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

Saturday, August 04, 2007

I got a "songs of Woody Guthrie" comp from the library and heard today for the first time Rambling Jack Elliott, nee Elliott Charles Adnopoz of New York, son of a Jewish doctor. I can't believe I'd never heard him.

The resemblance to early Dylan is uncanny -- the same tone of voice, the same accent. I finally was able to place Dylan's first accent. It's not southern, it's Montanan. Clipped, not drawling.

Elliott's OK -- mostly just spooky, as the great link between Guthrie and Dylan. And the same fashion sense and familial alienation as Bob.

I've long been aware that
Rolling Stone is, before it is anything else, a fashion magazine, selling the latest in rock-related pop music fashions. I've always prided myself on my indifference to fashion -- neither following nor scorning fashion, but adopting whatever struck my fancy regardless of its fashionableness -- but of course my indifference is a fashion as well. The non-dogmatic aesthetic eclecticism I describe in my Anti-Manifestoism is very much a post-Reagan fashion, shared by most of my people I know whether artists or not.

Fashion-mindedness isn’t just a pop phenomenon, though. As Alex Ross’s terrific recent profile of Sibelius makes plain, classical music is as subject to the vicissitudes of fashion as anything in popular culture. The post-Schoenberg post-tonalists made old-style tonal composers like Sibelius and Elgar intellectually unfashionable.

Peter Schjeldahl’s lovely recent profile of Gustave Courbet makes a similar point about fashion, and extends it to lifestyle. Courbet was an early rock star who deployed his notoriety and his fame to win publicity and thus admirers.

Fashion fashion fashion. It's everywhere. In politics, it can lead to disaster. Matthew Yglesias has some depressing news. He heard Steve Clemens say at a panel on foreign policy that "he was one of the few members of [the foreign policy] community to go on television and speak against the Iraq War not because he was the only one to think it was a bad idea, but 'because everyone else was a coward.' " Needless to say, fashion-obsessed political commentators are worse than useless; furthermore, their self-imposed restrictions are amazing to consider: To find a unique spin on the conventional wisdom, and to follow the crowd while giving the impression of being independent-minded. A tough assignment! Why does society find it valuable? I can only guess. Because such an approach affirms the status quo while giving the impression of questioning it?

Passion is no longer the fashion in the world of popular music consumption. The turn away from passion might be the most brilliant move in the Oedipal chain of generational outrage yet. It makes total sense after 40 years of propaganda that [pop, rock] Music Is the Most Important Thing In Your Life!!! When Paw and Grampaw are geared up for someone to top Marilyn Manson and Eminem in the offensiveness department, disintensification is the perfect non-topper topper. "That'll really piss the old folks off! Not giving a hoot about their 'outrage' jones!"

Arguments have died down in the pop/rock neighborhoods of Blogville too. For passionate fashion-mongers, the present state is confusing. It's tricky to be passionate about dispassion.

I happen to be passionate about music -- it was the fashion when I was growing up -- but from the perspective of post-passion-ism, I have to ask myself what the fuss was about. Sure, the music, it's lovely, it's wondrous, it's immense, but who cares why who interprets it how?

Very little actual pop music criticism exists -- or, very little of the vast amount of it that exists talks much about the music, and then usually only about a narrow strata of it. To be a pop (or rock, or hip hop) critic, you only need understand a few codes.
1. Timbre as genre signifier -- and as personal signifier.
2. Lyrics as stance and attitude. Timbre as stance and attitude.
3. The relationship between fashion and persona.
4. What's fashionable.

Bonus point: How the current fashion relates to the fashions of the recent and immediate past -- maybe the last 16 or 17 years. Anything pre-Grunge is considered ancient.

Actually knowing enough about melody and rhythm and harmony and lyrics to articulate a description of them doesn't necessarily hurt one's prospects as a music critic -- or maybe it does; I'm not sure. At best it's an elective.

It's a trip that white-collar northern Jews posing as blue-collar Protestant Rocky Mountain types have defined a ruling fashion in our culture for 45 years now. As my friend J-Lon has pointed out, the embrace of blue collar signifiers by the children of white collar culture in the 1950s and '60s had a lot to do with rejecting the style of historical America's middle-class apotheosis. Folky-driven blue-collar fetishism inspired a massive masquerade-as-potlatch, as people who had so much unearned cultural power that they could afford to destroy (temporarily) a bunch of it went ahead and did so.

70 years ago, a leading popular music critic was Frederic Ramsey, Jr. Who? Times change.

And when times change, the old guard gets pissed. When Rock came and started making a lot of money -- and, even worse, started drawing more of the fashionable attention -- a lot of the old guard freaked out. Not because they weren't still popular or they weren't still making money -- they were still making lots of money. But their style was no longer the most fashionable.

At one of the peak years of rock's fashion dominance -- 1967 -- Herb Alpert had 3 of the 10 best selling albums in America; three more were movie soundtracks -- Dr. Zhivago, The Sound of Music, and A Man and a Woman. The Monkees' first two albums were the year's top 2 best-sellers, and most rock fashionistas disdained the Monkees' Rock cred (and many, such as Jann Wenner, pictured above, still do). The year's Top 10's remaining two -- numbers 5 and 10 respectively -- went to a Greatest Hits collection by the Temptations and Sgt. Pepper's by the Beatles. Of the top 10, only number 10 is universally recognized as an albumly rock album.

Where do I learn this information? Why, in Jann Wenner's 40th Anniversary edition of Rolling Stone magazine!

I've recently started wearing jeans again, because my brother gave me a couple of pairs of hand-me-ups, and they're comfy. For years I never wore jeans, after I found out my grandpa never did. Grandpa's dad was a doctor. Jeans were blue-collar garb, sturdy pants for manual laborers. Thanks to Bob Dylan and the mass fashion choices he epitomized, they aren't just for labor any more.

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