“The ‘old weird America’ phrase was created by the music writer Greil Marcus. I’m not his biggest fan… and my reaction is crystalized in this term, which he used to describe the world of the commercial recorded music exemplified by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, commercial recordings made between 1926 and 1931. What Marcus wants you to understand is that this music represents a strange place nothing like the place where you reside. Look how weird and freakish!”
– Tom Freeland, “Old weird America”– an intellectual cliche that should be stomped out
Interesting piece. At some point the phrase “old, weird America” went from catchy rockwrite lore to cultural meme (cf. McLuhan’s book, From Cliche’ to Archetype as a potential clue to this process?) and it is indeed overused to the point of tedium (332,000,000 results in Google). I personally cringe whenever it shows up in a record review these days. But maybe the word “weird” needs to be thought about a little more (I don’t think I agree with Freeland’s interpretation).
5 thoughts on “We All Feel a Little Bit Weird Sometimes”
Hey Scott, thanks for alerting us to Tom Freeland’s piece on Greil Marcus and his by-now-cliched “old weird America” phrase. And I DO agree with Freeland, as this is exactly one of the points I wanted to make in my 1993 “Hey Conductor You Must” Berry-vs.-Presley essay — http://www.rocksbackpages.com/Library/Article/hey-conductor-you-must-rocknroll-iconoclasm-in-america — my contention that even though Albert Goldman was truly nasty toward Elvis Presley in his writings, he at least regarded Presley as a human being, whereas the ostensibly more positive Marcus always seems to consider Elvis an abstraction, a sociological — or worse, anthropological — TYPE, someone not quite on the Good Grey Greil’s level. I think it’s a class prejudice on Marcus’s part — if he’s grown up with trust funds and their privilege, as we’ve always suspected, then some rural chawbacon scrabbling to make a record of his own devise, hopefully to make a few bucks, will seem “weird” to Greil. He hasn’t lived in (or even around) that life himself.
I think we’re just reading a different writer, Richard, but rather than clunkily trying to explain why, I’ll simply quote from one of the commenters at that link (I haven’t read through them all, most seem to agree with Freland)… I think Tulle puts it very well, my own interpretation of Marcus’s “weird”:
“I think there was an old weird America, at a time when many parts of the country were not very efficiently whipped into any homogenized culture and had to be autonomous and come up with their own lumpy ideas of what was smart or fun or holy, with influences from all over maybe but guidance from nowhere.”
I firmly believe Marcus is putting the emphasis on place, not people (and in any event, I don’t think he’s using “weird” as a pejorative. I don’t generally use it that way, though like lots of words it’s malleable).
Guy is clearly an idiot if he can’t imagine what Marcus may have meant by how Dock Boggs’ “sounded as if his bones are coming through his skin every time he opened his mouth.” Um, maybe he meant Dock was giving it his all? Putting the pedal to the metal? Reaching beyond whatever physical, emotional, psychological limitations he felt constrained by in life, art, commerce, etc.? I mean, c’mon, if he can’t even figure that out minus being led by the hand, why should I take anything he has to say seriously whatsoever? Just another clueless hack, near as I can make out.
I think that’s a bit harsh — thought it was an okay piece, to be honest (I appreciated the tone of it, for starters), and he’s mouthing complaints against Marcus that people have been mouthing for a long time. Came across a funny (and I thought fairly perceptive) comment about Marcus on Facebook recently, something along the lines of, “I don’t read Marcus for facts or sound judgement; I read him so I can watch his head explode.” I think there’s something to that. If you can’t accept the far-fetched (some might say “abstract”) quality of his thinking, you won’t get very far with him, probably. I’ve met people who just have a complete mental block when it comes to his writing. Richard’s reaction to Marcus is likely embedded in his DNA; according to his rockcritics interview, he was turned off the very first time he encountered GM’s work (in his otherwise beloved Creem!).
oh, i have no problem with him not liking/getting Marcus. just his tone of voice, basically–you know. that whole “Marcus is just making stuff up that is NOT to be found by actually listening to whatever piece he’s going on about” attitude. um, yes, welcome to the wonderful world of the terminally subjective. who cares if i, you, Chuck Eddy, or whomever gets the same out of listening to, oh, “This Is England”, say, as Greil does? what should matter is whether he’s presented a convincing enough argument or not. that is, has he made his case? and, yeah, most times i’d say he has.