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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, April 18, 2004

WHAT’S AT STAKE IN THE WAR AGAINST CLICHE

During the Q&A session of Friday morning’s panel discussion at the Experience Music Project’s annual Pop Conference, I embarrassed myself by puting up a half-baked defense of cliche. One of my favorite music writers, Robert Christgau, had presented a brief lecture/demonstration on editing, in the manner of Robert Graves’s book “The Reader Over Your Shoulder.” Graves, writing in the ‘30s, had taken passages from the writings of famously great authors and with gleeful maliciousness pointed out how they were poorly written and/or edited. Christgau, with no glee, little maliciousness, and more judiciousness, did the same thing with four rock writers, two esteemed critics from the world of journalism and two rockademics. Christgau carefully balanced his presentation with praise for the writers as well.

Christgau deprecated the cliche “driving beat” in a passage by the academic musicologist Susan McClary, a musical thinker I admire, as does Christgau. Devin McKinney, whose presentation I wrote about in last night’s entry, briefly mentioned that one should strive to avoid cliche in one’s response to or analysis of musical moments as they pass.

I inarticulately attempted to defend cliche as the coin of communal experience and communication, taking “driving beat” as an example of a serviceable, meaningful phrase. Christgau said that he Googles his own writing to ensure that he doesn’t repeat his formulations, and that “driving beat” reflects the relative poverty of rhythmic vocabulary among writers whose background is more classical than rock, as McClary’s is.

Christgau is a virtuoso phrase-maker, and he’s one of the few music writers I re-read for pleasure. But I can’t follow him down the cliche-free path (to use a cliche). Most people don’t have his writing chops, and as much as I try to enliven my own amateur writing with vivacity and clever turns, if I were to stop in my tracks (cliche) every time a cliche came to hand (cliche) in order to come up with a clever turn-away-from or substitution of the cliche, I’d never say anything. Doubtless most people would consider that no loss, but as a reader and a writer, I’m more interested in insight than style. That’s not 100% true; a few months ago I read a stylish and charming bio of Gilbert & Sullivan, and I remember very little about it beyond a few meagre biographical facts and the experience of having enjoyed the read. Maybe this formula: style can draw me in; only insight sticks. While I love reading Robert Christgau, and his style draws me into his humorous, loving, humane, cranky, erudite, insightful consciousness, Susan McClary’s insights have struck me harder, despite her style being plainer.

After the Q&A, I regretted not having delineated between descriptive cliche and conceptual cliche. While no firm distinction can hold between the two, descriptive cliche -- “driving beat” -- bothers me less than conceptual cliche -- “rock is rebellious.” “Rolling Stone” magazine is the ruling arbiter of conceptual cliche and the convention center of conventional wisdom in rock. I have no doubt that conceptual cliches rule my thought in ways that are invisible to me.

Martin Amis recently published a collection of literary essays called “The War Against Cliche.” I have read none of it, but I saw a couple reviews when it came out, and I just scanned some comments on Amazon.com, and nobody has mentioned that “war against” is itself a cliche. (If Amis himself mentions this, one would think that a reviewer would repeat it, to innoculate Amis from mirror-driven speculations such as this.) Not ubiquitous like wars “on” drugs or poverty or (Orwellianly) terror, but partaking of the same futile, cliched milieu. I wanna say, I do say -- Dude! Check yourself out! Pretty embarrassing!

I’m not the only defender of cliche. Ira Gershwin in his charming, poignant, witty, insightful memoir-essay “Lyrics on Several Occasions” defends his dependence on cliche as a lyric writer and says that when fitted to music, cliches can regain their original provocativeness. Bob Merrill, lyricist for Barbra Streisand’s smash hit “People,” claimed he loved cliches and wrote them down every chance he got. Gershwin is right that lyric-writing has different goals and parameters and contexts than music-essay-writing, and lyrics gain emotional power from the music to which they’re married. Even given those differences, though, an aversion to cliche in prose strikes me as wanting healthy vulgarity that is the lifeblood of pop.

And: Roland Barthes in “A Lover’s Discourse” points out that every time anybody says “I love you,” they’re quoting.

Still, Marduk bless writers like Robert Christgau who avoid cliche, and Marduk bless the rest of us as well. Virtuoso phrase-makers can come up with endless ways of telling me that a beat is driving, and that’s cool, as long as they tell me what’s important.

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