Showing posts with label rock 'n' roll. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rock 'n' roll. Show all posts

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Post Rock

This article by Ann Powers in yesterday’s L. A. Times refers to the dwindling significance of rock music as a cultural force. She avers that rock music is in “its Götterdämmerung phase” and writes, “Not only does rock no longer dominate popular culture worldwide, having long been eclipsed by hip-hop and Celine Dion, it’s also past both its youth as an agent of rebellion and its midlife as a ‘temporary autonomous zone’ for nonconformists….” Alas, I’m afraid she is right. In my past two blogs, in the context of discussing progressive rock, I have discussed the way modernism supported the conception of the popular musician as artist. My point was a rather simple one: early 1970s progressive rock demonstrated the lingering power of modernist values to bolster the image of the rock musician as “artist.” To some extent, that image is still viable, a testament to the lingering influence of modernism: check out this article in the Telegraph, on the lingering influence of Buddy Holly, whose untimely death fifty years ago will be commemorated this coming Tuesday, February 3.

Don McLean’s “American Pie” was putatively motivated by the death of Buddy Holly, in which the singer refers to the moment he heard of Holly’s death by the cryptic phrase, “the day the music died.” Too bad Don McLean didn’t write a song commemorating the 1 billionth download from Apple’s iTunes store, which happened just about three years ago, on February 23, 2006. (The download, incidentally, happened to be Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound.”) That date should be commemorated as well, because it marks the day when rock music died, or rather, marked the death of the fundamental method of its consumption. If jazz culture is based upon the live performance, being present at the scene and moment of an actual performance, rock culture is based upon the record: the basic material artifact central to its consumption is the record—or, if you will, the discrete physical object, liminally demarcated, one imagines holistically as an “album.”

“Post Rock” musical consumption, in contrast, is entirely different, and is represented by the download. Today a piece of music exists, but it is not anchored in a discrete physical object such as a record (some “albums” exist only in downloadable form), and thus it does not have any liminal demarcation. The piece of music is also ontologically unstable, since it may exist in various states of incompletion known as a “remix.” The song may be found on an album (in the antiquated sense, most likely in the storage format of CD), but the album is not conceived of holistically, but rather as an arbitrary heaping of heterogeneous pieces. Indeed, it is possible now to make a record simply by recombining fragments of sounds sampled by other records—you don’t even need to know how to play an instrument. Some years ago, Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy put it this way:

We don’t like musicians. We don’t respect musicians…. In dealing with rap, you have to be innocent and ignorant of music. Trained musicians are not ignorant of music, and they cannot be innocent to it. They understand it, and that’s what keeps them from dealing with things out of the ordinary…. [Public Enemy is] a musician’s nightmare. (Keyboard, September 1990, pp. 82-83).

Interestingly, the trend in popular music identified by Shocklee was anticipated over forty years ago by pianist Glenn Gould. In his famous 1966 essay “The Prospects of Recording,” Gould warned that “the technology of electronic forms makes it highly improbable that we will move in any direction but one of even greater intensity and complexity.” (The Glenn Gould Reader, p. 352)

In the era of Post Rock, there is no equivalent for the discrete material object known as the record. To understand Post Rock, the era of iTunes and the download, one must turn to quantum physics for the cognitive metaphor. A download is like a photon, a liminal object neither particle nor wave, a burst of energy that appears but is anchored nowhere. (Marx: “Everything that is solid melts into air.”) The iPod, the retrieval system for downloads, is by definition a portable device, designed for neither café nor concert hall, but primarily for mobility, a technology whose purpose is to provide an ambient background to a life premised on speed, not reflection, a life in which politics is defined as taste. Viewed in this way, Post Rock represents the triumph of Muzak, the era anticipated by art rockers such as Brian Eno, who settled on the collocation “ambient music” as a name for such decorative sounds, what Erik Satie called furniture or furnishing music.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Critical Overcomprehension

In his witty and insightful book, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) William Goldman, a highly successful screenwriter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but also a wry critic of Hollywood, observes that a Hollywood studio head is very much like the manager of a baseball team: each and every day he wakes up knowing that sooner or later he is going to be fired.

No doubt the vast majority of today’s critics--of the theater, movies, music, contemporary fine arts--wake up each morning in a similarly precarious position, not necessarily thinking they will be fired from their privileged critical occupation, but that most certainly and with a creeping, unavoidable inevitability--like the day of their death--they will be wrong. What is a critic’s deepest fear? To have erred in judgment, to have made the wrong call, in short, to have missed the boat.

No music critic wants to miss the boat--to have critically underestimated, or what’s worse, to have dismissed the next Velvet Underground, for instance--so in order to avoid making such an unwitting mistake, the critic engages in what Robert Ray, employing a term coined by Max Ernst, calls overcomprehension (How a Film Theory Got Lost, Indiana University Press, 2001, p. 82). Ray writes:

Aware of previous mistakes, reviewers become increasingly afraid to condemn anything....Hence ... [one] ... of modern criticism’s ... great dangers, what Max Ernst called “overcomprehension” or “the waning of indignation”.... (82)

No critic, of course, can see beyond the curtain of time. Time is the ultimate critic, and the critic’s limited perspective doesn’t allow him to see beyond his own pitifully narrow moment in history. Critical overcomprehension--the act of giving every new record an equally glowing reception--is a result of the critic’s deep fear of being judged by history as wrong. No one wants to be, for instance, television critic Jack Gould, who reviewed the Milton Berle Show appearance of Elvis Presley for the New York Times in 1956:

Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. His specialty is rhythm songs which he renders in an undistinguished whine; his phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of the stereotyped variations that go with a beginner's aria in a bathtub. For the ear, he is an unutterable bore, not nearly so talented as Frank Sinatra back in the latter's rather hysterical days at the Paramount Theater. (qtd. in Robert Ray, 80)

Of course, as Ray points out, Gould’s kind of critical error had its own unintended consequences: such gross critical mistakes, Ray argues, led to “rejection and incomprehensibility as promises of ultimate value” (82). In other words, if an album sold poorly, or the artist who recorded it was given scant attention--or worse, completely neglected in his time, the record must therefore be great, perhaps even a masterpiece.

I suppose we all have adopted our favorite neglected artist, the artist whose critical neglect or, if you will, martyrdom, ironically, is the sign of greatness, of ultimate value. In my own music collection, this sort of artist is represented by, among others, Tim Buckley and Phil Ochs.

But I’m wondering, what do we do with the opposite case, the artist who is the critical establishment’s darling and whose records we therefore own, but never play? (Perhaps I'm a heretic, but I find myself playing only certain selections of Trout Mask Replica, not the entire disc.) The presence of both sorts of records, side by side in our music collections, reveals the persistent problem of what Robert Ray calls the Gap, the problem of assimilation, the failure of a new or unusual artistic style to be made intelligible to the public. Although rock 'n' roll is now over fifty years old, we still find ourselves struggling to fully comprehend its challenges and complexities, rather like a person who has difficulty reading or understanding the lines indicating contours and elevations on a topographic map.