Friday, June 29, 2007

Ipods and genres

A couple of my punk friends recently got ipods, and I delicately was trying to ask them, "Do you really listen to punk on your ipod?" Because I don't.

What does it mean to say you like some art? At any given point in one's biography, one may very well not like an album or movie that later will become a defining favorite. One doesn't want to listen to Marvin Gaye while having sex (that would be monstrously lame in 2007), but maybe that is great cleaning-around-the-house music. Or, let's put it this way: where do you hear music first? and where do you listen to music?

Most people don't buy a great number of records unheard, on a whim, or even on recommendations. The radio, mp3 blogs, podcasts, parties, jukeboxes, Starbucks, DJ nights, live shows, and myspace are where most people hear about (new) music. Not me (I read record reviews for at least an hour a day)--but you can see that these are split between social and asocial types. And I would argue, the situation in which you hear music cannot be overstated. A lot of really "difficult" records rely on privacy and a lot of time--like the Minutemen's Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat; other records just leap out of whatever sound-space they are in and grab you--say, Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder they Come," or Poison Idea's Feel the Darkness.

[You can see why The Velvet Underground remain the smartest band of all time. Their eponymous first album splits between, on one hand, immediate rockers ("There She Goes Again"), sweet melodies ("Sunday Morning," "Femme Fatale"), and Dylan-esque contemporary folk-rock fare ("Waiting for My Man," "Run Run Run"), and on the other hand, difficult brooding set-pieces ("Heroin," "Venus in Furs," and "The Black Angel's Death Song"). This division is completely turned on its head on White Light White Heat, of course; the softer songs are infinitely weirder than the straight-forward but unbearably-loud rockers: nothing is easy to digest. Of course it all still "works" more than any attempted-pop record.]

Point being, listening to punk on an ipod is ineffectual. Hardcore already sounds like the subway and street noise--the vocals are usually mixed low, there are no dynamics, etc. Ipods are fucking MADE for Morrissey, though. (And rap, soul, and any pre-Hendrix rock: any really vocal-heavy music, basically). Not jazz, really. Obviously not metal :(

This seems more pertinent the more I think about it. Because very few people just sit in their rooms alone, undistracted by the internet, and just stare at the wall while listening to an album. As if hardcore, metal, free jazz, Wagner, et al, weren't unlikeable enough, they require such specific settings to absorb.

Not only a specific setting (absolute silence) for being able to hear the music, but also a specific mode of listening (complete attention) to get the music. A hardcore song is so compressed-- over very quickly, unrepetitive, and reliant on the listener to fill in a lot of gaps--that you really have to pay attention or else it becomes one big blur. (On top of already *sounding* the grating whir of a lawnmower).

Basically, music in 2007, when we all have ipods, listen to music on crappy laptop speakers, download and then only listen to 30 seconds of an mp3 before we delete an album, etc, means not only that we listen to music and buy music in different ways, but that whole genres no longer make sense. Music has to be so immediate, repetitive, unquirky, streamlined, etc. in order to grab even die-hard fans (we are the most inundated and over-burdened of all!), while casual fans have everything made so easy for them that they will rarely think, "Oh, listening to all 18 minutes of 'Sister Ray' will make this go by a lot faster!"

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Further Adventures in Taste

This blog contends that there is no taste that is "essential" to a person. All tastes are contingent. (See previous posts for some complications of this.)

This is seemingly self-evident from the degree to which people's love of Bukowski, Godard, Kurt Vonnegut, etc. directly correspond to the age of their first encounter. I could never argue that I "would always have loved" this or that, since, had I been of a different age when I first read/saw/heard something, it may have seemed entirely otherwise.

This is why aesthetic "close-mindedness" is so unconvincing. No one is born with their tastes, whether in favorite foods, their "type" of sexual partner, or favorite records: we are subject to so many determinants, familial, social, developmental, accidental, economic, that it is a mixture of wild arrogance and extreme self-effacement to imagine that one's tastes (principles, etc.) are not entirely a construct. A construct not entirely of our making, of course, but even a radical self-remaking cannot escape precisely what it is reacting against (and probably within).

What is frustrating, then, is the almost-unavoidable illusion that one is fundamentally this or that sort of person. In a previous post, I defined the canon as the transcendent version of this illusion: a taste for Shakespeare is still historically/linguistically contingent, and yet it cannot be imagined otherwise in any real time. On the other hand, my 17th century self certainly would have paled at hearing even Buddy Holly. What is real and more or less "one's own" is one's methodology of taste. But I refuse to admit (what culture is constantly demanding--from homophobic genetic pseudopsychology to identity-cultures) that anyone is "the sort of person" for any aesthetic particularity.

For instance, being a fan of punk music, I could easily despise Brian Eno's Ambient records outright on a number of grounds. And, in fact, I don't much care for those records. But if I bought Music For Airports and took it home, listened to it while getting ready for bed, I'm sure it would be fine. And there certainly are things I have come to prefer in music (songs, for one) that these records lack. But I would never say, 1) that I never would like such a thing, even if statistically I probably won't ever get around to it, or 2) that it has anything to do with some ME outside of what I have gone out of my way to be. Tastes are fundamentally "meta"--about themselves.

While some stuff is obvious garbage, this judgment cannot be rooted in a subject as such, but only in a force-field (of tastes, values) that conjures up that subject.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Pretty much any aesthetic topic, if you push it in the right direction, "really gets at the heart of what this blog is about," but let me relate an anecdote that really gets at the heart of what this blog is about.

When I was in high school, my friend Jeff and I were getting into punk and hardcore together.

[Brief aside: In a way, here we get to the heart of my whole aesthetic experience. On one hand, few things (Proust comes to mind) will ever be as rewarding as the experience of getting into punk, for me. On the other hand, I have become a complete junkie for "getting into things" in the hope of recapturing those ecstatic months/years. So, the irony is, I love something SO MUCH that I am always trying to find that joy in something else. C'est moi.]

We knew there was this band Napalm Death, who were maybe the fastest, heaviest, craziest band--but we had never heard them. Their name certainly was cool. So, using Jeff's dad's computer, we "downloaded" a clip of a song from a Napalm Death fan website. This was before Napster or anything, but because the average Napalm Death song is like 45 seconds, I think we were able to listen to a sizable part of a few songs.

I didn't really get it. They sounded weird. And probably a year or so went by until I ended up buying their second album. I am now completely familiar with this band's discography, they are one of my favorites, etc. And I can say, without any exaggeration, that my recollection of how they sounded bears no resemblance to any actual Napalm Death song.

We have a word for experiencing something that does not exist: "imagination." I imagined all the music I heard that day. My recollection does not correspond to whatever real songs were played over those speakers, or any music played over any speakers, ever. When I play this band today, I ALWAYS try to hear what it was that I heard the first time, but it simply is not there. The experience was completely imaginative. Or so you would think, except that I would bet $$ that Jeff heard the exact same (unreal) thing. We were listening to the same bands at the time, and were equally unprepared for Napalm Death, and had about the same reaction. We agreed that it was very fast, very heavy, and yet decidedly "off." That is, we were more confused than brutalized.

Stanley Fish writes about "interpretive communities." I would go back even one further, and posit a community of apprehension. This would largely be in the realm of imagination, of filtering new phenomena through tastes we have already developed, and expectations we can rely on.

In short, this "experience" (hallucination) is all I think about. The great irony is, while I didn't like what I "heard" that day, I am confident that if I heard anything *now* that sounded like that (which Napalm Death certainly don't), they would be my favorite band.

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Canon

Here are some upcoming topics:
* Cult films/cult records
* Books/films you "had to see in high school"

Here's something I wrote down on a receipt in the subway the other day (no shit). Additions to the receipt-manuscript are in brackets:

If the materialist subject cannot be said to be adequately represented by the transitory and socially-determined fashions (intellectual, religious, or otherwise) of the day---say, if we were Greeks, we would wear Togas instead of tight jeans [Therefore our fashion cannot be said to say anything about us without relating it to a moment and its cultural field. It seems for a moment that there is nothing to "anchor" us to ourselves as existing in some metaphysical personhood; ie: our feelings of identity would be illusory and merely/entirely historically contingent.

Thus the terror of the elementary school alternative-history version of World War II: "If we had lost to the Nazis, we would all be speaking German right now." But, see, would that really be US? I mean, the same US? So my 8-year-old thinking ran.]

However, THE CANON comes to the rescue, presenting itself as a function of what would be true for this subject at any time, and so regardless of time. Sophocles is always great because of who I essentially am. So, when we say that some [work of] art is timeless, we mean this over and against the concerns of any given (historical) present concerns--ie: the particular determinations of the subject beholden to the ephemera of history.

Thus, the canon (understood in this way) is both oriented towards a set of "pasts" [with their own determinations] and constitutes a kind of permanent avant-garde in advance of its future appropriation. One would always be a Shakespeare fan, even if we dressed in metallic future-suits and ate food in pill-form: [the classic work is "outside of time" not in some mystical/bourgeois way but so that the subject might be as well.]

Friday, June 1, 2007

Contemporary Art: Uninformed Musings

My critique of contemporary art is necessarily a bit uninformed. Nonetheless, I think we can proceed.

The visual arts are dictated by a different set of concerns than those that determine, say, fiction. Not unimportantly, it takes much less time to encounter a painting in a gallery than to read a novel. Visual art is more like lyric poetry in this sense.

The consequence of this, or perhaps the cause, is a (perceived) emphasis on reception and background. If the art is only in front of you for a short time, 1) why put years of work into it? and 2) the more "portable" the ideas behind the work need to be.

This viewpoint is the opposite of what might otherwise be thought of as typical of the art of the last century. I am saying, rather than "Art for Art's sake," that the concept has trumped form: that contemporary art is foremost an auto-critique of the possibilities of art and representation. The production of temporary art has become or threatens to become, merely a subset of art criticism.

Art for Art's sake I can understand. However, I find it difficult to move into so-called "conceptual art," not because I don't "get" it, but because I get it all too well and find the detour an uninteresting one. I must concede, some ideas are best expressed visually (or dramatically, or lyrically)--conceptual art is not inherently redundant. But don't we all feel that the idea behind a work all too often might have been detached and summarized for us--in short, for us to "get"--without the need for bad art? Once comprehension of a meta-critique becomes the criteria for an aesthetics, comprehensibility dethrones subtlety and the meta-critique seems pointed at all too easy targets.

Postmodern thought and aesthetics is often ridiculed for its "interrogations," "interventions" and "problematizing." I have to agree with this ridicule, without being so naive as to ask that art (or criticism) communicate Great Truths to us as their sole aim. Rather, I would ask that the meta-critique have an argument. Contemporary art seems less to have opened up an unending dialectical self-interrogation than to have run upon a kind of neurotic "block" that gets less interesting every year.

In short: we get it. Give us something more. I think it would not be inappropriate at this moment to mention (ie: demand a return to) a "pleasure of the text" in visual arts.