by carl wilson

November 28, 2007

'Taste Test'

Exclaim has a little item about my book in its new issue, and in that item is a link to a longer interview, and in that interview I seem unable to speak in anything but Russian-doll-style chains of embedded subclauses.

It was taped pre-Halifax Scandal, so we don't get into that.

Later: Also, I missed Aaron Wherry's take and nice shoutout to the book last week. Sorry, AW, and thanks.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, November 28 at 5:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)


November 26, 2007

It's Only Just Begun

Best-of-year time is upon us, it seems, perhaps having crept even another week back in the calendar compared to last year's record-early-and-overdone list season. Because I spent half the year mainly listening to one album released 10 years ago and in the process imagining a world without words like best and worst, I'm not going to play the game this year, at least not in the sense of making a big footnoted list (I'll still play this game; glad they have had second thoughts on the name, though from the overgaudy they've swung all the way over to hyperbland). Interestingly, I find this decision to underparticipate is making me less jaded and annoyed about the whole end-of-year clusterfrak. In fact I almost feel like, "Goody, here's my chance to get caught up."

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, November 26 at 4:54 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)


November 23, 2007

Mrs. Extra Extra

Joshua "Jane Dark" Clover sharpshooting a few days back on the improbable feat of Britney's "Piece of Me" - she takes the triple error of whining about fame, responding to her critics and tut-tutting about the tabloids and parlays it into a home run. Joshua considers its spot in her string of sadomasochistic singles (without even mentioning "Slave 4 U"): "she manages to appear, via a single phrase, as the subject and source of violence, abused and abuser, in a way that makes the distinction itself seem to shimmer and shift."

I'm less sure about the hierarchy he creates between listening and giving in: "It is a better song than 'Toxic,' less artsy, more banging, less for listening to and more for giving in to." Even granting that about "Toxic," which I'm not sure I do, is giving in automatically a better relationship to a pop song? Think of Prince: You listen to, say, "If I Was Your Girlfriend" and you give in to "Little Red Corvette," so with the latter you have a more delirious experience in the moment - but "Girlfriend" is the one that comes to mind to comfort and amuse me when I'm emotionally messed-up, never "Corvette." Being seduced versus being ravished: It seems a masochistic model in itself that it is always better to be dominated; it's a fine kink but it's not the way we all swing, at least not all the time. (Or to put it on another sexual axis: Is pop supposed to be no kissing, all fucking?)

For the record, my Britney list would probably put "Oops..." first (when I do swing that way, it's usually at the mercy of a seemingly sympathetic tormenter like the narrator of this song), "Toxic," "Piece of Me," then "Hit Me...," Joshua's no. 1.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, November 23 at 12:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)


November 21, 2007

Tinariwen @ the Mod Club and Ethnic Opacity

The Mod Club was packed. As far as I could tell there wasn't a big turnout of Toronto Tuaregs or Malians (that'd probably work better in Montreal), unless they were in the rows up close to the front across the sea of music journalists, "world music" fanciers, industry types drawn by Robert Plant's recommendation (ah, friends, you think that music bizzers just don't care about music, but they care very much what Classic Rock still has to tell them) and others who had come out to see Tinariwen, the international band-du-jour, this evening. As fellow crit-type Helen Spitzer put it, "So this is the crowd you get when Matt Galloway describes you as 'the Saharan Rolling Stones.' " But I don't mean this cynically: The band in large measure deserves the hype, and while it's not the blues-rock-exotica jam-fest that such a descriptor suggests (indeed, as one drunken guy nearby me slurred to his companions, "It sounds like country music! Nashville country music!" - and he was right, in as much as a bunch of songs in 15/8 rhythm can), the way that the electric and acoustic guitar can be treated like a smack fresh idea by this group of ex-expats who came together in a Libyan refugee/guerrilla camp in the 1980s does recall a moment when rock had a credible claim to liberatory power (as Helen's partner Michael Barclay says in his fine Eye profile of the group).

Lacking a vocabulary in Tuareg musical traditions or even much of a North African fluency aside from rudimentary Ali Farka Toure, most of us who've written about Tinariwen this year (do a quick search and you'll find tons: they're having a Moment) are short on interpretive strategies. There's the amazing backstory of their role as the voice of Tuareg rebellion, and then there are the voluptuous waves of the sound, the lightness of the touch: yes, there are guitar solos with some bluesy licks, but they're almost like Philip Glass rounds of hypnotic organ trills, fluttery birdcalls nothing like a Keef or Santana or Page phallic flange. They do in a reverse-retro way recall, for a western listener, some African-influenced guitar rock such as Television or Talking Heads, especially when rhythm-chord bursts overtake the primary backbeat of drum-and-drone. But even at their most assertive they seem gentle, as if their fingers hit the guitars more reverently than their western counterparts do. And then there are the vocals, which (aside from one apparently French-hip-hop-influenced, talk-sing number) remind me of African Arabic song, beautifully skewed to the hook-repeating guitar parts, hitting on the 3 and the 9 of the pattern and always communicative, conversational, until they descend to the final, sighing burnt-down conclusion of most every song.

We were missing the female component of the band tonight, a fundamental part of the call-and-response space of the music, reportedly because the main woman in the band recently had a baby (and another member, Barclay told me, is fighting malaria), and that made the group, despite its dramatic robe-and-turban-wrapped costume, seem a bit more mundane and boundaried than they do on record. But mainly it was the opacity of the content that nagged at me: Yes, music is a "universal language" in the sense that I joyfully danced and clapped and hummed along to these hypnotic tunes, but it is not, because I knew the lyrical and structural contents of the songs had much more challenging things to say, of which I knew nothing. The band clearly couldn't tell us much (the stage banter consisted, very charmingly, after they'd just kicked large quantities of musical ass, of asking, "It's okay?" and being greeted by ever-building screams of pleasure), but I wondered about the tourism we were indulging by listening to this band whose whole identity and mystique is wrapped up in the role they've played in their people's liberation struggle and walking away saying, "What a freaky ecstatic groove that was." (The country-music guy was also very excited by the purple lightshow that played out on the backdrop for a song or two, saying, "That's so psychedelic! They're kind of psychedelic, aren't they?" When of course the whole category of "psychedelic" was partly constructed by borrowings from Indian and Arabic and African rhythms - the signified becomes the signifier becomes the signified.)

But what would I ask? That Tinariwen provide surtitles? Pamphlets on Tuareg ethnic struggles mandatorily taken at the door? Perhaps it's more than enough that the next time a story about the Tuareg issue shows up in the papers, a Tinariwen fan will be twice as likely to read it, and if she's a newspaper editor be twice as likely to give it good play? In this way, beautiful music is perhaps greater propaganda than agit-prop: "I have good vibes for that oppressed people, man." But as I clapped on the 1 and the 4 and the 7 and the 10 and the 13 (or elsewhere at my best on the 2, 5, 8, 11, syncopating some), I longed to be thinking coherently about guns and camels and millet along with math and guitars. For that I probably needed less for Tinariwen to be coming to me and more to go to the Festival au Desert in Timbuktu, which I learned about in a pamphlet from the merch table. Or more realistically, to find ways to think of Timbuktu as a place and not a nursery rhyme. Maybe the uncertainty is the point.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, November 21 at 1:38 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)


Brooks Brother's Suit

A couple of friends in NYC text- and Facebook-messaged me today with references to Times columnist David Brooks that I couldn't quite understand. Tonight I find out why: I'm name-checked, along with Sasha Frere-Jones (and Steve Van Zandt), in his latest column. I'm not a Brooks fan, but I don't mind this one, which synthesizes my and Sasha's points (ditching the notion of a beef between us, happily, since beefin' was never my intention) into the notion of music now mirroring a "segmented society." I'm not so down with its "these kids today" and "music now sucks" 'tudes ("most young musicians don't know the roots and traditions of their music. They don't have broad musical vocabularies to draw on when they are writing songs" ... really? My experience is that young musicians now do very wide listening - if anything it may be an issue that our knowledge bases tend to be so broad that they lose some focus, and perhaps that fewer young musicians get traditions passed down in person from older ones.) But he's refreshingly comfortable with the idea that music, and culture in general, tends to reproduce social structure (more than it causes it, as conservatives and overzealous artsies alike tend to think), and I like his point that this segmentation is a source of widespread anxiety at a lot of levels. And I want a copy of Van Zandt's proposal for a curriculum that teaches American history through American music history.

Also at the Times site, Democrat Kurt Campbell makes a case for the social force of today's Nashville country music that I'd happily endorse if he weren't dismissive of the need for anyone aspiring to speak to a broad popular audience to listen more deeply to what hip-hop/R&B; have to say in equal measure. The more this electoral campaign wears on the more I feel that John Edwards' "two Americas" message is the most vital thing going, except it should be more like six, ten, twenty Americas.

Meanwhile, Peli makes a strong case for not reading tastes in reverse-mode: That is, that to have a strong positive reaction to a certain kind of music (or whatever) is not necessarily to be damning other categories and their audiences. Pierre Bourdieu would argue otherwise, saying that tastes are foremost an aggregate of distastes - that is, that if I reject the music associated with groups of people from whom I want to distinguish myself, I gravitate towards music as unlike that music as possible (and arguably made deliberately to be unlike that music). But Peli usefully points out that straight people who are strongly pro-queer are not taken to be adopting that stance because of their bias against groups of people who tend to be anti-queer (working-class black Americans being his example). I'm not sure that we can be so positive - surely part of the reason a straight young person adopts an outspoken pro-queer position is not just appreciation of queerness (and one's queer friends) but a distaste for intolerance and often for the particular brands of intolerance held by people (fundamentalists, for instance) that that young person finds distasteful, and that distaste goes beyond the hatefulness of the anti-gay position to a distaste for an entire worldview, a cultural difference. But Peli's right - this doesn't invalidate the pro-queer position itself. (Although it might condition certain snobbish, dogmatic ways in which it can be expressed?) This is why in my book I was more concerned to examine cultural dislikes, which I think have stronger social subtexts. Yes, people like stuff because it in some ways suits them, where they're coming from (which might be a socially segmented place). But that wouldn't be a big deal if it did not so often also include a desire to place those likes above other people's likes, to say, "This is good because it's not like all that bullshit that other people like."

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, November 21 at 12:31 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


November 19, 2007

So Sweet, So Cool, So Fair

Rob Walker, proprieter of the world's only one-song blog (as far as he or I know), as well as the New York Times Magazine's "Consumed" column and other good stuff, guest-hosts the downloadable mp4 podcast The Sounds in My Head, where he plays versions of "St James Infirmary" by everyone from Blind Willie McTell to Lily Tomlin and Peter Brotzmann. Fascinatin' rhythms.

Cool idea alert: As a benefit for the Regent Park School of Music, a bunch of Toronto rock-scene musicians are holding a "Rock Lottery," in which they meet in the morning, draw names to make up several new "bands" for the day, spend the day rehearsing and writing songs and perform them in a show that evening. The idea originates in Denton, Texas (home of the Hospital Bombers), apparently, and also operates in Seattle, under the happy-making slogan, "10 am: 25 Musicians. 10 PM: 5 New Bands." (It's not too far in concept from the "Instant Bands" project that Blocks Recording Club in Toronto did four years ago or so at Canzine, except in that case the musicians did not rehearse or write but attempted to generate songs spotaneously. But the American versions of Rock Lottery turns out to predate that, going back a decade.) Rock Lottery Toronto takes place on Dec. 1 at Sneaky Dee's and participants include Sook-Yin Lee, Katie Sketch (The Organ), Dan Werb & Paul Banwatt (Woodhands), Josh Reichmann (Jewish Legend), Ken Reaume, Adam Litovitz, Jonathan Adjemian (The River), Jonny Dovercourt (Republic of Safety) and many more.

Kelefa Sanneh reviews Celine Dion's new album today in the Times. Compared to mine, he is meaner, but generally fair - remarking, "She's easy to mock because she's so uncool, or rather, unchilly," a sentence that could have been plucked straight from my book. I am deeply envious of his "on this planet they call Earth" joke. Also very my-book-ish today, the new study from the Norman Lear Center about how political beliefs and entertainment tastes align - not much of which is so surprising, but I'm eager to dig into the demographic data there and see what we can learn about how the taste/ideology findings relate to class, education, etc., etc.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, November 19 at 6:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)


November 15, 2007

Sonic Youth 'Ahead of Curve' Reputation
Takes V1agra Hit Lee RU OK?

Gee, Mr. Ranaldo, that's such an amazingly kooky, original idea.

No harm in an idea being reused of course. But it would be more exciting if he were making a spam-based album. I am still waiting for flarf rock to happen. (Question: Who would you nominate as flarf rock practitioners? Aside from The Fall.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, November 15 at 3:38 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (16)


November 14, 2007

A Culture-Based Economy or an Economy-Based Culture?

Jeff Koons's "Diamond (Blue)," which sold for $11.8-million in a Christie's auction yesterday.

Stratospherically high-end art dealer Jefffrey Deitch in The New Yorker last week: "The art world used to be a community, but now it's an industry. It's not just a market - it's a visual-culture industry, like the film industry or the fashion industry, and it merges with both of them. Julian Schnabel makes movies, Marc Jacobs does collaborations with artists. We live in an increasingly culture-based economy, and the value of art is in synch with other tangible assets now, like real estate. I try to act responsibly toward the art, but if people offer tremendous amounts of money for it you really can't control that."

Bruce Springsteen in this week's Rolling Stone: "Race, poverty - those things get lost, and not unintentionally, through the use of other issues. There is an issue with national security that's real. But the movement has been toward a plutocracy. People say, 'We're in a second Gilded Age.' There's a price to pay for that. It weakens the foundation of the country, and it denies us freedoms, denies us connection with our own neighbors and citizens. Those are big issues that have failed to be addressed for so many years. Race and poverty clearly are major issues. And what's so disappointing is that they were major issues forty and fifty years ago, yet at least then they were part of the national conversation. It feels as though the conversation about those things has stopped at this point."

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, November 14 at 1:36 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


November 13, 2007

Chaining Miss Daisy 2
(More Interconnected Miscellany)

... And speaking of (I'm gonna see how many times I can do this) 33 1/3, I'm tickled to tell you that besides the sample-chapter offer, Continuum is holding a contest related to my book: You have to guess where in the sales figures on the series my volume will rank by the end of March (2008) - where, that is, between the series' perennial No. 1, the Neutral Milk Hotel book, and the current lowest-ranker, on A Tribe Called Quest (race-and-indie-rock polemicists, start your engines!), a book on Celine Dion and the sociology of taste will wind up a few months after publication. The prediction that comes closest will win you 10 free 33 1/3 books of your choice! Send your guesses to predictingceline AT yahoo DOT com by December 1.

And speaking of Celine, my review of her new album Taking Chances appears today in The Globe and Mail. The piece is kind of odd, as I realized in the process that nothing I could write about Celine that would take the book into account would actually make sense to readers unless they had read the book. (I figured out after the fact that I shoulda just dealt with that head-on, but too late now.) So don't expect anything too rad - it's mainly just a record review, which only obliquely addresses the mystery of her simultaneous popularity and unpopularity, the question that drives the book. I gave Taking Chances three out of four stars more on whim than anything else: Star ratings are always arbitrary but in the context of having written the book, it feels especially absurd with Celine - what is it being rated relative to: fan expectations, her past work, LCD Soundsystem, Balls of Fury, diptheria, IKEA? (I decided to rate it relative to the extent to which it opaquely fulfills various theses in the book.) There are a couple of tracks on it I like as much as anything she's ever done, in a way, but that's because I'm meant to.

And returning to (damn, broke the chain) the questions of ambition, "retreat" and so forth in current alternative rock/adult alternative/indiemacallit, an entry on musical "dealbreakers" on Carrie Brownstein's new blog for NPR, Monitor Mix, is four-on-the-floor: "My deal-breaker is preciousness: when the music is a tiny, baby bird that needs us to be nurturing and respectful, otherwise it can't spread its wings. I like quiet music, folk music, solo artists - it's not a matter of volume or numbers, but it is a matter of art being able to stand on its own two feet. I don't think music needs to be coddled, no matter how delicate or soft it sounds. When a band or singer makes me go awwww, as I would at the sight of a newborn child, then that is a band that needs a pacifier not an amplifier. Other indicators of preciousness include, but are not limited to: matching old-timey outfits; mumbling, soft-spoken stage banter that trails off and is quickly followed by a cutesy smile, which for some reason garners huge cheers from the audience; being so nervous on stage that someone in the crowd has to yell 'you can do it!' or 'we love you' (exception made here for child performers); asking people to lie down on the floor for the next song; and any audience sing-along or participation so complicated that it needs to be explained before the song starts."

I don't hate all those things (nervousness can be interesting when it's not an attempt to ingratiate) but it is a good answer to the misapprehension that what we're talking about is merely quiet versus loud or lo-fi versus pop and so forth. Ms Brownstein is of course formerly of Sleater-Kinney and so far her bloggery is standing up well to her guitarslinging.

Speaking of (hah!) good nervousness, SFJ on The New Yorker blog today has smart + kind words for Toronto's own Final Fantasy. (Um, Owen, your website needs updating.)

(Later: In re: this latest bit of reportage - which has appeared in several places, oblivious to the fact that a YouTube video of Celine Dion doing AC/DC in sound check made the rounds ages ago - please see several pages of Let's Talk About Love where I talk about her music as "metal on estrogen.")

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 13 at 5:59 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


Chaining Miss Daisy (Notes from All Over)

Above, the foreign ministers of France and Germany - Bernard Kouchner (who was one of the founders of Medicins Sans Frontieres, among much else) and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in the process of recording a song to promote integration, in both the European-constitutional and the Islamic-immigrant senses, 2 da yout'. I can hear you wincing from here, but the ministers merely join in on singing the chorus of "Deutschland" but the rest is by German-Turkish musician Muhabett and 17-year-old Sefo in a style they're calling R&Besk; (a fusion of pop-R&B; and Turkish Arabesk, sung in German) - as you can hear here, it's none too shabby. You might even call it a fine case of "musical miscegenation." And while it's easy enough to make jokes, it's pretty cool to me that these politicians are going out of their way to take an interest in the street and pop music of marginalized Arab young people in Europe. Better that politicos sometimes embarrass themselves by embracing art clumsily than that they demonize and censor it. (Has anyone heard the Hugo Chavez album?)

Speaking of miscegenation, Franklin Bruno's contribution to the 33 1/3 blog series at Powell's reminded me that his book on Elvis Costello's Armed Forces is, quite subtly, one of the more subtle, thoughtful takes on indie-style rock culture and race out there, taking Costello's "Columbus incident" as a case study in the problematics of appropriation, cultural distance and "blue-eyed soul." I also liked his point about first encountering a lot of black American music through UK post-punk covers. It reminded me how I first learned about reggae because a lot of 1980s Canadian new-waveish and even folkie musicians (like their US and UK counterparts) - particularly ones from Toronto - were using reggae rhythms. It was only later I understood they hadn't just picked out reggae as a cool sound they liked but because, like London, Toronto had a substantial Jamaican community. Indeed, my tastes in reggae to this day pretty much stick close to the "golden age" artists that most influenced that generation, like Jimmy Cliff, Culture, Burning Spear, etc., plus dub. (Due to bad-context overexposure it's rare for me to find circumstances where I enjoy listening to Bob Marley but that's no slight on the Wailers.) I've never managed to focus more than fleeting attention on dancehall/ragga. That's one of the questions that's come up in passing in recent discussion - how often are cross-cultural influences picked up secondhand rather than from, as it were, primary sources, and is it a bad thing when listeners go no further or, for example, musicians borrow elements that way without returning to source? (In some ways isn't that broken-telephone effect a possible force for good mutations as well as bad appropriations?)

There's a lot else in the Powell's series worth reading, by the way, including recent reading lists from Mike McGonigal and Douglas Wolk, or today's Erik Davis joint on guilty pleasures, Amon Amarth and weightlifting.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 13 at 2:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


November 9, 2007

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.

(... continues below the fold ...)

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)


November 8, 2007

Indie, Class and the Death of Bohemia: 1

Folks (in the Comments) are leaping to misjudgment on what I meant in pointing to Frank Kogan's recent Las Vegas Weekly column in response to Sasha Frere-Jones and my pieces on "indie." (Which I'll assume, if you're bothering to read this, by now, you've already read.)

Frank provides, as always, intelligent syntheses and correctives to ideas from both pieces, eg. on the need to read alterna-cultural gestures dialectically in relation to the mainstream, which is if anything more intensely "miscegenated" than ever. Sasha was trying to say the same with his Snoop/Dre example but got a bit off-track; turning to Justin Timberlake instead, as Frank does (when he's finished re-celebrating the Rolling Stones), is a much clearer point of contrast: The question becomes, why does JT so giddily mimic black styles while "indie" tends to eschew them, and to some degree the question is its own answer. However, to the degree that it's not, I still say that for liberal white kids the entire critique of appropriation that came out of both academia and black nationalist '80s-and-'90s activism has created a taboo, and one of the debates that feels missing in all the response to SFJ's piece is the one I suspect he most wants to have, which is, Should that taboo be respected? (Which in a way is again to ask, what is the value or negative value of "authenticity," "keeping it real," and so forth?) It's his strongest point and I do feel like people keep trying to wish it out of existence, by bringing up exceptions such as TVotR etc. Part of my point was that it's instructive to observe who, socially, respects such a taboo and who doesn't.

My main disagreement with Frank comes when he says: "The class divide that's relevant here isn't, as Carl thinks, between rich and poor but between bohemia and the mainstream. Most indie kids may be middle class, but most of the middle class isn't indie and most salaried professionals aren't part of liberal arts culture."

I agree that we're talking about fractions of the middle class, rather than classes as a whole. (I'd still argue that's part of the problem, that once upon a time the "underground" did have a stronger relationship to bigger social divisions than that, often a vicarious or romanticized relationship but still not this utter indifference.) But I have real trouble with Frank's interchanging use of "bohemia" and "liberal arts culture" here, as precisely my point was that this cluster of musical interests once denoted a membership in a bohemia - in shorthand, a dropout mutual-aid network of alienated dissenters using various parasitic subterfuge to sustain an alternate set of values - and is now semi-professionalized as a liberal-arts activity. I don't think bohemias in the old sense exist much anymore, and certainly indie-rock is not where any remnant or mutant versions are likely to be found.

(... Continued below the fold ...)

The sustenance of a bohemia, I suspect, requires a larger middle-middle class than in this ever-more-polarized economy, in which upper-middle and lower-middle keep getting further apart - which means, for instance, a shortage of the kind of low-commitment day jobs and casual work that support bohemias. It's also for the socio-economic reasons I discussed in the Slate piece, which I'd summarize by saying that many of the values formerly associated with bohemia are, in a "knowledge economy" where graphic designers and programmers and consultants and other ideas-trading entrepreneurs (including many writers) are part of the upper-middle class, now mainstream values. So the fragment of the children of the middle-class who are drawn to that kind of creative discourse are actually among the most potentially upwardly mobile. Having a rock band on your resume is likely to be a plus for those seeking those kinds of professional jobs. At which point the structural oppositionalism of bohemianism - which included an at least vicarious identification and often more extended contact with lower socioeconomic classes due to "voluntary poverty" - vanishes and it is reabsorbed into class dynamics.

But mainly it's a cultural-history thing: For technological, sociological and other reasons, in North America and most of Europe, "bohemia" won the tug-of-war with the cultural conservatives that marked much of the history of art movements in the 20th century. Which, perhaps thankfully, renders bohemia obsolete. What it leaves by default, though is liberal-arts culture. What distinguishes liberal-arts culture from the rest of upper-middle-class/upper-class culture? I would turn - as I do at length in my book - to what Pierre Bourdieu describes as the conflict between portions of the dominant class whose status is primarily staked on economic capital (eg. most people who work in business, financial, sales, industry and such fields) and those whose status is primarily founded on cultural capital (the arts, academics, software, designers, advanced-degree professionals).

Bourdieu argues that the cultural-capital fractions occupy a "dominated" position within the dominant class, which is part of why they (we) feel like a dissenting group that identifies with the underdog while at the same time are regarded by the majority of the population as a set of snooty elites, a contradiction that Republicans have exploited for political gain over the past 20 years. So there is a separation, as Frank says, but I don't think it's the kind of separation made by bohemians in the old sense.

Indeed, the lines blur dramatically, as has been captured by the otherwise-pretty-useless David Brooks in the phrase "Bobo" - bourgeois bohemian. I'm aware of many, many more upper-middle class architects, lawyers, academics, even accountants who spend their music budgets on "indie"-related music than I can imagine were aware of underground/alternative stuff pre-1995. The Eagles record is sold at Wal-Mart; Feist is sold at Starbucks. And the proportion of high-school and university students who are actively engaged with it, as is reflected on record charts and MuchMusic and many other indicators, is much larger. What's more, one of the dominant more-mainstream musics right now - emo/mall-punk - is only one skip and jump away, and while there's some effort in alternative music to keep a distance from that, it's hardly its driving purpose. Which leads us to the question: Is there a driving purpose?

I'm not saying that purpose should be akin to the outmoded bohemian one. I have to break off here but I'll continue (probably tomorrow) by discussing why and what the other options might be.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, November 08 at 2:51 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (18)


November 7, 2007

Organic Vs Silicon Intellectuals

Here's another take on the class-and-rock (slash adult alternative) issue via the Guardian's blog: "Where are rock's working-class intellectuals?" Personally I doubt that even in the very different ranks of "indie" as they're defined in the UK, there aren't still bass players reading esoteric books, but working-classness and lack thereof in rock gets a good workout (amid various feuds and nonsense) in the comments there, since it's Britain, where nobody gets freaked out by using the word "class." Meanwhile of course in North American indie/adult-alternative, there's no shortage of well-readness and literary reference (which is all the poster means by "intellectual" there, which is a dubious usage), but nearly all in a liberal-arts register, not the autodidactic, knowledge-as-escape/weapon/secret that it seemed in the examples given (and often in the post-punk examples Simon Reynolds details in Rip It Up & Start Again). Pardon the hastiness of these thoughts - no time to expand further right now - but it does tie in to the bohemian-vs-middle-class distinction that Frank Kogan draws in the column linked yesterday, which I don't think is very viable in reference to "rock" culture now.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, November 07 at 1:00 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


November 6, 2007

How the Hell Are You, Blue Roses

Details have been announced on the upcoming Hello, Blue Roses album, that being the duo of Dan Destroyer Bejar and Sydney Hermant/Vermont. The quote from Dan in the P'fork story is equal parts vinegar and honey, just like Hello, Blue Roses music.

On the argue-about-things front, some responses to recent writings by Frank Kogan and others are forthcomingish.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 06 at 6:13 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


Iva Bittova, and Wine Music vs. Beer Music

My profile of Czech singer-violinist Iva Bittova appears today in The Globe and Mail, with an introduction for newcomers to her work and some cool news about recent changes and planned new projects for fans.

Above is a video of Bittova performing (with a children's choir she directed) on Czech TV. And here are a few outtakes from the interview that didn't make it into the piece:

On her father: "He was born in Slovakia near the Hungarian border. He grew up in a musical family and he could play many instruments, and also he played folk music, like Slovakian, Hungarian, Romanian, and as a professional doublebass player with opera. So he was very open to play and listen to many different kinds of music - I grew up listening to folk, opera, jazz. I remember he had many scores of classic music like Dvorak ... we were reading notes and listening to music at the same time, which was very important to me, to see how the writing of such beautiful music looks. He was a human being that was more quiet and full of emotions, and he was mostly practiciing at home and playing and listening rather than talking. I feel now that I'm more communicative through music. I prefer to explain what I really feel by music."

On the difference between Moravian and Bohemian Czech culture, in terms that might be relevant to Dave's contemplations of dinner music: "There was an article, because I released this Moravian Gems album [with George Mraz] - there's an article from a newspaper that said that Bohemian people drink beer and Moravians drink wine, so in Bohemia they play more brass bands, more simple kind of music, while Moravia is Janacek music - so it's better to be born there! And also near to Slovakia border, because also this is what I like to do in future - maybe collect traditional songs from east of Slovakia, they are very very beautiful songs. My father played lots of these songs."

On career planning: Everything in my work is just like, one day I receive some invitation and then I decide if I go or not. ... I have to make very careful choices. LIke when they invited me to sing in the opera, I was not really sure if I could do it. It was the most hard work for me in my life, but it makes me stronger as a singer. I cannot be afraid. I just have to find my way, and see if I am good or not. Most organizers ask me to come solo because it is more simple, but have many different opportunities to play with other musicians - for example, the Nederlands Blazer Ensemble, 15 brass musicians; a string quartet, sometimes; and last month I played in Sardinia and I'd never met the drummer before - I met Hamid Drake just at the soundcheck. He is a wonderful drummer."

Bittova plays the Music Gallery in Toronto tonight, solo, at 8 pm. Don't miss her.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 06 at 1:56 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


November 5, 2007

Passing the Secret (Society) Along

Happy news from Darcy James Argue, who's not only a shakin'-and-bakin' young composer and band leader about town in NYC, but one of the most productive contributors to the non-pop/rock music blog world: In conjunction with the International Association of Jazz Educators conference in the T-dot in January, he's going to be presenting the very first Canadian gigs of his Secret Society big band. However, since it's prohibitively expensive to tour an 18-person group, what DJA is presenting is "Secret Society North," a reconstituted version that combines core members of his NYC ensemble with Canadian musicians. (Darcy is Canadian himself, hailing from Vancouver and having done his musical undergradding at McGill.) The roster is impressive: on reeds, Erik Hove, Christine Jensen, Joel Miller, Chet Doxas and Carl Maraghi; a heavy-hitting horn section of Ingrid Jensen, Dave Smith, Lina Allemano, Kevin Turcotte and Jocelyn Couture on trumpets and Mike Fahie, Kelsley Grant, Barb Hamilton and Bob Ellis; and in the rhythm section, Sebastian Noelle, guitar, Dave Restivo, piano, Matt Clohesy, bass, and Jon Wikan, drums.

As Darcy puts it: "Our gig there is an important opportunity to present Secret Society tunes to a much wider audience, but more than that, it's a chance for us to perform fresh and forward-looking music for students and educators who too often let their focus on jazz's past obscure their view of what is happening right now." (Cf. Dave Douglas's interesting reflections on jazz education and the New.)

In Toronto, besides an official IAJE gig Jan 10, they'll be at the Tranzac on Jan 11, and before they get here they'll be making a stop off at La Sala Rossa on Jan 8.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, November 05 at 4:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)


November 2, 2007

The Bodybuilder & Jim Guthrie & I

Just wanted to urge readers in Toronto to go see the local documentary The Bodybuilder & I in its opening weekend, playing at Canada Square. That's the trailer up above: A touching and funny look at a father-son relationship through the bulgy lens of late-middle-age competitive bodybuilding, it won first prize at the Hot Docs festival this year. I served as a music consultant on the film and we were lucky to get Jim Guthrie (of Royal City and Islands among other projects, though he's probably best known for that "Hands in My Pockets" TV commercial) to compose the soundtrack.

You know how the commercial runs of Canadian movies tend to go - in one week, gone the next - so don't snooze. The filmmaker and his dad will be there tonight for the 7 pm screening. The movie's also showing at the Granville in Vancouver and the Bytowne in Ottawa.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, November 02 at 2:45 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)


November 1, 2007

Bizarre Love Triangle:
Skye Sweetnam Steals Joel Gibb's Boyfriend

I've been resisting complaining about this, but I've just seen the iPhone ad that uses Skye Sweetnam's new single, "Music Is My Boyfriend," as its soundtrack and perfectly unobjectionable as the song is, I got annoyed. Can it really be a coincidence that the title is the same as Toronto's own The Hidden Cameras' song "Music Is My Boyfriend" (that's a good quality but slightly distorted live recording), which was released on the album Mississauga Goddam in 2004, and the title of which has also been the band's semi-official slogan for years?

Given the eccentricity of the phrase, and the fact that Sweetnam (who co-wrote the song with the Matrix, I believe) is from Ontario herself, it's kind of hard to swallow this as a golden stream of pure coincidence. (Though it might have been unconscious pilfering.) Since my general stance on plagiarism is "yes," it's not like I want everyone to lawyer up, but it'd be great if Skye and Capitol Records handed Joel Gibb and crew some kind of acknowledgment. Although it could be that even the tide of missed-target Google searches this will generate will bring a few new ears to the Cameras.

But Skye, honey, I'm afraid music still loves Joel best.

(Later: I was mistaken - that iPhone ad is actually using CSS's "Music Is My Hot Hot Sex," not the Skye track - I mixed them up because CSS also uses the "music is my boyfriend" line in that song! Plots thicken, pots call kettles black, etc etc.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, November 01 at 11:00 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)


Dave Hickey and Sheila Heti:
Down Around the Lizard Brain

hickey.bmp sheilahead.jpg

"Art and writing come from somewhere down around the lizard brain. It's a much more peculiar activity than we like to think it is. ... I think you want to learn about art because you had an experience of some sort - a totally nonredemptive but vaguely exciting experience, like brushing up against a girl with big boobs in the subway. It's about that level of intensity. So you want to find out more about it since its sources are so mysterious, and these sources reside in you as well as in the object. But I have no evangelical feelings about art at all. I despise art education. Art doesn't lend itself to education. There is no knowledge there. It's a set of propositions about how things should look." - Dave Hickey

This interview in the new Believer with Dave Hickey, art critic and author of Air Guitar and MacArthur "genius," is one of my favourite things I've read this year. Hickey is a hero, and the interview was conducted in Toronto by Zoilus's dear friend Sheila Heti, whose talent as an interviewer is almost the equal of her gifts as a writer. I've had a transcript of this interview for several months now and find myself compelled to re-read it once a week, just to re-boot my own head. Fresh, clear, compelling thoughts about art and society (not all of which I agree with but all of which I enjoy thinking into and through), with sidelines about life and love, wrapped up in a salty, hilarious conversation.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, November 01 at 1:37 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)


Zoilus by Carl Wilson