Guilty Pleasures (Theory And Practice)
I’ve just been sent a review copy of a new compilation of DFA stuff and very fine it is too. But how’s about this for a quote from the press release, attributed to James Murphy:
“We’d both admit to loving things like The Smiths. Now, that’s very in vogue, but I guarantee you, in ’99/2000, it wasn’t something you said particularly loud.”
I want to say two things about that. Firstly, I don’t remember a period when The Smiths were so unfashionable you couldn’t talk about them, certainly not the turn of the millenium. In fact, I distinctly remember them getting played to death in pretty much every indie club I went to across the country. I can also distinctly remember The Strokes wowing an NME journalist back then by claiming The Smiths as a defining influence. And that was when Julian & Co where defining what was hot and what was not, changing music/fashion in the process. So, you know, whatever.
The second thing is something that’s been bugging me for a while, at least since I visited Rome in the summer. More specifically, I’ve been thinking this at least since I went to the early Christian catacombs just outside of Rome. I’m pretty sure that it stems from there, that bastion of of hope and faux-martyrdom. The thought is this. Why is it that we build into our aesthetics the idea of senseless persecution? Why do we so treasure people who were before their time, people who were misunderstood and derided? I’m sure it extends past the elitist cool thing perfected by DFA. For example, I’ll kind of give them their dues when they talk about liking Gang of Four back in 1999. Okay, it doesn’t mean James or Tim are great people or great artists or anything, but Gang of Four were hardly as widely talked about then as they were now. But The Smiths? Perfect example. Not only were they ‘misunderstood’ etc etc etc at the time, with all those songs about being ‘misunderstood’, DFA were understanding their ‘misunderstanding’ before any of you lot. The Smiths might have been self-conciously miserable and the rest but they were a Top Of The Pops band with lots of happy tunes that people enjoyed at the time and enjoy now. It seems that we like martyrs so much, we don’t just admire them, we create them.
Heaven knows I’m more Catholic than you now, obviously.
The first of my generation has made it. While shopping with my mum today in Tesco, we/she bought Gwyneth Herbert‘s album. Gwyneth was in the year above me at uni. In fact, the first thing I ever ‘reviewed’ was a gig of hers. She was in a band called ‘Lady G’ and was performing at a ‘Battle of the Bands’. She won and I wrote a long, waffly piece asking myself why music was so wedded to domesticity (house, garage, lounge etc etc ha ha). Oh, how things change…
If you click on the bio section of the site, there’s a fair bit about this era of Gwyneth’s musical development. There was more in an article in the Sunday Times the other week. I was a part of that ‘scene’. Kinda. If you don’t hear from me soon, I’ll be writing the exploitative revelations for serialisation in Record Collector.
N.B. The album is quite good. ‘Fever’ is excellent. You can get Official Gwyneth Herbert ringtones. What more do you want?
I’m currently reading that Planet Simpson book that purports to be an intelligent look at The Simpsons. Methinks it doth purport too much. For tis – in part at least – a book both created by and created about the ‘slacker’, ‘grunge’ phenomenon. It gets many things wrong, most often The Simpsons. But, accidentally mostly, it nineinchnails that generation.
There are some obvious markers: Douglas Coupland doing the intro; the reliance on altrock for its references and – worse – its political outlook and aesthetic approach; a whole chapter devoted to the idea as Bart as Kurt (or thereabouts).
In the book more generally and in this chapter especially, you get a wonderful opportunity to speculate about the generation one before mine. In particular, it made me think about grunge’s relationship to ‘the sixties’ and aged rockism. Apparently, the cover of Rolling Stone once called Seattle ‘the new Liverpool’. But, with that as the most obvious starting point, too what extent did grunge depend on the sixties? To what extent was its ‘apathy’/’nihilism’ a reaction to the apparent death of sixties ideals or, more specifically, the death of sixties rock stars? Or, more probably, to what extent did its media success depend on Wenner and his generation happily picking up on something *seeming* to cry with every mumbled vocal ‘things aint what they used to be’, ‘rock’s lost its soul’ etc etc etc. Most obviously, I’m thinking of that grunge-era Radiohead lyric that talks about wishing it was the sixties. In fact, that quote opens the book, just after the author talks about playing Soundgarden to his ‘hip’ college town bar. The whole enterprise positively buzzes with that whole generation and, accidentally again, poses some interesting questions. Coincidentally, in a small Liverpool listings magazine I noticed today that there is a ‘Sub Pop revival’. As Wenner’s boomer generation did before it, the slackers are evidently becoming less slackerish. Even more than it would anyway, the book becomes more and more sociological evidence and less and less postmodern analysis.
And I love it.
What is the correct response to the old ‘what are your influences‘ chestnut?
It really should be an interesting question as genuine influence is usually pretty fascinating. Witness, for example, the John Lennon jukebox CD/documentary or, perhaps, the Buzzcocks/Joy Division/Mick Hucknall Sex Pistols gig in Manchester or some such canonical event. Of course, we never get anything like that in interview. It’s all ‘everything from Tchaikovsky to Abba’ or whatever. But, as music history seems to be charted as much in terms of ‘influence’ as anything else, its a pretty key question. This may all sound a little rockist – and it is – but it’s reassuringly general. So, with the blues, rock conciously found itself a history from which to continue a tradition. ‘Dance’ did a similar thing with disco and Kraftwerk. Hip hop had it built in with sampling, doing a similar thing as ‘dance’ by sampling the same disco (Rapper’s Delight) and Kraftwerk (Planet Rock). Being so selflessly NOW!!!, ‘Pop’ may be a little more complicated, but ‘influence’ is still relevant apparently.
But I reckon this role played by influence is a damn strange one. From this point of view, music journalism seems to be ‘Tradition and The Individual Talent‘ style history combined with the lit theory rivals that Eliot tried to usurp. It’s a typically silly loop of lazy journalist/lazy artist/musical snobbery amounting to some weird self-fulfilling fantasy.
So, apparently, good bands are always in the tradition of a certain artist. But these artists are, inevitably, the ones that stand outside of tradition. From the journo point of view, bands are influenced by the mould-breakers and the misunderstood: Velvets, Stooges, King Tubby, whoever. By ‘rejecting’ tradition, these bands are the creators of traditions. So, with reference to the chatter about The Strokes and The Hives in that article, an *obvious* influence, a *recent* influence, is a critical sideswipe. Saying Oasis copied The Beatles was enough. Saying Jet copied ACDC or Lust For Life was enough. Saying The Strokes copied Television was nearly enough. And when Razorlight did it (via The Strokes apparently) it was a double faux pas.
In fact, someone like Television might be a good case study. Even though they seem to be musically at odds with, say, The Ramones or that wave of punk, they are talked about in that CBGBs ‘tradition’ that was started by Velvet Underground. But, back in the day, Verlaine is said to have banned Reed from taping Television shows while mumbling lyrics so Reed couldn’t steal them. Even if that’s not true, it’s indicative. They became a band its okay to cite, both the buckers and the founders of a tradition. So The Strokes could just about surf the wave of Television/CBGB references as a ‘positive’ thing. But, a few years on, that Razorlight are pretty lame is ascribed to them robbing off Marquee Moon rather than anything else. Television are an influential cliche just as they become comfortably ‘traditional’, an accepted ‘influence’. And, of course, its then they decide to tour and pick up Mojo Awards. Indeed, you could probably say the same kind of thing about Mojo Hall Of Famer Arthur Lee, another influenced by Reed. In fact, its this kind of historicizing that leads to Bowie’s ‘everyone who bought VU & Nico formed a band’ crap, with VU as the font of all that is arty and guitary or, it seems, beautifully camp. So, Television are Reed’s sons and heirs rather than the descendants of The Shadows or Les Paul and Sunday supplement articles trace Franz Ferdinand back to Blondie and allow them to deny themselves a history, a tradition, an influence.
