Thursday, January 13, 2005


For the love of music

There is only so much you can say about a song or a band without lapsing into cliche. That's why writers about pop music usually run out of points to make pretty quickly. What do you say once you've talked about the guitarist's hooks, the singer's voice, the drummer's beat? Once a critic has checked off the hackneyed technical lines, there are only a couple of things to do.

The easiest and most common thing to do is to stop talking about the music and start talking about the musicians. Describe the t-shirts they wore to the interview. What were they eating? Linger on the way they handle their cigarettes; if you can, make each flick of the wrist a symbol of alienation and weariness with fame. Also, take a page from the Olympics coverage on NBC. Figure out what heart-wrenching obstacles the band overcame to make this groundbreaking or comeback record.

Alternatively, the critic can wax philosophical. This is harder to do, and it is less frequently done well. Here, the writer tries to say something about the meaning of music itself. What does the album say? How well does it communicate that message? This is the kind of criticism that the late Susan Sontag criticized. Art was meant to be experienced, according to Sontag's influential essays, not dissected and analyzed. Nonetheless, the philosophical mode of music writing persists, and I believe it has value. Even criticism of the kind Sontag calls for -- criticism that describes how music makes you feel, instead of speculating about what it means -- is better than the personality-cult genre, because it is at least talking about the music.

Most writing about music, of course, blurs these two genres. And at times, I enjoy both. I like feeling like I'm in the room with Wayne Shorter or U2 as much as the next fan. By all means, tell me about them. But I also want a music writer who recognizes that music has power and meaning, who sees it as the almost mystical force that it is, instead of just a vehicle from rags to riches.

That's why I can recommend the relatively new Paste Magazine. Like all music writing occasionally does, Pastesometimes falls into the personality "clap" trap. It occasionally falls all over itself to introduce you to its favorite new artist. But the magazine's subtitle, "Signs of Life in Music and Culture," lets you know where the editors stand. These are people who believe that music is about life, not just about the celebrity high life. You will never read about a singer's midriff here.

It is dangerous to fill an entire magazine with writing that considers music as though it can be a matter of life. If handled carelessly, such writing can start to sound like music is a matter of life and death, and then it becomes maudlin and insincere. But I respect the music writer who takes the risk of sentimentality, rather than opting for the easy road of star-gazing. I'm interested more in music that will move me, even to sentimentality, than in music that will merely titillate.

That's why I can suck it up and tolerate a paragraph like this one, taken from a CD review in the most recent issue, even though it borders on melodrama: " ... these are perilous days; sometimes you need rose-tinted glasses to temporarily obscure the blood splattering everywhere. When so much music is so bleak, a little unlikely optimism might be a crucial palliative measure, rather than Pollyanna-ish head-burying." What makes this paragraph even more potentially ludicrous is that it is talking about Dirty Vegas. Nonetheless, I would rather risk the absurdity of melodrama if it means that the writer is trying to find me music that really is dramatic. Even the sunniest top-40 music sounds "bleak" to me, precisely because it is so prefabricated. All the drama, and thus the risk of any melodrama, is taken out. I like Paste because at least I am reading about artists and critics who still think that songs can be the glasses through which we see the world -- rose-tinted or not.

Here's another excerpt that dares to walk the razor edge between sentimentality and seriousness, from Paste's review of Funeral, a new album by the Canadian band Arcade Fire. "The band has created an unquestionably sincere and autobiographical work of art, no matter how coded the lyrics prove at times. 'Our bodies are bigger,' Butler sings, 'but our hearts get torn up.' Pain and loss are inevitable in life, but music this grand helps both artist and audience persevere. Funeral must have been cathartic to make; it's certainly cathartic to hear." Again, farce threatens. Some of the clauses here sound like they belong on a Hallmark sympathy card. But at least it's a review that entertains the question of whether an artist is "sincere." And at least it recognizes music to be not just a source of conspicuous consumption, but also a source of catharsis.

Music frequently eases me out of the bad moods that I confuse with real despair. For that reason, it makes a difference in my life. I'm not ashamed to clutch at it sometimes for optimism and hope. Yesterday, for instance, I bought this album, which was recommended in a feature article by Paste. The article was titled, "Taking Comfort in Beautiful Songs," and that's what I sometimes do. The songs on this album, by the Brooklyn band Hem, are stunningly beautiful -- luminous, austere, sanguine, comforting. Perhaps that's Polly-annish, but so be it. These are perilous times, and I'll take comfort when it comes.

For some reason, listening to this album took me back to a very particular moment in my life as an undergraduate. I remember listening to The Sundays in my car on a rainy night, driving down a deserted campus road. I was thinking about a series of distressing conversations with a close friend. They were the kinds of conversations -- a mixture of the philosophical and the personal -- that do not happen only in undergraduate life (indeed, I've stuck with blogging because I often find such conversations happening now only in the blogosphere), but that seem to be packed with special urgency in those rite-of-passage years. Sure and stable verities were less sure and stable. Truths about God, the universe, and life itself were being propelled from out of the depths of us, so that we could see them hovering there -- outside of us in a way -- and notice for the first time how precarious and strange they were. One such conversation with my friend took place in the parking lot of a Chinese food restaurant. We seemed to have reached a particularly dark dead end, and all I could muster up the hope to say was: "At least there will always be beautiful music."

Funny, in retrospect, that I said that. Was that me? When I look back on myself standing there, with those words coming out of my mouth, my breath faintly sweet and sour, the memory strikes me as vaguely ridiculous. But it was the kind of gravitas mingled with hopefulness that made sense in those days. When you are leaving so many moorings behind, you don't care how crazy you sound when you think you spot a safe shore. You just yell "land ho!" at the top of your lungs, clamber down the ropes, and worry about how gracefully you clambered later.

I often still sense the same sophomoric seriousness in some things I say, and the same heedless exuberance when I seem to remember who I am for the first time. A part of me is embarrassed when this happens. But a larger part of me -- the part that can be moved to tears by John Coltrane's "Naima" or forced to smile by Dizzy Gillespie singing "On the Sunny Side of the Street" -- is glad that I still love music in this way, because it proves that I still love life. If such loves sometimes come pouring out on this blog in a thoughtless, half-baked way, please pardon me. As the opening lines of my new album put it, "Wouldn't be the first time love made a fool out of me / Wouldn't even care but now you're here to see."

Collective Improvisation:
That is so funny. I am working on a post about Paste magazine. I recently subscribed for the sampler cd. I like the reviews, but as you note, these are often limited.  

Posted by Streak

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/20/2005 12:48:00 PM : Permalink  

The good news is that subscribers also now get a free DVD with every issue, which includes short films and music videos. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/20/2005 06:14:00 PM : Permalink  

Post a Comment

Back to Main Page

Site Meter