May 12, 2010 § Leave a comment
For some time I’ve wondered why The National present themselves the way they do. Dim light. Black, white, gray, dark blue. Always dressed like Brooks Brothers models. Sometimes I imagine a meeting they had early in their professional career where they decided to dress up a bit more to create more distance between the music and reality. While the aura extends beyond music videos to their live performance, I think The National have a tendency to be too introverted, to come off as removed. This only feels disconcerting because their music is populist (read: the same way The Hold Steady are populist in the eyes of their audience) in tone and message.
But then what may appear as binary oppositions can amount to a sort of Brechtian realism. In ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, Matt Berninger’s lyrics feel so intimate that the bourgeois appearances fall away: “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/I never thought about love when I thought about home”. Those fancy clothes become a self-conscious hoax. He’s wearing them because he didn’t have time to change before going to the bar after work. In live performance, Berninger seems so genuinely unhappy that we guess he’s really feeling what he’s saying. In another song off their new record (High Violet), he repeats, “What makes you think I’m enjoying being led to the flood?” He yells it. The situation is god awful, but he’ll let his suit get wet.
The suits and the darkness also align with confessional imagery. Repentance and absolution. But there are so many moments where The National retreat from this sort of intimacy that I am not too confident in backing these claims. I haven’t ruled out the idea that these guys may just dress this way.
April 14, 2010 § Leave a comment
I was pleasantly surprised to find this thoughtful piece of commentary questioning the nature of musical taste. Perhaps I found this article to be intriguing because it’s so rare to find anything on Pitchfork that steps back from the ephemera of indie rock vogue. Nitsuh Abebe‘s column (appropriately titled “Why We Fight”) politely bites the hand that feeds it by dissecting this exact culture industry. Abebe’s argument is age-old: our musical taste is framed by our subjective desire for fulfillment in the culture we consume. In his own words, he says our musical preferences are dictated by the way a particular artist’s cultural baggage, “can feel like the things you’re trying to become, and the things you’re afraid of becoming.” We realize ourselves in every stage of this process. We listen to certain bands because we identify, in some way, not only with their sonic artistry, but also their social currency. These bands then form a constellation that shape our perception of all the music that follows.
I’ve written before about exemplars in relation to taste. In the same way music does not generate itself organically, neither do our cultural preferences. As wacky as it is that some pregnant mother’s subject their insides to Mozart by holding headphones to their stomachs, such stimuli will undoubtedly play some role in that individual’s future preferences. While I am certainly not saying these people will necessarily enjoy 18th century classical music, this influence could be as abstract as a general expectation for musical closure. Or, as Abebe discusses, a model subject for transgression. Outside the womb, our existence is accompanied by the soundtrack of thousands of songs and our individual sense of taste is defined by just those esoteric sounds, organized in such a way they are capable of breaking through the daily monotony. As many have demonstrated, we live in a world dictated by exemplars.
The most interesting point the Pitchfork article briefly touches is on the way this framing shapes the perception of popular music criticism. Abebe asks, “Have we reached some point where our knees jerk and we kick away anything any critic can write off as cutesy or “twee” or associate with the wrong movies?”Reading a review on Pitchfork or in any music magazine or blog is typically an exercise in cultural allusion. If you don’t know or get the references, you’ll often be lost at sea. And this is fair only up to the point where critics and their readers begin to establish unassailable hierarchies.
If we can’t move past our petty biases towards one reference over another, what values do we really have? Association becomes valued over the art itself. I think the problems people have with a site like Pitchfork rests not so much in its content, but with the people who consume the site’s opinions as dogma. When “good” becomes appropriated by entities completely external to the work, criticism is no longer a meaningful practice. One could argue the work no longer exists.
But this is only a problem if listeners allow their musical preferences to be utterly swayed by whatever the critics frame as the new cool thing in context of artificial cultural constructs. In other words, it is important we frame our music’s value in terms of the “what we’re trying to become” rather than letting “the things we’re afraid of becoming” dictate what we say we like and don’t like. As soon as we let the latter take precedent, we sacrifice a large piece of our cultural individuality. Without the relative free will to decide what we actually think is cool, what else do we have?
April 4, 2010 § 1 Comment
I have some reservations posting this image of Luis Castillo. When the New York Met’s second baseman fumbled this pop-fly and Mark Teixeira crossed home plate, little did we know it represented a ball dropping on an entire season. In 2009, plagued with injuries and bad fundamental baseball, the Mets finished in 4th place in the NL East missing the playoffs by a long shot. They weren’t bad in the futile, comical way the 2010 New Jersey Nets epically string together loss after loss. The Mets were bad in a frustrating, ruin-your-warm-summer-evening way by losing games using the most inexplicable means. Dedicated sports fans are used to being strung-along by the promise of better tomorrows, but the Mets reached a breaking point where every promise crumbled to injury and failure. There was a sense that last year should have been our year. The team and management just lacked the resilience to push through the hard times. That’s why this photo of Castillo dropping the ball burns. It represents things that shouldn’t have been, but, nonetheless, were.
In yesterday’s column, George Vecsey writes, “It is growing late. Too much cable money is being squandered. Jerry Manuel’s laughter has run out its novelty. He is probably set up to fail, waiting for the next era, whatever that will be. In theory, it’s always nice to have a new baseball season, but at Dante Alighieri Stadium, abandon hope.”
Vecsey’s pessimistic message, in many ways, is more than fair. Unlike any number of other teams (Braves, Phillies, Dodgers, etc.), the Mets have no tangible entity to spark our enthusiasm. Coming off not one, NOT two, but three disappointing seasons and without exciting young players there aren’t too many reasons to believe. Although we managed to pull in one of the few good offensive free agents in Jason Bay, the pre-Opening Day injuries to Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes are sobering. In his column, Vecsey does a good job of representing the bad. He stacks up the problems and, in the end, there are no reasons to even watch Mets baseball. Down their backwards path, Vescey’s Mets have reached the 8th circle.
But Dante made it to Paradiso. Unfortunately, this is no medieval allegory. Although sports team’s inevitably fluctuate between good and mediocre, it doesn’t necessarily mean a championship is just a matter of statistical calculation. Unlike Dante, the Mets aren’t promised paradise.
Still, baseball season’s April promise gives us enough reason to keep faith. Vecsey mentions gritty veterans and sweet summer nights. Excuse the sentimentality, but we should never forget how baseball is as much about those sweet summer nights, listening to the radio on the back porch tuned to the Met’s broadcast, as it is about new stadiums and payrolls. Whether they win or lose, if we don’t let baseball’s ephemeral problems sour our taste, every season will be rewarding (albeit at different levels). Vecsey’s final message to “abandon hope” is only conceivable if you’re in the strict business of measuring baseball by its finances, cable contracts, wins, and losses. Although I care about the well-being of my team and if they don’t win it’s a shame, I would never tell a whole readership to abandon hope. This is out of line with the spirit of the game.
I have several friends who have told me they won’t be following baseball anymore. To them, the game has been tarnished by the steroid-era. They genuinely mistrust the players and their management. This too, I believe, is letting baseball’s transitory issues obscure our greater perspective. It’s easy to become frustrated with things we can’t control. It’s much harder to keep believing in the principles at the core of an institution. I struggle with this myself (afterall, the institutions are often broken). But the worthwhile institutions are set-up to allow re-interpretation as times change. Even if times are bad, the re-evaluation process includes turning back to the things that made them great in the first place. For baseball season, the game day ritual that brings people together, watching the gritty players continue to play hard day in and day out, and the sweet summer nights will go on even if the best player’s are talking with federal investigators.
For those of us who still (want to) believe in the MLB institution, we should not sweep the failures of the recent past under the rug. With the image of Luis Castillo burned in my skull, I stay skeptical this season will bear the ripest fruit for the Mets. But I choose to confront these problems as a baseball fan. Viewed in a positive light, win or lose, the summer nights will be as sweet as ever.
March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment
March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment
An amazing thing happened at Andrew W.K.’s performance with the Calder Quartet on Friday night in Knoxville. It had little to do with the collaboration between the rock star entertainer and the modern string quartet (a collaboration that first took place on a tour in 2008). And although they were performed, it had nothing to do with A.W.K. staples like Party Hard and I Get Wet. Rather, I am referring to the performance of John Cage’s seminal 4’33”. That is, they sat in complete silence for about 5 minutes.
Most in attendance were anticipating a more straight-forward collaboration. While the Calder Quartet breezed through pieces by Phillip Glass and Fred Frith, Andrew W.K. spent most of the time sitting at the piano with his eyes closed. Besides a few amusing piano improvisations (in his first one, he basically just grunted while playing power ballad chord progressions) and singing three of his own songs towards the end of the performance, Andrew did very little in the way of participating musically. Someone behind me remarked, “I didn’t pay for this avant-garde shit.” Needless to say, this guy and most of the other people in the room were pissed when they were confronted with absolute silence. But they should have known they were paying for some avant-garde shit. Every thing Andrew W.K. does is performance art. Whether it’s his full stage show, the inspirational speeches, or playing with a famous string quartet it’s all in the name of the same artistic agenda.
Not that I can explain or understand this agenda. When I talked to Andrew while in Knoxville he said he was interested in being a confrontational artist. Although that’s true, I thought it was more helpful when he announced at the performance that he was, “awakening the spirit of Merce Cunningham.” I say this because the way he can manipulate an audience’s self-awareness is uncanny. Check it out for yourself: