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

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Mary Tyler Moore looking for some Ponce de Leon action

vibes of the times

“Music ‘X’ captures how it feels to be alive now”: this construction constitutes one of the central tropes of music writing. And I agree -- music does give you the vibe of the times.

To stereotype the radio formats:

F’rinstance: When I hear Adult Contemporary Rock -- or a heckuva lot of it anyway: Jack Johnson and Norah Jones spring immediately to mind -- I hear the moany-groany beleaguered resignationism of embattled educated urban and suburban and college town liberalism. But elegantly resigned! With nicely decorated houses!

And: When I hear smooth jazz, I hear aspirations toward a life free of conflict, a life of abundance and even-keeled happiness; a music of class aspiration; a music of road-tripping in fantasy car commercials. (Note: doing social work with homeless middle-aged African American men who dug smooth jazz hipped me to what it was about.)

And: College rock vibes me with the righteous alienation & irony of privileged (mostly white) young people; often with dispassionate vocals enveloped in passionate dissonant noisy guitars.

And: Top 40 gives me multi-culti teen lust & identity building & curiosity & romantic aspiration; the white guy rockers earnest and yearnful, the R&B balladeers ditto, the rappers tough and knowing; the openness to mildly “world musicky” pastiche energizing & exuberant.

And: Country radio vibes me with the contested terrain of gender politics, within a context of exuberant entitlement and nostalgia. (I say “entitlement” because C&W is almost as absorptive a genre as Top 40; C&W is the only format where you can hear -- occasionally -- white guys rapping and sounding unapologetically white and middle class and middle aged about it; pop and metal and R&B and electronic drums can end up on C&W radio too, as long as it’s put through the C&W filter; the only current pop usage that’s verboten is college rock mumbling -- Shania Twain tried it and people complained; world-musicky pastiche a la Britney’s terrific single “Toxic” is probably off limits too.)

And, to take the vibes of the times a step further, into criticsville: Critical consensus battles between Top 40 and college rock; C&W gets some enthusiastic support but more frequently grudging props; some adult contemporary rockers get their due but on the whole it’s considered dullsville; smooth jazz is nowheresville.

My own bias: I’m curious about it all, and occasionally knocked out joyful by something I hear on any of the formats. It’s hard for me to judge my preferences for contemporary music because in Seattle, the smooth jazz and adult contemporary stations play a lot of old stuff too, but taking that caveat into account I probably listen to the contemporary-music stations in this order of frequency: adult contemporary, smooth jazz, college rock, Top 40, C&W. And, interestingly, I’m probably most often blown away by something on Top 40 followed by C&W -- this shows me that the other genres are more in my personal “comfort zone” -- they speak to me as an urban embattled white educated middle-aged liberal; they make for pleasant background music.

The consensus critical preference for the genres most strongly vibing with youth -- Top 40 & college rock -- vibes with the contemporary anxiety about aging. People across cultures and millennia have feared death, hated aging, and coveted youth, but today with plastic surgery ubiquitous, “extreme makeovers” accepted, and hair dye for aging rockers de rigeur, it makes sense to me that the middle-aging-and-older solons of criticsville would make like Mary Tyler Moore and Ponce de Leon and search for the fountain of youth.

The vibes of the times embodied by different genres speak to the body, to different modes of carriage, ways of carrying oneself in the world. Which is probably why I listen to the pre-rock oldies AM station the most -- the jaunty pre-rock carriage of the swingers vibes my body good; I aspire to the cheerful self-confidence of Tony Bennett (who, interestingly, isn’t pre-rock chronologically, but is pre-rock stylistically).

And heck -- I just like the music.

p.s. The vogue for World Music -- which Im way into -- says a lot about the vibes of the times too.

I'm already having second thoughts about this, and will probably have 3rd & 4th thoughts too, but instead of updating things on the post or with a new post, I'll put them in comments.

First, I'm probably wrong about Top 40 and college rock battling it out for critical consensus; it's narrower than that; it's hip hop and college rock. The Top 40 rock acts like Coldplay and Hoobastank (whose hit "I'm not a perfect person" I really like) get more brickbats from the crits than applause, though Coldplay gets critical raving too.

Second, to clarify my position: I got no beef with people liking college rock and hating smooth jazz or adult contemporary or vice versa or any of it; but when one is a rock critic, and even more a self-described "pop music" critic, expressions of hate -- and they are legion -- for popular genres become, shall we say, symptomatic of something interesting going on in the culture. Oscar Wilde said that criticism is spiritual autobiography.

In "Silk Stockings," a Cold War movie musical with some nice scenes and dancing and some monumentally dopey bits too, Fred Astaire's character is producing a stage musical, the music of which is based on adaptations from the music of a living (fictional) Soviet composer. Fred is in love with the Soviet cultural attache overseeing the project. She sees a rehearsal and takes great offense at the desecration of Russian and Soviet culture undertaken by the American pop swing-ification of their great composer's music. Fred's response blew me away -- "Why take offense? It's only music!"

Yeah yeah.
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