It's less that these are objective terms and more that they invoke a certain style of performance. Less attitude, more sincerity. Or, on the flipside, less passion, more boredom. I know, I know, what interesting words really are objective when it comes to describing music, and I of all people would rather argue opinions that facts anyways. But, the term always rubs me the wrong way.
A lot of music is, in my opinion, too much. What's the opposite of stripped-down, wrapped-up? Bundled up? I'm not sure, but I know it when I hear it. And it can happen in so many ways. Vocal showiness, too much background noise, too much harmony, a producer who is too fond of Pro-Tools. I see a lot of people make use of that stuff simply to hide their inability to carry it more plainly. Studio tricks abound, and to some extent we are all using them, and the truth is, voices are just plain tricky sometimes. But it's not cool to dress up a song with crap to hide all that.
And then there are, of course, lots of things to love about mega-productions. So I'm not talking about all music, I'm just talking about that section of bad music that cant pull it off. Some people go for Sea Change, and others strictly Midnite Vultures. What can I say, it depends on the mood.
Some people would say that the true test of a good song is in it's most basic (a.k.a. straightforward) form. I'm not sure how I feel about that. If what we are judging is song quality, does it matter what instruments are used? yes, of course. But then again, there's a certain pleasure in hearing Springsteen's "Born in the USA" when he plays it solo, or hearing Counting Crows play an entire concert in which they turned all their songs into slow, acoustic ballads. And, then again, there's that Ted Leo cover of "Since U Been Gone," which, although people seem to love it, does no justice to Kelly Clarkson's version.
I don't really have a point. Beware of over-production. And Luxmundito.
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A sentence in it has stuck with me though, in the 20 minutes since I read it, so I want to figure out why.
Alissa Quart writes: "If it all sounds hopelessly earnest — another emo band bent on saving one little corner of the world — it isn't, or not quite."
I don't know if it's possible to think about this without arguing about the definition of emo, but I'm going to try.
First of all - and this already proves the exercise a failure - emo is about a sound, or a look, or an image, or something. "Saving one little corner of the world" is a goal much larger than a niche marketing tactic or an adolescent boy's sensitivity. It's a grand statement, but it also seems to me to be a defining aspect of pretty much all artists/musicians I know. That's what I want to do. That's what lots of people want to do. It doesn't matter how small the corner (well, to some it does), but that little snarky phrase, well, pisses me off.
"Hopelessly earnest"? The alternative, in the world of pop music anyways, is akin to prostitution, but that's a harsh word. 'Selling your soul' is also a bit melodramatic. 'Faustian' makes it seem more profound. Robert Johnson actually makes it something great. Anyways, it doesnt matter. Why would people choose any of that over earnest-ness? Why does that sound so condescending? I'm not sure.
The very first definition in the OED says "Ardour in battle; in wider sense, intense passion or desire." What is that, too serious for some people? Maybe so. But this whole thing sure does feel like war, or a cycle of war and peace. So I guess I am offended on two counts. One, that an offhand comment belittles a central ethos in the world that I (and a lot of others!) exist in, and two, that is associates something about me with emo, which may be the worse offense.
UPDATE: this, found on Alex Ross's blog:
"Whoever is capable of listening to himself, recognizing his own instincts, and also engrossing himself reflectively in every problem, will not need such crutches. One need not be a pioneer [it. added] to create in this way, only a man who takes himself seriously — and thereby takes seriously that which is the true task of humanity in every intellectual or artistic field: to recognize, and to express what one has recognized!!! This is my belief!" -Schoenberg, of all people.
Terry Teachout wrote an article on the Beatles that got me thinking about some things. I like the musicological perspective that he writes from, incorporating cultural influences outside the realm of pop music. He compares the Beatles to Irving Berlin, that kind of thing. A couple interesting claims in this one:
-The Beatles were the first rock-and-roll musicians to be written about as musicians.
Hmm. I don't have much evidence to back it up, no access to archives and such, but I wonder if this is true. I find it hard to believe, that's all.
-The Beatles were among the first pop musicians to start thinking in terms of recordings, not songs or live performances, as the finished musical product that they would offer to the listening public.
After reading Phil Spector's biography , I find this hard to believe as well. Again, no concrete proof. His use of the word "among" is mollifying though.
