by carl wilson

Danger, danger! Meta-meta-criticism ahead!

33.jpg

I didn't find out till just now, but Popmatters has been running a series all week about the 33 1/3 books, the set in which my book on "love, bad taste and Celine Dion" is coming out next year. Particularly interesting is Rob Horning's critique from yesterday of the whole project. He's certainly right to say the emergence of books-about-albums is trackable to the endangered nature of the album form. I'm intrigued when he seems suspicious of the reverence and experticization inherent in the canonization process, and even when he levels the accusation that the books may serve to "de-pop-ify" the albums in question, so that "art becomes art history." (But there's actually no way around that; if the art is going to outlast its moment, it's going to become historicized - and better history than mere nostalgia.) My book is definitely meant in part to counter the canonizing tendencies of the series. But...

[... if you keep reading, you're as nerdy as I thought! ... ]

But then Horning veers off into what seems like an elaborate intellectual variation on the "don't ruin my music by thinking about it" kneejerk move. He loses me when he says, "Taken to its logical extreme, this position threatens to make all albums more or less the same: it makes them all arbitrary raw material for the critic's churning mind. ... The critic's own fertile mind usurps whatever richness was inherent to the specific artwork... threatening to make the album itself virtually irrelevant. ... it obviates whatever specific intent the musicians may have had, renders that and the album itself as ultimately unknowable."

If a book is going to do that to a piece of music, frankly, either you've got a pretty weak album or a supernally powerful critic. First of all, any claims of intent by the musicians are much more likely to eclipse and conceal the inherent qualities of the art than whatever a third party says. Second, how many people do you think read these books, compared to how many hear the music? Third, any such effect is likely to be temporary - for example, Greil Marcus's unfortunate effect on the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, with all his "old weird America" guff and making folk music seem like a mere set of footnotes to Bob Dylan, becomes less and less pronounced the more people hear the reissue of the box set. Anyway, arguably the guiltier party is Smith, for appropriating all those folk singers into his own decidedly exoticizing art project in the first place. (I hasten to add that in Marcus's better books, such as Lipstick Traces and Mystery Train, he enhances the effects of the Sex Pistols and the Mekons and Elvis and Randy Newman without so much as bruising their capacities to be heard independently of his theories and afresh by each listener.)

It's all conversation, but hopefully good conversation. In the long run a work of art just is ultimately unknowable, and that's why each one of them is grist for all of our fertile minds. Aren't those two of the reasons we love art? Of course they are, as I think Horning realizes when he suddenly comes out in favour of the books at the end of the piece.

Popmatters' pieces also include interviews with series editor David Barker and Pet Sounds petting-zookeeper David Fusilli, as well as reviews of the Pet Sounds, Sign o' the Times, Kick Out the Jams and other volumes. Not comprehensive, but fun.

Read More | | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 06 at 10:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

COMMENTS

Since the topic is Canons and Albums, I feel compelled to mention the well-known role that Ella's Songbook series played in codifying the canonical Tin Pan Alley/Broadway/Hollywood writers. Irving Berlin was so aware of what was happening that he personally asked Ella to feature him in the series!

I mention this not because I think the people taking part in this thread don't know it, and not to complain about anybody who made Ella's cut, but only to say it's a shame she didn't have a chance to "do" Hoagy Carmichael and Fats Waller and Vincent Youmans too. And also: by focusing on canonical writers, we miss tons of great songs.

Posted by john on April 9, 2006 9:49 AM

 

 

The non-classical concept of "The Album" as more than a collection of songs pre-dates Rock, certainly Rock without the "& Roll," and even in its earliest manifestations the Reign of Elvis. Ella's Songbook series (launched in '56, I think), Kind of Blue ('59), Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus ('60), Sinatra's "concept" albums all come to mind (late '50s?); Ellington's "Masterpieces" is the earliest I can think of, from 1951 or so. Like the novel (Matos, I'm coming around, qualifiedly) and like Rockism, they all aspire to Significant Statement-hood.

I'd love to read a book on "Mingus Presents Mingus" or any of many late Ellington albums -- Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, Jazz Party, The Far East Suite, Money Jungle, the albums with Armstrong and Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins and Ella.

Posted by john on April 8, 2006 7:03 PM

 

 

I'm not going to go any further talking about Marcus. He's been an inspiration to me and I've also been let down by him, but I don't feel the need to kvetch about it. Matos is right about the literary-critic roots of rock criticism. (Though like John I don't think it's all about novels - songs are treated as poems or short stories at least as often as albums are equated to novels - because I think most of them pretty muscularly resist that kind of continuous-narrative reading.) One of the challenges in my own work has certainly been to divert my attention away from lyrics and to find modes of discussion that embrace the nonverbal - whether that's political or philosophical or even more like visual art criticism. But there remains the fact that criticism is a literary form, so it's likewise possible to get too hung up on this from a wannabe-he-man set of impulses, if you know what I mean.

Michael (Barclay) and Matos - I've had several posts in the past about single-song books, and there's quite a few of them. I bet the book about "Strange Fruit," for instance, has sold pretty well, or the one about "America the Beautiful" - probably about as well as most of the ones about albums. I'm currently hoping that Rob Walker's blog about the song St. James Infirmiry turns into a book about the song's entanglement with the history of New Orleans. So if it were well-curated, choosing songs around which many people felt an immediate electricity, I don't see why a song-book series couldn't work just as well as 33 1/3 - a more serious problem might be that at this point it could seem like a copycat project. If I were a publisher I'd wait a few years until 33 1/3's novelty factor were worn out and available to be usurped.

John, I'm not the Anachronist, but your guess is basically right: The first albums were big bound sets of records that went continuously through classical pieces, followed by collections of songs in the same format. Whether the name came by analogy to photo albums is something Jody might be able to clarify, but it seems like a fine supposition.

Posted by zoilus on April 8, 2006 4:30 PM

 

 

i have a book about a single song--"louie louie" by dave marsh, which i got as a promo copy years ago and didn't make it past the first 20 pages.
and while i was dazzled by marcus in my early 20s, i find his conjecture supremely annoying at this point in my life (34). and i think reading the sly stone essay was the breaking point, actually, all that stagger lee and pimp talk proving only that he finds black people unbelievably exotic and mystifying. i might have also fallen off his bandwagon when i found out a few years back that his album of the year was a counting crows live album.

Posted by barclay on April 8, 2006 10:06 AM

 

 

I've always thought of albums of collections of poems, not as novels at all, and I cheered when my first CD player had the "program" feature, allowing me to conveniently skip the dud songs. (Which almost all albums have, not at all excluding most of the Consensus Classics.)

But thinking about it, the (post-78 rpm) album gives the listener a passively continuous experience that differentiates it from a book of poems. So the album-maker tries to sequence the discrete songs in an order that "flows."

Still, it's a collection of songs. And remarkably arbitrary, as the history of different succeeding versions of EC's "Armed Forces" would attest. Long live the song! (And what IS so funny about peace, love, and understanding?)

Question for the Anachronist: did the album get its name in the 78-rpm era by analogy with the photo album? I'm guessing the first albums were classical, designed to give buyers Whole Symphonies or what-have-you. And designed with those big, heavy pages! A real album! Not like these sleek, flimsy, easy-to-store, new-fangled LPs!

Posted by john on April 7, 2006 5:55 PM

 

 

My guess as to why no one's started the single-song book series: They don't sell very well. That's a guess, of course. Still, I'd be surprised if they did. (I'm surprised 33 1/3 is still going, though very happy it is; can't wait for the next batch.)

As for Jody's theory, it's not half-baked, it's pretty much the way things were for a while there. Marcus modeled Mystery Train (which I rebought last night--I needed, for personal reasons, to re-read the Sly Stone chapter) on Love and Death in the American Novel, for example. Much good criticism has come from that model, and much good criticism has come in reaction to that model. As a model, its success or failure is entirely up to what's done with it, methinks.

Posted by Matos W.K. on April 7, 2006 4:24 PM

 

 

Definitely agree that there's room for both. Was just trying to say that the individual song is a less limiting category -- you get a wider swathe of musical history in there with songs (*including* album-oriented pop of various genres). The album approach tends to militate against, say, Chuck Berry in favor of, say, The Rolling Stones: there's no Chuck B. equivalent of Beggars Banquet. (In fact, it militates against early Stones!) Whereas you could write a fine book about both "Johnny B. Goode" and "Satisfaction."

This is a bit half-baked but it occurs to me that the fetishization of the album you speak of may have something to do with pop criticsm using lit-crit as a model: everyone has The Novel in the back of their minds as the artistic be-all and maybe albums resonate more with that model???

Posted by Jody on April 7, 2006 2:32 PM

 

 

Well, you know of course that I am a lover of books about single songs. But I think disqualifying the idea of books about albums as rockist is taking the idea too far: Surely it remains true that albums are/were a significant form in post-war pop, even though they're not important in every genre and period - and there certainly are important country, soul, dance, hip-hop and jazz albums-qua-albums, even if they're not as common there as in rock, or as representative. Seems like saying that if you did a series of books about paintings, you're sinning by excluding books about sculptures. There's room for both, no? Someone else could start the single-song book series. Why haven't they? Likely because the idea of The Song is not a point of nostalgia and fetishization the way The Album is, and I think that does have to do with the sense of endangerment, old values, etc. that are attached to it.

Posted by zoilus on April 7, 2006 1:47 PM

 

 

The album may or may not be endangered. I suspect that these things are cyclical, and despite iPods and "debundling" and what have you, there will always be a place for collections of songs that are (vaguely or explicitly) thematically linked.

I do think that the books-about-albums approach prejudices a certain -- dare I say it? rockist -- take on musical history. For this reason I think a series of books about individual songs would be more useful, less limiting, less predictable. (Kudos to you, Carl, for doing your part, going with a non-canonical choice in Celine.)

Posted by Jody on April 7, 2006 1:04 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson