by carl wilson

Sincerely Yours, Flyswatter Freddie

Aaron. Continues. To Bait. Me.

Hfff. Okay. It goes on (and on). And so, a list:

Moves That Are Not Critically Dubious Accusations of Insincerity.

1. An artist claiming that he or she is trying to be honest, sincere or "true to myself." This can be cloying, but it is not illegitimate. In fact it is generally a positive thing. However, you do not encourage it by proclaiming in print that you can tell by the music someone is being dishonest or untrue to their self. That's just playing armchair head-shrinker. Bands are not your BFF. Reviews are not "Dude, me and my girl are concerned about you."

2. Accusing a work of art of being manipulative. Dare we suggest that you can be sincere and manipulative at once? "I wanna make people really feel what I'm feelin' - I wanna give them the drama." "Bring the strings in here, that's what will make them understand my sorrow!" These are sincere impulses. They make for bad, manipulative art. If we could replace the word "insincere" with the word "manipulative" in all the Coldplay reviews, we wouldn't be having this conversation. (Another good fill-in would be "humourless.")

3. The Humpty Dance.

Off-blog, Mr. Wherry used the Zoilus search box against me by pointing out that I have used words like honesty and sincerity in reference to music myself more than once in the past. As I told him, I should have 'fessed up to this earlier - I know I have, it's just that I've come to think better of it. Obviously we all, if we care personally about music, have these theories and feelings about the performers/writers based on their music, and as jus' folks and fans, there's nothing really wrong with that. But I've come to think it's not helpful as critical language, for all the reasons I've been yammering on about. It's too propaganda-like - you should like this because it's honest, you should hate that because it's phony. It sounds too much like some Fox News guy spitting about Democrats: "We are family and they are pod people. They're chai latte and we're red meat."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, June 24 at 12:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

COMMENTS

As someone who saw the Replacements 8 or 9 times between 1983 and their break-up, I would fall into the realm of those people you speak of. Indeed, PW and the Mats are a really great example of what I'm talking about. I suspect people who weren't there taking in the entire gestalt can't completely understand why the people who were there find it so important. Sure, the music was great. But there was so much more too it than that. It was a cultural phenomenon, small scale in the overall scheme of things, but very large scale for the people who were there.

I suspect that's why Dylan probably doesn't mean as much to me as he does to Greil Marcus, Barry Mazor and critics who came up in the late '60 and early '70s.

Those guys can tell me about the cultural impact. But I don't think it can compare to being there. And in the case of the baby boomers, so much of that experience has been described in such hyperbolic language that it's hard to take it seriously. And that's a shame, because I suspect that in some cases the hyperbole doesn't even come close to capturing just how powerful it really was for a lot of folks.

But of course, that's the beauty of it too. Every generation of folks gets to make their own scene and cultural mythology. And it's impossible in some ways to separate this from the music. But lucky for us, the musical artifacts remain after much of the rest of the scene have faded. And if it's good it has something for us even if we never can totally connect to the scene that spawned it.

J-Lo

Posted by Jake L on June 26, 2005 03:14 AM

 

 

Wow, Jake, that was splendid. I was particularly struck by the point you made about divorcing music from its original cultural context.

I listened to pop/rock obsessively from the late 60s to the mid-80s, but after my son was born the combination of parenting and work didn't leave enough time for due diligence. I spent the next 10 years listening almost exclusively to classical music, which was a wonderful and lasting immersion. But I was driving in the car one day when I heard The Bends on the radio and it totally bit me on the ass. The contagion re-entered my blood stream.

In the last decade or so, I've not only heard a lot of great new music, but I've fairly diligently acquainted myself with the stuff I missed out on when it was current. By the time I heard the first Stone Roses album, it was just that -- something I was listening to and digging, totally divorced from the so-called Madchester scene of its infancy. Same goes for Blue Lines by Massive Attack and so on. I've heard a lot of music that way and I'm often struck by how my sense of it seems to be somewhat different than it is for the people who came up through it. I don't know how many times I've heard from aficionados that Paul Westerberg's solo stuff, for instance, doesn't hold a candle to his revered Replacements output. Maybe that's true, but I don't hear it that way at all.

Posted by vfw on June 25, 2005 05:55 PM

 

 

Apologies. This is a long comment. I wrote most of it a while back, then I never posted it because it seemed like this particular dialogue had passed (one of the downsides of being slow and longwinded ).

But as the fire of this dialogue still seems to be smoldering a little bit, I guess I might as well throw a few more logs on. Sorry if I cover stuff that people have said already.

It was something vfw wrote that got my fingers typing:

"sincerity is a non-starter as a way to discuss any work of art. the coldplay album is sappy sentimentality, whether they mean it or not. as my grade 10 english teacher drilled into our mostly uncaring skulls, the artist's intention is irrelevant. all that matters is what's said and how well. "

While this may be true, I think that the listener's perception of the artist's intention is relevant to the listener's determination of both what is said and how well. The difficulty is when the critic globalizes this subjective experience of the artist's intent. There's a big difference between saying "Coldplay is insincere" and saying "I experience Coldplay's music as insincere." (or for that matter that "Coldplay's album is sappy sentimentality"--since when is there any more universal agreement about what that means?).

We make instinctive/intuitive judgements about people's intentions/sincerity all the time. This to me is the core of the stuff Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his book "Blink." It's also at the core of how people experience music. All you have to do is read the part of "Blink" where Gladwell talks about orchestra auditions, and how the number of women getting slots in major orchestras increased like 300% when they moved to a blind audition system where people played behind a screen.

The point: Unconscious bias is very strong, and when it comes to the subjective experience of things like music, it's impossible to separate out all of ancillary material from the blood and guts of the performance on the recording.

So while these sorts of judgements probably wouldn't pass double blind scientific muster (or even the basic rules of logic), I think they do play a very real role in the way we navigate the world (and by extension listen to music). And I don't see what's inherently wrong with a critic incorporating this reality into their criticism.

The problem is that calling something "insincere" is a conclusion. It's not really an explanation. To me, good criticism doesn't just conclude. It explains its conclusions, and because explaining the sincerity of something is difficult, it probably is foolish to pin too much of one's critical energy on it. Nevertheless, as a reader, it's sometimes useful to know that the critic experienced something as insincere. If I trust the critic from past experience, and if the critic does a good job explaining what the music is to them, and why it either works or doesn't work for them, their perspective may well be helpful.

For at the end of the day, a work of criticism is not unlike most judicial opinions. In theory, a judicial opinion is supposed to look at all the facts and circumstances, apply these to the law and then reach a conclusion. It isn't supposed to start with a conclusion and work backwards to justify it. Neither is a work of criticism. But both usually do. They start from the gut and move up to the mind. And the quality of the critic's work is usually judged by how skillfully the writer has justified her or his conclusions.

Maybe it's not rational, fair, or whatever, but as a listener, certain artists just strike me as full of BS. Ryan Adams is a good example for me. He's pretty much been on a steady downhill slide since "Stranger's Almanac." I could say that his songs aren't as well crafted as they used to be, that they've gotten more derivative, or something like that. But that's not really true. Whiskeytown was certainly pretty derivative. But I kind of gave them a pass on that, because they were still young. It felt like their hearts were in the right place, that they'd grow into something more distinctive.

By "Gold," well, the bloom was off the rose (hey that kind of sounds like a RA song title doesn't it? or maybe I need to get Magnolia in there too). And at least to me I just stopped buying it, because it just felt increasingly insincere. That's the only way I could make sense out my reaction to what was otherwise reasonably well crafted music. I just experienced no convincing emotional resonance from it.

Now I know that's kind of a weak position intellectually. For it's true that I can never really know if Adams is sincere or not. But I can know how Adams's music strikes me. And I can share that sense with other people. And I have (as I am doing here).

Sometimes, it's like a light bulb going off in someone's head when I do it ("I knew there was something about that, "you're right").

Sometimes people just don't agree. Adams works for them. And that's cool. He's a skilled person. He understands the pop song. He knows how to put things together. I don't begrudge him that, although I also believe he's capable of much more than he has shown up till now. And I also believe that his lack of mass success reflects not some ambivalence about fame or some sort of rebellious iconoclastic authenticity. It's not that the philistine masses aren't smart enough to know how good Adams is. It's that he's not good enough (or at least focused enough) to make something that connects with the masses. His work simply lacks the magic mix of craft and emotional resonance that would create the potential for mass success.

By contrast, Coldplay has this magic mix in spades. Personally, I'm agnostic about the band. When it comes on the radio, I don't change the station. On the other hand, I don't own any of their albums either. I think the guy has a good sense of melody. The music is certainly put together with care, and it doesn't smell of bullshit to me.

It's distinctive enough to have spawned quite a few imitators (like Keane, a band I have less patience with--their record is the same anthem repeated 10 times in row). So I guess at the end of the day, I don't begrudge Coldplay its success, because I don't view being up front about wanting success as a crime in and of itself.

Some people prefer bands like Radiohead that are coy about their will to power (and let's be real, a band of Radiohead's commercial stature is at best only marginally less a part of the apparatus of mass promotion/success than is Coldplay). Somehow, this ambivalence about fame signifies authenticity, sincerity or whatever to these people. And that's cool. I've got nothing against Radiohead for presenting their thing in that way. But I also don't think it makes them inherently better or more important than Coldplay. And I know for myself that I'd probably rather listen to Coldplay's big hits than some of the stuff that Radiohead has released in the last few years.

The thing I've started to notice as I get older is that as time passes, a lot of these micro distinctions cease to have meaning. In 1994 in the grunge epicenter of Seattle where I live many people saw a very clear difference between Soundgarden (super authentic), Pearl Jam (sort of authentic), and the Stone Temple Pilots (completely derivative and inauthentic). But by 2014, most of these judgements will be blurred, for they're already pretty blurred in 2005.

When songs by these bands come on the radio in 2014, it will be a lot more like the blind orchestra auditions Gladwell describes. They will be disembodied from their context to a certain extent, and people will hear them much more as just songs. So even though the STP songs are often highly derivative of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and their ilk, it won't really matter. People will just hear them as what they are: well rendered examples of this style.

It's no different than when you get one of those garage or pop sample discs from Mojo or something like that, with lots of obscure one hit wonders from the 1960s. And you hear it, and you're like "this shit is amazing why wasn't this band as big as the Beatles?" And then you realize that they either only had one good idea, didn't have the right look, came from the wrong town, or in the moment were not leading the Zeitgeist. And people could smell that, so they are just a footnote of history. But from a distance, none of this really matters anymore. It's just a great song.

I wish I had this quote from a "Fresh Air" interview I heard with Don Byron. Terry Gross was asking him about Herb Alpert's music. She said she was surprised that he would have been into that, because it seemed very far removed from most of what he did. He said something to the effect that he tries to never dismiss any kind of music, especially music that is popular with a lot of people. If music is popular, he continued, it means that there must be something in it that people are taking away from it, something they find useful. And for Byron, he found it interesting as a musician to try to understand what that thing was.

I know that isn't exactly a critic's job. The critic isn't a sociologist, anthropologist, or musicologist. The critic is a filter. That's what they pay them the big bucks for. If the critic's work serves a useful filtering function for a reader, then the critic's work has value, regardless of the process the critic has used to accomplish the filtration. If the filtering function fails, the value of the critic's work is diminished.

This whole Popist/Rockist debate is really a debate about the nature of the filter (and by extension cultural power). Everyone would like there to be some archimedean point outside of ideology, a privileged place where one perspective is inherently more objective and true than in any other place (call it a normative place). Anyone with a brain will acknowledge that there is no such place.

Nevertheless, I think certain poptimists have difficulty with rockists who behave like they do reside in this privileged place (an obvious spoil of operating from a hegemonic position, however contingent that hegemony may be) while denying (1) that they are behaving that way and (2) that any sort of hegemony exists (a useful approach to maintaining this hegemony).

And at least for me, Pareles's take down of Coldplay falls into that place (even if I don't typically think of Pareles as exactly a paradigmatic rockist). It makes sense only if one assumes that the average reader shares most of the same assumptions about what makes an album great. And frankly, given the demographic stats of the average NYT Arts and Leisure reader, Pareles was probably doing a pretty good job of serving the needs of his readership--unless of course he actually wanted to inspire or challenge them to think a little bit.

So bottom line for me Zoilus. Talk about sincerity all you want. I won't hold it against you (or any other critic) as long as it's done well. People who can explain clearly their gut reactions and how they came to them are actually kind of rare. So my hat is off to anyone who does it well.

JL

Posted by Jake L on June 25, 2005 04:52 AM

 

 

Yup. You got me. Busted.

Now if you'll excuse us, my Chris Martin poster and I would like some privacy.

Posted by agw on June 24, 2005 10:42 PM

 

 

Well, sorry if I've mistaken you, Aaron -- but your general modus operandi seemed to imply that there must be something to this sincerity thing if people keep hearing it.

And my answer is, yeah, there is - it's the past 40 years of rock-culture discourse, which leads people to talk about music in this way. If something is grandiose and fails, it gets called insincere. If something is grandiose and succeeds it gets called "epic." So the question becomes how is Coldplay failing, right?

Personally, I'm inclined to go with some wag out on the Internet that says Coldplay is "the sound of young white suburban couples losing the will to live" and have done with it. I suspect your frustration with this conversation is that you have some interest in Coldplay while I'm just interested in this tendency to talk about Coldplay's feelings.

No snarkiness meant by that, tho, sincerely.

Posted by zoilus on June 24, 2005 09:47 PM

 

 

Sigh.

Well, kind sirs, if I might be so bold, I would like it recorded for history's sake that I have, I think repeatedly, agreed with you that sincerity is a seriously flawed criteria for the proper critic.

I'm pretty sure my argument all along was something to the effect of this: If people keeping coming away from this disc feeling the same, what does that say about the music? Why is it producing this reaction? (aside, of course, from the obvious fact that the people saying such stuff are silly)

A thousand apologies if that was not apparent. Anyway.

That's it. We're done. For reals this time.

Sincerely,
The Fly.

Posted by agw on June 24, 2005 06:57 PM

 

 

can we please end this debate and move on to irony?
sincerely yours,
vfw

Posted by vfw on June 24, 2005 05:29 PM

 

 

"Obviously we all, if we care personally about music, have these theories and feelings about the performers/writers based on their music, and as jus' folks and fans, there's nothing really wrong with that. But I've come to think it's not helpful as critical language..."

Precisely. It can be quite illuminating for a critic to write about his or her feelings vis a vis a specific work, and to examine the emotional impact of that work. But what right does a critic have in presuming to understand the artist's own emotional state, either as creator or interpreter? If I tell you how I feel, you may be interested or you may be bored, but if I tell you how *you* feel, you'll likely be insulted -- and rightly so.

Perhaps as a sincerity koan, we should all meditate on the Sex Pistol's God Save the Queen. When Rotten snarls, "We mean, man," is he being sincere? Insincere? Sincere in his insincerity? Does sarcasm depend on sincerity? (Do we all have a headache yet?)

Posted by J.D. Considine on June 24, 2005 04:03 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson