Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dig your tunes or get buried by them

Talent in any form will trump attitude day of the week with me, but first I have to ask what the the talent is for. "Bad attitude" can be a talent by way of a trait some might think cool and alluring from afar, "chronic depression" seems to go a long way for other listeners to ignore the calculable merits of melodies, vocals and lyrics and wallow in the sepia-toned aura of guitaring cave dwellers whose talent inhabits a dampened set of neurons. Likewise, a punk with a torn black t-shirt, crud-encrusted jeans and a spoke through an upper lip doesn't require a discourse in harmony or theory to justify the inherent value of his or her choice of belligerent tone warping. What it represents is the value, the noisy symbolism of rage, which means the niceties of song construction don't even enter the discussion. Attitude and persona only get you so far, though, and many are left scratching whatever body part that itches, wondering what the hell?

So I go back to the songs themselves and weigh their characteristics--no mystery here, it's melody, vocal, lyrics again, along with musicianship, production, and a host of other niggling details--and make a judgement based on an floating scale as to how the ingredients succeed or fail in doing what songs are supposed to do, which is to kick ass, make me sad, make me rage, rant, pant, behave or go crazy in the head, or, in worst case scenario, turn off the damn noise off.

Standards and demands on good songwriting are in constant flux, of course, and you need to have the proverbial big ears to assess material's worth against not just the history of pop music in general, but also within the genre the artist writes within. Standards within standards can make this a no win proposition for someone trying to create an objective criteria, but we're all aware of the most rigorous test: does the music grab you , make you bob your head with your eyes closed, cause your hands to beat time with the flat of your palm, force you to improvise solos composed of  

non words and advanced variations of clearing the throat, all of while enthralled with melody , a snappy drumbeat, a sweeping crescendo, some manner of melody that has sneaked under the barriers around your sense of propriety and seduced you beyond this moment's repair?
The first reaction is one that can't be faked with faux theory and revisionist contextualization along sociological rather than musical lines. You are either moved in a visceral , immediate way, or you are left there formulating a more intellectualized response. Considered, thoughtful, critical responses are legitimate too, in their place, but there's a lot of fakery going about the net and print media. But that riff, that drum beat, that whoop of aggression that gets your legs moving, fist pumping, jaw jutting? Priceless commentary on the music coming forth, without the vocabulary to obscure, cloud and confuse the experience. It's not a necessarily an accurate gauge of a song's value and worth in the scheme of recorded music , but its value lies elsewhere, in a rare moment in the week where you're responding to something that needn't , for the moment, be classified, catalogued and critiqued like it were a virus that science is trying to destroy


  1. Yes, well, it is a good thing to hear someone stick up for the verities of the traditional song structure at a time when everything in the creative sphere seems fluid, malleable, a mere dance of digital information and pixels akin to a flea circus jumping in a phalanx of tiny blood-sucking six-legged dots on and off the arm of the ringmaster. We are all supposed to be salesmen of solid air these days, it seems, whether we are trying to put over our respective brands of personal palaver – Whitman’s Song of Myself raised to excruciating mass cacophony -- or actually attempting to forge a career in mercurial illusion otherwise known as extracting the ever-elusive buck from the consumer for our precious brain-forged wares. The arts are increasingly collaborative, a logical outcome in a democratic society, it’s true, but a trend corrosive to the idea of real creative integrity, true self-expression and personal ownership of a phrase, a gesture, a note or a thought. As you say, “the niceties of song construction don’t even enter the discussion” when we attack a bitchen new pop tune with our conceptual knives and forks, but why should songs be exempt from the current obsession with sizzle over steak, buzz over burger? We are ALL orchestrating our throat-clearings nowadays, harnessing our harrumphs in the hopes that someone will give us the time of day in a JPEG or a MP3 file, desperate to be noticed rather than expend the effort to caress the contours of a melody or savor a finely-drawn line of prose. Our chronic critics are at one with the average consumer: a formless blob of protoplasm absorbing everything within reach yet calcified in our ability to grasp an idea beyond the banal. As George S. Chappell said of Broadway, “The lower vertebrae have of late years become slightly ankylosed.”

  2. If we could raise our eyes from navel-level, Ted, we might embrace the mysteries of the artist’s mind rather than do the Narcissus swan-dive into our shimmering self-images. Years ago, Henry Miller tweaked Ezra Pound and his financial crotchets by asking, “What makes money make money?” Substitute the word “art” or “music” and you set up the same fascinating conundrum that has powered the wheels of genius ever since the cro-mags illustrated the cave-walls at Lascaux. We welcome that whoop of creative aggression when it is more than a breeze from the lower extremities. Otherwise, we are left to smoke the same old duck.

  3. Music criticism was, to large measure, the biggest make work project since the New Deal, furnishing unemployable literature majors like myself with constant, if paltry means to get my next beer and dental appointment. The difference, I guess, is that the New Deal actually did people some good while criticism, rock criticism especially, served egos that had no limit to how much inflation they could stand. Similarily, there was a grand inflation of the rhetoric and a great deal of what had been readable, inspired fan notes and asides became obscure theories lightly referencing real philosophers but which over all chased their own tails; witness the later work of Greil Marcus. Even ROBERT CHRISTGAU gets uselessly vague. Music for the younger critics seems merely a commodity, a life style plug in that one reviews for ephermeral thrills rather than soul satisfaction. This generation does not want to dance, it wants to twitch.

  4. Looking back, it seems to me that the heyday of rock criticism almost precisely followed the arc of the counterculture of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, when the exalted arrogance of The Young (or at least the “hip” segment of it) believed in a unified code of ideals and ethics, built around misty notions of revolution, self-liberation and hirsute hedonism. There was a cleanly-drawn line between Cool and Uncool in those days and the leading rock critics of the time fell in line with the prevailing ethos. The rise of the underground press rewarded the music scribes with small change, psychic cachet and innumerable promo albums, creating an ambiguous symbiotic relationship with a music business that didn’t want to change the world so much as make lots and lots of $$$. It became something of a ponzi scheme of the collective mind, crashing somewhere between the rise of Jimmy Carter and the fall of disco. The rhetoric of Marsh, Nelson, etc. did get seriously inflated and hyperbolic, straining to pump up a few strepitant entertainers into the reincarnations of Byron and Keats. The work of too many of these critics seems myopic, jejune and often pretentious by current standards, the detritus of a time when the economy was booming and youngsters could afford to imagine something as unsustainable as a Woodstock Nation. Still, there are moments of colorful, cogent writing to be found as well. The golden era of rock criticism was more than a make-work project or a sustained act of wankery – in fact, I think the first Rolling Stone Record Review anthology is just as good a read as your typical WPA Guide.


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