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

Friday, June 02, 2006

Lou Andreas-Salome brandishes a whip at Nietzsche and their friend Paul Ree. “You are going to women? Do not forget the whip!”
Thus spoke Zarathustra. (But for whom to use, and why? Looks like F.N. may have been into something kinky.)

Carl and Simon disagree on the nature of the “poptimist” critique of rock-centric criticism/mythology. Carl lays it out:

But I call bullshit on this complaint: "anti-rockism is the attempt to remove an aesthetico-moral framework from music discussion." Only literally true: It's an attempt to remove one aesthetico-moral framework, entirely on aesthetico-moral grounds: It posits that rockism has boring aesthetics and inhabits a social fantasy that is in fact morally dangerous, in which visionary Supermen are meant to lead the masses, who are distracted by their corrupt bodies (bodies that are too young, too old, too female, too gay, too repressed, too sexual, etc.) from true engagement with the pure rebel mind - with the help of the Superman they may be shown the way to enlightenment.

This debate has played out in academic aesthetic theory for at least 30 years. Simon got the terminology wrong. The traditional complaint is aesthetics versus morals, not the elimination of aesthetics and morals. The “old-school” resentment of the feminist critique of the traditional Western literary canon, for example, argues that feminism replaces an aesthetic framework with a moral/political one. In the case of “pop” versus rock-centrism, the poptimists are attempting to remove the old pseudo-political rocking framework of empty blustery macho rebellion with a framework that takes identity politics into account.

Carl and Simon agree that the rock-centric framework has a clearer positive aesthetic, but I’m not so sure. The rock myth of rebellion involves endless metaphysical distinctions between rockin’ and non-rockin’. The recent Marcus discussion is a good example. For Marcus, glitzy ‘70s arena rock is bad, except Fleetwood Mac, because they “really” rock. The vision of excess promoted by the Sgt. Pepper film is bad because those avatars of excess are bad, but the avatars of excess of The Last Waltz are good because they “really” rock. I find no coherent aesthetic framework here, merely a set of stated attitudes that adepts must study and memorize if they want to adhere to them. The most obnoxious of the boomer rock-centric critical aesthetic:
bubblegum pop is bad, except the bubblegum pop of our own youth, because since our youth the times have gotten so politically/culturally/morally ugly we must cop us some pseudo-Adorno attitude, whereas before JFK (or RFK, or MLK) got shot, things were nice. Try adopting a coherent aesthetic or political program out of that. Unless you want to adopt the solipsism of people 60 years old, forget it. It makes no sense.

The pop aesthetic, on the other hand, seems clear to me. Good beats & catchy hooks rule! (And “hooks” need not be melodic hooks -- see, for example, the myriad great hooky successes of hip hop.) And good beats aren’t necessary for ballads, but a large, clear, powerful voice is. This aesthetic covers pop from Stella Mayhew to Shakira, whom I heard on the radio today -- totally charming and lively and imaginative.

The great thing about the good-beats-catchy-hooks aesthetic is that it takes in a whole lotta rock and roll too. The catch is, nobody gets to choose what constitutes catchy.

Good point on "bubblegum" there. And I won't argue with "good beats & catchy hooks rule" either, that would be silly. However, speaking for myself at least, I find there is more to liking music than just good beats & catchy hooks, which is why I can say that among the reasons why I prefer (most of) Fleetwood Mac ('s music) to, say, Peter Frampton ('s) is that I find (most of) their songs musically richer (and catchier) and also lyrically smarter. But that's me.
Thanks, Chris --

I own a Fleetwood Mac LP and nothing by Frampton, though I really like Frampton's flirty ways on some of the "Comes Alive" hits. But mostly I just don't see how one is worthy of voluminous praise while it's cool to fantasize about lynching the other.

I agree that there's more to music than good beats & catchy hooks. As a songwriter, I'm obsessed with the emotional resonance between words & music. And there's endless depth & subtlety in any musical experience good or bad -- the whys & hows of one's liking or disliking something are complex.
Carl here: The thing for me - and what's put me in the rockers' camp so much of the time - is that "good beats & catchy hooks" are a really tiny part of what I respond to in music. It's partly learned, for sure, but partly instinctive: There's something neurotic in my makeup that responds to "bad beats & fucked-up hooks" very very strongly. Thus why I can never get back to the radio even though intellectually I *believe* in radio. But I've encountered rockism the other way - the "they can't play" fallacy, the "it's just indulgence" fantasy - so intensely that it alienated me from rock enough to see the value in bubblegum. I think the bias I have a hard time defeating is the avant-garde one: that no matter how good anything is, things that test your ability to listen but provide big yields once you get there are better. (I have this with literature too.) I don't believe in the avant-garde ideology ("rip it up and start again," basically) but my heart is there. If rock hadn't ever become nostalgic I'm not sure I would have gotten any distance from it. Luckily that never happens. (Including in the so-called avant-garde.)
Carl, well, I'm not sure what "bad beats" would be. I can imagine "fucked-up hooks" -- dissonant. Whatever it is (Pere Ubu?), there's nothing neurotic about liking it.

If "things that test your ability to listen" are avant-garde, does that make Celine Dion avant-garde for you and me? (I don't like her either.) I'm not trying to be snotty (apparently I don't have to try!) -- what I'm trying to get at is this: the avant-garde has its own traditions of listening / seeing / reading, a "tradition of the new" (a 40 or 50 year old phrase to describe a 160 year old phenomenon). But you know this. And shmaltz pop in particular severely violates the canons of "classical" and avant-garde sensibility: mass emotionalism and sentimentality, "unsupported" chromatic key changes, a sexual sense of building-tension-to-catharsis type of climax, its reliance on convention! You know this too. Interestingly, rock likes the sexual sense of climax, as long as it's accompanied or accomplished by electric guitars, screaming Marshall stacks instead of stacks of screaming violins, and no chromatic key changes please.

So I have more intellectual respect for the avant-gardeners than the rockers, because the rockers are so pseudo. How many times has Greil Marcus written about Scotty Moore's 2nd guitar solo on "Hound Dog"? A couple months ago again in the NYTimes Book Review on an essay collection on Ginsberg's "Howl," he brought it up as a parallel example of the currents of freedom running through American culture in 1956. Well yeah, OK, it's a great guitar solo, but if you want more than 15 seconds of that rhythmically exhilarating stuff circa 1956, you might want to try Mingus. (You know this too.)
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