This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project by Eric Weisbard
'Creativity has become reduced to taste games,' says Reynolds, and thus 'music for music's sake' has become the primary force driving the authorial role in pop. Will someone knight this guy, already?"
Herbert Gans argued that every segment of society was entitled to its taste and deserved whatever level of culture it demanded. But to me this easy pluralism devalues the seriousness of some popular culture and eliminates the critic's necessary role, which is to make distinctions and judgments.
-- Morris Dickstein
To his credit, This Is Pop editor Eric Weisbard has gathered an impressively diverse collection of pop music studies, written under the aegis of the Experience Music Project. It's the best and worst of both the university-sponsored culture studies crowd and the more opinion-driven culture critics with occasional input from a musician or two. And whether your allegiances are with academia's more formal studies or mainstream public-sector pop criticism, the well-argued, well-written pieces here transcend lowbrow/highbrow distinctions, as do poorly argued and poorly written ones.
The "Keynote" face-off is on American exceptionalism in popular music. Weisbard pits feisty American rock critic Bob Christgau against the UK's wily pop-statistician Simon Frith. This cross-Atlantic cage match finds Christgau arguing that the rhythms of hip-hop still make the US exceptional. Christgau then loses points for a grotesquely self-congratulating remark about his own exceptionality: "[My] appetite for so-called world music sets me apart from most mainstream critics." Frith persuasively concludes that America no longer has a global monopoly on rhythm. Christgau eventually forfeits with a last-minute disclaimer, "But this isn't reasoned analysis, just words." UK 1, US 0.
Next, consider the US Weekly-caliber thinker Ann Powers and disco musicologist Robert Walser. Both are ideal representatives of the "consensus" crowd of Cult Studs, who urge the critical community to downplay the importance of individual taste and aesthetic judgment. They plead for critics and Cult Studs alike to adopt a unified, uncritical, empathy-based approach to pop phenomena. Their disdain for "elitist" individualism sounds suspiciously like Herbert Gans redux. Their work, driven by love and sentiment, predictably reads like graduate-level celebrity journalism.
Walser's essay, "Groove as Niche", is a smoke-filled study of those familiar repetitive qualities in music that bring motion to otherwise inert rumps; there's also a desperate attempt to examine the fleeting universality of long-deposed disco kings, Earth Wind and Fire. Walser is convinced EWF's music was embraced because of the harmonic diversity and the social significance of their open-ended community-minded grooves. After noting the lukewarm critical reception of EWF, he's noticeably angry that few critics shared his tastes. He soon breaks down in a teary reactionary tantrum: "Many rock critics value cynicism more than sincerity... anger more than love." Speaking of love, Walser loves overstating the obvious: "grooves establish rhythmic relationships that are experienced as qualities of motion and structures of feeling." True, grooves make you feel like movin' that ass, but Walser never convincingly explains what gave EWF's music more universal appeal than say, Chic or the Bee Gees. Did Chic's catchy rock-funk guitar licks and mono-chordal harmonic structures make them any less likeable among the millions afflicted by boogie fever?
On to more tolerable entries, Luc Sante aces another final exam with a brainy historical piece on the origins of the blues. Gary Giddins makes a convincing argument that jazz is not dead, but on some sort of extended life-support. Daphne A. Brooks turns in an informed study on the multi-culti literacy informing Chris Rock's barbed satirical wit, and its formidable cross-cultural appeal. Carrie Brownstein applies a little audience-response theory to the ever-shifting meanings live performance gives to recorded work. Geoffrey O' Brien detours from all the socio-cultural politicking with a wholly original piece on the progressively dominant role of film soundtrack music: from Max Steiner's eloquent service to the script, to Quentin Tarantino films in which soundtrack begets script.
Authorship and authenticity are also Big Themes, as David Sanjek examines the dubious origins of Merle Travis songs, stressing the futility of terms like "authenticity" when making value judgments. Deena Weinstein and Jason Toynbee have conflicting ideas about the creative forces behind authorship: Toynbee says authorship is always a social process, and that Western capitalist interests forged the Creative Genius myth. Weinstein argues that the mythical romance of the individual auteur will always curse rock bands. The self-obsessed Sarah Dougher weighs in with a provocative but unsubstantiated claim: when a female rocker uses the authorial "I," people assume the song is autobiographical -- but when a male uses it, the "I" is perceived as a universal voice. Is this a valid claim? Didn't everyone assume that Lou Reed was a heroin addict, just because he used the first-person in "Heroin"? (Actually, he was a speed addict.)
Post-meta-hyper-professor Josh Clover is seized by his usual fits of verbal epilepsy in "Good and Bad Pop". Like Powers, who finds too much meaning in the hackwork of Lifehouse and Enya (via the Dick Cheney tactic of invoking their ties to 9/11), Clover argues that it is pop's intrinsic "sameness" and disposability (or "synchronic" quality) that we should value. Why? Because the top 40 is a "formal, intransigent account of modernity." Students, revolt!
And now to the opposite extreme of the Walser-Powers school of socially-conscious objectivity: the predictably opinionated schtick of well-paid lowbrow Chuck Klosterman, forever sporting the dunce's cap for Manhattan publishing bling. In "Sincerity and Pop Greatness", the Pauly Shore of culture criticism gets a Big Idea: People are more apt to label a song as "great" if it's based in some sort of perceived reality. He uses the perceived "greatness" of Carly Simon's non-fictional "You're So Vain," as a ridiculous example. Chuck then determines that the listener creates the meaning of a pop song! And of course, provocation and polemic for Klosterman simply means saying stupid shit: "Moby's support comes from... people who don't really care about music" and "Kurt Cobain was not great because he was real; he was real because he was great".
And as usual, Simon Reynolds, proves to be one of the more perceptive pop music critics around. In "Lost In Music" he elaborates on Julian Dibbell's smart study of record-collecting eroticism, explaining how this fetishist record-collector mentality has affected the production of contemporary pop/rock. Reynolds's writing blends incisive wit with encyclopedic pop culture knowledge, and he makes casually brilliant connections that most of Weisbard's assembly miss: i.e., the political and cultural disconnect in today's young bands, exacerbated by an obsessive record-collector "sickness". "Creativity has become reduced to taste games," says Reynolds, and thus "music for music's sake" has become the primary force driving the authorial role in pop. Will someone knight this guy, already?
As Reynolds and others prove, this recurring notion of a linguistic crisis in culture criticism is simply theoretical phantom chasing. The language to understand pop culture exists, if you know where to look. Besides, modes of culture criticism should be splintered, unruly, and competitive. If the work of "consensus" advocates is any example, surrendering one's value judgments for a more communal way of thinking about pop's complexity (or lack thereof) will quickly turn criticism into copywriting.