Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Taking Art Seriously

I just want to drink whiskey and sing the blues. - Big Joe Turner

Ever since finishing Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, I've been thinking a whole lot about the way we think about art in general, and music in particular. Especially popular music in its various forms. As I wrote in my original post reviewing the book, while initially drawn to it because of this review, my understanding of the music itself, and social, political, and cultural conditions which birthed it, have changed. With Rolling Stone magazine honoring David Bowie's 65th birthday with a cover featuring a photo from the Ziggy Stardust days and a career retrospective, I think it is important to ask some questions about how we understand the relationships among art and society, and how treat artists and their endeavors.

In the first place, we need to consider the history of rock and roll and, later, rock, as it was interpreted and passed on by critics. As Edward Macan notes in his Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture, rock music's roots in the African-American musical styles of blues and rhythm and blues created, as I called it in a discussion of Lester Bangs' critical work, an ideology of rock. This ideology created a set of iron-clad conditions for considering the merit of any given work. From pp. 169-171:
Besides disliking the perceived suggestio that progressive rock's appeal to high culture lent it "superiority," the critics asserted that the style's eclecticism and appropriation of devices associated with classical music removed it too far from rock's roots in rhythm-and-blues. Dave Marsh, in speaking o the body of twentieth-century popular music as a whole, stated, "What's really marginal [to the history of popular music] is the progressive rock that has produced great albums and dew if any hit singles, while dominating critical discussion. . . . [P]rogressive rock sounds dessicated to me because it's so thoroughly divorced from the taproot of rock and roll: rhythm and blues." Lester Bands, in his vitriolic write-up of ELP for Creem, charged the band with what he considered the greatest "crime" of all: "The insidious befoulment of all that was gutter pure in rock." . . .

Furthermore, "good" music, in the critics' estimation, would not take itself too seriously. Ideally, it would be dance music, rather than music meant to be listened to for its own sake. If it did fall into the latter category, the lyrics were expected to acknowledge rock's past, and to show a certain amount of self-conscious irony. Will Straw notes that "the consistent high regard for singers such as Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, and Tom Waits, for performers like Lou Reed, who played self-consciously with rock and roll imagery, stands out in a rereading of Rolling Stone from this period" (i.e., the early to mid-1970's). Progressive rock lyrics, which grappled with petaphsics and spun out complex narratives, were considered "pretentious" and "overly serious" and were lambasted for lacking any sense of irony. . . .

If progressive rock was too complex, too grandiose, too ambitious, too concerned with art for art's sake, then one would have thought that heavy metal - certainly a populist strain of rock if ever there was one - would receive the critics' approbation. TO the contrary, however, the critics attacked heavy metal with the same fury with which they attacked progressive rock, often illogically reversing their arguments. The seminal English heavy metal band Black Sabbath was described by one critic as having the "sophistication of four Cro-Magnon hunters who've stumbled on a rock band's equipment." Another critic described heavy metal as "music made by slack-jawed, alpaca-haired bulbous-inseamed imbeciles in jackboots and leather chrome for slack-jawed, alpaca-haired, downy-mustachioed imbeciles in cheap, too-large T-shirts with pictures of comic-book Armageddon ironed on the front."
In Mark Ames review, referred to above, one passage in particular echoes, in many ways, the themes Macan highlights:
The rise of the Black Metal movement in Norway is a case of humorless dirtheads taking a joke way too seriously. The joke was Satanic rock, which Lords of Chaos skillfully traces from its early origins in Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Coven (who transformed from performing black masses on stage to perpetrating the weepy hippie hit "One Tin Soldier") to metal’s second big wave in the early 80s and the rise of kitsch Satan-rockers Venom. To our modern eyes, Venom looks the spitting image of Spinal Tap during their Smell the Glove phase, but to dirtheads who didn’t know any better, Venom was the long-sought embodiment of evil. It was from the Venom branch of evil-metal that all of metal’s more violent, "evil" forms descended, including Black Metal.
The point of Satanic rock was to scare the Normals while fucking with the minds of its pimple-faced, predominantly male (nerdoid) audience, who needed to create a counter-world, with counter-morals and counter-aesthetics, to empower the nerdoids against the cooler, more successful jocks. But metal had its rivals for the hopelessly angry nerdoid: punk, hardcore and metal’s own competing mutations. The competition forced metal’s leading edge to metamorphose into harder, faster and more violent forms, reaching its apex with the rise of Death Metal in the mid-80s. Death Metal was as violent, Satanic and musically inaccessible as metal could go, or so it seemed.
Is it the case that popular music requires, at some point, a level of ironic detachment, a dedication that never allows itself to confuse seriousness of intent with the messages the music tries to convey? Perhaps, I am suggesting, we need to consider various popular music styles not as the result only of an artist's or group's vision, but consider, instead, the web of relationships among an artist, the audience, and the musical and lyrical content, leaving to one side whether or not one can or even should address matters of "seriousness" or "irony".

Ames' writes with an almost off-handed contempt not only for the music, about whose merit he says not a word, but for the intended audience. "Humorless dirtheads" must have been the result of several minutes work before finally settling as a description of the fans of Black Metal. While it's true that bands like Black Sabbath and Venom employed Satanic imagery - in the full understanding of that word - with a wink and a nod toward their audience, even a cursory glance at Black Sabbath's history should disabuse anyone of any idea that they were either being stupid, or considered their audience stupid.

One can look at this issue from a slightly different angle by considering the history and critical views regarding another African-American musical style: jazz. Born in the brothels and bars of New Orleans, growing up in the segregated dance halls and speakeasys of Chicago, New York, and Kansas City, jazz was and remains, at its heart, a celebration of life, rooted in the blues musical form, yet never resting pat with tradition. One need look no further than two well-known works by jazz critic Garry Giddins, Visions of Jazz and Weather Bird to consider the far-different way the relationships among the musician, biography, attentiveness and seriousness toward musical composition, and audience are treated within the circles of jazz criticism. Another example is Ralph Ellison's seminal essay on Charlie Parker, "Bird Watching", in which Ellison deals honestly with Parker's failings and the terrible toll they took on him and those around him even as he saw them as integral to understanding the man and his music. Critics may chuckle at Ozzy Osbourne's life-long battle with substance abuse, but an author looking to integrate that same struggle with the music Osbourne has produced over his very long career would be considered pretentious in the same, yet opposite, way Ellison's writing on Parker is offered as both "thoughtful" and considered de riguer.

Most rock critics would take the epigram at the top of this post, a quote from legendary rhythm and blues singer Joe Turner, as the only "proper" way to break through and understand rock and roll. Doesn't this approach, however, lead us to set to one side the reality that one can be serious about one's art, professional and appreciative of one's audience, and still have a bit of fun along the way? At what point do critics and others believe it necessary to step back from making music and say, "Thus far and no farther lest someone think I'm too serious"? At what point does the real joke, such as Lester Bangs' infamous insistence that Lou Reed's two-album release Metal Machine Music is high art, get lost on critics who cannot see beyond their own limited set of categories?

I think it is long past time to rip up the guidebook for music criticism that places a premium upon not taking one's work too seriously. Such a view, as the above quotes attest, also belittle the intended audience, who, from the critics' point of view, just aren't sophisticated enough to "get" the joke. That these same critics are blinded by their own set of analytical conditions not to see, for instance, Black Metal as Norway's national answer to Britain's punk, both in its social and cultural roots and intent, should be a cautionary tale to anyone who believes it possible to understand any musical style within a set of assumptions rooted far outside that style.

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