Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"fuck indie especially for saying fuck you to its own history of saying fuck you"

What gets left unsaid in my last post is that what I'm really weary of, indeed increasingly suspicious of, is the culture of entertainment (what Fox Mulder, who I cite without irony, once called "the military-industrial-entertainment complex"), the culture of consumption of entertainment, the culture of the well-made, and the accumulated mass of history, the always available entertainment options, past and present, and so on. All of it. Of course, I am deeply implicated in this, even as I feebly resist.

Which brings me back to music and my conflicted attitude towards it. A recent multi-blog discussion about Sonic Youth has helped to illuminate some of my own concerns but also hit rather close to home. For, I might as well state right upfront, Sonic Youth is one of my favorite bands. And in light of the discussion, I think this fact may well be symptomatic of something previously difficult for me to articulate.

The discussion was set off by Mark "k-punk" Fisher's review in The Wire of an apparently (necessarily?) awful Neu! tribute album. In decrying rock vampirism, k-punk wrote this:
Sonic Youth, Primal Scream and Oasis all played their part in making this kind of retro-necro acceptable. As the most ostensibly credible of the bunch, Sonic Youth should arguably bear the most blame (indeed, if one were to locate the point at which rock modernism lapsed into curatorial postmodern pastiche, you could do worse than cite something like Bad Moon Rising.)
This unleashed a batch of responses and responses to responses, as more or less follows:
1. ZoneStyxTravelcard takes up k-punk's apparent throwaway line, and defends Sonic Youth from the charge.
2. k-punk replies and expands.
3. Simon Reynolds chimes in.
4. Zone replies, re-defends Sonic Youth.
5. Marcello Carlin chimes in.
6. and k-punk responds again.
If you're interested, it's worth reading through each of the parts of the exchange; for my purposes, I'm going to summarise k-punk's general argument, with some choice quotations, before moving on to my own remarks.

For k-punk, Sonic Youth "represent the embourgeoisiement of the rock avant-garde, its disconnection from overreaching, intemperance, intolerance and antagonism." That is, contrary to the stringency of the post-punk and No Wave bands and their "scorched earth intolerance for the past" (whereby the Sixties were identified as "the problem"), Sonic Youth are a rapprochement with the past, curators of that past and the pasts of other, more marginal figures, while their own formal innovations have long ago ceased, as they continually combine and re-combine different elements of their aesthetic, ossifying along the way into the grand-old statesmen of so-called experimental rock, consolidating an alternative to the mainstream, which is to say, another mainstream (as he puts it, "the idea there is a mainstream which repudiates Sonic Youth is the fundamental (rockist) fantasy which feeds their allure" and "SY's precise function for Restoration culture is to be a hypervisible simulation of an alternative within the mainstream"). They are primarily "men (and women) of good taste":
but there's a massive difference between being a person of good taste and being a great artist. As Nietzsche rightly argued, a certain kind of stupidity is necessary for all greatness, a preconditon for which is a deliberate narrowing of perspective, a refusal of 'well-roundedness'.
And finally:
Curating can have an important function to play, but with SY there has been a conflation of art and curatorialism - the alibi for their music's increasingly poverty at a textural and textual level is the way it supposedly makes a wider audience aware of marginal material. Sonic Youth are 'art' in all the worst senses (they possess a certain insitutional prestige, a certain standing and position, a cetain set of meta-rationales for what they do); but they are not art in the sense that there is a compelling reason for them to exist - there is no more at stake here than just another cool leisure product with all the right credentials.

When I read the first k-punk post on Sonic Youth and saw the phrase "person of good taste", along with the Nietzsche reference, I had just begun reading Agamben's The Man Without Content, specifically the chapter on the historical emergence of the "man of taste". I was thinking of the essay in terms of the literary, my own former attempts to become a reader of good taste, who was open-minded above all, and yet capable of making the needed discernments of quality. But then as the Sonic Youth conversation continued I realized that my experience with music is perhaps a better prism through which to view the problem.

It seems to me that one's taste for or against a given thing can obscure its import. If you think Sonic Youth is and always was boring, then what k-punk says may appeal to you immediately. If you think otherwise, then his remarks may seem ridiculous. After all, we're constantly told, everything comes down to taste, and we're all entitled to our opinion. But here, perhaps, I occupy a different position. Since I like Sonic Youth's music and, in fact, have even enjoyed their recent records very much, I'm sympathetic to Zone's attempts to defend them (even if Zone is only really defending the great 80s records). And yet k-punk's arguments strike me as unassailably correct. How to account for it?

I've blogged in the past about my history with music, how I was into classic rock in the 1980s, against the popular music of the day (and altogether ignorant of the underground). As such, my very taste in music is inherently curatorial, based as it was on the limited playlists of classic rock radio and the continued reverence of Rolling Stone magazine. My time was spent with music already substantially removed from the source, already canonical, already curated. (It's perhaps worth confessing that my own insecurities may have pushed me to opt for something about which judgment already seemed secure: I wasn't going out on a limb liking Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan, even if not everyone did.) By the time I first got to what had been underground rock, it had already been effectively co-opted. In fact, I could and, without realizing it, did approach it as another classic rock. The first Sonic Youth record I bought was the major-label debut, Goo. While Nirvana opened up a lot for me, what they really represented culturally was a last gasp of that underground and the fuller entrenchification of its sound for the canon. (The other popular "grunge" bands--Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains--were easy to adapt to since they were fairly explicitly classic rock in sound.)

This experience is very different from that described by k-punk or Simon Reynolds of their formative years. They were blessed, or possibly cursed, to have come of age right in the middle of the post-punk period, when it seemed to them as if pop music could continually change itself as well as the world.

But returning to Sonic Youth for a moment. Though they emerged out of the No Wave period, possibly the Finnegans Wake of rock (not analagous to its elaboration, obviously, but to its extremity), it's not difficult to agree with k-punk that they're really a pulling back from the extreme, a retrenchment, a classic rockification of punk & post-punk. When they've tried to branch out in recent years, within the brand (as opposed to in their solo outings), the broader fanbase rebelled; consider the much-maligned NY Ghosts & Flowers: a slight alteration of the formula, incorporation of some of the things learned from hanging out with the improvising community, with jazz players, but widely panned (famously by Pitchfork: "pretty much the worst thing ever"), their live shows in support of the album booed by fans no doubt wanting more of Daydream Nation, or worse, Dirty. Their albums subsequent to NY Ghosts & Flowers--Murray Street, Sonic Nurse, "Rather Ripped"--just as widely hailed as "returns to form". Interestingly, the first two of these struck me as decent compromises, and are among my favorite SY records, but then I revel in the sound as sound. And yet it's hard to argue that they are essentially a classic rock band, fundamentally careerists making a sound that happens to be pleasurable to me. One could be more charitable and say that they are, like folk or jazz musicians, an aging band working within an established idiom, one semi-established by themselves, bringing the noise the way they know how.

And. . . and I realize anew that a big reason why I basically quit blogging about music is because my thoughts on it are so hopelessly diffuse and meandering and equivocal. In the interest of finishing up this post, I will spare you the lengthy mini-essay on the curatorial politics of my iPod playlists (no kidding) and come to some closing thoughts, which won't touch on Sonic Youth at all. (Also for another post, some thoughts about our roles as spectators, which again would tie in with the Agamben. . . )

On the one hand, I think there is no reason why musicians should have to stop making the kind of music they like making, no reason why they should be expected to either quit or to adapt to newer styles. In this sense, I cherish the tradition, the folk tradition, communal music, and how it has played out in rock, etc. On the other hand, I want to defend and hold to the idea of music as art, which is of consequence when it needs to exist, when there is something at stake for the musician. But then we're talking about commercial music in the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, right? That is, could it ever have been otherwise, given the realities of capitalist production? Let me quote something from Simon Reynolds, which according to the excellent blog (new to me) Airport Through the Trees, appeared in the year-end issue of The Wire:

As young musicians develop in a climate where the musical past is accessible and available to an inundating degree, you encounter artists whose work is a constellation of exquisite taste, a latticework of reference points and sources that span the decades and the oceans but never quite manages to invent a reason for itself to exist.
And I ask, again, was anything else ever likely or even really possible? The vital music that was being made during previous periods when it seemed as if popular music meant something more--the 60s, the post-punk period, the emergence of rap in the 1980s--were fairly easily co-opted, adapted to. Now, with the proliferation of available product, the constant availability (competition) of the past, the easy portability of music, even those artists making something new and interesting get quickly absorbed into the maw of entertainment. Even the best, most necessary art, whatever it may be, becomes something merely to plug into to pass our dwindling leisure time, more consumption of more product. . . and the seemingly unassimilable merely becomes part of stable, alternative mainstreams fostering underground careerism, threatening nothing.

And just because I have no better way to do it, to finish up here's another recent post from Airport Through the Trees:
I miss punk. Not the sound of punk, nothing of the aesthetics, but more the power of it, if that makes any sense. Do you understand how tedious it is, tracking the boring and slow aesthetic evolutions of complacent genres? I love music but I want something more visceral. I can't stand the idea of another "unique voice" in composition, or jazz, or whatever. The weight of the whole history of music, etc. I think Johnny Rotten probably liked Pink Floyd on the day he wrote "I Hate" on one of their shirts. But he knew it was time to throw accepted wisdom and chin-scratching connoisseurship out the window for the benefit of something more. That is how I feel. I love Reich, but fuck Reich. I love David S. Ware, but fuck him too (though I hope he recovers from his illness). And fuck techno and house and fuck indie especially for saying fuck you to its own history of saying fuck you.
Yes, I say, yes, but more than that, I just want to say "fuck entertainment". (And that last line speaks to the co-optation of the Left, does it not? Yet more food for thought. . . )

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Blogger Stephen said...

i really don't understand why people love sonic youth so much (and i really really don't get it with pavement). SY is better musically than pavement (that is, they can play their instruments a bit and have a nice guitar sound) but i still don't get why disaffected white-guy-who-can't-sing vocals and pretentious lyrics over chiming guitars (with no melody or memorable riff in sight) and plodding drums is music we should celebrate, revere and write graduate theses on. cardinal sins of this kind of indie music are: 1) there's no self-expression going on, just cool posturing; 2) there's no soul, no heart, no sadness, no real emotion, not to mention no balls at all. the rolling stones are a thousand times more artistic, mysterious, and enlightening than sonic youth while being way more influential and successful. radiohead, while lacking range, have far better musicianship and songwriting skills than SY. spoon kicks SY's ass at record production, atmosphere, mood, even coolness. wilco, from summerteeth to a ghost is born, blows SY out of the water on all counts. so why should i care about sonic youth? 80's babies, enlighten me, if you can.

May 14, 2009 3:39 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Well, I don't know what to tell you. If you dislike them that much, then obviously it seems obvious that there is no reason why you should care about Sonic Youth at all. I can only say that your description of them does not gibe with my experience of their music.

Of course, liking or disliking them was hardly the point of the post.

May 14, 2009 4:17 PM  
Blogger spaceman said...

I appreciated your comments. I've been following the conversation on Sonic Youth on the blogs you mention, but frustrated by the fact that I agree (well, mostly agree) with k-punk about Sonic Youth, yet at the same time really like SY (even a lot of their totally "uncool" '00s stuff). I guess, this fundamental contradiction is only important if you care about all the levels of meaning of bands like Sonic Youth who are self-consciously hip (to being hip) and thus unhip or boring to people like k-punk. I like his writing a lot but these distinctions are unimportant to me these days.

I also think k-punk indulges in a kind of nostalgia for periods or genres (like no wave) that were neither as forward-looking nor self-immolating as he likes to think. Culture doesn't exist in a vacuum - it happens in context. I mean, jeez, Brian Eno curated the No Wave compilation. It's two steps from Eno to Peter Gabriel to Phil Collins.


May 14, 2009 6:46 PM  
OpenID sender said...

I'd tend to agree with Spaceman: the rock avant-garde was already bourgeois. Actually, all avant-garde art is bourgeois; it's precisely the guilt of the educated classes, their anxiety and feeling of inauthenticity, that necessitates radicalism. Moreover, much as I hate to be that guy, it behooves me to add that reliance on theory and elaborate justifications for taste are the accomplices of class snobbery as often as some kind of rigor.

Sonic Youth are pretty bourgey, and they're definitely classicist over iconoclast. But many artists who routinely get a free pass were equally so.

My feeling is that the logic connecting the ends values of avant-gardism with the means values of such things as iconoclasm, extremism, antagonism, etc. is underexamined and taken for granted.

October 24, 2009 8:26 PM  

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