by carl wilson

Indie, Class and the Death of Bohemia: 2

In saying that there is no bohemia in the 19th/20th-century sense - and, as suggested in the Comments this morning, also no avant-garde - I'm not calling for its restoration. While I feel an inevitable nostalgia for a lost tradition I grew up imagining I would join (but never genuinely did or could), elitist vangardism, revolutionary playacting and condescension aren't attractive to me now, and subculturalism is basically the upmarket model for consumerism, the boutique mezzanine above the big-box ground floor.

However, as bohemian avant-gardism goes up in a puff of disbelief, it leaves us with a problem: motivation and direction. The delusion that the avant-garde was going to better the world - or, later, in its more punk-rock iteration, "destroy everything" - was naive and grandiose but it was something to work with. The capital-r Romantic playacting that middle-class youth cultures took up, renouncing privilege or snitching hip black signifiers or more generally pretending to either being street toughs or decadent aristocrats (the two main artistic personae of the 20th century) related to these horizons in some broad way. Personally, I feel like we can and should do without the Romantic quest for excess, and one of the strengths of alternative music/art scenes now is that in aggregate they do. There's a lot less grandeur and more of a what-the-hell, playful, toss-it-at-the-wall attitude (an eclecticism Arthur Danto explains as resulting from having outlived the end of art history). The trouble however is that this generates a lot of underdone art.

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I'm very pro-middle-class, in the sense that as more-or-less a social democrat, I'd like to see a world in which everyone was roughly middle class. However, so long as society is heavily striated, class wreaks mental/moral damage on everyone. There are syndromes typical of the rich and the poor, but one of the traits of middle-classness tends to be an anxious mix of self-satisfied complacency and self-defensive risk aversion. It's great that adult-alternative rockers aren't pretending to be the oppressed (which besides being obnoxious tends to produce a lot of heroin addicts), but those pretenses did have imaginative functions - they push you to become something bigger, to try harder, to take larger chances.

So then the challenge becomes: What is it that might produce great middle-class art, in the absence of a bohemian motivational and support construct? (Granting that middle-class is a vast, fuzzy umbrella term; maybe it would be better to ask something like how might we produce great insurance-broker art or great graduate-student art or great suburban townhouse music. But extending high-school-clique terms throughout adult life - whatever identification we continue to feel with "jock" or "nerd" or "prep" in later life - mostly obfuscates the nature of grownup social divisions. The inadequacy of class terms is more transparent and that's an advantage.)

It's not like it has never been done - a lot of classic midcentury Hollywood film would qualify to me, giddily depicting middle-class stability disrupted or threatened and then restored. Among adult-alternative musicians, I feel like Final Fantasy, for example, nears the goal - marshalling all his resources, some of them quite luxurious and others in various states of disrepair, having a democratic interest in both the beautiful and the ugly where they seem to serve the purpose, all with an evident work ethic and level of commitment that a lot of equally talented artists don't muster. But I'm not sure I see a paradigmatic conclusion to draw from that. It does make a certain sense in this light that so much of the music currently seems "literary" in nature - and that "poetic" doesn't seem quite the word in the old Romantic rock-and-roll Dylan & Jim Morrisson etc sense - because surely the 20th-century novel is the exemplary middle-class form. (Whereas poetry is the exemplary bohemian form.)

I think it's a problem shared across the arts since the 1960s, which has just deepened decade by decade: Given the collapse of the avant-garde ideal of forever superseding previous intensities in order to transform consciousness/society, what exactly is art after, what is it for, what is it aiming at, what makes one work worth doing and another not? It's difficult to put that out of our pretty little heads forever. In pop music, the ambition to get rich/famous stands in for this dilemma, which I think makes things easier, but not all the good artists are cut out for that game. At the same time, defining yourself "against the mainstream" while having no working theory of what you mean by "mainstream" or "against" is a hard trick to sustain.

This in part explains, I think, why, as Frank wrote, "indie vocalists aren't hearing a potential voice for themselves except in vocals that seem to be some sort of retreat." The Romantic/bohemian tradition they're trying to fit into being defunct, the voice of retreat may seem a natural language, perhaps one that is in search of new words for forwards. To borrow a distinction from the Dave Hickey interview I linked a few days ago, the "trouble with indie rock" may not be the "quality of the work" (which is often quite high) but "the quality of the job" - what task is being taken on, whether a task is being taken on, and with what kind of ambition. That seems to be the thing to listen for.

PS: I respect Frank's question about the lack of specific musical examples in this conversation. There are actually quite a few in Sasha's piece, even if I quibble with his choices. If his article had been a couple of pages longer so he might have expanded on some of his critiques, but space restrictions are as much a reality as deadlines. What I felt more keenly missing from Sasha's piece, however, was socio-economic context, which was why I concentrated so heavily on that aspect. No reason why the discussion can't continue on to asking listeners and musicians their perspectives (which partly happened in the Arcade Fire's response to Sasha for instance), but as I've said before, sometimes you have to choose the big brush and forego the small, especially when you've got exactly a day to prepare a response. My book is about taste, class and music, too, but it's got a lot more nuance. (Frank's recent columns overlap so much with my book that it's eerie - and not just when he compares Celine Dion & the White Stripes.)

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, November 09 at 1:56 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)

 

COMMENTS

Jordan, you're sounding programmatic today! Are you well? Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.

Honesty is such a lonely word.

It's important to be earnest.

Posted by john on November 14, 2007 6:53 PM

 

 

To me, earnest in art/personality terms does not equal sincere. Earnest equals something more like repressed, trying too hard, strident, etc.

Posted by zoilus on November 14, 2007 6:14 PM

 

 

Funny, I had " " around sincerity at first, but took them off.

Earnest, yes.

Still underrated as a tunesmith.

Posted by JSG on November 14, 2007 3:45 PM

 

 

Happy as always to be your straight man, Carl. I would have said "...to permanent-fixture status," which more often than not amounts to the same thing. MTV, so much to answer for.

I'm amazed that everyone IDs pure sincerity in the person who demands of his idealized other "I need to know that you will always be / the same old someone that I knew" and "I don't want clever conversation / I never want to work that hard." These are cynical control-maneuvers and put-downs whether he's conscious of it or not. He embraces the cynicism on Nylon Curtain, then recoils and represses the experience from there on out.

The interesting work always happens on the border between irony and sincerity, saith Father Imho.

Posted by Jordan on November 14, 2007 9:29 AM

 

 

I like early-to-mid Billy Joel too, everybody, but even when he's trying to be funny he's very earnest.

To call "Innocent Man" a breakthrough album, though, feels like a marvelous reinvention of the term: "With Innocent Man, Joel broke through to sucking."

Posted by zoilus on November 13, 2007 6:50 PM

 

 

I demand the ambition to be beautiful.

By this standard, nobody is more ambitious than Celine.

She is also, of course, the *other* kind of ambitious, of which, again, of course, nobody is more.

(Can't wait to read *the book*.)

Posted by john on November 13, 2007 12:10 PM

 

 

Billy Joel and Long Island are metonymies for a whole phenomenal welter of class issues that the Stranger article barely fogs the glass on. Turnstiles would make a good 33-1/3 on these subjects, or Glass Houses, or Nylon Curtain -- or maybe it's just the soundtrack for one episode of Freaks and Geeks. It would take a pretty dumbass reading of Joel to avoid the self-consciousness, or irony if you will, in his choices in that work. Listen through sometime just for the affect, the oscillation between self-punishment and other-adoration. You don't need mercury in the groundwater to mess with kids' heads when you've got this kind of message piped in every waking moment.

The breakthrough album, though, was Innocent Man, which got pegged as a 50s revival ten years late, but listen closer and see if you don't think he's actually going back to the early 60s. Sounds to me that by rebuilding rock in the image of the Four Seasons, he's trying to a) erase the trauma of November 22, 1963 and b) undo the invasion of February 7, 1964. It's an unwinnable project -- there is no such thing as an innocent man. *That* I think is the idea the Strange piece comes really close to having.. that Joel's music crystallizes a specific and widespread form of arrested development in glorious surround sound.

Anyway, the culture already has plenty of people working on what it was like to grow up middle class in the Metropolitan New York area between 1965 and 2000. As far as participating in that economy as a consumer goes, hey thanks, but I'd rather not be colonialized any further.

Posted by Jordan on November 13, 2007 11:29 AM

 

 

"it is a matter of how much they do and don't succeed."

So, must we demand ambition? Of what sort?

Mightn't that lead to a "raising the stakes" trap?

RE: Joel, his unambigious sincerity is his greatest asset. He's IS the pianoman. (Plus he writes great tunes).

Posted by JSG on November 13, 2007 10:52 AM

 

 

I agree, quiet & retreat aren't identical. The love balladeers of the '50s (I'm thinking of the Four Freshmen) could sing quietly intense. By "Retreat," I hear either the default auto-irony mask of a lot of indie, or a tone of resignationism, or perhaps both.

Carl, you say music makes you want to run into the streets or fall to your knees or hold a meeting. Do you act on these desires? (I once was at a meeting during which we walked into the streets and fell on our knees, but that's another story.)

I've heard so little Decembrists that I can't comment, but I agree that -- like him or don't -- Sufjan is ambitious.

Posted by john on November 13, 2007 4:59 AM

 

 

2fs, I don't think Frank is equating singing quietly with "retreat." I took him to mean closer to singing without a discernable personality, the kind of squawk-singing common in indie, which might fairly be read as an evasion of a stronger choice, of either trying to scream or trying to sing beautifully, for example. In some cases that seems accurate to me and in others perhaps to be overlooking the usefulness and overtones of the squawk.

Your arguments about ambition are well-taken - I agree with some cases and disagree with others. The AF are certainly ambitious in all sorts of senses; in their case it is a matter of how much they do and don't succeed. Ditto the two FFs. With Sufjan and the Decemberists, though, even on the occasions I like something they do what I want to do is give them an A, not run into the streets or fall to my knees or hold a meeting. It's difficult to talk about because it seems like we are trying to diagnose people's ambitions based on the symptoms of the results.

Posted by zoilus on November 12, 2007 4:59 PM

 

 

Ugh, that piece you linked is pretty bad, Ali: "nobody cares about Billy Joel — nobody who matters, anyway." Because the only people who "matter" are indie fans apparently. Yuck.

Still, I don't think what the writer's saying about Joel is as far off as you make it seem: When he says "irony" it's just in comparison to Elton John, and what he means seems to be closer to a sense of humour or play, not taking yourself overseriously, which it's true has never been Joel's strong suit. But he also contrasts that with the serious empathy of Springsteen, which he praises. So he's not saying irony is mandatory, just that it's one potential strategy. His point that there's something immature about Joel's work seems fair, though he does a poor job of explaining why and his stake in the question seems immature in itself.

As for pretension - I'm all for it. In fact, here's one answer to why "indie" needs irony so much: Because it's so pretentious. Pretentious is bad when it takes itself overseriously, but good when it includes a sense of irony and absurdity about itself.

And no, I don't think irony is a middle-class characteristic - people do and don't have that sense of scepticism at all levels of society. It seems to be more a matter of disposition and perhaps emotional security.

On the other hand if you mean David Letterman-style "irony" - which is not actually an ironic sense, I would say, but just self-concealment in sarcasm edged with condescension - yeah, that's pretty middle-class, middle-class adolescent specifically, I think.

Posted by zoilus on November 12, 2007 4:51 PM

 

 

I read Sasha F-J's article on the Q train on my way from Coney Island to Fort Greene. The piece angered me for so many reasons. But coming across this blog and all these comments, I seem to have totally lost my place in this discussion, unable to not only identify what music means what to which class, but also which class category I even belong to. Anyone else having that problem?

But a few thoughts:

What about pretension? Something about a lot of indie music is so pretentious. What does that mean? Pretention cannot masquerade as purpose or ambition. Or can it?
Is pretension a default middle class characteristic?

Why is irony such a valued component of indie music? Jonathan Zwickel's latest in the Stranger -
http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=433738 - rips on Billy Joel mainly for having no capacity for irony, rendering him a failure due to an inability to maintain respectable indie status. This is laughable to me.
Is irony a default middle class characteristic?

Is there pretension and irony in Bohemia?

So many questions.

Posted by ali marcus on November 11, 2007 3:07 AM

 

 

What is it that might produce great middle-class art, in the absence of a bohemian motivational and support construct?

Not an answer, just a wish. I wish with-it middle class musicians would walk in on their own to mix it up with developing music scenes at community centres. Community centres are often open to people assisting with or supporting in a small way youth developing recording projects, online radio, podcasts or whatever. It can happen at more community centres. When supporting what youth going to centres are doing, unexpected art sometimes develops, lots of happy accidents.

Posted by Artsworker on November 10, 2007 5:37 PM

 

 

If I'm reading this right, one problem you're seeing in indie rock is a pulling-back from certain kinds of ambition, and a resultant pulling-back in directness - so that everything's shaded, hedged-in, even ironic, rather than being full-bodied, effusive, or even ass-shaking. I think that's one trait legible from indie's ancestry in punk rock's reaction against the excess of what's now called classic rock - in which seemingly everything was oversized. A chamber music rather than a Wagnerian assault, say. However, I'm reading in Jack's response the notion that "emotional intensity" must show up audibly as a sort of bigness: in voice, in ambition, in production. But is that necessarily so? Maybe it's my own middle-class inbuilt repression operating here, but I tend to respond to the tension that results when outsized emotions are tethered to vehicles that maybe can't quite contain them; when there seems to be more *more* there than can comfortably be accommodated. When you actually bring that *more*, you risk becoming overblown. And that's a problem I have with (for example) Neon Bible: they express the kinds of emotions that seem to demand choirs and orchestras with actual choirs and orchestras...rather than suggesting choirs and orchestras as they did on their first album. To me, it's too spectacular - in the sense of being a spectacle, something drawing attention to its own surface, its own expressiveness, sometimes to the detriment of its emotional core. There's more menace in Orson Welles' quiet speaking in Touch of Evil, say, than in someone bellowing their anger like a wounded bull. Which is why I can't say I agree with Frank Kogan when he writes about indie vocalists and that sense of "retreat." And to my ears, there's a lot of ambition in a lot of indie rock in recent years - the Arcade Fire, whatever criticism I might have about their means, clearly means to be making some powerful statement; the Fiery Furnaces are wildly ambitious and fearless in incorporating whatever musical lineage happens to strike their fancy (including some hip-hop-derived bass and drum parts, which I just noticed listening to Widow City this morning); Final Fantasy (as you mention) is another act that is unafraid to go wherever Owen Pallett's ambition leads it; and even someone like Sufjan Stevens or the Decemberists, in their own ways, are willing to move beyond song-form confines with considerable ambition and either emotional intensity or, in the case of the Decemberists, a highly unfashionable, non-ironic sense of play.

Posted by 2fs on November 9, 2007 11:22 PM

 

 

Great stuff, Carl.

The job of art is . . . (I'll get back to you on that).

A non-complacent middle class in pursuit of intensity and emotional risk --

sounds good!

Some jobs of art:
1. Emotional / intellectual engagement. The recent book "This is your brain on music" (which I've only read tiny pieces of) argues that music, when it's *happening*, activates more areas of the brain than are regularly activated elsewhere. I trust that this happens in other art experiences as well.
2. Ange Mlinko at her blog put out the call for "enchantment" from poetry. "Enchantment" -- I love that word -- *and*, it conjures up, for me, the idea of more areas of the brain being activated at once.
3. Given that complex-brain activation is what we're going for, "message," "communication," and "expression" are all subsidiary cause/effects of the holistic art experience. Not that they aren't important! (Inanely repetitive lyrics can drive me personally bananas, for example.) But that an art or musical experience can't be reduced to its *meaning*. The experience always outstrips the meaning.

I hear more emotional intensity -- and have since the mid-'90s -- in pop than in indie. And! Rockcrit has often been *hostile* to the paths of emotional intensity when clothed in the middle class timbres of Streisand or Celine. As, I'm assuming, you've written about!

It's not just in indie that vocals have gotten recessive: Adult contemporary vocalists -- Jack Johnson, Norah Jones -- have too. I attribute it to middle-class liberal resignationism in the face of the anti-enlightenment reactionary onslaught that has held sway in our polity. Which helps me understand why I don't like it -- and why other people might. The resignationism is comforting. That sounds like a condemnation -- and it probably is -- but I understand that people *like* comfort (me too!), and there's nothing wrong with that.

Posted by john on November 9, 2007 5:19 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson