Reviews

This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project by Eric Weisbard

Michael Sandlin

'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?"


This Is Pop

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 400
Subtitle: In Search of the Elusive At Experience Music Project
Price: $19.95 (US)
Author: Eric Weisbard
US publication date: 2004-05
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.