by carl wilson

Polarised! It's (Not?) All About the Music, Man


Two dialogues: First, re: my Mountain Goats article (intro'd in my last post), there's a just fan-fucking-tastic panel in the current issue of metal mag Decibel called Hipster Metal: True or False?, in which frontgoat John Darnielle along with critic Joe Gross, Decibel writer Kory Grow and metal label guys Keith Abrahamsson and Brian Slagel chew over what to make of indie types glomming onto the Southern Lord bands or Mastodon (who played in Toronto this week with plenty indie types in enthusiastic attendance). It shows once again how much more revealingly the "big issues" can be handled when you begin from a highly specific focus: Darnielle's demolition of the "hipster" label, among other moments, is required reading whether you give a fig about metal or not. (The discussion of the "literary" nature of Mastodon provides a counterpoint to Michael Barclay's anti-Goats comments today, but I hope to respond more to Michael at least by the time of Tuesday's Mtn Goats show in Toronto.) One concrete outcome: I plan to start wearing a lot more suits and ties to hip-hop and metal shows, and maybe everywhere.

And second, in anticipation of this Monday's Polaris Music Prize, yesterday's Eye had a fine discussion with the above hilarious cover image of Owen (Final Fantasy) Pallett and Rollie (Cadence Weapon) Pemberton rumbling in some sort of finalists' virtual-reality holding pen. As one of the 10 final-round judges, I'm chuffed for tense debates and nervous about compromise, especially with such a large panel. I'd be only too happy to see the Eye-cover showdown realized, but it's not gonna happen. I hearby pledge not to be swayed by Eye's survey of how the prizewinners will use their $20-thou, though it's amusing to note how much the suggestion of the scenesters-that-scenesters-love-to-hate, Metric, parallels what Saint Torontopia Jonny (Dovercourt) Bunce proposed in the Coach House uTOpia book last year: A "green" recording studio. (Though Jonny was promoting a "green" venue/studio/community centre instead, which may be a telling difference.)

The Polaris organization, btw, has mandated us to consider the albums solely on their merits qua albums, as recorded artifacts, not "overratedness" or "underratedness", the career positions or prospects of the artists, who "needs" the prize or doesn't, nor presumably any societal "extra-musical" concerns such as genre or race/class/gender etc. I assume this is a reaction to criticisms of erratic judging in the Mercury Prize in the UK, on which the Polaris is modelled. But it's a hallucination. These criteria will be in play but will be rationalized into other terms -- subsumed as ideology into a pose and lexicon of critical "objectivity," and arguably thereby made more ideological still. It's not realistic about the way people listen to and evaluate music, or even can: Listening is always an outcome of an entire history of listening, social values and commitments, perceived zeitgeist and other biases. And it's richer and more fun that way. I will play by the rules of the Polaris game, but I'm pretty sure the experience is just going to confirm that hypothesis (mind you, in ways that might not be as illuminating without the artificial boundaries!). Which is fine: They've just started this thing, and it's a great thing, but there's gonna be a learning curve.

Coincidentally I had a similar exchange this week with the editors of a Major American Music Magazine (M.A.M.M.). In the course of some unexpectedly fraught editing tussles, they told me that they explicitly strive for reviews not to refer to other press and other external reference points. In part that's just the normal stuff of mainstream media, which want to avoid an "insider" tone in relation to a mass audience, and I'm down with that. But M.A.M.M. consciously does this to contrast with "the blogs" - they don't want a conversation, a series of links, but for each review to be as self-contained as reasonably possible - in order to say yay or nay whether a record is "good." In other words their method is nearby ye olde New Criticism - to read the text as autotelic, and in its artistic manoeuvres, stripping out biographical, historical and intertextual levels. It was a startling stance from this particular M.A.M.M., which in its feature pages seems to fairly revel in the gossipy, performative, iconic elements of pop. But close reading (irony intended) of the reviews section - which is full of great writers - reveals that they do try to stick to that brief. Again the exercise is a healthy switch and stretch from other writing, where my interest is often to be as "contexty" as a piece will bear. I can even see its usefulness precisely in a M.A.M.M. where gossipy and performative and iconic aspects tend to predominate. But it's a fiction, and not one I anticipated running into in 2006, much less twice in a week. It says a lot about professional mindsets and the distances between critical discourses that I'll be absorbing for a spell.

To give just one counterexample, I was interviewed for an academic project today about "experimental music" in Toronto, and the conversation was about nothing but context - scenes, venues, series, audiences, interconnections, how music is framed by language and gesture. These are my preoccupations, but even I was taken aback a bit, asking at the end, "Should we talk about music 'in itself' at all?" and hearing, "Nah, I don't think that's necessary."

(For way more about context in art and criticism, check out this post and the ensuing comments on poet/professor Ron Silliman's indispensable blog.)

Which has everything to do with Jandek. More tomorrow.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, September 16 at 12:33 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)



Not that you're wrong about the cult-studs "it's all about the subculture" bias that has no real interest in the art at all, which is totally typical anti-pop-as-art academic "high culture" crap. Just that this wasn't what was going on this time.

Posted by zoilus on September 18, 2006 2:57 PM



Yeah, the Rogers-conspiracy theory is just untrue.

Graham, you misunderstood me a little bit about the academic interview: It wasn't a cultural studies kind of thing, it was ethnomusicology, and the researchers are talking to plenty of experimental musicians about their music. I was just seen as someone who could knowledgeably speak about the overall structure of the scenes involved, their connections, and presentational strategies. I was just amazed that the ethnomusicologists took all this stuff so for granted, while music critics are so wary of looking at it as part and parcel of how music is heard. (I'll reference Christopher Small's "Musicking" concept for the thousandth time there.) But I intended no criticism of the researchers at all. Just a counterpoint.

Posted by zoilus on September 18, 2006 2:55 PM



Just a thought:

In that hipster metal roundtable John Darnielle ALMOST got it right with "My long-standing shtick is that ironic appreciation is actual appreciation, but its hesitant."

What he got right is that there is no such thing as ironic appreciation. Unless "enjoy" has a "meaning".

Posted by dylan on September 18, 2006 2:37 PM



This is not a marketing ploy by Rogers. This has been in the works for years - yet like all/most good things, they need money to make it happen.

Posted by meMeme on September 18, 2006 10:11 AM



Oh, one more thing, carl, i think you raise a really good point right at the end of this post re: talking around the music instead of about it. this is certainly a phenomena that i have encountered a ot, sometimes frustrating so in academic work, where people will spend a lot of time on everything except for the music at hand. besides being a major weakness in their arguments, it also unintentionally upholds a barrior between so called serious ("classical") and popular music(s) where the former is rich enough to be analysed and the latter is only noteable for the subculture which forms around it. or in other words the reductive (and probably wrong) reading of adorno. i'm hoping to correct this in some way and hopefully if they get past the external reviewers some of my work will be getting out in some academic journals soon.

Posted by Graham on September 18, 2006 12:07 AM



Am I the only one who's a little uneasy by the whole idea of the Polaris Prize especially since it's, as the website reminds us a nauseam, "supported by Rogers"? It seems to me to be a cynical marketing campaign for Ted ... like the twenty thousand (and assorted costs in putting it together) are dirt cheap advertising for the most important demo. and it gets them universal good press, etc.

Obviously and unfortunately Broken Social Scene will probably win. It should though come down to Owen or Rollie but when's the last time that say the Mercury prize made the right choice? (Um, Dizzee? Before him?)

Posted by Graham on September 18, 2006 12:01 AM



You're both right about Silliman not teaching anymore. He's a market analyst in the computer industry, according to Wikipedia. Pardon my sloppiness.

John, a lot of my stuff for the Globe ends up only in the Toronto edition, which is about twice the size in page count as the editions elsewhere in the country (due to advertising etc).

And no, MAMM is not RS.

Posted by zoilus on September 16, 2006 12:05 PM



Label guys don't wear jackets and ties, but I'm glad old-school dressing is working out for people.

I'm quite sure Peli's right about Silliman. He works in industry somewhere -- computer industry, maybe? He does, though, *seem* professorial.

Looking forward to seeing you in M.A.M.M. (Is it R.S.? -- We'll find out!)

Got the Globe & Mail in Vancouver yesterday but didn't find you in it, alas.

Posted by john on September 16, 2006 11:48 AM



I am glad to hear you're upgrading your concert wardrobe...take some notes from the Corwood Rep tomorrow night...ladies go for the sharp-dressed men, y'know...

Posted by B,F. Mowat on September 16, 2006 9:40 AM



Actually, I'm almost aboslutely sure Silliman isn't a professor.

Posted by Peli Grietzer on September 16, 2006 6:16 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson