Saturday, November 04, 2006

Music = fun or boring?

Earlier this week at his Status Ain't Hood blog, Tom Breihan wrote about his visit to the Music is a Better Noise exhibition at the PS 1 Art Center in Long Island. I have no quarrel with most of the content of the post (not least because I didn't see the exhibition), but he opens the post with this:
I'm generally pretty suspicious whenever any institution tries to make explicit connections between pop music and art, whatever that term means, mainly because musicians' dumbshit ideas about art have resulted in some of the most boring and joyless forms of music ever invented: abstract jazz, prog, glitch, all that shit. Once musicians starts taking themselves uber-seriously and looking for new, more direct forms of self-expression, they usually lose all connection with the idea that music should be fun to listen to, that you can find plenty of ways to play around with ideas and preconceptions without sacrificing any notion of rhythm or melody.
I think there's a whole lot of bullshit in these few sentences. First, let me say again that I am happy over the last couple of years to have allowed myself to be exposed to chart pop and its potential delights, rather than ignorantly dismissing it as by definition garbage. But one of the problems I've had with some of the pop-ist rhetoric I've read has been an excessive emphasis on "fun", as if "fun" is a useful term for judging all music, and if music is not "fun" then it must then be "boring". I strongly object to this. I enjoy Tom's writing, while often disagreeing with him on matters of taste (though I've also learned about a lot of music from him). But occasionally he rubs me the wrong way, and it usually has to do with his over-use of these very words and, frankly, his general critical stance. Music is not easily defined in just these limited terms. His contention that "music should be fun to listen to" is frankly incomprehensible to me. I enjoy a lot of music that I would have a hard time describing as "fun". Some music should be fun to listen to, sure. A lot of dance music, for example. But it's hardly fruitful to use the expectations we have for dance music or other immediate, hook-heavy pop music, for assessing the value of all other kinds of music, for even all other kinds of pop. I could get on his case and drag in classical and ask if he really believes that all music should be "fun to listen to", but he's probably only talking about pop, generally (and not just chart pop, specifically). But even here, I doubt he really believes it. To take just one example, he's noted several times that his favorite album from last year was the Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree. Is an autobiographical song-cycle about an abusive step-father all that "fun" to listen to? Is "fun" even relevant here? I submit that it is not. I submit that this means that even Tom likes plenty of music for reasons having nothing to do with "fun" and that, even for his purposes, the word isn't terribly helpful.

And then there's "boring", which seems to be flip-side of "fun". If it's not fun, then it's boring, right? While there is plenty of music that ultimately is little more than boring, there is a lot of other music that might seem "boring" on first listen, but which reveals a lot of pleasure over the course of subsequent listens. If music is difficult, or hard to get at first, I can imagine the listener would be bored by it. We're often bored by what we have a hard time appreciating. I think the problem here is impatience. Some of my favorite albums have required many listens before I even grew to like them, let alone consider them among my favorites. Sometimes pleasure requires work. And if that word bothers you, then substitute "effort". Sometimes you have to meet the music halfway, enjoy it on its own terms, whatever those may be.

He's not wrong that often musicians take themselves too seriously, and that the music suffers as a result, but this is a pretty sweeping statement: "musicians' dumbshit ideas about art have resulted in some of the most boring and joyless forms of music ever invented: abstract jazz, prog, glitch, all that shit". Dismissing such a wide variety of music as "all that shit" is strange and off-putting. What exactly do they have in common? Does Tom have a definition for what "abstract jazz" even is? I'm not sure I know what he means. Is it free jazz? There is without question a ton of highly indulgent, painful free jazz, but a ton of it is incredibly life-affirming. I'm thinking William Parker or David S. Ware or Cecil Taylor: "joyless" or "boring" are the last words I would use to describe this music. Prog? Is there a lot of painful prog? Oh god yes. Did Emerson, Lake, & Palmer suck? Yes, and they were boring, too, and pretentious in the worst ways. But they weren't boring by definition, and they are hardly all that prog is. (I suppose I could provide lists of examples and counter-examples, but I just don't have that kind of time. Maybe for a later post.)

In part this fun/boring approach rankles because it does little more than reinforce our short attention-span, media-dominated, consumerist muddle we find ourselves in. We flit from item to item, in search of cheap calories, of fun, bored out of our minds by anything requiring effort. I'd like things to be just a little slower, a little more contemplative, even in pop music.


Scraps said...

Spot on. Thanks for writing this.

Anonymous said...

just that :