by carl wilson

Back at the recital, signs remain vital

Jordan Davis says "it's a very alienating, hating discussion," and I'm not sure what he means - as a poet, that what we are doing is word-hostile? [...]

Not from this quarter. That distinguishing-between (criticism) is hating? More essentially he says: "There are no absolute categories of desirable lyric experience, and we all have a three-to-six second rule, after which the new song on either has us or it doesn't, in which case it's back to chatting." That first clause is right on, but three-to-six seconds? Nah, that's only one kind of listening. (For example the presumption there are other people there?)

Jessica says: "It's part of our duty, as people with ears, to beef with indie rock lyrics, to beef with whiteness (metaphorically, literal, and metaphysical)." Which has me stewing a little. Metaphorical whiteness - whiteness as imperium or whiteness as reduction of the sayable, with the politesse of its "own" style and censorious pressure on others, hell, even just funklessness - yes, uh-huh.

But literal whiteness? "... it's part of our duty... to beef with" the whiteness of white skin?

And what the fuck is metaphysical whiteness?

Hateration radiation: There's the justifiable dissing of indie rock as a self-enclosed playpen for those of a certain class/education/ethnicity - hyperwhiteness - and then there's beefing not with those people's actions but their having-been-born, and often from those who share that class, education and ethnicity, because no one else cares as much. I think this is part of what has both Jordan and Franklin on the defensive, and rightly, even though it's such a loaded subject that I can feel my fingers start backing off it even as I type.

In brief maybe just to say that the vast and important critique that's been made of how Anglo-American popular music has ripped off African-American culture for the past 150 years (see Greg Tate's fine anthology Everything But the Burden) demands a parallel archaeological project of distinguishing what in white popular music is not stolen and breaking that down. (For instances: Academic, Irish, Italian, French, Romantic, Music-Hall, Shakespeare, Childe Ballad....) All this has to do with unravelling the category of whiteness as a citadel and shelter. So what Pavement's tone, its rambling drawly privilege, has to do with What Kind of Name Is Malkmus seems to me an inquiry you ought to be able to make without the end goal necessarily being moral condemnation. And then see where the contact and crosspollination with the pop forms coming down outta gospel, outta blues, transform this whiteness and vice-versa. (And from there you can go sociology-of-taste, and interrogate why for instance I am drawn to things that are very trebley and didn't really "discover" bottom end until I was like 20.)

Again this all gets back to the pop-vs-other problem - a weird critical inversion we seem to be going through where writing songs that are not suited to shouting along in group chorus as you drive down the drag is becoming figured as a problem. As Sasha describes it, "Is there any point in making popular music if it's going to sound like you and your friends talking over the Magnolia DVD?" Again submerged class stuff, reflectivity being described as yuppie luxury and just a little note of jock-versus-geek that I'm hearing. This is the legacy of Rock-Crit Generation One that defaulted to "art" and pissed on popularity. I suppose the pendulum swing is inevitable but it starts to verge on holding a bedsit ballad to the criteria of a club anthem. (At least rhetorically as I don't think anybody operates this crudely when confronted with the actual music.)

Meanwhile Eppy of ClapClapBlog goes back to the text and makes some more than reasonable objections to the Lit Rock article mainly founded on being not-too-impressed with One Ring Zero. Me, I like ORZ's instrumental stuff quite a bit, taken as what it is. But as I think I hinted strongly in the piece, I think only a few things on the album work well, sometimes because of the lyrics and sometimes because of the settings - and the voices, which I don't mention in the piece because it woulda distracted from the theme.

On his "corrections": Yeah, I knew Warren Zevon worked with novelists going back to the mid-nineties; that still puts all the action in the last decade, which to me is "recent." I don't think Eppy's Kurt Weill example is very helpful - Brecht wrote those lyrics as songs for his plays, which are musicals. Playwrights writing lyrics for musicals ain't exactly news. The covers would be more notable if the Brecht-Weill songs weren't standards. (By the way, I prefer Tom Waits' version of What Keeps Mankind Alive to Burroughs'.) And Brecht, again, poet-playwright, not novelist. Different places on the 20th-century-literary hierarchy, which was very much my point.

He didn't like my big-hair joke. That I can live with.

But he gets a lot right: "I think it's very fair to say that the particular eye for details in Mountain Goats songs is specifically in the style of short stories, whereas Stephin Merritt's writing is pretty specifically in the tradition of high-pop lyricism, just as 50 Cent's is in the tradition of hip-hop lyricism, Justin Hawkins' is in the tradition of hard-rock lyricism, etc. Neither of them draw particular styles from outside. And, regrettably, neither do writers, by and large."

What Sasha was getting at in part - that "good" in lyrics is relative to the frame you work in (or the one you break).

Also about the Warren Zevon album with the most Lit Rock content (and this applies equally to ORZ: "The material does not match the voice, for one thing... the writer tries to skew rock, the music tries to skew literary, and they kind of miss each other in the middle."

Franklin begins to get uncomfortable that John Darnielle is becoming the Outkast of indie rock ("I don't like hip-hop/indie-rock but I like Outkast/The Mountain Goats"): "exceptionalism via ignorance." Maybe. But maybe that's actually Weezer. The people in this discussion have something in common most music listeners don't and the list of good lyricists we've been bandying about looks suspiciously like something a bunch of writers would come up with. Jessica's introduction of Fugazi, Lungfish, Courtney introduces another note and as Franklin says, surely there are other places to go from there.

So what are "writerly" lyrics? Vocabulary that goes beyond the usual conversational lexicon, for most kinds of songs. (Death metal obviously excepted - writerly death metal would be death metal that actually used any conversational language, I think.) A sense of structure and pacing that for example witholds elements of a narrative so that they can be revealed later in the song, not in the sense of the country-music/M. Night Shamalyan "twist" but in the sense of emotional contradiction and ambiguity being gradually unveiled a la Carver-type short stories. Allusions. Plays on words that go beyond the hook and extend into lyrical construction.

It'd be interesting to hear more about people's favourite nonwriterly rock lyricists but it is tricky.

Point is I think we can be more specific than "self-conscious" because the listener is capable of turning any lyric into a "self-conscious"-seeming one just by an intensity of attention and analysis. (Zeppelin or Sabbath or Korn lyrics aren't writerly but in teenage boy conversation lying stoned on bedroom floors they might as well be.) I feel like we're leaving out the listener's role in making a lyric good or suck-ass, which in any mass-cult. category is a surefire way to get stuff wrong.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, August 21 at 4:59 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)




Posted by Stephany J on November 7, 2004 1:52 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson