Thursday, May 07, 2009

Bad Music Writing

It's no wonder why print publications & word counts are dropping like birds over Chernobyl, now that "tweet" and "text" have become verbs. But if anything has rendered music writing obsolete, it's as much the critical overreach that Mark Fisher calls for (rather uninspiringly) as the consumptive nanocycle to which the relay of all information has been reduced. Yes, I'm going to tread that perilously close to hypocrisy: grossly po-faced laptop scribes are writing themselves out of relevance, dagnabbit!

Mark himself knows a bit about critical overreach - such as his touristic retreat into the realm of doom "superstars" SunnO))) that betrayed far more chin-stroking conjecture than genuine intimacy with the materials & their context. Yet, when he accuses Sonic Youth of being the first band to recycle culture into a closed circuit (as opposed to by refraction or expansion), it reads like rhetorical underachievement by his own standards. Bad Moon Rising was considerably earlier than Beck's kitchen-sink po-mo; earlier still than bland tribute acts like Mudhoney or Oasis, so points for that. But weren't there plenty of dead horses beaten to gluey pulps before Bad Moon Rising?

Punk, for example - and specifically the trichordal adolescent hissy-fits peddled by the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Those bands made no secret of their intense affection for the eighth-note strum & clang of old rhythm 'n' blues 45s. The only wrinkle separating, say, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" and "Beat On the Brat" is an extra dollop of au current, tailored-to-outrage antagonism.

Yet we can push back even earlier to proto-punk. Perhaps the Stooges' Fun House was the first retroreferential record. The elemental primitivism of rock 'n' roll's nascent wave is echoed both in spirit (the album was produced by Don Gallucci, of the Kingsmen & "Louie Louie" fame) and in sound: "Down On the Street" and "Loose" flex the same gnarly sinew as Link Wray & Duane Eddy's "rebel music", albeit with more explicit incitements to street violence and prurience.

But hell, why stop in 1970? If Sonic Youth are going to be backhanded for their "curatorial" roles, can't the same accusation be leveled at Frank Zappa? His numerous doo-wop homages were as honestly affectionate as his frequent piss-takes of contemporary artists were vicious. (Not to mention his umpteen nods to various modern classical composers.) Come to think of it, what was quintessentially new about any of the music that white musicians - Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Elvis, etc. - stole from Ike Turner, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, so on & so forth?

But this line of argument is more than a little absurd and ultimately useless. To one degree or another, all music nods to its antecedents; torches are passed, picked up, or rekindled. Of course, music is only beholden to the past to the extent it feels the need to either worship or mock what went before. Actually, it isn't impossible to create music in a cultural vacuum, but y'know what music utterly unencumbered by historical context sounds like? The Shaggs.

Not that Mark Fisher has a problem with artists burdened by history - quite the opposite, what with his essays' manifold mentions of "remnants", nostalgia, "ghost genres", and the like. But what makes The Advisory Circle good and Ciccone Youth bad is Mark's boderline-fundamentalist adherence to hauntology. Initially an intriguing cultural phenomenon, hauntology has come to inspire the kind of unblinking fanboy devotion usually reserved for World of Warcraft and Japanese animation, which makes some of these discussions as enjoyable & open as speculating on the afterlife with a Catholic. The greater problem, though, is that hauntology is a dead end and proud of it; miserablist ruminations over doors locked and out of reach; rubbernecking backwards at all the exits along the highway we didn't take.

Well, hang on - that sounds a hell of a lot like... post-modernism. And it is! As Alex of SBA outlined it with laser accuracy, "hauntology" is fundamentally a chicken-wire fenced erected around "good postmodernism, as set against the bad PoMo of a rampaging retroism" and ironic pastiche. To put a finer point on it, hauntology is the scrapbook of the underdogs & losers of culture wars past, where as po-mo "proper" celebrates every goon who got his 15 minutes.

But I digress. I don't want to prattle on about hauntology today, especially since that conversation's already been had. I do, however, want to call attention to Mark's use of "hauntology" as some kind of meaningful aegis under which he can lump the music he likes, safely squirreled away from the music he dislikes. Clearly he's not concerned with philosophical consistency, because otherwise it'd be fuckin' nonsense to cast the Pop Group and The Fall as dub- and kraut-damaged conduits of primal animus & political dissonance... and Sonic Youth as mere retro-necrophiliacs. Oh, it's certainly possible to like any one and not the others, but on aesthetic terms (and even then, just barely), not philosophical ones.

This is how critical overreach functions as a crutch for petty & fickle opinions. The elaborate scaffolds writers erect provide them a form over which to drape their critical assessments; the larger & more laboured the framework, the more solid it seems. This means any bad review is given the appearance of studious consideration & self-accordant logic - a far more noble & ego-inflating position for a writer, rather than have to admit that, for reasons as inarticulable & irrational as emotions, they just don't dig something.*

Mark Fisher obviously anticipated being set upon by rabid Sonic Youth supporters like myself, adopting a Magazine song-title as his first line of defense: "My mind, it ain't so open..." I don't particularly care if Mark enjoys Sonic Youth or not. But it's bloody difficult to contend convincingly that SY are "dilettantes" who fail to "[draw] on any unconscious material" and whose cachet is derived "from gesturing to artists more marginal than them." They are inarguably one of the most influential & inventive guitar bands ever. On the one hand, it's impossible to reimagine the rock landscape of the past twenty years without their influence (or, yes, their latter-day curatorial presence); on the other, they carved such a singular niche for themselves that anyone who wears their influence on their sleeve is simply dismissed for ripping off Sonic Youth. And don't even try to claim they contributed nothing new to the conversation - I would die to hear any obvious forerunners to songs like "Death To Our Friends" or "Eric's Trip".

Is any of this reason enough to like the band? Nah, not really. But please, Mark, instead of taking potshots at a band twenty years past their peak, just say you think Thurston comes off like an aloof dick, that the beats are too loose to dance to, that the sound is all rusty shrapnel & bleating car-horn doppler. Don't say Sonic Youth are "reducible to a set of easily verbally explicable intentions" - at least not without then verbalising what those handily explicable intentions are.

Others have already rushed to Sonic Youth's defense. Zone Styx Travelcard described Bad Moon Rising place on the geocultural landscape most elegantly. Meanwhile, Simon Reynolds acknowledged the "pernicious adequacy" of Sonic Youth's decade-plus holding pattern, arguing that they've perhaps outlived their usefulness for those who keep "keen the blade of one's dissatisfaction, one's impatience." But he still called for Sonic Youth to be afforded what respect they've earned:
[SY's late-'80s run was] a gorgeous noise where No Wave's stringent modernism merges with numinous psychedelia (a new psychedelia, one that barely references anything in the vocabulary of Sixties rock). As irritating as they can be that shouldn't be taken away from them. One might even feel an empathetic twinge for the vanguardist hoisted by their own reinvention-of-the-guitar petard and faced with the problem of reinventing themselves. Why shouldn't they be like Neil Young, an alt-institution, criss-crossing back and forth within the range of sound they've established?
Of course, none of this appears to have persuaded Mark Fisher, who steered largely clear of critiquing the music itself, instead making a series of contextual accusations that could just as easily be leveled at some of his favourite artists. ("Curators... who can turn a notionally ignorant audience on to cool stuff"; "so pathologically well-adjusted that the music doesn't appear to be performing any kind of sublimatory function for them"; etc.) At times, he appears to deliberately misread Sonic Youth & their place/purpose on the musical landscape, such as when he casts them as an unworthy contemporary standard for "experimentalism" - I don't know anyone obnoxious enough to call the concise pop songcraft of Rather Ripped "experimental". There's something in his tone of a kid who lost cred because he didn't "get" something cool, and now he's come for his revenge.

Ultimately, Mark is picking the wrong battle. When he noted that "the problem with hauntology is its association with a defeated (and defeatist) leftism," he perhaps forgot to what the left owes its apparent & ongoing defeat: the left spends all its time bickering amongst themselves & atomising into combatant factions, each too marginal to function as a foundation.** Meanwhile, the right quashes its petty infighting and rolls out the heavy artillery, intent on little beyond crushing their enemies. Over the hill as they are, Sonic Youth are far from the most stifling, conservative presence in music culture. What other musicians past a half-century in age have remained so curious & engaged in contemporary underground culture? You really want to strike a blow for modernism & encourage breakthroughs into new paradigms? Impatient to hasten the close of one chapter so that we might start a new one?

Kill Jack White.

(*) - Naturally, it works both ways. Not only can critical overreach perform the semantic sleight-of-hand to excuse not liking something for insubstantial reasons, it can also cast the most negligible mediocrity in the most elysian light. After you've called attention several times to the fact the emperor is buck-ass-naked, and several people have insistently shut you up, instead praising his regal & luxuriant threads, you become fairly certain that everyone knows this guy has no clothes - they just like looking at naked people. So it is with music: surely no one's genuinely convinced that the Arcade Fire or Deerhunter are geniuses, but we like to claim so (at length & ad nauseum) just so we can sound more sophisticated that arguing, "It's got a good beat and I can sing along in my car like an asshole."

(**) - Of course, the problem of critical overreach affects political activism too. When parallels are drawn between Ian Tomlinson and Rodney King, Sean Bell, or Burma, it not only cheapens true horror, it sounds histrionic, a cry of "Wolf!" when a chow is sighted. Obviously I'm not condoning physical intimidation by the police, for chrissakes, but am I alone in thinking that Tomlinson (appearing less-than-sportif) might have just pulled a Jim Fixx by total coincidence?


TV's David Caruso said...

Hey shot in the dark:

The idea that music should be innovative, or that there's an inherent value in trying new techniques and sounds seems caught up in the whole "Myth of Progress". Like if retro-minded bands are popular, then the music scene is "stagnating", like we're going to miss the train to the God's Head of musical perfection and bliss. Everyone is waiting around for a new movement to finish the job punk started, or do it the right way or something, when we're still just caught up in the same cycle that we were when Dixieland or Stravinsky burst onto the scene.

Hacking up old styles and recontextualizing them, or even just biting them outright, isn't inherently lazy or ignoble because that's how most of the greatest music was created. If we're open about, at least we might be able to realize that we haven't really been progressing this whole time, we've just been driving in circles and then maybe we can do something about it. (Hope against hope)

Seb said...

Yeah, I do think that constantly questing for only The New Thing is problematic for a few reasons - not the least because "new" and "good" are very frequently mutually exclusive. You'd miss out on a lot of good music with that tunnel vision. Also, the rapacious search for The New Thing dovetails into a tight, sweaty embrace with the consumptive rape-and-pillage capitalist cycle that so many bloggers & pseuds decry. When K-Punk approvingly cites Timothy Brennan's observation that capitalism is a kind of endless youth, this makes the modernist drive a lot more problematic.

I also spent some time last year talking about how technology has a massive effect on how music is created. One reason there were 100%-previously-unheard new sounds every year from about 1960 to 1995 was because each year saw the invention of some new sonic gadget - the fuzzbox, the flanger, the analog synthesizer, the drum machine, the sampler. Since then, though, all new technologies have been largely about convenience & the relay of information. No wonder so much "new" music sounds like the rebroadcast of an older signal.

On the one hand, mining the past isn't wrong in and of itself - after all, it's not reliving the same moment over and over if we weren't there to experience it the first time around. Also, I agree with Brian Eno's philosophy of "going to an extreme, then retreating to a more useful position." (We can't all be Genesis P-Orridge, after all.) But ultimately, I try to live by Simon Reynolds' injunction to "[keep] keen the blade of one's dissatisfaction" for the same reason I'm not a Buddhist: warm, numb oblivion in perpetuity strikes me as a sad waste of the opportunity of a lifetime - literally.

Songplacements said...

Very interesting and looong post.

Thanks for the great post!

David Hitt
Song Placements