Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A fundamental philosophical question about culture and value

From "We Who are Dark," a work on Black solidarity by Harvard Professor Tommie Shelby:

Should a person value the elements of a culture because they are intrinsically or instrumentally valuable; or rather, should she value them because they are components of her culture--that is, because she is black and because these elements are part of a black culture?

So excited about "American Gangster"!!

  • Right now I am in the middle of watching an actually just-plain-crappy French film by Robert Bresson, called "Pickpocket." It's boring, the narration is intrusive, there is no music, and the plot is straight out of Dostoyevsky but without any pathos. In short, a BAD film. Nonetheless, this is probably the only time you'll ever hear it described as such. It's foreign, the DVD is on Criterion, the director is famous, the style is noir-ish but tasteful, etc. But it *is* crappy. I think our judgments are so OFF that this distinction ("What is a bad film?") is actually lost, non-existent, when it comes to a respectable, obscure foreign crime film.
  • There are a lot of people in the world with bad taste. It may have been suggested to them that this is out of line with standards of good taste (they prefer "The Notebook" to "Fanny and Alexander"), but I want to suggest that NO ONE *actually* thinks they have "bad taste." At most, when it comes to this question, we (people) can only "agree to disagree."
  • Is it true to say that something A is "more famous" than something else B, if knowing A requires a special knowledge? So, is it true to say that Lip Cream are one of the most famous Japanese hardcore bands, when it is far MORE likely that some flash-in-the-pan nowadays Japanese band who just happened to tour, are much better-known?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Death Metal v. Black Metal (a reversal of opinion)

I wish this to be the definitive statement on this opposition.

Like the Renaissance as compared with the Enlightenment, here the question will be, who betrayed what? when? and when may we say that the character of the epoch was completely undermined or reversed?

A Brief History
Black metal and death metal, although no one knows it, "died" at the same time (in terms of the most famous bands, in America, retrospectively). The ends of both genres coincide; do their beginnings?

The first Death Metal bands of any importance are Death and Morbid Angel. [Obscurity counts for nothing in this argument.] The first Black Metal bands of note are Bathory and Celtic Frost. Thus, put crudely, Death Metal is originally an American genre, and Black Metal a European one. [Exceptions can be found even in this early history.]

However, both Bathory and Celtic Frost developed away from their early, raw aesthetic towards more pretentious and complicated art-metal: Bathory with 20-minute ballads about viking conquests, and Celtic Frost with violin-accompaniments of Baudelaire's poetry. (no shit) Thus, Black Metal was immediately moved away-from by its inventors. The early aesthetic was developed, more or less simultaneously, by more extreme groups such as Beherit, Sarcafago, Blasphemy, Mayhem, and Von. The most famous "intervention" in Black Metal, though, was by the Norwegian Death Metal band, Darkthrone. Jettisoning members who wanted to play the technical Death Metal of their first album, Soulside Journey, Darkthrone decidedly rejected all their talent and instead meticulously "played dumb," aiming for the sounds of early Bathory and Celtic Frost. Thus, the real invention of modern Black Metal already consists of a re-opening of a formative aesthetic moment.

The single albums which, from my viewpoint, announce the death of these genres are, Slaughter of the Soul (1995) by At the Gates, a melodic pop-punk record masquerading as Death Metal, and Panzerfaust (also 1995) by Darkthrone, the first definitive retreat of this band to "merely" playing Celtic Frost riffs. Both these death knells have been springboards for hundreds of crap bands who did not "get" it.

The Definitive Statement on the Question
Undoubtedly Darkthrone were correct in abandoning Death Metal in 1991. Just as certain is the genius of Darkthrone's later career, which approaches a hardcore punk sound and is less and less "serious." It is supremely important that Darkthrone have always been 1) ironic, despite their extreme dedication, and 2) regressive.

There are several epochal developments in rock music: Bob Dylan going electric, Sergeant Pepper, The Stooges' Fun House, Kraut Rock, and the consolidation of Punk by the Ramones. In punk, the decisive trinity is The Ramones, Black Flag, and Discharge. In Black Metal, Celtic Frost and Bathory (I believe that Bathory "contains" Venom) are IT. Within this binary is everything necessary for the sound. But the genre has been completely taken over by adjectives, rather than influence. Rather than the incredible, unfathomable development at the core of the sound, the invention of Black Metal has been rendered a mere aesthetic, a production trick, turning Bathory's sound, which was a very close thing indeed, into a "given." What is necessary is to THINK the bizarre, extreme, tasteless, uncompromising, excrescent, juvenile extremism of Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, and Bathory, not to take these sounds as "early" or "undeveloped" or "primitive" in the teleological sense.

What then, of Death Metal?
When I was younger, Death Metal struck me as the last refuge of D&D-playing virgins, who practiced their instruments as a form of masturbation, perfecting a style that was "needlessly technical," and ultimately just playing for other techies. I'm not sure that that is entirely wrong. But now I see it as the most straightforward honesty. The premise is, "Do you like our riffs? Was that solo perfect enough? Could this have been heavier or more interesting somehow?" THE IDEA IS PERFECTION, even quantifiable perfection. That may be dumb, but it is a meritocracy. The best bands are the most well-regarded. Respect is key. The whole thing is very "male" and analytical. That is, extremely unironic.

I said earlier that I much admired Darkthrone's irony. I see this as a very strategic, "theatrical" mode which they pioneered. Members of Darkthrone never killed anyone, burned churches, were "truly" racists, or shot themselves. My favorite anecdote about Norwegian Black Metal is where an interviewer reminds a Black Metaller that Venom were largely joking, to which the metaller responds, "In Norway, we choose to think otherwise." This is irony. But "taking something seriously that should not be" is a matter of positioning, if one is smart enough, and of "sincerity," if one is stupid. Obviously Burzum and Darkthrone fall in the former camp, and Mayhem in the latter.

Why can one NOT "choose to think otherwise" about Venom in after 1995? For one, the genius of Darkthrone, by getting there first, made evident the gap between the second wave of Black Metal, and its mythical origins. By taking the irony SO FAR, the game was "up"; the mock-seriousness exposed its target too much. And so Darkthrone, having achieved all they could, began their long retreat. And Mayhem self-destructed. Burzum went to jail. Emperor drastically changed their sound in a more "prog" direction. Immortal took on a huge Morbid Angel influence. Graveland began to explore the later meanderings of Bathory. Ulver, never a raw band, hardly a metal band, released the ultimate ironic Black Metal record, the supreme Nattens Madrigal, a completely technical achievement of the lowest-fi possible sound. "Symphonic" Black Metal became very popular. etc. etc.

Fast forward twelve years. Black Metal in America has fallen in with the "noise" scene, the ultimate in baseless pretension and image-jocking. Death Metal is absolutely dead. If you see here that I am only repeating the RUSH v. SONIC YOUTH debate printed below, you are correct. Here, Rush are Death Metal, embarrassingly outdated, and Sonic Youth are the endless pretension of post-1995 Black Metal: its limited releases, its "mystery," its redundantly "shocking" aesthetic, its disingenuousness.

Death Metal has no interesting history. Nowadays Black Metal, however, in its haste, neglects everything but the most sensational, misleading aspects of its origins.

*[When I say irony, I mean it in the most exact way, not in the loose sense of today's youths and nervous self-doubters.]

"The Opposite of Punk"

[something i wrote a while ago. soon to come: a similar article about death metal and black metal that will be the ultimate statement of my aesthetics]

You know, I don't want to talk about Rush too much, b/c I don't want to come across as some sort of geek glued to the internet, but I think by now it is a truism that Rush are the "opposite of punk." Mention Rush to any one, really, but any punk in particular, and they will immediately say "that band sucks," etc. Now, I probably wouldn't be into Rush if I wasn't already into Judas Priest, which was a taste a long time in acquiring itself.

But anyways, I always say that Sonic Youth are the "opposite of punk." Rush aren't out to impress anyone or come across as rock stars. They have washing machines on stage. They are the ugliest people in the world. The drummer writes the lyrics, which tend to be pretentious, unwieldy, and kind of prosey, but which are at least never filler or an afterthought. They are a real unit, and if there are some individual show-off parts, at least they share them equally. People probably think that because Rush have 20-minute songs, that they descend into endless noodling. Never, really. Rush 's songs are sort of like The Who "A Quick One While He's Away"-- series of riffs and parts with hooks, and not just pointless jams. They cover Yardbirds songs (badly), which could not be less cool for them to do. They have an ANIMATED RAPPING SKELETON sing one part of a song on a giant video screen in their set ("roll the bones"). Now, Rush ARE NOT PUNK, but I don't think they are its opposite either.

Sonic Youth, on the other hand, *are* the opposite of punk: rock stars trying to pass off a jam band with endless wankage as something new and experimental, name-dropping every new trend like vampires hoping to suck the cool out of every fad. Unless age is prohibiting them, they have always tried to be these ironic sex symbols, and there is something 100x more offensive about Sonic Youth being on a major label than Rush (who are certainly really really really into capitalism---as huge fans of Ayn Rand, natch). The other day I heard some 90s sonic youth song in a record store, and I wasn't sure what it was, but I thought it was a new Strokes song (The Strokes, by the way, who are nothing but what they claim to be). It wasn't until Thurston's voice sunk in that I guessed what it probably was.

Ultimately, though, I think this is a personality thing. Rush are never going to win anyone's respect on the logic of The Emperor's New Clothes. They are universally lambasted, and not even all that much misunderstood. They sound (mostly) like what you think they do. On the other hand, this is EXACTLY what sonic youth (and yeah, a lot of other bands/people/art/literature) is trying to do--catch that doubt in your mind when you wonder if maybe YOU are missing it, and trust that maybe Thurston Moore knows better than you on this one. I don't know if anyone still listens to Noise (since Jessica Hopper "exposed" that genre as being "anti-fat") but basically this should apply to that music's brief reign as well.

Maybe it's too much to ask that Rush "deserve your respect," but I think having probably the best rock bassist AND the best rock drummer in the same band, and having had *any* success, given their inexplicable aesthetic and obvious deterrents, is worthy at least of notice, and not likely to recur in the '06. So yeah, thurston hearts the who.

***final word on this:
In an interview I did with Hellnation, the guitarist wisely pointed
out that "No one ever got laid by buying a Hellnation record." I'd
like to think this is true for Rush, at least since 1982. Rush are
just a few ugly guys banging out their brand of music for their fans,
who tend to be middle aged computer nerds and men with ponytails.
Sonic Youth want to be the soundtrack to your next drunk/coked-up fuck
at a loft party thrown by some magazine, and I dunno...I bet they
wouldn't even try to deny it. Too bad it wouldn't even be a good
soundtrack, either. Might I suggest The Cure "17 Seconds" instead?
ps: or The Band
pps: but not slayer

Friday, October 12, 2007

Two Questions

1. What do Radiohead and Wes Anderson have in common?
Because this band and this filmmaker not only share an audience, and both have high-profile new releases out now, these are good examples of a common phenomenon that I have noticed. Let's call it the "The Best Art Was Made at Precisely the Moment I First Became Aware of Art Syndrome." In a larger field (of everything coming out) this draws a veil over that art produced *immediately prior* to one perking up one's ears-- a veil that extends backward until the moment when things can be safely seen as canonized. My personal example would be, I have zero interest in hardcore that came out in America between 1986 and 2000. This is famously a "dark ages" of US hardcore, but the famous bands (The Pist, Los Crudos, Talk is Poison, Econochrist, Aus Rotten) are still well-loved, and in a way this period still defines the way American hardcore looks on itself, before the explosion of international influences brought about by Tragedy in the early 2000s, and before the much-lamented "thrash revival." Which is only to say, my "blindspot" corresponds to an actual crappy period of that art form, but I will be the first to assert that I have never been generous to bands who were playing immediately before my interest in hardcore.

That is for an entire field. For the specific career, being encountered as "contemporary," one's age is all-important. The important years for this are like, 16, 22, and 30. When I was 16, Weezer had not yet released their Green Album. Woody Allen was still starring in his own movies, Shania Twain was the biggest thing in the world, etc.

So, I saw Rushmore in theaters when I was 15 (the same age as the main character). This seems a completely different experience from seeing Darjeeling Limited when I am 24, or renting Bottle Rocket and watching it alone at my parent's house when I was 17. In a way, then, I don't care (although I will still ask) what someone's favorite Wes Anderson movie is. But it is no different from asking how old they are (unless, which is so rare, one thinks that a person has real taste).

I haven't cared about Radiohead since I was 17. I bought (and was very excited about) Kid A but not Amnesiac (six months later). I don't know the songs off that later album, I've never really heard it, and I certainly have not heard their 2003 album. And although I think that "they suck," if their records prior-to-my-being-17 came on, I would probably not mind at all. But, because I could never hear their subsequent albums with any kind of anticipation (ie: patience), it is unlikely I will ever sit through a latter-day Radiohead song with any kind of attention.

That is just to add to the list of ways that opinions and taste have none of the absolute or *even* "subjective" force we like to imagine. One doesn't like these films or records based on the quality of those things, but rather overwhelmingly as a factor of the time when one encountered them.

(This applies only to contemporary careers. Something like On the Road, encountered retrospectively, must be read at the age of 15, but posthumous reputation has a vaccinating effect; we know what not to read, we know which are the most famous works, the manner of appreciation has already been codified.)

2. Where does bourgeois appreciation draw the line in an artist's career?
Now, in direct but not substantive contradiction to what I just said, I want to argue that the white educated bourgeois is always willing to draw a line in an artist's career--not with respect to the age of the audience, but concerning experimentation.

Take this example: the phenomenon of "Banned Books Week," "Banned Books" tables at Barnes and Noble, where banned books are valorized as heroic, righteous, challenging, sophisticated, forward-looking, etc. No one today would think of banning Madame Bovary. Nonetheless, books are banned every day in America, usually by prudish Christians in middle-American school districts, without having read said books.

This hypocrisy, applied to an artist's career, means that an earlier work that has been assimilated will always be canonized before difficult, "later" work. The best example is John Coltrane, whose Giant Steps and A Love Supreme are highly rated and coffee-shop favorites, but the line is drawn when he "starts to get really weird." See the new Ben Ratliff book on Coltrane, "The Evolution of a Sound," for a great analysis of the reception of Coltrane's later albums.

This also manifests in tropes about "maturity" and "development" of an aesthetic. Like, when you see Metallica's Black Album rated higher than their thrash metal albums, as if the effort that went into dumbing down their complex and technical metal into simple butt-rock was "maturity" itself.

So, Ulysses but not Finnegan's Wake. Kind of Blue but not Jack Johnson. La Dolce Vita but not Juliet of the Spirits.

Or, to make my point explicit (regarding the bourgeois), any black recording artist prior to making any political statement unfavorable to white people, but *not* the same artist afterwards (they're so extreme!). Cf: Lauryn Hill.