by carl wilson

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


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?

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 31 at 3:36 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (17)



"I see...nuclear family. Dad picks the music -- sophisticated, played quietly, but something he can still tell corny jokes through."

That's me!

It's almost always instrumental music; usually classical, sometimes jazz.

One time in about 1980 (I was in high school) my grandparents took us out to dinner at a nice-but-not-fancy bistro. (I think it was called "The Bistro"!) A mellow guy sang songs and played guitar. My grandma had been a music teacher, so she liked to show the musicians some love, and after dessert, the musician played "Brain Damage" from "Dark Side of the Moon," and my grandma clapped for the first time, because the whole restaurant had been ignoring the poor man. I thought it was very sweet of my grandma, but also hilarious. She was in her mid-70s and too deaf to hear the words.

Posted by john on November 5, 2007 3:39 AM



All I've talked about for the last 24 hours is what sort of dinner you imagine when you think of "dinner music" (without actually describing the music playing).

Quick straw poll reveals that most people think "sophisticated, subdued setting" with some kind of wine being served, quiet conversation and between two and six members of the party. One person was particularly eloquent: "I see charcuterie, fancy cheeses; a middle class person would consider it a nice dinner out, but an upper class person would just consider it dinner out."

Telling if atypical quote from one friend: "I see...nuclear family. Dad picks the music -- sophisticated, played quietly, but something he can still tell corny jokes through."

Posted by Dave on November 5, 2007 12:40 AM



Are we even talking about SFJ anymore? I didn't realize.

Posted by scott pgwp on November 4, 2007 7:01 PM



How about the article by SFJ in the first place was hideously reductive and lazy, and that continuing to argue with it rather than abandon his lazy and cynical writing is the crime here? It's been what, a week? More? Meanwhile: Wesley Willis becomes the archetype for "black artist" and we argue about who is the most suitable white.
You know?
And what is SFJ becoming, anyway? Wasn't UI just a jam band based on playing covers of intros to Weather Report songs?

Posted by Matt Collins on November 4, 2007 1:47 PM



I dunno, I think there's something a bit less personal in "dinner music." You're discussing music you could listen to during dinner (likewise, I could listen to plenty of stuff in my record collection when I eat dinner, ABBA to Zappa yuk, and familiarity is a major factor), but I don't think "dinner music" when I think Joe's Garage or Super Trouper. I don't think it's what Carl means when he says that Feist is "dinner music" (and I don't disagree with him on that point, really. I'd play Feist at someone else's dinner, but not my own).

When I imagine the dinner scene, I think immediately of Robert Xgau's Radiohead write-off/backhanded praise of Kid A: "It's dinner music. More claret?" But the joke wouldn't work with any other type drink, even though it might work with another type of wine ("It's dinner music. More Fanta?").

OK, "music to drink red wine by." Music to keep things to a sophisticated murmur by. Already it gets at what sort of people's dinners are being soundtracked. (And the question then is, why do we want to distance ourselves from people who sip claret and keep things to a sophisticated murmur, even if this is largely how "we," perhaps being middle class knowledge worker sorts, often actually eat dinner? Maybe indie wants red wine, but from a box, and louder conversation? I dunno.)

Posted by Dave on November 2, 2007 2:52 PM



Personally, music made for dinner falls into two categories: there's the "just-there" music you're talking about - not too dramatic, not to fast. Dave Brubeck, Air, Tom & Elis.

The other kind can really be anything - the prerequisite is that it's music you know inside and out, top to bottom, to the point that you're not "looking" for anything when it's playing. You could sing along if you wanted, but it won't mind if you don't acknowledge it. It's those records that have achieved "significant other" status - the two of you can "just be" in the same room together.

Posted by scott pgwp on November 2, 2007 11:41 AM



Fair enough. Won't talk about Celine anymore, but I'm still interested in exploring "dinner music" -- to see what sort of social and/or musical characteristics leads someone to the dinner table. I guess I just mean that since it's obviously not always the "just-there"-ness or background-ness of the music that makes it suitable for dinner, I'm wondering what does make it that; I think it could be a useful term, but I think the real discussion isn't in making it precise, but in opening it up, so to speak, figuring out who might be at the table and what they might be eating. (I've referred to music before as "music my step-mom would like," not negatively at all, but meaning something that encompasses a lot of music that isn't the same as "what I would like." Still not sure what I mean by it, really, but in a technical sense it now includes Feist and the Arcade Fire.)

Posted by Dave on November 1, 2007 6:15 PM



I didn't want to get into Celine stuff too much, Dave, as I'm avoiding discussing that too extensively until the book is available for people to read. People certainly do use her albums as dinner music, but you're right that a lot of her stuff is too bombastic to belong to the "dinner music" genre proper - she's no Diana Krall, who is dead-square-centre in the dinner music category. But I would definitely use Feist as dinner music if I liked the albums more.

However I do feel like for blog-level discussion getting really wrapped up in the precision of the terms is maybe a bit beside the point.

"I doubt that music has any less power in shaping how we present ourselves/end up fine or not-fine than it did in the relatively recent past, not quite sure what you meant, though."

Personally I have a sense that young people's musical identifications at this point are less encompassing of identity than they used to be, mainly because there are other cultural categories ('net and video-game related mainly) that maybe take up more of that identifying space. Also the tendency to greater eclecticism in listening brought about by downloading and iPod shuffling, etc., seems to me to have eroded some of the hard edges of music-subculture clashes. But I only mean this as a difference of degree. Obviously music is still important to people. It just seems less a site of fanatical religious devotion than it once was. This is a subjective, unverified impression.

Posted by zoilus on November 1, 2007 5:49 PM



Well, part of the problem here might be that you're using a fairly pejorative term ("dinner music") without any further explanation -- it's not clear to me how Celine Dion is dinner music (which Celine Dion? She's kind of hard to pin down, isn't she?), and so we have two fairly broad categories -- "Celine Dion" and "dinner music" -- that are by no means self-explanatory presented as if they were (at which point the problem of the terms themselves threaten to eclipse whatever problems are lurking under them).

It seems like if there's a knee-jerk happening, it couldn't be from some sound that's a common thread running through all of this stuff (and re: the above comment, as a youngish'un, I doubt that music has any less power in shaping how we present ourselves/end up fine or not-fine than it did in the relatively recent past, not quite sure what you meant, though). This is more about "other people" who might listen to Feist or Celine or whoever during dinner, right? (Frankly I don't really even know who listens to/buys Celine Dion music or how -- yer book might be helpful in answering these questions!)

FWIW, I don't really like listening to music during dinner, but Feist, like Pantha du Prince and the Clientele, certainly made for excellent "train music" this year.

Posted by Dave on November 1, 2007 4:17 PM



"I think the answers to why lie outside the music itself, and that what troubles me about the music is symptomatic rather than core to the question."

Are you getting back to the widening gulf between middle and upper-middle class here? Or is there something else?

Posted by Jake on November 1, 2007 3:54 PM



I'm not saying Feist is unsexy, my god. The music itself is (mostly, not all) hold-hands-and-kiss sexy rather than rockin'-and-rollin' sexy. But a lot of the indie-dinner-music is very unsexy. In Feist's case the placelessness and social-context-lessness is what I was talking about.

Scott: Yeah, I think the people who are saying the music is boring (or at least saying it with a certain amount of profile) are mostly older, to one degree or another, sorry to say. I'm not worried about "the kids" - they'll be fine and not-fine in the usual proportions, as malstain says- just feeling that music is seeming more irrelevant than it used to in that process. I think the answers to why lie outside the music itself, and that what troubles me about the music is symptomatic rather than core to the question.

Posted by zoilus on November 1, 2007 10:37 AM



My wife is a college teacher, and I also have several teenage-and-younger cousins, so I'm indirectly exposed to a small but wide sampling of the musical tastes of the kids these days. Some of them listen to nothing but commercial pap, others are way more diverse in their tastes than I am today, let alone at that age. So don't worry about the kids... they'll turn out just fine (in at least the same proportions that we did).

No, as Carl, Steve and PGWP all address, the real issue is aging hipsters' inability to enjoy music on its own terms without attaching the baggage of our own self-flattery.

Also, Feist is unsexy? I know a whoooole lot of besotted youngsters who feel differently. My wife attended one of her shows and said she could sense the hundreds of boners rising like a 21-gun salute...

Posted by malstain on November 1, 2007 8:38 AM



The generational question is the nub.

Jess Harvell is bugged that the younger set gets so enthusiastic so easily. "Let me tell you kid, back in MY day, a band had to TOUR, for YEARS, before getting a decent slot at CMJ."

Similarly SFJ's New Yorker piece. "Let me tell you kid, back in MY day, we were getting busy trying to assimilate the music of black people."

When the younger set starts doing things differently, the dinosaurs howl in outrage (Harvell) or confess their alienation (SFJ). Thus it has always been in the pop biz; thus it is likely to remain as long as North America has any dying embers of imperial oomph left.

The next global pop revolution ain't coming from the Anglophonic nations. It's coming from Asia. We have no idea what it will be.

I'm even older than SFJ and Carl (hard to imagine, I know), and back in MY day . . . Well, put it this way. I was one of the people who thought REM got lame when they started selling big. I still feel that way: I can't stand "The One I Love" and don't like much of the "Green" album though I liked them again on "Out of Time" and "Automatic for the People". I loved the Replacements though Westerberg's obsession with the theme of ambivalence about fame got tiresome. Loved Nirvana, but I never got Pavement. Didn't get them. Still don't.

I preferred Sheryl Crow. Still do -- not her recent stuff, but her 2nd album is in my pantheon; I listen to it now WAY more than I listen to any of the actual "rock" music of my adulthood.

Which, of course, completely disqualifies me from discussing any of this.

Sorry if you feel cheated.

Posted by john on November 1, 2007 12:05 AM



Steve's comments definitely get at one part of what I was talking about in my post. My immediate reaction when I realized just what it was I was listening to--Adult Alternative--was a kind of shame, as if I'd unwittingly sold myself out. But I got over that, of course, because I LIKE what I listen to, and ultimately that's all that matters.

Yet there is a weird disconnect going on. When we were kids, it was pretty easy to draw a line between what we, the youth, liked (aggressive, flippant, amatuerish, passionate, full of effort) and what we didn't like (old, polished, skilled, mellow, easy, effortless)--i.e., music grownups listened to. They hated our music and we hated ours.

Now that we, the generation weened indie rock 1.0, have grown up, it makes sense that adult contemporary/dinner music/mor would develop an indie counterpart--it's what we know and trust and are drawn to. That's fine itself, but a side-effect is that it's suddenly become harder for "the kids" to draw that line. When 30-year-olds are flocking to MySpace and Facebook, inevitably the youngsters are going to develop a taste for what their "friends" are listening to (or vice versa, I suppose). But if the youngsters are drawn to music that is less overtly passionate (rather, it's overtly "sophisticated"), then, well, I don't know. It's like they're missing out on something. They don't get a music that is THEIRS.

There's a part of me that hopes that in all the conversation that has been going on all month, that the people claiming "THE PROBLEM IS THAT THE MUSIC IS BORING AND IT SUCKS" are all under 30, if not under 25, if not under 20.

Posted by scott pgwp on October 31, 2007 8:18 PM



Steve makes a good point. Avoiding shame is certainly a strong influence on musical taste. Likes and dislikes in music are formed at a time in your life when everything goes to hell on the world you thought you knew (i.e. the teenage years). Being cool is a big deal. Naturally, being called on your taste in music when your tastes are just forming can leave a scar. I'm sure that most music lovers have had a confrontation over some stupid song that they didn't at the time have the emotional tools to defend. Maybe they even ended up hating that song.

I think there is a much stronger motivator though. That is the desire not to be cheated. Because we respond to music on such an emotional level, we often leave our intellect exposed. The disappointment of listening to something very authentic sounding, then finding out we have been conned is hard to take. Taste is formed by the wish to avoid being cheated.

Posted by Half on October 31, 2007 7:44 PM



Uh, yes, you may. (Blush.)

Posted by zoilus on October 31, 2007 5:47 PM



"decontextualizedness"? Yikes, that's a mouthful. May I propose "lack of context"?

Posted by Michelangelo on October 31, 2007 5:45 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson