I’d like to argue that what’s still needed in music criticism is the cultivation of a more progressive and strategic ‘anti-anti-rockist’ stance: one that critiques the dangerous relativizing of anti-rockism even as it criticizes the reductive, essentializing limits of rockism. Criticism is only progressive if it is met by an approach that honors the historical continuity of response to artistic works and if it acknowledges the ongoing value of context…
So the point is not that Taylor Swift isn’t a master (because she may indeed have mastered certain aspects of pop) but she is not (at least yet) a master in the way Joni Mitchell became a master of her craft, and teasing out the difference is crucial. No artist is any more valuable or meaningful than any other artist, because it is a position of privilege to be able to claim to effectively or singularly be the adjudicator of that value. But different artists require different intensities of aesthetic criticism. Rockists strive to affirm the canon, which tends to be anti-democratic. Anti-rockists too often throw out the canon, which results in cultural relativism. Anti-anti-rockists, however, understand that we need flexible, open-ended and decentered canons: we need to continually reaffirm the power and meaning of artistic context in an information-centric era of ‘social media’ when the decontextualization of information is unfortunately the norm rather than the exception.
Jason King, “Compared to What,” Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste by Carl Wilson, New and Expanded Edition
The deluxe reissue of Carl Wilson’s seminal “journey to the end of taste” has too much quotable stuff for me to process all at once, but this passage from Jason King’s essay leapt off the page.
To me, one contribution of an anti-anti-rockism project might be to shine the light of critical attention on all the under-appreciated career artists out there, toiling on the fringes of the canon, getting on with the work. As Sukdhev Sandhu puts it in another bonus track essay, “Praising musical genres or performers in terms of shock, newness and innovation seems weirdly pro-establishment: Leaving aside the difficulties of identifying any objective basis for those qualities, aren’t they, as Wilson notes, also the qualities that capitalism celebrates?”
That’s why I was so thrilled to see Steven Hyden devote his weekly column in Grantland to the great Loudon Wainwright III.
Didn’t intend to write a follow-up to my previous post, which pitted the recent spate of ass worship in pop music against Kehinde Wiley’s An Economy of Grace. But there’s an article by Alex Ross in the new New Yorker—about the relationship between Theodore Adorno and Walter Benjamin, of all things—that’s so directly relevant to this discussion it floored me. I’ve already fawningly quoted Ross in the last few days, but that was nothing. To paraphrase my hero David Rees, I’m about to go so buck wild riffing on Ross you’re gonna throw up.
Treacherous terrain for a white man, but I feel compelled to comment on the ascendance of ass in contemporary pop music. Ever since Miley’s VMA performance last year (a.k.a. the twerk heard ’round the world), the female posterior, specifically the size and manipulation thereof, has been a subject of ongoing fascination for pop stars and pop star watchers.
Not that booty songs are a new phenomenon. “Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj is explicitly (so to speak) based on Sir Mix-a-Lot’s epochal “Baby Got Back,” which itself is just one link in the long chain of ass-idolatry that includes LL Cool J’s “Big Ole Butt,” Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and Blind Willie McTell’s “Southern Can Is Mine.” (Let’s not speak of Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.”) (But by all means, let’s talk about this.)
The current moment feels different, though. Butts have always been a topic in pop, but have they ever been the topic before? At the same time that “Anaconda” was slithering its way into our collective consciousness, an unknown named Meghan Trainor found herself with a big fat hit called “All About That Bass,” a perky rallying cry for bottom-heavy women. Then there’s Taylor Swift. To be clear, “Shake It Off,” the latest salvo in her campaign for world domination, isn’t about her behind. How ridiculous of you to even think Taylor would be so crass! What she would (and did) do, however, is dress up as a fly girl in the video, ogle the gyrating rumps of her back-up dancers, and tentatively wag her own skinny assets in (literally) pale imitation.
The tide has turned against the collector of recordings, not to mention the collector of books: what was once known as building a library is now considered hoarding. One is expected to vanish all clutter and consume culture in a gleaming, empty room.
Yet I’m wedded to the wall of plastic…I get a pang of nostalgia in seeing recordings that I bought almost thirty years ago, using money earned through an inept gardening business…I experience no nostalgia for the first music I downloaded, which appears to have been Justin Timberlake.
Alex Ross, "The Classical Cloud," The New Yorker
Take heart, CD nostalgists! We’ve got a MacArthur Fellow on our side!
"It sounds bizarre, in some ways, to talk about creativity apart from the creation of a product. But that remoteness and strangeness is actually a measure of how much our sense of creativity has taken on the cast of our market-driven age. We live in a consumer society premised on the idea of self-expression through novelty. We believe that we can find ourselves through the acquisition of new things. Perhaps inevitably, we have reconceived creativity as a kind of meta-consumption: a method of working your way toward the other side of the consumer-producer equation, of swimming, salmon-like, back to the origin of the workflow. Thus the rush, in my pile of creativity books, to reconceive every kind of life style as essentially creative—to argue that you can “unleash your creativity” as an investor, a writer, a chemist, a teacher, an athlete, or a coach. Even as this way of speaking aims to recast work as art, it suggests how much art has been recast as work: it’s now difficult to speak about creativity without also invoking a profession of some kind."
— Joshua Rothman, "Creativity Creep," newyorker.com
"Call me old-fashioned, but my ideal TV diet is a balanced one: a few sitcoms (mainstream warhorses like Modern Family and The Simpsons, as well as edgier fare like Veep and Silicon Valley), a few smart edutainment series like Cosmos and Parts Unknown, some tasty junk (I see you, Top Chef Duels!), and in a perfect world, one heavy, emotionally intense prestige drama at a time.”
And then there’s this. Edutainment? Reality sit com? Sui generis expression of genius and joy? Hard to say, but I’ll take it over The Leftovers any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
A gene that makes you need less sleep, eh?
Makes me wonder how many of history’s greatest writers have been sleep mutants.