Correct me if I’m wrong but, to conclude, the Sunday Times Style magazine is the new Sacred Wood, which makes haute couture swimwear the new sympathising with the Nazis.
Here‘s something for use in the current discussion about the ‘state’ of the music journalism business.
On the Plan B forum, it prompted me to say that hating the NME was the new hating ‘manufactured chart pop’, even if that’s not strictly true. After a cursory glance at this week’s issue to find the tracklisting to the free CD I found a feature in which it said Annie* was going to ‘save the charts from all those Pop Idol wannabes’. If you want to refer back to Mr McNicholas’ article about bumping Franz Ferdinand (Take Me Out, No. 3 in the UK Charts) off the cover for The Streets (No. 1 album and single in the UK charts) then so be it…
*before you click on that, be aware get a horrible loop with faux-pounding bassbins and a smidgen of Timberlake in a sidebar advert for McDonalds. You can turn it off though. Just thought you might be interested. I know they’d cut word counts but this is ridiculous.
All the talk downscreen about the ‘uses’ of music got me thinking. Thinking about shelving. Sure, I ‘use’ music as much as the next blogger but the music I actually ‘use’ is pretty much entirely dependent on storage. Being stupidly disorganised and pathologically unable to shelve things correctly acts as a kind of shuffle button, but one that is a bit broken, turning up the same things at certain intervals. You can’t rely on, say, Bert Kaempfert for listening to when you’re in the shower if you don’t know where that particular Bert Kaempfert record might be. Having just too many records, in too many formats, scattered too widely and in no particular order takes that difficult job of choosing music out of my unreliable hands. Whenever I attempt a major or minor reorganisation, often prompted by a DJ set or some whole-hearted response to some useful trend, new things turn up close to the stereo. They will then suffice, give or take, with the floor and two legs of my bed as the pending tray.
In this era of middle-aged men ranting about iPods, how music is stored seems to be very relevant. It looks like some of the attraction of the iPod – although I speak as someone who has never seen one from less than ten feet – is being able to access things quickly and efficiently, whilst allowing yourself to fall into the warm embrace of the random setting. Even without turning this into a muso version of that film about Iris Murdoch, it all seems awfully clinical compared to my romantic mess. My best mate has managed to get all his music on his hard drive and it looks beautiful if not oddly depressing. I realise lack of order is very quaint and cottagey but I like it. I find something very reassuring about not knowing where things are. In fact, it’s part of the reason I persist in buying vinyl. 12″, 7″ and LP lead to disorder: you can’t see their spines properly and, collectively, they’re just too big to take in at once. It’s also part of the reason I don’t particularly like downloads and P2P. Although I do dabble, having things at your fingertips is just too bloody easy. Add this to CDs (especially those in cardboard cases) and MP3s and you have a blissful, uncontrollable mess. Of course, there’s also something heartwarming about seeing records flailing off shelves and carpetting the floor. It’s like the geek equivalent of an artist’s paint splattered jeans.
I suppose this is part of what I actually like about music, its ability to be bigger than me. I like my record collection to be representative, not archival, like a 3D realisation of the blogosphere I suppose. In a non-High Fidelity sense, it owns me rather than vice versa. Disorganisation, my friends, allows practical transcendence. It allows you to reach some happy medium where you can embrace art in the Romantic, gushing sense and still use it like some high-quality instant coffee. Disorganisation is the third way. Or something.
To continue my theme of songs on a theme, two particular tunes have been haunting me this week. The first is by the dearly departed ironist Mr Johnny Cash and is called ‘Strawberry Cake’. The second is by a similarly dearly departed heart warmer and horn blower Mr Louis Armstrong and is called ‘Cheesecake’.
There is something so deliciously and nonsensically subversive about songs about cake. Cash’s song is actually *about* the Marie Antoinette inequality between the cake eaters and the non-cake eaters. In it, Johnny ponders the relative merits of a tramp he has seen and a strawberry cake in the hotel in which he’s staying. Next to the spoken word intro on the live album of the same name, its stupidly effective, especially with the back cover shot of Johnny gorging himself. Louis’ effort is nothing short of genius. ‘Cheesecake, gobble, gobble, cheesecake’ he intones, stripping Cash’s song of its hand wringing, taking on the role of that song’s tramp I suppose. The sheer joy with which he munches his way through the lyric speaks volumes. As do the backing vocals that sound like Animal from The Muppets.
But, of course, the much-maligned state of musical irony means that no one has bothered typing out the words for one of those multitudinous online lyric sites. Take this one, ‘real people, honest music’, scant regard for silliness. Yup, romanticised notions of ‘art’ mean these songs are curiosities at best. Harrumph, as ever. But it’s not hard to construct a tottering simile suggesting these songs are meta comments on pop music itself, that joyful pure pleasure-seeking, conspicuous consumption but ain’t it fun, ‘let them eat Busted’ and all that. And from this point of view, ‘MacArthur Park‘ almost makes some kind of self-referential sense.
I’ve just been listening to a song called ‘Tupelo Mississippi Flash’ by Tom Jones. It’s on the flip of his 1970 single, ‘Daughter of Darkness’. Here‘s the lyrics. It’s one of Jones’ typically r’n’b b-sides but was written and first released by Jerry Reed. Jerry had written both ‘The Guitar Man’ and ‘U.S. Male’ for Elvis, so I guess you could see it as a typically country narrative conceit or maybe a simultaneous philosophical homage and sulk in honour of The King. But, as you can see, even without squinting, it’s about an A&R man. Which got me wondering about other songs about A&R men. And I couldn’t think of any. Now, I’m fascinated by A&R men and label politics, so, by a process of swift deduction, I guess other people could be too…
So, where are these songs to whet our appetites? There MUST be one about Dick Rowe, the guy who famously rejected The Beatles, but I’m damned if I’ve heard it. SURELY Berry Gordy will have done some. And, if there are plenty of songs about being a fan or a DJ and gazillions about musicians, why no A&R or label boss?
There’s plenty to get mildly irate about with this Guardian article by The Usual Suspect on McFly but, for our present purposes, take note of the tone of voice with which he talks about four intelligent, successful, talented – and I suppose this is the crux – late teenagers. Two of McFly are eighteen and one is nineteen. Even the youngest is over the age of consent*. But you’d never get that sense from the article, or most writing on the music that, ick, ‘pre-pubescent tots’ wave banners at.
The first point, as evidenced by NYPLM itself I suppose, is that it’s never enough for a band like McFly to appeal just to the prepubescent. Not only do they not have enough money, they can’t drive to out-of-town Brit-malls like the Trafford Centre. And, let’s face it, no self-respecting capitalist/artist is going to limit their audience that dramatically. I mean, come on, naming the band like that – ref: M.J.Fox, 1985 – is, if anything, much more cynically aimed at the nostalgic parents of the pre-pubescent or, at best, literate media-savvy types reading over-worked blog entries. In its own way, its just the same as Robert Zemeckis making seventeen year old Marty speak to the eighties teen audience via his own fifties adolescence. After the famous spate of teen-product fosusing attention on the fifties, the eighties kids have risen to power and are asking the young to carry their nostalgia for them.
But that’s not the main point I was bothered by. After a string of articles talking about ‘messed up, typical teenager’ Avril Lavigne, yet again we have a piece conflating the difference between, say, twelve and nineteen. Avril, like Busted and three quarters of McFly, would just have finished her first year at university, a good one probably, studying something artsy or vaguely liberal. They may well have become well-versed in those ‘particularly arcane passages from Proust’. They’ll have experimented with mildly psychedelic drugs and had to survive in a major city, alone and parentless. Reams and reams has been written about sexualising the young, whether in the wake of ‘Baby One More Time’, Tatu or Chris Morris. But nothing has been written about a generation of ‘young adults’ being defanged and characterised in the name of teen entertainment. Perhaps because it’s all the more obvious in the cinema, the closest we’ve got is that joke in Scary Movie about the ‘high schoolers’ being far, far too old. I mean, think of the building blocks that built the stereotypical teen identity: Brando and Dean, surly and existentially early-twenties. Hell, how’s about Michael J. Fox and Marty McFly. Even with a market supposedly regressing and repressing faster and faster, there have been relatively few true teen idols. Child stars, yes. Idols to teens, plenty. Late teen heart-throbs, loads. But thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year olds sunning themselves in the limelight, not many. Instead we get eighteen year olds, nineteen year olds, twenty one year olds, twenty five year olds becoming twenteenagers. With a pout and a natural nostalgia for the unremembered early nineties, they make the music and then dance to it in the school ties they’ve only just dispensed with. Or, in film, we get Jennifer Garner, Tom Hanks and Jamie Lee Curtis as our teenage cut-outs.
