Saturday, May 27, 2006

Bad Music

Here is a dumb axiom that is nevertheless useful. Different kinds of music help us understand different kinds of theory; conversely, different kinds of theory help us understand different kinds of music. Misapply the wrong kind of analytic framework to the wrong kind of examples and you end up with a big old mess. This is one of the reasons that a lot of the recent TV-related academic/fan-culture crossover books put together by university presses and hi-brow publishers (e.g. Buffy and Philosophy, The Sopranos and Philosophy, Home Improvement and Philosophy, etc.) have been so disappointing. Almost every chapter witnesses the authors applying the wrong theories to the wrong examples and predictably producing lame excurses that must warm the hearts of those stodgy eggheads who have always denied the validity of serious thinking about popular culture.

Music is subjected to fewer of these embarassments than TV and movies, but once in a while it too gets washed in an unwelcome Ivory Tower soapbath. Case in point: the anthology Bad Music: The Music We Love To Hate, edited by Christopher J. Washburne and Maiken Derno, and published by Routledge in 2004. Since I have been very interested in "bad music" and approaches to its production and study for a few years now, I have to admit that I bring an agenda to my criticisms. The study of "bad music" is, to my mind, least productive when it takes place within the broader acadmic discourse of taste cultures, canon formation, and adherence to/deviation from common practice norms... and especially when it fails to critique these foundations of bourgeois aesthetics. Of course, we need to keep in mind the tensions and oppositions between, say, "in tune" and "out of tune" or the effects produced by standard versus unconventional instrumental techniques, to make sense of "bad music." Ultimately, however, "bad music" should alert us to the purely ideological nature of taste. A sincere engagement with "bad music" ought to demystify the hidden but powerful cultural codes that direct our ears to appreciate only a very narrow swath of pre-approved musical pleaures.

Jacques Attali's work on the political economy of music, though massively problematic, is useful here.
So-called "outsider" music, european free improvisation, "American Idol" auditioners like William Hung, The Shaggs, Jenks "Tex" Carman, Sun Ra, Joseph Spence, C Newman, Jandek. What could they all have in common? Well, I tried to get at this a few months back in a short piece on Keven Federline and Derek Bailey... and came to the conclusion that the "correct" theoretical cognate of "bad music" was "difference," that shibboleth of nineties philosophy. Who doesn't like difference?

To take an Attali-an tack, bad music reveals the "channelization" of desire necessary to produce capitalist musical culture. Why do we all "want" to listen to the same voices, the same song forms, the same recording quality, the same "stars"? Because of a violent process of exclusion, of which we are reminded forcefully when we hear the errant strains of Dot Wiggins' guitar or Kan Mikami's voice. And when we are made aware of the technology of perfectioneering (such as the voice-correction on Cher's "Believe" a perfect audio analog of the visibly airbrushed abdominal "definition" on Mariah Carey's torso), we are similarly made privy to a "secret" that undermines the entire imaginary investment process.

Back to
Bad Music, the book. Since my main criticism is of the classic "begging the question" variety ("why has your interest in 'bad music' not led you to reject your fealty to normative musicological discourse?"), it isn't fair to condemn the authors for missing the point. I will try instead to highlight some fertile areas that are missed because of methodological tunnel vision.

One especially frustrating chapter will serve as the focus of discussion here. It considers the "badness" of country music, and tries to link the popular perception of country music as "bad" with country's presumed instantiation of "whiteness." Because I am fascinated by the implication of some of the other chapters (especially those that take up the question of the relationship between bad music and the contemporary avant garde) but too lazy to engage them here, I hope to return to them in a later post.

The author of the "country as bad music" chapter does not go much beyond pointing out the alleged "guilt by association" of country music (a term that is used without differentiation between sub-genres, regional variations, more and less commercial variants, and recorded vs. live and amateur vs. pro performance): its links, in the popular imagination, with white supremacist politics and southern social conservatism. Instead of looking to the contradictory production of "white" aesthetics within the vast swath of country music that people claim to find "bad," the author avoids considering country's musical qualities-- what people write and play and sing and listen and dance to-- seriously. It would indeed be fascinating to explore the peculiar contradictions of a white-dominated mass culture aimed primarily at white consumers that nevertheless maintains great scorn for "white" aesthetics, which I believe is arguably the case with country music (at teast in regard to certain semiotic elements such as "twang," nasality, close harmony, and perhaps even the waltz and 4/4 shuffle beats).

Similarly, instead of examining why country music haters associate it with a set of practices that are actually quite rare within country music (exaggerated drawls, idiotic lyrics about impossibly bathetic life circumstances, 3 chord songs, etc. which are found mainly in comedic mass-media products like Hee-Haw and the Blue Collar Comedy Tour), but which appeal to a nasty metropolitan ideology that conflates poor whites with backwardness and political primitivism, the author looks to marginal figures like Johnny Rebel and David Allan Coe, country singers who did produce patently racist material for the southern record market.

Most country fans, and I would guess all but a very few country haters have never heard this music (all of Johnny Rebel's music and those songs of Coe's that are racist, which is a small part of his output, which for the record, I find very uninteresting) or dislike it intensely. I base this conclusion on a discussion thread on a forum for country music practitioners and afficianados to which I belong concerning Johnny Rebel. Very few of the discussants had heard of Johnny Rebel, and all expressed revulsion at his music.

This lack of familiarity with fringe country racists is certainly true of the great mass of country indifferentists-- folks who don't care much one way or another about the music of Nashville and Bakersfield and Kentucky and Austin, but nevertheless find certain aspects of country music "bad" which country musicians and fans consider "good." It is this dissonance which we should probe, and it is indeed this dimension of musical "difference" that makes bad music fascinating.

We should recall that primal scene of most of the music enthusiasts I have met: a confrontation with a musical performance that generates the following thought process (the names are, of course, totally arbitrary). Is is it that she does not know how to sing like Celine Dion? Is she trying and failing? Or does she actually
prefer singing like Alice Gerrard, Jandek, Ami Yoshida, or whoever? Did that guitarist fall asleep during his lessons? Is he somebody's cousin? Has he failed to respond to learn the sounds that land you the gigs in the pit band at Busch Gardens or in Paula Abdul's touring band? Does he indeed intend to make that plinky choked note, that out of tune bend, or that scratchy noise, because that is how music sounds right to him? Once this process has worked its magic, life tends to never be the same again... which is one of music's great subversive ploys...

To conclude: the project of thinking through the micro-aesthetics of "bad music" could help us understand many aspects of both "pop" and "out" music that remain mired in conceptual ooze. Why "bad" expressive preferences go in and out of favor within the musical mainstream, or gain and lose semiotic charge as expressions of "whiteness" or "blackness," "maleness" or "femaleness," "healthy" or "sick," "sane" or "crackers" is of great significance... We should try to figure it out, no?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Materiel World

The challenge that faces us when we want to think seriously about modern music concerns the "textiness" of songs, records, scores, etc. There is enough dissonance and contradiction within this theoretical area to keep aesthetic philosophers busy for a long time, and to keep the rest of us awash in drool and eye-glaze...

I am sure we will return to get impaled on the horns of these dilemmas in time (especially regarding matters intellectual property-related), but for now I merely wish to clear a bit of ground for extra-textual analysis, or, if you will, to think about re-inserting musical production and reception in the material world. Or, more precisely, the historical materialist world... you know, the obsolete, old-fashioned theater of class struggle, complete with alienated labor and exploitation and commodity-fetishism and all the other nostalgic residue of mass production that was supposed to disappear in the awesome nineteen-nineties technotopia.

Have I misspelled the title of this post? Well, not intentionally, at least. I have used the term "materiel," which denotes military supplies, weapons, artillery, etc. to underline the violent social relations that are required to keep our fantasy machines and virtual prostheses rolling off of production lines and neatly stacked on the shelves of Target and Toys 'R' Us. I was reminded of how little we know about this violent underbelly in a striking quote excerpted in a discussion thread concerning a piece by Michael Steinberg on the uses and misuses of the concept of "genocide" on the fantastic site. I have not reached anything like a clear idea about whether "genocide" ought to be retained as a legal category within international jurisprudence (I have only read enough to conclude that I have grave doubts about its status), and I have no expertise on the events debated on this thread... but I couldn't believe what I was reading when I encountered this statement from journalist Johann Hari, regarding the Rwandan invasion of the Congo:

"Oh, and the reason why this invasion was so profitable? Global demand for coltan was soaring throughout the war because of the massive popularity of coltan-filled Sony Playstations. As Oona King, one of the few British politicians to notice Congo, explains as we travel together for a few days, 'Kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms.'

This link between catastrophe in the Congo and the selling of phantasmic imaginary aggression in the rich countries of the West suggests to me that behind the screens of virtuality, the violent destruction of real human bodies continues to be a precondition. Not only is
coltan a key component in Playstations, but it is also used widely in cellphone circuit-boards and inside the guts of many personal computers and no doubt many other gadgets... Playstations and other video game units are increasingly important media of musical transmission... surely the acousmatic dimension of video games contributes to the construction and perpetuation of the fantasies to which gamers gain access when they fire up the various high-ticket cubes and boxes... and cellphones may be the most significant new addition to the technology of sound communication since the radio...

Nevertheless, my interest in this story is not so much motivated by the obvious salience of this story to these phenomena as to the more general theme of the marketing of affect: how feelings become saleable commodities. It is certainly true, as many commentators such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have insisted, that this category of production (literally, the production of feelings, as in the luxury "care" sector, the production of arousal in the porn industry, the imperative to produce a sense of well-being and comfort on the part of many service employees) has become increasingly dominant in the contemporary international economy.

And who are the original affective workers
par excellence but musicians... from the baroque composers who pioneered the theory of the "doctrine of affections" to the environment coordinators and feeling-modulators of the Muzak corporation, from the twinkling of the Nordstrom's pianist to the punk rock screamer whose voice delivers access to a "structure of feeling" that liberates the preteen listener from the confines of suburban desperation.

I would not want to suggest here anything but the significance of music-making as affective work, and to remind myself that in mass-reproduced forms, the process that intervenes between a whisper leaving the lips of a singer and entering the ear of a listener is sometimes a murdered body politic.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Hello everybody! This is the inaugural post of my new blog, which will focus on the politics of music, the music of politics, the fetishism of commodities, the negation of the negation, and possibly the all-new negation of the negation of the negation, which could, on a sad note, cause your computer to explode, or worse, fill your toolbar with dancing GWF Hegel smiley faces. My intention is to update this puppy on a fairly regular basis, but we will see how it goes. Failing all else, I will try to upload some new writing every weekend...

I have borrowed my title from Joe Meek and The Blue Men's 1960 recording of the same name. This remarkable document, sometimes called the first concept album, combines just about every fathomable class of discrepancy from classical norms-- out of tune melodies, massive overcompression, errant rhythms, all manner of noises and odd effects-- in order to manifest Meek's powerfully singular musical vision. This affirmation of difference, not Meek's kitschy but nevertheless appealing conjuring of alien civilizations, is the lesson I wish to draw from "I Hear A New World," and the rationale for taking its title as our moniker.

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