J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Playlists, podcasts and music from WQFS Greensboro's J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Notes From Underground - #36
Don't Look Back (Sort Of) - Part Two

"He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth." - Goethe

"'I am half sick of shadows,' said The Lady of Shalott." - "The Lady of Shalott", Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Q: How many indie kids does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: 5. 1 to change the bulb and 4 to stand around talking about how light bulb's new work isn't as good as his earlier stuff. - Anonymous

Last week I discussed a commercial versus artistic approach to looking at pop music. Knowing that all of us contain a little of both (and some decidedly more of one than the other), the ultimate answer came down to 'everyone's got their opinion and who are we to criticize?' But that's quite unsatisfactory for so many reasons.

Goethe's quote (thank you, Sophie's World) is a reflection of how isolated pop music sometimes seems. So many examples of it seem to float in a netherworld, neatly tucked between certain genre titles. It's a rare breed that seems to pull from more than one direction at once, and it's those artists who seem to stand a larger test of time. Maybe that's why so much commercial music seems so poor. Music can't drawn on three thousand years of influence, but they could at least draw on a larger portion of the 20th century.

There are plenty of music listeners who embrace commercial music with no thought to its placement within the larger context of popular music as an art movement. They embrace pale imitations of great works, cycled and recycled and watered down in order to create a profit. But on the other end of this lies a problem as well.

If you're reading this blog, odds are you express something more similar to the Lady of Shalott's statement. "I am half sick of shadows," she says in Tennyson's poem, and that very neatly sums up a lot of our feelings as 'observant' listeners. We're tired of music that seems slipshod and ramshackle, barely coherent if even acknowledging its musical predecessors.

This sneering gesture leads to jokes like the one above. Pretentiousness is easily lampooned. Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Miniver Cheevy" focuses on this type of present-bashing, but also points out its danger. Cheevy is so caught up in admiring an idyllic past that he is wasting away his present. Pining for the days of yore, Cheevy dismisses all of the modern day in search of medieval grace. The Lady of Shalott, too, is so mired in a vision of harmonious past times that she ultimately brings about her own demise by being so enamored of it.

Are we selling ourselves short in both directions? Who is happier - the sneering bourgeoisie with their high-horse views of art or the clamoring rabble who listen to most anything produced? Again we're at a junction where it seems either side is correct. It's just about how you personally feel.

How do we, as listeners, drive this? Do our tastes, broad or narrow, drive a certain aspect of market-art? Certainly on big radio, but what about in smaller circles? Are there people 'cashing in' on small trends and niches? And ultimately how do we answer these questions?

Defining art has been a struggle. I want to consider things like "Fountain" art, but hold off on doing the same for Nickelback or Soulja Boy? Is that fair or right? As much as I have welcomed the open definitions of what 'music' is (thank you, John Cage), why do I shy away from the more obvious and base examples of the art form? Should I feel bad? Should people who only listen to commercial radio feel bad?

I've ended with more questions than I started.



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