January 23, 2014 by admin
Christgau weighs in. Anyone care to weigh in on Christgau’s weigh-in? (I’ve only had time to skim the thing, and won’t likely get to it until next week.)
Category: Polls & Lists, Xgau
I had to look up ‘attenuated’ just to make sure, which I count as mark of another fine X-gau essay. May he keep them coming. And I’d be all lost w/out at least some consensus, since nearly all my new music listening is filtered through a morass of others’ lists. For all I know radio stopped playing music, like MTV, years ago. No, my gripe w/ the consensus would be, why not, how attenuated it sounds. My antipathy for Yeezus, which he skewers perfectly, got to me thinkin’ recently ab other P&J winners as worthy of Emperor’s New Clothes status. Looking over past number ones I had a hard time finding any. Little Creatures? Arrested Development? And talking about attenuated speaks specifically to a problem I have w/ the sound of X-gau’s beloved Vampire Weekend. In any dose larger than the occasional song they grate on me like the thin tinsel timbre of an annoying insect. I gather this high-register sound is germane to their celebrated connection to Africa but it doesn’t flatter African music and seems to me like a lame rationalization for the lack of bass in their music. For me, the pick of the consensus litter, outside the country gals boycotted by urban youth, and granting obvious reservations that it’s retro as all get out and half to two-thirds of it is kitsch-laden muzak, is the Daft Punk record. Four good-to-great songs beats any of the other top-ten records I’ve heard so far. And calling Bowie a fraud– I’m sure there’s some backstory here I don’t know but whose record strikes me as pro, crafty, and felt– seems sort of like calling a mime insincere. And this is significant why? While X-gau seems, true to his inveterate optimism, like he’s trying to defend the P&J, I noted looking at past lists that I appreciate to one degree or another the vast majority of past winners until almost exactly when he left the Voice. So what’s wrong w/ the P&J? I’d like to say it’s grown less pop, less dance, and more prog, more rock melodrama, like Yeezus, but it’s probably always leaned towards the latter. Maybe the problem is not too much or too little consensus but that consensus records, or those over the last few years anyhow, aren’t as good as they use to be. Maybe it’s something in the air, or the diminished stakes in a market marginalized by the internet and video games. Anyway, knowing I will never catch up, I soldier on, chasing the musical zeitgeist. Currently I’m thinking the next consensus record from last year I need to hear, number 16 on the P&J, is the Sky Ferreira. Then I’ll get to work on the Dean’s List. It’s not a living but the next best thing.
Xgau likes to imply ideas rather than spell them out, which I find frustrating. When he says “the atomization of taste known as the long tail may have a cutoff” I think he means a cutoff in time (it’s the atomization not the tail that’s being cut off), and what he means by the cutoff of the atomization is that the trend towards more things in the tail and fewer things in the nontail will slacken and eventually reverse. What it is that’s being atomized isn’t as clear: year-end lists? poll results? critical taste? consumer taste? And — though he doesn’t state this at all — I’m pretty sure that one of the things on his mind is that there needs to be enough concentrated critical support for talented but commercially borderline artists so that at least some of these artists will earn a living and a few will get significant attention. Something like that. And this means that the critical “consensus”* has to include support for artists who aren’t getting enough consumer support. And also on his mind might be that consumer support for musical artists can’t be totally atomized or no one would earn a living at music.
But I don’t see where he’s really laying out the issues, at least not the way I would, which is:
(1) Of all the people with musical talent and potential musical talent, almost all the money and attention goes to a very tiny tiny tiny few. I don’t have a number, but I doubt that 1% or even .01% expresses how tiny it is. Most everyone else is subsistence or making money through something else. And therefore lots of people don’t even get to develop their talent.
(2) This isn’t going to change hugely (here’s my piece on cumulative advantage), but I’d think the task is to get more people out of the “tail”** and into subsistence and more people out of subsistence into the middle. And the way to do this isn’t by getting critics to get less diverse in their musical interests but by the country in general to start diminishing economic inequality rather than what the country is doing now, which is to increase it. With more disposable income in the lower reaches, this gives the commercially marginal a chance to get middling and a chance for some of the noncommercial musicians and would-be musicians to become marginal.
(3) This is something I can’t prove, but I don’t see the world’s taste (etc.) atomizing but rather consolidating. We experience the opposite in our daily lives because we see people in our cultural “neighborhoods” (of “people like us” in offline and online groupings) having access to things all over that they hadn’t had access to previously (K-pop, for instance), so spreading their interests. But if we pull back the camera what we’d see (I believe) is fewer local styles of music and music overall, throughout the world, being less diverse in its sound (similar to how the number of spoken languages is diminishing), more people overall listening to the same things: so, as you and I have fewer records in common on our end of year lists, I’m nonetheless going to have a lot more in common with the listening of someone in India or Korea or Australia whom I’d previously had almost no listening in common with at all. That my votes included some for hugely popular acts (e.g., SNSD, After School) that most American critics haven’t heard isn’t a sign of atomization.
(4) I’d say too much consolidation, too much similarity, too much attention on the same thing, is bad (in music, in culture, in ways of life in general), while too little means chaos and you don’t even get culture, and the species goes extinct. I guess something like that’s what Christgau’s thinking when he says, at the end, “It takes all kinds. And we’re healthier as a culture when we agree on a bunch of them.” The thought seems hopelessly vague, on his part and on mine. And I don’t see where it tells us that it’s good for critics to either agree more or agree less in a year-end poll.
–He doesn’t mention this, but the number of voters in P&J is way off its peak, and from a quick glance at the rolls it seems as if potential new voters aren’t trying to get in and the Voice isn’t going out and getting new voters. (Maybe I’m just concentrating on the fact that not many from the Jukebox were in.)
*He’s not using the word “consensus” the way I use the word, by the way. Is there now a consensus to change the meaning of the word “consensus”?
**”Think of a graph. The vertical axis is wealth and fame. The horizontal axis is the number of musicians. The curve is high at the left, meaning there are a small number of musicians with a lot of wealth and fame. It drops precipitously, then curves into a long line going to the right and getting ever closer to zero, meaning a lot of people with little or no wealth and power through music.
I forgot that you can’t actually see links in the comments. Here’s my piece on cumulative advantage:
And I meant to type “by getting the country in general to start diminishing economic inequality…”
Okay. Presumably Christgau doesn’t think that too few people eat at McDonald’s and Chipotle. But if someone’s hope is that we can get together and support a number of worthy alternatives in such a way that they achieve critical mass (so so speak), a poll of critics where you ask them to list their ten favorite eateries is not the right vehicle — unless he expects people to lie, and to vote strategically rather than for what they really think is best.
Even though Christgau did these things for years, he’s never understood what the P&J poll is. That is, he’ll take the poll results as a starting point for talking about what the year in music was like, while not seemingly dealing with the fact — or at least not mentioning — that we weren’t asked to pick ten records to represent our year, much less the year, but rather the ten records we each, as individuals, thought were best. And though he obviously knows that P&J voters come from only a tiny speck of the social map, he’s never really known how to push the narrower but more potent (and answerable) question of “Why do these people vote for this music?” much less make that question explicit to his readers. I’m damned if I know why he doesn’t. As I said, it’s frustrating to watch. I love the guy, love his ideals, love his persistence, but he fumbles around an awful lot. Of course, most critics who try social analysis fumble around even more — way more — so there’s no constituency for helping him, or us, or anyone to get better.
In any event, questions such as “What should be on our curriculum?” “What music would we like there to be general knowledge of?” “What emerging or long-neglected performers deserve to be given special support not just on the basis of their artistic achievement and artistic potential but also on the basis of their having the potential to get somewhere socially, to make an impact on the culture?” are worthwhile questions, and something like Pazz & Jop can provide data. But P&J’s job isn’t to establish the curriculum, or to pick promising candidates. Those tasks are worthy, but they call for a different mechanism. In the meantime, shrinking our respective nets, or voting strategically rather than honestly, harms us, narrows us. (I’m sure that’s not what Xgau wants us to do; but he does seem to want something of a narrower result, or one that’s more focused, or something.)
And I see no fucking reason whatsoever why it’s a good thing that Pitchfork matches Rolling Stone which matches P&J. The matching isn’t a complete surprise (please read the cumulative advantage piece I linked above); nor is it inherently evil. But I don’t see what it accomplishes.
The problem with rock critics isn’t their supposed atomization (which folks have been griping about in pseudoprofundity since 1968 it seems, or maybe ’73: I forget when “fragmentation” became a buzzword) but rather their unwillingness and fundamental inability to understand one another. That is, the problem isn’t that my tastes are not much of a match for other critics’ (which I don’t really think is true, anyway), it’s that there’s no willingness to get to know one another’s ideas and learn from someone else’s experience, no apparent payoff for succeeding and no negative consequences for failing or for not trying. (Well, I think the payoff is knowledge and the negative consequence is ignorance.)
Cross-posting these comments on my lj:
(Sorry to be clogging up your Recent Comments box but not all my thoughts are coming at once.)
Of all the people with musical talent and potential musical talent, almost all the money and attention goes to a very tiny tiny tiny few.
And not all those few are musicians. The money, at least, will also flow to those who own the “intellectual property” or who benefit by being handsomely compensated by the owners of the “intellectual property,” such owners sometimes being songwriters and musicians but often or ultimately being large corporations (though I can’t give you figures on this, not having studied it).
The most interesting thing about the P&J, in my opinion, is the body of data and association and revelation it produces. Wander through it and find something you didn’t already know, or take something seriously that you previously dismissed. The something could be Yeezus or Vampire Weekend or “Royals”, if those hadn’t already entered your world. If they had, move on. There’s plenty else.
The least interesting to do with the poll, in my opinion, is to argue with it as if it is a conscious entity with terrible taste and bad motives whose judgments are meant as deliberate personal affronts to you and to decency.
Personally, I don’t care at all whether Pitchfork and Rolling Stone converge or diverge. I WOULD like to see the P&J electorate grow a bit, both in numbers and range. But not because I have some particular idea of better results I think it ought to be producing.
I agree with a lot this, but wonder about “the narrower but more potent (and answerable) question of ‘Why do these people vote for this music?’ much less make that question explicit to his readers”: thought that was the point of publishing voter’s comments? When they weren’t just snark, anyway. Also the point of essays, when they really were essays. Thing I keep hearing this year: “Flush the ‘essays,’ make it all comments.” How else could they answer the question?
Hi Frank! As always, enjoy the way you spell out your ideas. Especially like your anti-inequality formulation: more spenders means more spending in real terms, more music, etc. It’s simple. But here’s what I don’t get when it comes to the inequality question. If consumer spending is 70% of the economy and spending has remained depressed or relatively flat since ’08 how come major banks and corporations have set records in profits? It is as if big business success has somehow detached itself from consumer spending. And then these same big business people have a stranglehold on the political process, so that practical talk or action ab reducing inequality, say, job security, fair wages, worker’s rights, consumer rights, is nigh impossible. I wish I felt more optimistic ab it. On music matters, I take X-gau to mean consensus more or less as a synonym for agreement but I’m curious what more you have to say about the word. And it is weird that a guy w/ tastes as diverse as X-gau would evoke atomization as a bogey but he has always been the loyal dissenter defending the popular against the anti-popular reflex. It’s a feature of his critical voice I’ve always liked. But it gets kind of funny when he argues like what was at stake was any consensus at all (threatened by young anarcho-atomizing free downloader shut-ins, I imagine) when my own misgivings, and most the complaints I encounter, concern the shitiness of some particular consensus fave, not the relevance of any popular or critical consensus at all. As well, I remain unclear as to whether he is saying the tail of atomization is being cutoff by Pitchfork growing up, becoming part of the establishment, or the shrinking of the music industry, or both? And, right, I have a hard time seeing either as very positive developments.
Christgau is a big fan of the monoculture, particularly as it was expressed in the popular music of the ’60s as experienced in North America. As near as I can tell, he liked that version of monoculture because it was at once broader than the society it entertained, while still small enough to make access and consumption easy. I suspect that’s what he’s thinking of when he writes, “[W]e’re healthier as a culture when we agree on a bunch of them.”
The problem with the ’60s monoculture model is that it overlooks that the “one big tent” its enthusiasts celebrate was actually a much smaller space than the North American pop market of the ’70s and ’80s, much less (as you point out) the global market of today. But chaque un a son gout. I guess everyone needs some form of pop mythology to believe in.
My rant about the usage of the word “consensus” is here (“Meaning of ‘consensus’ changed unanimously with 16 voting in favor, 40 against, and 149 abstaining”):
JD! “Like This”! “I Am The Best”! Love & Peace!
Ah, I remember the good old Sixties when there were songs everyone knew: “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic.”
I remember the Sixties as a time when Americans were actively, hostilely divided, probably more than we are now (maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think Fox News and MSNBC represent constituencies nearly as much as the anti-war movement versus the law and order people represented dangerously divided groupings back then, though I realize that my group names are vague and my perceptions then may have been inaccurate).
I think the Sixties more than now had local musical scenes that people outside the locale didn’t have access to, and that pop and rock fans generally had no clue what was happening in e.g. country music than they do now, and no idea what was happening with the soul and r&b that didn’t cross over. The only reason I had any idea who Conway Twitty was in the ’60s-’80s was because a smattering of rock critics (incl. Xgau) would write about him. But in general people of my sociological grouping (whatever that was) would have had no idea he was a massively popular singer (I guess in the ’70s and ’80s more than the ’60s, but you get my point). Contrast now to Blake Shelton and Toby Keith.
I just don’t have an intuitive sense of the term “monoculture.” (But if it is meaningful, I’d think it’d be I Love Lucy and Walter Cronkite, not the Beatles, the latter having a very divisive impact.)
One of the stupidest things I did was to give away my copy of the first edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll when I got the second. Most of the essays in the first are in the second (but not the pics), but two that didn’t make the jump are Langdon Winner’s on the Beatles and Paul Nelson’s on Bob Dylan. In any event, I want to get the context for Winner’s contention that Sgt. Pepper’s briefly united the West in a way that it hadn’t been since the Treaty Of Westphalia, if I’m even remembering what the quote was about, and who said it. (I do have the sentence at home, partially, quoted by someone else, but I’m not at home. And maybe I’m misremembering and it wasn’t in that book. Google isn’t helping me here.)
I want to argue with it.
Sgt. Pepper’s was the first rock album I ever bought, but I was initially afraid to do so because I feared my dad wouldn’t let it in the house. I asked his permission. He said, “If you want to spend money on that garbage, I won’t stop you.”
A few weeks later we were driving back from Philadelphia (a cousin’s bar mitzvah) to Connecticut when a car driving south jumped the divider on the New Jersey Turnpike and rammed us. Our only serious injury was my grandma’s broken rib, but because of it, and because our car was totaled, she was in a hospital in the nearby city of Newark, and we were several blocks away in a hotel. The walk from the hotel to the hospital took us through the black ghetto. I remember saying to myself, “Are ghetto’s really this tense? Or am I projecting my own nervousness onto what I’m seeing?” At thirteen, this was the first major ghetto I’d seen, though the town of Willimantic, CT, where we often went shopping, certainly had its low-income areas.
Two weeks later, Newark exploded into a major race riot that left 26 dead.
Christgau is no dummy and he knows how divided the Sixties were. I haven’t read his particular thoughts on “monoculture.” But why use the word?
I remember Christgau talking in support of monoculture at an EMP conference a few years back, and what I took him to mean by the term was that, at the time, liking popular music meant one thing: Liking what was popular, as in “on the Top 40.” That would mean not only the Beatles, but also “Girl from Ipanema,” “Ring of Fire,” and “Heatwave.” Obviously, not everyone liked that music, but they didn’t count because they simply didn’t like popular music, and thus weren’t part of the monoculture.
By contrast, today there are many people who consider themselves pop music fans but have little or no interest in large swathes of popular music, and often are actively hostile against certain sectors. Christgau himself succumbed to this impulse, which may be why he used the term “semi-popular music” to describe artists like Randy Newman, who were not part of the monoculture because they were not popular in the literal sense, but were of interest nonetheless.
(BTW, I knew who Conway Twitty was not because I listened to country radio, but because of the musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” which my parents liked. The “rocker” in that musical was named Conrad Birdie, and although he was played as a psuedo-Elvis, the name clearly riffed on Twitty’s. Similarly, I owe Looney Tunes for my first intimation of Frank Sinatra as a teen idol.)
Sometimes I like to go back the 60s writing, incl the Esquire columns (which put me off at thee tyme), archived on his site. The Sgt. Pepper piece, with great quotes from the audience, was a stroke (think it orig ran in NY Times?), but elsewhere could an evident struggle (worth rooting for) to sort out the ballooning of post-Woodstock Rock and its effect on the overall pop process(ing), in terms of what no-b.s. music by and of and for the people did and could and could not and decidedly did not mean.
Frank, Marcus actually quotes Winner in the 2nd RS Illustrated Hist. (in his own Beatles essay, though he cites the quote as being from 1968, so I’m not sure if the exact same words ended up in Winner’s RS Beatles essay eight years later?). Here’s what he quotes (sans some lyrics, which I’m too lazy to transcribe in their entirety): “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. In every city in Europe and America the stereo systems and the radio played, ‘What would you think if I sang out of tune… Woke up, got out of bed…’ [followed by more lyric quotes from Pepper]…..and everyone listened. At the time I happened to be driving across the country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food — Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend — the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. For a brief while the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”
The last eight words in that quote are a refutation of what Winner was trying to say, no?
And here’s something Christgau said in an interview: “When I grew up, there was a monoculture. Everybody listened to the same music on the radio. I miss monoculture. I think it’s good for people to have a shared experience.”
If he had simply said, “everybody listened to the radio,” it would be a little closer to the truth, but his definition of “everybody” (and it’s probably fair to note that he said this off the cuff in an interview) is remarkably narrow. Even if he’s just talking about the rest of the audience that shares his demographic makeup — white people in America, born in the years immediately following World War II — I don’t at all buy his definition of “everybody.”
It’s weird to “miss” the monoculture, considering how much more of a monoculture we live in now than existed in the ’60s (it’s called the internet).
Congress of Vienna (1815). Treaty Of Westphalia (1648). Hey, 167 years isn’t that long!
But I flunk history.
Christgau’s “everybody” is hyperbole, and it might mean what you suspect, or even something slightly narrower: a lot of the people he grew up with, and a lot of people like them across the country, more or less. And almost none of their parents, I’d add, given that, from what I’ve read (which may not have been right, and as we know my memory rewrites things), virtually no one over the age of 25 listened to Top 40 radio, this being the case until 1964 or so. And I’m certain (though I can’t prove it) that, without the the adult and the general audience switching from radio to TV in the late ’40s and early ’50s, there’s no way the youth demographic takes over the listenership of Top 40 and therefore for the Top 40 audience to be small enough for rock ‘n’ roll to score significantly and for someone like Elvis to become a superstar. And of course Elvis was an incredibly divisive figure too.
And maybe Xgau just means the “we” who e.g. Lester Bangs claims agreed on Elvis* — Richard Riegel to thread to dissent from this “we”; or me to dissent, for that matter (though I like Elvis way more than Richard does), since for me in the mid to late ’60s, though I’m only six years younger than Lester, Elvis was old and out, a nonfactor one way or another, didn’t define you whether you were pro or con and not important enough for me to be either, not until the early ’70s when Elvis becomes symbolically ubiquitous again as a garish figure. And, even though screaming female fans were something of a symbol of Elvis’s early rise, I think (again, can’t prove it) that his listenership tilted significantly male. Once read a survey (again relying on memory) from 1958, of students in some Illinois high school, in which the boys listed Elvis as their favorite by a small margin over Pat Boone, while the girls voted overwhelmingly for Pat.
