Monday, February 07, 2005

Mixtapeology: a methodology and manifesto

Bill James, Rock Critic?; Accurate measures of the best songs; 1986; The project at hand; Why you should care; Songs not albums; 1986 again; What makes a song good?; Hypothesis; Self-indulgent bullshit; The myth of influence; Corollary hypothesis; Tiffany vs. U2; Top 15 '80s Songs By '60s Artists; Battle of the Preconceptions; Finally, my preconceptions.
How reasonable is it to call Bill James’s New Historical Baseball Abstract the best rock ‘n’ roll book of all time? Not very, you say? Yeah, you’re right, but check it out—James writes about a popular pastime of little metaphysical importance. He painstakingly creates lists of his field’s greatest participants, he advances controversial arguments, he uses statistics and historical precedent in his analyses, he’s amassed encyclopedic knowledge of his field—all rock critic tasks as well, right? Because of this, James has exerted influence over rock critics, directly and indirectly. Phil Dellio, schoolteacher and creator of the great singles fan/webzine Radio On, cites James as one of his favorite writers. Chuck Eddy, current Village Voice music editor and author of The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll, found one of his first youthful obsessions in baseball card collecting and cites Radio On as a major influence. We know from High Fidelity (the book and the movie) that rock fans love to list things (hell, we know this from Rolling Stone), and any time you have lists, you have people analyzing those lists and interpreting the results.

So we’ll say that hardcore music geeks and baseball nerds are wired similarly, and that Bill James’s methodology mirrors that of the music geeks, with at least one crucial difference: James’s arguments can be at least partially verified by objective data in the form of statistics. Babe Ruth played 2,503 games and hit 714 home runs with a lifetime batting average of .342. Those are incontrovertible facts. Now, whether you use those facts to name Ruth the greatest baseball player ever is up to you. Hank Aaron played more games and hit more home runs; Ty Cobb played more games and had a higher lifetime average. Of course, you’d hope no statistician is basing his player ratings on three statistics. James has devised an analytical method called the Win Shares system, which incorporates all manner of different numbers and an acknowledged subjective element, to compile his player ratings. Note, though, that while James can choose his method according to his opinion of what best mirrors reality, he can’t do the same with his raw data. Hits are hits, and if you don’t score you don’t score.

Musicians score hits all the time, and Billboard’s charts have been collected and studied for decades, and you can gain valuable insights from these lists, but few people will agree that they’re an accurate measure of the best songs of any given time frame, even though they’re a consensus aesthetic opinion of music fans. The two other prevailing forms of consensus aesthetic opinion are the Grammys (and some other award shows), the consensus of musicians and people in the business, and the "metacritic" (critical polls), or consensus of music critics. These are also unacceptable, for one big reason: they don’t jibe with my musical taste. Sometimes they come close, but if my favorite song isn’t on any of the lists, what good are the lists? I’m guessing that for you, at least 90% of the time your favorite song isn’t the biggest chart hit of the year, or Grammy’s Record of the Year, or the top song on any metacritical tabulation.

Let’s take 1986: New Order’s "Bizarre Love Triangle" was indisputably the best song of the year, but the biggest chart hit was Dionne Warwick and Friends’ "That’s What Friends Are For," which also won the Grammy for Song of the Year. Grammy’s Record of the Year was Steve Winwood’s "Higher Love," and according to the Acclaimed Music website (the most comprehensive of these entities), the critical consensus swelled around Run DMC’s "Walk This Way" collaboration with Aerosmith. "Bizarre Love Triangle" doesn’t appear on any of those lists (well, #17 on the critical one), and I don’t like any of those songs enough to put them on my 1986 compilation. Consensus is fine when it gives people a vocabulary of things to talk about, and it’s thrilling when the consensus matches your independently-formed opinion (like me and Eminem in 2000), but no consensus can determine individual musical taste.

Which brings us to the project at hand. Like Bill James (actually, the more direct inspiration was Chuck Eddy’s discography at the end of Accidental Evolution), I’ve compiled lists of the best. The differences are these: he rates baseball players, I rate songs; he rates over the whole history of baseball, I rate year by year; the foundation for his ratings is a huge body of facts, whereas my foundation is solely my opinion. On each CD, the songs will be ordered from best until the CD runs out (kind of like what Wire did on their A-List compilation, except they used a metacritical tabulation), my idea of the year-end top radio hits in a perfect world (hence the "Imaginary Popscape" title). This should result in 10 CDs that I enjoy listening to very much.

"Why Should I Care?"

How reasonable would it be, at this point, to ask yourself the above question? Very reasonable, so let me try to reassure you. In my man-on-the-street music-fan experience, the aforementioned three types of lists, while useful for information and occasionally fascinating, tend to be sort of bland. Canons in general usually contain some stuff you’re wild about, some stuff you think is horribly overrated, and a whole lot of stuff you agree is pretty good but not nearly as good as this thing over here, and why has no one else ever heard of this? To me, it’s always more exciting to get inside one smart person’s head and see the stuff they’re wild about, and then try it out and see if I’m wild about it too. And if that smart person explains their tastes in an arresting way, that’s even better. So I’ll attempt to be smart, exciting, and arresting, and to make similarly smart, exciting, and arresting musical choices. Right now, I’ll answer some questions I frequently ask myself, to help clarify what’s going on here:

Q: Why songs not albums?
A: Besides the fact that you get the instant gratification of listening to the stuff I’m writing about, songs seem the smallest indivisible piece of musical pleasure. Albums are too often inconsistent; if they’re consistent, too often that’s all they are. For an artist to be consistently inspired over the course of even a 30-minute album is a tremendous challenge.

(NOTE: When I talk about "songs" in here, I refer to the specific recording and performance of the musical materials, as well as those materials—melody, harmony, rhythm, lyrics—themselves. In Grammy terms, I’ll be rating "Records of the Year" as opposed to "Songs of the Year." For our purposes, Prince and Cyndi Lauper’s recordings of "When You Were Mine" are two completely different songs that happen to share the same melody, harmonies, and lyrics. I’ve applied entirely different rules to performances of contemporary classical works and live recordings, and will justify myself as the situations arise.) (Also, "songs" here can be instrumental, though, as the music-camp Gestapo used to point out, a "song" is a "song" only if it can be "sung.")

When critics don’t face up to these facts, they can end up lying to themselves and others to force certain results. To my mind, a typical year produces three or four albums, tops, that could be called "great"—that is (to paraphrase Howard Hawks), three great songs and no (well, maybe one or two) bad songs, or just one very good song after another. Some years (see 1981) produce none. (One caveat right up front, which you should keep in mind throughout all this writing: there’s a whole lot I haven’t heard.) When it comes to recommending the albums of a particular year, I find it hard to get out of the top 5 because, below that, every mediocrity with a couple great songs looks pretty much like all the others. Throughout these CDs I’ll mention notable albums for each year, but the standard unit of measurement here is the song.

Let’s take 1986 as an example. I find five fairly unimpeachable albums (containing only music recorded during 1986; compilation albums will be considered separately, though their individual songs will appear on the appropriate year’s compilation): the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill, Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman’s Song X (actually recorded Dec. ’85), Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s Hot, Cool & Vicious, Sonny Sharrock’s Guitar, and Slayer’s Reign In Blood. No bad songs, but not as many great songs as you’d hope—only half (Beasties, Sharrock, maybe Ornette) contain more than two. All five albums are extraordinarily consistent and at least "very good." But none contain songs as great as the "Bizarre Love Triangle" 12" single, Van Halen’s "Why Can’t This Be Love" (from an inconsistent album), Bon Jovi’s "Livin’ On a Prayer" (lackluster album), Madonna’s "Open Your Heart" (haven’t heard the album), Michael W. Smith’s "Goin’ Through the Motions" (surprisingly OK album with a couple stinkers, kind of like Van Halen’s), Husker Du’s "Sorry Somehow" (another lackluster album), or Prince’s "Kiss" (bad album). You can see what we’re dealing with here—in most years, the great songs and the great albums are only tangentially related, and there’s little correlation between the two.

But of course, for an album to be great, it’s gotta contain some great (or very good) songs. So throughout, when I refer to great albums or artists or producers or any entity bigger than a song, I’ll be referring to the cumulative greatness of the songs under their jurisdiction. Prince wasn’t great in 1986, and Parade wasn’t great, even though Prince made it (and even though it’s #7 for the year on Acclaimed Music). Prince’s playing and vocals on that album might have been their usual inimitable selves, but aside from "Kiss" and maybe three others, the music’s a chore to sit through. When you work from the song up, rather than from the artist down, it’s easier to avoid overrating albums.

Q: What makes a song good?
A: Bill James asks the question this way: What is the job of a hitter? After throwing out some wrong answers (compiling a high batting average, hitting home runs, maintaining a high on-base %), he proposes that a hitter’s job is to create runs, however he can, and then he devises a system to measure runs created by individual hitters.

Since the song is my unit of measurement, I ask it this way: What is the job of a song? A song’s job isn’t to tell a story, or to be danceable, or to have a pretty melody, or to make listeners want to sing along. A song doesn’t need to be skillfully sung or played, or have accomplished lyrics or chords. It doesn’t have to do anything that hasn’t been done before, innovate, move things forward, push the envelope, etc. A song’s job isn’t to promote an agenda, be it socially conscious, rebellious, commercial, indie, pro- or anti-love, you name it. A song’s language, musical or lyrical, needn’t be au courant or avant garde, and it doesn’t have to find the mot juste or appeal to le monde (not even if it’s by Depeche Mode). In short, most pre-thought-out criteria you can use to evaluate a song are too narrow-minded to be any good. Once you apply some set of criteria, you’ll invariably find exceptions, but exceptions aren’t the real problem; the problem is that such criteria are so far removed from the heart of the matter ("is this song good?"; "what makes it good") as to be ridiculous. Saying a prime bubblegum hit is worthless because "it’s empty" and "soulless" and "the performer didn’t write it or play any instruments" is as silly as calling Mark McGwire a bad baseball player because he only stole 12 career bases.

So, enough negativity. What makes a song good? What’s a song’s job? How’s this?: to engage the listener, in the senses of "winning the listener over" and "holding the listener’s attention." (By "the listener," of course, I mean "me.") That’s just a hypothesis, but it has the advantages of seeming blatantly obvious and covering every song I can think of. Part of the purpose of this anthology is to test out my hypothesis.

I really like a couple things about this hypothesis. First of all, the burden of success falls squarely on the shoulders of the song, or the people creating the song. This gets rid of the possibility that what the song-creators are doing is over listeners’ heads, or that the musicians are too sophisticated and subtle to be appreciated in their time. As Branford Marsalis eloquently put it (referring to Cecil Taylor’s suggestion that his audience should "prepare" for his concerts) in the Ken Burns Jazz documentary, that’s "self-indulgent bullshit." (NOTE: I've happily listened to a couple great Taylor albums, so I don’t think he's full of self-indulgent bullshit.) Musicians are a whiny bunch, and they tend to lie even more than critics, either out of self-defense or lack of intelligence. (When they lie out of malice or cunning, that’s more fun.) If, as a musician, you consider your job creating songs whose job is engaging other people, you’ll be less likely to create boring character studies or psychedelic dreamscapes, and will ultimately need to make fewer excuses for yourself and your music.

Another thing I like about my hypothesis is that it removes any question of "influence," or "importance," or any such self-indulgent bullshit. Too much music criticism equates quality with influence, as though a song becomes better once lots of musicians have emulated it. Or maybe all those emulations just demonstrate the quality of the song, for those of us previously without ears to hear. But no, that gets us back into the realm of sophisticated and subtle musicians, which we’ve established don’t exist. You and I know what’s good and what’s not, correct? Or rather, we know what engages us and what doesn’t; therefore, influence is immaterial to our enjoyment of music in itself.

On the other hand, music history can be kind of fun. (I am adhering to a strictly chronological format, after all.) And I’m pretty sure Harold Bloom, who has some definite ideas about artistic influence, is one of my influences here. So I don’t discount history and influence as legitimate forces that shape music. They are; they do; I just don’t understand how they work. And here’s the thing—I don’t think anyone else does either. Some critics (the ones I like) might have a clue, but your average know-it-all music writer, who cites Robert Johnson and James Brown and the Velvet Underground and the Stooges as profound influences on modern music, is doing impressionable young music fans a disservice by turning these exciting musicians into marble pillars. Eventually you wind up with a heap of too much conventional wisdom, and practical theories (about "soul" and "groove" and "the underground" and "rock-as-rebellion") that explain the wisdom, and Beatles albums winning Rolling Stone record polls, and everyone just going around spouting the same opinions. And that’s not fun at all. (For more on this, see the notes on New Order’s "Blue Monday," ’83.)

So I’ve constructed a second hypothesis, corollary to my initial hypothesis—a corollary hypothesis, if you will. If a song’s job is to engage the listener (i.e., me), I should be able to construct a coherent History Of Music consisting only of those songs that do their jobs. For example, lots of critics in-the-know cite the 1987 singles "Pump Up the Volume" (by M/A/R/R/S) and "Bring the Noise" (by Public Enemy) as being influential to the stuff that came later. Those songs are fine and all (I have trouble hating too many singles), but compared to others, they don’t do much for me. (Nothing personal.) So in my history of ‘80s music, I just leave them out. I contend that the resulting history, as represented by the compilation you’ve got here, will do what a history is supposed to do—say something accurate about the time, reveal some sort of progression (if there was one), and be relevant to our understanding of the ‘80s, or at least ‘80s music. This corollary hypothesis will really come to fruition once I move on to other, older decades, and we can see (I dunno) Spike Jones to the Kingston Trio to Bob Dylan to the Sesame Street Cast to New Order to the Coup (to name some great comedy acts), or whoever. If the hypothesis turns out to be false, that’s why you experiment.

Finally, I like that my main hypothesis is, in this context, recording-focused: it’s the song’s job, not the musician’s, to engage the listener. In any situation, recording or concert, smart musicians use any means at their disposal to engage their audience. In concert, musicians can get away with having lackluster material if they’re funny, charismatic, good dancers, good looking, gifted singers/instrumentalists, etc. Bad songs? No problem, as long as the audience has a good time. On record, musicians can only use those assets to an extent, and then they have to rely on whoever (producer, engineer, svengali) is creating the recording. No doubt you could compile an entirely different list based on great live performances of the ‘80s, but I’m working with a recorded medium here, so I need a hypothesis that’s based on recordings.

Therefore, in this context, lots of considerations become irrelevant. The fact that Prince may have been consistently amazing live doesn’t excuse the bad songs from Parade; nor does the fact that he’d established a fine body of recorded work. Since I’m as human as most people, outside considerations are bound to sneak in, but my method throughout remains: pit two songs against one another; determine which one is better, whatever that means; figure out what that means.

Q: What’s that mean? (You didn’t answer the question.)
A: Since "engaging" is a pretty broad description of good music, it helps if you can tell what specific listeners find engaging. Generally, you can infer a listener’s underlying preconceptions from a writing sample.

Let’s take critic Anthony DeCurtis’s review of Tiffany’s 1987 debut, Tiffany. Upon its release, DeCurtis gave it two stars (out of five) in Rolling Stone for the following reasons:

  1. Tiffany was "perfectly content to define [herself] and [her] music as products", evidenced by the fact that she "made a media splash by marketing her record with performances in shopping malls." He contrasted this "adult" commercial aspiration with the themes of earlier, more successful bubblegum hits, which celebrated things like "undying love, inextinguishable passion or… garage-rock authenticity." Also missed were the qualities of "innocence and burgeoning sexuality of youth", and the recognition that adolescence is "a time of life distinct from adulthood."
  2. Tiffany delivered "sanitized, one-dimensional mimicry of Madonna’s charisma and vital grooves," omitting her "frank eroticism, working-class scrappiness, dance-club roots and ability to shed and assume identities," qualities DeCurtis praised as "subversive."
  3. The ballad "Feelings of Forever" was "bloated" and "interminable."
  4. The ballad "Could’ve Been" was "cloyingly sentimental."
  5. The above two songs "typified" the album’s other six original songs, all of which were "the usual assembly-line hack jobs."
  6. Tiffany’s cover of "I Think We’re Alone Now" was "sterile compared with previous versions."
  7. "The funkified ‘I Saw Him Standing There’ [was] a conceptual disaster."
  8. Tiffany’s album was less satisfying than the concurrently released and reviewed Debbie Gibson debut, because Gibson was "a skillful and expressive singer"; "[e]ven more impressive, Gibson wrote all ten songs on Out of the Blue and had a hand in the album’s production."

If you’re any good at spotting rhetorical gambits, you’ve probably guessed that I like Tiffany; in fact, I think it’s one of the best albums of 1987, not as good as the Guns ‘n’ Roses (Appetite For Destruction) or Prince (Sign ‘O’ the Times) albums, maybe, but containing better songs than ’87 albums by Boogie Down Productions, Roseanne Cash, Terrence Trent D’Arby, Husker Du, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Kool Moe Dee, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, George Michael, REM, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, Bruce Springsteen, and (I’m sure) other critically-acclaimed acts. My wife Lea, who’ll show up in here periodically, introduced me to the joys of Tiffany via her cassette from fifth grade; she also had Out of the Blue, but I think we forgot to remove it from the Ford Escort we sold. So, while I remember Debbie’s tape as being pretty good, I won’t be able to do any DeCurtisian direct comparison.

What I can do is contrast the above review with another DeCurtis review of an album I know, 1988’s Rattle and Hum, by U2. (Note: I’m doing this not to pick on DeCurtis, though he is eminently pickable, but to demonstrate the preconceptions at work beneath the surface of most pop music criticism. And also because he picked on Tiffany.) I’ll tip my hand right off the bat and say I prefer Tiffany to Rattle and Hum: by my subjective reasoning (which, again, is all we’ve got in this context), Tiffany’s album has four great songs to U2’s three; Rattle and Hum’s other listenable songs are altogether less striking and more blah than Tiffany’s other listenables; even Tiffany’s worst song ("Kid On the Corner") is better (thanks to its entertainingly inscrutable metaphor) than about a third of the U2 album; and Tiffany’s Beatles cover kicks the ass of U2’s.

DeCurtis was refreshingly critical of Rattle and Hum, yet he awarded it four stars (Note: In recent years it’s been revealed that individual RS reviewers have less to do with their star ratings than you’d think. Nonetheless, this review is obviously more positive than the Tiffany review, and takes U2 more seriously than Tiffany as "artists.") for the following reasons:

9. The music was "raucous" and "celebratory" and contained "rollicking energy."

10. "[I]t closes off none of the options the band might want to pursue for its next big move—and, possibly, the album even opens a few doors."

11. "Rattle and Hum is in large part a paean to the tradition of Sixties artists that U2 reveres." [This is more descriptive than necessarily positive, but serves as an interesting counterpoint to Tiffany’s two covers of "Sixties artists."]

12. U2’s cover of "Helter Skelter" was "corrosive"; their "live take on ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’" was "searing."

13. The gospel-choir version of "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For" was "electrifying" and found "new depths in a song that was gripping the first time around."

14. Other songs were "rousing," "soulful," "fierce," "raucous" [again], and "tough." [yadda yadda yadda…]

15. "[T]he quieter songs… provide the record with introspective moments made all the more effective by the generally boisterous context of the album." These songs were, by turn, "hymnlike," a "drifting, poetic" "dreamscape," and "stirring," with "an eloquent string arrangement."

16. "Rattle and Hum is meant to be dynamic," and "to dramatize U2 in motion and transition and to exult in the barrage of influences the band had just begun to admit on The Joshua Tree."

That gives us a convenient eight items to go along with Tiffany’s eight. DeCurtis deducted some points because the album seemed "calculated in its supposed spontaneity," and because it "demonstrates U2’s force but devotes too little attention to the band’s vision," a vision which had evolved through U2’s previous albums. And here we have two primary underlying preconceptions laid bare: U2 are career artists with a "vision," and therefore merit more consideration than an apparent "product" like Tiffany; and, because we can analyze it in the dual contexts of a concept ("spontaneity") and U2’s previous work, even an obviously flawed album like Rattle and Hum is of greater interest than an "assembly-line hack" job like Tiffany.

Without stooping to any useless "Tiffany’s better" bickering over what are just differences of opinion (see the 1987 notes for specific song details), I’d like to focus on some more buried assumptions. The first is that outside matters of lifestyle, marketing, and talent matter to the music. DeCurtis complains (in point 1) that Tiffany is a cynical marketing machine, having toured shopping malls and whatnot, and then weirdly complains (in point 2) that she’s not enough like Madonna, whose entire shtick is media manipulation (maybe not as thoroughly back in ‘87, but still…). What’s more, the qualities he praises in Madonna aren’t immediately apparent in her music—listen to "Open Your Heart" (‘86) and tell me where you here any more eroticism, scrappiness, dance-club roots or assumed identities than in Tiff’s "I Think We’re Alone Now" (‘87). Those "subversive" qualities are things DeCurtis knows by reading magazines, and brings with him to the music. They’re not qualities of the music itself.

Also extra-musical is the bit about Debbie Gibson, whose album also received two stars, but whom DeCurtis clearly preferred because she was more talented. The Debbie vs. Tiffany wars were fought long and hard in the pages of 1987 teenybopper magazines, though I think they centered around who was prettier or more badass; I’m not sure the teenyboppers cared that Debbie wrote and coproduced her own songs, and, in a sense, neither do I. Maybe Debbie and I would have more to talk about at dinner (though on the other hand, Tiffany probably has entertaining stories about posing for Playboy and trying to explain it to her kids), but you listen to music because you relate to the music, regardless of who actually made it. Respecting a musician’s talent and enjoying her music are two completely different things, and they’re not always related.

Q: This is boring! Make a list!
A: Fine. Here’s a list, and then we’ll get back to compare and contrast.

Top 15 ‘80s Songs By ‘60s Artists (active pre-1970)
"Wrecking Ball" by Neil Young (’89)
"Late In the Evening" by Paul Simon (’80)
"Princess And the Magician" by Sonny Sharrock (’86)
"G-Man" by Sonny Rollins (’87)
"First Movement (Fast)" from Desert Music by Steve Reich (’84)
"Real Emotional Girl" by Randy Newman (’83)
"What Have I Done To Deserve This?" by the Pet Shop Boys featuring Dusty Springfield (’87)
"Funeral Ikos" by John Tavener (’81)
"First We Take Manhattan" by Leonard Cohen (’88)
"Jokerman" by Bob Dylan (’83)
"Mob Job" by Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman (’86)
"Who’s Zoomin’ Who?" by Aretha Franklin (’85)
"This Little Girl" by Gary U.S. Bonds (’81)
"We Built This City" by Starship (’85)
"The World’s a Mess, It’s In My Kiss" by X featuring Ray Manzarek (’80)

Q: Starship? Really?
A: Sure. (As a kid, I always thought it perceptive that Starship, as city planners, were worried about "who counts the money underneath the bar," an issue most people wouldn’t remember if they set out to build a city. That line made the band sound frankly overwhelmed with the task they’d set before themselves, and it was kind of poignant: the despair of the micromanager!) Is that song really as awful as everyone (fucking Blender!) pretends?

Back to the reviews!; and specifically, to Tiff’s and U2’s takes on ‘60s icons. DeCurtis noted in points 11 and 16 that U2 "reveres" and "exults" the Beatles, Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix, all of whom are covered and/or otherwise appear on the album. (He also used the word "paean.") The obvious difference here is that U2 treated their predecessors with a respect bordering on awe, while Tiffany treated hers as the bubblegum artists they were and subjected them to updated bubblegum treatments, a concept DeCurtis regarded as "disaster." This unveils a big (here oversimplified) battle of the preconceptions that will forever rage in the arts: the respectful historicists (or neoclassicists) vs. the disrespectful modernists (if you want, though I doubt you do, we could posit U2 as Leonard Bernstein to Tiffany’s Pierre Boulez—yeah, let’s not do that). In rock writing, this battle shows up (again oversimplified) as a triumvirate: "classic rock values" or "rock as Art," vs. "alternative values" or "let’s push Art forward," vs. "bubblegum values" or "fuck Art, let’s dance." DeCurtis comes down pretty hard on the side of classic rock as Art, and most conventional wisdom sides with the alternative values, whereas my favorite critics tend to like the bubblegum stuff.

But the fact that we’re even having this argument gets us back to our "extra-musical" presuppositions—DeCurtis assumed that U2’s reverential attitude towards their musical forebears had some effect on their music, and I assume that Tiffany’s brilliant take on "I Saw Him Standing There" was inspired by some desire, however subconscious, to turn her back on rock history and speak directly to her audience, or engage her audience. But, while artists’ intentions undoubtedly affect their work, there’s little correlation between artists’ intentions and the quality of their work. Reverential U2 could easily have made better, more engaging music than irreverent, popwise Tiffany. They actually did so in 1991 and ‘93, and while their aesthetic intentions may have changed, they were probably in the same ballpark as ‘88, just with an added dose of My Bloody Valentine and electronics. (The jury’s still out on ‘87’s The Joshua Tree, whose songs I know and love by heart but am unable to listen to because some guy on my cross-country team stole, that’s right, my copy many years ago and I’ve never felt the need to replace it.) The only trustworthy way to gauge musical quality is to gauge your response to the music itself, divorced from any extra-musical considerations.

Except, can your response to music ever be divorced from extra-musical considerations? Of course not—because your response is what counts, and your response is itself an extra-musical consideration that’s shaped by all sorts of things. Responses to music depend on who we’re in love with, who just died, how we like our jobs, what instruments we play, how much we like to dance, our guilt over not doing anything with our Bachelor of Music degrees, and our beliefs in the importance of aesthetic theories and intentions, among everything else. While Quality in the Platonic/ Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sense probably exists, I’m more interested in how songs fit into the conversation of my, and your, life.

(NOTE: One last bit about the purely subjective adjectives in DeCurtis’s reviews (points 3-4, 6-7, 9, 12-15): again, you can’t argue people’s opinions without sounding like a petulant 3rd grader, but you can switch the adjectives. In other words, try thinking of Tiffany’s covers as "raucous" and "celebratory," her wonderfully scratchy voice as "corrosive" and "searing," her ballads as "stirring" (though maybe not drifting, poetic dreamscapes). By the same token, I’ve always thought U2’s "All I Want Is You" was "bloated" and "interminable," and Bono’s contrived Lennon-cynicism on "God Part II" was a "cloyingly sentimental" "conceptual disaster." Which segues into my personal preconceptions, which you deserve to know, and which may help explain some things.)

Finally, my preconceptions. In their book The Worst Rock ‘n’ Roll Records Of All Time, critics Jimmy Guterman (who I place in the Classic Rock school) and Owen O’Donnell provide an entertaining list of "The 33 1/3 Rules Of Rock ‘n’ Roll," mostly funny extra-musical tidbits like "Do not go to art school" and "Do not record for Arista Records," but also containing such Great Bubblegum Truths as:

"Good politics are not what make good lyrics,"

"Formidable technical proficiency is never sufficient," and

"Heavy metal should be fast."
Similarly, Chuck Eddy’s pithy Accidental Evolution criteria are that music should be
"unstifled, urgent, sexy, catchy, and fast. Or else just real pretty."

All of those resonate with my tastes, as do the following:

  1. Good execution counts for more than innovation. All other things being equal, the more innovative song is probably better. However, all other things are rarely equal.
  2. Music, particularly its delivery, counts for more than lyrics. A great song can contain bad lyrics—indeed, they can be part of its appeal—but the best lyric can’t redeem crummy music.
  3. Humor is the most surefire means of engaging an audience.
  4. Christian rockers are capable of making great songs.
  5. So is Phil Collins.
  6. And Weird Al Yankovic.
  7. None of the above makes great songs as often as you’d hope; but then, who does?
  8. Punk didn’t change everything. Maybe a third of everything, but the other two thirds carried on pretty much the same.
  9. If they’re good, classical and jazz pieces should engage you just the same as pop songs, though you may need to listen to them more times. (Of course, classical and jazz lovers may need to listen to Guns ‘n’ Roses songs more times to relate to them—I certainly did.) Academic appreciation is never enough.
  10. Songs, at their best, are alive. They communicate with us and we can communicate back, and their meaning changes. They can embody emotions, conscious ideas, and ways of thinking more complex than anything their creators put into them. Like great literary characters (at least as Harold Bloom sees them), great songs get away from their authors and develop lives of their own.
  11. Similarly, great songs teach me things I didn’t know and prove the smallmindedness of my previously held opinions. They prove any underlying preconceptions irrelevant, and thus I love them even more. As the great aestheticians Wilson-Phillips put it in 1990’s "Impulsive":

"I never imagined you could
blow my theory apart,
but now you’re running away with my heart."

No comments: