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December 31, 2007


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hey, happy new year and i figured i should say hello and not belittle your attempts to love fleetwood mac and america everytime i comment... you really hit the nail on the head with this -

"It can't be challenging as an end in itself; it must have emotional and aesthetic qualities. Just to tweak the emphasis to suit where I'm coming from: it must have emotional and aesthetic qualities. There needs to be an intertwining of the two in order for me to view a song or album a true success."

- because it's a common problem in a lot of culture beyond just pop music (and a particularly large part of why the artworld is so friggin boring). if you don't want to listen to, or look at, the thing; then who really gives a hoot about the ideas behind it. great ideas are great to talk about, but they seldom generate great work (i, for one, think that the AYSO bumper stickers that say "plAY SOccer" are one of the best ideas ever realized) - a bigger challenge is to generate a great piece of work from a crappy idea... or organically through evolution.

there are times when being married to a good idea can get in the way of a great piece of work - when an artist is too afraid to let the work stand on its own, using the idea as a kind of crutch or intellectual street cred.

like the kid in high school consistently saying "oh i'm so weird" when he's just lame; artiness is generally artificial, and a pose (you can pull this off and make great work if you are david bowie or nico in the 70's but not if you are devandra banhart in 2005).

i'm surprised by all the talk about something like "clap your hands...". i heard something on npr about them and it seems like the entire promotional machine for that band has been cloaking this release in "challenging" rhetoric; but the music, is familiar and relatively uninteresting. it seems to have come out of some fairly naive thinking (and listening) rather than a real sense of experimentation and development (perhaps the band is as faux of a difficult music fan as the one you mention in juno)...

real honest to goodness experimentation with all the substance of offering a listener a new aesthetic experience, should knock you on your rear. we live in an incredibly navel gazing and tentative musical moment...

i remember buying public image's metal box the day it came out, rushing home and listening to all three LPs and being completely mind f-ked. i didn't want to discuss it or "understand" it. i wanted to listen to it over and over again and let it cover me with the dark syrup of musical potential they'd just unearthed. there was no question that it challenged my whole idea of punk rock and what that could be. compare that feeling to "clap your hands..." and you can see how thin the attempt is.

there's a difference between challenging, seminal, and eye opening - and simply cloaking your work in rhetoric to give it some juice. i don't think for a second that all great work (as well as work that slays me) needs to be challenging at all; but i do think that if someone is going to cloak their work in such a context, that the work better be up to the task. take a listen to the pop group's we are all prostitutes and talk to me about challenging...if it doesn't make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you don't have a sensitive follicle on your body :-)

as an aside, i'm glad i can now give my wilco loving friend some crap about how old his ears have gotten!

"It can't be challenging as an end in itself; it must have emotional and aesthetic qualities. Just to tweak the emphasis to suit where I'm coming from: it must have emotional and aesthetic qualities. There needs to be an intertwining of the two in order for me to view a song or album a true success."

I'm not sure I can quite agree with this, but that's because I'm unsure about the terms. What are "emotional" qualities? What are "aesthetic qualities"? What does "success" mean? Does something have to be "successful" to have been worth making or listening to? I'm asking because I feel like we get too caught up in the assessment mode, determining whether a given items "succeeds" or "fails", and if we determine that something "fails" we tend to decide it's not worthy. But failure is what art's about, otherwise you're just assessing commodities. Is it smooth? Is it shiny? I feel the same when I see someone refer to an admired (by whoever's making the comment) artist's "mis-step" or "mis-fire". As if we, as consumers, approach a given album, say, untangled from our own changing life experiences, as if the album in question doesn't come out of the musician's changing experiences. That is, it never seems to occur to many listeners that the failures are necessary, that the so-called "mis-steps" are what the artist needed to do at that time, even to make subsequent work possible. The "mis-steps" are simply consigned to oblivion.

Also, it surprises me that the notion of "challenging music" would be relevant in a conversation involving Clap Your Hands, etc...

Steve, thanks for the lengthy post - you hit a lot of points that are on my mind and which I hope to continue pursuing. I don't mind you slagging me for America and Fleetwood Mac; actually it points to my above passage, "where are my tastes taking me? Do I want to go there?" There's a little voice inside my head that screams what are you doing??? when I pick up some of these albums. A trip to the record store for me has taken on the image devil on one shoulder, angel on the other... not sure which is which.

Richard (and Steve) - actually using CYHSY is the perfect example of what I'm talking about. I think you both are having the same reaction to the band that I did - "this is challenging?" - but Neon Hustle's defense of the album at the very least makes clear that the band made a declaration that, yes, this is meant to be challenging. They wrote a pop song (there's no other way to describe it) and then sabotaged it. Distorted everything, degraded its audio quality, making all those great little pop hooks difficult to swallow.

To do that song - and to make it the first track on the album - is to make some kind of declaration that you are trying to make some kind of point. It wasn't some kind of intuitive move for them, i.e., "dude, this would sound rad if..."

That the band makes conscious aesthetic choices seems undeniable. Now then, whether the idea behind their aesthetic choice is actually pretty facile, or whether the band is challenging, is where the debate comes in. Never mind "emotional qualities" - an admittedly nebulous term; one I equate with eliciting some kind of gut reaction in the listener. Of course, that response will likely vary from person to person.

I think I'm dancing around your question, actually. I may need to do another post instead...

Actually, I was just being snarky by mentioning CYHSY. I haven't heard the new record. I HAVE heard the fairly boring first one, so I was simply expressing surprise that they would be relevant, etc.

However, it does raise an interesting other question. Who is CYHSY's intended audience? Might not the new record be challenging to CYHSY and their listeners? Since we have pretty much all of recorded music at our fingertips, it's easy to forget that music has context, even new music made in the context of that ease of access.

Returning to Fleetwood Mac (who don't need to be defended; they were a fantastic band, for a period). Tusk in some respects might not look like much (though I like most of it), but to the audience expecting Rumours II it was likely pretty challenging fare! We look back on the records of the past, and we give a thumbs up or down (justly rated a classic, or overrated crap), and in a sense, that's all that can be expected of us, given how much we have access to. But it could be argued it strips the music of meaning. To many fans of later punk, the Ramones are worthless, talentless hacks, but such an assessment misses the point.

My perspective, again, is as a listener whose taste was shaped by classic rock, but in the 80s, when I could have instead been into Sonic Youth, Husker Du, the Minutemen, etc (a lot of stuff I grew to appreciate later)... that is, I didn't grow up within the "indie" or "alternative" music scenes. I came to that music later. Anyway, I've never felt the need to worry about liking a quiet or soft or supposedly "adult contemporary" record. It doesn't matter.

That certainly gets to something about what I'm talking around--namely the parameters of this very blog. To call any of the music I'm bringing up for discussion as "challenging" is potentially ridiculous in light of so much music outside of pop or indie rock that truly is pushing the limits--say, free jazz or minimalism or whatever. But there is something to say for pop music--however you want to define that term--that makes some kind of choice regarding its form or manner of presentation.

More accurately, as far as pgwp is concerned, is to say that these choices are worthy of consideration whether or not the artists consciously thought about them at any point. Clap Your Hands obviously (to me) made transparantly conscious choices; someone like Josh Ritter (to get back to what Humanizing the Vaccuum was saying) may not have.

I want to get beyond "it's good, it's bad" and try to figure out why. Why do I like this band? What are they doing that is making me like them? Beyond merely "being awesome." This question excites me because, frankly, I don't know the answer.

Yeah, you're right: most pop music that gets called challenging by somebody isn't really breaking any new ground. It's funny that you mention free jazz and minimalism.... in my period of my most excessive interest in new music (1999-2005), what most interested me was those places where "rock" intersects fruitfully with, in fact, free jazz and modern comp., as well as folk and country, etc. (While I was also listening to free jazz itself, like Joe McPhee or Peter Brotzmann, and drone music, like Tony Conrad, etc.) So, for me, when I want to rise to the defense of "indie" music as challenging, I'm thinking of those artists. I'm thinking of, like, Gastr del Sol and Jackie-O Motherfucker, to name just two favorites. I'm not thinking of Death Cab for Cutie (to just gratuitously pick on one), but I'm also not really thinking of, say, Spoon, who I nevertheless like just fine. They're pretty easy to listen to.

Anyway, your queston of why? is a good one. I hope it didn't seem like I was implying that it wasn't.

Thanks for the hat tip.

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