The obvious point is that it’s nearly impossible to focus solely on the aesthetic elements of a work, since a context always exists (even if that context is your own experience). (I say "obvious" partially because I’ve been making this point for the last five years, but most evaluative criticism also seems to bear it out.) But I’m less sure about what to do about that: do you try to focus on the aesthetic elements, anyway, or do you embrace the context? With the former, my concern is that you’d lose sight of whatever extra-textual stuff might significantly deepen the experience (e.g., watching Far From Heaven as any other drama, without thinking about the imitative aspect of the film). With the latter, the risk is ignoring the aesthetic properties of the object altogether while critiquing the artist, the hype, the cultural phenomenon, etc. Or, maybe more of what I’m getting at, you start conflating aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties. "The smooth saxophone solo is bad because smooth jazz is a soulless genre for soccer moms." "Interpol is bad because they sound too much like Joy Division." The demographics of music consumption and the historical precedents for bands’ styles are certainly interesting, but can they validly support a value judgment?
Wednesday, April 30, 2003
1. How similar is O’Rourke’s attitude on Eureka to Todd Haynes’ in Far From Heaven?
2. Was Nick Drake able to get away with a smooth saxophone solo on "The Chime of a City Clock" because there was no smooth-jazz radio to negatively associate it with in 1969? How does our inevitable familiarity with smooth-jazz radio affect our current response? Would Drake not have done the solo today?
Tuesday, April 29, 2003
After mulling it over, here’s my basic thought re: the negative connotation of smooth saxophone solos. It’s because they go against two common values in rock discourse: a) unpretentiousness and b) authenticity. The saxophone solo is read as pretentious partially to the extent that all rock solos can be self-indulgent -- but perhaps even more so in that the sax is seen as the instrument of the hipster jazz-cat, and the solo as a pandering attempt to give the song some "jazz cred." This might still be okay if it were Charlie Parker hopped up on skag, blowing the fuck out of his horn to exorcise his demons: that’s art. But the smooth saxophone sound is purposefully polished, slick, and often anonymous, and thus it’s also coded as inauthentic. After the 1980s, it’s especially difficult to hear a smooth saxophone solo in any context without immediately associating it with Smooth Jazz, a genre derided for corrupting the vitality of jazz and turning it into background music for upscale cafes and corporate cubicles.
Jim O’Rourke knowingly plays with these associations in his song "Through the Night Softly" (from Eureka), which features an out-of-nowhere smooth saxophone solo courtesy Ken Vandermark. O’Rourke admits that the solo, which actually resembles the ending credits theme to Saturday Night Live, is supposed to sound corny: "That’s 100 percent what I was going for. I remember recording it and saying "No, Ken, stupider…stupider." What’s really intriguing about it, though, is that even though O’Rourke is intellectually interested in the genre appropriation as cultural signifier, he also claims to genuinely enjoy the solo. Not only does it work musically within the song, he says, but he was attracted to it because he "like[s] stupid stuff." One reason I appreciate O’Rourke’s records so much is because they understand that "cheesy" and "enjoyable" are not contradictory. (The first time I heard Eureka, O’Rourke’s cover of "Something Big," by Burt Bacharach, actually made me laugh out loud. It was so ridiculous and so good all at once.)
Because he’s also done serious avant-garde records and plays with Sonic Youth (the epitome of NYC cool), O’Rourke can put out a song like "Through the Night Softly," with its "stupid" solo, and not risk instant dismissal. But if it sounds so much like G.E. Smith, why can’t we then appreciate G.E. Smith? Since when are artistic self-awareness and "indie cred" valid aesthetic criteria?
Monday, April 28, 2003
I’m thinking about how certain aesthetic elements have become, for some people, automatic signifiers of badness. For example, I’ve always thought of my fondness for Steely Dan as a guilty pleasure insofar as there’s a common perception (among my peers) of the band as "cheesy." So I was pleased that there was so much Steely Dan love on ILM a few weeks back. And yet some participants also couldn’t quite defend certain elements of the band’s sound, especially on Gaucho. One person fretted about having "to readjust [his] aesthetic values [to] accommodate that sort of lite-jazz rhythm section," admitting that he can’t ordinarily say anything interesting about "this sort of music." For me, it’s not so much the rhythm section as the general glossy production and, perhaps most obviously, the smooth saxophone solos. But that’s what I mean: a smooth saxophone solo is frequently thought of as an irredeemable feature in a song, and so why is that exactly? What makes that particular sound bad? Or is it more of a contextual issue than we’d like to think – i.e., do we say it’s the sax when we mean something else?
Friday, April 25, 2003
This actually may be all I have to say for now (I didn't mean to get so carried away!):
...Lap-pop, on the other hand, approaches song composition from a fundamentally electronic perspective. Meaning that even when organic elements like guitars are central to the mix, they are treated no differently from the computer-generated pops and clicks. Each sound is a discrete texture -- the composer’s job is to arrange the textures in such a way where they can all breathe. This, in a nutshell, is IDM: Squarepusher playing around with jazz guitar on messy, breakbeat-riddled tracks; Aphex Twin prettying it up with pizzicato strings. Where lap-pop goes IDM one further is in taking one of these typical sonic landscapes, finding a hook, smoothing out the edges, and opening itself up for a pop vocal line. Hence, “vocal IDM.” But sometimes so pop it’s more like New Wave with better technology: if there were gently skittering beats in 1982, wouldn’t Spandau Ballet have used them?
Thursday, April 24, 2003
Obviously, I'm going to use this site to write about music occasionally, especially if ILM continues to inspire thoughts. Lately, what I've been getting excited about, as a listener, is the trend variously referred to as "lap-pop" or "vocal IDM." It’s clear that an impulse to wed vocals with electronics is in the air, as evidenced by all the hype that electroclash has been getting. But I haven’t been too keen on electroclash, based on my limited experiences with Le Tigre, Tracy + the Plastics, and Fischerspooner. I think it’s because a) the programmed percussion is very cold, all smacks and slaps, and b) the vocals tend to be too shouty and monotone for my tastes. (This is why I prefer Fischerspooner’s "The 15th" to "Emerge" – it sounds more like New Order.) Whereas lap-pop – which I’m going to define through The Notwist, The Postal Service, and Schneider TM – is more often warmer, or at least less emotionally distant. Right now, I’m listening to Schneider TM’s "Reality Check" and realizing that the vocal line isn’t all that interesting – and yet it’s underpinned by this gorgeous acoustic guitar figure, swirling synths, and skittering (but subtle) beats. And the voice itself is given a vocoder treatment so there’s automatically more harmony and richness.
But I also want to define this sound against ordinary pop or rock songs that use samples or other electronic flourishes. Like, a few years ago (circa 1997-98), a lot of rock acts took hints from the sudden worldwide popularity of The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, and released their "techno albums" (U2’s Pop, Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore, even Bowie’s Earthling). That was sort of exciting at first, just to see where it would all lead, what it meant for the "death of rock" and all that. (Obviously, it led nowhere: the Pumpkins inched toward irrelevancy and broke up; the failure of Pop paved the way for U2’s celebrated return to earnest, no-frills rock on All That You Can’t Leave Behind.) But too often the marriage of guitars and techno beats felt forced, and the common complaint was that the electronics created a sense of detachment; they robbed the music of any emotion or human connection.
In fact, in a lot of people’s eyes, electronic beats and textures are always aesthetic signifiers of detached emotion. Leave it to Bjork to point out the fallacy of that argument: "People keep telling me that technology is cold, that computers are the death of feeling in music and that it's only music if it has guitars or violins," she says. "But how can you blame a computer for that? Who is supposed to put the soul in the music? I mean, you don't look at a guitar and expect it to jump up and write a tune for you. A computer is just a tool. Every decision is made by the artist using that tool." The problem, I think, becomes when you graft electronics onto an already structured song, as so many rock bands have done. With so little room to affect the basic landscape of the song, the electronic component comes across as a signifier of style (sexy! cold!) rather than a palette from which to build something new.
Next: Lap-pop and New Wave.
Tuesday, April 22, 2003
Hey, so first post. This blog is something I've been meaning to do for a while now, but two things have sort of gotten the ball rolling: 1) I recently read some of my writing in public, which made me realize that the contents of my journal, the poems and mini-essays and all that, don't actually have to languish privately just because they're kinda messy or brief or whatever -- people still like it! 2) I've been posting to ILX regularly now, which has a) increased my belief in the value of web-publishing in general, and b) made me more comfortable with the whole blog format for my own writing. I'm hoping to post some of what I've written there on this site, and vice versa.
Here goes nothin'!