Thursday, 30 October 2008

Dancing About Architecture

Last week, or so, I was sent a group email by Rockfeedback asking for contributions to their A-Z of Underrated Albums. Below is my reply, which sparked a lengthly discussion with friend, musical savant and Tough Love DJ Liam Manley. I thought it was interesting enough to copy in here, thinking it might inspire some of its own debate. Or maybe we are just invoking that famous Elvis Costello criticism. Or maybe it's incredibly self-indulgent (if i say that, I can't be criticised for it, right?)...You decide?

Hi all,

Think this feature is a good idea, but i also think you need to be careful about what you choose. There does of course exist a popular canon as reinforced by Q Magazine (et al) list bore - ons, which includes the aforementioned Pet Sounds, London Calling etc etc.

But there's also another canon that's just as pervasive and I'd be tentative in reinforcing that. Pitchfork, DiS and their like, alongside the collective blogosphere have created their own sacred cows, of which band's like Dismemberment Plan [a suggested underrated band] are central. These sites have huge readerships and they're characterised by a fairly crippling critical consensus. Indie isn't really that indie anymore. There's nothing marginal about it.

And there's also retroactive canonisation too. On it's release, Six was, perhaps unfairly, maligned. But now, I think it's widely agreed by everyone to be Mansun's best album. It happens all the time - look at Joy Division, Kate Bush, Suicide, The Stooges, Velvet Underground, Sparks...

So, what I'm saying - asking - is what do you mean by underrated? Underrated by whom? I'm not saying we have to be willfully obscure or esoteric in our choices, just careful in what we choose to celebrate. I guess Tim's choices [Reynolds, Joeyfat] fall more in line with what I was thinking, mainly because I've not heard them. You can't get much more underrated than that (not that I know everything).

And my suggestions:

The Lapse - The Betrayal
Urusei Yatsura - Slain By...
Aerial Pink - The Doldrums

I've probably just contradicted myself now...



Fair point.

My personal contribution was going to be Leave Home by The Ramones. Chronologically, and in terms of canonisation, it falls between their self-titled debut (a supposed cultural landmark) and Road To Ruin (widely considered to be their best/most obvious attempt at pop). Their sophomore, Rocket To Russia, also happens to eclipse Leave Home in terms of perceived importance. I thought it would be interesting to talk about the album, not in terms of it's place in the canon or as any reaction to that, but in terms of its own musical merits. E.g. this is a good record because it has good songs and that.

So, what I'm saying is that it is possible to formulate a series of these reports/essays, just so long as it's not adding to any perceived canon or trying to react to any existing canon, which, as you've pointed out, merely results in the development of yet another canon...

I mean, every year there's another 'lost classic' unveiled, with bonus what-nots and 'unheard' versions (2008 model: Pacific Ocean Blue)... What's that Smiths song? “Paint A Vulgar Picture”???

My take on that:

Music is populated by a series of canons, at once parallel and hierarchical. They accord with value systems - mainstream vs independent, authentic vs inauthentic, art vs commerce et al. In eschewing or debunking one, there's the process of constructing another. And there is the tendency to invoke that most peculiar of indie impulses to venerate the obscure, as if obscurity alone is enough to substantiate its quality. That's why rare records are worth so much. It's a false economy on which not only monetary value is predicated, but also subcultural capital.

There's no difference in terms of process between Pitchfork and Q, just battling ideologues, which at one point or another, assimilate eventually (see My Bloody Valentine).

So, I think your argument is most sound. Pick a record that exists within the oeuvre of an over-canonised band and assess its merits in that context. And on that criteria, what should i choose? Be Here Now, of course...

The only problem with that is that you end up reacting to the canon, unfortunately. All I'm suggesting is that people write up an album that they like regardless of any parameters of taste/non-taste (that guilty pleasures stuff is inverted snobbery bullshit). Hang on, in trying to avoid parameters, is that not setting up a different form of parameter?!?!? Fvvvvvvvvvvvck!!!

Tom [Rockfeedback editor] wanted to talk about Sandinista – that album's already regarded as 'mad cap classic'...

I'm saying we should find an album we like and discuss its merits, regardless of any canon. Therefore, we should all be writing about Be Here Now.

Ps. We should definitely write about Be Here Now.

When you stand for nothing, you stand for the people that stand for nothing. There's fences beyond (and within) the fences. You can't stand outside of the world when you live in it, I guess.

Let's write about Be Here Now. There's too much fun in that album to write it out or off. I want to dance the architecture out of that shit.

Hmmm, I guess The Outsider's protagonist already tried that and failed.

There really is no room for subversion anymore, is there?

Be Here Now is quickly becoming my favourite Oasis album, for sure - I like it's big dumb face.

Judging by everyone elses reaction, it seems irony is the only obvious subversion, which is a little galling. It's a weak reaction, because contrary to how its used, it shows no attempt to assert an individualised taste, but rather assimilate yourself into one discourse or another (just like canons, they're stacked: mainstream: indie elitism: anti-indie elitism: a fatalistic irony). Rude Box isn't underrated; it's shit. All the trite ironic 'student-y' assertions you can muster are not going to convince me otherwise.

Irony shmirony. I’m getting a heavy sense of 'glibness'.

What exactly is fatalistic irony?

Did you read all of that 33 1/3 book about Celine Dion? The only reason I
bought it, really, was because I thought out of the series about albums I love (Daydream Nation/Let It Be/Notorious Byrd Brothers), it might actually offer the most insight it why we like things and how tastes are developed/manufactured/marketed.

What I mean is that there's no sense to it. It doesn't achieve anything other than an enforcement of what it seeks to negate. Irony is fatalistic because it's hollow. There's no substance. It's the ultimate postmodern condition - a reaction that states no alligiance, that makes no commitment, that is worth nothing. Irony is never having to say you’re sorry, right? Does that make sense?

Yep, that just clears it up for me – I don’t want to apply it if it can’t define it!!!

Anymore thoughts about what we were discussing yesterday? Canonisation is a strange process, mainly in thrall to commercial needs, but it's also very persuasive. Sometimes it's hard to separate what you really like from what you're supposed to like, no matter how much you think you're removed from or aware of the process. Pleasure is an intriguing position, because how much of it is conditioned and how much of it is negotiated or individualised? 

Hmmm... how much of your enjoyment is based on outside approval? Like peer pressure or the words of a supposed ‘influential webzine’, perhaps ?

Well, there's more music than ever before and more people willing to espouse its virtues and flaws, so I guess some sort of critical barometer is necessary so we can navigate our way through it. But then that begs the question; who do you trust to get it right? Certainly not anyone in the mainstream (NME or Q for example) and Pitchfork can sometimes shoot themselves in the foot. I guess critics exist as a way in and then you devise your own opinions. But critical consensus can be quite persuasive.

Do you not find yourself swayed by it at times?

Oh, totally. Totally... I’ll sometimes give things another go if a writer I’ve agreed with in the past has written something persuasive enough... it informs my opinion, in a sense, but it doesn’t replace it. It is possible to build relationships with writers and begin to respect their viewpoint above others – so much so that you’re more inclined to agree with them (Neil K, Simon Reynolds and Stevie Chick come to mind).

If critics are there as a way-in, how much is being left aside that you might also find interest in? I’m constantly plagued by the thought I might be missing out on something!!!

One thing I notice about NME and Q is that they seem to be controlled, to an extent, by outside interests – PR agencies, etc. Therefore, certain artists might not be being pushed solely on the basis of their musical merits (surprise?). The same, perhaps, may happen with Pitchforkmedia, but with the subtle difference being that ‘financial reward’ is substituted for some other nepotistic element.

I don’t know, it’s early and I’m trying to eat Oatibix, which is sometimes difficult. I’m also trying to write a review of Hawnay Troof which has taken a twist, as I finally see some of the genius behind it. His rapping is awful, but the hooks and musical arrangement are pretty sophisticated. I’m just trying to tell it like it is... like Sabrina before she became a teenage witch (Clarissa?).

I think, to a certain extent, moaning about NME and Q (as examples of the mainstream music press) is a fairly redundant exercise. It's not like we're lacking in 'alternative' (whatever that term has been prefigured as now) media source outlets. You can find anyone, any source that will corroborate your view on the world, on a particular music. Don't like NME? Read Pitchfork. Don't like Pitchfork? Read 20 Jazz Funk Greats. And so on. They are all of course charged with their own orthodoxy - some could cast that as an aesthetic, others as a yawning predictability.

I guess that means that nothing is really, truly underrated. You can find something somewhere, if you look hard enough - although I suppose you need to know what you're looking for.

That means that the term 'underrated' is always constructed in lieu to seeking mainstream approval , or at least the recognition of a certain larger audience. And that's a redundant process too. Populist appeal is not vindication in itself. There's that classic indie response to quickly denounce something that transcends the indie ghetto, its position at the margins. We hate it when our friends become successful, right? So then why do we need canonisation, why do we need to speak in this language? Man is a herd animal, I suppose and music is social, even when it's an alphabetised bedroom wank fantasy...

The flipside of the herd mentality is the bedroom fetishist – they want something they and they alone can own – these guys (and they are predominantly, if not exclusively, men) will always treasure it more than anyone – they are the curators and anyone else is merely a dilettante.

I’m not moaning about the predictability of NME/Q, but the intentions and motives behind what they choose to champion. Do you not feel that most Internet writing, over time, becoming some sort of homogenous mass? For instance, like you’ve said before, the critical consensus taking precedent over everything else. There also appears to be very little real conflict, but is that a reflection of the subject in hand or, alternatively, a damning indictment of just how far critical faculties have slipped?

You’re right about the concept of what is ‘underrated’ and we’re pretty much agreed that this whole canonisation issue is redundant, to say the least, so what are we to do?

Blogging and the like are all about cheerleading I suppose. Why bother writing and giving platform to something you dislike? There was a absolutely ridiculous article on DiS asking whether 'negative reviews' were relevant anymore in this digital age of self-publishing. That's a question that surely answers itself and it's obvious that considered and relatively objective (as much as is possible) critique is needed more than ever. Orson Welles said something about technological development and how it may change how we live our lives, but it wont change art. It will just create a generation of critics willing to tell us "this is art!". Well, i don't even think that's happening.

The blogosphere becomes this self-perpetuating solipsistic backslapping fest in which consensus accelerates under its own momentum. It's not a question of art, just a question of whether something is popular (within whatever sphere, big or small) or has the potential to be popular or not. It's like an anti-intelletcual self-importance that distills itself to a soundbite culture.

Isn't it weird how the process of writing/discussing something becomes informed by your imagined audience? We're doing it here, because we know this will now be read by others. It's like a form of self-censorship I guess...

I just hope you edit out my grammatical errors. I said precedent earlier instead of precedence... if this is going to be blogged, I hope we're not just adding to the already thickly-streamed river of shit English that pervades the majority of blogs.

"It's not a question of art, just a question of whether something is popular (within whatever sphere, big or small) or has the potential to be popular or not. It's like an anti-intelletcual self-importance that distills itself to a soundbite culture" - Yeah, the whole 'one-to-watch' type of journalism falls into that category. That all smacks of self-satisfaction.

I guess our argument always comes down to quite simply ‘what is it worth? And what is your value system based on?’ – would you agree with that?

I’ve talked to Stephanie about ‘perceived audiences’... she says I need to bear it in mind more often. I just find it crippling to consciously attempt to perceive them, although I’m sure, on some level, I am, regardless. I think the best any of us can do is just try to make sense, because that notion self-censorship is ultimately defeatist and can breed dishonesty, which is something that should be avoided at all costs.

That's the question I suppose - What is it worth? There's an arrogance in suggesting that our value system is somehow inherently superior to others. But that's our prerogative to make that call and you can do that within a relatively objective framework. I don't want to fall in to what's ultimately the most crippling of parallax errors, in which I can only see my position and perspective - our opinions change all the time. Just look at the Pandoras Box of musical atrocities that belong to our past. I think this discussion itself is an attempt away from that. But you have to remember, I'm tied to this industry, this culture not just as a consumer, but a producer too and that brings with it its own prejudices. And they're always subjective, even when informed.

Maybe we're dancing too much around the subject now. You know, there are people, believe it or not, who don't really care about music, or art and would see this as typical liberal hot air discourse. But then what kind of existence is that?


Stephanie said...

Sorry, forgot to point out that 'Leave Home' by The Ramones is in fact their second LP, not Rocket To Russia. However, the point still remains that Leave Home's been over-looked. In hindsight, this may be due to it simply not fitting in with the rough and ready monochrome or cartoonish aesthetic that pervades their rather more heralded work. Just wanted to clear that up...

Stephanie said...

p.s. that was liam on my google account