Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Too small to fail

A few weeks ago I came across a very smart comment appended by Alex Rodriguez to a post that appeared on NPR's excellent in-house jazz blog. The issue was NPR's "The Decade's 50 Most Important Recordings" list, and the relevance or irrelevance of jazz to same. Alex wrote:

I'll go ahead and say it: jazz doesn't belong on the "50 most important albums" list. Sorry, jazz fans, but we're too small and culturally irrelevant to be taking spots from the real musical trends in modern music. I suppose there's a case to be made if "important" doesn't measure overall cultural impact, but more along the lines of "artistic merit" or some equally-vague concept, but a few jazz fans typing around on the internet about their favorite records does not equal relevance.

It's a sentiment I tend to agree with, but it made me wonder: in 2009, does anything really belong on a hypothetical "most important albums" list? Or have we finally passed the moment in which one could sustain the fiction of the macrocosmically relevant (which of course is the assumption behind such lists)?

Most musicians I know are pretty ambivalent about the ritual of listmaking, and are simultaneously inclined to complain about and participate in it.

For instance, one would be hard-pressed to find a musician who was unhappy to have their work featured as one of the year-end critical picks in a given rag, or who would go so far as to punch the hierarchical gift horse in the mouth. And in terms of creating such lists, what true music fan is going to be shy about sharing his or her opinions? Especially when asked?

But does anyone really believe that these lists are not prone to at least some degree of silliness, and particularly the silliness of the self-serving? Almost invisibly, the (self-appointed) right to bestow a label like "important" confers upon its giver an aura of... importance. Talk about a conflict of interest!

Of course, the potential for silliness is directly proportional to the grandness of the claims being made. (The 50 most important albums of 2000-2009? Really? You can actually see, from the future, their historical and "game-changing" impact?) So the best such lists are always the ones that go out of their way to qualify themselves:

It’s customary at the end of any period of time like this for people to put together their lists of greatest/best/most significant/blah-blah-blah music of the decade. Most such lists end up being fairly cynical ploys to bait readers into agreeing/disagreeing, and the hagiographic consensus that gets built up around so much banal, tedious music always leaves me baffled.

So I shan’t attempt to speak for anyone else, or to put a stamp of importance or significance on the following list. Instead, I’ll just list the albums that meant most to me that were released during the last ten years. For a whole mess of reasons. Some trivial, some far deeper.

It's a cliche by now, but the last 10-15 years have provided copious evidence that the old (top-down) music business is dying, and being replaced by something less centralized, more dispersed, more DIY, and more directly controlled by musicians themselves. And this (slow, incomplete, but ineluctable) democratization of the music business, which puts more music into the world than ever before, consequently undercuts unselfconscious and uncritical notions of macrocosmic relevance.

Set aside the issue of aesthetic justice (the usual response to any "best of" list is to point to all the deserving artists who were overlooked). This is actually a practical question. It has to do with the fact that the unimaginably huge cultural bounty that is the Internet has become impossible to track accurately. (Does anyone even know how many recordings were released last year?) And because of the limits of the human capacity for cultural consumption, ultimately there will be a time (and maybe it's already here) when the "best" art produced in any period, by any criteria whatsoever, will surpass the listening audience's capacity to perceive it. Your desire to support the arts, your passion for good music, will be beside the point. There will be more good music than you can reasonably expect to be able to enjoy in a single lifetime, let alone in a single year or decade.

Powerful media entities like NPR will, understandably, but out of habit, continue to assert the notion of a broad-yet-manageable view of the entire field. But we can't have it both ways, can we? Unless we consciously and collectively choose to go backwards, to undo the zeitgeist of DIY, the technological shape of the new music business is pushing us hard towards a hopelessly complex and detailed ecology of musical microcosms. And assuming we cannot surgically expand the perceptual capabilities of the human mind, going forward we will each have to be satisfied with a tinier fragment of the overall musical pie.

And that's fine with me.

* * * * *


I suppose the deeper question is whether the impulse to pursue and propound macrocosmic relevance fulfills some psychological need. Is it just a habit? Or does it serve a more religious purpose by giving music fans a sense of plugging into something bigger than themselves?

[photo credit: ...Tim and 27147]


Scott said...

Interesting post! Indeed, consensus may be dead. I read that Alex Rodriguez quote with annoyance (maybe defensively). But really - importance is so subjective in an era of complete saturation. I'm actually surprised when common albums do percolate to the surface. Taking his thinking to the extreme, the "album" doesn't belong on a "50 most Important Albums" list either, since the album is culturally irrelevant! Besides, The Long Tail makes anything selling around a thousand copies "important," doesn't it?

Perhaps of further interest is Simon Reynolds on "The Fragmented Decade" in the Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2009/dec/07/musically-fragmented-decade

Kris Tiner said...

the (self-appointed) right to bestow a label like "important" confers upon its giver an aura of... importance.

Right! Such lists are only really worthwhile as extensions of an individual critical opinion. And informed opinions can be worth a lot - I'm always glad when somebody out there is willing to help guide people through the boundless mixed-up morass of contemporary culture, especially if they're willing to point beyond the 4 or 5 artists being pushed by the mainstream.

But it's ridiculous for an individual to claim to know, or really to assert the right to know what is overall the most important art for any given time. Your last comment there about "a more religious purpose" is right on... and the critics or media organizations who play into that need by asserting their own authority to decrypt, decode, and decide are only perpetuating the myth.

Excellent post. Definitely one of your top 5 posts of the year. (smirk)

Chris Kelsey said...

A good post (and good comments) for too many reasons to, well, um ... list. Consensus is impossible, and to pretend otherwise is either stupid or dishonest.

Jason Crane said...

Hi Andrew,

I love this post.

I wrote a list this year (http://thejazzsession.com/2009/12/08/my-top-10-jazz-cds-of-2009/) for the first time, because I was asked to by the Village Voice. I put an apologia at the beginning of the list on my blog, to let everyone know that I get how ridiculous it is to make a "best of" list.

Of course, when the list is published in the Village Voice, it won't contain my disclaimer, so folks who are introduced to my thinking for the first time when they see my list will simply see a distillation of the entire year into 10 CDs. Which is, of course, insane.

So I'm torn.

That said, I agree with the point that these lists help us navigate the increasingly broad musical landscape. I find that very helpful.

Matt Lavelle said...

Tell it!
as Long as people like you(and me),.keep it real out here in cyberspace,.It's a start and not total submission to that mindset,.which makes musicians ask,.."wait,..so MY record was not important enough to be relevant in your opinion..!? I'll never forget this book I saw,.."the 50 greatest Piano players of all time",.they were RANKED..We have to be careful how we allow ourselves to be perceived..Anyway,.I'm mos def making myself self-important by making my opinion here relevant in my eyes,.now I'm tempted to make a List.
Great Post..

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks for your comments, all!

Gonna go read that Reynolds article now, Scott, thanks much for the tip...

lubricity said...

Wow, glad to see that someone with actual time to post complete thoughts on the internet read that comment! Your expansion of the idea, Andrew, is right along the lines of what I was thinking at the time.

To Scott and anyone else who might have been annoyed: I realize in hindsight that the comment is a little more inflammatory than it was intended to be. And take it with a gigantic grain of salt, considering that I am currently enrolled in a MA degree program in Jazz History and Research and my career goal is to write about jazz in an academic context (or, less charitably: professional jazz nerd.)

I just think that it's silly for NPR or anyone else to toss jazz a token song or two in their "most important" list and have those 200 people who read A Blog Supreme get their panties in a wad about it. Jazz decided not to be a part of the larger contemporary forces that are shaping our musical landscape when JALC and Co. decided to decry fusion and free jazz trends as corrupting forces in the music's heritage. It's just important that we accept the lack of cultural relevance that jazz has today, and celebrate it for the amazing music that it is despite that!

Making a list of "10 best jazz albums" is like making a list of "10 best Ninja Turtle Action Figures." Yes, there's a small subset of people who will argue endlessly over whether or not Space Suit Raphael is better than Krang, but most of the kids will just turn from their Playstations and be like "what?"

(for the record: Space Suit Raphael is way more awesome than Krang.)

John Badger said...