Sunday, July 25, 2010

"Generic Pop Music"

Poptimist column from Pitchfork

There is some wrong-headedness in the above link, and also some false statements.

On the wrong-headed side, the idea of "pop music" trotted out here is totally unhistorical. Pop music is actually a really terrible vehicle for the "generic." In the obvious sense, yes, 90% of pop music at a given moment in time is very much identical to itself, and trends dominate over individual voices. But, what should be equally obvious is that, decade-to-decade, pop music is being constantly revolutionized. (Pitchfork's idea that "electro-dance" is a permanent feature of our lives is ideological in the highest degree.) And when things are outdated--constantly--they really do fall outside of their generic bounds.

Also, pop history has a distorting effect. "Innovations" (things initially falling outside of the genre) are incorporated so quickly and so lastingly that they cannot always be grasped as such from the present day. This is all very "duh," but then you read this:

a happier idea of the generic: a core of musical ideas or values, which, executed well, satisfy the fans of a genre just as much as music that moves beyond those.

1) No. This "core" is not stable or self-sustaining or core-like. In pop music, music that "moves beyond" a genre is then constantly re-absorbed within the genre as its new center.
2) The idea of musical ideas being "executed well" here is completely question-begging.
3) There is no possibility for a "deconstruction" here. The spatial metaphor laid out in this article does not consider that a great deal of innovation occurs *not only* "within" these boundaries--that is really just the spinning-off of variation--but that creativity does interesting things to the logic of boundaries: parody, pastiche, transplantation, etc. If you know anything about English poetry, you will know that meter is a similar thing. There is not "correct iambic pentameter" and "moving beyond iambic pentameter." What makes good iambic pentameter is the counter-rhythms and liberties one can take with the form. (Again, I stress this is different from just variation, which is the monkeys-on-typewriters production of permutations within a given limit.)

Now for the false statements.

I got this feeling listening to the new Kylie Minogue album, Aphrodite: Not one track stood out, but I never stopped enjoying the record. As an experience it felt rather like good customer service: seamless, efficient, friendly, and inobtrusive.

This is clever writing, even though "enjoying the record" is very question-begging. But the second sentence must give us pause: has anyone ever ENJOYED good customer service?

The generic is something one sees only at a distance in time or in taste.

Technically true--in an Aristotelian sense, one has to aggregate the essence of a genre from outside of the particular--the implication here is false.

Let's say that I want to get into some new style of music, say, folk music made with an African thumb-piano. It would be virtually impossible to get a view at the "center" of this genre "from a distance." In one sense, yes, the first 30 songs I heard would "sound alike" to me, and this would be a kind of generic similarity. But I totally refute this. Because I would be constructing this genre out of ignorance and pure phenomenality: the fact that something "showed up" on this quest would automatically incorporate it into my idea of this genre.

This happened when I was getting into the very rule-bound genre of hardcore punk. I wanted fast, fast, fast music. But a lot of things that came my way were FAST, sure (Zeke, Capitalist Casualties, Dillinger Escape Plan) but really have to be placed outside the genre as I was looking for it and as I now know it. What I *wanted* was Jerry's Kids and Mob 47, but this "generic center" was not at all discernible from outside, i.e. from the "distance" that Pitchfork writes about.

Not to be too philosophical here, but the "distance" here is not an objective one, like a fine or a coarse adjustment on a microscope (as the metaphor intends). It is really a subjective one; the phenomenon of "African thumb piano music" really exists only in my head UNTIL I have really educated myself. Once so educated, much that will seem generic on first glance will perhaps disappear (into a more correct classification) and an appreciation of nuances will show that was seemed very "usual" was in fact innovation of the highest order, etc. In short, "closing the distance" between oneself and a phenomenon that exists already in one's mind, is entirely an appreciation that the phenomenon in fact DID NOT exist in one's mind, and had to be appropriated anew in its heterogeneity.

This last paragraph is also a good description of falling in love.

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