Friday, April 09, 2010

Against the grain

When it comes to being a music fan, there is a side of me (the left side, I think) that is inherently curmudgeonly, and that likes being contrary for the sake of being contrary.

There, I said it.

Sometimes I am able to override this character flaw, because of course I recognize the silliness (or, I guess, the futility) of shunning something that everyone else likes -- something "hip," "in," or "hot" -- particularly when I have a sneaking suspicion that I am shunning it in part because everyone else likes it.

Alas, already I've stumbled onto shaky intellectual ground, because the notion of "everyone else" is fundamentally arbitrary -- sometimes I might use it to mean "most other listeners in the world," and sometimes I might use it to mean "most other listeners in a subset of most other listeners in the world" (jazz fans, say). In neither case am I literally talking about "everyone else."

But who cares? Sometimes I just want to go with my impulse as a music fan, and rationality be damned. I want to enjoy music, and ultimately I'm not particularly concerned with the question of whether my enjoyment is justified. And I'll admit that sometimes I'm (irrationally) terrified of getting lost in the mass commodification of culture, even when the culture being commodified is good. So to the extent that we choose (consciously or not) to like certain kinds of art as a matter of personal identity, I want to choose things that are, by some obscure criteria that may appeal only to me, different.

(Of course sometimes I go against the grain of the act of going against the grain, by publicly talking about my affection for certain kinds of music that are wildly popular.)

All of which is just a rambling prelude to this article, helpfully entitled "Your Favorite Band Sucks: Bands and Artists Bullz-Eye Writers Just Don't Get." In it, contributors to a trashy, mediocre, and mildly NSFW webzine attempt to argue against certain conventional wisdoms in the world of rock. Is it strange that I found the arguments unconvincing, but was nevertheless entertained by the piece?

On the Doors:

[...] they did indeed create a sound like no other band. But was that because no other band could successfully replicate their sound, or because no other band wanted to?

On Springsteen:

Perhaps Jello Biafra put it best when he referred to Bruce Springsteen as "Bob Dylan for jocks."

On Beck:

Beck is one of those artists, and one who critics use the word "groundbreaking" to describe. Yeah. If I took a sledgehammer to some concrete and took a shit in the hole in the ground I'd created, that would be groundbreaking too, wouldn't it?

On Pink Floyd:

But overall, their approach to music is decidedly non-musical; the bulk of their work feels like it was conceived mathematically or something…which, considering that three of 'em (Waters, Nick Mason, Rick Wright) were architecture students, should come as no surprise.

On Elvis Costello:

[...] when you're listening to Costello's collaboration with Allen Toussaint and suffering through track after track of Costello vocals while knowing that a perfectly wonderful soul singer was sitting right there at the piano while they were being recorded, it's just as hard not to want to muzzle the guy.

On Nine Inch Nails:

[...] a little Trent goes a long, long way. I have often tried to subscribe to the idea that he's some sort of genius. But I'm not buying it. A true genius won't subject his audience to 90 minutes of temple-pounding, unreasonably angry industrial rock without giving any sort of dynamic reprieve outside of "Hurt."

On Talking Heads:

Overall, they were good, but not great. Eccentric, but not head and shoulders above their peers. It's time to give up the charade and let the Talking Heads float down the river of East Coast artsy fartsy obscurity from whence they came.

On Frank Zappa:

Zappa's one of those guys where, if you tell one of his fans that you can't really get into his music, they generally find a way to let you know that it's probably just because you're too stupid to appreciate it. Now, I have never claimed to be a genius, so it's very possible that those Zappa aficionados are right on the money, but for my part, I've always just thought that Zappa's work too often felt like he was being weird solely for the sake of being weird.

Weird for the sake of being weird. I guess that brings me back to where I began.

[Photo credit: CarbonNYC]


Fellini, qtd. in I, Fellini:

All my life I've had a natural resistance to whatever everyone likes, or wants, or is "supposed" to do. I never was interested in soccer, either to play or to watch, and for a man to admit that in Italy is almost like admitting you aren't a man at all. I do not like to belong to political parties or to clubs. Partly this is probably in my black-sheep nature, but I think another very real reason is I remember the Black Shirts.

I was a child in a time when we wore the outfits of our school, or we wore the black shirts of fascism, and we were supposed to question nothing. That has made me question everything. I was always suspicious, not wanting to be one of the sheep going to the slaughter. So sometimes I may have missed out on a pleasure the sheep enjoyed which I could have had without becoming a lamb chop.


docker said...

on Zappa: "Weird for the sake of weird" is an honorable artistic tradition - although it may have begun (and ended) with Frank himself.

As for "if you don't understand it you're probably too stupid" - I think Frank himself would have made the same argument.

cinderkeys said...

I was right there with them until they got to Pink Floyd.

godoggo said...

I was right there with them until they got to Tom Waits.

Matt said...

As always, these reviews say more about the reviewers than the artists themselves. I'd be curious to find out how old these reviewers are, and what music they do like.

cinderkeys said...

Matt: You're not wrong, but the point of the article still stands: that there's not something wrong with you just because you don't love the artist or band that everybody is supposed to love.

godoggo said...

2 further thoughts:

1) I actually do totally get the Doors; however, I'm not 13 at the moment.

2) As a long-suffering Elvis Costello fan, I always enjoy hearing him called out on his singing. Contrary to what he apparently thinks, he is not the love child of Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline.

Kram Namloc said...

I do the same thing, I tend to rebel against things.
Pink Floyd; They were more a reflection of LSD than mathematics.

The Doors; yes, a unique sound because that was what was required in that era. If you sounded remotely like anyone else, you sucked. Unique sounds from that era: King Crimson, Floyd, Hendrix, Who, Tull (I'll stop now).

I agree with you on all other points.

Nice post, BTW. I'm @Kram on twitter.

ohdotoh said...

They are unconvincing because music appreciation is purely a matter of taste, and cannot be argued. Some people like pizza. Some people don't. There is no talking someone in to or out of liking pizza. Music criticism as a career is an inherently self-important endeavor. If you like the song, like the song, if you don't, shut the fluck up. Or not, because even my liking or not liking people who ramble on about their personal tastes is itself a matter of personal preference. I prefer to hear about what people enjoy than what people dislike because it is a shorter list generally,and tends to give me new things to try.

I suppose I could find out what Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly actually hate (because they tend to preach against the crimes they intend to commit) and try those things, but that is a lot of work compared to finding out what someone else likes and trying that.

So there's a hefty dose of lazy pragmatism in there. After all, that is the purpose "criticism" is supposed to serve, it is intended to help us filter out the bullshit and get to the gravy faster.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks, all! Note the addenda to this post, just added.

godoggo -- I actually love Costello's singing, though more for the way it was used in its original, New Wave context, and less for, say, a Burt Bacharach melody.

I wouldn't deny being a fan of any of the artists listed (some more than others, and Zappa more than all of them), but the thing that intrigued me about the piece was the idea that sometimes, for some mysterious reason that may not even have to do with music itself, even a person who listens to music for a living can fail to "get" a given artist -- even when they recognize, objectively, that that same artist is in fact producing high-quality work.

In the jazz world, the analogy for me would be my own half-assed inability to get inspired by the music of Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie.

cinderkeys said...

Agreed. Sometimes people have different musical preferences for reasons that we don't have the ability to explain.

That said, I don't mind someone explaining to me why I should like a certain artist. There is such a thing as an acquired taste. I've found myself liking songs that did nothing for me before, simply because I listened to it a different way.

If anybody explained to me what I'm supposed to be tracking on when I hear Bruce Springsteen, I'd give it a try.