Thursday, January 31, 2008

Who are you?

Alright. I'm going to be very picky for a moment.

A pox upon the individual who started the conceit by which bands are described (or describe themselves) in terms of other musical artists confabbing in some kind of hypothetical scenario, all of which is supposed to convince a reader how good the music in question is.

Here's an example that I came across in a recent Entertainment Weekly. The subject is Vampire Weekend, but since they didn't actually write the sentence, I don't feel bad quoting it here:

Imagine New Order sitting down with Paul Simon and talking about the first Talking Heads record, while Pavement plays over the cafeteria loudspeakers.

For one thing, I'm a little confused re: the analogy. The author (Randall Poster, a well-known music supervisor for film) is comparing the music to -- what? A conversation in a cafeteria?

(A cafeteria?)

Like I said, I'm being picky. Maybe grouchy too. But to my ear, this trope (it's a popular one) fails every time. It's what George Orwell would probably have called a "prefabricated henhouse" solution to the (admittedly boring) task of listing an artist's influences and the (admittedly challenging) task of trying to describe an artist's sound.

This is not to downplay the sad truth (for those of us in the "music is the part that matters" camp) that most people are more likely to read (or, probably more accurately, to see) something about a band before they ever hear the actual music. Obviously, the words have to tell.

But why not play with the limitations of language vis a vis music? Make the influences clear, but then come up with something more creative to get the point across? Invent a genre, say?

Hell, VW does this themselves, right on the front page of their freakin' website, when they write

We are specialists in the following styles: "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa", "Upper West Side Soweto", "Campus", and "Oxford Comma Riddim."

That made me laugh. And call me crazy, but it made me far more interested in actually checking out the band.

(Which I just did. Alas, the music is not taking my grouchiness away, but maybe it's just one of those days...)


DJA said...

Vampire Weekend are still pretty young dudes who have not been at this all that long. I mean, on the one hand, it's easy to be dismissive of indie kids who are only just now discovering that there's actually music out there that originates outside the US/UK. On the other hand, it's a positive trend, especially compared to the previously prevailing "world music is for insufferable NPR twats" stance, which made me very much want to hurt people.

So. Bands like Beirut and Vampire Weekend = not necessarily the most happening shit, yet, but at least they are trying to play with open ears.

Dan said...

Agreed 100% Darcy.

I also completely agree with your hatred of absurd artist comparisons, Andrew. I try and avoid description through comparison unless it's absolutely necessary and overt, and even then it has to be in compliment to more productive descriptions.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Hey, thanks for the comments, guys.

I have no beef against VW, honest. The fact that their music didn't cheer me up this afternoon is not necessarily their fault. And in case it wasn't totally clear, my "laughter" at their self-description was genuine -- not motivated by ridicule or scorn, but by a sense of happiness at the clever silliness with which they articulated their sound (via words). The music itself didn't match that description for me, but I tried to provide enough context for my comment ("maybe it's just one of those days") to indicate that what I wrote was not meant to represent my "official and final" take on the band.

To put that more philosophically, and for the record (though I'm inching toward a topic for another post here): I tend not to be the sort of listener who is so definitive in his taste that he always instantly knows where he stands w/r/t a particular piece of music. For me, though I lean in certain aesthetic directions much of the time, taste is always contingent, conditional, and open to all sorts of flux. Perhaps that's wishy-washy, or overbroad, but there it is.

This is actually one of the things I struggle with when it comes time to (re)write the dreaded bio -- I like so many different kinds of music, and for so many different reasons, and on so many different occasions and in so many different moods, that at some point it really becomes absurd to "commit" to one or the other in writing. This is one of the reasons I stopped writing reviews, too -- I realized that for me, most of the time, the question was not "do I like it?", but "what are the contexts in which I will like it?"

Coincidentally, James Carney recently made a great observation about the late Dan Morris (it's a statement that dovetails a little with what Darcy said): "He thought it was too easy to criticize and dismiss others’ music, and he once told me that when he heard a piece of music he didn't like, he would keep listening to it to figure out exactly why that was, while hoping, in the process, to begin to somehow appreciate that music in some way." That pretty much nails it for me.

M.Farina said...

I can't tell you how many times I have read a brief review of a band in one of the local weekly's and thought, "that sounds interesting." Then, when I actually hear the music first hand, find that the words that were used to describe said music are completely off-track of what I was expecting.

Was it Zappa Sr. who said, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture..." ?

And you mentioned the dreaded band bio… Which is a perfect example of how difficult a writer (or reviewer’s) job can be. With a bio, it is most often the artist themselves who is attempting to sum up and put into a neat paragraph or two, something that can ultimately only be expressed through the medium itself. Kind of a catch-22, I guess.

Comparisons just make it sooooooo much easier. It’s the fastest way to kill them birds (not that I am advocating this!) ...

Matt said...

Great post, Andrew. I've always hated those "x plus y in a blender at z's party" analogies. Such descriptions can backfire on a band--if I don't like the groups in the description, then I probably won't even give that band a listen.