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Sunday, February 05, 2012

Do pop music critics ever talk about music?

(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.

Nothing.

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.
Comments:
I'll listen to anything from Baroque to Doo-wop with the exception of Elvis and some other early rock and roll. I may not know what it is but I know what I like.

Interesting thing about Billy Joel, Glen Frey of the Eagles and some others is that as they got older their creativity dried up. They lost that teen angst. One female singer song writer (Alanis Morissette?) had a slump until her boyfriend dumped her, then she got creative again. It seems that most lyrics in pop music are biographical, unlike the output of a Lerner and Lowe or Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Anyway, to judge pop music by it composition would require spending more time in an elevator car than I would care to do.
 
"It seems that most lyrics in pop music are biographical..."

But are they good? And do they matter?
 
Do lyrics matter? Does anything matter?

I'll be among the first to grouse that the lyrics in most popular songs aim for the lowest common denominator. I've had many an otherwise enjoyable tune ruined for me by insipid or cringe-worthy lyrics (and in the interest of full disclosure, I look at some of the stuff I've written over the years and cringe). Conversely, I've come to enjoy some songs more after paying closer attention to the lyrics.

Speaking solely for myself, as a songwriter, I focus so much on lyrics because I don't want to be accused of being illiterate. Admittedly, this feeds into your argument that perhaps I should retire to a library and leave the piano to the real musicians. However, I find myself at a strange intersection - I love playing music, and writing tunes but I also love writing in general. I see no reason why the two can not coexist. Personally though, I aim to match lyrics with musical moods - the two should compliment and reinforce one another.

As for critics - I ceased sending any material to them mainly because half of those who actually bothered to write something thoroughly convinced me that they didn't bother listening to the CD before word-vomiting all over it. I was wasting money sending CDs to people who already get a metric fuckton of CDs for free from fools similar to myself clawing at the cold rockface of obscurity in the vain hope of reaching the summit of exposure. I'd defy Ron Rosenbaum to pick up a copy of the sheet music to Billy Joel's "Prelude/Angry Young Man" and perform it. Ten to one he'd be unable to even read it, to say nothing of playing it on piano.
 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLX0ARaj0hE&feature=related
 
Joe, I don't think your painting-is-not-literature argument can be extended as well to music. Songs DO have lyrics, which are words, which are the components of literature and ideas. An analysis of Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie that did not address their lyrics would be absurd. Apart from his lyrics, Guthrie peddled generic folk music that couldn't be distinguished from a thousand other guys'. Ditto for Dylan before he picked up an electric guitar. I used to review music for a living and now I review movies. The synthesis of form and content is the message of both media. The Sex Pistols "God Save the Queen" may have roughly the same song structure as the Beatles "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," but it's a very different beast, which barged into the sociopolitical arena. The message communicated by the Pistols' lyrics (and clothes and behavior) made them more important than lesser punk bands, let the '60s surf and garage bands they all emulated. Likewise, I can't review a movie without considering the implicit and explicit messages it conveys. Would you have me review the cinematography but not the script? Is "Triumph of the Will" a purely formal exercise? How about "JFK" or "Brokeback Mountain" or "Fahrenheit 911" or "The Graduate"? You can opine that painters or musicians or filmmakers SHOULDN'T traffic in ideas, but when they do, a conscientious critic must assess how--and how well--they did it.
 
This comment has been removed by the author.
 
TJ, I'm not sure that your examples help your argument. As a poet, Bob Dylan was always overrated. His songs are awful, and his voice unendurable. (I may not know much about pop music, but I've always done a pretty good Dylan imitation.) In short: The man's whole career was the Triumph of the Bad.

Your own words about Guthrie say all that need be said.

Do you really think that the Sex Pistols song you reference proves your point? I just now looked up the lyrics. I don't know the song per se, but I can guess that it's a parody version of the traditional British anthem. So what do we have...?

God save the Queen
The fascist regime
They made you a moron
A potential H-Bomb

God save the Queen
She ain't no human being
There is no future
In England's dreamland.

And so on. Good Christ. Are you honestly going to argue that this childish drivel has any literary or political value?

Film is largely a narrative art, and thus, to a degree, literary judgments are inevitable. Even so, a lot of people who work behind the scenes in the industry -- I'm thinking of editors in particular -- get pissed off because no-one pays attention to what they do. When people talk about movies, they talk about story. That may be a mistake. Often, the story is the least important part of what's going on.

