Wednesday, October 06, 2010

A Messenger Who Shoots Back

One of the most oft-quoted lines from The Big Lebowski is The Dude's last-ditch retort to Walter: "You're not wrong, Walter, you're just an asshole." Lord knows I've been slapped with that rejoinder many a time. Just this weekend, a friend and I were arguing, basically, over whether or not such a thing as "black music" exists, and he said, "Look, I know what you're saying, and I can't quite disagree with it, but goddamn I want to punch you in the fucking face!"

But I digress. What's really fascinating about The Dude's retort is how dramatically its sense is changed by reversing the sentence structure: "You're an asshole, but you're not wrong." It's no longer a statement of bare tolerance of some dunderhead's invective; it's grudging acquiescence to the fact that someone thoroughly unlikeable has made an incontestable argument. It's a less-condescending version of the old "broken clock" saw, and - to me - not a bad rhetorical position to be in at all.

Steve Albini is a man whose whole public persona hinges on being this asshole-who's-not-wrong. He's clearly unconcerned with whether or not people "like" him, though he's rarely been prone to the kind of cartoonish abuse Tesco Vee used to heap upon the world at large. So it should come as no surprise that I woke up today to find see the following headlines around the interwebs:
Etc. etc. etc. It's not that Albini thinks Sonic Youth are a shitty band or a bunch of poseurs. ("I still consider them friends and their music has its own integrity.") Rather, Albini thinks that, by signing with a major label, Sonic Youth "became a foot soldier for [mainstream] culture's encroachment into my neck of the woods by acting as scouts." Sonic Youth lowered the drawbridge for the commercial huns and led to "a corruption of a perfectly valid, well-oiled music scene."

There's already been some considerable discussion here about Sonic Youth's "curatorial" stance, and ultimately I think they played that role well. Other bands who crossed over (e.g. Nirvana) made token gestures towards their underground peers by wearing T-shirts or name-dropping in interviews, but few were as urgent in championing music's margins as Sonic Youth. Had they not signed to Geffen, some other band would've torn a wormhole between the under- and above-ground; the commercial incursion into indie music would happen sooner or later. I think Sonic Youth understood this and worked to foster a more faithful relationship between the audience and underground music, a relationship that could've easily been superficial, fickle, and fleeting. As I wrote before:
The problem, then, is not of revolutionary intent or lack thereof, but of what if the revolution succeeds? As pure as it may be then to wipe one's hands, declare the job done, and ride off into the sunset, this leaves the freshly razed ground at the mercy of tyrants & thugs - be it Stalin or the Universal Music Group. Not to forfeit what was fought for requires the victors to become stewards of the movement - in artistic terms, curators. Though this role is frequently disdained for plasticising new forms and jealously protecting legacies, good curators use their seniority to support & shepherd younger artists flush with potential. Even if popular taste swings away, a safe haven for bold thinkers & iconoclasts will have been carved out, with nothing ceded for the sake of fame or money.
Where I think Albini is absolutely right in his criticism is that Sonic Youth "[took] a lot of people who didn't have aspirations or ambitions and encouraged them to be part of the mainstream music industry." In the sleeve photos for Goo (SY's first album for Geffen) and the video for "Kool Thing", the band adopted the glam-trash strut and Ray Ban-shaded thousand-yard stare of marquee-topping Rock Stars. It was clearly an ironic goof, laughing at the hilarity that a band once described as "pigfucker rock" were being ushered into the megawatt glare of mainstream success. But Albini identified the dangerous ambiguity of this stance in an interview last year:
If you see it as somewhat of an irony that someone from your background would be in the mainstream, you’re more inclined to participate in it. My experience has been that the more comfortable that outsiders get saying and doing stupid shit, the more the ironic distance narrows. And the ironic distance eventually narrows to a point of nothing. Then you have this sort of ascendancy where something from the underground, by ironically adopting the mannerisms of the mainstream, becomes the mainstream.

And there’s an ironic defense that people use who want to maintain some perspective on themselves of being outside of mainstream culture that allows them to do crass, gross, grasping things with the idea that “it’s O.K. because it’s me doing it because I’m doing it for all the right reasons. I’m doing it for our team” as it were. That’s the point when the ironic distance narrows and the person becomes the thing he was previously a parody of.
The immediate rebuttal that pretty much everyone has slung at Albini is that he engineered some of "alternative" rock's major-backed breakthrough albums, both good (PJ Harvey's Rid of Me) and bad (Bush's Razorblade Suitcase). Pitchfork writer Ryan Dombal snickers, "Perhaps he never cashed those checks?" But this cuts right to the heart of why Albini qualifies himself as an engineer, not a producer. Whereas a producer coaxes & sculpt the music to elicit a desired emotional response, an engineer must simply document a band with maximum fidelity. Any engineer worth their fee will have a workmanlike, time-to-make-the-donuts approach, because they are a technician, not an artist. Whether or not the band is any good (let alone "cool") is not Albini's problem. He isn't there to fuss over lyrics, make the chorus "pop", or tighten the drummer up with Beat Detective; he's there to capture a band's performance as transparently & truthfully as possible. If the chorus ain't catchy, if the tempo wobbles a few b.p.m., if the guitarist's tone is like an electric baloney sandwich pumped through a 10" thrift-store Squire amp, that's on the band, not Albini.


BDR said...

Heh, you're first place I pinged after seeing the Pitchfork article, had faith you'd seen it and been prompted.

Zone Styx Travelcard said...

Lots of good points here. That Geffen move: it's utterly insignificant to SY's worth and yet almost completely defines them at the same time... The band seem rather haunted / ambivalent about it now, TM will defend it vigorously but with an air of protesting-too-much... I think its significance as something that validated major labels for other undergrounders has been overstated. Does anyone really think that if SY had stuck with Blast First that a whole wave of bands would have stuck w/ Sub Pop et al? Ultimately, a) no-one knew then how utterly co-opted the musical culture of 1980s US indie labels would become from 1990-2010, and b) if you look at the details, the small specifics of how SY used that new position, I think they did a lot of good turns for other bands.

Seb said...

BDR - Well, I can only hope that I'm more thought-provoking than I am unpredictable!

ZSTC - Exactly: if it wasn't Sonic Youth, it would've been another "indie" dogstar that paved the way for jumping to major labels. Eric Harvey at Marathonpacks (to whom I'm writing a response right now) makes the point that SY were among the first to properly anticipate the mainstreaming/corporatization of indie, and in that understanding they didn't feel the need to compromise their sound. (See NYC Ghosts & Flowers) Albini's larger point seems to be not that Sonic Youth themselves were "sellouts", but that they abetted the selling-out of the underground scene.

I hope I made the point clearly enough that I think SY, as you said, did a lot of good in evangelizing on behalf of more obscure artists without necessarily coaxing them into adopting the corporate model - by talking them up in interviews, having them cameo in videos, taking them on tour as openers, collaborating on recordings, etc.

If there's anyone who should be tarred-&-feathered for being sellouts, it's the Butthole Surfers and Kathleen Hannah (who used to talk a line of indier-than-thou bullshit that almost makes Albini seem noncommittal).

JM said...

What was going on with the butthole surfers now? I thought they got in a dispute with Touch and Go records, but that's it. And what's your beef with Kathleen Hanna? She's founded a music camp, for chrissake? And I still think Albini's damning Sonic Youth with faint praise here: "they're my buddies, but they unleashed the corporate hounds and wreaked havoc."

Seb said...

It's not that the Buttholes just "got into a dispute with Tough & Go," it's that they brought a lengthy & expensive lawsuit, robbed Touch & Go of some of their most valuable back catalog, and set a terrible precedent against small labels ever treating their artists with respect & equanimity. (Henry from Chunklet has a succinct rundown of the fracas.) World-class assholedom.

As for Kathleen Hanna, signing to UMG (the biggest & baddest of the big'uns) because Le Tigre was "working way too hard and getting not very much out of it" is a galling about-face for one of the most adamant, vociferous advocates of D.I.Y. She of all people should know that being countercultural doesn't entitle you to a living.

And I'm don't think Albini's being unfair. Hell, I might be good friends with someone, but if they sell drugs to make a living, I'm not going to support them in that just 'cuz we hang out.

JM said...

"She of all people should know that being countercultural doesn't entitle you to a living.'

That's a joke right? People do need money to live and guess what? People can work and enjoy it at the same time.
And how can you be mad at sonic youth when they continued to stay in touch with the indie scene.

JM said...

And another thing Thurston Moore said the reason they signed to a major label was because it offered health insurance. No really. So yes, sometimes it is about making a living. And have they had to change their sound at all, have they abandoned supporting other indie artists? Fuck no so I don't see why Albini's pissed.

Seb said...

No, I'm not joking, and I take it you didn't read my follow-up post in which I express dismay with how people have disastrously confused making music with making a living. As soon as art becomes a job, it corrupts the creative process. That's the crux of Albini's complaint, not with Sonic Youth as a band, but that their jump to a major label misdirected some of their impressionable fans from making good music to having their "eyes on the prize."

And obviously I'm not saying that it's impossible to join one's work. But to say that making music to make money is no different from making music as an artful expression is like saying that being a hooker is no different from having sex with your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse. (And if that is the case, that's fucked up.)