can be a check upon our worst instincts.

So musical taste is a kind of social tool that can be used (to connect) or abused (to discriminate and divide)?

Note how the "digital revolution" has a tendency to make the social context of music much more visible than it has ever been. Aside from the obvious example of the blogosphere (where people are constantly confessing and sharing their tastes), software like iTunes (f'r'instance) keeps a running tab on the number of times a listener has played a given song -- and that history can then be recorded into a or account (say), where it goes on display for anyone who wants to view it. Genres may split and subdivide, but, more and more, patterns of taste are represented, albeit imperfectly.

I ended up feeling that this is where criticism needs to go, really; that arid and witty dissections of culture aren't what I want to read —- whether it's reportage or reflection, I want to hear about what life is like for other people, and art is a vehicle for that exchange. It's more than just that, of course: I like to read technical and historical analyses, too. But critics who are merely trying to fix a numerical value to artworks, like a Consumer's Report on car tires, only help to kill the whole enterprise. (Although that ratings game can be a good subterfuge, the way that someone like Robert Christgau uses it as bait on his intellectual hook.)

I remember too many things about high school, but one of the less-pleasant memories is of watching a fellow student getting cut down (verbally, of course) by a peer, over the fact that the former was wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. At hand was a question of whether the LZ-garbed student was an "authentic fan" of the band -- or whether he was wearing the shirt simply because he wanted to be perceived as such (so as to garner whatever dubious status that might earn him). You know, the whole "poser" debate.

Is the state of music criticism an example of the high school status dynamic writ large? A culture of "one-upsmanship"?

Related questions, none of which are new: why does music (more obviously, I think, than, say, dancing, or visual art, or literature) help to mark social status? Why is it so essential to identity?

Crawdaddy!: Was the book an outgrowth of wanting to become more democratic in your taste, or did writing the book cause you to become more democratic in your taste?

Wilson: Both. Mainly it was a concentrated period of trying to figure out what "democratic" means. I think it's a glorious paradox. It doesn't mean populism and majority rule. It means something closer to being vulnerable enough, brave enough, to listen to other people without interrupting. And then to give your own point of view just as patiently. It means looking for the lucky misunderstandings and not losing your head over the injurious ones.

Ah -- patience! What a beautiful concept.


Stefan Kac said...

I'm not feeling up to trying to answer any of your "big" questions, but I made a kind of funny realization listening to the two tracks you put on Garageband (which I like, by the way) that ties in nicely to what you wrote here. "Cozy 'n Tooty" goes under the heading "Avant Garde Jazz;" did you put that there, or was that generated by other users? Given your description of this site, it seems safe to assume that this piece qualifies as avant garde relative to most of the other content, but I would venture that it hardly registers as such overall. I've seen the same phenomenon at, where I've spent a fair amount of time browsing. Click on the heading "Jazz: Avant Garde" and you'll get hardly anything that sounds like Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler, but quite a bit that sounds like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and even quite a bit that sounds like Kenny G. It seems that in some perverse way, lots of people covet being labelled as "out there" whether or not they really qualify in the grand scheme of things. I don't know if it works or not (i.e. if it succeeds in attracting attention), but it seems to me that this is a prime example of the poser phenomenon, with each individual defining boundaries for themselves, then expecting others to respect them for going beyond their boundaries, even when they've by no fault of their own set them quite narrowly (in the grand scheme of things, that is). That this is so widespread proves its worthlessness: we all seem to like something or other that we nonetheless also find to be "weird" or "avant garde" in some way, so individual cases of this are not really all that notable. In the end, I don't think we can label someone a bad person for liking something we don't or vice versa, but we can label them ignorant for disliking something they've never heard for some other reason, and certainly also for claiming to be "way out there" when they're really just in the other room.

Andrew Durkin said...

Hey Stefan:

Thanks much for sharing your thoughts...

I do think the poser phenomenon is an easy trap for an artist to fall into -- partly because of the potential ignorance you allude to but also because there is a ready-made narrative for the "artist unappreciated in his or her own time." You see this all the time on American Idol, actually (not that I watch American Idol, but I am interested in it as a sociological phenomenon): if the response to your work is negative, one way of coping is to tell yourself that you're "ahead of your time" -- just like so many famous artists who came before. I think many people find that tempting, perhaps particularly when it's not true.

As far as the uses / misuses of "avant garde": it's interesting that the examples of avant garde that you mention -- Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler -- made their mark several decades ago. (And Cecil played the -- somewhat conservative -- Portland Jazz Festival this past weekend.) I know what you mean about CDBaby, I think (and the whole question of the place of jazz within these indie music sites is worth exploring further), but on the face of it it seems strange to be looking backward for our "front guard."

That's not to say that the music of Ayler or Cecil is or isn't truly "avant garde" at this moment -- certainly it still surprises or challenges certain listeners -- but just that, in my view, "avant garde" itself is a charged, overdetermined, complex term that is always more difficult to actually pin down than it may seem (especially in such a broad context as "the grand scheme of things"). Maybe that's why I've always been interested in artists of a certain temperament or outlook -- say, someone like a Don Byron or a Uri Caine -- who want to make "progressive" music but nevertheless seem to be resisting a given prevailing notion of the avant-garde -- because after that idea of AG become entrenched for a while it can be as oppressive as the mainstream.

What do we call them, I wonder?

Stefan Kac said...

That's a good question and a good point. I guess that offering "avant garde" as one choice among many labels on a site like cdbaby is in and of itself not really in the spirit of the term (as if, as you hint at, we could all be ahead of our time just by clicking that box). I guess I betrayed my lack of knowledge of more recent practitioners by citing the artists that I did. I just meant to make the point that many people who label themselves as such are not really doing anything new (now that I think about it, I guess that could include a lot of improvised music as well; then again, we can't assume that just because an idea has been around for a while that there's nothing new to be done with it).

Andrew Durkin said...

Well said.

Labels are labels and music is music, and sometimes I suspect that the two are never going to meet up in a way that some critics, historians, or fans would like them to.

Thanks again for sharing...