Music Writing by Carson Arnold
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JOYRIDING TODAY'S MUSIC
(a picture found in a libray; from CWA archive)
Some things need to be straightened out before closing time. June, '04 signed off some pretty wild activities and it only seems right to discuss them in the open. For one, the month proved that only in America is it an encouragement (ahem, "educational experience") to download someone getting beheaded off the internet, yet it was a criminal offense to download music. You bet. We have instant access to goodies like guns, prescription drugs, porn, sacreligion, and probably your neighbor...but it takes the Supreme Court to figure out how to listen to music without violating "copyright regulations." Doesn't it feel good that you could be downloading an Asian snuff film, cranked out on pills, holding a semi-automatic, while placing an order for solutions to mix crystal-meth, and the only knock you'll get at your door is if you click a button to hear a song?
Maybe we need these things to wake us up. Shake us. "Did I read that correct? Did I hear that right?" Rock 'n roll is just something we need to dig up. Or can we? I wrote this article a week ago and am now adding in additional notes due to my hyperactive current of rock/sleepless nights/wrong turns. Earlier this morning I was in a market, just standing there in the middle of the snack aisle, listening to The Box Tops on the overhead radio. Energy. Sometimes I feel as though I'm hearing these sounds-- the enthusiasm, the voice-- but as soon as I search for an outlet or a social movement to support my reactions (fine, a culture/counterculture), I face a million obstacles. Am I imagining it? I just finished reading an article in The Nation about how conservative-radio titan Rush Limbaugh plays Chrissie Hynde's "My City Was Gone" (among many others from Bob Marley to Blur) as a theme on his program: in attempt to seduce liberals into the right-wing machine, and, another trick at dominating/mocking something hip like "Purple Haze" by airing it over a debate about anti-gay marriage or drugs. Nothing like having that energy in good hands, eh? Worse, when musicians being copped by Limbaugh (STP, Dave Matthews, Garbage) were asked to comment if they found the tactic frightening, if not hypocritical, no one had anything to say. They knew they were being watched.
Aren't these cats hip? We've come to a place where it's not even about show-biz no more. It's about sell sell sell. Sell yr soul, show yr booty (answer that cellphone). So stock up, it's possible those rebellious anthems can be scooped up by any neocon that wants to divide the ratio and stock up on his wad. Clear Channel, Saga, and all the rest, lie in the shadows of every mainstream artist, making it next to impossible for people like me. The future of rock criticism: Wall Street, amigo.
Enough funny stuff. I guess what I'm saying is it's hard not to appear embittered by the scheme of things. Especially for people who really crave (and there's that word "crave" again) Rock. The excitement of bearing witness to a moment in sound and following years in possession of it; developing with it, teaching it, defending it. But the truth is, I'm finding, between the internet and the everyday headlines, it's getting mighty hard to talk about rock music anymore without sounding like you're trying to sell George Foreman grills to teeny-boppers. There's a commercial attachment to everything now. You feel embarrassed. And there's hardly any new groups in the mainstream that you can write about intellectually, nor emotionally-- there's only a suspicion, an investigation (as if rock bands actually ever think when forming-- they feel). Every major magazine writes their reviews on the basis of why the reader should "buy" the album, not what it feels like. The writers become referees. Critics today write reviews mainly off a "consumer-interest" when really they should be talking about it as a life form. I can remember the first time I submitted a review to a magazine and the editor wrote back advising me "first-person style" isn't as popular as it used to be (I guess readers can't make up their own minds). Who else wrote it? In retrospect, my only hope and vision is that by documenting my own personal trials in Rock (and it ain't "self-righteous" or "indulgent," don't be fooled), it will inspire my generation's encounters and feelings with it, otherwise unnoticed. The Strokes? The Yeah Yeah Yeahs? Good stuff, but to me they all play to a "trend" (retroism): if you watch closely, not a lot of sweat is being poured into their actual music as an art form-- more attention is being served in attempt to cater them as New York bohemians with must-have comparisons to Lou Reed and advertisement of pure fashion (though I like singer Karen O., showing her pubic hair and the attention around her punk-rock sexuality-- ? -- has made more of an impact than any of their actual songs).
