Demystifying Musical Currency

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?


Have One On Me

February 28, 2010 § 1 Comment

Comments on Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me

(Read on WNUR 89.3 Fm Evanston/Chicago on February 28th, 2010)

How do we dig into Joanna Newsom’s triple album Have One On Me? Even before we press play on track one, the album’s surface characteristics remind one more of a Mahler symphony than a pop album: Have One On Me’s 18 songs equate to over two hours of music with an average track length of over 6 minutes.  If we stretch our imaginations, the sparse contrapuntal string quartet and voice texture at the very beginning of the album even summon comparisons to the Andante of Mahler’s 9th before a piano drops in to provide the song backbone.

Although the Mahler analogy loses steam quickly, there is still one more important element it unlocks in Newsom’s music: the central idea that Have One On Me is about time. Musically, lyrically and metaphorically the album is about the past and the transpiring. There is a reason she stretched two albums worth of music into three albums.  She wants us to take as much time as we need to listen. In this way the album is rewarding for the ways it pushes and pulls at our musical imaginations. In the same way we daydream through symphonies until a passage catches our attention, Have One On Me jaunts along and then pops with recognizable pop idioms.

At least his is how I immerse myself in Joanna Newsom’s music. To be honest, I have always been curious of the way Newsom’s many devoted fans find steady footing within her most recent intellectual and esoteric pop songs on Ys and now Have One On Me.  There are no ‘Peach, Plum, Pears’ here. If you’re neither an expert on written verse, interested in extended, experimental song structures, nor a particularly meditative listener what brings you to Joanna Newsom?

Well, my theory (which extends to listening and taste in a larger sense) is that Newsom so masterfully interweaves rhythm and melody adopted from ingrained soul, pop, and blues hooks into her long, dense forms that we always have something to hold on to – and, with repeated listens, something to anticipate. Like all music, it plays with the exemplars informed by our sonic memories. The brilliant ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’ at times inflects Janis Joplin in the way Newsom confidently slurs into words over raw blues piano orchestration. Throughout the album, the early-Joni Mitchell comparison is clear by the way her syncopated harp-accompaniment interacts with her time-matured voice.

While this review is more an exploration of how to listen to Newsom’s new album than a review of the artistic material, I urge the curious listener to be patient with Have One On Me. Although it is one of the most intimidating releases so far in 2010, it is also one of the most rewarding.

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