But parallel to how kids now can listen to music from Korea, and have more stations or the Internet equivalent to choose from, kids now (as were kids thirty years ago, for that matter) are way more knowledgeable and conversant about the music their parents grow up on than I was.
JD, are you sure Christgau said “liking popular music” rather than just “hearing popular music”? In eastern Connecticut in 1963 if you wanted to hear “Heatwave” on the radio you had to go to Top 40 ’cause it was the only game in town, there were no black stations,** but that doesn’t necessarily mean you liked either the rest of the music you heard or the people who listen to it. I’d say one of the good things about Top 40 then was that potentially antagonistic musics (and via one’s imagination) audiences had to rub shoulders. But I’d think that on black stations in NY or Chicago or the deep South etc. you could hear “Heatwave” on the radio without having to soil your ears with “Ipanema” or “Ring Of Fire.” (I was listening to Top 40 in 1963 but got bored with it around June, so missed “Heatwave” by one month. Didn’t pick up again for another three years, by which time the boredom had also come to include fear, but fortunately I gave way to peer interest and pressure. In 1966, at age twelve, I initially had no idea that the Motown acts were black, or that soul music was specifically a black music!)
Ha! I saw the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie when it was released in 1963, but I didn’t realize that Conrad Birdie was a play on Conway Twitty until you said so just now. (Never noticed that Bill Haley & The Comets was a play on Halley’s Comet until someone told me in 1997, so I’m not always the swiftest on the uptake.) Of course, Twitty’s brief career in the Top 40 was in 1958 and 1959, so by the time the musical (opened onstage in 1960) made the big screen, the reference was lost on tykes like me.
In any event, I don’t think voters in Pazz & Jop 2013 are a parallel to the everyone who (possibly) listened to the same songs on the radio in Christgau’s youth. If in 1958 we’d gathered together equivalent social types to the ones voting P&J now, the high numbers would have gone to jazz and folk, and maybe some r&b and classical would have registered, but rock ‘n’ roll would have only buzzed back in the background, and country would barely have blipped.
(This is a big stretch, but we could say that Kanye is a modern-day analogue to jazz of the ’50s and (not such a stretch) that Vampire Weekend are an analogue to folk, and thereby notice that our jazz analogue sells well and reaches a broader ear than jazz did in the ’50s (though actual jazz sold quite well then compared to now), while our folk analogue doesn’t reach nearly the public the Weavers or the Kingston Trio did (or Simon & Garfunkel did a decade later, who are probably a better analogue to Vampire Weekend, except I’ve never listened to Vampire Weekend enough to know what I’m talking about). I’m not really making a point in this parenthesis, just having fun.)
*What Lester actually said was “We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis,” which literally could mean not that we agreed a lot on Elvis, just more than we ever agreed on anything else; except he means the former, and it’s still a ridiculous statement.
**Unless there were and I managed not to notice them.
Sorry to be slow getting back: Really busy (and off-line) day.
Anyway, Frank: In terms of understanding monoculture — and this is based on my own parsing, not anything Christgau said — the issue is less a matter of “liking” as of “being immersed in.” Yes, being in the monoculture didn’t necessarily mean you were a fan of every single in the Top 40, but it *does* mean that those singles were part of your consciousness, your vocabulary, your sense of popular music. Think of it this way: Some people liked Paul the best. Some people like John the best. Some people like George, some liked Ringo. A few might argue against all of them. But they were all paying attention to a specific geography of popular music, as opposed to camping out in some land bordered by Eric Dolphy on one end, and Ornette Coleman on the other. Liking or disliking parts of that landscape did not remove them from it.
Also, I would suggest that the notion of “soiling your ears” is a post-monoculture one. Look at the Beatles repertoire before it was defined by studio recordings (through, for example, their BBC sessions), and you’ll find plenty of stuff along the lines of “Girl from Ipanema,” and I would argue that they covered “Besame Mucho” no less passionately than any Little Richard number (albeit with fewer screams). And they did commit “Till There Was You,” from the musical “The Music Man,” to vinyl. Again, I think this is what Christgau was advocating — not “The Music Man,” but an aesthetic that would only dismiss a song because of its quality, not its provenance.
I would further suggest that the notion that “virtually no one over the age of 25 listened to Top 40 radio” is false. A core demographic for Top-40 stations has always been housewives and secretaries, people for whom the radio is handiest and least contentious form of entertainment while working. That’s a group which includes quite a lot of women in their late 20s and 30s. (And, as a side-effect, their children.) Rock and roll may have been marketed as a “youth” product, but it wouldn’t have any legs if people over 25 stopped caring or paying attention. After all, part-time wages could pay for only so many 45s or concert tickets.
I fully agree with J.D.’s ‘immersion’ vs. ‘liking’ point. Not everyone liked rock and roll, but my sense is that everyone who cared about popular music eventually had to deal with it; they (we) lived in the world *created* by it. You might as well not “like” the weather, either. Also think this ties in a little bit, maybe, with the Bangs/Elvis quote. Might Bangs’s point be not that everyone loved Elvis, but that Elvis was (for a time, anyway) the focal point around which everyone who had an opinion about popular music had no choice but to have an opinion on him, pro, con, whatever? (Was the same true of Pat Boone? I don’t think so, but honestly don’t know. I have a hard time believing that Boone had the same divisive, galvanizing impact en masse.) And Bangs saying bye-bye to this was an acknowledgment that no single figure would perform that function again?
I kind of see how using the term consensus for what are really just popular vote winners does debase the idea of a consensus as representing the will of a whole group, not unlike a 53% popular vote in national elections stands in as a call for a mandate. But maybe it inches closer to what X-gau is getting at too. Not that everybody should be listening to all the same music or even a narrower range of music. After all, he points out that after the top three or four picks the year-end lists at RS and Pitchfork diverge dramatically. And, again, his own lists always strayed from as much as they overlapped with the P&J. Maybe he’s simply saying having a few records in common, on everyone’s radar, for or against, like his ‘60s monoculture, sharpens the critical conversation; or like your remark, Frank, ab how w/out at least some consensus there is no culture at all. The tricky part seems to come in to play when transposing what Top 40 did way back when to what collective critical lists like the P&J can do. X-gau’s idea, if I’m getting this, would be that critical faves provide a focal point around which diversifying critical debates ab tastes and whatnot can flourish. So in this sense he’s not arguing for exclusion for the sake of unanimity, as he appears to be at points in his essay, but for some unanimity for the sake of making talk ab inclusion legible. Seems worth noting again that for all his efforts in defending a converging consensus at the top of the polls from RS, P&J, and Pitchfork, the only one of the consensus bunch he expresses any genuine affection for is Vampire Weekend. And this still begs the question for me as to the quality of the most popular critical choices at the P&J and elsewhere. Are the critical favorites now, this year, in recent years, better or worse than those in the past? Yeezus and a few other recent P&J winners sound to me like a lull or decline in pop music or a decline in critical favorites. Either that or I’m just getting old. Or both.
Actually, I’d say that having to deal with Elvis and having to deal with Pat Boone were two sides of the same coin (so in this usage, “Elvis” doesn’t just refer to a performer but to the hullabaloo around him including haters and knockoffs and quasi-Elvises and anti-Elvises); and I wouldn’t be surprised if the name Pat Boone still represents something and still riles people till this day, even a few people some whose parents weren’t yet born in the guy’s heyday. (Well, I wouldn’t be totally surprised, anyway.) And — speaking of Pat Boone, not to mention Roger Williams — fear of adulteration has been a feature of American culture since a bunch of Separatists got on a boat in 1620; and this fear is embraced by the mainstream (to state it paradoxically, fear of being compromised by a mainstream is an idea that mainstreams themselves promote). And conversely but just as potent is the tendency of musicians to pilfer everything in earshot. Furthermore, I doubt there are genres that don’t have a tension between seeking legitimacy from outside sources (by getting recognition from respectable society, by getting mass acclaim, and so on) and by seeking legitimacy by eliminating outside sources. I get that the Beatles (and Elvis and pretty much anyone) can like and even play a bunch of disparate things (and being in Britain, the Beatles and the Stones et al. could synthesize musics that wouldn’t have synthesized in America, but that’s a side issue). My two points about my “Heatwave” fan are (1) that she doesn’t have to like “Ipanema” and “Ring Of Fire” to listen to Top 40 (and JD and Scott are saying the same thing, I think), and (2) if she lives in an urban area or in the South she can get access to “Heatwave” without Top 40, so may well not listen to Top 40 (though that doesn’t mean she automatically won’t, or that she might not like “Ipanema” or “Ring Of Fire” or even listen to Top 40 specifically to hear them). (And yes, of course, I haven’t done research here so maybe you guys know better.)
My point about Pat Boone was that a lot of girls weren’t buying into the supposed teen Elvis consensus. (Lester might not have included those girls in his “we” anyway. Maybe his “we” were the Elvis supposed progeny who were reading rockcrit in 1977.) My point in this comment is that Boone riled people who thought of him as compromising rock ‘n’ roll and r&b. (As an aside I’m guessing that a lot of those he riled were boys.)
Btw, I don’t mind at all someone thinking of American culture — or some particular subset of it, for that matter — as comprising a whole bunch of varied but overlapping affinities and divisions: we can be defined by conflicts and disjunctions as much as by what we “agree” on, and we don’t all have to be shaped by the same affinities and conflicts either, just have to have them in common with some other members of the culture, who share yet other conflicts and affinities with a bunch of others, and so forth. (Wittgenstein: “The strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fiber runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibers.”) And people attempting to squirrel away in their own cult interests can be part of it too. So if there ever was such a thing as “monoculture,” it can certainly include divisions and evasions and squirrel holes; the concept is probably stronger if it does. But is that the concept people are going for?
I think I have the same dream of cultural engagement as Christgau. So I’m not out to squash whatever point he may have made via the word “monoculture.”* I just don’t think I’m getting what the concept is or why it would be relevant.* The reason I don’t is: I can’t tell if it’s meant to refer to some culture or subculture as a whole (i.e., a set of people and their lives) or just to what everyone in that culture or subculture was exposed to, bearing in mind that as individuals of course people were also exposed to cultural matter that they don’t have in common with everyone. While the second is a coherent concept, it isn’t what anyone means by “culture,” and I don’t think it’s what anyone means by “monoculture.” I can’t imagine that someone who says “monoculture” means, say, Top 40 radio, or the three TV networks, but not the cultural lives of the people who listen to radio and watch TV. Rather, I assume “monoculture” is meant to say that what people hear and look at in common unites them as people. My point about the Top 40 stations of Xgau’s youth — which JD’s point about the housewives and secretaries, if it’s right, nonetheless doesn’t refute — is that it had a small listenership, not just in numbers but in percentage of the population. The small audience was a prerequisite for it having the history it did from the mid Fifties to 1963 (not just for rock ‘n’ roll getting big airplay, but for “Heatwave” and “Ipanema” and “Heatwave” dancing cheek to cheek). If Top 40 had held the adults, rock ‘n’ roll wouldn’t have jumped the airwaves with such force. And if it had a really big audience, scads of specialty formats would have arisen to swipe lots of the audience, chunk by chunk. (I’m also assuming that music on the radio wasn’t pulling in nearly the listeners that it did starting in ’64. Once again, I have no figures or facts.)
Scott, I think I can argue that everyone who cares about current popular music has to deal with hip-hop. Although hip-hop hasn’t created as much of modern music as rock ‘n’ roll and rock created from the mid Fifties to the mid Seventies, it’s something anyone (in Anglified North America, anyway) who cares about popular music is aware of and likely to have an opinion on. And it did this without a grand supposedly unifying superstar like Elvis and without a common format that “everyone” had to listen to. Not sure what point I’ve just made, except I don’t think “monoculture” or “we all agreed on ______” is a good way to talk about what separates then from now.
*Of course he may explain this very well somewhere. I’ve barely read what he has to say regarding “monoculture.”
(I still want to reply to Jack about economics [quick answer: I don’t have a clue] and Don about audience sociology. And I would love it if someone who isn’t me would write a history of adult contemporary and semi-related musics like easy listening [and later, smooth jazz and quiet storm]. My guess is that some of those 1950s housewives and secretaries listened to AC stations (if that’s what they were called then) rather than to Top 40. Or they followed the soaps and daytime variety shows to television, or listened to whichever stations stuck with Perry Como pop. Which doesn’t mean that some of ’em weren’t listening to Top 40. My impression (or guess) is that nowadays office radio tends to be AC or Hot AC, which of course has some overlap with Top 40 as well as its own pool of music, and it plays a lot of oldies.)
And [hip-hop] did this without a grand supposedly unifying superstar like Elvis and without a common format that “everyone” had to listen to.
That is, without being played on a radio format that “everyone” had to listen to.
Re. Frank’s guess about ’50s radio: The term “adult contemporary” didn’t come into wide usage until 1979, when Billboard used it to rename its easy listening chart. Easy listening was, for most of the ’60s, the preferred background music radio format, and would have been what you heard in business places, shops and dentist offices. (At least, those that wouldn’t spring for actual Muzak service.)
Housewives were always a key part of the Top-40 market because of their buying power. Radio ran on advertising, remember, and teens weren’t hugely attractive to advertisers because teens didn’t have a lot of money, and didn’t typically do the shopping.
In a Broadcast History course I took back in the 70s, we were told that Adult Pop was the Sinatra-led format of the 50s, for people who might even buy LPs, maybe even in stereo, who were grown-up or wanted to be, and def. vs. that greasy kid stuff (don’t remember the format name for rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop etc–Top 40 already?– but that was the gist of it in AP programmers’ implication: greasy kid stuff)(of course, early on, some markets called Elvis and kind “hillbilly bop” etc., but more for retail/trade press purposes, I think). Oh, and Semi-Classical was the basis of what was later called Easy Listening, Beautiful Music, and even Real Music, in some cases (in the 70s, like angry old Nixon voters and/or supporters)
I was at the EMP Conference where Christgau uttered the (in)famous line about monoculture, and he was more wry and ironic than the words in print, to be clear. Also, the Pitchfork-RS nexus he’s ambivalent about assumed monocultural authority without any of the power (in Hannah Arendt’s sense), a bit like a king in a constitutional or parliamentary monarchy. Most of us who still write professionally assume our work is mostly read by other critics — I don’t think this has changed much since the pre-Internet days — but thanks to the Internet the work survives, hoping for a Google hit. Taste formation still happens, then, even if the means of production have changed somewhat.
“Scott, I think I can argue that everyone who cares about current popular music has to deal with hip-hop. Although hip-hop hasn’t created as much of modern music as rock ‘n’ roll and rock created from the mid Fifties to the mid Seventies, it’s something anyone (in Anglified North America, anyway) who cares about popular music is aware of and likely to have an opinion on.”
I agree with you more than it sounds like you agree with yourself. I mean, I might actually argue that hip-hop “created as much of modern music” as rock did in its first 20 years, particularly if you take into account global reach and impact (which you’ve noted throughout yourself, and I don’t even think is arguable at this point — i.e., is there anywhere in the world where you won’t hear popular music at least inflected with hip-hop beats?). I think a similar point can be made of disco (including all forms of post-disco style of “dance” musics… which in some respects blend with hip-hop, too). I wouldn’t make a similar point about rock or Elvis or the Beatles or the Stones, though (though about r&b and soul? maybe I shouldn’t be so sure about any of this… it’s not like I know what the rest of the world was listening to circa 1965). The Beatles cultural reach, great and monumental as it was, today seems almost small-fry compared to hip-hop’s; difference being (as you point out) that there isn’t one figure around whom hip-hop coalesces (though at a given moment there might be; i.e., Run–DMC ca. 1984, Kanye circa 2010, etc.); hip-hop does not have an Elvis or a Beatles. Though it has lots of Stones’s and Dylan’s… maybe? (And shitloads of Byrds’s and Otis’s and Hermans’s, et al.)
Scott, of course you’re right, and my statement was parochial — though I might (or might not, when I give it more thought) argue that through the mid Seventies the music that rock ‘n’ roll and rock created tended to come in packages that were labeled “rock ‘n’ roll” and “rock,” whereas hip-hop’s influence quickly penetrated huge hunks of r&b and pop without most of the latter being hip-hop as such. For example, the K-pop idol groups are saturated in hip-hop, but the Korean music that’s called hip-hop is distinct from idol music (which doesn’t mean there’s no interplay; e,g., Block B (link) was essentially hip-hop guys creating an idol band, and last year’s great “Smoky Girl” by idol band MBLAQ was written and produced by hip-hop guys).
(The above overlooks the extent that rock itself was worked into and continues to simply be part of the unacknowledged DNA of subsequent nonrock, e.g. funk and disco and acid house and techno, and this doesn’t exclude hip-hop. To continue with Korean examples, Seo Taiji, the guy most often credited with creating K-pop (sorta its Chuck, Elvis, and Michael, hitting in the early ’90s) seemed at heart to be a progressive rock guy who added raps and hip-hop beats and hip-hop dancing. And two decades prior to that He 6, one of Korea’s self-styled psychedelic bands, seem to have substantially modeled themselves on Rare Earth, which had been Motown’s attempt to create a soul-progressive-rock-proto-metal amalgam along the lines of Vanilla Fudge.)
What JD says makes sense, about Top 40 needing adult dollars, and therefore needing secretaries and housewives. Still, I’m arguing that through ’63 adult attention went predominantly elsewhere, to TV, primarily, and on radio to what was left of the non-r’n’r legitimate pop of Como and ilk (not that Top 40 was free of such stuff) and to the beautiful music/legit-pop amalgam called “easy listening,” and on record to movie soundtracks and folk and Johnny Mathis (and to comedy: Bob Newhart was a big seller in ’60, ’61). So the housewife had choices, one of which, by the way, was country: I recall reading, I wish I remember where (Malone? Morthland?), that the Nashville sound was a sort of if-you-can’t-join-’em,-sidestep-’em reaction to Elvis, with country going modern not through rockabilly but through incorporating legit pop stylings and strings and such.
Wrote yet another long comment on “monoculture” that I didn’t post because I’m fundamentally speculating about material I haven’t read. Sometimes as a preliminary to my working out my understanding of a text, I say, “Suppose a teacher demands this: ‘What would the author say s/he’s saying here? Use your own words when possible so that this can be an exercise in understanding, not just typing. You can include the author’s implied but unstated assumptions, but only those that the author would endorse.’ How do I answer?” Anyway, when I try to complete the following thought, “A proponent of the term ‘monoculture’ would say that s/he’s using the term to assert ______ (use my own words where possible),” I can’t do it. The intuitive meaning would be, “America was (or had) a unified culture in the Sixties (through ’67, at any rate) but now isn’t.” But that contention is ridiculous and it can’t be what is meant.
(But the intuitive meaning is why I wouldn’t use the term even if there turns out to be a viable concept covered by the term.)
Here’s “Smoky Girl”:
Okay, I do very much enjoy this conversation even if I have no time for it. So, I hope to come back to this myth of the ‘60s top 40 monoculture some time b/c even if we do not know what it is, me more so than any of you guys, I think the way you’re talking ab it gives X-gau the short-end unfairly. I’m sure he doesn’t think everyone listened to it or that everyone had to like both “girl from ipanema” and “ring of fire”— he’d be using it as a model of critical conversation for today, which, right, he directs as the increasingly school marmish dean emeritus. But, anyway, for now. Hiphop is NOT the problem. Yeezus is the problem, or at least part of the problem, in that Yeezus is a genre record playing to a base, all beatdown, no dance, all narcissistic anger, no melody. And that that base represents the poor tastes of the most popular critical constituency of this past year. That’s a problem. But even I’m getting at least momentarily tired of hating on Kanye. Maybe Yeezus is a breakthrough. It reminds me of this Chris Rock joke ab Obama representing the end of racism. Rock scoffs at the notion and puts down that we’ll know racism is really over when we get some dumb-ass black president who lines his pockets like every other politician, trips over himself in speech, and fucks his interns. So in Yeezus maybe black pop has finally arrived, critically, anyway.
Jack, if I read like I’m giving Christgau “the short end” that’s not my intention (I do think I was a bit nit-picky above about his use of “everybody”; everyone speaks in generalizations all the time, I get that). The problem is, there’s been precious little elucidation about the monoculture concept from the person who introduced the term to rock criticism (Christgau himself) — so little elucidation, in fact, that I can’t help but place a skeptical “so-called” in front of it. I think we’re just trying to tease out what is actually meant by it, and ask how, or if, it ties in with his thoughts about “consensus” from the latest P&J. Which btw I only finished reading a few days ago, enjoyed it the way I enjoy all of Christgau’s stuff — I love the guy’s voice, his energy, his spirit, however you want to put it — but which I have to admit I found incredibly vague at least re: his thoughts on consensus. If he sees some interesting or significant trend in the fact that Pitchork and RS critics were aligned in their tastes somewhat — well, the significance of this is lost on me, entirely. (To me what it probably signifies more than anything is the fact that RS is no longer populated by as many critics bound to that publication’s historical post-60s vision or taste, which is inevitable given the demographics of the situation, and obvious to point out.)
Anyway — here’s a bit more on the idea from a Christgau interview in Salon, 2001 — I think it’s the first time he brought the idea up, though I could be wrong about that. I’ll just quote the relevant paragraph, though maybe I’d need to re-read the whole thing to make more sense of it all. In case you don’t see that embedded link, the URL is: http://www.salon.com/2001/05/09/xgau/
You’re not a doomsayer about audience fragmentation?
No, I’m not. But I also don’t think it’s a good thing that we’ve lost what’s called the monoculture. I grew up with the monoculture. I don’t think it’s such a bad idea that people learn the same history in school. I think it tends to ground people and give them something to respond to and react against. But on the other hand, if 25 years ago you had said, “Oh, there’ll be 50 different radio stations that’ll all play different kinds of music and there’ll be thousands of different songs on the radio,” people would have said, “Oh really? That sounds great.” Now they say, “Oh, it’s the end of the world.” Well, it’s one or the other. Maybe it’s neither.
You know, information overload is a phrase I’ve been using in my criticism for a long time. Change seems disturbing, threatening, fucking irritating, an affront to one’s very existence. But it’s not a good idea to base a career on it. I’m very anti-nostalgia and I’m very anti-golden age.
One side thought about Kanye/P&J: I don’t care for anything I’ve heard on Yeezus, I’m not remotely surprised or upset by its win, but if there’s one complaint I have about the results of P&J — one thing that makes me ask, “what fucking planet are these people (i.e., P&J voters) from?” — it’s the fact that three of its singles placed Top 10. THREE. Not a-one of which I heard on any radio station, at least one of which I can’t even recall from my listening to the album. I mean, big whoop, I don’t align with a bunch of P&J voters, but that did stick out for some reason, and it’s just something I don’t understand. At all.
What you guys are saying about genres/subgenres re-infusing each other–what Frank’s called “recombinant boogie,” and John Storm Roberts’ “Spanish tinge,” Lieber & Stoller telling interviewers about basing songs around ideas they had while listening to Nuyorican, Brazilian etc, is my fascination, especially in pop-rock-etc music around the world, usually from the 60s on. Such bumrushes my P&J most years, incl/ 2013 (from comments archived on The Freelance Mentalists)
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou, Volume Three—The Skeletal Essences of Afro-Funk 1969-1980 is
Analog Africa’s third collection of tracks from Benin’s primo movers of everything from
“ traditional Voudon rhythms to funk, sato, Latin, sakpata, psychedelia, and Afro-beat” includes reel-to-reel, one-or-two mic recordings in houses, and even outdoors: conditions which might have suggested the “Skeletal Essences” advisory. Still, the reel-to-reel was a Nagra, the outdoors settings were gardens, the sessions often nocturnal; the results are fully charged. They seem like a response to late-night Bay Area FM and UK pirate stations, who maybe turned on those trendy Voice of America and BBC World Service headz to Hendrix, Santana, Meters, James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, then dialing in electric Miles, P-Funk, Stevie Wonder, the expanding Talking Heads: trace elements, as filtered/reduced by these gray rockhead American ears, of Cotonou’s ricochet path around the encrusted periphery of textbook popular music history. Peripheral visions, flickering lightning, skeletal filaments: like Miles slipping in, stealing the scene on his own records, as the background becomes the foreground—not in a New Age sense, or anything rarefied; more like oops upside the head, as the searchlight and spotlight merge. Back in the day, these guys are still re-writing the books, the future—-as now, Daddy-o. Keep ‘em coming, Analog Africa! (Cotonou’s founder passed in 2012, but think there have been some reunion shows in the fairly recent past?)
Jazz didn’t make the list this year, in terms of obvious titles, but as usual (always?), it was a crucial ingredient of several selections—made a difference with Cotonou, the way I hear ‘em, and Guerilla Toss even, as we shall see–but right now should mention the inclusively, still inadequately-titled Underground Sounds of Modern Brasil: Hip-Hop, Beats, Afro & Dub. The excursions that first swept me up were the penultimate-to-ultimate grooves cruising off Disc 1, both very reliably informed by kosmic Krauts and Miles Davis (most likely). And all of Disc 2 has something to do with various kinds of jazz, as only the Brasilians/Brazilians can iterate ( yes, getting essentalist with it, but there’s your classy 2013 buzzword or meme or whatever it is, too).
Key point in the p.r. pitch for Rough Guide To African Disco: “Creative scenesters put their own spin on the disco sound, mashing together the rhythmic pulse of funk, soul and Latin with African grooves; soukous, Afrobeat, township jive and more.” Yes! There are a few let-downs, like the very first track, I think, but mostly amazing. Some/many/most of my faves are ones I wouldn’t have thought to tag as disco, but no prob. (and this Hon. Mention)
National Wake—Walk In Africa 1979-1980: South African, multiracial USA classifications, punk-funk-reggae-dub, reminding me of Australia’s Us Mob, No Fixed Address, Coloured Stone,very early live Police, some of Tom Robinson’s combos, Bad Brains kinda The finale, dub workout, is over 17 min long, like over three times as long as any other, but despite my habitual editorial fantasies, wouldn’t part with a particle so far). Great! Would have Top Tenned it, but already got *all* those reissues….
Scott: I heard Macklemore won a boatload of grammy’s the other day, shutting out Kendrick Lamar, and I thought, I’m getting agitated about a bunch of dumb-ass music critics picking Yeezus as the best record of last year?! “Same Love” sounds like it ought to have been a theme song to a late-night local college show I used to dj called ultramagnetic hootenanny, even though I promise I had nothing like it in mind. And, yet, I still like it better than Yeezus. And on your X-gau quote. Generally, as out of it as I am, I still line-up w/ the popists vs. the oldies-devotees. Very few things are as annoying as youtube comments ab how they don’t make real music or party like they used to in 1999 or ’89 or ’79 or ’67, or ’27, etc. But, at this point, I regard X-gau’s anti-nostalgia position, one I’ve adopted reflexively for years, like that Sinclair line ab getting a man to understand something he’s paid not to. It just seems defensive, and a little beside the point. It’s not really a matter of whether Kanye is or is not better than Miles (he’s not), or Vampire Weekend better than the Talking Heads (they’re not). Why choose between them? Or more to the point, why should the former demand any more of our attention than the latter? I understand why a young person might prefer the new to the old. B/c there’s more of the present, now, and the future in contemporary pop. Sure, I get that, I still find it exciting, but not much more than I do some oldie, say, Link Wray or Italo Disco record I’m currently listening to. And I think the anti-nostalgia reflex probably plays a role in why critics hedged about the Daft Punk record. They’re afraid it’s passé, whereas Yeezus is hiphop’s monomaniacal machismo cutting edge. But Yeezus just makes me nostalgic for Kendrick Lamar. You know, really, going back to just the title of X-gau’s essay, I don’t think it’s the consensus/monoculture part that is fuzziest but the consequences part. What consequences? The only consequences to the consensus/monocultural convergence of Pitchfork/RS/P&J he discusses is the preponderance of shitty “attenuated” records to his one beloved Vampire Weekend record at the top of the polls. So increasing monoculture is a good thing even though the consensus picks are by and large a load of crap?! More than anything what struck me ab the essay was how crabby he sounds. And now I promise not to say another word ab it before reading the essay again, which will have to at least wait until I contend with the mountain of papers I have to grade. Thanks for putting up the link.
Jack, from my reading of this thread, I don’t think anyone here believes that Christgau thinks “everyone listened to [‘60s top 40] or that everyone had to like both ‘girl from ipanema’ and ‘ring of fire,'” though JD and Alfred haven’t explicitly said they don’t believe Xgau believes it. But neither JD nor Alfred have made clear what they think Xgau does believe or what they themselves mean when they use the term. I think Scott and I are pretty clear that we don’t know what Xgau believes (anyway, let me state it clearly now: I don’t know what Xgau believes he means by the term “monoculture” and by the term “consensus”; also, he didn’t use the term “monoculture” in this year’s essay; twas JD who introduced it into our discussion).
My unfairness to Xgau is that I’m perfectly capable of going online and reading his last year’s essay to see how he used “consensus” there and going to Google and Wikipedia and getting at least some handle on how people have used the word “monoculture” over the years. The two reasons I haven’t given this priority are:
(1) I think in my first comment I did a good job of laying out the issues regarding diversity and consolidation, and I did so without the word “monoculture” and with the [misused] term consensus appearing only once, in scare quotes. (Btw, when I used the term “curriculum” in a followup comment, I probably meant “syllabus,” though I suppose both can be at issue together.)
(2) What actually concerns me on this thread isn’t that we get clear on what Xgau means (to discuss the issues ourselves we don’t have to, though for all I know we’d do it better if we did) but that we get clear on what the people on this thread are trying to say, that we successfully communicate our own ideas and understand the other person’s, and where there are misreadings we recover from them. I’m worried that my long comments wear people out, and that some of my points get lost in the length (and even with all my words, my stuff on “fear of adulteration” is too condensed and cryptic).
