Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

It Puts My Back Up, Puts My Back Up Against the Wall -- The Frustrations of Closed Minds

In response to the impression that a positive voice is not so much unwelcome as uninteresting, as well as a series of changes in location and occupation, I've been refraining from posting much of late. It's difficult to maintain the attitude I wish to both as a person and in writing when I'm exposed so much more readily to the simplistic and snap judgments most impose on music and, often, its listeners, and certainly doesn't encourage the idea that putting that kind of attitude out there is of value to most of the world.

Those attitudes are what frustrate me most about the way music is taken these days--though I suspect the attitude is more re-framed than new in recent years and generations. The thought in general is not one I've failed to mention before, having noted its prevalence in affecting discussions of Ryan Adams, its usage to reduce genres to simplistic tropes, and in declaring the very object of this set of writings. Still, most of those are addressed more to those whose work is "published," at least in official website capacities, if not in print.

But the attitude is even more insistent in the public at large. There are, it's known, a handful of bands I sincerely do not like--and, of course, more out there I'm unaware of. Some of them are expected, some are obscure, but they're based on not liking what I heard for myself. In every case I can think of, it was actually after recommendations from people I liked as human beings at the time the recommendation was made, and I had every reason to follow the recommendation to appreciation rather than distaste. I feel a sense, not of haughty pride, but of relief that I can say that this is how I have determined these things--the philosophy I have that appreciation or disinterest should be formed on bases other than what admiration those opinions gain one.

But, consistently, I find things reduced simplistically for completely alternate reasons, and done in such vehement ways, at the mere mention of a re-evaluation in different lights or from different angles is returned as an impossibility. Most recently, this was leveled, in my "presence," at U2. Now, U2--in particular, Bono--receives a lot of head-shaking and derision these days. There are albums I don't like, there are songs I don't like--I was, oddly as opinions on their work tend to lean, not impressed by All That You Can't Leave Behind, finding, for instance, that "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" is one of the most awkward song titles and choruses I've ever heard--nevermind that it was a tribute to Michael Hutchence of INXS, of whom I am a big fan. The song simply didn't work for me, feeling forced verbally. But I grew up on The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, enough that the latter was easily my favourite of their albums, even without knowing what its critical reputation was--it tends to be, strangely, I think, a critics' darling but a lesser favourite compared to Joshua Tree.

The attitude I am running into, though, is that everything they ever did is, to directly quote, a "piece of shit." Out of thirty-three years of recorded music, every single thing they have ever done is that terrible? Instead of taking the easy way out and snarkily thanking someone for listening to every single song in their career and rating it for the rest of us, I decided to try and encourage the mentality I endorse in general, and referenced some of their more unusual, earlier songs--"11 O'Clock Tick Tock" and "Another Time, Another Place," from the single of the same name and the latter half of debut album Boy respectively. These particular songs would fit happily into any discussion of post punk, angular, energetic and jerky in that distant fashion that separates it so distinctly from the more catchy, pop-oriented nature of new wave. Naturally, the response I received was that different sounding shit was still shit--almost a guarantee that neither song had ever been heard, and the judgment was made purely by association with the band.

I'm not going to pretend I've gone through every piece of music recorded by every single band I dislike, but I'm also not going to tell anyone they are all "shit," nor, for that matter, am I inclined to call any of them "shit"--it's a pretty concrete, harsh judgment, at that point beginning to render judgment, by association, of any who feel otherwise. It's against my instincts not only to level the accusation openly, but to even think it privately. Certainly, I avoid those pieces of music personally--but I feel little need to come out ranting at those who feel something to the contrary.

This isn't, of course, anything new, now or, I'm sure, in decades past. It is more frustrating as the public voice--such as my own writings here--becomes more audible, available and widespread. Multiple generations join the accusations regularly, almost always leveled exclusively at acts currently active, be they long-term like U2, or fresh like--well, any newer artist. One of the most common blanket statements is that modern music is all terrible and it would be so much better if it were still the 1960s, the 1970s, or even the 1980s, despite the reputation the last has, culturally, overall. It's met with folks who grew up in some other decade who cling exclusively to what they grew up with, or with folks my age and younger who, for varying reasons, insist on maintaining their association with earlier music. "I'm 17 and I feel the same way," or "I'm 15 and I wish it was still the 1970s, Zep rules," or what have you, litter the internet and earn the appreciation of the majority, despite the pointlessly reductive nature of the comments.

Rose-tinted glasses tend to illustrate this mentality in its totality--accusations that Glee is being compared to the Beatles acts on the assumption that the charts were magically made entirely of the music we hear regularly now, despite the fact that many express pearl-clutching despair at the "travesty" of so-and-so having a #1 single now, despite the fact that Classic Rock Band X never did--which obviously tells us that there was something else in its place, though I suppose the assumption might be that 1970s charts ran "Zeppelin, Queen, Bowie, Clash, Kiss, Thin Lizzy..." or some such fantastic nonsense. A quick glance disproves this readily, showing names I've never heard, and inevitably earn the, "Oh, yeah, I'd forgotten all about that song..." responses from those who lived then.

Now, certainly, the pop charts in particular are more focused on the genres of music that seem to be "distilled" into the more confectionery variety of music, but that's a result of splitting charts, communities, genres and musical availability further and further as time goes on. We have a magazine named for an album named for a cover of a song that is used to describe an entire genre, for instance (No Depression). At that point, is it really fair to expect pop charts to run the gamut of genres? When you are able to pick a genre, a focal periodical or website, order independent releases directly and affect the charts in this fashion?

Of course, don't take this as dismissal of modern pop music as a whole--I don't get a chance to hear much these days, but I've liked plenty of songs here and there, and even own both of Lady GaGa's first albums for myself, as does one of my most well-rounded-musically friends, who could also manage an impressive bout of discussion about musical history. Certainly enough to scorch those who respect only "classic rock," as both of us listen to plenty of that, as well.

This also has led to increased willingness for people to more openly and visibly declare that they know better than an artist what they "mean" to do--not in the sense of feeling they aimed for something and missed, but of aiming for the "wrong" thing. Mike Mictlan of Doomtree recently released SNAXXX, an interim "mixtape" intended to tide us over until he finishes another complete album to follow up his debut with producer Lazerbeak, Hand Over Fist. Mictlan has always been the most "traditional" of the Doomtree crew, having made his home in Los Angeles for some years, and being recommended by P.O.S. as the crew member to ask for rap battling, and most prone to braggadocio. Still, at least one listener suggested Mictlan had no business releasing this, as Doomtree "is about" socially conscious rapping--missing out on, for example, Sims' "Spinal Tap," most tracks from Mictlan's contributions, and various bits and chunks from throughout time. Or those who suggest Dessa is "better" than rap and has no business tooling around with the guys--despite the fact that her earliest contributions were all more rap-focused anyway. Of course, most bizarre in either case, is that the crew as a whole has endorsed their releases, furthering the notion that any declarations of what "should" be are utterly inaccurate.

Naturally, my friends often simply respond to these frustrations with the eminently reasonable, "Some people are just stupid jerks," but I'm left with enough faith in human nature--somehow!--to think that everyone might receive just a little more enjoyment if they looked for what might be good, instead of attempting to earn "cool" points by having the "right" opinions.

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats managed to drop a comment to this very effect in a recent interview (somewhat ironically, written up for Pitchfork, who tend to feel the exact opposite):

"Not to be a total hippie about it, but every place on earth has a frequency. It's not good or bad, it's just the way it is, and if you can attune yourself to that frequency, then you can find comfort in that. You can get into anything if you are determined. I always thought that with music, too. I don't like to say, "Oh, I don't like this kind of music." I like to listen to it and try to see what people who like it get out of it."

Of course, Darnielle put some people in an awkward position by recording, semi-famously, a Goats-take on Ace of Base's "The Sign," without any sense that he did this to distance himself from the original, but more because, he said, he always liked the song anyway.

And that's the kind of attitude I like--strange though it seems to be.


  1. Fascinating article, RC. I agree that seldom is it the case that an artist's entire body of work dismissable. Even blind pigs occasionally manage to find a truffle, as they say. As I age I find myself revisiting much that I dismissed in my youth with a different ear. It's an interesting and occasionally shocking experience to find that I now enjoy many things I initially disliked as a matter of principle. Peers play such a large role in shaping what is acceptable to listen to. When one matures it's easier to come to one's own opinion rather than relying upon others.

  2. It does make things easier, certainly. Sometimes it feels, though, that the nature of "peers" as a group has changed so significantly that, well, "the chokehold ain't local no more," as Sims said. Mixing age groups bring people from multiple generations insisting that there is no good new music; self-defined intellectuals and "hipsters" in the sense of rabidly pursuing that which is "hip" place pressure from a different angle--eventually leaving any individuals with only the narrowest of avenues to follow.

    Most of my experience in online communities around music has come around to a bunch of people all telling each other everything is terrible with a handful of exceptions at most.


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