-It would not be until McCartney’s “Yesterday” that they recorded a song whose lyrics were of correspondingly high quality [as the melodic structures].
This just isn't true. "'Til There Was You" was released in 1963; "Yesterday" not until 1965. Just one example.
-Unlike jazz, which developed with great speed from a purely functional accompaniment of social dancing into a full-fledged art music of the highest possible seriousness, most rock has remained as commercial as the simplest-minded pop music of the pre-rock era...Without the Beatles, this might well not have been the case. Neither virtuoso instrumentalists nor pure songwriters, they instead explored the possibilities of the hybrid art of the record album as art object more successfully than any other popular musicians of their generation.
Does this mean that the album itself represents the commercial structure of the industry? That may be a redundant question, but relevant too in this time of changing power structures. It seems like there is a conflict here, because on one hand, it's a damning view of an album, but on the other hand, there's a lot to be said for the integrity of an album as a work of art. I, for one, fully support the endeavor, in fact, I tend to respect musicians more for the ability to create an album that coheres.
I'm getting distracted. I'll leave you with my favorite part of Teachout's analysis. It strikes me as a key element of the Beatles' success. I'll never know what it was like to have been a teenager in the 60's, but my generation has its own comparisons:
What started out as a stripped-down, popularized blending of country music and rhythm-and-blues intended for consumption by middle-class teenagers evolved into a new musical dialect in which it was possible to make statements complex and thoughtful enough to seize and hold the attention of adult listeners.
If you know me personally, or if you just know my music, it's obvious how much of an impact these experiences have had on me. Wolf Trap is one of those places where people drive two or three hours for a show, and I lived about five miles from it.
So you can imagine my happiness when I discovered a Wolf Trap Blog! It's run by a woman named Kim Pensinger Witman, and is devoted to reporting on the Wolf Trap Opera Company. Now, I've never seen an opera, not at Wolf Trap or anywhere, but I sure studied them a lot in college. When we lived in Paris I declined to join the others to see an opera in the Jardin du Luxembourg- I just didn't feel like going. It'll happen one day, I'm sure.
Ms. Witman addresses several different things in the blog that I can appreciate, but my most favorite part (b/c of its relevance) are the audition notes. It seems that she's taken her reactions from what appears to be many, many auditions and posted them for all the world to read. They remain anonymous, of course, but boy, are they enlightening.
Now, I don't pretend to have the skills of an opera singer. But, having never taken voice lessons, or really even spoken of vocal chords as an instrument, something in her remarks hit a profound chord with me (pun intended). People pay attention to things that I think pop music critics and musicians often ignore. What's more, they (she, in this case) comeup with useful critiques that are at once metaphorical, practical, and poetic. Here's a few of my favorites:
-This is so obviously effortful; visually and audibly apparent
-There’s a significant flutter and it’s not always under control; there are some go-for-broke moments that end up being variable in pitch and placement
-Steely top. With a bit of a wobble. It’s not pretty per se, but interesting.
-He works very hard, but the performance doesn’t fully take off. My response is one of respect, but not one of wanting to hire him
-Trouble expressing different characters/ideas, it all sounds the same.
-Doesn’t sing a single clear vowel
-She seems either nervous or lost or sad; or all of the above
-He’s good, but his inventiveness doesn’t sustain him through this whole long scene
-Making good musical sense of the Stravinsky; the courage to invest in the phrasing, find the core of the intentions behind them
-You can see and hear her executing everything she’s been taught, but it’s so hard to believe any of it
-He doesn’t fully trust his equipment yet. But this is still one of the best renditions I have heard
Here's a link to one of the full postings.
For those of you near DC, here is the link to the concert schedule.
I got my introduction to "The Authenticity Debate" in college, in an odd-shaped, one-round-wall-and-two-flat-walls space that otherwise would have been library storage. Above us was Cabell Hall, the University of Virginia's music auditorium, so we were frequently conducting class while listening to the Glee Club's glee or the orchestra's tunings. Outside our door were the Music Library stacks, a circular trail (remember, underneath the auditorium) that wound through music scores and theses and rock criticism, up and down ramps, occasionally skirting a table or at least a chair.
In short, it was a haven of sorts, a place to disappear and also find yourself in dusty volumes and endless interpretations of things that matter - and wireless internet to boot! But this is not merely library worship. You have to understand that this building is located in the famed "academic village," Thomas Jefferson's vision of a civilized community of scholars designed to promote all the good stuff about secular education that I need not get into. The mumbo-jumbo of TJ's ideas retains it's credibility, but is complicated by many other truths about his life that seem to get in the way. Nevertheless, it remains that any UVA grad will attest to the beauty and grandeur of The Lawn, the main quad that is lined with the original dorm quarters (now reserved for those special few who make the cut) and bookended by the Rotunda on one end - a mini, Jeffersonian Pantheon - and good old Cabell Hall on the other. Even if the most memorable experiences of the Lawn involve streaking it, getting caught by policemen with flashlights, and returning to your pile of clothes in the corner only to find them misplaced by your devious friends.
Strolling down the length of the Lawn, famously terraced for maximum grandiosity, underneath the colonnades, admiring the overwatered spring green grass and the perfectly spaced trees (and the students playing frisbee or having picnics, living the very pictures that peppered the catalogue they received in high school), up the stairs with the secret society's cryptic markings, into Cabell Hall where I would then descend into the depths of the Music Library, there was surely a lot to contemplate about authenticity. But this post isn't meant to be about UVA, it started off as an introduction and turned into a quasi-nostalgic description of things I used to do (see the later reference to nostalgia for a possible explanation).
So, with an overly indulgent context now set, I return. Gilstrap addresses the problems of authenticity as a method of judgement for "true" roots music, because it inherently prevents anyone from using it in a way that preserves its authenticity. How's that for a mobias strip?
So people have attached certain cornerstones of knowledge to the term, hoping to at least represent a sort of knowing-ness and connection to things that is deeper than the average American. It's strange, because isn't roots music - americana, whatever you want to call it - isn't it supposed to be representative of the general American population? People use the term "Authenticity" to make a distinction between something that means something and something that blatantly buys into consumer culture. Nostalgia is a big part of it.
Before too long, how many songs will be born of genuine personal experience, as opposed to someone's abstract idea of what certain experiences must feel like, or from vague memories of experiences that don't exist anymore? In short, is it possible for there to be genuine roots music — at least in the traditionally accepted sense — anymore, without it being little more than proof that someone listened to their Alan Lomax, Carter Family, and Muddy Waters discs with a really attentive ear?
People don't necessarily have to label themselves as followers of a certain tradition in order to actually be followers of a certain tradition. It's all in the aftermath, anyways. The tags become reference points for, yes, discussion, but mainly, for consumption.
My definition of roots music is that it hails from the period before music splintered into genres. Before "rock and roll" became an advertising slogan. I don't know when that is, somewhere around 1950 I think. I mean people like Bill Haley and Big Joe Turner and Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams- they pre-date things like "rock," "country," "folk." And once you mix in early blues and jazz, it's a virtual melting pot- how American. When music recalls this era, it has the makings of being authentic roots music.
You have to take into consideration the way that technology has changed the sound of music as well, and then there is the little phenomenon of rock and roll (maybe these two things are related, like form and function- which is a duck, which is a decorated shed?) to contend with, and hence the reason why there is so much debate about authenticity. There have to be new definitions. I think we are all living proof of them, it's just a matter of being able to put it into words.
thanks, sam! I love blog-fame.
In the 19th century, a pioneering (and female!) photographer named Julia Margaret Cameron emulsified the images of lots of wild-haired men. Formidable, respected men- beautiful old men. Quick links: J.F.W. Herschel, an astronomer, and John Everett Millais, a painter.
Cameron took two main kinds of photographs: gorgeously romantic, fairylike portraits of children, and what an old professor of mine called Beautiful Old Men. I always thought that was a term that Cameron herself used, but Prof. Sapir may have made it up (I bet he himself would qualify, if he had his say.) In the context of Cameron's work, it is surely an aesthetic description, and more importantly, the overlap of their aesthetic representation with their contributions to society. There was something about the way the men were photographed that communicates this.
I'll list a few modern-day BOMs before I go any further. Yasser Arafat, Johnny Cash, Johnny Carson, Saul Bellow, William Rehnquist, Ronald Regan, Marlon Brando, Strom Thurmond, Pope John Paul II.
Notice anything? They're all dead! So this is where my theory arises. I believe that we are living in an era of transition and instability on all accounts- politically, culturally, environmentally. The red flag that brought this to my attention was that all these BOMs are dying. All of these pillars that our current global identity rests on are crumbling. Ariel Sharon is one. Hell, Rosa Parks is one. And, perhaps, Phil Spector is one as well. Only time will tell.
People often tell me that it's a constant process, old people dying. To a certain extent of course this is true, but periods of boom and bust come and go, and I believe this works in the same way.
People say that history is written by the winners, which is true in politics and such. In music, though, who are the 'winners,' and shouldn't they be out partying while everyone else is trying to analyze what happened?
Phil Spector is an interesting character though. The idea of a recording studio is something so different because of the way he treated them. Endless debate among music geeks. His sonic standards defined everything that we know today about what's expected of "studio-quality" recordings. Which makes you wonder. The man is still awaiting trial for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson, which no doubt will end in his conviction. He was a gun-toting, drug-taking, wild-tempered man- this guy's eccentricity-levels rival those of Michael Jackson when it comes to dubious behavior. Like Jackson, too, he may not be entirely to blame, as environmental and just plain mental factors play a large role.
Phil Spector is a Beautiful Old Man. According to my theory, that means that he must be dying. But that's a whole other story. I'll write about that tomorrow. For now I'm going to record some new music and try to exorcise any notions of walls and things from my aesthetic instinct.
But it wasn't a new industry, this music distribution thing. Tape just made it easier. Before recordings there were arrangements, and there still are. The 19th century saw the rise of the piano in middle class homes, and with that came the music which was played on the piano, and it's all the same stuff that we play today, to a large extent. Concertos and quartets, and things all were rearranged, because it was the only way the music could be reproduced in one's own parlor. Think about it. What if the only way we could hear music was to play it ourselves? An interesting thought. And, if I remember correctly from that insanely hard 19th century music class I had to take (and loved, grudgingly) in college, arrangements had the kind of value similar to pop music today. It was pop music, in effect, and therefore we can translate where that might indicate cultural designations.
(Rossini and all this opera stuff, plus minstrelsy and Gottschalk and Stephen Foster was all going on too, while the German canon of what we call "classical" music was sort of forming in defensive retaliation. But there's a whole lot of difference between Europe and America, so it's more complicated than that, but my point is that the sound of the music has changed drastically b/c of time and technology and so forth, but the function- and form, for that matter- remains very similar).
One thing that wasn't around in the 1800's was radio. Ditto for TV, satellite, etc, etc. Given that recordings aren't necessarily the only way to take music out of the concert hall these days, recordings have less value. Also, now that I'm thinking about it, isn't it interesting that as technology advances and for almost a century has taken music entirely into a personal, internal world (he-llo iPod), it seems to be coming full circle and demanding music's release back into the public domain? Might be a losing battle for the RIAA.
A couple months ago, I blogged about protesting through music. There was a period in there where I played protest songs at the Hopvine every week: "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," "With God On Our Side," "The Times, They Are A'Changin'," "My Uncle," and some others. People liked it, I think. A few came up to me and said things like "that has to be sung, I'm glad to hear it." And "Masters of War" last night was great- more Eddie Vedder than Bob Dylan, and it sure got the crowd riled up. I think I have this fear that an audience sees a singer/songwriter covering Bob Dylan and automatically shrugs them off as a wannabe. I'm back to playing a variety of songs now, because I've been writing too much to not perform any of it. The guy last night said that he does a mash-up of "The Ballad Of Hollis Brown" and "Minarets" - now there's an imposing selection to try an live up to.
Is it possible to escape the shadow? And also, why bother referencing the 60's when you could be referencing the early 20th century, which is after all, what was being "revived." I've been working on some Woody songs, but he's a really hard one to reproduce. Has anyone heard any really great contemporary music that fits this category? I guess I've heard some, but nothing that's really stuck. It takes pop music to do that, so the closest think we have is Kanye West's outburst, I think.