Wednesday, June 25, 2008

This isn't pop

More mature readers may be able to dredge from the recesses of their stewed memories the misunderstanding I had with Simon Reynolds a couple of years back over the odd behaviour of his US publishers.

So here's something (from an interview Reynolds recently gave to ReadySteadyBook) with which I couldn't agree more:

I used to have this stance that music writing should focus on pure sound, a sort of reaction against the over-emphasis on lyrics, biography, etc -- which to me at the time (late Eighties) seemed to be an evasion of the sonic, and linked to lingering hang-ups from the punk and postpunk era that constantly sought to validate music through its relevance, political content, redeeming social value, etc. Being all hopped up on Roland Barthes and the rest of the French theory crew, I was trying to do writing that was purely about jouissance, focusing on that aspect of music to do with ecstasy, convulsive bliss, ego-loss, excess, oblivion, etc. Today I think that stance, while understandable in its context (opposing the middlebrow rock critic fixation on lyrics and meaning, which never seems to go away), was misguided, in so far as pop/rock has never been purely about music alone. It's a hybrid art form, radically impure, with a whole other set of factors being as important as the sound: lyrics, persona, biography, performance, the broader social and cultural context, the discourse at any given time around music (including criticism), the design and packaging of records, the way fans make use of the music and invents its meanings, and quite a few other frames.

Part of the reason that concentrating on the secondary factors is so important is that few writers about pop music have more than a rudimentary technical knowledge of the subject; and even fewer of their readers could tell a countermelody from a contrabassoon. Jarvis Cocker once told a music hack that he pitied him, "because you'll never get anywhere near to what you're trying to write about." So you communicate the essence of your subject by allegory and metaphor, by writing about something else.

Which may also explain why I'm still fascinated by music, even if I've stopped listening to it.


patroclus said...

Are we to infer from this that yer man Reynolds has stopped reading Barthes and started reading Henry Jenkins?

And surely all artworks - not just pop songs - are embedded in a wider cultural context? I wouldn't call that 'radical impurity', just unavoidable.

Rimshot said...

I can't belive I've never before heard/read or considered using "middlebrow". How wonderful!

Being (minisculey) musical, I'm not sure I have the right to comment on the non-musical music reviewer/critic/writer, but I don't see a problem with it. I don't imagine every Art (note the capital) afficianado is a painter or sculptor. One knows what one likes and with a bit of investigation, the jist is not that mystical.

Just a bunch of pish-toshery to add to the fascade of wonder and mystery. I would simply advise one not to look behind the curtain, because the wizard is not that impressive once you've seen him up close.

garfer said...

Didn't Paul Morley give up rock journalism when he was 25 because he thought he was too old?

Sadly I recently heard him pontificating on the Sugar Babes, which says it all really.

Billy said...

One of the best things about popular music is that you can write about it convincingly without knowing much about the technical side.

Tim Footman said...

Fair point, Patroclus, but it's much easier to consider some art forms - classical music, abstract painting - in a decontextualised manner, than others. You just deal with the content. Whereas it's perfectly fair (as far as I'm concerned) to base one's reaction to a pop song on the tightness of the singer's trouser, or whether the drummer votes Conservative. (At a slight tangent, Miranda Sawyer recently said that she finds it impossible to write about classical music unless it's very bad.)

Pish-toshery (the village next to Balamory, surely?) is what it's all about, Rimshot.

Garfer: He'd probably argue that his retirement was a hyperreal illusion, caused by too much Kraftwerk.

Not just that, Billy, you can play the stuff with no knowledge whatsoever. In OW's words: "I don’t play accurately - any one can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression."