Monday, March 27, 2006

I first read Leonard Cohen in a book of poetry

The internets have turned all rock an' pop lately (though, thankfully, not only this). Oh, and there was the Tronti thing. Once Fresh Hegelians may now be rolling themselves even deeper graves.

I don't really know about this "quest" business (that was always sort of necessarily tongue-in-cheek), but Ellis Sharp returns a few friendly barbs, as one can only expect and hope he would, in his further response to the "philosophy of pop" debates, long may they run (so long as we may also roll our eyes at ourselves, from time to time, and still nurture an inner monologue and melody, and shed tears, and such). I believe the gripe with Mark Greif's article for n+1 has now been refined to an originary essence, or at least to a point where it may be difficult to disagree. That said, I am willing to try. It's a bit scattershot, Ellis' post, so mine will probably be likewise. Plus, frankly, I'm fucking wiped (the gentle reader will please notice the time-stamp).

Ellis begins by establishing some vague druthers about writing style:
Some of the worst modern non-fiction written is to be found in the pop music section of bookshops. (I own a book about Van Morrison which winsomely begins “This book is dedicated to purity”.)
Alright, no argument there. How may cant-begging be anything but selfconscious in pop criticism? Or a resignation to embarrassment, maybe, that hides (or rather fails to hide) its vulnerability behind a strut. Better to acknowledge the vulnerability or sense of embarrassment one faces with such a topic up front, and move on (as Greif does). (If by some chance the strut is unselfconscious, then it is just plain pretentious, of the sort critics of pop are usually quick to detect (there must have been some reason to buy the book!...or if it had said "the will to purity" well, that might have been another story.))

Ellis really begins this way:
In the case of pop music it’s true that there isn’t much around in the way of critical theory, let alone something as all-encompassing as a philosophy. But I retain my scepticism that a pop philosophy is particularly desirable or, if achieved, would be particularly illuminating. Illuminating for who? Consumers of pop music? Creators of pop music? Where commentary is concerned, I prefer theory that relates concretely to praxis. But for the artist too much theory has a tendency to kill the creative impulse.
To which I imagine being forced to sit in a room with someone who insists on quoting Adorno or Benjamin, or Nietzsche on Wagner everytime a Radiohead song comes on the, er, you know. This person should probably have books thrown at their head. Big books. Anthologies, even, provided they are dispensable.

And yet...why not think about the aesthetic rhythms that frame our waking and sleeping moments, now more than ever? And why not wonder if such philosophical meditations (or vomitting, in Nietzsche's case) on opera and classical music as informed the social theory of the past may still be made, somehow, to ap-ply? Is it because we're so deluded as to think our humming of "Mr. Jones and Me" really constitutes a genuine artistic creation in its own right, any more than mere melodic company and self-comfort? Surely not! The question is really one of self-renewal, isn't it? And of reminding oneself, in an indirect, inherently semi-forgetful or semi-absentminded manner of a way of being, with part of oneself held stubbornly in reserve, or in potential. Ex-posed a little, you might even say. As Greif suggests, maybe even living something of a reminder of that originary moment, so long ago, when we first realized we should resist (though resisting nothing in-particular).

Did I mention S. was on the Appalachian Trail? She has mentioned to me, a few times now, the specific refrains of Caetano Veloso that keep her company. It's difficult to hike without a song, or melody. But it could certainly be worse (she could be stuck on Wagner). Thoreau he resorted to examining the galaxy contained in slabs of birch bark, or counting the tiers of limbs in blueberry bushes. But today, in this the age of ipods and commercials, we have pop lyrics and melodies, as any Outward Bound instructor or Peace Corps student, or anyone who's had to confront extended periods of relative silence from bombardment by the zeitgeist will readily inform you. It's not necessarily a good or bad thing, and the potential to examine birch bark with genuine Transcendentalist or pantheistic wonder still exists, but it's a fact. Why not think about it?

And yet, pop music also nurtures boredom, and even though it's an engaged sort of fortifying, reanimated, ironic and resistant boredom, there's something potentially calcifying, therapeutic and habitual in it too. The pop aesthetic may just as easily water-down our lives and facilitate to keep us stuck, sticks in the mud and comfortably numb, or as Greg Brown wonders about that guy "in his thump thump car / smug as some commentator on NPR." Just as there is both pervasive, comforming irony and...well, the problem of irony taken seriously, or negotiated as a step toward something else. But then this would still be the age of irony, after all. Despite the best attempts of surging fundamentalisms Islamic or Bushisctic, nothing as paradigmatic or capturing of the imagination has yet come along to replace it, particularly.

In short, Ellis does seem almost determined to miss Greif's argument, and the wonderful ways in which it opens up onto thinking, albeit speculatively and gently, this moment in our (rather hyper) extended modernity, and if anything perhaps deepens one's appreciation for the experience of one's time, through music. The apparent "traditional rock criticism" that Mark more or less self-consciously engages in, I take to be merely laying the foundation for this further critique and opening. But in any case, the experience of art may all be secondary to either the act of creating art, or the work itself, yes, that's very likely. But at the same time there is no art without the experience of art, even if in the end this experience is only to provoke fresh trembling. "Art is primarily the consciousness of unhappiness, not its consolation." Blanchot, of course. And the role of philosophy in all this is not easily pinned down. Here's Ellis again, betraying what I daresay is the real obvious sore, or sticking point, for him:
Let’s turn again to a much cited statement by Mark Greif:

And all of us lovers of music, with ears tuned precisely to a certain kind of sublimity in pop, are quick to detect pretension, overstatement and cant about pop—in any attempt at a wider criticism—precisely because we feel the gap between the effectiveness of the music and the impotence and superfluity of analysis. This means we don’t know, about our major art form, what we ought to know. We don’t even agree in what sense the interconnection of pop music and lyrics, rather than the words spoken alone, accomplishes an utterly different task of representation, more scattershot and overwhelming and much less careful and dignified than poetry — and bad critics show their ignorance when they persist in treating pop like poetry, as in the still-growing critical effluence around Bob Dylan.

I think Greif has a bit of a nerve to knock Dylan criticism when he himself goes on to rave over Radiohead’s OK Computer in these terms: “The dread in the songs is so detailed and so pervasive that it seems built into each line of lyric and into the black or starry sky of music that domes it.” I detect the soft sloppy gush of critical effluence in those last twelve words.
Still harping on the Dylan comment! I suppose it's a bit pedantic at this point to reiterate, but Greif is not knocking Dylan criticsm tout court, but rather only those who would flatter themselves by elevating their subject to the status of a poet. But a barb of orienting contention, no less, nestled in what may well be a deliberate and biting aside (on Greif's part). Alright, so Ellis does goes on to label this "sloppy gush" part of Mark's article the "traditional rock criticism" component, and he also mentions that it is in fact of "the kind [he] enjoy[s] reading." And he admits finally, I think, that Dylan is more song and dance man than he is poet, which I applaud. (And the waxing evocative on the part of Greif is a little warm, for being allegedly in the service of finally risking certain intellectual claims. But do his descriptions ever falter? Why should an article be boring, and who trusts a critic who doesn't also love?) Ellis also criticizes Greif for not analyzing movies and novels:
I’m not happy with Greif’s identification of pop as “our major art form”. To me that’s like saying apples are our major fruit. Better than bananas? No, just different. I’m more inclined to think that the three major art forms of our time (‘our’ only in the first world sense, which is not a distinction Greif makes) are pop music, movies and novels. Each one has inherent aesthetic advantages over the other two, but each one has its deficiencies too. But all three have mass appeal in a way that live theatre, art, opera and poetry don’t.
Indeed, how true. That claim made me pause as well. One can only surmise, I suppose, that this was after all an article specifically on popular music, seeking to steer clear of platitudinous generalities as much as possible. That it appears in a literary journal currently devoting an issue to the state of American fiction, and with articles on independent film, might provide ironic comfort of some sort.

But do places other than the "first world" belong to a different "time", truly? Do people in the "third world" not listen to music or watch movies? Last time I was there, they did. At least those with the luxury of time to do more than just survive, can't seem to join the pop zeitgeist fast enough. One could certainly criticize this becoming-homogeneous of art, however, yes. And in more ways than David Spade poking fun at ipods...

Just for the record Ellis is right about Counting Crows, in every respect. I don't know why I said that. Out of embarrassment, perhaps. Their first album was something truly wonderful, and fragile (not to mention paying tribute to a certain suspender-wearing character of Dylan's). (There were of course others from that era too; how truly sad and tragic that what came after makes them look so impossible, if not rendering them virtually unlistenable now).

Last but not least. You know, I really love Infidels, and not just because of the incredible band he was playing with then. Maybe it's primarily the time in my own life that it evokes by association (something Greif remarks upon as well–indeed, one might even go so far as to call it rather central to his argument). But I also admire its melodic qualities, and what might be called, with some accuracy, the saccharine Dylan, particularly on tracks such as "Sweatheart Like You" and "I and I." And yet without the other Dylans, I'm not sure I would, if that makes any sense. The lyrics to "Jokerman" and "Man of Peace" move and amuse me, for reasons having nothing to do with Israel. And I'd like to keep it that way. And I think Ellis is letting a politicizing passion get in the way of hearing a song. Nothing wrong with that, it's just unfortunate. There is a love present in those songs that transcends any prescribed or delimited political context about which one may have a wholesale opinion, that can then only be mechanically repeated. Maybe it's romantic, but when a Beat poet goes through a born-again phase, I don't judge it as harshly as I otherwise might. Just as I am more intrigued than self-riteously, morally appalled by Blanchot's early nationalism and contribution to right-wing publications, or the questions of deMan's or Heidegger's "politics." After all placing blame, particularly with the privilege of 20-20 hindsight, can be a very useless exercise, as Dorris Lessing used to say. Which is hardly to excuse anything, only to recognize and resist the tendency to resolve complex, mutually contaminated histories into pat antagonisms, if not also something of what real forgiveness may entail. In any case, as always with any story-teller, it would be a mistake to confuse Dylan's narrators with the author (standin for the man) himself. A man will always be more than an author or the sum of his creations, no? It's an album full of good tunes, and way higher on the list of desert island disks than any of those pre-marijuana, mantric provincial pretty boy "I wanna hold your hand" numbers, anyday. Just kidding, mostly. Maybe I'm not in an early Beatles phase, right now.  Maybe it's the political climate.

The remainder of Ellis' post, like the parts I've skewered somewhat unfairly above, is thoughtful, informed and interesting, even if I suspect "vipers" is a reference to drug-addicts or some such and not snakes, &c. But when he says:
Dylan may have embraced evangelical Christianity but he did it here with wit and good humour. It’s a song which laughs at itself. Which is why the crazy right-wing Born Again Christian Dylan is to be preferred to the crazy right-wing Zionist Dylan – for sound musical reasons...
I can only cringe.&mbsp; The humour of the Born Again Dylan always struck me as painful, as trying very hard and failing to be cute.  And to be honest, I'd like to think the "Zionist" Dylan may not be much of a Zionist at all.  (It would be curious to hear an argument for this.)  But I may be wrong.   Ellis writes:
And, where ‘Neighborhood Bully’ (on Infidels) is concerned, a philosophy of pop would be a very questionable one if it discussed this song to the complete exclusion of itstrue context.

Perhaps. But when, in the course of describing Dylan's period of having "lost the plot" during the notorious eighties, he remarks:
‘Born in Time’ is a great song but you’d barely realise it from its feeble debut on Under the Red Sky. Whereas the version on Bob Dylan Live 1961-2000 is dazzling. (If you don’t know this last album, by the way, it’s because it was only released in Japan. And the accompanying booklet is in Japanese. Thanks, Bob.)

I realize that I am rather hopelessly out of my league.  Which is why, for my part, I would be inclined to say again, let's maybe put the questions of high fidelity to taste and fandom aside, as much as possible, when trying to approach a subject with the self-consciously grand title, "the philosophy of pop."  In fact, I think Mark Greif is absolutely right about this.  The obstacles to advancing any halfway objective claims are just too high.  Because otherwise we are left with somewhat sentimental gestures–not that Ellis is at all guilty of this, but it is I think the danger– forever groping for a profundity that isn't quite there, but could be (both less profound, and more solid) if only they didn't cling so much to their precious object, in the singular.

It hardly has any bearing on the question, then, but despite issues of evocative cover design, I will still take Smog to the Babyshambles anyday.

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