Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Pandering? or do I really like it?

Tim Rutherford-Johnson (the Rambler) has a post on music pandering to its audience, with a number of links to other blogs, including an article by critic Simon Reynolds casting similar glances at an Evan Parker concert back in the 1980s. Both posts discuss the cliquish aspects and in-jokes of musical "scenes" and the degree to which outsiders may be intimidated by these behaviors. Both are worth reading, including the links they reference, but I had a couple of other thoughts on the subject.

For starters, there is a tendency to ridicule the inner circle as fanboys, and to extend that ridicule to the artists that produce the music. But there's no accounting for taste, and it is very difficult to say why a particular music is "good" or "bad" (these are value judgments, not substantive critiques). And not every piece of music serves the same purpose. Years ago I heard an interview with Lester Bowie, the great trumpeter from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, where he said, "When I go to a party, I don't want to hear no Art Ensemble!" Tim mentions various cover bands as examples of fanboy music, but so what? When Roger Waters toured with a Pink Floyd cover band and played Dark Side of the Moon last year, was it fanboy music because they basically duplicated the classic, 35-year-old album note for note? All of the air guitarists in the audience (and I count myself among them) knew the solo in Money exactly, so we would have been sorely disappointed if the solo had been completely different. Maybe it was pandering, but it aspired for spectacle and entertainment, succeeding admirably on both counts.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time listening to music (or digging into any serious art form) will find that some work resonates, and some does not. The most interesting music writing attempts to explain why a piece of music succeeds when we take it on its own terms. It's a waste of space and time to say that a given piece of art sucks, because it merely reflects the author's value judgments, which are highly unlikely to match anyone else's. Music listeners are faced with an impossible amount of music to absorb, much less hear even once, so we have to choose carefully what albums or songs we listen to, what artists we support, what music we purchase. And every serious musician, sooner or later, will find an audience. For more obscure music, such as the kind I write about here, the audience is very small and scattered around the world, but it's there none the less. The Rambler's article centers on music with obscure references that only the cogniscenti will find, but what makes them a less valuable audience than the couple hundred people who buy boutique CDs from respected labels like Mystery Sea, Die Schachtel or 12k?

In addition, Reynolds finds himself attracted to John Butcher's oppositional stance as expressed in a recent Wire interview, and therefore more willing to revisit his music. But just because Butcher expresses a "bracingly stern stance" doesn't mean that I have to agree with it in order to like his music, any more than I need to be an anti-semite to like Wagner or Céline, or mentally ill to appreciate Van Gogh. Reading about an artist's motivations are interesting and may shed insight into the resulting music, but the artist's perspectives are just as unique as the listener's. I read a lot about John Cage, but the most interesting writing illustrates how his philosophy (which I find appealing because of my own personal history) manifests itself in his music, and not how his father's vocation as an inventor may have influenced his thought processes that led to the prepared piano.

We all have individual and completely unique personal histories which make up our tastes, and we make decisions every day that have as much to do with our personal aesthetics as anything remotely functional. Our clothes, the decorations in our homes, and the music that we listen to, all gives our lives an aesthetic meaning — and it doesn't matter if we are the only ones who understand all of our own references. If there is any pandering in music journalism, it's the glib turn of phrase that turns humiliation and ridicule into amusement. The appeal to our baser instincts is the least common denominator, analogous to the negative campaigning that too often passes for political discourse.

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