Sunday, February 26, 2012

Essays I Haven't Written

Poetry is about saying it as it seems. Saying it "like it is" assumes the Romantic trap of thinking that the final state of things can be deigned by the poet’s sense of what cannot be accurately or concisely phrased. The permanent significance some poets attempt to capture is an illusion: word meanings change, cultural habits change, reading habits change, world views change, the meanings of what was formally thought to be a settled affair changes as well. Or rather our attitudes change to the subject changes. The object is inert, bereft of meaning. The poet, attempting a verse that reaches years , decades beyond it's time, is better served getting his her own properly and artfully qualified perception of events and ideas right. One might not trust met narratives anymore, but brilliant individual responses are always illuminating.

Barry Alfonso, noted essayist and Traveling Man, had this to say in a note regarding the manufacturing of Hip Consensus:

It seems to me that the heyday of rock criticism almost precisely followed the arc of the counter culture 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 hirsute 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.


I’d agree that Costello has spread himself too thin in his efforts to become the most versatile rock songwriter of his generation, but what has diluted his later work isn’t variety so much as ambition. His work was already diverse in the styles it employed—Motown, gospel, Brill building power-sob-ballading, folk traditions, guitar-centered rock power chording, effortlessly melodic and melancholy ballads—a habit gained from his other principle influence, the Beatles, and as the wide swath of approaches has given him to write an amazingly solid set of poetic/obscure/ brilliantly hard nosed lyrics that could accommodate several themes and subterranean intellection  in the space of a compelling song. Doubtless the dips, curves and marvelously detailed turns of the songs forced him to work a mite harder with a lyric. Some of it was, of course, a grueling strangeness that was more alienating than alienated, but the records he produced from My Aim is True through Imperial Bedroom were overall a dazzling array of stanzas and catchy choruses that would seduce the sensibility in a masterful variety of styles. Costello, though, is a pop songwriter for all the subtlety his music contains, and he been seduced by the notion that he should be an artiste— as the pieces got longer, the styles taken from a broader sample, the variety more dress-up make believe than convinced of its own primacy, the good man reveals himself a talented musician in a hurry for a more impressive reputation. What I think Dylan would have benefited from is the sort of range the earlier work of Costello shared; his lyrics would have been sharper more often.


Most popular music is theme songs for losers and their moron cousins, dreamers. Dreamers just haven't yet received the memo. Who would listen to it if it were a winner's game. A room full of Bud Collier clones in Groucho glasses.
The basic flaw in the auteur theory is that it preferred hero worship over art, which was a convenient way to overlook the wooden set ups otherwise hack directors presented audiences. There was the misconception that just because someone would film situations similar from film to film , it constituted an aesthetic and constituted a style; some were artful in their familiar scenes and scenarios, but far more were merely fashioning a way to work quick and under budget.

1 comment:

  1. Al Hurtme10:00 AM PST

    The rain falls upon the just and the unjust alike -- but does it fall upon the incredibly smooth?


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