Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Mozart’s Hyundai

Kasey's right, of course – the car metaphor’s a pretty weak one, or at least (like everything else) gets more and more complicated as you spin it out. When it comes to automobiles, almost any evaluative metric you use is going to be tied up with class and status (not to mention sex and aggressivity and all the other things the American driver invests her/his car with); but that doesn’t mean one should necessarily dismiss those metrics. The Volvo might be the ultimate upper-middle-class Europhile Garrison Keilor-listener mobile, but I’d sure rather be in a Volvo than a Hydundai when I get T-boned by that Mustang. And a car, whether a little deuce coupe or a long white cadillac, is neither a pop song nor a poem. (Nor, usually, is a pop song a poem, tho one can occasionally apply some of the same interpretive and evaluative measures to the words.)

And’s he right that SF/J, while he may be on a bender against the term “disposable” on the blog – “So: ‘disposability’ is a useless metric, a dumbass way of discussing music” – doesn’t take anywhere near that raging stand against that implicit metric in his actual criticism. I think what he was largely grousing about was a kind of knee-jerk dismissive use of the term, which usually does have a lot of class baggage: you like that disposable crap like Beyonce, while I like timeless shit like Mozart (which I listen to in my Rolls, while you pump out the hip-hop from those tacky massive speakers in your Hyundai).

And I like Kasey’s little sociologico-cynical analysis of how pop music gets “used” by aged squares like me (I think I’m about the same age as SF/J, but I’m not nearly as cool): “a mechanism for status-generating social displays of cultural awareness among said squares.” (Unfortunately, my circle of acquaintances is so deeply square that dropping Beyonce’s name has all the cultural impact of quoting Zizek at a Palm Beach mah-jongg party – “say what?”) I even like Kasey’s wee utopian analysis of what cultural criticism at its best might be – “a multi-depth field of formal analysis in which one may examine simultaneously aesthetic forms themselves (i.e., songs and performers) and the network of political/economic/cultural production and ideology that subtends those forms” – tho that very easily folds back into “feeling ideologically pure by thinking about stuff that one enjoys anyway.”

Yeah, it’s probably too early to start thinking about long-range “durability” in regards to pop music. The best one can do is finger the songs and artists that one can still listen to 20-25 years on. Which is a pretty individualist metric (in Joshua’s words “the anecdotal subjective accounts of individual consumers”), & for most people simply means what they were listening to at that formative 18-24-year-old moment: they play a lot of Glenn Miller, Andrews Sisters, and Elvis down here in South Florida; ten years from now, they’ll be piping The Doors into the nursing homes (probably not “The End”), in another twenty Pearl Jam and Madonna. That has nothing to do with durability, everything to do with simple familiarity. (It’s the same reason William F. Buckley always argues that Shelley is the greatest English poet, and nobody after really counts – it’s what he read back at Andover, or Exeter, or wherever.)

But I think one can see something like a metric of “durability” being constructed – as it always is – on a social, collective level in the interaction of listeners and critics: in short, in the whole process of pop music canon-formation, which looks pretty much like a speeded-up version of literary canon-formation. Look at the critical-popular fortunes of the Roxy Music principals, Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, for instance. When I started listening to them a quarter century ago (!), Ferry was a major pop music player & Eno was an obscure experimentalist, worshipped by the critics but not exactly a household name. Hard to find his records in middle Tennessee, tho it was easy enough to get Ferry’s and the post-Eno Roxy. Now Ferry’s not exactly a has-been, but who talks about These Foolish Things or The Bride Stripped Bare? (That's the Ferry album, not the Duchamp work...) On the other hand, I can walk to the nearest mall (not a hotbed of “high” culture) and pick up the entire Eno catalogue in nice new remasters. That I think is influence at work: the fact that the whole world of electronica sees Eno as a founding parent. (The Velvets the other great example of overlooked artists proving massively influential.)

Influence isn’t exactly equivalent to durability, but I think the former is or can be an element of the latter. And in poetry or pop, there’s not always a long-term equivalence: most influential late 18th-c. poet? “Ossian” by a long shot, but he’s entirely unreadable now. The artist who exerts that kind of mesmeric influence of those who come after is thereby precisely increasing her/his chances of being read (being sold, being kept in print) for the long term.

There are no evaluative metrics that are not somehow socially grounded – and since we live in a class society, that are not entangled with class investments. But as Wittgenstein says somewhere, “the difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our beliefs” – not in order to happily chuck them away, but in order to make socially grounded evaluations of them, and to regard them with a critical consciousness.
Sleepy week on the blogosphere...

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