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?

Hooray! A Kurt music blog. Just what I wanted. Really.

I will give this post my full attention as soon as I can as this is a subject I have given much consideration.

I still maintain that livejournal is better than blogspot, however. It facilitates discussion much better.
While I completely agree with what you're saying here, the one achilles heel with this argument is the use of "bad" as a consistent, concrete term.

A couple things, both related to that nightmare of a writer, Irwin Chusid's comment that so-called "outsider" music is music that's "so bad it's good":

1) Jandek, as you know, is one of the most important musicians in my life and as long as I can remember I have never thought of Jandek as being "bad". Unusual, sometimes inept, but never "bad". As you touched upon, Jandek sounds to me like a musician who is making that music because it's how he feels it's the right way to do things, not out of some kind of mental illness or other kind of lack of self-awareness. In that sense, it is unbelievably good music as a good barometer for success in art is "How well did this artist realize his intentions?" Even this question, though, is problematic as it would stir up trouble the way Stockhausen did when he called 9/11/2001 a great work of art.

2) When I was introduced to Shooby Taylor by Ed Harkins he pointed out that Chusid and others have said Shooby is "so bad he's good" but Ed's response was, "There's nothing bad about Shooby. He's so good that he's good." Again, it's funny, lacks traditional skills, and maybe even stupid but Shooby is incredibly good at what he's doing.

This was a long-winded attempt at saying you can't base any kind of argument around ambiguous language. What I'm driving at is that in your discussion perhaps we should find defining terms for what we're talking about that don't assign value.
you know about the Shaggs?
Thanx for the comments, nhennies! I agree that lj is easier for dialogue, but I am too lazy to switch... maybe one day I will bite the bullet.

I agree fully with your criticism of "bad music" as an accurate description of the music under consideration here. This is one of the problems with the anthology-- it includes "guilty pleasure" type music (like rock musicals), well-made but trite music like Kenny G, underdog commercial music, and just plain weird stuff of different stripes. I do, however, like the use of "bad" in journal titles like "bad subjects," which suggests uncooperative, mischeivous, or subversively anomalous. Do you think there is a way to retain the term "bad" if these connotations are stressed?

Lea-- thanks for stopping by. I love the Shaggs!
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