The day the music died …

by Chris Bertram on August 22, 2009

I think I sort-of knew many of the facts that Elijah Wald recounts in this piece in the Financial Times . Still, knowing and putting-together are two different things. You couldn’t listen to 78s as “background music” because even with an auto-changer, you’d have to get up every 15 minutes – hence the importance of radio if you wanted a soundtrack to other activities. Why did jazz singers such as Billie Holiday record such a wide repertoire of “standards”? They were packaging the hit songs of their day for a particular audience (with other singers styling for other market segments). Wald’s account also makes sense of other matters that seem incomprehensible to modern music fans. Wald doesn’t discuss this, but we are often surprised that great singers of the past died in poverty and obscurity and are buried in unmarked graves (Bessie Smith, for example). But Wald’s emphasis on the contemporary importance of the song rather than the singer helps to explain how this could have happened. We might prize the iconic performances of the time, but back then there were lots of jobbing singers churning out multiple versions. Interesting enough to make me order a copy of Wald’s new book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll.

{ 78 comments }

1

John Quiggin 08.22.09 at 8:18 am

One point Wald doesn’t mention (though Wikipedia does is the dominant role of sheet music sales in the economics of the industry in the 19th century which persisted into the first half of C20. This also made for hits that lasted for several years, starting in a musical, going on to be played by bands and then in family homes around the piano. (I’m imperfectly recalling Nik Cohn for all of this).

2

John Emerson 08.22.09 at 1:34 pm

Decades ago my music teacher (Mark DeVoto, now retired from Tufts) commented that almost all of the music that Haydn heard while in the Esterhazy service was either written by himself, played by himself (with others), or folk music.

3

peter 08.22.09 at 2:17 pm

John Emerson: “Mark DeVoto . . . commented that almost all of the music that Haydn heard while in the Esterhazy service was either written by himself, played by himself (with others), or folk music.”

I very much doubt this. You only have to listen to the mid-career symphonies of Haydn, Vanhal and von Dittersdorf to hear the mutual influences of each on the others. And Haydn certainly read, performed, and talked-about the chamber music of Mozart while he was at the Esterhazy Court.

4

belle le triste 08.22.09 at 2:32 pm

all that stuff is covered by “played by himself (with others)”, peter: the only real issue is whether, for a composer at this level in this era, the music he’s read should automatically be listed as music he’s heard (i doubt many can hear schoenberg as they read it, but haydn reading mozart? = he was simply playing it in his head)

5

bob mcmanus 08.22.09 at 2:56 pm

A parallel and accompanying story is the rise and fall of “Art Jazz” ca 1945-65. Rise of a Jazz Art World by Paul Lopes lists various factors:the ascension of singers in swing bands, the post-WWII decline of dance culture, the rebellion of jazz musicians against being mere cogs in a big band, the various independent labels & lps, a rise in black consciousness?

My own opinion is that rock (and soul, see the importance of Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder) followed much the same pattern after 1965, it became an art and “auteur” music.

Classical? Mahler’s symphony of 1000 and Liszt and Rachmaninoff’s technique, well before modernism classical was dividing away from what could be played at home or by a local orchestra.

The rise of the novel and decline of magazine serialization;the collapse of the studios and rise of the auteur director and actor/producer; the impressionists and weakening of the Academy:we might have a more general pattern to be found.

6

Henry (not the famous one) 08.22.09 at 3:20 pm

And then there’s disco, that confirms some of Wald’s points (the eclipse of live music by records) and confounds others (the segregation of music audiences), before, sadly, confirming some of them (the anti-disco backlash by white listeners and DJs). For a while disco represented some sort of rebirth of the dance band era, in which music was all about dancing in a setting that minimized the importance of particular artists, even if any given song was usually done only by that artist. And in its early days it had both a black and white (principally but not exclusively) gay audience. More so, if memory serves me correctly, than James Brown and funk in that era, less so than Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

But, of course, it didn’t last.

7

bianca steele 08.22.09 at 3:54 pm

Interesting article, Chris. I’d never seen a picture of Miller.

Having been born after 1965, obviously, I don’t really see 1970s rock as “art music” in the sense of “auteur music” as opposed to pop.

@nonfamous Henry:
A relevant movie is obviously Saturday Night Fever. Also Dreamgirls (the film at least) seems to roll together the decline of disco with the drifting of Motown into disco with the payola-ification of Motown in the first place.

8

less is better 08.22.09 at 4:41 pm

“the rebellion of jazz musicians against being mere cogs in a big band, the various independent labels & lps, a rise in black consciousness. ” A huge rise in black consciousness. I started listening to jazz and blues in 1965. I heard singers and players that said, last time I was in town, we had 1000 at our concert. We would rather play our music our way than to copy Henry Mancini for 50 people.

I have no idea what Mancini had done, probably covered a lot of jazz songs with no pay, but they all hated Mancini.

9

bob mcmanus 08.22.09 at 4:50 pm

7: I don’t really see 1970s rock as “art music” in the sense of “auteur music” as opposed to pop.

Thick as a Brick spent two weeks at #1 on the billboard charts in 1972. I don’t have to show that Lizard or For Everyman are great or profound art to say that the artists were in control, and that the economics of the industry had changed.

Did Magma publish sheet music for other artists to cover?

10

bob mcmanus 08.22.09 at 5:14 pm

“How the Beatles Destroyed created Rock & Roll”

For Everyman was mentioned because it nearly bankrupted a label in its production. Loveless actually did bankrupt a label. Looks like Wald wants a world where Loveless couldn’t exist.

Beat of the Earth, Relatively Clean Rivers, Christian Lucifer are all pretty good albums. Indie forty years before their time. I have a whole lot of trouble thinking even of rock as “pop.” Pop is a subgenre of rock.

Maybe John Fahey deserves some credit as a model for independence.

11

Substance McGravitas 08.22.09 at 5:35 pm

Loveless actually did bankrupt a label. Looks like Wald wants a world where Loveless couldn’t exist.

Creation Records lasted well past Loveless, and technology’s cheapened recording in a few ways.

12

mollymooly 08.22.09 at 6:18 pm

One late episode in the changeover from the anonymous cover band to the star-centred recording was when the 70s “Top of the Pops” compilation LPs of covers of chart hits gave way in the 80s to the “Now that’s what I call music” compilation LPs of actual chart hits.

13

ben 08.22.09 at 6:32 pm

Perhaps, bob, Wald is using “rock & roll” to refer to a particular style, which Magma and My Bloody Valentine definitely do not practice.

(Incidentally: there is I think a piano score to Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, but apparently it’s pretty inaccurate.)

14

belle le triste 08.22.09 at 6:39 pm

this may vary from country to country, but in the uk in order to establish copyright for a recorded song you actually have to (or anyway used to have to) provide some kind of sheet music version — somewhere i have a copy of gong’s sheet music for their 70s lp “camembert electrique”, which is minimal to say the least (ie you couldn’t recreate the way the LP sounds from the sheet music) (should you ever want to)

15

belle le triste 08.22.09 at 6:43 pm

even in the 70s, pop wasn’t a subgenre of rock — it’s rock’s naughty little sister who gets about and GOOD FOR HER

16

Dave Maier 08.22.09 at 7:24 pm

I agree with ben that Wald is using the term “rock’n’roll” in its narrow sense, referring to a particular style far removed from that of Magma (and yes, the score of Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh is indeed available on their website). However, as those who overvalue that particular style often do, Wald writes as if everything that happened after, say, 1963, was simply an inferior derivative of a pure form, as if Magma were trying to sound like Buddy Holly but just couldn’t quite pull it off. So there’s some equivocation there too.

I think belle is right about the copyright issue; I read somewhere that when Brian Eno tried to copyright On Land (a.k.a. Ambient 4), since there was no written score, he had to make something up, and submitted a diagram with colored regions (which was accepted).

17

bob mcmanus 08.22.09 at 8:29 pm

11:technology’s cheapened recording in a few ways.

Of coutse there have been recent inprovements in the quality of DIY due to technology, but I am not sure how expensive a deal it ever was to get music produced, recorded, and records printed. See the four 60s bands listed in the latter half of 10. Sun wasn’t Capitol or Columbia, and Blue Note & Berry Gordy worked out of their houses. My impression is that there were hundreds of small local labels producing 45s for local markets.

There were some important advantages in quality (equipment, session musicians) but the main reason to go to a major label even in the 50s and 60s was distribution (printing thousands instead of hundreds) and marketing.

18

Ezra 08.22.09 at 9:20 pm

Great article. I liked his contrarian Robert Johnson bio and, as a Beatles-hater (and, likewise, indie rock-hater), I happily bought this book.

I had never heard the Rosemary Clooney song he mentions: Wow!!

19

bianca steele 08.22.09 at 11:42 pm

@9: Yeah, I was thinking in terms of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Def Leppard, and Aerosmith–not Jackson Browne, or for that matter the Talking Heads. They were doing whatever they were doing, but they didn’t get to the top of the charts because they were selling art. I don’t think the people who were buying the albums and playing them over and over in their bedrooms, alone or with a handful of friends, were appreciating them as artworks.

20

John Quiggin 08.22.09 at 11:57 pm

contrarian Robert Johnson bio – this is the one that pointed out that the mass of the black audience went for the 1930s equivalent of easy listening?

21

bob mcmanus 08.23.09 at 12:15 am

19: were appreciating them as artworks.

Uhh, I definitely was. Wake of Poseidon right next to Bitches Brew and the Mahler 1st. Wake might have been the most ambitious of the three. I wouldn’t know where to start, the relation of the mythopoetic figures on the cover to the lyrics?

Twelve Faces

Here is an Analysis by Andrew Keeling

I don’t think I understand you at all.

22

Substance McGravitas 08.23.09 at 12:34 am

Of coutse there have been recent inprovements in the quality of DIY due to technology, but I am not sure how expensive a deal it ever was to get music produced, recorded, and records printed.

That depends on a lot of things, including how much money your label thought it could recoup from your royalties to pay that expense. I wonder if anyone’s ever done a kickback study regarding production costs in records. Seems like such a thing had to exist, not for all but for some.

23

Bloix 08.23.09 at 2:42 am

Live music isn’t important to rock ‘n roll? The bands play in football stadiums, for fuck’s sake.

24

Ezra 08.23.09 at 4:08 am

Quiggan — I don’t think of Big Bill Broonzy as easy listening. His tunes were, however, much catchier than RJ’s. Same for the popular jazz of that era. I think the idea was that we needn’t be pretending a particularly romantic country blues player was representative of musical taste at the time, despite the affections of revisionist white aficionados.

25

Ezra 08.23.09 at 4:09 am

My apologies: Quiggin, I meant.

26

bob mcmanus 08.23.09 at 5:23 am

22: “The following year [1959] having no idea how to approach professional record companies and being convinced they would be uninterested, Fahey decided to issue his first album himself, using some cash saved from his gas station attendant job and some borrowed from an Episcopal priest. So Takoma Records was born, named in honor of his hometown. One hundred copies of this first album were pressed [3].” …from the John Fahey Wikipedia entry. Fahey then had a very difficult time distributing Blind Joe Death or getting it played on the radio.

I am pretty ignorant myself, but my impression is that most decent size cities had a facility that, given tapes, would press records and print covers for an affordable price. Partly “vanity”, partly letting local bands have something to sell at bars and concerts, serving High Schools. Certainly not very profitable for anyone. I think this underground has existed as long as vinyl.

Besides being a casual collector of psychedelic obscurities, I am also a Sarah Records fan, and I guess just have a different attitude toward the “music industry” than many. Art belongs to the people.

27

onmiverse 08.23.09 at 6:37 am

All this talk somehow reminded me of
John Adams….
People always complain about cultural changes anyways…
We still get to see some interesting music in
pop culture…
Good luck trying to get young people to listen to Stockhausen or Messiaen

28

Bloix 08.23.09 at 8:30 am

“I don’t really see 1970s rock as “art music” in the sense of “auteur music” as opposed to pop.”

The entire difference between rock and pop is that in rock, the writing and performance is by the same person or persons, and in pop, it’s not. There’s no other difference.

29

Bloix 08.23.09 at 8:41 am

Oh, and about Bessie Smith’s death in obscurity:

“Smith’s funeral was held in Philadelphia on Monday October 4, 1937. Her body was originally laid out at Upshur’s funeral home, but as word of her death spread through Philadelphia’s black community the body had to be moved to the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge to accommodate the estimated 10,000 mourners who filed past her coffin on Sunday October 3.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bessie_Smith

30

Chris Bertram 08.23.09 at 10:20 am

Bloix: fair point on Bessie Smith, I was extrapolating from the fact of the unmarked grave. But what you say at #27 is bizarre: it makes Joe Cocker’s Woodstock rendition of “With a Little Help from my Friends” “pop”, and Ringo’s version from Sgt Pepper “rock”.

31

vanya 08.23.09 at 10:47 am

Bloix: That’s a crazy distinction. Much early Beatles is clearly pop, and they wrote and performed their own compositions. “Pop” is music designed to appeal to a wide audience across age, class and racial boundaries, “rock” is music designed to appeal to a niche audience (even if it’s popularity breaks that boundary). However the particular niche audience can vary from group to group. E.g. the niche audience for King Crimson is different from the niche audience for XTC, which is different from the niche audience for Metallica, which is different from Deadheads. By acknowledging and playing with the conventions within that niche, and by demanding that some level of that knowledge from its audience, a rock band can claim, and sometimes achieve, more sophistication than a pop band. And certainly forge a greater connection with its core fans.

At it’s most basic though “pop” is music for middle school girls, “rock” is music for drug taking college kids, and all music can move up or down that continuum.

32

bianca steele 08.23.09 at 2:45 pm

I’m using “pop” to mean cultural product sold to large numbers of people who aren’t looking for art per se, people who want entertainment and a certain kind of feeling.

33

bianca steele 08.23.09 at 2:51 pm

Bob M.:
I’m not trying to deny your experience or anything! But how many copies did you buy?

34

bianca steele 08.23.09 at 3:01 pm

Some big cities had DJs who would promote local bands. Independent rock stations are now disappearing though.

35

bob mcmanus 08.23.09 at 4:45 pm

32: I don’t understand, but I am being willfully obtuse. The hell with Adorno.

33: Wake of Poseidon? 4-5 maybe. I go thru cycles of collecting until I can’t stand the acquisitiveness, and then get rid of everything.

36

Keith M Ellis 08.23.09 at 6:38 pm

I don’t think I understand you at all.

I expect that it is impossible to understand anyone who groups together King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Def Leppard, and Aerosmith in a discussion of music.

I’m using “pop” to mean cultural product sold to large numbers of people who aren’t looking for art per se, people who want entertainment and a certain kind of feeling.

This is a pseudo-elitist middlebrow aesthetic that is contrary to the facts of art history.

I’m sure you are aware that many works of drama and “classical” music which are widely regarded as being “great” works of “art” were “cultural product sold to large numbers of people who [weren’t] looking for art per se, people who want[ed] entertainment and a certain kind of feeling”. That this is so doesn’t disqualify these works as “art”, either in principle or practice; nor does it similarly disqualify contemporary popular music.

37

Henri Vieuxtemps 08.23.09 at 7:02 pm

It’s not necessarily “pseudo-elitist middlebrow”, whatever it means. I think it’s pretty common to use “pop” as a synonym of “kitsch”.

38

bianca steele 08.23.09 at 7:19 pm

This is a pseudo-elitist middlebrow aesthetic that is contrary to the facts of art history.

No, it’s a temporary definition of convenience.

39

Keith M Ellis 08.23.09 at 7:34 pm

I think it’s pretty common to use “pop” as a synonym of “kitsch”.

And that proves…?

Let us assume that “kitsch” is a valid and supportable aesthetic judgment. Bianca is arguing that pop is necessarily kitsch because it is a “cultural product sold to large numbers of people who aren’t looking for art per se, people who want entertainment and a certain kind of feeling”. Note also that “kitsch” is an aesthetic judgment of art while Bianca is excluding “pop” from the category of art entirely. So, too, one should be aware that Bianca is implicitly making a value judgment, not merely one of function and terminology.

The list of works of devalued “non-art” which are described by Bianca’s functional definition would be exhaustive and include pieces that Bianca herself would almost certainly defend as both “art” and of high value.

This aesthetics is both pseudo-elitist and middlebrow because the middlebrow aesthetic tendency is to simultaneously deride popular taste while denying that it is itself a mainstream influence and consumer class.

40

bianca steele 08.23.09 at 7:47 pm

Keith:

Please. You’re not even trying.

41

Keith M Ellis 08.23.09 at 7:47 pm

Oh, how it pains me to be so thoroughly rebutted.

42

Bloix 08.23.09 at 8:03 pm

Bianca Steele – so the fans of Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Metallica and White Snake were looking for art per se?

And Chris B – ok, in the history of rock and roll there’s been one performer who made a decent career of being a cover artist. But there’s no professional rock song-writing industry that creates songs and shops them to managers, who then put singers together with professional session musicians to make recordings. That’s how pop and country work. Rock and folk are different. The basic unit for rock is the band – for folk, either the band or the singer-songwriter – and this unit creates the music: writes the songs, including the lyrics, arranges them, and performs them. The whole point of rock is this unity of expression. It’s what make rock “authentic” – even the crassest, cheesiest, most commercial rock has to make this claim of authenticity of expression, otherwise it’s pop.

Take the Monkees – the made-for-TV imitation of the Beatles- they were always a fake rock band, but they were a perfectly respectable pop group.

43

John Emerson 08.23.09 at 8:29 pm

36: I don’t think that there’s any way to rebut the assertion of a personal failure to understand. But then, I’m not a philosopher. Someone call in a pro.

44

bianca steele 08.23.09 at 8:48 pm

Bloix@42: How in the name of all that’s holy did I end up being so absurdly misunderstood?

Keith@39: No, I’m not at all sure I know where I would want to draw the lines (though I would draw them more narrowly around “kitsch” than you are apparently inclined to), but I feel like you’re missing the point. The definition of “pop” has nothing to do with this argument. I just didn’t have a better word to hand. I’m not talking about the artists, I’m talking about the listeners.

45

harry b 08.23.09 at 9:43 pm

ABBA are rock band?

Just to say that as a complete ignoramus about these debates I’ve found (really) interesting things in what most of you (Bloix, bianca, keith, bob m, vanya) have to say, but am bemused by the apparent level of irritation within the disagreements…

46

bob mcmanus 08.23.09 at 10:19 pm

people who want entertainment and a certain kind of feeling.

When I pick up a chamber work of Schoenberg’s I was looking for entertainment and a certain kind of feeling. I also have to confess that there was an element of belonging to a particular subgroup. The entertainment, feeling, and social solidarity were different in detail from those who bought Monkee records and followed the show, but not I think, that different in motivation.

I am trying to imagine people who acquire art or craft with the intention of not being entertained, not experiencing any feeling, or not identifying with a peer group. This is what I don’t understand.

Academics?

47

bob mcmanus 08.23.09 at 10:41 pm

And the point about bands and singer/songwriters could be useful, but I would resist tossing the interpretative modes of jazz and classical out of the art category.

My Favorite Things is art as much as A Love Supreme, I think.

And trying to determine which versions of “Summertime” are art and which are pop is just beyond my abilities. Coltrane? Joplin? The Chipmunks?

48

Bloix 08.24.09 at 12:18 am

bob mcm – I’m not making any claims for rock as art, and rock never made such claims for itself. I’m saying that rock is defined from within itself, and that definition rests on a claim of authenticity as evidenced by the unity of the performer and the work performed. When a rock band performs you get what you see – there is no slick professional manipulating the performance. That’s the claim – true or not. Rock’s self-definition didn’t include claiming the status of art for itself (the use of the word “artist” to refer to singers and musicians is from the pop world more than the rock world). Rock musicians often don’t play their instruments particularly well – the stars are usually not as competent as the session men – and the singers’ voices are usually not beautiful – in fact rock songs sound ridiculous when sung by singers with beautiful voices. The whole point of rock is that the talent is “natural,” gained not at the foot of a masteror in a regimented academy, but powered by youthful will, energy, and emotion that pours out as authentic musical expression. Rock is anti-artistic, and the claim that rock is somehow the art form to pop’s debased entertainment seems to me to misunderstand rock entirely.

49

Keith M Ellis 08.24.09 at 12:32 am

The whole point of rock is that the talent is “natural,” gained not at the foot of a master or in a regimented academy, but powered by youthful will, energy, and emotion that pours out as authentic musical expression.

And this aesthetic isn’t found at one time or another in every other artistic medium?

50

Substance McGravitas 08.24.09 at 12:42 am

ABBA are rock band?

Once at least. Check out that shrieking intro!

51

bianca steele 08.24.09 at 1:20 am

I fear there has been some huge misunderstanding somewhere. How could a rock band wear big t-shirts with kitties on them?

52

Substance McGravitas 08.24.09 at 1:36 am

Obviously ABBA set the kitty-shirt standard and out of deep respect for their accomplishments absolutely nobody imitated them.

53

Bloix 08.24.09 at 2:04 am

Keith M Ellis – I’m not sure what you mean by “artistic medium” but no, I’m not aware of any other “art form”- if we’re calling rock an art form – in which technical incompetence can be praiseworthy.

54

bob mcmanus 08.24.09 at 4:19 am

49:The whole point of rock is that the talent is “natural,” gained not at the foot of a master or in a regimented academy, but powered by youthful will, energy, and emotion that pours out as authentic musical expression.

I think this is a very good point. Even excluding the obvious punk and garage, it does seem to me that the appeal of even the most sophisticated and intellectual rock remains a youthful intellectualism, with the flaws and virtues of youth. And few last into their forties.

55

Keith M Ellis 08.24.09 at 4:28 am

I agree that the entire spectrum of popular music that R&B spawned is notably naive, bathetic, and correspondingly deeply associated with youth culture. Insofar as it is by far the bulk of contemporary popular music, and has been for decades, I think that this is strongly suggestive of certain ideas in cultural criticism.

But this nexus of youth, “authenticity”, passion, and technical unsophistication is not unique to rock music, nor to music. One will find such nascent movements churning somewhere among every group of young artists; occasionally it erupts to cultural legitimacy.

56

Keir 08.24.09 at 8:40 am

Keith M Ellis – I’m not sure what you mean by “artistic medium” but no, I’m not aware of any other “art form”- if we’re calling rock an art form – in which technical incompetence can be praiseworthy.

Rock isn’t incompetent. It just has different standards to classical music. There’s heaps of schools where non-classical competence is valued — Expressionism, etc.

57

peter 08.24.09 at 9:26 pm

onmiverse @ #27:
“Good luck trying to get young people to listen to Stockhausen or Messiaen”

This statement is nonsense. A couple of years ago a promoter booked Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall for a concert of electronica and experimental music, including music of (so-called) classical composers such as Stockhausen, Xenakis and Varese, along with contemporary club-based sounds. All 1800 seats in the hall were sold out before the performance, and the queue for returns stretched around the block.

Of course, the entire audience may well have OAPs . . .

58

peter 08.24.09 at 9:39 pm

Bloix @ #53:

“I’m not aware of any other “art form”- if we’re calling rock an art form – in which technical incompetence can be praiseworthy.”

For starters, how about primitivist art, abstract expressionist art, conceptual art, free jazz, stand-up comedy, amateur videos on youtube, Burning Man, Redbull flugtage, . . .

59

onmiverse 08.24.09 at 9:54 pm

Peter @ 27
I see your point…
I think I should have specified certain things. By young people I should have meant mainstream of music. Being a 22 year old I usually go out with friends to clubs where Rihanna, Fedde le Grand, and Alex Gaudino are the rules…don’t ask about the names, lyrics, music or whatever…
My point is I am not tying to diminish mainstream music, or people in general who enjoy it. If they like it more power to them, but certainly people are not going to like this music, they would just think is weird…or at least those are the responses I get when I expose someone to Anton Webern…or maybe I am just hanging out with the wrong people…
By the way, I don’t know how the ticket markets play in the UK but I know that at least here in NY tickets are usually acquired in mass by the big brokers companies who later sell them giving the impression of people waiting to buy them and seats selling out in a matter of minutes

60

Bloix 08.24.09 at 10:12 pm

Somehow I’m being misunderstood as arguing that rock is unique in various ways. I really don’t care if rock bears similarities to whatever the fuck goes on at Burning Man. My point is that Wald is w-r-o-n-g. He thinks the singer is more important than the song because of improved technology that privileged the recording over live performance. He doesn’t understand that the singer (actually the band) is more important because rock values the personal expression of the band over all else.

61

Salient 08.24.09 at 10:34 pm

I am trying to imagine people who acquire art or craft with the intention of not being entertained, not experiencing any feeling, or not identifying with a peer group. This is what I don’t understand.

Anna Russell can help you out there! *grin*

62

Substance McGravitas 08.24.09 at 11:03 pm

He doesn’t understand that the singer (actually the band) is more important because rock values the personal expression of the band over all else.

I think the expression is oversold. Rock music should rock: it’s a thrill ride. Many rock bands rock in about the same way as many others and achieve the same ends. It’s not really about diversity.

63

Martin Bento 08.25.09 at 9:08 am

Bloix, Well, Elvis Presley had a pretty decent career as a rock & roll cover artist ;}

Generally, though, I agree with you on the single point of origin as essential to rock (though it is possible to nitpick with borderline cases) with some caveats.

This “essential unity” emerged. It wasn’t essential to rock in the beginning, which explains Elvis. Buddy Holly wrote some of his own songs, others not, no one cared (when the prevailing pop standard of songwriting was “When Sunny Gets Blue” and “I Believe in You”, I’m not shocked that few initially regarded “Peggy Sue” as a masterpiece). The origin of rock is as a marketing concept, and the musical substance to fill that slot came after the fact. The EU emerged, I would say, when the Beatles stopped doing covers, realizing they were more themselves doing their own material, which was better than anything they were covering anyway. This is also about the point at which The Beatles started consciously trying to be original, and they were the first rock group taken seriously as songwriters, though some of this was reflected retrospectively on Chuck Berry and others. At that point, I agree with Bob: rock had become auteur. The Beatles brought to rock some of the melodic strength of the older Tin Pan Alley style and, like TPA and unlike most rock, their songs stand up well in cover versions, even if done in styles dramatically different than the original. Hence, there’s an irony that songwriting became essential for rock artists because of a band whose work could stand independently of their own interpretation of it, i.e., that did not actually require this essential unity.

Where you do see this essential unity as indispensable, for example, is in the B-52’s, especially the early stuff. It is hard to distinguish between the tunes in the abstract and the stylistic gloss the band puts on them. It is not clear that one could cover “Private Idaho” in a manner that a) is true to the spirit of the song, b) does not imitate the B-52’s, and c) works. And the virtue of the unity approach is that it makes this sort of stylistic innovation easy or at least easier. I don’t agree that a single point of origin makes the music more “authentic”, though I think some rock fans believe this. But it is easier to come up with a “new sound” if an individual or small group is generating the music from scratch. It’s hard to see how the B-52’s could have worked out that novel sound if they were covering tunes written by others without them specifically in mind. Hence, what we have seen in rock and related genres is a steady stream of novel styles.

Though this unity has become essential to rock, I don’t agree that the contrary claim is intrinsic to pop. Some pop songwriters, from Hoagy Carmichael to Carole King, have performed their own material. Pop is music that relies on easily memorable and singable melodies and/or easily danceable rhythms, such that people of average ability can easily sing with or dance to it. Whether it is performed by the songwriters is irrelevant. In this sense, it is like folk, but it is unlike folk in that it is generally written and performed by professionals who may be very musically sophisticated. Keep a simple melody and beat, and you can do whatever you like, so the music as a whole is not necessarily simple; it just has some simple elements. Pop in this sense goes back all the way to Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, and you can trace a line from Kern to Rodgers to Van Heusen to Bacharach, which brings us up to the rock era. I would say that rock that has these characteristics is also pop, but not all rock does, specifically not most prog and the more extreme forms of punk, metal, industrial, etc.

What the pop approach offers, though, is, on average, higher technical quality. George Gershwin writes melodies, Ira lyrics, Nelson Riddle arranges and conducts a group of skilled instrumentalists, and Sinatra sings it. All of these people, save perhaps Ira (IMHO), are exceptional at what they do. Beck is in effect filling all these roles, and couldn’t do what he does otherwise. But he doesn’t write melodies on the level of Gershwin nor sing as well as Sinatra: not even close. You can occasionally see how this plays out in rock too. Hendrix’s version of Watchtower is not just superior to Dylan’s: it is superior to almost all of Hendrix’s own studio material. That’s because Dylan is a better songwriter, and Hendrix a better musician. Under the TPA approach, each would have focused on what they do best and the advantage would have been what you usually get from specialization: a higher level of quality at some cost in flexibility, which in this case can translate to individual voice.

As a result, you find jazz musicians born well after the rock or even punk eras eagerly covering tin pan alley “standards” and seldom and often reluctantly rock tunes (if they do cover more recent tunes, it is mostly Stevie Wonder, Beatles, Paul Simon, post-Police Sting – more pop than rock). OK, jazz and show tunes developed together and influenced one another, so it is a more natural fit. But you’re also dealing in rock with tunes that often don’t stand up as well as tunes, whereas TPA tunes, largely for the reasons Weld outlines, were designed to do this and do. And what results is things like Coltrane’s “Favorite Things”, which someone mentioned. Rodgers would never have heard in the tune what Coltrane did, but Coltrane would never have written a melody like that. To get that piece of music, you need one artist independently reinterpreting the work of another.

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om 08.25.09 at 5:50 pm

Bloix: “Wald is w-r-o-n-g. He thinks the singer is more important than the song because of improved technology that privileged the recording over live performance. He doesn’t understand that the singer (actually the band) is more important because rock values the personal expression of the band over all else.”

Karl Marx: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

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Martin Bento 08.25.09 at 8:17 pm

Marx is w-r-o-n-g.

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Western Dave 08.26.09 at 3:08 am

Recap:
Pop – someone who sells more than the bands l like because other people have no taste
Rock – the bands I like because I have taste

Bloix – ‘He doesn’t understand that the singer (actually the band) is more important because rock values the personal expression of the band over all else.’ Axl Rose is laughing at you. Really, really loudly.

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Martin Bento 08.26.09 at 4:04 am

Western Dave, I don’t know who you think you’re recapping, but that’s not at all like what I said. As for Axl, you could be right; he looms very small in my world.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 08.26.09 at 7:22 am

I’m curious if Keith and others feel that there is such a phenomenon as objectively, undeniably poor-taste stuff (cheap imitations, cliche, etc.; whether it should be called ‘art’ is a different question), or is it that any judgment in this area is ‘aesthetic judgment’ and therefore purely subjective.

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Martin Bento 08.26.09 at 6:48 pm

One can make pretty objective judgments of originality, complexity, and such. I think emotional content comes across pretty unambiguously most of the time. Of “pure matters of taste”, I am suspicious. I think they tend to reflect what one is acculturated to and one’s extra-musical associations (such music is too upper or lower class, too rebelious or too status quo, in other words, too unlike how I want to see myself. People use musical taste as expression of identity, which distorts it). For example, there are composers I greatly admire who do things orchestrally that sound kitsch to me – early Jobim, Bacharach, certainly Mancini, even in places, Gershwin. Did any of these people lack “taste”? I think they just reflect standards of taste of an older generation that’s always going to be a bit alien to me – but that’s my problem, not theirs. And I’m not saying I don’t like their music because most of them are among my favorites.

less is better, who apparently didn’t know Mancini, mentioned how he used to get panned by jazz musicians. His reputation has improved retrospectively. He wrote “Peter Gunn” (appropriated by everyone from Sarah Vaughan to the B-52’s to Art of Noise), the theme from “The Pink Panther”, “Moon River”, “Days of Wine and Roses”, and the music for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. He was in the mold of sophisticated pop composer with jazz influences after the heyday of such had passed. Jazz was in its most avant guard phase and trying to have nothing to do with pop, and pop was reacting to rock & roll; he had a home in neither world. He had an audience, but nothing critics would respect. So he was panned as kitsch at the time. And a lot of his arranging sounds kitsch to me too, not the brassy stuff, but a lot of his orchestration is very “muzacky” – he is actually one of the fathers of that style. I hate the choir on “days of wine and roses”. I had to hear a jazz version to realize it’s actually a good song. I don’t like “Moon River” at all. I won’t defend these things as “objective taste”, however. They are just my taste. I can’t say the composer of Peter Gunn and Pink Panther has no imagination when it comes to arranging music.

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Substance McGravitas 08.26.09 at 6:56 pm

I’m curious if Keith and others feel that there is such a phenomenon as objectively, undeniably poor-taste stuff

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Henri Vieuxtemps 08.26.09 at 7:28 pm

I like Mancini, didn’t he write that nice melody for Zeferelli’s Romeo and Juliette? Or was it Rota?

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John Emerson 08.26.09 at 8:32 pm

In 50 years no one will care. I already don’t.

My son, who is in the music biz, separates out highly developed, well-defined styles like flamenco, jazz, bluegrass, classical, blues, old-timey — stuff that can be classicized and taught by rules — and gives each its proper designation, and calls everything else pop. Will people be playing classicized rock in 2109? I suppose so, but not yet, and some of the most definitive rock songs — “Wild Thing”, “Louie Louie”, etc. — will be hard to classicize. A lot of rock lyrics, changes, and tunes don’t give you much to work with.

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Martin Bento 08.27.09 at 1:16 am

Henri, yeah, it was Mancini.

John, well, that’s kind of what they said over 50 years ago, when this whole rock thing got off the ground.

The problem is styles that get classicized stop developing, or develop only in subtle ways noticeable to connoisseurs . When did you last hear anything new in blues? This is why classical and jazz developed avant guards: to keep from being musics that could be reduced to set of rules. Of course, both of those avant guards produced music that is much an acquired taste and thereby lost their audiences. But rehashing Dvorak or Mingus can’t help but get boring, and those are both brilliant musics drawing on brilliant forebears. Arguably, rock has an avant guard too.

SG, OK, I’ll bite: why is that music so undeniably bad? Seems typical of the genre in many ways. The lyrics are easily intelligible, a plus, which is unusual in hard rock. A lot of metal is better played than this, but so what? The singer is barely competent as a singer, but he yells effectively and does get the words across. At least he’s not trying to sound evil like many metal singers, which just reminds me of Halloween spooky sounds records. The sentiment is silly, but there’s lot of that around.

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Keith M Ellis 08.27.09 at 3:25 am

I’m curious if Keith and others feel that there is such a phenomenon as objectively, undeniably poor-taste stuff

I go against the grain and believe that, in theory at least, there’s possibly some sense in which there is objective aesthetic value in art and that, to the limited degree to which “kitsch” is defined in those terms (and not merely in a culturally functional sense), kitsch exists.

But you seem to me to be conflating some concepts which are widely-regarded to be distinct. For example, “qualitatively bad” with “considered in poor taste”.

At any rate, I certainly don’t equate “kitsch” either as a judgment of aesthetic quality or as a cultural aesthetic category with either “popular” or “not the product of highly developed technique”. Works of art that are widely regarded to be of high artistic quality have been popular and/or the product of technical unsophistication; likewise works of art that are widely regarded to be other than culturally kitsch have been popular and/or the product of technical unsophistication.

It’s certainly true that both senses of “kitsch” notably overlap with popularity and technical unsophistication. That’s why so many people make that critical shortcut. But it’s often enough a mistake—and certainly often enough an egregious mistake in the history of art—that it really is inexcusable.

You know, I’m a musician myself. A trained musician. For the early part of my life until perhaps my late twenties, I very strongly associated technical mastery with artistic quality. At some point, I realized this was very naive. Later, I realized that “technical mastery” is itself a dubious idea insofar as it is thought to be only those things which we culturally tend to recognize as “technical mastery”. Technique arises organically out of the process of artistic creation—any good piece of art is technically competent implicitly. That is to say, it may exhibit the more recognizable forms of technical competence—say, education and experience with traditional and highly regarded techniques. But it also may exhibit new, highly competent technique. After all, fully formed technique wasn’t provided as a revelation from the Gods. If competency in fully-formed technique was a requirement for the creation of “true” art, then how could art have ever come to exist? I suppose someone would say that it arises from something less-than-art, from kitsch. But, you know, even a single contradictory example nullifies that argument—and we have many.

More specific to the particular argument in this thread, I long ago expanded my awareness of “technique” in music (popular and otherwise) beyond what most people think is taught in music school. In fact, most of that stuff, the most schematic forms of technique, account for very little of what is required to write (and perform) good music. For example, people here and elsewhere seem to believe that the simple blues progression necessarily belies a vast ignorance of technique in music when, in fact, one only needs to be informed enough as a musician to watch a blues musician play and realize how much implicit, often not taught, and wide-ranging technique there really is. And with regard to songwriting? At least as true, if not more so.

Technical competency is, in fact, a pretty good metric for evaluating the quality of art. The catch is that almost everyone who is eager to use this metric vastly underestimates the scope of what truly qualifies as “technique”. In the crudest terms, if it looks or sounds “difficult” to the novice, the assumption is made that it must imply technical mastery and that is a reasonable basis upon which to judge artistic merit. Often, though, the stuff that looks and sounds easy is the most difficult and requires the most mastery. And this is what I was getting at with my “middlebrow” comment. This “seems difficult so it’s good art” is the middlebrow aesthetic.

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Substance McGravitas 08.27.09 at 4:47 am

SG, OK, I’ll bite: why is that music so undeniably bad? Seems typical of the genre in many ways. The lyrics are easily intelligible, a plus, which is unusual in hard rock. A lot of metal is better played than this, but so what? The singer is barely competent as a singer, but he yells effectively and does get the words across. At least he’s not trying to sound evil like many metal singers, which just reminds me of Halloween spooky sounds records. The sentiment is silly, but there’s lot of that around.

Well, that’s not a stellar review in itself, is it?

Yes, the singer’s not good, he is trying to sound evil, the lyrics are terrible really really terrible, a call to conform in a call to rebel, the playing’s unremarkable, there’s the naked Kashmirism, big blank spaces in the chorus where the attempted anthem should be, metal is a game of competence… It’s hard to say how this is in any sense good, so I’d submit that it’s bad.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 08.27.09 at 6:53 am

Works of art that are widely regarded to be of high artistic quality have been popular and/or the product of technical unsophistication; likewise works of art that are widely regarded to be other than culturally kitsch have been popular and/or the product of technical unsophistication.

No, it’s not about what actually becomes popular, and I don’t think the level of technical sophistication has anything to do with it. It’s about a technocratic, purely pragmatic approach vs. creative approach.

Suppose I do a massive research with electrodes attached to brains and calculate the exact ratio of fat, sugar, and salt the average human being of the targeted demographic finds most attractive. I then produce a meal by this formula, made from the cheapest ingredients I can find. This certainly makes me a businessman, but does it make me a cook?

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Keith M Ellis 08.28.09 at 3:35 am

This certainly makes me a businessman, but does it make me a cook?

It might.

I don’t completely agree with it, but the doctrine of the intentionalist fallacy is relevant here.

Aside from that, it’s not clear to me at all that there’s no widely well-regarded works of art in the history of art that we can absolutely be sure weren’t created in a wholly “technocratic, pragmatic” manner. You seem to be assuming several disjunctions that I don’t see as justified. For example, there certainly must be some overlap between what people intrinsically like and what is art—that being the case, part of an artist’s talent is working within that context. If nothing else, an artist is likely to be creating to his own internal set of similar specifications and unless he is an alien, then he’s implicitly working towards others’, as well…at least to some degree.

I guess what bothers me most about your view is that it is very simplistic and idealistic about the process of artistic creation. It’s basically an expression of the culturally current idea that what is art is only what is produced ex nihilo from some mysterious creative source that has nothing to do with entertainment of others, popularity, or simply plying a trade. This is, incidentally, a very modern view of art.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 08.28.09 at 6:07 am

Well, of course I’m being simplistic and of course there is no bright line, but sometimes reductio ad absurdum is helpful, you know, to be able to agree in principle. Didn’t help much here, I guess.

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