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

Monday, April 23, 2007

My post the other night on my limited engagement with this year’s EMP Pop Conference was off, wrong, wrong-headed, ungenerous, particularly regarding Tim Quirk and Daphne Brooks’s presentations, about which I criticized for alleged insufficient exultation. In Brooks’s case, my memory was simply deceiving me. Her tone was subdued and academic, but what she was saying was a lot about music’s mysterious power; it was really good; the bug of complaint must have been possessing me as I sat down to type; and maybe I was slightly disengaged simply because I’m unfamiliar with the band she was writing about, TV on the Radio. I’d certainly heard of them, and probably heard them in passing, and the quiet clips she played sounded intriguing. Her paper was also about race, how we’re all always writing about race, either by omission or directly, and that was very interesting and struck me as right. (For the record, she is African American, and I am white American.) In America, the default assumptions about people are that they are white, male, heterosexual, and what I take to be the invisibility of these qualities pervade my writing too. For example, my account of the tramping into the fancy restaurant with 30 scruffy rock critics -- we were almost all white and almost all male and, I’m assuming, all or almost all heterosexual. And the fantasies of anti-nomianism that the episode conjured tend to be white male fantasies in popular culture. Anti-nomian fantasies of African Americans tend to be tinged with more danger in our cultural mythologies. So -- my apologies to Ms. Brooks, and brava on a terrific paper.

Quirk’s paper was on changes in the music business, and one of his lynchpins was the power of songs to attract repeated listenings. He took music’s power for granted, but music’s mysterious power was the paper’s underlying assumption, like the air we breathe. (And an “air,” in English, is also a “melody.”) His paper was thought-provoking and well-put-together.

Race came up in the Q & A for Quirk (who is white, male, and a father, we learned) more than it did for Brooks. A white male critic asked whether canons of cultural quality that favor assumptions of long-lastingness also favored white artists -- he asked it with an accusatory tone, as if the canons under discussion were racist, but I thought his question was racist. Why does he think that long-lastingness in culture is more the province of art by white people than art by others? In popular music, which was the topic under discussion, black people’s music has had no trouble at all competing in the long-lasting stakes with white people’s music.

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I also should also put a caveat around my insinuation that Robert Christgau and his posse gave Jonathan Lethem’s keynote speech a Standing O because Lethem referred to Christgau as a “great man.” I spoke with a friend about this, who said that Christgau was name-checked all week-end long and he took it all in stride; and that he had seemed enthusiastic about Lethem’s speech apart from the flattery. I wasn’t around to see evidence of the former point but I completely trust my friend, and I agree with his latter point. I just thought the situation was funny, which, I trust, Robert Christgau would understand. Although, I must admit, there is an element of mockery and perhaps condescension in my pointing the situation’s humor out -- which upside-downs the gist of my post, in which I complain of critics condescending to musicians. Dish, take, pot, kettle, etc. I am ready for my lumps. I had hoped that my mockery was affectionate, but even affectionate mockery has an element of aggression.

Regardless of the fairness of my contention that critics frequently condescend to musicians, it is inescapable that the tone of most critics toward musicians tends towards meat-inspection. The music business is a meat parade, and we musicians want to be admired for the quality and tastiness of our cuts. The jadedness of critics is a natural result of the over-production of meat.

What critics don’t always understand, however, is that they’re in their own meat parade. And I, as a consumer of their critical steaks and burgers, objectify and dehumanize no less than they do musicians.

This is unfortunate in all directions. I intend to do what I can to re-humanize the situation, and I apologize for my own objectifying meat ogling.

Disagreement is natural, but we should try to disagree with the assumption that our interlocutor is a potential friend.

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Regarding the over-production of meat:

The March/April edition of Songlines magazine has a feature on Ethiopia’s premier player of the begena, a millennia-old ten-string lyre also known as the Harp of King David. According to the article, there is only one CD exclusively devoted the begena, and it is by this musician, Alemu Aga. It’s the only one. But, Aga tells us, a revival is afoot. “This year,” he says, “five or six cassettes of different players have been released.”

It’s difficult to imagine not being inundated by the too-much-ness of musical production. But I wouldn’t trade it. And now, my greedy ears want to hear Alemu Aga too.

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