Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Archive for October, 2007

33 1/3′ing: Powells

October 31st, 2007

I’ve neglected to mention that Powells Bookstore’s website blog has been featuring a series of guest posts by authors of the 33 1/3 books. Haven’t read them all yet but they’re looking as varied and enjoyable as the books themselves. My guest post is coming up sometime in November.

What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Adult Alternative?

October 31st, 2007


A couple of days ago, in Pretty Goes With Pretty’s latest take at trying to unearth what it really is that Sasha/me/Jess/everybody have been bitching about in re: blogrock, he brought it back around to an earlier post of his that I’d never seen about the transformation of indie-under-mini-maxi-rock into Adult Alternative, using the obvious case of Feist as an instance. This gets very near the nub of what I was suggesting in my Slate piece. Coincidentally, I also just received the following email from Steve Kado of Blocks Recording Club, with whom I’ve been writing back-and-forth about these issues the past week:

Steve says: “i’d argue that we do have words for what we’re talking about there are actually even radio formats for most of it: ‘adult alternative’ ‘college rock’. seriously: what else is ‘the national’ or ‘the hold steady’? that is college rock, or alternatively: it’s college rock for 30 year olds who never outgrew college. never mind that we might want to feel different about it (or someone might), that it’s “more than that”. the violent femmes, archetypal college rock are also “more than that” - they are a kind of canny and clever acoustic post-punk band, but what did that add up to? college rock.

“i think that the main problem is that ideas of ‘taste’ are actually trying to manipulate the vocabulary surrounding what are basically very standard categories - in part out of shame or a desire to be ‘above’ shame. or maybe more accurately: the pejorative associations that ‘calling a spade a spade’ would produce would render the products ‘unmarketable’ in part because it would highlight things about the intended and enthusiastic audience that would not help them warm to the product.”

Both Steve’s and PGWP’s words bring me back around to the question that animates much of my book. It involves playing devil’s advocate against my indie-and-class position from Slate, but: What is the nature of the stake so many of us have in disliking conventionally pretty music? In the book, talking about Celine, it’s in the context of “adult contemporary” (formerly MOR, “middle-of-the-road” music). Here, it is “adult alternative.” In both cases it’s easy to label it as “dinner music.” Well, what is wrong with having music to have dinner by? Mightn’t that in fact be one of the times that you most need some music to listen to, music to which you can chat along or else sit and chew and sip your drink and listen contemplatively, but music that is not going to disrupt and upset your digestive system or your conviviality with your dinner companions?

Not saying that I don’t feel my knee jerk hard against “dinner music” too, against its unsexiness or decontextualizedness (my biggest complaint against Feist and against New College Rock in general, symptomatic of global-economy cosmopolitanism, but even then, perhaps too absolutist a value), its supposed complacency etc. But it is a rather strange prejudice just to take for granted, no? And I think the parenthood question in PGWP’s post is very germane here: Is the reluctance to say, “Okay, I like some Adult Alternative music,” owing to some atavistic fear that we are approving music that our parents might also approve of? If so, how moronic is that?


‘The Global Cipher’

October 31st, 2007

While parsing the definition of “hater” is all jolly fun, it can be nice to look out beyond our blogospheric navels, so I recommend to you Jeff Chang’s new feature about international hip-hop in, of all places, Foreign Policy magazine, along with an interview with a Shanghai hip-hop promoter.

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A Reality TV-style Challenge

October 29th, 2007

Using this LimeWire post as your entry point, but being sure to read Jess Harvell’s blistering Idolator screed and however much of the comments section you can stand, see how much music-blogorrhea you can ingest before you pass out. When you wake up, you will never want to use the Internet again.

John Darnielle’s response calmed me down a bit, getting all historical-perspectivey. It is true that today’s relentless Positive Energy is only the flip and decidedly preferable side of yesterday’s Overwhelming Cynicism. However, I think the main conclusion to be drawn, despite all of last week’s slapping around of the term, is that we would be better off to stop talking about “Indie Rock” at all, not only for literalist reasons (much of it is not independent and when it is, the thing that it is independent of is a music industry that’s not particularly scary unless it’s suing you; as well, a lot of it is not rock music), but because the use of the term invokes the image of an underground culture organized around music, which was once an extant reality but has not in fact been one for most of this decade if not longer. (Arguably there are current musical undergrounds, but indie is not one of them.) To clear our vision on that matter would be helpful in bringing down the reading on the Delusional Barometer a few notches.

As far as the state-of-criticism issue in general is concerned, John’s final paragraph on LPTJ is very much in the sprit of the last chapter of my book, where I address this question at length, so I’ll leave that for another day. Suffice to say that it is a reductive and much too easy answer to think that to reclaim a robust sense of criticism is to expend more energy on the pointing out of flaws, just because that’s the literal meaning of “criticize.” The ratio of praise to blame is barely at all germane to what makes good criticism. In any case, more specifically, dear Idolator, I really like you, but between this and last week’s Oink merry-go-round, it does get mega-meta-grim around there sometimes. Thank you for relieving the gloom with that life-restoring Robyn video.

Gig Guide Note

October 26th, 2007

For those who’ve despaired of it of late - I’ve just spent all day getting the gig guide back up to scratch for November. It is now full of mood-lifting information. Indulge. December will go up soon as well. Tips, corrections, etc. of course continue to be forever welcome. (See links to yer left.)

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Prevost and Found: Interface It

October 25th, 2007

I’d hoped, but haven’t managed, what with all the hoohah, to write a more substantive post this week about Eddie Prevost, percussionist and longtime central figure in the British free-improvisation scene, who this week is taking part in an “Interface” series with musicians from AIMToronto, which began last night. Since I haven’t had time you’ll have to make do with the Wikipedia entry, which is a perfectly serviceable intro to Prevost’s illustrious career, and with my wholehearted urging that you go out to Somewhere There and/or the Arraymusic studio tonight and tomorrow and catch him in action.


‘[Indie] Is Poisoned by the Vanity of Its Audience’

October 24th, 2007

Without directly referring to the discussion here/on Slate/in the NY’er, Matt Perpetua took the whole argument to a grouchier extreme the other day on Fluxblog. He’s only half-right, but wow, does he ever nail that half to the wall:

“When it comes to art that is practically defined by it falling on the outskirts of the mainstream, the audience is almost always going to be comprised of people just waiting for the right moment to get into backlash mode. They kid themselves into believing that they sincerely care about the art, but what they really love is the social capital of hipness, and can’t afford to put too much of themselves into something that may become unfashionable. This is the real problem, if we’re going to be very honest — at the root level, indie/alternative/college rock/blog rock/whatever you want to call it is poisoned by the vanity of its audience, and as a result, the industry built around it will always be unstable, and the culture around the music will be dominated and debased by swarms of self-styled experts attempting to one-up one another. As a wise man once said: ‘This ain’t a scene, this is a god damn arms race.’ ”

(Likewise, viz Clap Clap.)

And Wayne Marshall as always has extremely cogent things to say.

Indie, Race, Class, Rock
and Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: 2

October 22nd, 2007

A few more scattered points before I let this drop:

e) One of the most articulate commenters in Slate’s “the Fray” objected that Sasha and I were each “fetishizing authenticity.” This is a good question. My first demurral would be that you can’t talk about these “big picture” things without making reductive generalizations, which unfortunately makes it easy for readers to take away points that you weren’t actually making. (This happened to Sasha too.) To sufficiently qualify and evidence all the points would require a book-length treatment, maybe a really boring one. These were broad-brush pieces. However, I’m not saying that working-class music is better than middle-class/upper-class music, but that cultural insularity can be a problem. As she says, it can also be a fertile sort of concentrated force, but it does risk running into ruts, and if there is a problem with indie rock at all right now, it is the sense that there are ruts being dug.

However, if, as that same commenter goes on to say, you think either Sasha or I think that rhythm-centred music is made with less mental calculation and aforethought than any other kind of music, you are misreading. What each of us said, to different degrees, is that “indie” right now has a tendency to lack in body-consciousness and emphasize “smart” in a good-student kind of way (sometimes actually being smart and sometimes just loading up on signifiers of smartness). This does not entail, however, that more-body-conscious music is less smart. One does not require the other. (Also it doesn’t mean that I don’t like lots of music that’s all head and no butt, because obviously I do. The proportions are just seeming out of whack.)

f) Scott from Pretty Goes With Pretty objects to my class thesis on the basis that “indie/alt-rock” and “college” have gone together since the ’80s. But that overlooks the broader context I pointed to in the Slate piece, of growing material gaps between classes in the U.S. in the past 25 years. So yes, it’s always been a mainly middle-class thing but as the true middle class shrinks, that starts to mean more of an upper-middle-class thing. For one thing I think its increased distance from the (arguably) more class-mixing hardcore-punk scene (what’s left of it) has changed the cultural style of “indie.” (This of course began with the mainstreaming of the harder-rocking sector of the underground in the early-to-mid 1990s.) As well, the devaluation of the literal meaning of “indie” has happened for a lot of reasons (downloading being one) but along with it comes the diminishment of the obsessive means-of-production discussions that used to be part and parcel of the “indie” aesthetic - once it was heavily politicized and concerned about material procedures and consequences; the dematerialization of music and the depoliticization of “youth culture” end up resulting in a default to a more unself-consciously insular class p.o.v. on the “college” scene, including confusing voluntary low-income status with class, etc. (Not that the politics of 80s and 90s alt-rock scenes were always - or maybe ever - convincing and coherent; but at least those questions were built in.) However, Scott’s right to point out that a key class issue in this climate is access to high-speed Internet service.

g) One thing I didn’t get to in the article, which I think is vital, is that what a good part of “indie” draws on are avant-garde gestures, but very few of these bands think of themselves or practice as an avant-garde. (This may apply to art across the board, but I won’t get into that broader issue here.) So there’s a confusion - at one time eschewing dance beats, conventional harmonies, etc, were deliberate decisions in an art practice, now they’re simply features of a niche genre. (One that’s increasingly mainstream.) You could come up with a class analysis but for our purposes let’s just say that what “art-rock” means, what it’s for, has become much more vague. It’s tempting to say indie has become more pseudo-intellectual than intellectual, more of a “middlebrow” thing rather than a deliberate smashing together of high and low. Personally I have a really fraught time with that, feeling some lingering attachment to an avant-garde framework but also wary of the multiple snobberies embedded in using a term like “middlebrow.” (See my book for a whole lot more about this.) This is why I left it out of the Slate piece, but I do think finding terms to talk about it is very salient to this conversation.

h) Bringing up the fact that dude from Modest Mouse grew up poor is, like the TV on the Radio thing, not a refutation of the more general point. The exceptions would be interesting to analyze, but that would be another set of articles. I’m sure there are tons of non-middle/upper-class people in indie rock now. If someone wants to do a statistical survey, bring it on. However, I feel my generalizations are valid enough, based on years of observation. (That said, remember that Isaac Brock and friends started Modest Mouse in 1993. The fact that they are the example that springs to mind for everyone almost seems to demonstrate that something did shift from the ’90s to the 2Ks.)

i) One thing that got muddled in all the rhythm-talk - it seems to me a lot of the dance-punk stuff comes from a milieu that’s if anything more upper-class (rich clubbing kids) than the folkie-indie stuff. Again, not all of it, but quite a bit. You might even guess this, since the choice to use hip-hop and techno materials shows a greater sense of entitlement, as opposed to the more hesitant skirting-around that the indie-folk stuff arguably does. I’m not sure how to fit this into the whole scheme of the debate, but it’s worth noting.

j) Aside from all the social issues, what we might be talking about is just the decline of rock, as a very old, played-out form. Certainly when Sasha, perhaps inadvertantly, sounded like he was calling for a blues-rock revival, it raised the spectre of a Wynton Marsalis-type neo-classicism. Is rock (leaving aside metal) following the footsteps of jazz, where you have the neo-classicists (Kid Rock, for example, and even the emo bands in a way) keeping the styles of past decades in circulation and then the pro-innovation camp (indie/noise/etc) seeming to recycle gestures of “newness” for a small, specialized audience, with little sense of consequence on either side?

k) Finally, what is the problem with the upper-class-ization of indie rock, if that’s true? It might mirror some social trends I find troubling but what is the musical issue? It’s not an objection to any one or several groups’ practice, but to an accumulated tendency, and some of the answers are similar to what Sasha named as the consequences of a lack of African-American influence. The main one I think is the profile of ambition that comes across in the music: Because the privileged musicians don’t have the same survival issues at stake that pop musicians historically often have had (which are comparable to what motivates a lot of people who become star athletes), the aspirations are more modest and the stakes often seem much lower. Less seems to be on the line. The art of performance often suffers (that “show-biz” put-it-all-out-there fire). With the most gifted musicians, this doesn’t matter so much, because they find something else to be ambitious about, something to stretch their capacities. But with others it can indeed produce a dullish, good-enough music, which was the core of Sasha’s complaint.

Once again, that’s a broad generalization but I suspect many people understand exactly what I’m talking about.

l) The one thing most people seem to agree on here is that the word “indie” is increasingly a red herring, an umbrella term for a lot of music without much in common, a fairly useless genre label, one that conceals more than it reveals. Could we do without it, or is there some unitary thing there we need a label for?

Which seems like enough footnotes. However, I’m happy to keep on debating these questions in the comments boxes, and if any super-compelling sub-debates arise - or after Sasha posts his planned rejoinders in the New Yorker blog - I’ll return to them here again.

and Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: 2">14 Comments

Indie, Race, Class, Rock
and Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: 1

October 22nd, 2007

Image from the Dirtbombs blog.

Thanks to everybody who’s given feedback on the Slate piece, whether in the Fray at Slate, at ILX, on your own blogs, in the comments section from Friday, or by email. And now, some clarifications, extensions, responses. I will break them into a few posts.

a) The point of my quibbling with Sasha’s New Yorker piece was not that he was wrong. It’s certainly true that indie rock, whatever-that-is, is a very white - or at least non-black - world, your TV on the Radios and Earl Greyhounds and other exceptions notwithstanding. (That the exceptions are so conspicuous underlines the point.) Rather I just objected to the way I felt he distorted the timeline - I was arguing that rock in general has been getting whiter and whiter for a very long time, and alternative-underground-indie-whatchamacallit rock in particular. People like SFJ and a lot of the British critics, who lived in New York or London in the early 1980s, were lucky to be around for one of the very rare places-and-times where there was a lot of exciting cross-fertilization, theft, mimickry and synthesis going on across cultural lines, and it quite naturally created a permanent hunger in them for that kind of thrill.

But even in that same period in other places, there was a move towards a foursquare, unswinging punk/new-wave metre as a reaction against bar-blues bands and classic rock. Nine times out of ten, a white musician or band’s attempt to be anti-mainstream in North America is going to produce a less-”black” sound because, as Sasha rightly says, American mainstream pop music is built very centrally on a black-music-white-music-which-is-which mixture. So a white “alternative” band is probably going to be less R&B than a mainstream band, because rock’s main underpinning is that it’s white R&B. Again, there are exceptions (my favourite one today is The Dirtbombs) but we all know they are exceptions. So if we agree (i) that the whiteness of indie rock is not news; but (ii) that something has seemed a little different, a little troubling, in the state of indie the past few years; then (iii) looking at the changing class positioning of indie seemed like a useful exercise, alongside (but not instead) of race.

b) While my piece was subtitled, “it’s not just race, it’s class,” the point was not just to throw another analytic into the mix. What I was trying to say was more like, “It’s not indie rock, it’s America.” The fact that all these forms are tending towards more self-segregation is a reflection of the social fracture that’s been implemented socio-economically over the past 30 years, the neo-conservative era, and while it’d be nice if the artists fought it harder, the fact that art is seeming narrowly segmented right now is a symptom not the source. My main objection to Sasha’s piece was that while I know he’s well-aware of all that, he leaves it mostly unmentioned. I think it’s crucial.

c) In the piece I mention that reducing black music to rhythmic space is problematic - I didn’t give this example, but I think Arcade Fire does include black influences via gospel and parade music and Caribbean music, for example, and the freak-folk people are definitely listening to old African-American folk-blues along with Brazilian music and much else. Sasha’s perhaps muddied the issue by trying to take in all rock history, which leaves us arguing about how black-influenced Brian Wilson was, when the pivotal question in his piece has to do with hip-hop - the reactions or non-reactions of rock kids to this burgeoning force. It is simply not the same to draw upon generations-old or oceans-away African or African-American-based music as it is to engage with the “other” music and musicians of your own time - the latter is a lot riskier and more fraught, but also for that reason more exciting. I tried to underline some of the social reasons it hasn’t happened that I thought Sasha slid by too easily, but his question stands.

d) Some people have objected to the word “miscegenation” because of its “ugly history” etc., but I think this is the strength of Sasha’s case: There’s ugliness everywhere in these matters, but what if we dared to trample the niceties and go for the utopian gold anyway? Shut our eyes and bear ahead and stop being polite? He’s not just reclaiming the word, he’s embracing it with its horrible baggage, realizing that to be American and to talk about race is always to end up smeared with centuries of shit and blood. In some ways he’s asking: Which matters more in the long run, making great art or never offending anybody? (And again, to me, class helps explain why “indie” music has tended to get more and more inoffensive, since it’s being made by people brought up to have good manners to a fault - sometimes to the point of passive-aggression.)

(Much more to come).

and Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: 1">9 Comments

‘Sploded! Post-Halifax Report

October 21st, 2007

Plasketts Sr. and Jr., in Halifax on Saturday. Photo pilfered from Kaytethinks on Flickr.

I’ll return to some underdeveloped points about indie/race/class tomorrow, but wanted to say that if you ever get a chance to go to the Halifax Pop Explosion, jump on it. The scale makes for almost the perfect festival - the venues are all within 20 minutes’ walk, for one thing; and despite the smaller size, the quality and diversity of the programming is as high as you could ask. Sure, there weren’t any superstar-legend guests, but who needs them?

I got in very late on Friday night after two delayed planes, so I missed everything that night. Our Saturday-afternoon panel on the 15th anniversary of the HPX was a racuous, enjoyable and productive one (if occasionally a bit insiderish, and more than a bit of a sausage party). The strongest debate that emerged was the question of how hard the festival should try to get more government funding, as after 15 years it still gets only meagre city and provincial support - and partly as a result has not one full-time paid staff person - mainly because it will not shift to be less “pop” and more “culture” as the local gods of tourism see it, ie., “more boats, fish and fiddles please.” A comparison was made to the East Coast Music Awards, which once were dominated by Celtic music but after a lot of lobbying (by some of the folks on the panel, as well as others) opened themselves up to be genuinely representative of Canada’s east coast, and gained much more national attention in the process.

I suspect that (as I outbursted in the discussion) “the total fucking transformation of the music industry” will make the HPX and events like it ever-more self-sustaining in the future - as bands and management alike recognize how central live, showcase performances can be to a career in the new, not-so-recording-oriented business models - so my bet is on the government coming around. Better yet, maybe, would be sponsorship from non-music-biz businesses that see the value in sponsoring something so entrepreneurial, innovative and cool. (This is one of the strengths of the Polaris, to me, that it is neither government nor music-business dependent, but gets support from unrelated quarters.) Bureaucracies are slow and Canadian bureaucracies are especially turtle-ish about recognizing non-traditional culture as true Canadian/regional culture.

As for the music? I saw about 10 bands, the definite highlights of which were an almost-unheard-of, semi-acoustic (no drums, amps down low) Eric’s Trip mini-set at the launch of Bob Mersereau’s new book, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (about which more, I’m sure, in the future) and Joel Plaskett’s joyous mostly-solo acoustic show at St Matthew’s Church. Never having seen Joel without a band, I was floored by his ability to vary, ad lib within songs, poke fun at and personalize the experience. (Prominent in the patter was the fact that he’d flown in from Dallas at 5 in the morning and had to fly back out to New York in a couple of days to hook back up with his Emergency band and the Tragically Hip tour they’re featured in. He was tired, and a bit hoarse.) And I was reminded again what a humblingly, casually smart songwriter he is, sometimes hokey but often inspired and left-field in the connections and twists his songs make, and how his lyrics are poetically chatty rather than too-fragile-to-touch (speaking of class and indie-rock…). He also put the “pop” back in “Pop Explosion” by performing almost half the show with his dad, Will Plaskett, who turns out to be a crack guitarist. I’ve never seen Joel in Halifax before, and the hometown spirit that permeates his songwriting is doubly moving in that setting. I spent half the show with my eyes a little damp, and did a lot of clapping and singing along, as did everyone in the room.

Otherwise, I realized just how Pixies-esque the Vancouver band Mother Mother really is (the folk flourishes are deceptive) but despite the derivativeness they’re a fine live band; I saw Toronto-based group Forest City Lovers for the first time, and there’s a lot of craft there, though some of that old unfortunate indie preciousness veils the potential strength of the songs; I saw the utterly unprecious Zoobombs blow the roof off yet another venue and the tops of the heads off another unsuspecting crowd (revelation, though: Haligonians dance less than Torontonians do!); I realized that I like all the elements of Land of Talk but still haven’t quite embraced the sum; Miracle Fortress had a slightly “off” set, as did Toronto’s Germans (all the driving it takes bands to get to Halifax does take its toll), but no shortage of personality and ideas; and the full-on Eric’s Trip electric show was the nostalgic, emotional, pogo-your-face-off-and-then-get-a-little-weepy festival closer it was fated to be.

Thanks to the fest for the hospitality explosion, and I’m sure I’ll be back. It’s as good a festival, in its smaller way, as Pop Montreal, and as we all (a bit cattily) agreed, beats the hell out of the Toronto equivalents.

Which leads me to this thought: The Wavelength Pop Festival?

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