Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rock stars and athletes

Gazing at my twitter feed tonight, I quickly got the impression that there was some sort of important athletic event going on out in the world. I can't be sure, of course, as I've never been a big fan of organized (dare I say corporate?) sports, and I don't think I'd know a "Laker" from a "Celtic" if my life depended on it. (Yes, I know, this is a shortcoming of mine. Ironically, I remember falling in love with Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" because of the version that accompanied a Commodore 64 video game called "One on One," which featured rather stiff avatars of Dr. J and Larry Bird, and which my brother and I played ad nauseum when we were kids.)

Anyhow, in the spirit of the evening's frenzy (which, apparently, Los Angeles was the primary benefactor of), I thought I'd riff on this little blurb, which I came across on Andrew Sullivan's (increasingly valuable) blog:

Athletes are typically associated with hard work and achievement; sports competitions are typically institutional and often government-sponsored events; and athletic competition thrives on order and rules. They are the champions of the values of organized society, which makes them excellent role models. As such, society will expect them to be well-behaved. Musicians, or at least popular musicians, are the polar opposite: their success is associated with creativity and inspiration, their excellence springs from innovation and subversion.

But most importantly, one of the greatest things that pop and rock stars sell is an anti-social image of extravagant hedonism or rebellion (and frequently both). Part of being a fan is to indulge in these things that aren't generally acceptable in polite society. This double-standard is not a bug: it gets to the heart of what it means, in the popular imagination, to be a musician and to be an athlete.

Even as I resisted this writer's categories, I found myself wondering, while reading, where jazz might fall in this imaginary continuum. On the one hand, one could argue that jazz has always been concerned with "hard work and achievement" (most jazz musicians aspire toward total instrumental mastery), and even, in a sense, "order and rules" (consider the rigors of jazz theory, or the pedagogical importance placed on the music's history). Certainly nowadays, jazz musicians often aspire to be role models for society, whether "society" is constituted on the micro-level of other jazz musicians, or the macro-level of culture as a whole.

And yet, while for me the idea of true subversiveness in music is bunk, I'd be lying if I said that I was originally attracted to the prospect of music-making because I was interested in some Calvinist work-ethic ideal, or because I wanted to belong to a historical tradition that I admired from the outside. I wasn't, and I didn't. I wanted to play music, and, in particular, jazz music, because I wanted to explore an arena in which it was possible to do things that "aren't generally acceptable in polite society" (not the least of which was a kind of generalized passion).

I don't know if that makes me less "authentic" as a jazz composer, but I do know that the things I admired in the recordings of the jazz composers who influenced me most (Mingus, Ellington, Monk, et al) had a lot to do with my perception that they too were outsiders, that their lives were perfectly idiosyncratic, and that they resisted codification.

It's not so much that they were anti-social (though one might be able to make that argument re: Mingus) and it's not that hedonism was a value for its own sake, as sometimes seems to be the case in popular music. Rather, what was compelling on the deepest level was the way these folks seemed to embody the spirit of "doing your own thing," with no apparent preconceptions about what that meant.

Not to mention: their music often contained a little more than a soup├žon of the mystical giant middle finger of resistance, aimed at a fucked-up world. And with the possible exception of someone like the immortal Muhammad Ali, I never got a whiff of anything that powerful from big-time sports.

[photo credit: basketball fans, shot by M31.]

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