In any event, even before discovering in the last two years that JD and I had voted in common for SNSD, 2NE1, and the Wonder Girls, I’d had a vague sense that he and I might be kindred spirits, based on a comment or two of his that Christgau had printed long ago in Pazz & Jop. So in the back of my mind was the feeling that it would be worth checking the archives someday to read a hunk of the guy, though I’ve never gotten around to.it. This thread is the first I recall the two of us ever conversing, though online monikers and my memory being what they are, I could be all wrong about this. So throughout this thread he’s been thoughtful and knowledgeable and articulate, but then I come to this:
“Also, I would suggest that the notion of ‘soiling your ears’ is a post-monoculture one.”
Following my own advice above (“Suppose a teacher demands this: ‘What would the author say s/he’s saying here? Use your own words when possible so that this can be an exercise in understanding, not just typing. You can include the author’s implied but unstated assumptions, but only those that the author would endorse.’) I can come up with a couple of readings for this, but none that aren’t so preposterous that I don’t believe JD would assent to them. Even assuming he misinterpreted me as implying that all fans of “Heatwave” would have considered “Ipanema” and “Ring Of Fire” as blemishes on their eardrums, I can’t come up with a nonridiculous reading of that sentence. Anyway, rather than give my own readings, I’m wondering if any of you would like to take a shot at it, what you think JD would say he’s saying here. (And of course JD is included in the invitation.) Also wonder if any of you would like to take a stab at this, from Alfred:
“Also, the Pitchfork-RS nexus he’s ambivalent about assumed monocultural authority without any of the power (in Hannah Arendt’s sense), a bit like a king in a constitutional or parliamentary monarchy.”
P.S. I still hope to respond to Jack and Don.
Btw, if anyone’s still listening, I’ll elaborate on my claim, “I think in my first comment I did a good job of laying out the issues regarding diversity and consolidation,” by saying that my Point #2 in my first comment shows maybe what I think the financial/economic issue might be, but I surely can’t explain with any confidence how to get more acts out of the tail and into profitability; and what my Point #4, in its self-conscious broadness and vagueness, lays out well isn’t how to talk about cultural cohesion versus cultural nonadhesion but rather that, at least in rockwrite/musicwrite, we don’t have the conceptual tools to even begin the conversation, The buzzwords “consensus” and “monoculture” don’t remotely provide a starting point. I’d hope but not expect that some sociologists somewhere have good models, but my guess is that I at least would have to start from near scratch. I doubt that we could even find a handful of people who would agree in some more than vacuous way as to what cultural cohesion is.
Don, essays and comments in the old days (and maybe now, but I never read ’em anymore except for Glenn’s) provide interesting info, but what I don’t recall many of them even asking much less trying to answer in any systematic way is what P&J polls reveal about the behavior of the particular social types who vote in P&J polls.
Jack, I’m not within miles of being competent to answer your question about how banks and some corporations and bigwigs are back to record profits while consumer spending remains flat. People like Paul Krugman and Elizabeth Warren can probably tell us, though I wouldn’t necessarily understand their answers. I expect (or guess) that most corporations that provide goods and services aren’t doing fabulously and meanwhile are parking their money in low-interest bonds that aren’t earning them anything but at least seem safe, and that what they’re not doing is investing in or expanding infrastructure or inventory, since there’s no consumer demand. The last year may have eased this somewhat, but I don’t know. But maybe financial services are an exception? Again, I don’t know. 1stBank seems to be closing some of its Denver branches without opening new ones. Krugman says that it’s the “rentiers” — “creditors who have claims from the past — bonds, loans, cash — as opposed to people actually trying to make a living through producing stuff” — who oppose the efforts to do anything about the economic crisis, since these people profit from low inflation and high interest rates when what the economy needs right now is the opposite (says Krugman). But since the “rentiers” have only gotten half of what they want (low inflation but not high interest rates), I can’t tell you if they’re doing especially well or not, much less if they’re the people who are profiting especially.
So that’s my nonanswer.
As for Yeezus, I’ve only heard two or three tracks from it (a fact that’s either indicative or not indicative of something). “[A]ll beatdown, no dance, all narcissistic anger, no melody.” Take away the “no dance,” and I could easily imagine an album that fits that description topping my own ballot. But the tracks I’ve heard from Yeezus are too arid for me. (Yet, I could imagine “aridity” describing an album I consider great, so digging deeper I’d get a more complex understanding of my reasons for my meh response, but no reason that’s definitive. See my Boney Joan Rule: “any reason I give for liking a performer will also be a reason I give for disliking some other performer.”) But my thumb’s a bit more up than down (though not way up) on “Black Skinhead,” which does have some dance, even if it’s more Gary Glitter than the Gap Band.
I know this is another non-response, just throwing it back at you, but I think my question is still how some small subclass of your rentiers— perhaps this 1/10 of the 1% Krugman talks about— have seemingly found a way to squeeze profitable rates of return out of economy (web shell games, worker productivity (euphemism for paying people less for working more), privatization?) while largely ignoring the general economy, or macro factors like low interest rates. But I don’t understand this stuff any better than you. Let me know what you come up with concerning better “conceptual tools” for discussing “cultural cohesion versus cultural nonadhesion.” Quorum vs free public assembly? Stand in line vs kiss my ass? I’m just disappointed with Yeezus (which is partly moralistic, sure) and some of the others topping critical lists, and which has usually not been the case for me. I typically go to one degree or another for most the popular stuff. And at this point, Frank, I’ve so internalized your Boney Joan Rule I experience it as a form of writer’s block. Thanks.
“We no longer live in a monoculture. We can’t even agree to hate the same thing anymore, as we did with disco in the 1970s.”
This was written by Toure in Salon (link no longer available), and it makes absolutely no sense, his positing a “we” comprised of disco haters, ignoring the fact that there’d BE no anti-disco movement without the rise of disco itself (and the millions of people who loved it). I can’t believe an editor failed to question his nonsensical use (x2) of “we” here (actually, I can believe it), never mind questioned the monoculture idea itself.
“…but rather that, at least in rockwrite/musicwrite, we don’t have the conceptual tools to even begin the conversation,”
Frank, do you mean writing itself is ultimately inadequate at conveying what music does, or that rock critics just don’t have the means — the training? the intellectual capacity? — to discuss things in a meaningful way? I’m pretty sure you mean something closer to the latter (correct me if I’m wrong), but if the conversation hasn’t even begun, how would anyone (in this — non-conversation?) know that? Are you saying it’s a different conversation altogether that you want to have? If so, what is that conversation about, and does it somehow at least relate to what is being discussed in “rockwrite”? (Or in this specific case, to the vague concepts of monoculture and consensus?) Do you see better conversations (with better “conceptual tools”) happening elsewhere, outside of rockwrite, and if so, where are they, what are they? (And how can you/we/etc. make use of them here, and elsewhere?) I’m being a bit of a pest with these questions, probably — maybe you’ve answered them a zillion times elsewhere, and I certainly don’t expect you to tackle them right here, but I never know what to think, or how to respond, when you express your frustrations with rock criticism this way. (You Can’t Get No) Satisfaction from how most rock writing is approached, is what I sense from a lot of your writing, but What Are We Not Getting??? (And are you part of the “we” in the “we don’t have the conceptual tools”?)
I guess I’m okay with having conversations that involve a lot of batting around of ideas, which more often than not don’t “add up” to anything, because I like the batting around part itself (not to mention the fragments of thought that erupt, even re: vague concepts like “monoculture,” which I can’t say has not been fun and interesting to bat around and beat up and argue with), and I don’t feel unsatisfied (necessarily — though sometimes I probably do) if the conversation fizzles out or detours or doesn’t get to better, smarter places because I don’t know what those better, smarter places are until I arrive there, I don’t think. But I get the feeling you do have very specific areas in mind — threads you’ve started in your own writing, perhaps, that no one has picked up and challenged you with?
Scott, to start with your final sentence, it’s all my substantial ideas, ever, that “no one has picked up and challenged [me] with.” Except of course from time to time someone (e.g., Eddy, Frith, Moore, Finney, Sinker, etc. etc.) will pick up this one or that and run with it a little. But none has sustained the inquiry, and I’m fundamentally on my own (though that last statement needs some qualification).
That’s vague enough. To answer an implied question, I’ve yet to create a Dead Lester 3 post, so I mostly left the conversation hanging as of May 2012. (That sentence will be cryptic for any reader who didn’t read Dead Lester 1 and 2.)
Those two paragraphs are nonanswers, really, in that the first doesn’t specify the ideas and the second doesn’t say why I didn’t go forward with Dead Lester. Maybe I’ll answer in dribs and drabs, over time. Maybe I’ll say a lot; maybe I won’t.
Going back to Jack, it’s disheartening that Boney Joan has given you writer’s block, since as a tool it was designed to do just the opposite. From the piece:
I love Liz Mitchell’s clear, empty tones (Liz Mitchell being the lead singer of Boney M). I can’t stand Joan Baez’s clear, empty tones. Of course, I can look for further reasons. For instance, Liz Mitchell’s tone is light, whereas Joan Baez sounds soggy. Which gets rid of my inconsistency but produces another one when I recall that I love the thick, soggy singing in freestyle songs such as Cynthia’s “Change On Me” and Lisette Melendez’s “A Day In My Life (Without You).”
I can go on like that, digging further. My feeling is that we never do arrive at the Real Reason I Like Boney M and the Real Reason I Dislike Joan Baez — the opinions are more durable than any reason I give for them — but that in making the journey through successive explanations I learn about the music and my own tastes, and maybe I learn something about my own values, as I discover what I’m willing to count as a good reason and what I think is a bad but true reason.
I love Liz Mitchell’s clear, empty tones (Liz Mitchell being the lead singer of Boney M). I can’t stand Joan Baez’s clear, empty tones. Of course, I can look for further reasons. For instance, Liz Mitchell’s tone is light, whereas Joan Baez sounds soggy. Which gets rid of my inconsistency but produces another one when I recall that I love the thick, soggy singing in freestyle songs such as Cynthia’s “Change On Me” and Lisette Melendez’s “A Day In My Life (Without You).”
I can go on like that, digging further. My feeling is that we never do arrive at the Real Reason I Like Boney M and the Real Reason I Dislike Joan Baez — the opinions are more durable than any reason I give for them — but that in making the journey through successive explanations I learn about the music and my own tastes, and maybe I learn something about my own values, as I discover what I’m willing to count as a good reason and what I think is a bad but true reason.
The Boney Joan Rule contains both an invitation to keep writing and a guide as to what to write. My guess is that where the block comes in is that you feel any opinion you give requires you to keep writing, to test the opinion, so you drop out of giving the opinion in the first place. I don’t know what to say about that, since the requirement is basically a good one, is fundamental to thinking (“If I praise Song A for having a particular attribute, I need to explain why I disparage Song B, which seems to have the very same attribute”). There’s a potential breakdown, in two senses: you break down, i.e. analyze, your reasons, but while doing so the reasons, to some extent, break down (i.e., fall apart). All I can say is that, (1) stating a reason in the first place starts an adventure, (2) in some way you have to feel it’s an adventure, and that the adventure being incomplete leaves you material for when you write the next episode (“I get to” — as opposed to “have to” — “rethink my reasons, and rethink what’s happening in Songs A and B, what they are“), (3) the breakdown not only forces you to arrive at new, probably better reasons; it also makes it likely that the reasons you come up with are more original, more your own, less based on ideas and terminology taken from others. More adventure.
Cultural cohesion versus cultural nonadhesion isn’t my big issue (which is one reason I’m so laggard at, or indifferent to, exploring the history of the word “monoculture”), but, even if we don’t have the concepts at hand to explain huge hunks of stuff, we do have the tools to at least start to think about what the issues are. If you want to, you can approach it from two ends via a bunch of questions: what is the fear from supposed nonadhesion? Do Bloods and Crips listen to different songs from one another? Do such differences, if there are any, have anything to do with why they shoot each other? (I have no idea if Bloods and Crips are still ongoing entities, or if they’ve been superseded by other gangs. My guess is that gangbangers tend to listen to the same tunes, regardless of the gang.) Are we worried that if we don’t all draw on more or less the same cultural material we won’t understand each other’s jokes? E.g., from 1986: “What did Donna Rice and Christa McAuliffe have in common? They both went down on the Challenger.” To get this, you have to know who Donna Rice and Christa McAuliffe were, and who/what were the respective challengers.
From the other end you can ask: suppose 500 people walk by, and you count 9 of them as having red hair. Can you meaningfully say that they agree with each other in some way, by sharing this attribute? Well, if they’re all walking arm-in-arm, maybe. If they’re scattered about, probably not, even if some of them dyed their hair red, and some of the other 491 had formerly had red hair that they’d dyed into something else.
Okay, what about the 9 people who voted for Matana Roberts in Pazz & Jop? Do they meaningfully form a group? Can they be said to agree in some way, or are these tastes more like attributes, like their happening to have red hair? If they are in agreement, what’s the agreement about? (The other Matana Roberts voters can’t know if her album was one of the 10-best I listened to, since they didn’t listen to most of what I listened to.) Do we all like Matana for the same reasons?
Glenn’s statistics, interesting as they are, aren’t all that helpful in this regard, since they only give us single albums: I.e., two people (me and Chuck) who voted Matana high this year voted Scooter semi-high three years earlier, which isn’t statistically significant. What we need to know isn’t that two people who voted for Matana Roberts also voted for Scooter, but rather, that a number of people who voted for something like Matana Roberts — say avant jazz or something else avant and difficult — over the years also consistently voted for Scooter-like ebullient dance cheese while shunning middlebrow indie such as Vampire Weekend, all of which forms one kind of footprint (both ends against the middle, let’s call it*); while others who voted for the avant and difficult had no trouble going for middlebrow indie, including the various Matana Roberts voters who did vote Vampire Weekend; and overall you get something of a different voter footprint from them. I have a feeling this is something that’ll be difficult even for Big Data machines to get a handle on, at least for a number of years, because the machines’ll have to “hear” not just how something is like something else, but how different people might be hearing the same thing differently from how other people hear it, hence associate it with other different things, so what’s avant and difficult for one person, say Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” may be dance cheese for someone else. Or both. (Btw, of the three people who voted for “Harlem Shake” — two of whom also voted for Matana Roberts — I was the only one who didn’t vote for Vampire Weekend. And I’m not going through all the Vampire Weekend voters to see if there’s a pattern to who among them voted for dance cheese and who didn’t, and if the Vampire Weekend avanters were more dance cheesy than the Vampire Weekend nonavanters.)
Dave is hypothesizing that rock-critic listening does seem to leave a particular footprint or sets of footprints different from that of otherwise demographically similar people who seem to listen to categorically similar stuff that turns out not to fit the rock-critic footprint at all. See link regarding his and his sister-in-law’s tastes.
Btw, the same tool — the “Web,” defined broadly — that gives us access to so much stuff that we’re less likely than before to vote for the same tracks as someone demographically similar to us also makes it easier for me, should I take an interest in someone else, to within half an hour hear all ten of the obscure faves she voted for, whereas in the past it might have taken months or years to get ahold of the music, if we lived in different cities and her cassette recorder was broken.
*You could argue that with my “PBS” metaphor back in 1987 I was claiming that “Both ends against the middle” was the new middlebrow. [/cryptic comment]
(Since I’m implying stuff about critical incompetence and the failure to think through one’s ideas, I should mention that I don’t actually know what happened between Rice and her supposed paramour, and I don’t think it ever was determined for sure. The joke would’ve been from ’87 or ’88, not ’86.)
Oddly, I found the Toure article, read a little bit of it, took a break to move clothes from washers to dryers, came back, and found a message from Google Chrome that went, “Google Chrome has blocked access to this page on http://www.salon.com. Content from socialsearch.com, a known malware distributor, has been inserted into this web page. Visiting this page now is very likely to infect your computer with malware.” But anyway, I was right at “We can’t even agree to hate the same thing anymore, as we did with disco in the 1970s” when I got pulled away, and nothing from the context seemed to indicate irony or implied scare quotes around either “we” or “monoculture,” unfortunately.
Now to rev up McAfee.
“Are we worried that if we don’t all draw on more or less the same cultural material we won’t understand each other’s jokes?”
I do think this is something at work in the way Xgau uses “consensus.” And which is a little ironic given the biggest complaint ab his year-end essays over the years I’ve encountered is how obscure they are w/ endless allusions to records no one else has heard. But there is a tension to how he’s always seemingly trying to reconcile his own multicultural tastes to some general critical conversation represented by the poll toppers. And this is probably a tension inherent to discussing any culture, particularly a contemporary one. I’d liken it to how every language has a dictionary and a set of grammatical rules but a living language also needs people who speak the language, make-up new language, are aware to one degree or another of customary rules, but largely ignore them in the everyday effort of connecting w/ others. In other words, there are codifiers and connectors. Xgau is a codifier. Everybody in critical conversations ab pop music are codifiers, even anti-authority codifiers like yourself. Or, well, actually, we’re all codifiers and connectors but in as much as we are writers and readers ab pop we are codifiers. Perhaps there are communities of pop fans somewhere whom more purely ‘connect’ w/out the ‘codifying’—your K-poppers perhaps?— but I imagine that to be only a matter of experience and temporary. People engaged in reading and writing ab music will eventually codify their experience. Anyway, I think my point would be that while we know languages can live w/out dictionaries, dictionaries can’t live w/out people who use and love dictionaries. We is them peoples, Frank. Or, well, you are for sure and I’m more a marginal hanger-on; you more one of the writers and me more one of the readers. Nonetheless, Xgau has been defending a consensus/monoculture since that piece he wrote ab a rock critic establishment in, I dunno, ‘75? Is his emphasis on the common cultural material unifying music critics and their readers misplaced, unnecessary, or a hollow boast in as much as what he is extolling is a critical conversations ab pop music? I’m of at least two minds on this question. On the one hand, I find your remarks ab the inadequacies of the discussion and Xgau’s ab the importance (or “consequences”) fascinating. On the other, though, when I step away from this stuff for a minute, there is something I sense intuitively ab the implications of both that I resist. I mean, I’m reminded that I find year-end poll results, charts, information ab what others are listening to, and talking ab them, useful and interesting and fun regardless of arguments ab consensus or the adequacy or inadequacy of the conversation. I’m pleasantly distracted glomming onto this detail or that– for instance, I do wish Xgau would have made his scolding big deal ab “Harlem Shake” rather than Lady Gaga– to me, it was the better cause of neglect in the lists.
“You could argue that with my “PBS” metaphor back in 1987 I was claiming that “Both ends against the middle” was the new middlebrow. [/cryptic comment]”
Or how ab post-middlebrow? (Like 70s Bowie?) The way I understood your PBS idea “cheese” (or at least the non-artisanal stuff) would have been anathema. The “dance” (or the avant and difficult, for that matter) would be okay but, the key, it had to be rationalized as virtuous, or fulfilling some sort of do-good purpose. Oh yeah, like “playing both ends against the middle” does to “shunning middle brow indie”?! Funny, much as I do like the Matana Roberts and Scooter, my first reflex when I read that formulation was, grrr, where’s my middlebrow indie! How ab Mikal Cronin’s II, for instance, classic underdog guitar-pop anthems! Or Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap! Let’s hear it for middlebrow indie! (Other than Vampire Weekend, that is.)
Please don’t despair ab my limitations. Turns out I only internalized the first part of your Boney Joan Rule— the pause created when we realize a reason we give for liking something might Just as easily serve as a reason for why we dislike something else. For example, I dislike the coarse meanness of Yeezus but liked the coarse meanness of Watch The Throne. As for the subsequent adventure, why WTT and not Yeezus, getting at what Xgau is talking ab, or why the year or past few year’s critical faves seem unusually blasé, etc I vacillate between enjoying the journey and wanting to get somewhere. Or needing to be somewhere else, that is— I don’t have the time (who does?!) or, okay, yes, and know-how. (I’m just a poor boy from a poor family.)
BTW, here’s a link to one of your Dead Lester posts for anyone else still interested and looking for a shortcut. It did help me a lot with context for understanding Scott’s questions and your responses. http://koganbot.livejournal.com/293215.html
Cheese is not anathema. Cheese, with its opportunism and raucousness, can be rationalized as subverting the staid, well-lit complacency of those (say, Academy Awards voters or watchers of the real PBS) who settle for quality and worthiness in their entertainment. So in 1987 I was arguing that we, in plumping for our own semi-similar footprints of pigfuck and postpunk and avant noise and pop cheese and outsider art and multi-everything curiosity, had in effect created our own “PBS for the youth” and, like the real PBS, were rendering all of it lame within the context of our appreciation. “Subverting staid, well-lit complacency” was itself a mark of quality and worthiness. (I hinted in that first Why Music Sucks essay, and started exploring in subsequent issues of my fanzine, that year and the next, that there was a culture-wide “PBSification,” that the mainstream middle had long bought into a sense of its need to be subverted — so wasn’t so staid or complacent — and itself helped to generate oppositional bohemias and subgroups [which doesn’t mean the mainstream is the only source for those bohemias and subgroups; but it’s wrong to think of bohemias and subgroups as fundamentally outside of mainstream society].)
My phrase upthread, “both ends against the middle,” refers to Leslie Fiedler’s 1955 article “The Middle Against Both Ends” (link).
I’m still being far too condensed, there being so much to respond to. Take my word for it that I did and do try to unpack what I mean by “PBS for the youth” and “we,” In the essay I called us a “marginal musical intelligentsia,” by which I meant something a bit broader than just the indie-alternative-fanzine network plus rock critics; I’d also have included anyone vaguely affiliated with punk or postpunk, as well as readers of alternative press music sections, though not just any reader but the ones who identified with the ideals and ethos being promulgated. And fwiw I’d include what’s pathetically come to be called “antirockists” and “poptimists” within that PBS, though I don’t identify with either of those terms. But I did and do mean the “we,” i.e. as including me. The social subversion and social do-good impulses are mine as much as anyone’s. Where I do think I stand apart is that I don’t let the “symbol stand in for the event,” which was my complaint then about our Musical Marginal Intelligentsia and is my complaint now about my rockwrite/musicwrite/wrong colleagues** when they attempt social analysis. Rock critics have the responsibility to unpack what they mean by, e.g., “we” and “consensus” and “agree” and “monoculture,” and their writing and thinking are preposterously bad when they don’t.
(Of course, “symbol stands in for the event” is itself a phrase that needs a lot of unpacking; several years ago I sent Dave, Mark, and Nitsuh a 22-page partial expansion and critique of it.)
*At 33 I still identified with youth, at least with some conceptual not totally age-based “youth.”
**But the phrase “my colleagues” probably isn’t true anymore, for better or worse. I’m mostly looking elsewhere, which doesn’t mean I don’t wish some of you would come with me.
A quote from Why Music Sucks #1, February 1987:
I’m being a bit loose with the term “PBS.” I mean a certain PBS head (attitude), which can include a cult taste for shitty horror movies, pro wrestling, African pop, comic books, Hasil Adkins… all this pseudofun is a covering for a mind set that’s ruled by PBS. We’re making horror movies safe for PBS. We have met PBS, and it is us. I mean an imaginary PBS of the future, with pro wrestling, splatter films, and leftist analyses of the Capitalist Entertainment Industry (scored by a reformed Gang of 4). All rendered lame in the context of our appreciation. [ellipsis in the original]
From Why Music Still Sucks or Why “Why Music Sucks” Sucks (WMS #2), Summer 1987:
Our terms of justification have gone through so many convolutions that now an unjustifiable act — Jerry Lee Lewis shooting someone for no reason — serves to justify Jerry Lee by virtue of being unjustifiable. Among ’60s buffs, negligible bands like Music Machine and the Litter now have higher status than the much better Simon & Garfunkel. But the pattern of justification stays the same, stays PBS.
The excerpts I reprinted in Real Punks Don’t Wear Black from those two essays are currently online via Google books (link).
[By the way, I don’t know much about the incident where Jerry Lee shot his bass player; it may well have been a near-tragic accident that haunts Jerry Lee to this day. I was just talking about the attitude that something like this could make Jerry Lee cool in someone’s eyes.]
From “The Rules Of The Game No. 24: The PBSification Of Rock” [which is a kinda Cliff Notes version of my PBS metaphor; the feel of the prose doesn’t quite deliver what the original essays had, which is why I’m sometimes hesitant to link it; but it does clarify some of the ideas (link)], Las Vegas Weekly, November 16, 2007:
Actually, without realizing it, I was using my PBS metaphor in two somewhat different ways:
(1) A straight-up metaphor: The indie-alternative-fanzine network was playing a role in popular music and youth culture similar to the one that PBS played in the larger culture. Here I didn’t mean just the alternative bands that the real PBS would find acceptable such as Talking Heads or R.E.M.; I meant the whole kit and caboodle, including hardcore punks and skinheads and moshpits and bands like the Mentors who advocated “peaceful rape” (like when the girl is passed out on drugs or alcohol) and Psycodrama, who would bait their audience with anti-Semitic and racist insults (while playing a kind of funk) and had a member, Fifi Poop Butt, who’d sometimes load up with an enema right before a show and let loose onstage, heaving shit at the audience. (My girlfriend Leslie had been a member of Psycodrama, though she’d quit the band well before the racism or anti-Semitism or shit-throwing had become part of the act.) The music-youth “PBS” wasn’t so much a set of bands or particular sounds; any music could be approached and extolled in our “PBS” way, whether it was old rockabilly or free jazz or hair metal.
. . .
(2) A culture-wide process I called “PBSification”: Something vital discovers a sense of its own significance, thereby losing certain psychological protections that had allowed it to fool around and maybe not grasp its own potent nature. I was thinking of ’50s rock ’n’ roll as being pre-PBS and then the British-invasion groups such as the Rolling Stones — my favorite band ever — setting rock on a PBS path; but this can apply to any cultural form, not just rock music. Once the significance is understood, a reverse process takes over, and the performers imagine capital-S Significance for themselves that they don’t in fact have, and sell this imaginary significance, which the audience buys.
So I was saying that significance becomes a mere signifier.
The point of this isn’t particularly to promulgate my PBS metaphor (though it does need to be promulgated, even though it will never be totally coherent and nonproblematic), but rather to encourage people to do habitually what I did, which was (1) to use a novel metaphor (PBS for the youth) rather than a buzzword, thereby signaling that I would have to put in some effort to make the notion meaningful and that the reader would have to put in some effort to understand it, and (2) to go immediately to extreme cases that make the metaphor potentially unworkable, which paradoxically are also what make the metaphor meaningful. If I’d merely used Talking Heads and Sonic Youth as my examples, I’d have told you nothing, since you already knew that Talking Heads and Sonic Youth were acceptable to the real PBS. But by citing splatter films and the Jerry Lee Lewis gunshot I was potentially making people go “Woah, how do those get under the rubric ‘virtuous and social do-good’?” (Which isn’t quite what’s going on; more like splatter and Jerry become accoutrements to a general supposedly worthy and daring challenge to the supposed upper-middle-something-or-other, and I’m arguing that the challenge to the supposed upper-middle-something-or-other is itself an extension of the upper-middle-something-or-other; which is interesting (both my argument and the extended upper-middle-something-or-other itself).)
I realize that for many people I come off as extremely obnoxious, saying in effect, “I’m an intellectual, and if you want to be an intellectual this is what you’ve got to do.” But I’m right: if you want to be an intellectual, this is what you gotta do. More crucially, for rockcrit to be an intellectual community, someone has to pick up and do this for Xgau’s idea, if that someone thinks Xgau’s notion of what he misdescribes as “consensus” is usable, and if Xgau hasn’t done if for himself. And if not that notion, someone’s notion, sometime.
Btw, I think Jack and Scott think they’re making some kinda important point when they say, “But the conversations can be enjoyable and informative even when people don’t explicate their ideas.” Like I didn’t know this, or something.
For the record I struck my previous comment, which was unfair, stupid, and nothing I’m proud of (and not something I want “out there”). I apologize to Frank, whose contributions I always value.
Ha! I’ve been mostly out of Internet contact so I didn’t get to see whatever terrible things you may have said about me.
Lack of home Internet will continue for up to another nine days.
(P.S. I hope that this interchange isn’t what has made the New Comments listings disappear from the upper right of your home page.)
I’m still mulling. Maybe you could draw xgau out a little more re this.
Back in January when there hadn’t been a response for a day or so, I assumed everyone was done. Then Scott sent out an email about Beppe Colli’s piece which linked to this thread, and I saw that I was hasty in my assumption. So let me roll the clock back to early February, and explain what I meant by “Also, I would suggest that the notion of ‘soiling your ears’ is a post-monoculture one.”
The phrase “soiling your ears” may have been intended as simply a colourful way of saying “listening but not liking,” but it carries an overtone of something unclean, uncomfortably foreign, haram even. If you are part of a monoculture, hearing a song you don’t especially like would not feel like “soiling” because there wouldn’t be the cultural distance that feeling “soiled” requires, because of course it would be a song that you know and are familiar with. It would not be at odds with your sense of yourself, or you understanding of what music should be. It would be just one of the chocolates in the sampler you didn’t particularly enjoy. (And really, would you be buying the Whitman’s sampler if there were any chance your mouth would feel “soiled” by one of the chocolates?)
Hence, “soiling your ears” is post-monoculture because it assumes a sort of tribalism that would equate not liking a tune with feeling defiled by it, tribalism which was not a factor during the time of monoculture.
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