But most people know things aren't the same as they used to be. Even those kids packed within the moshpits at Ozzfest this summer can tell you that. Remember those nice days during the early 90s of Alternative Rock before the industry had to (purposely) introduce the Christian Rock swan-songs of Creed to everyone? Love songs haven't been the same since. Say what you will, corporate America has bulldozed the origins of rock into a franchise-- the radio waves, the media, and MTV all advertising one thing/item so as not to marginalize itself, while reality shows promote that fame is just a click away-- where even the so-called rebellious in the bunch are suckers in the end. From rock 'n roll (drinking wine spo-dee-o-dee) to the violent, neo-military rap/metal (get the fuck back, bitch), from Beethoven (da-da-da-dum) to the avant-garde (sqwaaukeeeee), from Billie Holiday (good morning, heartache) to Lil' Kim (hum, makes me cum quicker): there's an obvious pattern (and think of it, Holiday's drug-use was almost metaphorical to jazz, while if Kim were to announce any drug-use, though we expect it, it'd be deemed as a bad "business" move). But I have a few suggestions on how to navigate through the confusion.
Most people seem to be running to experimental music to seek shelter. The subterranean. The internet. I've had problems with this genre since the start. The most relevant scene today, "The New, Weird America," as Wire magazine notes, I gave two negative live reviews to, and overnight my name was seemingly a fixture in the local area. In response, I landed a position writing reviews for a Boston magazine, and for the past year I'll still receive timely letters from fellow angry improv artists pissed off that I dare criticize "people who make music their life." Well, no shit, so do politicians. What's always irritated me about experimentalism (modern-art, post-modern) is there's no critical fine line; no distinction between good or bad; no rhythm, no melody, often no sex, no controversy-- only, or most predominantly, noise (for example, how many people do you know who like it have ever said an experimental album is "bad"? Is there that capability?). Today very few avant-garde artists are taking the time (patience) to evolve themselves-- composing their own structure, scale, language, and belief in replacement of what they're objecting against (melody, conformity...er, pop-music). But with the internet and its unlimited tab of pending information, a philosophy like this is rare, if not ancient. Somebody could write a hundred sincere songs and play open-mic-nights until they drop, while four white guys who've played the saxophone for a year and already think they're Albert Ayler can earn a spotlight in Signal To Noise. I'll admit, though, there is a side to me which borders on a naive arrogance, but I'm not an elitist-- I just say if aspiring musicians are proud that a history of tradition and thought has finally boiled down to a dirge of droning atonality...well, okay. But we need reasons.
That's not unfair to ask, either. Sun Ra first mastered bebop inside out before even stepping near the outer limits. As did Coltrane. Stockhausen played Beethoven in German Army messhalls for years when the sound-experiments were but a dream. Zappa learned from the libraries. John Zorn another example.
So what am I saying? Cyberspace and technology have ultimately made us dazed to a multimedia vacuum? Everyone's sold-out, and anyone who hasn't is hopelessly battling cliches? Or is there another way to look at it?
Of course. The words you read in this column are generally focused on rock music. Rock music as a fundamental mode of expression. Rock music as a medium to much of the world's cultural or political issues. Rock music as an intensity. A vehicle. An experience. And in the process, I prefer to talk about popular music over anything else, not because I'm a lonelyheart or some mall-rat-- I own all the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Can records just like everybody else-- but because it instigates a discussion; an open forum for people to communicate. We need more of that. We need more opinions. More ethic. More conversation. In this day and age, the image of Courtney Love, regardless of our prejudices, or the art of Sonic Youth, do symbolize a whole demographic, by which thinking about them differently can perhaps change the way we think all together, and not just about music. It's not about what we wanna hear-- it's about how we wanna hear it. Writing about such subjects like Radiohead or PJ Harvey-- "icons," maybe not to you or me, but to somebody-- invites a mass dialogue; a proposition for what people see the future of rock, jazz, the underground, and themselves, to be when put up against the common mirror.
Why has there been more analysts for the Scott Peterson trial than any music review I've read in the past ten years?
It's true, though, I do speak for my generation. I'm not dictated by their interests (otherwise I'd be using a cellphone wearing 70 dollar Nikes), but I do clearly write for them. Just the other day my friend and I were sitting around (stoned) discussing whether or not there was an emotional future in what we were listening to (The Beatles). How will Revolver (an album celebrating the very chemistry of youth) be perceived as gadgets like I-pods and reality shows slowly perpetuate by narrowing down that same chemistry into a material grade? And Revolver, big as it sounds, compared to today's ultra-technology, is practically a demo recording, and yet groups with turntables, effect units, and computers, have never quite been able to match its spontaneity. No complaints, though.
Today's generation, despite if our minds feel under water, possess a certain power: The power to look back. The power to agitate. Even so, most teenagers are more likely to pick up the latest Slipknot album than listen to anything by Six Organs of Admittance. They're seduced by regression, volume, and presumably, fear. But after a while, ask any of us, the Slipknot fix wears off. It's thrown on the floor, stolen, lost, numerously sold off, (set on fire, it's the truth), while the band meanwhile is forced to keep spinning its contract, touring their budget to the core, where in ten years they reappear on some Decade compilation put out by the industry to flesh out the band's overwhelming stock at major CD stores. Six Organs wins infamy in the end.
But the people can't let go. The kids still want their Slipknot. There's always that jolting roar for the The Stones, Bruce Springsteen, or Billy Joel. That momentary high where you and 12,000 other people (they don't even gotta be fans) can safely agree upon was worth working all week to catch entertainment walk out on stage. The feeling that stars know our pain, so fulfill our fantasies. And no matter how tall we fill a glass to try and block that reaction, we'll always run into it at some point...But what if more people were to suddenly (once again) talk about rock music with an understanding, a knowledge, in which to inspire say, Slipknot fans to another nexus; where soon they too could be listening to Six Organs by drawing parallels between metal to classical to psychedelics? And as I write this, the TV flips between flashing images of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Coca-Cola commercials. Slipknot doesn't fit in? The confusion. The debate. Tell me more.
These are my best attempts. My only shots for understanding 2004, and in some respects, staying alive. I'm sorry if I can't write about what it was like to see Roland Kirk. I'm sorry if I can't share with you what Janis Joplin smelled like. Or what it was like to smoke pot with The Dead in Haight-Ashbury. Or see The Ramones. Or discovering Nirvana's debut. I'm sorry if there's only Velvet Revolver, The Strokes, and 50-Cent left to use as a commentary. I'm sorry if I sometimes feel experimental music is pretentious just the same as most pop music is tacky. If I had my way, every new release would be Highway 61 or London Calling. But they're not. And selling out and mainstream are two different things (in case you were wondering). U2 sold out. The Cure are just mainstream (imagine if Rage Against The Machine was signed to Dischord-- would they be heroes?). Stadium-rock is out. Unless you're a prog-rock dinosaur like Rush feeding off, let's face it, whoever, or you've got your beat behind a Presidential candidate-- Guns, Pearl Jam: all of the past. People don't need those platinum choruses anymore. Rock today is manufactured (sometimes I think entirely) for the music-video (product placements). It's designed for it. Hearing a song I can pin-point the exact sections where a video would film the fantasy-girl in shorts pulling up in a sports car to a driveway where a fantasy party is underway in a California suburb and everyone's a punk-rocker in cargo-pants and always winding up in a school-yard of teen-chaos meets luv-fest as if these people would be in school?
I remain with today's promises. Jazz and blues have become an historical counterpoint (long affected by disco which advanced studios far past the quality where jazz normally wants to sacrifice.) Radiohead on down to the equally subsounds of Sun Burned Hand of the Man are both fine examples of the new, but again, they're more artistically charged to technique than anything vocal. When I listen to Patti Smith or Neil Young I'm in the middle of a vision. A future. My generation is or has been perhaps the only age-group thus far without any real strong anthems. Everyone's had a few: "Blowin' In The Wind," "Anarchy In The U.K.," "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Of course, it does depend on what you consider a hair-raising message, and "feel-good" singles supplied by U2 don't count. Hell, the only the time I remember any tribal velocity was watching Limp Bizkit tear apart Woodstock '99 with "Faith"...a George Michael number...So the need for expression is major. Hip-hop? You don't like it? Tell me why. All these kids loyal to the top rappers like Mase who, if you listen, aren't giving any empathy to the "projects" (rap, a multi-million dollar industry, and you still got liquor stores at every corner & ghetto crack babies? Cocaine farm communities in Columbia run a better ring), they're just bragging about how rich they scored? Go tell somebody. They should be listening to jazz? Well how they gonna do it? I'm wrong? Tell me. I'm less interested in categories. Yeah, we could spend all day like classifying and slotting away every album that's been released in the past forty years like the daily lotto. "This goes here. This is that. Fans of this would love that."...But how long is it before we're thinking just like every one of those people entertained by cable-TV? I'm more interested in exploring the response. I'm more interested in hearing from you. There's no other choice for your secrets.
--Carson Arnold - July 11th, 2004
copyright 2004 Carson Arnold
H(ear) is an online music column consisting of interviews, articles, and investigations written by Carson Arnold. As a freelance writer for various magazines and liner notes, living in the woods of Vermont with his family, Carson widely encourages one to submit their art, writing or any interesting piece of material that you would like to share. H(ear) is accepting both promos and demos for review or any other valuable music-related subjects. If you wish to make a comment or would like to receive H(ear) weekly by email please contact Carson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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