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

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Nik Cohn, age 22, writing in 1969, wrote the first history of rock, Rock from the beginning. This passage captures his style.

He was young and pretty, very cool, and he wasn’t manufactured: he was no part of any system. Instead, he came on like a Dharma Bum, most romantic, and his songs were filled with all the right kinds of dissent. Above all, he used words; his lyrics went way beyond the slogans of rock ’n’ roll (Awopbopaloobop). For the first time, he fed kids with songs that actually meant something, that expressed revolt through something more complex than a big cock, and many of the kids liked this.

In all these ways, Dylan was natural hero-food. . . .

The chapter on Dylan goes on, and in the end, Cohn give his opinion.

How do I rate him? Quite simply, I don’t -- he bores me stiff. Under pressure, I can see that he’s an original, that he writes good melodies and makes some funny jokes, that he has a pretty face, that his influence on pop has been immense -- but still I can’t enjoy him; he turns me off. Just the noise he makes, his whine and his sneer, he loses me.

The opinion itself, one can take or leave, and Cohn leaves plenty of room for the reader to take or leave it.

I’m not overstating the role of negative criticism in forming aesthetic opinion. Dig: EMP devoted a whole conference to the topic of “Guilty Pleasures” (in a handy tie-in promotion with the Streisand/Gibb reunion album). Such a topic would be unthinkable without the killjoy impulse of so much negative rock criticism: too many people have internalized the negativity and found themselves feeling guilty for loving something they’ve been trained to feel they shouldn’t.

I’ve complained about this training a lot, even though personally I overcame it many years ago. My complaints come from witnessing so many people struggling against the puritanical blight of so much rock criticism. Too femmy! Too emotional! Too frivolous! Too cheery! Too this! Too that!

If you love it, to hell with the guilt-mongers.

That’s why sweeping pronouncements that “Celine is shit” rub me so wrong: I’m imagining some 14-year-old music nerd addict reading the magazines or blogs who loves Sonic Youth and Dizzee Rascal and Meredith Monk and also loves Celine, thinking, “Oh, I guess I’m not supposed to love Celine too,” and suppressing that love until it comes out as a guilty pleasure.

If you don’t like something, say it and say why. You’ll be doing people a favor if you give them room to disagree, and maybe 15 years from now we wont be convening all these interesting thinkers on popular music to discuss the absurdly puritanical notion of aesthetic guilt.

Thanking you in advance . . .
Well, sure, "Celine is shit" or "the song is crap, anybody who likes it lacks a brain" are worthless as critical statements; they're just meaningless noise.

But I'm curious about what exactly "leaving someone room to disagree" entails.

If it entails avoiding gratuitous or personal insults, than hear hear. (Though I'm hear-hearing more because insults don't do anything to advance an argument than because they're not nice. If being nice is the paramount concern, than we should have a moratorium on any disagreement or opinion-stating at all, shouldn't we? And I can't get behind that.)

But does "leaving room to diagree" have to entail overtly stating, or even strongly implying, "remember, this is just my opinion"? What's wrong with trying to write forcefully & persuasively, as long as you're not being gratuitously insulting?

It feels like you're arguing that it's OK to put something down as long as you do it in a way that can be very easily dismissed as a mere quirk of your personal taste. But what's wrong with trying to put something down in an analytical & convincing way?

I mean, one could write a very thoughtful essay about Celine Dion's shortcomings, and maybe some 16-year-old kid who likes her will read that and feel bad. But the essay doesn't have to be INSULTING to make him or her feel bad -- "feeling bad" might just be the dissonance/discomfort that naturally arises from being exposed to new ideas outside your comfort zone. And it seems a little misguided to think that we have a duty to make sure everyone's always comfortable, or that it's mean to try to convince other people why their tastes might be misguided.

Who knows, maybe it's the Celine-haters whose tastes are misguided. But I'd rather have everyone's arguments out on the table so I can decide which are the most meaningful & convincing, rather than backing away from any controversy with some "everything is beautiful in its own way" agreement.
This is feeling abstract. I've tried to give examples of negative criticism that works for me. I don't understand what the problem is.

I really dislike Elvis Costello, but I don't understand the value of trying to talk my friends out of liking him. I could put some effort into it, but why? I understand that he's talented. So is Celine Dion. That's the whole point. There's always a musical reason for people to like the music they do. Always. Nobody has ever been able to argue otherwise. I don't think it's possible.

Or, to take an example from the comments thread of a recent post of mine -- I don't like Richard Thompson's "52 Vincent Black Lightning" song. The vision of the angels coming to carry James home is a bit of late 20th century sentimental angelology that runs totally counter to the tradition of the outlaw death ballad upon which Thompson is drawing. According to the tradition, James's soul would be on its way to hell.

Fair enough, right? What's the next move? "My reaction is, bleahh"? Or, "people who like it obviously don't understand the ballad tradition and are in the grip of a sentimental pseudo-Christian fantasy"? But who gives a whip about the so-called "ballad tradition," right? And what's so bad about a sentimental pseudo-Christian fantasy? It's supposed to be entertainment, right? Why is my reaction superior to someone's for whom the song is beautiful? I tend to think my reaction is inferior, that I'm imposing an arbitrary aesthetic standard that isn't necessarily relevant. The song is skillfully done, it has detail and drama and energy. What's the motivation to try to talk someone out of liking it?

If you can think of anybody's beloved musical act who has no musical value at all, please nominate him, her, or them, and let's discuss.

Thanks for your comments.
I don't know much of anything about the outlaw ballad tradition. But I do like Richard Thompson. '52 VBL isn't my favorite song by him, although the guitar is amazing. But I'm not sure I see where you're getting that interpretation from. How exactly do you get a sentimetal psuedo-christian fantasy out of the lyrics below. And who said that the only valid update of an outlaw ballad is one that tracks exactly all of the thematic elements of the traditional form?

I mean the guy is going to die. He knows it. He loves the girl. He's trying to spare her a bit of the grief about his imminent death. So he conjurs up heroic image of biker heaven to help her feel like he's going to a better place.

What could be more romantic than that? But how is that a psuedo-christian fantasy? A metaphorical flourish perhaps. But do you really get the sense from the song that he actually believes that he's going to heaven? Or that the narrator is stating from some omniscient place that he did?

Come down, come down, Red Molly, called Sergeant McRae
For they've taken young James Adie for armed robbery
Shotgun blast hit his chest, left nothing inside
Oh, come down, Red Molly to his dying bedside
When she came to the hospital, there wasn't much left
He was running out of road, he was running out of breath
But he smiled to see her cry
And said I'll give you my Vincent to ride

Says James, in my opinion, there's nothing in this world
Beats a 52 Vincent and a red headed girl
Now Nortons and Indians and Greeveses won't do
They don't have a soul like a Vincent 52
He reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys
He said I've got no further use for these
I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome
Swooping down from heaven to carry me home
And he gave her one last kiss and died
And he gave her his Vincent to ride

This is so fraught! I have no interest in talking anybody out of liking the song. But by criticizing it at all I've gotten into an argument I have no interest in being in.

I wrote, "But who gives a whip about the so-called "ballad tradition," right?" And, "I tend to think . . . that I'm imposing an arbitrary aesthetic standard that isn't necessarily relevant."

You replied, "And who said that the only valid update of an outlaw ballad is one that tracks exactly all of the thematic elements of the traditional form?"

Well, I don't know who said it, but it certainly wasn't me.

Your reaction that the biker may be lying is an interesting take. I'll try to consider it that way.

It feels like we just have a pretty basic difference of principles/assumptions on this subject. I guess it just seems like a given to me that talking music, and debating the releative excellence or lack of excellence in specific artists and pieces of music as each of us sees it, is fun and interesting and even occasionally enlightening. Sharing knowledge & perspective is worthwhile, ESPECIALLY when the perspectives differ.

You seem to disagree, or else you seem to think that sharing differing opinions is by its very nature bullying & competitive. (Please call me out if I'm misrepresenting your argument.)

And I also feel like you're extending your own lack of interest in debating musical quality, which is a personal lifestyle choice, to the entire practice of musical criticism, which is ALL about debating musical quality. (Again, please call bullshit if I'm misrepresenting you.)

I agree that disagreement & debate CAN be bullying & competitive, but it doesn't HAVE to be. And we shouldn't have to bend over backward to discredit our own opinions every time we express them.

If someone tries to convince me that the Velvet Underground was overrated and worthless, it doesn't have to mean that they consider themselves SUPERIOR to me. And if they say something that actually makes me think twice about the Velvets and notice limitations that I haven't noticed before in 25 years of loving them, where's the harm or foul? I'm a big boy, I can take it.

(That's never happened and I never expect it to, but you never know.)

I mean, you expressed an opinion about a Richard Thompson song that I for one found thought-provoking & smart. J-Lon clearly disagreed with your interpretation, but I kind of doubt that he had much trouble sleeping last night. Why does the simple exchange of differing ideas have to be so "fraught"?

Anyway, I now feel like I'm haranguing you or frothing at the mouth or something, and I don't mean to, cos I really really dig your site. Vive la difference, as they say, and contrary to what I've been arguing, I'm happy to agree to disagree on this one...

Your point about people being able to "take it" -- negativity toward music they love -- is a really good one, and maybe I am overly cautious in forwarding negative opinions about music (though not about music Writing I don't like). Thing is, I'd rather talk about music I love than music I don't. I don't believe that negative criticism is by its nature bullying, and if it's competitive, it's a type of competition that I enjoy too. Like I've been saying, if you don't like something, feel free to say so and why. I'm beginning to think, though, that "dislike" is much more complex -- and tiring! -- than "like", because when I try to formulate why I don't like Elvis Costello any more, or the Velvet Underground much any more (!!), my reasons evaporate into subtle subjectivities. Maybe I'll get back to you on the VU, though, since you asked.

Thanks for your comments.
DW said: "...the entire practice of musical criticism, which is ALL about debating musical quality."

Really? I think there's much more to it, which is what spawned this whole topic, no?

The debate is about pre-judgement of musical quality; the conditioned reflex to dismiss the unfamiliar, which I find myself doing all the time, btw.

Hey John,

I did NOT ask you to dis the Velvets. Do that and you'll make a new enemy for life. (Just kidding.)

I know what you mean about simply not being that interested in talking about music you don't dig. I actually feel the same way myself. As a reader, though, I still appreciate negative reviews -- not because they're more entertaining or anything (they aren't, necessarily), but just because I often find it more interesting to think about why something might not work, whether I agree, etc.

I can also appreciate your wariness of undue rudeness, which I share too (though that may not have been apparent in my last couple posts).

Anyway, cheers, and thanks for listening/responding...
Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?