So, we get the Guardian talking to McFly like fifteen year olds, having to justify themselves as fifteen year olds, having to explain away an imagined malevolent hand compelling their childish selves to sell things to even more childish consumers.
Your homework: watch Stuart on Big Brother and marvel at his ability to sense this, enjoy this and use it to his advantage. After all, he is, just as the press kept telling us about the Tatu svengali – inhale, tell me about your mother – a psychologist.
*Autobiographical note: I am, if this makes a difference, twenty two. Which is a fine age to be.
Some more Dylanology f’ya.
After the sudden spurt of Dylanology* downscreen, I’ve just finished Toby Thompson’s ‘Positively Main Street’. Like George Melly’s Revolt Into Style, it positively fizzes with contemporary history, someone standing back and wondering at events recently passed and currently passing. Amazon suggests it hasn’t been reissued, but I picked it up second hand and well-thumbed from one of those booksellers with windy stairs. Essentially, it’s the age-old New Journo story of Toby (early twenties) travelling up to The North Country to uncover Zimmerman’s roots, just as Nashville Skyline is released. Toby tracks down family members and local history and falls deeply for the girl who inspired Girl From The North Country. Her name is ‘Echo’. Natch.
But, for our present purposes, perhaps it can shed some light on lit-critting Dylan. Handily, for the purposes of mystique at least, the book was written when Dylan was locking himself away in upstate New York with a family and a bible. So, trying to track down Bob in Hibbing, Minnesota was always gonna prove a little squiffy. But, when combined with Thompson’s wide-eyed fan-ism, this allows at least some semblance of insight.
Towards the end of the book, after two hundred pages of family digging, we get something like The Point. Musing on the efficacy of this line of endeavour, Thompson suggests explicitly something that he’s been banging on about implicitly since page one. He offers that the interesting thing – the useful thing – isn’t the ‘how?’ but the ‘why?’ and that the ‘why?’ was the one thing Bob could keep private. The ‘why?’, for Toby, was the ‘imagination’.
Perhaps this was something lacking from Hitch or (seemingly) Ricks: the understanding with any person, let alone any pop star, that the bit they pour dry ice over is, by implication at least, the interesting bit. The ability to obscure and to self-mythologise is at the root of any autobiography, of any artistry. And, of course, this is especially true of Bob Dylan, with his crytpic, quasi-referencing poetry and fairy-tale backstory. Dylan is simultaneosuly a Romantic and a post-modernist: obscuring for effect and obscuring cos that’s all there is.
So, in this healthy vein of looking upon his works and (Andrew) Marvelling, perhaps the amateurishly professional Dylanologists should see themselves as more priestess than oracle. The oh-so-cute “subliterary games” that Hitch plays with Salman Rushdie aren’t enough, let alone the uberliterary games Ricks plays with himself. To use litcrit on the litcritters, perhaps New Criticism should be forgotten in favour of a po-mo deconstructionist bent, flavoured with intense superfan enthusiasm**.
*Have any other pop icon’s grown an ‘-ology?’. Visions of Maureen Lipman on the phone – ‘My Ringo’s got an -ology’ – of course.
**It’s just struck me that could serve as an adequate explanation of The Joy of Blog. I knew I’d get there eventually.