Stupid Names

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

I don’t hate Thomas Pynchon like New York magazine reviewer Sam Anderson apparently does, but I agree with him about this: “I hate — maybe most of all — his characters’ stupid names.” Picking awful, jokey names for characters does seem to call the whole aesthetic into question, as it puts Pynchon’s sense of humor in a bad light. And the names come up continually, reminding readers over and over that that they might not be in safe hands. Is it ever actually funny when made-up characters are given funny names? Or is this a rhetorical tactic that only high-school English teachers find droll and amusing?

The complaint about stupid names reminded me of my long-held philosophy of judging bands by their names confidently, without ever having to hear their music. If a band chooses an annoying name — one of the most definitive choices they have to make collectively about what they are trying to accomplish — you can count on them to make similarly poor choices in their music. TV on the Radio? Sounds great, lets go for it, it’s got something. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? Yes! Really whimsical. CYHSY! (Generally, it is bad when your band’s name is typically compressed to an acronym when your releases are being reviewed. This recourse to abbreviation is to save space, but I’m sure it also helps writers and editors keep from vomiting on their keyboards.)

A band’s name is a potent symbol in the use of musical taste for signaling purposes. If the band’s name seems dumb to me, I won’t adopt that band and integrate it with my sense of self. I won’t fly my own identity under that sort of banner. The more musical taste functions as a parameter of fan identity, the more important the name becomes — I must be far gone, then, since I am consuming the names alone in many instances and never bothering with the music. Often I have a fantasy of finding a radio station that I trust enough to hear a steady stream of music without ever having to hear the names of the artists.

But sadly when I hear something good, I want to possess more information about it. I can’t surrender to the song; I need to maintain a facade of self-control by marshaling and mobilizing facts about it. (I can sympathize with the fear that TNR’s Jason Zengerle expresses here. To preserve our imaginative faculties, he suggests that “the trick is carving out spaces in your life that are disconnected, or at least at a certain remove, from the information overload that’s all around us.” But technology is developing to always put temptation in our path, or rather in our palms.)

Sometimes bands with great names (High on Fire) can’t live up to their moniker, but rarely have I turned out to be wrong about a band with a dumb name (virtually every indie band from the 1990s). I can think of only a few bands with names I think I are terrible whose music isn’t also terrible: My Morning Jacket, Spoon, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Can’t think of any others.

UPDATE: This PSFK post mentions “augmented reality,” probably the next iteration of technology mediating our interaction to the entire world. Do people really want this sort of service before it’s available, or do they have it foisted on them and then reconcile themselves to it after the fact by embracing its seeming advantages? It’s only when I know I can readily access more info about something that I have a distracting wish to do so.