by carl wilson

Against the Doctrine of Relatability

Neko Case topped the albums list in the Eye Weekly critics' poll.

Yesterday brought the annual Eye Weekly national critics' poll, Canada's own Pazz-&-, er, Jackin' Pop. I like Eye's results a bit better, which may be some small testimony to a distinct Canadian society. Hosers remain more rockist, which despite my ideological objections I find kind of sweet in my compatriots. It's clearly waning, although the "most overrated" list and the "best artist" lists could switch completely and I'd be just as (un)happy. But I'm glad to see honourary-Canuck Neko Case atop the heap, astride Ghostface and safely above the overly lauded TVotR, Cat Power and Hot Chip (in the latter horserace, I bet Spank Rock); as well as to share the true patriot love for Junior Boys, Final Fantasy, Malajube and others; and to see Amy Winehouse, whose new music I've been bathing in, sneak into the top 10. Tokyo Police Club (whom I like) outranking Destroyer is not benign for my stomach-acid levels. But, eh, it's a list. (In which spirit, note the advent of the Parsefork review-aggregator. So far, so underwhelming: "MetaCritic with fussier statistics, fewer sources and an ugly-ass layout! Woo!")

I did enjoy the comments: Scott Woods' defence of Paris Hilton, Phil Dellio on the Clipse vs. Michael Richards, and also in the Seinfeldian field, Stuart Berman's The Hold Steady=Newman thesis (with a nice sideline on the Constantines as superior Springsteenians). As for the case of Zoilus vs. Adrien Begrand in the matter of J. Newsom... Well. First, kudos to the editors for making me look like a blowhard with the full-paragraph-vs-one-liner contrast. My bitch is that it's comedy over context, as the bit on Newsom was pulled out of a bigger point about the year in music (I'll print it after the jump, though it'll hardly exempt me from charges of wordiness). Still, strange that a guy who writes a heavy-metal column should get snarky over the idea of an instrumentally dense, verbally obscure, antiquarian suite. How does he handle those Nordic epics?

But Begrand is right: Ys isn't an album many people will throw on as background or workout music day to day. I'd compare it instead to a favourite novel that you re-read on a quiet Sunday every year - it's more in that internal register, an interior-experience-transporter to activate when needed. Dismissing that option hints at a pop-ist cognate to rockist bias, likewise asserting a narrow range of legit functions for music, and that intensities of specialization (whether that's "mainly good for dancing" or "mainly good for serious introspection") are inherently inferior to broader utility. That kind of attitude has sour outcomes in politics and culture alike. It's not the "lowest common denominator" problem - it's more similar to my most despised buzzword of 2006, "relatability."

"Relatability" isn't all bad: On its face it could read as a corrector against the idea of art being either self-expression or stimulus-response, saying art needs to speak from one interiority to another, that the magic happens in the dynamic relationship between maker and audience. That's the "relational aesthetics" I've often written about this year. But in practice, "relatability" nearly always boils down the presumed interests of the audience to the crudest drives, like sex and status. It doesn't say people are dumb, just that they're homogenous and easily summed up. Sentences (like Adrian's comment) that begin, "Come on, admit it," work aggressively along that line: "Look, don't pretend to be complicated, don't pretend to have your own motivations or curiosities or whims or moods - you're just like the next guy, and the next guy is just like you, and this is how we all are, all the time, and it's bullshit to say otherwise."

This perspective is part of the disproportionate bio-determinism that permeates social thinking right now - that we are the sums of our drives, which are in turn direct expressions of genetic destiny. That's not a crazy position: It stems from recent discoveries that indicate we probably are more biologically programmed than we thought when, for instance, psychoanalysis was the dominant paradigm for the human operating system. But it's an over-extreme pendulum swing, which I optimistically assume will eventually swing back into better balance. And it's a view that, as "relatability" indicates, synchs up conveniently with the current dilemmas of dispersed market capitalism: For instance, when you're trying to market to and extract labour from a mindbogglingly diverse range of people and places who don't share social references and norms, it's reassuring to fall back on universal drives as a hu-manual for how to work their buttons and levers.

This approach has ugly consequences in many fields. But in culture it removes most everything of interest from the dance - except, I guess, the funk, the pheromone trace, or rather the signals that stand in for it. Funkiness is all that counts. I once speculated that there's a corollary to rockism one could call "funkism," and maybe this is what I meant. The positive thing about funkiness in this sense is that it can be found everywhere - you sure can like metal for its funk; that's the "heavy" part. But - and this is a reason not to adopt the term "funkism" - generalizing funk as a "universal" entails forgetting what funk meant to James Brown. For a start, see the last three 'grafs of this definition, for a cursory look at how "funk" fits into the history of oppositional script-flipping in African-American culture. When such inversions get assimilated and incorporated into the outlaw romances of mainstream global culture, into the "rebel sell," the flip gets flipped - and literalized, so that, for instance, the millionaire is now the outlaw and the guy with the hundred-buck-an-ounce cologne is now the funkiest. And the most "relatable." (The meaning of gettin' paid is a lot more complex and contradictory, of course, but that's the part the music business likes best, because, to use another gross 2006ism, it can be "monetized.")

Part of what I like about Newsom, and Matmos, as I say in my Eye comments, is that their music is so physical, so bodily, while not remotely "funky." Then there's Ghostface, who's less funky in the 2K usage than in the older sense, stinking of eccentric individuality that doesn't reduce down to any pusher/pimp/tycoon blaxploitation figure.

And Neko's funky in that way, too - her voice is big-bottomed and sensual, but her persona and concerns don't track to anybody else's outlines. One of the most irritating comments in the Eye poll praises her singing but backhands her as "having her way with a thesaurus" with the title and lyrics of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. In fact, her title character is drawn from the Russian folklore she got from her grandmother - exactly the kind of funk (old picture books in indecipherable script; the must of grandma's sweater when she pulls you in to tell a story; her weakening voice, ghost of an accent) that marketers don't know how to fake, that doesn't relate to get-it-and-spend-it imperatives but asks for the listener to enter into a more thickly woven narrative of where people (and their music) come from and what they might become.

Whew. I was going to try and tackle the CBC radio realignment in this post too - especially the demise of Brave New Waves - but that'll have to wait for later. Now I'm rushing off to satisfy some drives, namely by grabbing some dinner. Just like the next guy.

My comments for the 2006 Eye Weekly Poll:

"It's too bad that the Destroyer and Ghostface records came out so early in the year, or their ranking in the Eye poll probably would be closer to what they deserve. Instead they're probably eclipsed (pun intended) by fresher novelties to our jaded ears, including mine. And despite the many many reasons these days to celebrate Canadian music - which the Polaris prize did a terrific job of marking and making memorable - I actually think that Destroyer and Final Fantasy aside, 2006 was a weaker calendar year than the previous couple of years. But that's mostly just the accidents of release dates. I'm betting the average goes up in '07.

"Otherwise, the digitization of musical experience, between YouTube and listening to music on computer speakers, reached unprecedented lengths in my life in the past year. Perhaps in reaction, I appreciated that the Californian dyad of Joanna Newsom and Matmos struck blows for the re-embodiment of music in 2006, from entirely different angles.

"Newsom is the organicist, consciously deploying her anachronistic arsenal, her fingers blistering on the harp, her folkloric vocal tones, her natural and mythological allusions, and even her intricate metrics and internal rhyme schemes, to knock out the cobwebs of media illusion and open space for the sort of unforgiving introspective examination that is distinctly out of fashion. Ys demands a ridiculous amount from its listeners, but far less than the artist does of herself, and it confirms - if her debut left any doubt - that she's an artist we're going to be contending with for decades.

"Matmos, by contrast, applies the most sophisticated, synesthetic technological tools to combine found physical objects with a whole pantheon of cultural heroes, making a witty but also deeply touching argument for the continued vitality and importance of the bohemian tradition (from modernist literary and philosophical icons to queer sex radicals) to our lives as we live and experience them in real time today.

"In a year when the broader social picture was so very often so very bleak, it was sustaining to hear Newsom and Matmos (among other artists) locate the reasons for hope and faith in each small human body, carrying its unique memory, its shared history and its essential fragility."

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 19 at 5:50 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)



I'll readily admit that I actually was rather impressed by the Newsom album. But yeah, it's definitely one of those CDs where you have to settle down with it to get into it. Nothing wrong with that, and I do like the epic stuff, but it's like one of those movies that we enjoy, but have no inclination to see it again anytime soon. So my Eye comment was basically what I asked myself when deciding whether or not to buy the CD after listening to the advance several times in the weeks before.

Sorry to have my blunt statement make such a well-written comment look stuffy! I actually agree with much of what you said.

Posted by Adrien Begrand on January 28, 2007 3:46 AM



Hey Carl,
Please rest assured, the Ys/No contrast wasn't meant to make you look like a blowhard, but merely to illustrate the polarity of opinion over a polarizing album. And while your comment was not entirely about Ys, I thought it most thorough, passionate, reasoned case for Newsom that we received.

I do agree with the point about mid-January best-of-list fatigue/hangover, but our history has shown getting contributors to send their ballots in before Christmas is more difficult than after. I'd say over 70% of the ballots are received in January. Also, it seems more and more marquee-name albums are coming out in December, which used to be a fallow period. So I'm more comfortable with a list running in January than one in November.

Posted by stuber on January 22, 2007 3:35 PM



R.I.P., BNW. The CBC is beyond repair.

Posted by David on January 22, 2007 1:47 AM



About the anti- FF guy, I actually thought his comment was kind of stupid, citing the premise like he's on to something everybody else missed. It's like yelling "Stephen Colbert is a fake! He's not a Republican newsman at all, but actually a liberal comedian impeersonating one!"

Posted by peli grietzer on January 21, 2007 12:24 PM



That sucks that BNW was cancelled. I was kind of happy about the new CBC changes but somehow this wasn't mentioned in the materials that I read.

I would suggest that people drop a line to the person in charge of these changes to let her know how upset we are.

She is the Executive Director of Programming
at CBC Radio.


Posted by tim on January 20, 2007 9:30 PM



My favourite bit from the Eye poll was actually the guy with a hate-on for Final Fantasy. He's, y'know, wrong and stuff (I don't believe the album is contrived at all, which is how it dodges prog's pitfalls), but what moxie!

Posted by chris on January 20, 2007 8:05 PM



I gotta say, I was actually a bit infuriated when I saw the cover of eye magazine this week. We're nearing the end of January and we've been getting "year-in-review" articles and lists and poll results since November.


Posted by dylan on January 20, 2007 12:01 PM



Whew indeed! Such verbal luxuriance (and such concerns) makes me hopeful that your book is (nearly?) completed.

"Relatability" got Bush (almost-) elected the first time around. It's infuriating. But the term itself hasn't really registered with me. My 21st-century cliche bete noire is "grown ups." And not because I have a pre-schooler. Cliche is part of life, but this particular one is like fingernails on the chalk board whenever I read it in a political column or blog post. It presupposes that the opposition didn't do its evil intentionally but merely out of self-indulgent adolescent inattention, which is evasion-masking-as-condescension. The idea that the evil and incompetence may have been *intentional*, and that therefore the agents should be held fully accountable (and not relegated to the moral equivalent of juvenile court), is just too hard for the Conventional Wisdom to take, I guess.

What made Pazz & Jop so great was the comments, not the list itself. Both Jackin' Pop and the Eye Weekly gravely disappointed me by omitting the Klezmatics Guthrie album "Wonder Wheel," my fave rock-oriented album of the last many years, orders of magnitude more exciting and colorful and beautiful than the Bragg/Wilco attempt (the first one; I never heard the second). I'm glad to see the critical triumph of folk-prog (the impressive, vocally virtuoso Newsom, regardless of whether you like her timbre), and Neko's blend of passion, melody, pithiness (short songs! short album!), dreamy-surreal soundscapes, and occasional modernist abruptness is very winning, but give me Guthrie a la Klezmatics.

But there's no accounting for taste, eh?

Posted by john on January 20, 2007 10:13 AM



shitfuckdamn! BNW cancelled? end of an era!

Posted by andrew on January 20, 2007 2:21 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson