cartwheels into your heart

Friday, May 30, 2003

I’ve been working on a mini-essay about popular music’s lack of academic institutionalization, but I’ve had a hard time getting a handle on it. I think the topic is probably bigger than I’d like to make it.

My thesis so far: Popular music is not treated as a substantive field of study (i.e., beyond pop-culture studies) because a) unlike novelists and visual artists, who study the history of their discipline as a matter of course, popular musicians are not seen as "intellectuals" participating in an unique discourse; b) while the notion of the auteur (still a contentious issue) allowed the academy to see film studies at its inception as analogous to existing studies of artists and writers, it is perhaps even less applicable to popular music; c) there is a relative absence of legitimizing institutions (like the gallery complex) or gatekeepers (respected novelist-critics) to isolate significant works for study; d) compared to literary and artistic "themes," the focus of much academic inquiry, it is not always obvious what popular music is "about" (it is often more functional); and e) while the lines between popular and high-culture art and literature are quite blurry (cf. the Jonathan Franzen debacle), thus giving more leeway for popular works to sneak into syllabi, they are much more stark with respect to music (composition or bust).

I realize some of these causes may actually be symptoms, which is what makes the whole subject so difficult. As a sideline, I also want to discuss how libraries give popular music the short shrift. (One nice thing I did discover in my research to date: one of my favorite academics, Michael Berube, has started a blog.)

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Last night, I was reading some blogs from ILM folks (mostly this), and whaddaya know, came across Michael Daddino's review of Elevator Music.

Monday, May 19, 2003

Just mention the words Muzak, easy-listening, or even contemporary instrumental, and many critics will lash out with judgments such as “boring,” “dehumanized,” “vapid,” “cheesy,” and (insult of insults) “elevator music.” But such reactions appear to be based more on cultural prejudice than honest musical appraisal. ... After decades of rock, rhythm and blues, folk, heavy metal, and rap, a desensitived population seems to assume that if music is not hot, heavy, bubbling with jackhammer rhythms and steaming with emotion or anger, it is somehow less than good or (worse) less than art.

-- Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music (1994)

Predictably, I’m sympathetic to Lanza’s project: to rescue easy-listening from the “categorical pejorative” it’s become. (That’s partly out of a willingness to take any genre seriously, but also because I do like a lot of the music discussed -- Les Baxter, for instance.) But I guess I’d like the book to actually investigate those cultural prejudices rather than simply persuading the reader that the music is valuable despite them.

As Lanza relates the history of elevator music, there’s one idea he treats with some significance -- that what set this music apart from the dominant genres of the early twentieth century (both classical and jazz) was the lack of listening attention it required. Full attention, in fact, was practically discouraged: this was music made to dine to, work to, make love to. Lanza goes out of his way to articulate the heavenly beauty of music meant specifically to be unobtrusive, rhapsodizing about the harmonious harps and swelling strings. And if other critics have failed to notice the sweetness of this sound, perhaps it’s because they can’t take it on these terms: the very nature of the critical enterprise demands an attention this music wasn’t made for.

But in taking on a more functional role, elevator music was also more obviously designed, or manufactured, than other music of its day. What Lanza doesn’t adequately explore is the ways in which easy-listening signifies not just blandness but inauthenticity. In other words, the emotions are not just neutral, they're fake. Only after re-reading the excerpt above did I realize “folk” is included, oddly, in a list of genres described as “hot, heavy, [and] bubbling with jackhammer rhythms.” If contemporary critics can abide folk music and not easy-listening (though both are subdued), it’s because the former is seen as genuine, individualistic artistic expression among critics who still place a high value on “authenticity.”

I’m also interested in how the principles of elevator music, such as the emphasis on mood and environment, play out in music not necessarily related to the middlebrow lounge and soundtrack records Lanza spotlights. For instance: the Beach Boys, who aren’t even mentioned. There is an Eno section (which I haven’t read yet), but it doesn’t seem like contemporary electronic sounds are considered in any depth. I’d also (naturally) be curious to see a discussion of contemporary acts that plumb easy-listening styles, such as Stereolab, the High Llamas, or even Tortoise. How does the music change when it’s mixed with more propulsive rhythms or glitchy sound effects?

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Mother’s Day 2003 Mix CD:

Beach Boys, “Our Prayer”
The Beatles, “Martha My Dear”
The Kinks, “Afternoon Tea”
Beach Boys, “Little Bird”
Neil Young, “I Am a Child”
Nick Drake, “Cello Song”
Pullman, “Two Parts Water”
Rachel's, “Kentucky Nocturne”
Wilco, “Jesus, Etc.”
Yo La Tengo, “Tears Are in Your Eyes”
Iron and Wine, “Bird Stealing Bread”
Kings of Convenience, “Leaning Against the Wall”
Antonio Carlos Jobim, “Triste”
Maxwell, “Seguranca”
Chet Baker, “But Not For Me”
Ella Fitzgerald, “Azure”
Joni Mitchell, “River”

So there are basically three sections: Oldies, Newer Acoustic, and Jazz, with segues that I think work pretty well. It struck me, though, that most of the mix has a melancholy vibe -- which wasn’t the intention, necessarily, but probably the result of the fact that the music I find the most “pleasant” (my general criterion here) also tends to be sort of sad. Stark and simple is okay, but stark, simple, and sorrowful can be gorgeous to me. So she’s limited by this bias of mine: oh well.

(When I gave my mom the CD, she seemed to get the most excited about the Ella Fitzgerald song, saying she’s been on a vocal-jazz kick lately. But I’ve yet to hear any thoughts since she’s actually heard it.)

Two potential pitfalls Lukas Moodysson neatly avoids in Lilya 4-Ever:

1. Wallowing in Lilya’s misery. This is a girl whose family abandons her in cold, poverty-stricken Russia and who is eventually raped and exploited as a prostitute. And yet rarely do we ever feel like the film is a recitation of suffering, one misery after the other to prove that Life Sucks. I’m sympathetic to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s frustration with films that offer sadism posing as humanism, but I don’t think that this film should be put in that camp. While the first fifteen minutes seem to tug in that direction (Mom leaves! Mud on the dress! Aunt is a bitch! New flat is decrepit!), it’s worth noting that none of the later sexual violence is dwelt upon. It just happens, confusingly. And Lilya’s friendship with Volodya is ultimately about love and hope.

2. Exploitation. Larry Clark defends the nudity in Bully as being true to these kids’ lives. If we are shocked, then all the better: we’ve faced the disturbing reality of American teenage sexuality. But I’ve yet to see a compelling justification for the camera shots that intrude and linger upon the girls’ crotches. Not only does Lilya 4-Ever avoid this kind of overt salaciousness, it refuses to sexualize Lilya at all. In none of the handful of sex scenes do we ever see more than her face, which usually tells us all we need to know. (An unsettling montage late in the film is shown entirely from Lilya’s POV: all sweaty men mechanically heaving above her.) You don’t have to be a radical feminist to appreciate how this affects our view of the character. With no place for us to take even a small delight in Lilya’s body, as an object, we remain strictly with her, as a person. And we are with her all the way.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Top five songs right now (in alphabetical order):

1. Iron and Wine, “Bird Stealing Bread”
2. Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks, "Dynamic Calories"
3. Snoop Dogg, "Beautiful"
4. Steely Dan, "My Old School"
5. Justin Timberlake, “Rock Your Body”

I'm conscious, of course, that these kinds of lists are often designed to show off their maker’s eclecticism, and that my list could be used as a case in point. But fuck it -- all those songs are great. The Malkmus song, which comes from an EP packaged with Pig Lib, is better than anything actually on the album: it sounds like early Sea and Cake. And I’m enjoying “My Old School” as a new-ish Steely Dan song. (When I dubbed A Decade of Steely Dan onto cassette eight years ago, that was one of the songs I had to cut for space. So the other day, when I heard it on the radio, it sounded fresh and great, with thoughts of Nicolas and Joel when they mention “Annandale.” Luckily, I just borrowed my dad’s CD of Decade, so I’ve been able to replay it.)

“Bird Stealing Bread,” one of the few songs to have made me cry, is on my mind because I’m putting it on a mix CD for my mom for Mother’s Day. I’ll post the full tracklisting when I’m done, but it’s been an interesting challenge. Some songs are easy to guess she’ll like (Beatles, Jobim), while others I can’t tell at all. For whatever reason, I’m feeling super-sensitive about vocals: it’s suddenly striking me that singers like Georgia Hubley and Stuart Murdoch, who I’ve never minded, don’t have the greatest voices. But what should I do? I’m dead set on getting this 53-year-old hospital administrator into indie pop!