by carl wilson

Christgau on Torontopia

Neil Young, wandering Torontopian godfather.

The great thing about Aaron is that he's able to write like a rare representative of normal people in the world of weird music geekery while geeking out just as hard as anyone else. His essay in response to last week's debate on Torontopia is a perfect example - even though I disagree with much of it, the simple insight about the friction that's caused by change when it's never enough change really helps explain the high fevers this infection causes. And it's just plain good to be reminded that pro basketball explains things far better than bull about Pitchfork can.

It also prompts me to reprint, in part as an explanation of why I don't agree with his thrust, this passage from Robert Christgau's last big feature for the Village Voice (to touch on last week's other major unfinishable business). Yes, sometimes Xgau can be a muddled writer - see the ILM thread on parsing his sentences (which for me to point out is a little pot-meet-kettle) - but he's always shooting for something substantial, and when he hits it, he hits it. Here is him hitting it, on the issue of participatory musical culture as it happens and doesn't happen in, especially, indie rock. It has sentences on indie rock much more definitive than the one from Frank (happy anniversary) that Aaron uses as his headline. It's useful for addressing the most misunderstood aspects of The Torontopia Thing, as I'll footnote after you read it:

" 'Live Music Is Better' bumper stickers should be issued," joshed Neil Young in 1980's "Union Man," which he has performed in public precisely once. Two visionary musicologists honor this dictum: Charles Keil, adept of participatory discrepancy, and Christopher Small, who believes all music celebrates the intricacy of relationship. For surprise-craving jazz fans, spirit-feeling gospel fans, and house-rocking blues fans, the primacy of the unique, unduplicatable musical event is a truism. The gig is the sacred ritual of indie rock.

Note, however, that all these music lovers like it live for different reasons. Contingency fan Keil treasures the marginal miss, contingency fan Small the magic mesh. Jazz locates inspiration in the mortal musician, gospel in the celestial divine—while blues fans, not unlike indie fans, romanticize the grotty, beer-soaked venue itself. Where blues fans differ from indie fans—and always have, even down at the crossroads—is that they regard musicians as means to a party, and the party as the goal. Indie fans aren't so sure about parties—or anything else, except maybe their favorite band that month. At their best, they're musical adepts combining all of the above. At their worst, they're one-upping self-seekers who wouldn't know a good band if it played their student union for three bucks with proper ID. Either way they regard the venue as the crucible of their developing values and personalities.

This process now has its own theorist: indie kid turned bizzer turned anthropologist Wendy Fonarow, whose Empire of Dirt proved a stimulating 'tween-set read. Fonarow did her formal research in Britain in 1993 and 1994, and some things have changed—moshing has declined, and the guitar relinquished its absolute dominance. But the basic pattern, in which indie is more temporary identity marker than aesthetic commitment, is depressingly stable. The best of Fonarow's many concepts divides venues into three zones. Zone One is the pit, crammed with the youngest, maddest, and most physical fans. Zone Three is the back or the bar, where what the Brits call liggers yap through sets—bizzers, musicians, scenesters, casuals. Also, Fonarow claims, journalists—but not me, or any other rock critic I know. I've been a Zone Two guy since stand-up shows became the norm 30 years ago.

The reason, obviously, is aesthetic. Zone Two is the best place to hear music—and see it, and feel it. Its sensations fill you without overwhelming you. Keil is right about participatory discrepancy—part of live music's excitement is the way it transfigures tiny failures of synchronicity. But this counts for more in the musics Keil loves—jazz, blues, polka—than in rock per se. I go to shows to get a fuller sense of the artist and to augment my experience of the music with other people's cheers and pheromones. And I go to concentrate, focus, immerse. Invariably I find myself registering new details and making new connections. Usually I have a good time, and every once in a while I luck into an epiphany. I'm a record guy, always will be. But records can't match the exhilaration of the best gigs. You walk home prepared to live forever.

So Torontopia is about imagining (and willfully romanticizing) a whole city the way one does a beloved venue, not as the city qua city and not even as Home but as a second home, grotty and with shitty sound-mixing but nonetheless loaded with possibility. It's about the city as a crazed emporium of ephemera, like a Japanese toy-and-housewares store, where no artifact is in itself as important as their bric-a-brac assemblage and the overall sensorium of the arcades. It's (perhaps naively) hopeful about making a more permanent aesthetic commitment than the passing-phase model. It's also about abolishing Zone Three, where people snipe and shmooze and hold themselves at a superior remove from the action. (It even has its doubts about Zone Two, where conventionally good critics live.) It's not about being a record guy, even though a record guy is an okay thing to be: It's about applying both Charles Keil's "participatory discrepancy" and Christopher Small's "musicking" (the music experience as a multi-sensory, social-communal experience) to rock, in ways that the consumerist idea of pop/rock generally disdains. The comparison to blues fans worries me a little! But it's still a disdain that movement after movement in underground rock has had to challenge, in new terms each time - in this case in civic, public-space and questioning-of-professionalism terms. Not for "World Peace," though there's a grit of truth in Aaron's scepticism, but just to survive the continual emptying-out of meaning by the bewitched buckets of all the sorcerers' apprentices. To live forever, at least for now.

(PS: Please see Jody Rosen on Xgau on Slate.)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, September 05 at 2:13 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)



Tim Bruton of the D'Urbervilles has been so impressed with Torontopia and the Ford Plant and all the other music initiatives he has begun to organise his own in Oshawa... to help that much maligned hometown of his. The discussion among those of us in the Shwa scene about this can be found here
Feel free to join in.
The Exclaim article started it all for us too.

Posted by Will on September 5, 2006 4:44 PM



Christgau not only hits it well, he also does a lot of homework & background reading, as this excellent extract illustrates.

I loved this passage when I first read it, and I was psyched to see you quote it. That last phrase, "prepared to live forever" -- so real & true.

And then you quoted the "live forever" part again and I couldn't help but think of "Fame!"

And you know, I wouldn't mind learning to how to "fly . . . HIGH!"

and then, your tag, "at least for now" -- beautiful.

Some Christians imagine eternity just so. As a vertical time intersecting with the horizontal chronology of historical time. Conveniently symbolized by the Cross.

"I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free" (Ashbery).

The idea of festival is to break up the tedium of work and survival with extended moments of immortality. When industrialization decimated the medieval festival calendar, leaving only Christmas (and New Year's) and scattered national holidays, capitalism tried to supply continuous festivals on-the-fly, at least in the cities, with live music every night. And, sometimes, it really works out for people.

Keep on rockin' in the free world.

Posted by john on September 5, 2006 2:44 PM



Amen. My zone 2 brothers.

Cat Power (at least at the early show) turned the whole of Lee's Palace into a zone 2. It was quite astounding actually. I dont think I've ever seen any show in the city where the crowed was as rapt.

In any case your notion of the city as this great buffet of experiences is very much in line with my own. (btw I did found Aaron's post to be extremly Juvenile and very zone 3). Thats the nice thing about Buffet eating in general, if you dont like any of the food you just dont get any and move to the next item down the line. It would be considered in poor taste if you just stood there talking shit about that particular food item instead of moving on down the line. In fact I might just think you were being an asshole.


Posted by guy tanentzapf on September 5, 2006 9:12 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson