by carl wilson

Champagne for my Real Friends, Real Pain for My Sham Friends

My latest post in the Slate end-of-2006 Music Club is up now. Amusingly, in the selfsame moment that the group of critics is all raising a glass of bubbly and singing, "ding-dong, rockism's dead," the posters in Slate's "The Fray" reader's forum are doing their damndest to prove us wrong by attacking us for discussing pop: "This is the place where the reviewer tries to compensate for his lack of taste and failure to keep up with music culture by waxing poetic about the merits of Timberlake and Nelly, not where we talk about actual music (as in art rather than manufactured entertainment) or artists who write their own songs."

For those whose poptimistic patience is limited, though, my post today actually does talk a lot about non-pop - it gets into country, metal, the Mountain Goats, jazz, breakcore and noise. And my final post, out tomorrow or Friday, will probably talk mostly about Canada.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, December 20 at 1:49 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (22)

 

COMMENTS

The reason for not ignoring/dismissing genre X (top 40 pop/J.Timberlake) out of hand are the same as for not ignoring/dismissing genre Y (indie-rock/The Decemberists) or most other damn genres - you'll be depriving yourself of a lot of great music. Additional reason in the case of pop: you'll be depriving yourself of music actually listened to and loved by non-music-geeks.

Posted by Patrick on January 1, 2007 10:42 AM

 

 

you guys all suck, you realize that don't you?
get a real job

Posted by zimmy on December 27, 2006 10:02 PM

 

 

Peli, I think you underestimate the extent to which critics disrespected Zep for their lyrics, but, I don't know, maybe I overestimate.

And yes, you recall my writing correctly, and though I have written lust songs as well, I don't have any posted right now. (My band site is available if you click on my name -- hope you like it!)

Posted by john on December 23, 2006 3:52 PM

 

 

Getting flak for bad lyrics doesn't really indicate "lyrcs-centerism" though, does it? Just that lyrics were a factor. Zeppelin were still super beloved and everything.

Either way, about teen lust- Well, it was implied, I thought, that by "teen lust" you weren't jsut alluding to a subject matter, and referring to whatever artifact engaged it in "scrutiny, celebration, and artistic exploration", but talking about a tradition with a far, far more specific set of parameters defining it. Anyway, I think that taken in the more narrow sense, there are reasons too obvious to even recount that there's more elegance and perfection there than in more experimental or pretentious traditions.

And I don't actually care for Dylan at all. Can we switch to Bowie as the model for art-rock poetics in this discussion?

[Just for prespective- Do I recall correctly that you yourself write songs that are clearly on the literary, poetically-charged side, often engaging page-poetry and film and such as references?]

Posted by Peli Grietzer on December 23, 2006 1:23 PM

 

 

You got me on "accomplished" -- the more accurate word would be "competent." And lust and its vicissitudes are as fully worthy of scrutiny, celebration, and artistic exploration as any topic -- part of the poptimist point is that ranking the projects by degree of obscurity is no longer fashionable. Not to say that one should not comment on what someone is trying to do, just that Procol Harum doesn't get extra points for having been influenced by Dylan. Teen lust-meister Gerry Goffin (who wrote lyrics for Carole King at the Brill Building) revered Dylan, but Dylan never wrote a better lyric than "Up On the Roof" or "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" or even "One Fine Day." Dylan wrote some as competent, and a whole bunch that don't accomplish what they apparently set out to do.

As for lyric-centrism: Led Zeppelin did get flak for bad lyrics; now, not so much; or, if their bad lyrics get acknowledged, the new regime foregrounds their musical splendor.

It just occurred to me: "I most highly value novelty, pleasure, memorable hooks, a vivid performer's persona and technically advanced production" -- that describes Mannheim Steamroller! I think we better add something about urban-youth-centrism! (Mannheim's persona isn't foregrounded, but once you get to know it it's as vivid as frontyard plastic Santa.)

Posted by john on December 23, 2006 12:44 PM

 

 

Oh, also - I think your thesis about lyric-centrism is simply not true. Maybe in some abstract sense old music crticism claimed to rank lyrics highly, but in practice, no branch or generation of critics ever paid much attention to lyrics. If anything, only to general lyrical posture, but to actual writing?
Only a handful of "storyteller" or "poet-with-a-guitar" songwriters ever got lyrical scrutiny. Take a look at Pitchfork, even, lyrics get something like a sentence in a three-page review.

Posted by Peli Grietzer on December 23, 2006 12:17 PM

 

 

John- "I often find teen-lust lyrics to be more accomplished.." -- which, exatly? And what exactly do you mean by "accomplished"? I think "accomplished" is sometimes a sneaky way to praise something for managing to do what it sets out to do, while avoiding entirely any questions about the thing it sets out to do.

Posted by Peli Grietzer on December 23, 2006 12:08 PM

 

 

Agreed: Carl's formulation is brill. Only thing missing: Danceability.

Although I agree with Jody & Carl that the poptimist ("popist" is too close to "papist" for me) Thang has mostly been a deletion of the old regime's biases regarding modes of production, I do think the pro-pop formulation also represented a reaction against lyric-centric criticism (even though I often find teen-lust lyrics to be more accomplished than post-Dylan "poetic" lyrics, often including Dylan's).

Posted by john on December 23, 2006 11:40 AM

 

 

Just noticed this quote from Carl:

"I most highly value novelty, pleasure, memorable hooks, a vivid performer's persona and technically advanced production"

Even though it was spoken in a hypothetical voice and then dismissed, this is a perfect articulation of the pro-pop stance. I think I need to have it needlepointed and hung above my desk for inspiration.

Posted by malstain on December 23, 2006 10:05 AM

 

 

Carl:

Actually I said "I'm completely down with the idea that often a work or a genre got bashed for both these reasons -- its "artsy" merits not recognized properly, and its entertainment merits snubbed -- and they are not mutually exclusive". Which I think kind of adresses this, no?

I think you're maybe conflating the idea that no artifact, or no exciting artifact, is purely a giver of art-pleasure or entertainment-pleasure with the idea that the distinction between these pleasures, as * non-mutually exclusive* forces that can harmonize or be at tensions or just live along withing an artifact, is useless. If you take "art" and "entertainment" to vaguely define *properties* rather than *categories* I think they are still indispensable, if I want to be able to say that Georg Buchner is really awesome that the old animated Spider - Man show is really awesome, and not insinuate by this that their greatness can be usefully compared even on the most general aesthetic terms (though other super-hero stuff , which I don't necessarily love more than that perfect animated Spider-Man, I really do think can be usefully compared to Georg Buchner on the most general aesthetic terms and also compared to the animated Spider-Man.

I think that while there are cases where it's extremely easy to explore on these terms the relationship between the merits one does or doesn't see in an artifact, much poptist praise of pop-with-a-capital[p tends to get a little incoherently over-determined in both claiming for the pop-with-a-capital-p artifacts kinds of merit people once denied it has, and revolting against the ideas that the kinds of merit people deny pop-with-a-capital-p has are the most important merits. Both of these line of argumentation are valid, and they certainly can be combined, but I would *really* like to see critics being a little more reflective about the tracing the tension and\or harmony between these two parallel lines of defense.
There really good reasons why this is very hard to do, but I think there are also really good reason to try very hard to do this.

Re critics and agenda: I don't know if 'agenda' is the way to put it. What I tend towards is an idea that claims a critics makes can only be understood, and a basic level of "what is his proposition about this artifact" in the context of some general system.. I suppose I think a critic should have a consistent agenda in terms of..err. .. "philosophy of aesthetics" I'm afraid.. but don't feel greatly about agendas in any other aspect.

Posted by Peli Grietzer on December 22, 2006 3:41 PM

 

 

I think there are a couple of problems going on here: First, that Peli's not discussing the Poptimism/Rockism clash as critics have seen it, which, Jody's right, is entirely a deletion of bias. Instead, he's trying to advance it to a second level. He asks, if popism or poptimism or what-have-you is actually a critical paradigm, what is there to it besides being anti-rockism? And I think the answer there is that it's not actually a critical paradigm - it's *only* a critique of a previous paradigm. It's a negative program, not a positive one.

While for a few critics the pro-pop stance might actually be the whole basis of their aesthetic (which would lead to something like, "I most highly value novelty, pleasure, memorable hooks, a vivid performer's persona and technically advanced production") for most of us that's not the case - we're just saying that our aesthetics don't scorn those qualities. Jody does a nice job of summing up his tastes above, much more precisely than I could my own, although I'm not sure if that amounts to his aesthetic. Then there's the question of whether critics need to have consistent aesthetics and agendas; I suspect Peli believes they do and Jody doesn't - I find myself torn between the two, and won't try to resolve that argument right now.

However, where Peli makes less sense, I think, is that he misunderstands the anti-rockist critique: It's not just that entertainment ("good pop") is being reclaimed as a value alongside "art." Rather, the point is that this is a false distinction. All entertainment is art and vice-versa (even the most 'difficult' music has a pleasure principle, and even the most 'shallow' carries meaning that is subject to interpretation), and to presume otherwise is to reinstate a high-low division that causes many more problems than it solves.

So the answer, Peli, isn't that Jay-Z is an artist while Jeezy's just "good pop," ie. an entertainer. It's just that, from your p.o.v. at least, Jay-Z is a good artist and that Jeezy is a less-good artist. Nothing in anti-rockism/poptimism prevents you from making that argument, nor Kalefa Sanneh from disagreeing with you. I'm not sure why Sanneh thinks Jeezy's writing is especially good either, though at a guess it may be for its less poetic and more cinematic qualities.

And in that distinction, for example, may lie an aesthetic - something that gets beyond the tiresome pro-pop/anti-pop merry-go-round and into other issues.

Now, why doesn't talk about those issues happen more often? We found out in Slate this week - all four of us, pro-pop but not necessarily "popist" critics, were going full steam assuming we didn't need to make that argument, and then *every single reader response* in "The Fray" (Slate's letters section) challenged and insulted us on classic rockist terms. So then we end up back where we started.

Posted by zoilus on December 22, 2006 11:57 AM

 

 

Jody--

I should have guessed talking about lyrics is going to cause some missocommunication...
I was discussing lyrics because when I try to discuss music in non abstract terms I end up criminally abusing terms-of-art, and I am able to discuss lyrics more competently. I'm also more lyric-centric than average, but no so much as to cloud my range of evaluation, I think.

As far as the "aesthetic shift" go, what seemed to me obvious - and Jody, you're totally right that it shouldn't have - is that poptism involves re-evaluating the hierarchy between the kind of pleasure the was once called "entertainment" and the kind of pleasure the was once called , well, "artistic pleasure". Now, let me say what I am completely down with in this zone-

I'm completely down with he idea that much that was considered fitting only to be evaluated as entertainment is also great art.

I'm completely down with the idea that entertainment on its own doesn't get enough respect.

I'm completely down with the idea that often a work or a genre got bashed for both these reasons -- its "artsy" merits not recognized properly, and its entertainment merits snubbed -- and they are not mutually exclusive.

But what I think isn't really explicated or discussed properly in Poptism, in the manifesto lvevl or the level of individual review\discussion of works, is the relationship and maybe tensions between these two different (though, yeah, not contra dictionary) defenses of the worht of Pop-with-a-captial-p.

Mostly it leaves me genuinely confused: When I say The Black Album (pardon going back to lyrics, want to stay in my area of competence , and always assume I mena "the lyrics as they work in the context of the music & dlivery) is amazing writing, I know I mean it's amazing writing in the same general sense Destroyer (probably shouldn't use him as manifestly good, but I really like) or Jack Spicer are. When Kelefa Sanneh (whose writing - and yours too by the way - I generally love, despite all this) says Jezzy has amazing writing, I'm never really sure what exactly he means.

Posted by Peli on December 22, 2006 2:34 AM

 

 

Perhaps it's obvious, but I hadn't seen John's post when I wrote mine. Is he correct in assuming that the "shift" you're talking about is all about lyrics? Or is there something else?

P.S. John, you should listen to Jay-Z! Crikey!

Posted by Jody on December 22, 2006 12:48 AM

 

 

Peli, if by poptimism you mean a critical stance that's totally relativist and makes no distinctions between, say, The New Kids on the Block and, I dunno, Justin Timberlake, then I'm not down with it. I don't know personally know anyone who is, although I'm sure they're out there.

To me, it's clear to me that poptimism IS a deletion of bias, full stop: a reaction to years, decades, of criticism that made high/low, authentic/synthetic distinctions, with the capital P pop always falling on the wrong side of the divide. A simple corrective, nothing more. If it feels especially pronounced in current criticism, perhaps that's because so much truly artful and even avant-garde music is on the pop charts these days.

Taking pop seriously also makes sense because history has proven that the most popular stuff is often the most artful and enduring. Care to come up with six better vocalists than Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin? Do you want me to do a Google search and add up the combined record sales of this group?

I'm mystified by why you require the articulation of an "aesthetic." To turn the question back to you, what is the aesthetic model that you think is being articulated by, or is implicit in the stance of, the anti- or pre-poptimists? (Won't call them rockists.) You sense a shift about "what counts as artistic merit" -- a shift from what to what, exactly? You say that "motives for this shift are perhaps so obvious to critics that they feel that they don't even need to discuss it." But the FACT that this "shift" has taken place is so obvious to you that you haven't bothered to describe it, and I'm honestly confused. If you define your terms more precisely I'd be happy to engage the question with you more -- I do find this stuff interesting.

Personally, the things I'm drawn to in music are vigor, craft, surprise, emotion. More specifically, I like polyrhythms, melodic counterpoint, witty lyrics, and stylish singers. If all of these elements are present in a song, great, but it need only have one or some. I've found these qualities in the Bee Gees and Madonna and Michael Jackson, in total art-heroes like Beefheart and Arthur Russell, and in rock(ist) gods like Springsteen.

I agree, Peli, that simply belonging to a tradition -- the "grand Western lyric tradition," or any other -- isn't in and of itself enough. I don't go to Justin Timberlake (or, God knows, Zeppelin) for my poetry jones. Just like I don't put on Dylan when I want to dance.

Posted by Jody on December 22, 2006 12:43 AM

 

 

Peli,

I suspected that lyric-centrism might be the nub. I'm not surprised that W. R. Johnson didn't persuade you -- he would agree with you that F. Valli isn't as good as Sappho -- just that they're in the same tradition. The decision to take something seriously is up to you. You're right that the shift happened around just this point -- and, in fact, people have written about it, but never, that I am aware of, in one go.

In the late '60s, some critics claimed that the rock lyricists were as good as the poets -- and poets as dissimilar as Donald Hall and Kenneth Rexroth claimed this as well for lyricists such as Dylan, especially Dylan. Some critics, like Christgau, early on, said, No way. And Christgau rightly said that song lyrics don't need to be as happening as page poetry, because the music helps them along.

The shift happened when critics started realizing that the claims being made for the poetic accomplishment of pop lyrics by and large were overblown, and that they had been short-changing the music in their assessments.

Literary critics still do make literary claims for specific lyricists -- you for Jay Z (whose work I don't know), Christopher Ricks for Dylan (I haven't read the Ricks) -- and that's fine. And in fact the history of poetry is full of people we consider poets who originally were song lyricists -- Ben Jonson and Shakespeare at times perhaps most notably.

The word "lyric" originally named a specific genre of poetry -- that which was to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre, most often a love (or hate) song, as opposed to an epic narrative poem or a dramatic poem (written for the stage). A guy I used to know who read ancient Greek argued that "lyric" used in this original sense was metaphorical, because the poems of Sappho were syntactically too subtle and complex for actual singing -- his was a minority position among classicists. And it perhaps was the ultimate anti-pop position.

Led Zeppelin might be the test case for the whole sh-bang. I agree: often terrible lyrics. But -- one of the greatest bands ever for sonic excitement and innovation and breadth of accomplishment. The old paradigm said, "lousy lyrics = lousy band." The pop paradigm is more music-centric.

Posted by john on December 22, 2006 12:13 AM

 

 

Jody--

I don't actually have anti-pop opinions, or any stake in disproving that Timberlake is to be taken seriously (I have no string positive or negative opinions about Timberlake, specifically). I also strongly disbelieve in authenticity or honesty as a value.
What I have issues with is the way that (it seems to me) Poptism shaped the terms of the argument in a way that doesn't allow to explicate or discuss what I think are genuin, really interesting and really non-obvious issues at hand. The assumption that deeming Timberlake worthy or unworthy of serious interest has to do purely with disagreement about modes of production just doesn't seem right to me -- I think it's fundamentally a disagreement about what counts as artistic merit, or what forms of artistic merit should be treasured.
Do you really think it's merely an issue of biases, and has nothing to do with competing aesthetic models? I'm a rabid Jay-Z fan, but I'm a rabid Jay-Z fan because what he does fits notions of (in this case) poetic greatness that I think very few people would think is a good measure of what excellent pop is (T.I or Jeezy are definitely excellent pop and mean nothing to me .because great pop is just not a kind of aesthetic greatness I find I care about).
So while I don't have an anti-popularity or anti-composite bias, I'm very un-poptist by any standards, which is why I think poptism is essentially a shift in what the measure of a good work of art in the field popualr music is, not just a deletion of bias. And I just don't think anyone ever properly made the case for this shift (though I think it's a case that can be made eloquently), and while the motives for this shift are perhaps so obvious to critics that they feel that they don't even need to discuss it, non-critics often don't find it that obvious at all.
I tried once to get into this issue a little more ambivelntly and exntesively: http://secondbalcony.blogspot.com/2006/11/one-last-time.html

And John - but, well, belonging to that lyrical tradition doesn't mean he's an interesting or competent contributor to it (again, not actual opinions about Timberlake here). I mean, Stairway To Heaven is firmly set in the tradition of English Romantic Poetry, but it's a really fucking awful member in the tradition of English Romantic Poetry.

Posted by Peli on December 21, 2006 9:06 PM

 

 

It seems like any time I pop into the forums for one of Jody's columns, the discussion follows the same formula: there's at least one or two people bashing Popism on principal and another one or two complaining, on the basis of their own record collection, that nothing written in the past 5-10 years is worth a professional music critic's time or money. I don't mean to discredit those opinions, but they seem to only recapitulate rockism. Is there a "Post-Popist" critical perspective that goes beyond a knee-jerk opposition to Popism?

Posted by Ian on December 21, 2006 1:56 PM

 

 

p.s. In defense of Peli and the Slate-board bomb-throwers, the fantasy of authenticity is a seductive fantasy, promulgated by rock critics for decades (many of which critics still top people's lists of Best Critic Ever). And, by definition, a former Mousekateer can never be authentic. The authenticist listener cares not a fig for scrutiny's withering eye -- Peli's point is valid.

It's all religion, baby -- music is religious for music fans. That's why people get so hot about it. (Me included.)

Posted by john on December 21, 2006 11:59 AM

 

 

Jody -- you're right on in your praise of Justin (from the little of his stuff I've heard), but you haven't addressed the lyric-centrism of the pre-poptimist hegemonic mode of criticism. Why should a lyric-centric listener take Justin seriously?

Here's why: Because his stuff is in the grand western lyric tradition of direct address to the beloved (or be-hated). To quote the classics scholar W. R. Johnson invoking Frankie Valli, "I love you baby and if it's quite all right I need you baby" is closer to the concerns of Sappho and Catullus than are the metaphysical speculations of Wallace Stevens.

In other words -- the vagaries of lust are perennial.

And as you've pointed out, Jody, the non-sequitur form of modern pop's lyrics, with the Raps On Other Topics montaged into classically lyric songs, makes them more complex, perhaps satisfying the Ezra Pound fan to some extent as well as the Catullus fan -- or, if not exactly satisfying them, at least being of recognizable interest to them.

Posted by john on December 21, 2006 11:32 AM

 

 

Peli, let me try to give a couple of reasons to take Justin Timberlake seriously that might make sense to non-critics:

He sings very well. Also, his music is well crafted, occasionally beautiful, always catchy and danceable and pleasure-giving. The fact that he is hugely popular, and thus a vastly more significant cultural force than any indie artiste, is secondary to the above.

It seems to me that the burden is not on a critic (or fan) who likes Justin to defend him. It's upto those who dismiss him out of hand as -- to paraphrase some of the bomb-throwers in Slate's message boards -- a Tiger Beat star who doesn't even write his own songs (ooops! he does co-write them. but anyway...)...the burden is on them (or on you, Peli?) to explain why he *shouldn't* be "taken seriously." In my experience, the reasons usually given all come back to the same old assumptions about authenticity and modes of production and the corruptions of the commercial pop complex, all of which wither under scrutiny.

Posted by Jody on December 21, 2006 10:35 AM

 

 

[This comes off a little harsher than I meant it to, so treat it as a semi-devil's-advocate kinda thing]

I actually think there's a lesson in the slate backlash -- poptism is nowhere near as self explanatory or manifestly true as it seems from inside the generational dialectics of music criticism. In fact, I have never seen a single explication of Poptism in terms of aesthetics,or the ethics of aesthetics (pleasure and value and so on), or even the politics of aesthetics (except for Jane Dark's super-fallacious efforts in this area).
The arguments take only the form of "for music critics to ignore or malign x = for music critics to ignore
or malign the demographics associated with X", and sense non music-critics don't strive towards an all-acknowledging taste, since non-critics don't have such a moral obligation to reflect the voice of every cultural sector, this argument means nothing to them. What I'm trying to say is that non of the reasons ever given to take Timberlake or whatnot seriously can mean anything to anyone not writing a music column. Poptism happened from reasons that have to do with the inner workings of the supposedly "reflecting" sphere of criticism, and the result is that music criticism pretty much turned into an autarky.

Posted by peli grietzer on December 21, 2006 5:06 AM

 

 

Your post at Slate was aces, Carl. Funny about the commenters. Intellectual fashion is a funny thing. 10 years ago nobody would have batted an eye at the Slate Fray comment you quoted, straight out of the gospel of Bangs, Marcus, Meltzer & Marsh (sounds like the name of an (out)Law Firm). The Children of Lester Live -- and I'd bet that plenty of them still get paid to write music criticism.

Posted by john on December 21, 2006 12:26 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson