Tuesday, November 30, 2004

A Rose by Any Other Name?.... Ah, not so much

Gotta love Eschaton. Some reasonable number of the threads, no matter what their purported topic, descend into discussions of music or movies or, in one recenly freakish instance, Highlights for Kids. (And yes, I'm still enamoured of the Goofus and Gallant interpretation of the November election, though in Highlights, Goofus was never rewarded for his behavior. If only life imitated art!)

Anyway, a recent freewheeling conversation over there descended into great actual or theoretical bandnames. watertiger, always a dependable renegade on these threads, borrowed a term from the fundies and decided it would be great to have a band called God's Timetable. I noted the best band name I've heard in a long time, Milton and the Devil's Party, whose CD I eagerly await and will report on here. Robert M. Jeffers, in this vein, suggested "Bandemonium," and we were off. (Personally, I think of Bandemonium as an album title, myself. Or perhaps a pop supergroup.) Other favorite suggestions included: Pudentate and The Joint Chiefs (that's two names, not one), though the latter is a real band, I hear.

Apparently, this is how Robert Pollard used to entertain himself....

Oh, and a link to the Random Band Name Generator, just for fun. I got Mute Moon this time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Where the Boys Are

One of the things I'm gravely concerned about is the apparent gender divisions within music. I blame this, at least partly, on the execrable Camille Paglia, who famously claimed that women cannot play the guitar because they do not have a penis, and so (apparently) are unused to manipulating some externalized object in order to achieve a desired end. Once again, I fail as a blogger by being unwilling to go look this up, but if you wanna see it, it's in Sexual Personae. Look up "rock" in the index and you're there.

Paglia's warmed-over Nietzschean perspective (women, you see, are Apollonian, men Dionysian) annoys on a number of levels, not least because she's a fucking woman herself. St. Augustine's allowed to fling this crap around, Camille; you aren't. Sorry.

But setting aside the issue of production, there's the issue of consumption, for which there is no compelling faux-Freudian or faux-Nietzschean analysis. Like all other consumption within society, the music one listens to is controlled by a whole set of assumptions and distinctions about what it "means"--not so much to oneself, but to others. And for girls, this can be incredibly limiting.

My kid, a nifty teen I like a lot, gave me great pause when she had a brief N'Sync phase. To this day, I don't think she ever really liked the music much, just the identity it implied; it was just a thing to do with other girls, a way of fitting in. One of the worst nights of my parenting life was the evening we had what seemed like 417 girls between 8 and 13 in our living room to watch a live N'Sync concert from Madison Square Garden. I found myself watching the girls (God knows I wasn't going to watch the concert) and thinking about the ways in which it's acceptable for girls to "consume" music. Cute and non-threatening boys rank high, dark and dangerous boys rank low, unless you're a "bad" girl, in which case the poles are reversed, not eliminated. In this sense, David St. Hubbins' assertion about girls fearing "armadillos in our trousers" doesn't hold water. Nevertheless, the "cute boy" structures apparently stay in place: My kid told me that the "girl talk" at a recent Incubus concert was all about how hot the singer was.

Now I was as much subject to this as other girls my age, and those who know me know that my thirteen-year-old visceral reactions are as potent as ever, though obviously limited to a much smaller corner of my psyche. But I wonder why we do this to girls, or maybe better, how we do this to girls. Why are girls not allowed to listen to music they like unless there's cute boys involved? Why do cute boys become their own defense, trumping shitty music? (In my daughter's defense, she never listens to N'Sync anymore.) What are the implications of being a genuine female audiophile?

I realize, of course, that this question is being asked of my (largely male) readership, material evidence of the phenomena I'm describing. But what do guys think?

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Why is Pop not, you know, popular?

I once read an interview with John Murphy of Shoes, who commented that, when asked who their favorite band is, the vast majority will say The Beatles. Fair enough. This is still true. I always felt vaguely guilty about glomming onto The Beatles because they weren't mine--I was born into them. But my students, overwhelmingly born in the 80's, are still fans. In fact, I use The Beatles to teach James Joyce, because it's the most useful and familiar model my students have for the artist who may not have done it first, but did it best and made it popular and changed the face of the form in the process.

But Murphy continued, saying that despite most people's declared sentiments, Beatle-influenced groups tend not to be really popular. (Forgive the lack of link here; I remember vividly reading this interview, in which Murphy confesses shamefacedly to liking Chumbawamba's Tubthumper--but nothing to be ashamed of there, it seems to me. I love that record. But I looked for the interview link for an hour and gave up.)

That's always confused me, as it apparently confuses him. Why is pop not pop? Would we still like it if it were more common currency and less of a secret language?

There's enough folks visiting the blog now to start this conversation for real, and you can post anonymously, avoiding all the blogger registration nonsense. If you don't want to be an anonymous "Anonymous," just include your handle in the text. I'm curious what you think. Why can a world that provides "A Clay Aiken Christmas" not provide a decent living for really good songwriters?

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

When Pop (Fans) Grow Up

Pop connects for a lot of us, not just because of how it hit us, but when. A year or so ago, making a mix tape for a friend, it occurred to me that the vast majority of the songs I was including fell into one of two categories: music of romance (craving, gaining, losing, regretting), and music of snotty adolescent rebellion (frequently addressed to parents or other absent authority figures). The first of these is decidedly dominant, partly, I think, because it's less fixed in time-and-space. But the second is certainly a long and noble tradition.

Listening again to The Vapors (see "Guilty Pleasures," below), I was reminded of visceral connections between the music we listen to and the lives we lead.

Time's gonna make you a man someday
And you won't wanna go out and play
With your friends
You'll just sit at home and watch News at Ten
And the pub's'll be closed and you won't have been
With your friends

And he picks up the paper and appears to be quite serious
And you smile at him and agree 'cause he's your old man
But still I can't hear you, still I can't hear you
You make no sense to me
Still I can't hear you, still I can't hear you
When the time comes I'll disagree with your policy
But you don't wanna sit tight, you don't wanna play cool
You don't want a whole life like your first day at school
And I wanna fight wars and I wanna die young
So don't keep saying 'like father, like son.'

Or try this (far more obscure) one:

Don't stop me having fun, don't make me be your age
You don't know what's going on, you're past that stage
Now when you say 'you should know better,' well, maybe sooner or later
You'll be as good as me, nobody could be better
Well that's alright, I know what I like
I wanna run with the pack now.

There's maybe five years (more or less) of your life when such lyrics connect with you, but when they do, that's all that matters. In the rebellion mode, pop articulates the nonverbal sneer, often for those too shy and geeky to actually sneer themselves.

I was thinking about the role of snotty adolescence in pop apropos of two reunions on the horizon. On November 26, in Cleveland, Eric Carmen is scheduled to finally take the stage (for the first time in 31 years) with Jim Bonfanti, Wally Bryson, and Dave Smalley, a reunion rumoured for several years. I was never much of a Raspberries fan; like Dylan, they struck me as one of those bands more important for their influence than their product. But then I'm probably overly influenced by the fact that, when I was a kid, the radio was full of Carmen's later emo ballads. Oh, and Dirty Dancing. There's a bit of humor in this: on the website advertising the show, one can sign up for a group discount for the hotel, as though it's a conference or a wedding. "Hey, The Raspberries are performing! And there's a group discount!" I'm joking, sort of... It's actually quite thoughtful of them to consider such things. But there is an element of the ridiculous in it, too. Wonder if the hotel takes AARP?

The other reunion is far more prominent and has received more attention, partly because of the irony. According to Launch, Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey may be heading back into the studio. On his website, Townsend says they're both writing and will meet in mid-December to suss out the possibility of a Who2 project. They've been touring on and off for years, but haven't recorded anything new in two decades. The oft-noted irony here is of course the famous line "Hope I die before I get old," a line which has been thrown at The Who at least since their last studio album. (Townsend turns 60 next year.)

I'm pretty heartened by all this news, as snarky as I may sound. The adolescent sneer doesn't weather very well, and talent, after all, doesn't go anywhere. I'm not sure music should be something we outgrow. Most of my postings, I realize, consider the question of pop music as an aspect of personal identity, and boxing up and putting away any part of your identity seems risky to me. Some part of this may be the comfort fans receive from the idea that those who shaped their identities in youth are still out there, writing, performing shaping. If they haven't outgrown it, why should we? Plus, age is a lot more relative now. Listen to "When I'm 64," and it sounds impossibly old. But as McCartney himself approaches the magic number (Next June), it's good to see that he's out there doing what he does, most recently with Live Aid. And he has a toddler.

And besides, older fans have the scratch to go places and see older artists. You can buy a lot more music with a real job than you can on a college stipend. That's a good thing.

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Ineffable Wonder of the Theme Mix

A dark confession: I make mix tapes. Sometimes CD's, but mostly tapes, because tapes free me from the vagaries of the mp3 and allow me to roam freely though my musical life, a significant number of years of which occurred before the advent of the CD. I don't have a huge vinyl collection, and I reveal a real prejudice for power pop (duh), but I have a few things that mean a lot to me aside from everything else: an original White Album (the clue is the serial number stamped on the cover), a copy of Skylarking which preceded the "Dear God" kafuffle and lacks that song, but includes a beautiful tune in its place, "Mermaid Smiles" (FWIW, this one is Rundgren's vision, not the restructured version usually purchasable these days), an original copy of Black Vinyl Shoes (complete with iron-on transfer and sticker--I also have the PVC release). My fascination with (okay, crush on) vinyl aside, cassettes allow me the freedom to range freely through the media of my life and pick and choose what I like. Besides, my car was probably one of the last ones made with a cassette player.

Th mix tape is an achingly personal matter, it seems to me. In High Fidelity, perhaps the best novel written for audiophiles of my generation, Nick Hornby's Rob describes making a mix tape for the girlfriend whose loss and return structure the novel:
I spent hours putting that cassette together. To me, making a tape is like writing a letter--there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again, and I wanted it to be a good one, because... to be honest, because I hadn't met anyone as promising as Laura since I'd started the DJ-ing, and meeting promising women was partly what the DJ-ing was supposed to be about. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with "Got to Get You off My Mind," but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the whie music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs, and... oh, there are loads of rules.
Anyway, I worked and worked at this one, and I've still got a couple of early demons knocking around the flat, prototype tapes I changed my mind about when I was checking them through. (89)

Rob's project is nothing less than creating a snapshot of the soul, because for an audiophile, music is the soul. The mix tape, then, is an aural journal, a set of songs by people you've never met who somehow express who you yourself are. Combining these songs to reveal the warp and weave of thought, of personality, of personal history: that's the art of the mix. And different phases of our lives require different mixes. Thersites, long before we were a couple, made me a tape which included things like Redd Kross's "Blow You A Kiss in the Wind," The Replacements' "Unsatisfied," and Superchunk's "Brand New Love": clearly bait for a switch. ("Any thought could be the beginning/ of this brand new gentle web you're spinning....") I fell like a ton of bricks. Never had a chance.

In a recent Popmatters posting, Elisabeth Donnelly examines the nature of the "dumped" mix:
Breakup albums can become a habit, a way to deal with pain (And do note that I mean breakup albums in relationship to the listener being "broken up", unlike the artist). It's very easy to trace your romantic history out in music. For me it goes something like Spoon, Fiona Apple, Veruca Salt, The Walkmen, and Lyle Lovett. Your mileage may vary-in a poll of my friends, I've found that there's usually a "bitter boy album" slot of the Elvis Costello variety or something that's emo if they're sensitive, the Dirty Three if their sensitivity transcends mere words, and many a girl has a mopey girl album in her collection, Joni Mitchell if she's annoying, Tori [Amos] if she's loopy, and Fiona [Apple] if she's smart.

Donnelly's argument is about whole albums, but it points to the evanescent bubble of the mix. Because as much as we choose music based on who we are, it also shapes who we're becoming. As Hornby says:
People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands--literally thousands--of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss. The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don't know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they've been listening to the sad songs longer than they've been living the unhappy lives. (25)

We all have artists who appear on every mix we make, songs or artists that are so indicative of who we are they we can never leave them off. Who are yours?

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Guilty Pleasures

Because I was isolated from any real "scene" for much of my life, my listening habits have been pretty idiosyncratic. Except for very broad parameters, I didn't really know what was hip. I knew what my small city DJ's played, and I knew what my older brothers and sister listened to (for an amusing anecdote regarding this latter point, see here), but other than that, I was on my own. One of the implications of this was that I tended to listen to albums and artists rather than songs. Another was that I never really cared if anyone had heard of what I was listening to.

It was my birthday recently, and I got hold of a CD I've been meaning to acquire for some time, Vaporized. I'd bid on it on eBay several times, getting slammed at the last second (a nasty habit those folks have over there). But finally I bit the bullet and bought the damn thing.

The CD contains the first (and as far as I know only) two albums the group produced in their tempestuous 18-month run, the fiercely popular New Clear Days --featuring the ubiquitous "turning Japanese"--and the less-well-known but much freakier Magnets. Magnets is sort of a theme album about death and assassination, and its cover features early work by the Where's Waldo guy. Much better on 12' than CD. In the wake of The Boomtown Rats' creepily popular "I Don't Like Mondays," The Vapors weighed in with "Jimmie Jones," the only pop song I know about the Jonestown Massacre. In my perverse way, I like Magnets better.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Two Reasons to Forgive Texas

Sorry for the delay, folks. I'm sure the reasons are obvious enough, and the need for pop even more obvious. Hell, we have to manage the dopamine levels in our brains somehow. (True: an MSW friend of mine tells me that thinking happy thoughts, reading or watching or listening to things that make you happy, can actually change your brain chemistry and help conquer the blues. Looks like we'll need that advice for a while.)

Meanwhile, lest we blame Texas too much for the dismaying state of the nation, it's worth remembering that there's a lot of good music coming out of the Lonestar State Last week, Rhett Miller sat down with The Dallas Observer and talked about past, current, and future plans.
What's on the cover of the album [1994's Hitchhike to Rhome]?

It's an 8-by-10 black-and-white that I found in an antique store. At the time, the kid kind of looked like me, and the girl was beautiful. I still believe the great album covers have women on them--like the Pixies' Surfer Rosa.

The back cover of the album is a distant photo of the band, and I remember that I was so hellbent on escaping the tag of "pretty-boy teen folkie" that I demanded they use a photo where you couldn't see my face. Now it makes me laugh. I'm like, "Oh, I'm so good-looking I have to hide."

According to their website, the Old 97's have just finished a stint on the road where they were joined by several dates by another Texas band, The Deathray Davies. The latter band has been on the road for a few months, and has a bunch of dates through November, mostly in the west and southwest.

(Thanks, Mike!)