Thursday, March 27, 2008

DIDs: Of Records, Albums, and Theology

The collocation “Desert Island Discs”—DIDs— normally refers to a music critic’s list of revered recordings, usually consisting of ten (10) albums, as in Top 10. The term is derived from the question, “If you were stranded on a desert island, what ten albums (normally ten, out of respect to the commandments), out of all the albums you own, would you want to have with you?” Given the hypothetical nature of the question, it might just as easily be phrased as, “If your house were on fire, what ten albums would you grab on the way out?” Implicit in the question is the assumption that the critic compiling the list has hoarded, in a grossly materialistic way, more albums than he could ever possibly listen to (or rather, listen to carefully). Actually, the compilation of a “DIDs” list is a tacit admission by the critic that he really listens only to a small portion of the many hundreds (or thousands) he owns.

I vividly remember a conversation I had about ten years ago or so with my friend Mike Jarrett, a music critic himself and a world expert on jazz, when the topic of DIDs came up. In the context of a conversation regarding what each of us might include on a DIDs list, he paused to ask me a question that he prefaced by insisting he was asking in all seriousness. Of course, I said, ask it. Why would I think you were not asking a serious question? The question was this, brilliant really, which I’ve pondered many times in the years since: What makes up God’s record collection: Every record ever made, or just the best records ever made?

You don’t have to have any sort of conventional religious belief--even none--to answer the question. How do you answer it--not in a “theoretical” way, meaning, how “would” you answer it assuming the off-chance that someone ever asked you--but how do you? Does the most ideal of album collections in God’s place consist of all the albums ever made, or only the best (however the Almighty should decide that)? Is heaven (a desert island, of the tropical paradise sort) a place of plenty, of excess, of everything, or is it premised on the Puritan Principle of Parsimony—that is, DIDs. (When you go to heaven, in other words, and you’ve got only ten choices, what shall they be?) Is it all-inclusive, or exclusive? If you had your druthers, do you invite everybody, or only a select few? Certain Christian traditions, of course, tell us that those selected are an elite few—the Chosen. But I recall answering Mike’s question, “all of them. God has all of them.” Mike’s response was, “But does He listen to them all?” Isn’t this the real paradox of desire: Is desire polymorphously perverse (indiscriminate), or fetishistically perverse (rarified)?

I have never seen a list of DIDs that was really anything more than a particular critic’s fetishized list, selected from a standardized list of “Rock Greats”—the critic’s favorite Beatles album, favorite Rolling Stones album, favorite Pink Floyd album, Led Zeppelin album, Bob Dylan album—you get the idea. And outside of some occasional, unexpected flourishes—Cream, perhaps, or U2, Grateful Dead, Nirvana—the list never contains surprises. (Or, if it does, it’s the “Guilty Pleasure” sort, that is, the fetishized sort, meaning the critic "can’t explain it," "just likes it" sort, meaning it eludes rational explication--he’s a mystery even to himself.) In other words, we all know the critical darlings that are going to be there—Rock music’s Great Tradition—the suspense is simply finding out which album by the canonical bands happens to be the critic’s favorite (at the moment).

The problem is that many music critics are really just fans who’ve learned how to write and found a forum to expound from, fans in the sense that their judgment is uncritical—everything by the band (Beatles, Pink Floyd, fill in the blank) is great. Every song, every album, every note by the band is just as good as every other one. Now this just can’t be true--or can it?

By way of analogy, think of the work by a major literary figure—Shakespeare, for example. As Harold Bloom points out—Bloom being one of America’s best critics—had Shakespeare died at the same age as his contemporary, playwright Christopher Marlowe, and Marlowe lived on instead, Marlowe would have been considered historically the greater playwright. Shakespeare’s early plays do not have the level of sophistication and craft of Marlowe’s early plays. At a younger age, the fact is, Marlowe was the stronger playwright of the two. Of course, history is radically contingent: Marlowe was murdered, and Shakespeare lived, eventually composing the great tragedies upon which his reputation largely, and justly, rests. Likewise, of all the many volumes of his writings, the crucial importance of British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) rests, according to Bloom, on a mere nine poems—but what a brilliant nine they are. In popular music criticism, most critics refuse to make such keen discriminations, partly because they are afraid history will prove them wrong, and so overestimate the importance of every album ("five stars"), or else invent an ad hoc system on which to base their judgment--yet another mechanism of desire--which is presented as “objective.”

Question: Is Meet the Beatles as good a record as the White Album? Or, alternatively: Does God have all the Beatles albums, are only the very best?

Some, rightly so, will cry foul and claim a category error: first I asked about records, and then I asked about albums. In an earlier post, I claimed the two were not the same, a record being a material artifact, an album a concept. But if an album is a concept, does God, then, prefer "Greatest Hits" packages, or the individual albums, in the sense of particular records? Example: Does God have The Eagles' Hotel California, or The Eagles' Greatest Hits? Or all of the individual albums, avoiding the Greatest Hits?


Tim Lucas said...

A couple of books have been published on this DID theme: STRANDED: ROCK AND ROLL FOR A DESERT ISLAND, edited by Greil Marcus (worth reading if only for Langdon Winner's brilliant chapter on his selection: Captain Beefheart's TROUT MASK REPLICA), and more recently MAROONED: THE NEXT GENERATION OF DESERT ISLAND DISCS, edited by Phil Freeman.

The Marcus book has one or two eye-rolling chapters, like John Rockwell's 30 pages on Linda Ronstadt's LIVING IN THE USA, and some indifferent writing on a couple of great albums, but the majority are well chosen, defended, and romanced over. And Marcus' closing chapter, "Treasure Island," succeeds in telling the history of rock music in 40+ pages of essential albums and singles and moments.

The Freeman book, published last year, follows the same format but is fairly weak tea. The contributors are often clueless -- one opens by insisting that the Miles Davis album he picked (BITCHES BREW) is the best album in the world, though it isn't his favorite album or even his favorite Miles Davis album -- and the selections are all rather amazingly off-center (Alice Coltrane's JOURNEY IN SATCHIDANANDA rather than PTAH, THE EL DAOUD, Stephen Stills' MANASSAS rather than David Crosby's IF ONLY I COULD REMEMBER MY NAME -- you know?!). The one album included that I love, Stereolab's TRANSIENT RANDOM NOISE BURSTS WITH ANNOUNCEMENTS, gets one of the best chapters but the author (Douglas Wolk) transcribes some lyrics incorrectly. Freeman's closing "Return to Treasure Island" overview of "what's been happening in music since 1979?", for the most part, confirms for me that he was the wrong guy, probably too young of a guy, to commandeer this project. He aims for Christgau-like one- or two-liners (forgetting that it's Marcus' footsteps in the sand he should be following) and hits the target maybe once every thirty times. If you had this book on a desert island, you might almost think that contemporary music is dead, rather than just being terminally ripped-off via the internet.

About the God question, I favor the idea that God has everyone's albums in His collection -- even the MIDI album I recorded on cassette and handed out to a few friends (who never listened to it) many years back. Then again, it's perhaps more likely that He doesn't have any albums -- because they all aspire to a condition He takes for granted. Not "been there, done that" so much as "am there, am that."

Anonymous said...

I assume you know this, but sometimes bits of British pop culture are surprisingly obscure outside the UK. The term 'Desert Island Discs' comes from a long-running BBC Radio 4 program - it started in 1942, and is running (!) - in which a celebrity selects the eight records they'd take to a desert island (along with one book and one 'luxury')and is interviewed about their life, work and how they'd survive in this situation. It's such a simple format that it's lasted forever in broadcasting terms (its creator, Roy Plomley, was the host until 1985, and only three other presenters have succeeded him). I'd be surprised if it hadn't been done in other countries.

Kim Newman

Adrian Horrocks said...
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