I've been doing this blog for almost exactly two years now. Most of that has been a scattershot look at all that interests me—music, literature, art, etc. In September of 07, however, I made the explicit choice to focus more on the music, and as that parameter has given focus to what I choose to write about, I find this blog developing a kind of personality I don't think it quite had before: namely, pgwp has really become an investigation of my own taste in music. Not merely letting you all know what I like, but asking myself why I like it. Where are my tastes taking me? Do I want to go there? It's kind of a weird question but one I find myself asking. I've never been more aware of what I'm actually listening to, what is actually giving me pleasure, than I have in the last six months.
Crafting what I thought was going to be a quickie, look-at-these-other-blogs post, I realized I was once again circling these same ideas. So I think it's fitting for this post to land on New Year's, to serve as a kind of summing up of some of the themes I've been visiting here at pgwp in the last year, and also as a way of (perhaps) setting the tone for what's to come in the next year.
Alfred Soto at Humanizing the Vaccuum had a nice post a couple of weeks ago, in which he addresses a critics' roundtable held at Slate:
[T]he subtext of most of this round table's discussion is an acknowledgment of how age slows us down at the same time at which young people and technology speed past us. No, not an acknowledgment: an embrace, even.
Soto quotes Christgau, who puts acts like Wilco and Josh Ritter in one, "less hip" corner and acts vaguely defined as hyped by Pitchfork—I'll assume he means Battles, Panda Bear, etc.—in another. The notion resonates with the categorization of Wilco as "dad rock," which I guess is the male equivalent to the similar slagging Feist gets for being some kind of indie Norah Jones. All of it points, in my estimation, back to the idea that there is a large generation of new adults--just married, new parents, on the career track, etc.—that are mellowing in their tastes but were weaned on indie, hence a new genre developing and hence a kneejerk backlash to Wilco, Feist, et al. These people who grew up sniffing out sellouts are frankly suspicious. Soto approaches this problem from the critic's perspective; i.e. that both Wilco/Ritter/Feist are worthy of investigation as much as "challenging" artists such as Battles.
Ryan Adams and Wilco are at worst failed craftsmen; whether you prefer Battles depends on how much you accept craftsmenship as an end in itself, or think Battles are an act whose development bears close scrutiny.
This ties in with what I view as a common thread (among others) here at pgwp, which is to consider what makes certain albums or bands "challenging." In other words, to consider bands' aesthetic choices. I got into a somewhat misguided dust-up over at ILM [c. Dec. 27] recently over Of Montreal and Radiohead, partly due to my casually dropping observations about the bands' aesthetic choices, which were perceived as negative critiques (admittedly, I really have no business talking seriously about that Of Montreal album, as I've barely digested it). Part of the misunderstanding (it's not really necessary to read it), I think, is that I may well split hairs too finely when it comes to listening to some bands. Radiohead, along with Beirut, are what inspired my post on the song vs. the sound, which in some sense has become a guiding force behind how I've long listened to music; now explicitly stated, for better or worse.
I've wrestled in the past with the idea of "challenging" music, and surely will continue to. Thanks to a comment in the previous post, I've just discovered the blog Neon Hustle, which last month had great post on Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's Some Loud Thunder (using Band of Horses' Cease to Begin as a way of throwing CYHSY into relief), essentially the positive side of the coin to the negative review I gave it upon its release. We both seem to start from the same question: is Some Loud Thunder actually challenging? Assuming the answer is yes, is it sucessful to some end? My answer, at the time, was no. Darryl at Neon Hustle votes yes. And he makes a case for it, using the controversial opening track, which he calls "the most frustratingly great pop song of the year," as his example. He goes on:
Perhaps challenging music is an end in itself - music exists as a search for better and more perfect forms of expression and staying atop that evolution is thus clutch - but more likely music has other places, other functions, fills other needs in your life. For me, it's the emotional and aesthetic qualities - how music makes me feel, what music says about life, how fucking fantastic some melodies can sound, how some rhythms just seem to catch me, and how all those pieces fit together. And that's why "Some Loud Thunder" has become my favorite track on the album.
Without tackling CYHSY specifically, this really does get to the crux of what I look for in music. 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. It's not always easy to identify, and perhaps it's not even a hard and fast rule. But it's a good barometer.
[update: for those of you reading this blog via your blog readers, I thought I'd point out that there've been a couple of great comments to this post; hopefully more to come if any are so inclined.]