by carl wilson

Destroyer thru a Blurred Lens

dansmudge.jpg

The editors of new local music webzine The Ratio make an ambitious leap today by publishing a special issue on one of Zoilus's favourite songwriters, Dan Bejar, aka Destroyer. It's formidably thorough - they review everything they can get their hands on. Adam Hammond's pieces on This Night and the Jackie sequel single are quite good, but otherwise there's a lot of verbal shrugging ("I have no idea what to make of this," "a real challenge to review," "he's fucking with us," "I vaguely understand" ...). One reviewer assays an extended comparison of Your Blues with The Breakfast Club (huh?) and a final piece titled "Destroyer Is Smarter Than Me" ultimately seems to sum up the exercise. Why this extended examination of an artist whose work most of them seem to consider tuneful nonsense? They make no real answer, but if you've ever wished there was a Destroyer fan club with badges and hats and a weekly newsletter, and that after a few years a couple of the members put a selection of stuff from the newsletter on their website, now there's a simulation of that experience.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 28 at 04:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)

 

COMMENTS

Word. (Get it? Word, like, y'know, WORD UP, but also, WORD, like, y'know, we're all looking for the right words, y'know, "texte" ... oh forget it. I only ever make myself laugh.)

Posted by jennifer on March 1, 2005 10:39 PM

 

 

Aw, see, now the testosterone level's gotten oversaturated and everybody gets mean.

So I just want to say: True, I was disappointed with The Ratio's Destroyer issue, but most of it's actually worth reading. In fact I've just been re-reading some of it, and with expectations adjusted it reads better. People with an interest in Dan's work shouldn't miss out on it - because aren't we all really members of a club (except that the first rule of Destroyer Club is that nobody's allowed to join Destroyer Club)? And not badges and hats of course, but embroidery on our jeans.

Pax.

Posted by Zoilus on March 1, 2005 10:27 PM

 

 

1. a) [corrected from previous slip-of-the-typing] I'm not saying my essay had nothing to do with lyrics, just addressing the quote from the piece that was being wielded against me, which really was about music, all incredulity (what, can't music be more complicated than words?) to the contrary.
b) Also not saying I "understand what [you] cannot" but saying that a lot of the time the Ratio writers make no real effort to offer an interpretation. Of course interpretation is not the only critical duty, but a lot of the space is spent expressing frustration about that, or hemming and hawing, rather than getting up to any other interesting project. To say that I'm comfortable with the lyrics - not due to friendship but due to personal taste (the friendship came after falling for the music, not before) - is not some huge boast. It's like saying I'm comfortable with Bach but less so with Beethoven. Just subjective stuff.
c) "Explication de texte is not the only option." Of course not. But I'm afraid that I disagree that the Ratio has taken up many other very interesting options. I didn't go on about that because I didn't actually want to be, as you put it, a bitch. I wouldn't have gotten into it at all except that the Ratio staff has been very persistent in discussing the project with me up till now and I felt some response was in order. If you think I've missed the point, tell me the point instead of calling names, maybe?
d) "Lyrics and poetry are not the same" - oh come on. I was also talking about dance and film and painting. Nobody was reducing anything to anything.
2. I do apologize for a couple of things: (a) The Breakfast Club snark - okay, I didn't love or see a lot in the analogy, but at least it was an actual attempt at description and imaginative response. It didn't deserve the cheap shot. (b) The "fan" thing - which actually wasn't meant as an insult. I like newsletters and discussion lists and that kind of thing and have participated in them. I was just trying to get across that most of the pieces seem to me more like episodic parts of a conversation between a group of friends than like stand-alone essays. That doesn't invalidate them - it's actually the nicest part of the issue. But then I got carried away with the silliness of imagining the Destroyer fan club and things got muddled and came across badly. So I am sorry about that. Never meant you were fanboys but I see how the interpretation is inevitable.
3. As for my conversation with Jennifer - I was just chatting with her, rambling on about pet theories, etc., and I don't think from her response that she was one bit offended , so you needn't step in gallantly on her part, I don't think.
4. "J'accuse"? You gotta be kidding.
5. The bullshit sentence is a little awkward, but I'd say that artistic personae are a combination of birth, influence and character, as much as they are a choice. That's all.
6. YOU WANNA GET IN IT MOTHERFUCKER CUZ WE WILL GET IN IT I WILL FUCK YOU UP SO BAD YOU'LL WISH YOUR MAMA'S MAMA'S MAMA HAD NEVER BEEN BORN. Nah, just kidding. I'm not really up for any more battling. Sorry if I've seemed condescending at any point. Really not my intention. I was honestly a bit baffled by this issue of the Ratio - maybe I should have clarified that I liked quite a lot of the material in previous issues more than this, so I was surprised. Anyway, if I really felt so superior I wouldn't have brought it up. I did think it was worth telling people about.

Posted by zoilus on March 1, 2005 02:03 PM

 

 

Now if we were honest, Carl "Zoilus" Wilson, we'd agree that you've been a bitch, especially if by "bitch" we mean "condescending," "petty," and
"snide." Oh, and "wrong." That last one's important, Zoilus.

Let's proceed in an organized fashion. I have many bones to pick, but let's start with just two.

1. You assert that The Ratio writers don't know what they're talking about.

"there's a lot of verbal shrugging"; "a final piece titled "Destroyer Is Smarter Than Me" ultimately seems to sum up the exercise"; "Why this extended examination of an artist whose work most of them seem to consider tuneful nonsense? They make no real answer"; "there's a lot of quoting of song lyrics followed by "what the hell?" expressions of puzzlement"; "perhaps your writers felt that if they couldn't give the right answer they shouldn't say anything at all"; and so on.

This is heady stuff, Zoilus; I hardly know where to begin.

So let's begin at the beginning. You, sensibly, insist that correctness of interpretation is not a goal to which we (that's you and I, Zoilus) should aspire, and for that I applaud you. You then critique The Ratio for failing to offer any interpretations at all. This is a lazy misreading on your part, but for now we'll let that slide. The bigger point is that you, a self-admitted interpreter of the first order ("Dan's lyrics are the primary thing I listen to Destroyer for"), claim for yourself a special understanding that others, apparently, fail to possess: " Dan's lyrics ... speak a language I'm really comfortable with."

Zoilus, this is grave. Not just because you, the New Critic, understand what the rest of us, you imply, cannot; but because you confuse expressions of bafflement with lack of critical acumen. If we don't offer interpretations, you claim, it's because we cannot.

This is, it should hardly need saying, nonsense. The admission of unfamiliarity with a cultural product, the journals of anthropology will
tell you, Zoilus, is a proper and fitting mode for an encounter with alterity, or, for our purposes, bizarre song lyrics. Failure to advance an interpretation is not, Zoilus, critical cowardice, but a refreshing, even bold, way of embarking on an investigation of the work. Read The Ratio, Zoilus, there's lots of knowledge there; what you'll also find is a record
of different ways of listening to music, and of making sense of lyrics. Explication de texte is not the only option.

If you want a test of close reading, then fine. En garde! But that's not the point, is it, Zoilus? No, you said so yourself. Or did you? You claim that your stated concerns about the correctness of interpretation were tongue-in-cheek, and that, anyway, you were talking about the music, not the lyrics. Yet your original article on Your Blues is riddled through
with foggy statements about "what it all means," and I highly doubt that your state of the union address, to make a reference I'm sure you'll
appreciate, is based on the music alone. And if it were, then what a gross act of interpretataion you have performed: music and poetry (or lyrics)
are not the same, Zoilus. They don't mean the same way.

Shall we move on? We shall.

2. You insult the writers of The Ratio by calling them fan-boys, and inept ones at that.

"if you've ever wished there was a Destroyer fan club with badges and hats and a weekly
newsletter, and that after a few years a couple of the members put a selection of stuff from the newsletter on their website, now there's a
simulation of that experience."

Well, hypocrite lecteur, let's have a look at your own admissions of complicity: "As a longtime friend and champion of Dan"; "I feel sure I
would love this album even if I had never met anyone involved, but in reality, my affection for it is also a deep fraternal pride, my love
affair with these songs also a family affair."

Ah! So you understand Destroyer better than everyone else because you are his friend! But of course! That's silly, Zoilus, and you know better than that. Don't you?

As for your sniping about "weekly newsletters," that was just stupid. Read fairly, you bloggeur, and stop defending your turf. We're all men here,
except for the women, and they're certainly not the ones being idiots. Case in point: when Jennifer writes something intelligent and questioning, you bludgeon her into submission with a logorrheic display of pseudo-profundity.

And so, Carl "Zoilus" Wilson, j'accuse! You have done The Ratio a disservice, and you have exposed yourself as a toady and, worse, as a fraud.

PS "Dan can't help having a certain genre of persona because of who he is
culturally."

Because of who I am culturally, Zoilus, I can't help thinking that's a bullshit sentence.


Posted by The Style Council on March 1, 2005 01:07 PM

 

 

A little more precise: I am, in general, skeptical of reductive theories that consider phenomena without any context or in a vacuum, and I think that "auteur theory" was one (simplistic) mode of film criticism from decades ago. In retrospect, I think I misappropriated "auteur theory" but mostly to make the comparison of Destroyer albums to movies (and, I suppose, DB to a movie director). Because for some reason, his music/lyrics/vocals force me to look to literary and film analogues.

Posted by jennifer on March 1, 2005 02:01 AM

 

 

Not knowing much about auteur theory, I can pretty much accept your points, Carl -- because I think they are more points about auteur theory itself. And I love to see things converge: I've been on a Godard kick of late. And you're right -- it's hard not to talk about Destroyer but finding the right words to use often eludes me. Slightly exasperating, slightly exhilirating.

Posted by jennifer on March 1, 2005 12:12 AM

 

 

hey Adam - As i said to you in email: The shrugs in the Ratio stuff I quoted were almost all about lyrics, whereas in the post you're quoting I was thinking much more about how to interpret the musical and tonal shift of Your Blues, notably the MIDI stuff, which I think would be clear if you keep reading:

"First, it is not at all rock music. Mind you, I don't think anything Destroyer's ever done is rock music, with the exception of the previous, Destroyer-as-band album This Night (which is shit-hot rock music) and some of the weaker stretches of Thief (which are not). But most past Destroyer has been rock that negates itself, rock evoked in its absence and probable death with an elegaic approach. This album is the positive embrace of something else."

I don't think I actually express puzzlement about lyrics at any point in that essay. Dan's lyrics are the primary thing I listen to Destroyer for (not to take anything away from the music, but it's as a lyricist and vocalist that he especially kills me) and they make just as much sense as they need to - that is, I have feelings about the things they are about, and those feelings can change. There's no reason they should be more literal than that, as goes for most poetry, painting, dance, etc., of the past century. On Ratio there's a lot of quoting of song lyrics followed by "what the hell?" expressions of puzzlement. However there may be more of a meeting point in that perhaps your writers felt that if they couldn't give the right answer they shouldn't say anything at all.

The anxiety about "getting the interpretation 'right' " is one that I'm trying to point up and make fun of in that introduction to the essay - one feels a pressure to do it even knowing that there's no such thing as a right reading. I don't usually feel that way about Dan's lyrics because they speak a language I'm really comfortable with, but sometimes his stylistic moves, genre satires, changes of musical vocabulary, seem to have a subtext that I'm less confident guessing about. But rather than give up in the sense of not offering an interpretation, I meant that you give up and let it mean to you whatever it means to you - that Destroyer forces you into validating your own imaginative response instead of trying to read the song as a personal communique of clear affective content from the person who made it. I wasn't giving up on being able to understand or talk about it, I was giving up on the need to be "right."

And that's exactly why I'm not so sure about the application of auteur theory to it, Jennifer (whose blog I like a lot, by the way, and will link to next time I update that page). I think Dan does a lot of deliberate subversion of genre - "indie rock" being the primary foil - and that his work is loaded with a lot of expressions of insider-outsider anxiety about the culture industry, and so on. I don't think any art benefits by a decision that it can only be read in relation to itself, or that any auteur is an island - in the essay one of the things I praise Your Blues for is its return to a social embeddedness after a lot of auteurist posing on the intervening albums. The problem with the pro- and anti-auteur battle is that it's a false binary: Every creator is an auteur and every creator is also a product of a cultural system, whether it's Destroyer or Eminem or Lindsay Lohan. The creative voices as presented posit different levels of recognizable auteur moves and characteristics, but those elements are socially constructed options too and it's fairly predictable who will adopt them. One thing I like about Destroyer is that the supposed "incoherence" we're all talking about helps to block any assumption of a transparent individual voice or ego - Dan can't help having a certain genre of persona because of who he is culturally, but he knows better than to trust it and he's always ripping it to pieces as fast as he can produce it. That sounds annoyingly avant-garde, but in fact I think it's the source of the pure pleasure of Destroyer - the game is to destroy your own game in as many funny, over-the-top dramatic and ridiculous moves as you can make (or as many as can make "you"). I don't know if that's what DB had in mind when he gave himself the name - or whether he was just making a KISS joke - but it's certainly turned out to be fitting. Rather than David O. Russell - whose movies I like too - I always compare him to Godard, who's at once the ultimate auteur and the compleat anti-auteur, and whose formal strategems are quite parallel to Destroyer's.

So, see, there's another context - maybe it's not very helpful to compare Destroyer to Pavement, but it's very helpful to compare him to Godard.

In fact, far from being impossible to talk about, as the length of this comment indicates, I find Destroyer nearly impossible not to talk about.

Posted by zoilus on March 1, 2005 12:00 AM

 

 

A few thoughts (and apologies if this all sounds ridiculously self-important -- I don't actually take myself this seriously, but Destroyer brings out my tendency to analyze and connect dots; to try to model a phenomenon in a way that satisfies me, if no one else):

The quote from CW's earlier post on Your Blues pretty much sums what appeals most to me about Destroyer's music: the very fact that it defies words. Our collective struggle to synthesize the music into a molecule built of words is Destroyer's victory.

In his review of Streethawk on theratio.org, Nicholas Bradley notes that "...comparing it to anything other than Destroyer's other work isn't very helpful." This is a useful point because it recalls (for me) the "Auteur Theory" approach to film criticism put forth in the US by Andrew Sarris (but originally in France by Truffaut & al. in Cahiers du Cinema) which -- regardless of the validity or invalidity of the concept that a single person could serve as the definitive auteur of something like a film, which is almost always a collaboration of craftspeople, creative sorts, actors, technicians, &c; -- gave people a way to evaluate film that did not depend on genres but rather, on the so-called auteur. Thus, it became acceptable to evaluate a film by comparing it only to the rest of the filmmaker's catalog, and evaluate it with respect to its relative worth within the filmmaker's catalog alone. I think it is valid, if you consider Dan Bejar as the auteur behind Destroyer, to evaluate Destroyer with respect to Destroyer only. And this may be why it is almost impossible evaluate Destroyer in the context of pop music as a genre. The imprint of the auteur really defies the genre he has been placed in.

Finally: my best comparison for Streethawk (which I can only ever describe as "perfect") is Three Kings, which I consider to be a perfect movie (plot, actors, camerawork, editing, relevance), and which was a critics' darling for all those reasons, but never a major hit. And its director, David O. Russell, is arguably another one of those auteurs.

Posted by jennifer on February 28, 2005 11:15 PM

 

 

A riposte:

In CW's linked piece on Your Blues, the following verbal shrugging:

"I felt a responsibility I never normally feel to get the interpretation right. Especially when he'd done something this substantial, this undiscountable.

"The existence of this post is a white flag I am waving to say that I have given up trying. But that also means I succeeded, because this music is calibrated exactly to force that surrender."

Agreed.

Posted by adam on February 28, 2005 10:26 PM

 

 

I find it notoriously difficult to find the words to write about Dan Bejar's music or even describe how it makes me feel (= why I like Destroyer). I find it easier to describe what I loved about FF's (the other FF's!) Blueberry Boat than to describe anything about Streethawk, for example. But Streethawk is, to a pop ear, an easier, less divisive album than Blueberry Boat. DEVELOPING ...

Posted by jennifer on February 28, 2005 08:29 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson