The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

On Popular Music Criticism: a Blog Review of Blogs

Posted: March 31st, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Art, blogosphere, Culture, Music | No Comments »
PSH as Bangs

This may not be the real Lester Bangs, but he is in my memory.

A week or so ago The Daily Beast published an article titled “Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting.” In it, musician and jazz critic Ted Gioia claims that contemporary music criticism is little more than celebrity gossip.

Gioia calls for more high-minded criticism that hearkens back to the music journalism of his youth:

When I was a child, Gunther Schuller’s byline appeared in Saturday Review, and Leonard Bernstein hosted music specials on CBS. In my teens, I could read smart, musically astute critics in many magazines and newspapers. I might disagree with the judgments of Harold Schoenberg, John Rockwell, Winthrop Sargeant, Robert Palmer, Leonard Feather, Martin Williams, Alfred Frankenstein, and others, but they knew their stuff.  Many of them were musicians themselves. Sargeant had served as a violinist with the New York Philharmonic. Frankenstein had played clarinet with the Chicago Symphony. Palmer gigged in bands before he started writing about them. Feather had recorded as a pianist, and although he would never put Oscar Peterson out of business, he knew his sharps and flats.

Then he blames Lester Bangs because “the language of lifestyle squeezed out musical assessment.”

Now I don’t imagine Gioia wishes that Billboard were written in such a way that would demand a degree in music theory to decipher, but he surely ventures into “Get off my lawn!” territory with his send up of music journalism. He is, however, gracious enough to admit that various blogs treat contemporary music with the care it deserves, but he chooses to focus his attention on the most popular periodicals.

I do believe that this lambasting of music writing is mostly unnecessary, but it did bring about a few posts from Owen Pallett–who has a new album coming out in May–that dissect pop tunes to determine why they are successful. The first examines Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and the second takes on “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk.

For this music theory layman, the articles are just technical enough to be over my head but not so heady that I can’t get anything out of it. The problem, though, is that I don’t believe contemporary music fans want to know why they like the music they do. It’s seeing sausage made. Perhaps we’re simplistic, but contemporary music is for consumption and we’re not much interested in production–despite Beck’s best efforts.

If you dare, venture into the comments of those Slate articles from Pallett. Theory nerds get down and love to argue–especially if they get to drag down a relatively well known artist. (Of course, theory nerds aren’t alone in this. The internet is particularly great at bringing out the worst of any community) The danger, for Billboard and Rolling Stone, is that they live and die on the cool. While I disagree with this sentiment, the average fella doesn’t find music theory too hip. If the comment sections of most music reviews devolved into esoteric theory arguments, some magazine executive is unhappy.

They’d much rather leave the nerding out of their publications and in the realm of non-mainstream blogs.

These thoughts are all half-baked. I love thinking about music production and theory but I cannot imagine that most music fans share my affinity.

What about you? What do you prefer out of music journalism?


Mad Men, Aca-Fans, and Online Scholarship

Posted: November 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Academy, blogosphere, Culture, Scholarship, Technology | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

A (now-not-so) recent article by Jason Mittell (On Disliking Mad Men) has sparked several excellent discussions ranging from the value of fans-as-critics to whether Don Draper is a likable guy. Prompted by Mittell’s article, videogame theorist Ian Bogost wrote out his thoughts (Against Aca-Fandom) which, naturally, elicited a response from the critical founder of aca-fandom, Henry Jenkins. It should be said that these three scholars (and nearly everyone who contributed to the discussion in the comments) wrote with respect and kindness with genuine questions and intrigue.

When thinking of aca-fandom, I cannot help but think of Matthew Arnold. Just as scholars are expected to view their subjects objectively, aca-fans have a vested interest in their subjects that cannot be ignored. While studying and investigating texts and subjects that are not personally interesting is a chore and most likely results in dull criticism, fandom undoubtedly complicates (must resist problematizes…) objectivity.

Please excuse the lengthy quote, but here is where Arnold fits in:

It is of the last importance that English criticism should clearly discern what rule for its course, in order to avail itself of the field now opening to it, and to produce fruit for the future, it ought to take. The rule may be summed up in one word,–disinterestedness.1 And how is criticism to show disinterestedness? By keeping aloof from what is called ‘the practical view of things’; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches. By steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas, which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them, which perhaps ought often to be attached to them, which in this country at any rate are certain to be attached to them quite sufficiently, but which criticism has really nothing to do with. Its business is, as I have said, simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known to create a current of true and fresh ideas. Its business is to do this with inflexible honesty, with due ability; but its business is to do no more, and to leave alone all questions of practical consequences and applications, questions which will never fail to have due prominence given to them.

from The Function of Criticism at the Present Time

While I may be misreading Arnold here, the ideas that a critic must remain wholly disinterested and promote what is best for his/her surrounding culture are at odds. Can one consider what is best for society while excluding “those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas?” His notion that a critic could remain disinterested while deciding what is best for his/her society it, as best, naive and, at worst, completely foolish. Why, then, do we believe that scholars can function both as critics and fans or any particular subject?2 Though no particular field (at least in the humanities) is exempt, those in the field of popular culture seem most susceptible to the siren song of fandom. Whether music, film, art, or video games, pop culture critics and scholars research texts that love and their lack of objectivity is often apparent.

The rise of aca-fandom, to me, seems to be an unconscious revival of Arnold’s goal to educate the philistines and refine their cultural tastes until they match ours–the educated cultural elite–while maintaining a critical distance from the subjects that we adore. As Mittell notes,3 pop culture research is not concentrated on what may be considered low-brow entertainment. Instead, aca-fans study what they consider to be the best in hopes that their opinions catch on. This insularity, of course, does not aid the study of popular culture at large.

Since many scholars (particularly those in the pop culture camp) are avowed nerds who cannot help but express their fandom, what is to be done about aca-fandom? The answer, I believe, is not in distancing ourselves from the topics we love. Instead, we can strive for more balance. Like Bogost has done with Cow Clicker, scholars can stay within their preferred field but venture into parts that seem undesirable (such as Facebook games for a video game designer and scholar). For the music culture scholar, perhaps she can investigate the rise of Ke$ha although she typically avoids mainstream pop music. Maybe a visual culture critic could trace the history of Thomas Kinkade–painter of kitsch and light.

I do not pretend to have a good answer to the problem of aca-fandom but it is certainly something worth considering.

  1. Objectivity, independence of judgment. []
  2. Mea culpa: I am chief among the offending aca-fans. Much of my research has begun as fandom which had to be reverse-engineered into some for of scholarly endeavor. []
  3. “While media scholars do not solely write about what we like, the prevalence of books focused on “quality television” shows that appeal to academics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, and now Mad Men – especially when compared to the lack of similar volumes or essays about more lowbrow or mainstream programs – suggests that taste is often more of a motivating factor for our scholarship than we admit. We should own up to our own fannish (or anti-fannish) tendencies regarding our objects of study, not regarding fan practices as something wholly separate from our academic endeavors by acknowledging how taste structures what we choose to write about.” []

Too Much

Posted: October 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Art, blogosphere, Culture, Infinite Summer, Literature | Tags: , | No Comments »

The contemporary literature world is abuzz with the news that David Foster Wallace’s last novel, The Pale King, will be published–appropriately–on Tax Day 2011 (April 15th). This news has overshadowed the upcoming publication of Wallace’s undergraduate thesis, Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, that will be released in December.

Here’s the description offered by Columbia UP, the publisher:

Long before he probed the workings of time, human choice, and human frailty in Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant philosophical critique of Richard Taylor’s argument for fatalism. In 1962, Taylor used six commonly accepted presuppositions to imply that humans have no control over the future. Not only did Wallace take issue with Taylor’s method, which, according to him, scrambled the relations of logic, language, and the physical world, but he also called out a semantic trick at the heart of Taylor’s argument.

Wallace was a great skeptic of abstract thinking made to function as a negation of something more genuine and real. He was especially suspicious of certain paradigms of thought-the cerebral aestheticism of modernism, the clever gimmickry of postmodernism-that abandoned “the very old traditional human verities that have to do with spirituality and emotion and community.” As Wallace rises to meet the challenge to free will presented by Taylor (and a number of other philosophical heavyweights), we experience the developing perspective of this major novelist, along with the beginning of his lifelong struggle to establish solid logical ground for his soaring convictions. This volume reproduces Taylor’s original article and other works on fatalism cited by Wallace in his critique. James Ryerson, an editor at the New York Times Magazine, draws parallels in his introduction between Wallace’s early work in philosophy and the themes and explorations of his fiction.

The fact that this work was his undergraduate thesis is strangely absent from the publisher’s information. While DFW was an undeniably gifted author and thinker, publishing his undergraduate work (no matter how brilliant) seems a bit exploitative. As HTMLGIANT says, the cover alone seems overwhelming opportunistic–the efforts of a publisher to cash in on the untimely death of a brilliant author and, by all accounts, good person.

I can’t say for certain that I won’t buy and read this, The Howling Fantods notes that the thesis is particularly enlightening and informative, but I cannot help but have reservations. I shudder to think of anyone reading my work from undergrad–even the capstone project that I labored over for months. Sure, I’m no DFW, but the work of a 22 year old should not be considered part of his/her body of work unless he/she is living and assents to its inclusion.

(Thanks to The Millions for the reminder of its upcoming publication.)


The Music Must Change

Posted: July 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: blogosphere, Culture, Theology | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

If you subscribe through a reader you may not have noticed, but there have been several theme changes as of late. The last theme (I Like Content) was nice but slow to load so I have switched to a cleaner, quicker theme appropriately named Clean Home. Though I may tinker with the colors and such (the orange is a bit much, no?) this theme may stay for awhile. The layout is very open and doesn’t crowd either the main text or the sidebar.

One of my favorite features of the theme is the blurb section just under the title. The plan is to occasionally switch it up and put different quotes or sayings that strike my fancy. Right now, as you can see above, it reads: “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The quote is taken from either Infinite Jest p. 445 or this speech given at Kenyon College’s 2005 Commencement or this WSJ article adapted from the commencement address.

The commencement address is the best graduation speech I have ever read (even better than Conan’s 2000 address at Harvard) and the WSJ adaptation is especially haunting after his death in 2008, but the occurrence in IJ struck me more than its other versions. Here’s the passage (Warning–Adult language ahead):

“This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck is water?’ and swim away.”1

On its own, this parable is fairly insightful meaning, of course, that the young fish are wholly unaware of the life-giving substance all around them. We, like the fish, are quick to ignore incredibly important and obvious elements in our lives because they are too obvious. In his speech, DFW uses the parable to encourage the graduating students to remain conscious in the real world. He admonishes them to, instead of taking the easy route and assuming they are the single most important part of their story, consider that others are important too; consider that the guy who cuts you off in traffic may have a very literal emergency that is causing him to drive maniacally. His point is potentially life-changing for many young people (my hand is raised here), but taken within the narrative of IJ, the parable takes on a new and–for me–more important meaning.

The context: Gately, an enormous recovering alcoholic/drug-abuser, is just slightly more than a year sober and growing more and more active with his AA group. While “getting active,”2 he confesses that he still cannot wrap his head around the concept of the higher power to whom he has been praying to for delivery from his addictions. On this outing, his group was speaking to the TSBYSCD Group.3 At the end of the meeting, a massive and tough-looking biker from the TSBYSCD Group called BOB DEATH wheels his motorcycle over and “tells Gately it was good to hear somebody new share from the heart about his struggles with the God component.” After brief chatter, BOB DEATH asks Gately if he had heard the one about the fish then goes on to tell the story.

At the risk of sounding like Jules Winnfield, let’s discuss who represents what in the parable. DFW is adamant in his graduation address that he, the speaker, is not the old fish and that the students are not the young fish. He is not there to dole out moral advice on what to do to be a good person. In the parable’s context in IJ, the fish represent people at various spiritual stages of development (or their place in the progression of AA) and the water that is so there that it is ignored must the presence of “the God Component.” The water of human existence is the ubiquitous spiritual component of our existence.

A spiritually searching character, such as Gately, is not surprising for DFW. Raised as an atheist, he had twice failed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults in an effort to become a Catholic.4 The same interview reveals that he failed the second time because he made a reference to “the cult of personality surrounding Jesus” which, one can imagine, the priest did not cotton to.

As a doubter, perhaps David Foster Wallace would have identified with the prayer I have heard attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:

“God, I don’t love you and I don’t want to love you. But I want to want to love you.”

This is water.

This is water.

[Image by Flickr user David Reece / Creative Commons licensed]

  1. Infinite Jest p. 445 []
  2. traveling from group to group in Boston sharing his story and identifying with their members []
  3. Tough Shit But You Still Can’t Drink []
  4. David Streitfeld, 1996 http://craigfehrman.com/2010/05/05/details-1996-profile-of-david-foster-wallace/ []

Twitter Recap

Posted: June 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: blogosphere, Culture | Tags: , , | No Comments »

As you may have noticed, a recap of all my tweets since Twitter Tools’ initiation (Saturday afternoon) posted on Monday morning. While it is likely that I’ll discontinue this practice, it can’t hurt to give it a shot.

Given the current crop, I can only imagine that this experiment will be short lived. That, or I’ll need to significantly improve the quality of my tweets. Improvement would necessitate more interesting material which would, of course, run counter for my push for greater #banality on twitter. We’ll see how this plays out.