There ARE non-narrative films -- you mention "Triumph of the Will" -- and yes, they should be judged on a non-literary or formal basis. That's how dear Leni wanted her silly movie to be judged, and that's the only basis for saying anything good about it. The film certainly has never had any value as propaganda, since -- to the best of my knowledge -- it never converted anyone. Thank god.

Even on a formal basis, I always thought that film was a failure. The parade footage goes on FOREVER. After awhile, you almost start wishing for Adolf to pop back on screen.
 
Regarding "God Save The Queen," by the Sex Pistols, I'd say that it's greatest political value is in the reaction it generated. Divorced from the sonic assault which comprises the song the lyrics aren't Pulitzer material by any stretch of the imagination. However, match those same lyrics up with the bashed, distorted barre chords on the guitar, frantic straight-up 4/4 beat and John Lydon's (aka: Johnny Rotten) sneering, nasal and off-key delivery (which may or may not be on purpose - having seen Lydon's post-Pistols band Public Image Ltd. live I can confirm that he has the ability to carry a tune; I can't say whether or not that was the case in 1976) and you have something which affects people. Granted, the reaction is visceral and - especially in the case of this song - primal ("shit's fucked up and I'm angry about it!"), but it's hard to deny that playing on people's visceral impulses is one of the oldest tricks in the book. In any case, if the goal is to match lyrics and music for an emotional appeal and political reaction, "God Save The Queen" is a roaring success; in fact the song got banned from the British airwaves for allegedly being subversive and Lydon was the recipient of death threats along with accusations of being a traitor.
 
I'm a lyrics lover, most of the time, especially if there's a good melody to carry the poetry along (melody, I said, not music!)

There are times, though, when the addition of lyrics to a piece can be very, very annoying. For instance Billy Strayhorn's gorgeous compositions don't need words, but somebody, somewhere couldn't resist adding lyrics to some of them. I guess this is something akin to the point you are making - far more eloquently, I hasten to add.

I do think there's merit in good lyrics (poetic, soulful, protesting or humorous or whatever) with a memorable, matching melody. It's perhaps not music as you would define it Joseph. To parody an old Merle Haggard song "It ain't (love) music but it ain't bad" . :-)
 
I was a big Billy Joel fan as a teenager, then lost interest. Every few years I'll try to listen again but in my older years I find his songwriting to be trite and hackneyed. That said, Rosenbaum's attack on Joel is over-the-top and mean-spirited. Joel does have a knack for composing catchy pop hooks, which no doubt accounts for his popularity. And no, he doesn't get any credit for that from snobby music critics.

These days I'm more attracted to quality folk and country songwriting which, like it or not, is more of a literary than a musical art. Just this past weekend I saw a concert by three singer-songwriters. They performed at an upscale venue which often hosts ballets and symphonies. The three singers sat on chairs with acoustic guitars on their laps and took turns playing their songs, which were mostly basic three-chord affairs with rather simple melodies. The well-dressed, well-heeled crowd was basically there to hear the words, and we loved every minute of it.

Leonard Cohen, another singer-songwriter not known for his musical prowess, was once asked what his favorite song was from an album of cover versions of his songs. No doubt to the dismay of Billy Joel-hating hipsters who tend to make up Cohen's fanbase, he picked Joel's version of his "Light as the breeze." That may have been Billy Joel's finest hour.
 
Meant to point out that Tracks 3, 10 and 13 are standouts, if you are looking for somewhere to start.
~j
 
Joe,

Narrative structure is not exclusive to literature. One finds narratives in unexpected places, including sports, politics, and science. We see, for example, several competing narratives in quantum physics. Each narrative represents a proposed model for the behavior of subatomic particles. These narratives, in turn, constitute storylines in a meta-narrative that propels human knowledge.

Similarly, we can look back on art history and see a conversation between impressionism, say, and fauvism, and this conversation forming a part of the greater narrative moving art away from pictorial fidelity and toward the expressionism that is the natural thrust of that story arc, as well as the subsequent return to figurative work that is part of an ongoing dialectic.

The actual idea contained in any specific work of art can thus be seen as a noun or verb (to labor the metaphor, sorry) within the greater statement, storyline, narrative, and eventually meta-narrative.

In music as well painting, ideas are often simply containers for the greater narrative taking place with the pictorial/musical aspects. When one looks at Rembrandt's self-portraits over the years, for example, the object(idea) is always the same - Rembrandt himself. However, it's very easy to see two greater narratives immediately emerging: that of Rembrandt aging, and another story about the evolution of Rembrandt as a painter. One begins to marvel at his growing confidence, his increasing abandonment of precision and technical transparency. One can do the same with Cezanne's apples or Degas' ballerinas

I agree with your take on critics as literary chauvinists. And it's very first-degree to regard idea as the raison d'etre of art in general. But ideas, taken in the context of ongoing narrative, are important aspects of the creative process. Great works of art are always those have found the perfect marriage of form and content. Form without content is rehearsal. Content without form is for spectators.

I, for one get more bent out of shape by preciousness of some meta-narratives, particularly those associated with conceptual artists.

SB
 
My kingdom for proofreader! Here is a corrected version of my previous post:

Joe,

Narrative structure is not exclusive to literature. One finds narratives in unexpected places, including sports, politics, and science. We see, for example, several competing narratives in quantum physics. Each narrative represents a proposed model for the behavior of subatomic particles. These narratives, in turn, constitute storylines in a meta-narrative that propels human knowledge.

Similarly, we can look back on art history and see a conversation between impressionism, say, and fauvism, and this conversation forming a part of the greater narrative moving art away from pictorial fidelity and toward the expressionism that is the natural thrust of that story arc, as well as the subsequent return to figurative work that is part of an ongoing dialectic.

The actual idea contained in any specific work of art can thus be seen as a noun or verb (to labor the metaphor, sorry) within the greater statement, storyline, narrative, and eventually meta-narrative.

In music as well as painting, ideas are often simply containers for the greater narrative taking place with the pictorial/musical aspects. When one looks at Rembrandt's self-portraits over the years, for example, the object(idea) is always the same - Rembrandt himself. However, it's very easy to see two greater narratives immediately emerging: that of Rembrandt aging, and another story about the evolution of Rembrandt as a painter. One begins to marvel at his growing confidence, his increasing abandonment of precision and technical transparency. One can do the same with Cezanne's apples or Degas' ballerinas

I agree with your take on critics as literary chauvinists. And it's very first-degree to regard idea as the raison d'etre of art in general. But ideas, taken in the context of ongoing narrative, are important aspects of the creative process. Great works of art are always those that have found the perfect marriage of form and content. Form without content is rehearsal. Content without form is for spectators.

I, for one get more bent out of shape by preciousness of some meta-narratives, particularly those associated with conceptual artists.

SB
 
Joe, I share your opinion of Dylan's musiciansship and voice, but you've bolstered my point by sidestepping it. Dylan is (almost) universally regarded as an important figure in music and popular culture because of his lyrics (and persona), not his chord structures. You and I may not respect his poetry, but plenty of other credentialed critics and songwriters do. While he was strumming folk ditties, he concentrated most of his efforts on his lyrcis, which galvanized the student protest movement and inspired the Beatles to move beyond simple love songs. (Speaking of which, it's unlilely that "Yesterday" would be the most covered song is music history if it had retained its original title: "Scrambled Eggs.")

Likewise, Woody Guthrie is an important figure because of what he said, not what he played. That's why you've heard of him and why he is a hero to millions.

A critic who writes about Dylan or Guthrie without mentioning their lyrics and their cultural impact would be negligent.

Pop music is poetry set to music. Granted, in such a democratic and market-driven artform, most lyrics are pap--as are most melodies. And even lyrics that are clever or moving within a verse-chorus-verse structure don't read like fine poetry when we remove the metrical backbeat from the equation. But when I wrote songs in college, I sweated over the lyrics, as do almost all of the songwriters in the pop-music pantheon. There's a reason they don't just ladle nonsense syllables over the melody. No less than the "real" poets, songwriters are trying to express something.

I defy anyone not to be haunted by the marriage of music and lyrics in "The Night Surrounds," a song by my talented acquaintance Sport Murphy about how the world will go on spinning without us:

Kettles will be whistling to proclaim with shrill insistence an impending cup of Sanka / and someone will be hearing, and presumably enjoying, something written by Paul Anka/ Dogs will be forsaken and taken to the pound/ On the day they lay your body in the ground.

A rock band will be praying for that single A&R guy who appreciates true genius / Someone in love will croon to someone who's already leaving: I hope that nothing comes between us/ Bats will keep careening 'round the echoes in their caves/ On the day they lower you into your grave.

(By the way, I think you'd enjoy Sport's non-musical writing. He's an articualte advocate of non-pop music, particularly Charles Ives and Stephen Collins Foster: http://sportspiel.blogspot.com/. And he did a whole album of songs about his nephew, an NYC firefighter who died in the Twin Towers.)

When someone bothers to write lyrics, critics should bother to consider them.
 
So, where do comics or graphic novels fit into all this?
 
I've written a few dozen songs in my day and have been playing guitar for 27 years. The riff comes first, then the melody. At this stage the words needn't be English, nor words at all. Most often it is gibberish. If it's catchy and you want to keep it, then the lyrics get written afterwards - hastily - to fit the melody (and sounds of the gibberish syllables).

Critiquing a rock or pop song based upon lyrics alone is asinine, and completely ignores the primacy of melody.
 
I often write lyrics first, and build songs around that. Sometimes, the music is what comes to me first. In any case, I spend a lot of time on lyrics, and would be disappointed if people ignored them. Still, the music itself is what matters most to me, so I guess I would prefer that that was the focus of any review, with the lyric content being secondary (but still important). Of course, I don't write pop music by any stretch, and never write for the enjoyment of anyone but myself. If others like it, great. If not, it's still my art.
 
Dude, it's pop music. And pop music, at least since the end of the big band era, has been about songs with lyrics. So, yeah, the lyrics do matter. If you are going to write about pop music, you have to at least consider the lyrics. Pop music is not painting. Even less so is it modern painting, in which formalism is the key, and subject matter almost irrelvant.

Sure, the Billy Joel hater guy goes over the top, not just in his hatred, but in never bothering to mention the music at all. But just ignoring the lyrics would be committing a similar mistake.

As far as "story" goes, well, some pop music tells more of a story than others. Joel, in particular, often was more of the "storyteller" type song writer than the "expression of a feeling" type songwriter. So, again, the "content" or the "story" or the lyrics matter a little more with him than with other songwriters/performers of pop music.

And, yeah, as per the other poster, the zeitgist matters too in pop music. Joel captured, in his best work, an authentic expression of the post war, suburban experence. His best stuff is about mundane, possibly biographical or semi biographical, stuff about growing up on Long Island (think "Scenes from an Italian Resturant" here). His worst stuff, not surprizingly, is when he tried to pretend to be a working class hero long after he made it big or when he tackled "big" overtly politcal themes (think "Allentown" or "We Didn't Start the Fire" here).

As for Joel as a composer/performer, meh. He wrote nice melodies. He occassionaly hit upon catchy, semi innovative devices. Obviously, he's no Mahler. His playing was, I think, probably pretty good, as judged against other pop/rock keyboarders. Not the best, but not the worst either.

Anyway, not sure what you are looking for, when it comes to pop music, as far as criticism is concerned. The melodies tend to be simple. The harmonies even more so. The rhythm is routinized (fast and syncopated in most songs, slowed down for the ballads). Let's face it, most "rock" music is just rhythm and blues speeded up a bit. And most non rock pop music just follows the rules of the old, mid century standards (think "Always a Woman" here). Truly innovative artists, in terms of the music, like Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, or Radiohead, to pick a slightly more recent example, don't tend to come around very often. In Joel's case, again, he was not especially innovative. He did write nice melodies. He added jazzy and even "classical" flourshes here and there. But he mostly stuck with the play it loud and fast and bouncy, Chuck Berry, style in his "rock" songs and the semi jazzy, "standards" style in his ballads.

As for your Mahler, I don't know, to me, the lyrics seem kind of haunting and ominous. I don't speak German, but they certainly sound a lot better in the clip you linked too. And, of course, you're right, the music is beautiful. But classical music is infinitely more complex, more varied, and has the potential to be infinitely more evocative than pop music. Much of it has no lyrics at all. So, yeah, the focus is going to be on the music. Pop music is a different animal, calling for a different form of criticism.

In short, you're half right. Music does matter, even in pop music. But the lyrics matter too.
 
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