(A non-political weekend post, this.)
A while back, I expressed my annoyance-veering-toward-outrage over putative "art critics" who can see only the literary qualities of any given painting. These people claim to know about art, yet they remain mired in subject matter -- in the tyranny of the idea. I proposed a new valuation system: Ideas are for books and essays. When we're talking about painting, screw ideas
As Braque said: "The painter thinks in form and colors. The aim is not to reconstitute an anecdotal fact but to constitute a pictorial fact."
Translation: You wanna talk literature, get the fuck out of the museum and head to the library. That's your home. Stay there.
Much the same can be said of nearly all writing about popular music.
I can speak with some objectivity here, being a classical kind of guy. Right now, you probably want to prattle on about how you deserve hipness points because you despise the immensely famous commercial performers like Lady Whatzername or whoever else might be holding her position at any given moment. None of that for you. You are ever-so-cool because you prefer the sound of edgy independent bands like...
...well, you'll have to finish that sentence for yourself, because it all
sounds like dreck to me.
Normally, a classical guy wouldn't venture into pop realms. But Ron Rosenbaum's over-the-top attack on Billy Joel
prompted me to compare pop music's pseudocritics to the pseudocritics who try to sound educated about art. I insist on the "pseudo" prefix because most of the people who write about painting never really discuss painting
and most of the people who write about music never really discuss music
Read Rosenbaum's essay and you'll see what I mean. He engages in a form of literary criticism which pretends to be music criticism.
Before proceeding, let's make something very clear: I really don't know much about this Billy Joel personage. If memory serves, he wrote a ditty called "Piano Man" which was hummable and memorable. He also sang something called "Uptown Girl," which was inescapable during the 1980s, and which annoyed the hell out of me. Beyond that, his output is something of a mystery to me. I really do not give a damn whether he (or anyone else) has ever been considered hip or hate-worthy or whatever. The guy just ain't on my radar.
So I'm in a good position to make a completely disinterested man-from-Mars judgment of Rosenbaum's essay.
My question: How can Rosenbaum write a long piece about Billy Joel's musicianship (or alleged lack thereof) without once talking about melody, harmony, rhythm and all of that other stuff?
Rosenbaum spends much of his essay writing summaries of the stories or messages he finds in the song lyrics. He makes it clear that he doesn't much care for the literary content on display here. That's all well and good -- but what does an analysis of the lyrics have to do with music
Song lyrics are a form of poetry. Poetry is literature.
In our perverse age, everything is reduced to literature, to the tyranny of the idea.
Rosenbaum (and many of you) would no doubt defend this practice. Too many people want the privilege of pretending to speak about music even though they know nothing about timbre, chords, tempo or anything else that a real musician would consider important.
Similarly, the lit crit poseurs who see fit to tell us what constitutes good painting never speak in terms of composition, color theory, draftsmanship -- in short, they never speak in terms that would make sense to an artist.
Rosenbaum argues that the lyrics of Mr. Joel's songs contain much poor poetry. So? The lyrics of most
pop songs are awful. Even the songs you love best probably have crappy lyrics.
And the same could be said of most of the lyrics one encounters in the world of classical music. Even on his worst day, Joel probably never wrote anything as mawkish as Rückert's Kindertotenlieder
In this weather, in this windy storm,
I would never have sent the children out.
They have been carried off,
I wasn't able to warn them!
In this weather, in this gale, in this windy storm,
they rest as if in their mother's house:
frightened by no storm,
sheltered by the Hand of God.
Bathetic piffle. Inexcusable. And I'm told that it's not much better in the original German. Very few people would defend this text as poetry -- yet Gustav Mahler's setting of this passage
is heartbreaking and gorgeous.
Judging a song by its lyrics is more foolish than judging a used car by its paint job.
Whenever people have tried to sell me on the virtues of a piece of popular music, I ask: "What does this music say? Does it say anything
They usually respond with a discussion of the lyrics.
No, I reply: I didn't inquire about the poetry. What does the music
say? If you heard this song for the first time in a language you did not understand, what would you take away from the experience?
The finest pop songs -- "Yesterday" comes to mind -- might offer you a great deal if you first encountered them in a foreign language version. But let's admit the obvious: Most pop songs, when judged as pure music, give you nothing: Let's dance. Let's fuck. Let's fight.
You probably have never heard Janacek's opera The Cunning Little Vixen
. An ostensible work for children -- scenes with talking animals are interspersed with scenes involving human beings -- this opera actually constitutes an old man's farewell to life.
In the final scene, the aging hunter gives up his long search for a female fox he had captured at the beginning. The vixen, named Bestrouska, had escaped his farm, had raised a family in the forest, and was shot (in the preceding scene) by another hunter.
She represents youth and sex and fertility. She is gone.
In an epiphanic moment, the woodsman speaks of how much he loves this forest in the early evening light. He speaks of the generations to come after him who will walk through this very spot: "People will pass with heads bowed down and they will understand that an otherworldly bliss has come their way."
He drops his gun, sits against a tree -- and suddenly all the animals come out to greet him, including the vixen's daughter. For the first time, he understands what they are saying. They've spent generations talking about him, laughing at him. He doesn't mind.
Then he melts into the forest. He becomes one with all things.
Has this summary reduced Janacek's opera to literature? Perhaps. (Just to complicate matters, we should note that Janacek thought that human speech was inherently musical and could be notated.) My point is this: I heard the finale of this work for the first time on the radio. It was performed in Czech. I had no idea what was going on. I did not know the name of the piece or who wrote it.
Yet I got it
Maybe not all the details were clear. But the music -- the music
-- told the story of a man at the end of his journey who finds solace in a form of ecstatic pantheism, in the endless cycle of death and birth. That's a complex idea to express in purely musical terms, yet Janacek gets it across
That's what music
can do, if you have the ears to hear it.
If you don't, don't write about it.