Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bad Music, Worse Politics

They say "never judge a book by its cover," but what about judging a book by its pull-quotes and endorsements? A single-sentence excerpt from Meghan McCain's book is sufficient to see it's utter shite, and I certainly won't need to read anything that makes it onto either Oprah or Glenn Beck's book lists.

Musical taste can serve as a litmus test of someone's general character. This sounds like a dangerous and smug generalization, but think of it - have you ever met someone who preferred Yoko Ono to the Beatles who wasn't an insufferable prick? Similarly, is it ever a surprise when a hidebound fan of only hardcore punk or heavy metal turns out to be a socially-conservative reactionary? Music is not some autonomous miracle that happens by fluke. Music is dependent on context for meaning and is the direct product of human intervention - even if that intervention is the simple act of listening. (This is how John Cage could find musicality in the traditionally "non-musical.") To both the composer and the audience, music is never politically neutral.

This is why I'm such a staunch defender of indie dogmatists like Steve Albini, and why I'm very skeptical of populism, both musical and political: it discourages radicalism, sanctions tyranny of the majority, and buttresses the status quo. Unhesitant endorsement of pop music applauds the commodification of art and abets the homogenization of culture by consumerist capitalism. The gluttony of the indiscriminate listener enhances the neo-liberal fantasy of infinite abundance. Several years ago, Rob Horning outlined the fundamental danger of then-ascendant "poptimism":
It doesn’t really matter who likes what specifically; what matters are the means by which the big players seek to control the entertainment market... In capitalist society, culture is business, one that’s always trying to expand. Nice of the poptopian to do the marketers work for them and expand the reach and provide the ideological justification for the hegemony of the big commercial music manufacturers.
So much of the vitriol aimed at Albini over the past week has little to do with the substance of his argument and more to do with him "being a jerk." This would suggest that, instead of disagreeing with Albini, many people are merely upset that he's infringing on their guilt-free enjoyment of consumer culture. Tom Ewing (author of, appropriately, Pitchfork's Poptimist column) parodies Albini's contempt for the fashion industry by suggesting what Albini's rendering of soccer might look like:
“It’s just 22 men chasing a leather ball around!”
Reductive and contemptuous, perhaps, but also 100% accurate. Again, the implication is that the exploitation of an insecure public and the predation upon art by capital is not nearly as offensive as being a buzzkill asshole. What matters not is critiquing and defending against market forces; what matters is letting everyone be into what they're into and, y'know, having fun!

Let me be clear, there are larger real-world consequences to poptimism's timid egalitarianism. Mike Barthel was among the many who, without challenging Albini's position, dismissed the attacks upon fashion and Sonic Youth's Faustian bargain as "stupid shit." Less than a week later, Barthel posted an op-ed at The Awl about Glenn Beck's autodidact schtick:
In terms of motivation, liberals' demands that the unpleasant parts of American history be taught in schools is no different from conservatives' insistence that they be expunged: both want the story told as they see it so that children will grow up sympathetic to their view of the world. Of course, liberals have the advantage in this case of wanting things to be revealing, rather than concealing. But that doesn't make our intentions any nobler, particularly.
And voila, in one simple extension of political logic, it's no more noble to fight for truth & accountability than it is to whitewash history in the name of imperialist nationalism. Because apparently it's better to tolerate jingoism and ignorance than to be an asshole and call people out on those things.

Whatever happened to "keeping keen the blade of one's dissatisfaction"?


JM said...

I still don't see the point in keeping the sellout/not sellout mindset and expect indie bands to bring on a revolution when you yourself said Music and Politics don't mix. It's not criticizing, it's just ranting about how people fail to live up to your own ideologies.Sure, we can agree about MIA's tact with the video for Born Free because she decided to express her message that way. But Sonic Youth never intended to be some kind of Leninist Vanguard so cut them some slack.
Big Black is great and fuck, Horning makes some good points, but Albini is still puzzling as hell.

Seb said...

I said music and politics don't mix? When? If you're talking about my problems with Bono or M.I.A., that has more to do with hypocrisy (e.g.) than anything else. But I don't believe I've ever argued that music and politics should be kept separate, because they can't be kept separate.

JM said...

Ok, sorry. The annoying thing is that I though Bono was kinda going in a right direction by trying to get people to fund AIDS drugs for Africa. Shit.

TV's David Caruso said...

The Barthel piece comes close to be redeeming, but veers off into skullcrushingly awful: no concept of class dynamics, read "What's the Matter with Kansas?", at least give it a glance. Its Poli Sci 101!

That being said, the thing that rubs me the wrong way about the Albini thing is 1) Albini has a job, and a pretty great one. His reputation ensures that, even though his studio fee is modest, he'll have a steady stream of work for years to come (AND HE HAS HIS OWN STUDIO!!). Albini taking potshots at SY is like those kids who would photocopy their zines at their parent's office and then bitch about it when others charged anything more than postage for theirs. We can't all be studio engineers. Shellac can turn down gigs because they don't NEED them. 2) I know this is a major label apologist thing to say but, I grew up in Vermont. There is very little chance I would have become at all engaged or clued into underground music, queer politics or anything closely resembling radical thought, if my brother hadn't become obsessed by Nirvana, and the Ramones, VU and the like because of that obsession. Being indie and D.I.Y. is all fine and good for city folks on the Coasts, and isolated midwestern regions, but if you live in the boonies or the bayous, where cool records stores don't exist and cool bands don't tour, the underground distro network just isn't going to cut it. Barthel's argument that SY were able to spread their message much better on a major than an indie isn't just an revisionist excuse, it really happened and meant a lot to some people.

Seb said...

TVDC - True, not everyone has a dayjob as bitchin' as Albini's. But a huge number of musicians make a living doing something non-musical that gives them equal pleasure. Michelle Mae of The Make-Up teaches yoga; Greg Norton of Hüsker Dü famously became a chef; David Yow, J. Robbins, and Rick Froberg are all graphic artists. The problem with signing to a major to make a living is (a) yeah, good luck recouping first, (b) if your enthusiasm at quitting your dayjob outstrips your enthusiasm for getting to focus 100% on music, you're doing it wrong.

Like I've said before, I'm more than sympathetic to Sonic Youth's curatorial roles, and I think they did a damn fine job of it. But I think you're underestimating the viral creep of subculture in the pre-internet era. Look at your own past, for example: "if my brother hadn't..." But your brother did! That's all it takes to unlock that door - one person who can hip you to the underground. For many, it's a sibling, for others it was the dude that ran the one record store in town, for others it was the faint transmission of some far-away radio station. Believe me, I grew up in western Canada, I know what it can be like way out in the boondocks! But once that door is opened to you, that's all you need.

Jason said...

I read this interviewer with designer Adam Arnold:

"There is a lot of talk in Portland about the environment; why is it that some people chose to overlook one of the most visual aspects of this cause? We see other people every day, at the grocery store, the restaurant, the bank, the bar, and for the most part they haven't considered that what they are wearing is causing a general malaise in the overall outlook. They have just succeeded in polluting the environment. The visual environment. Thinking about how one chooses to present oneself doesn't have to do with how much money someone has. Take pride in your appearance, and know that it is NEVER appropriate to wear sweatpants on the street (unless you are jogging, or your house or apartment is on fire and you had to run out onto the street)."

Then recalled Albini's screed against the fashion industry and had to chuckle. Arnold may have just been trying to wind people up, sure; whether or not you're one to agree with Albini or not, it made sense to me.

Jeffrey said...

"Similarly, is it ever a surprise when a hidebound fan of only hardcore punk or heavy metal turns out to be a socially-conservative reactionary?"

Of course, the three most obvious examples of this, but performers rather than fans, being ZZ Top (big Bush the Younger supporters), Alice Cooper (ditto) and Ted Nugent who is a gun nut and probably should be institutionalized.