Irony And Detachment Are Not Virtues In Art

Now this is to read images into the lyrics that may not be there (always a pleasure of pop), but the underlying, troubled feelings are there – in the sighing quality of the Pet (Shop Boys) pop voice, in the brittle elegance of their arrangements. It’s as if the Pet Shop Boys are both quite detached from their music – one is aware of the sheer craftiness of their songs – and completely implicated by it: they suggest less that they have been touched by the banality of love than by the banality of love songs; they seem to understand the fear as well as the joy of sex (fear and joy which always lie in the anticipation of the physical moment); they capture the anxiety of fun. Their gayness is less significant here (at least for a heterosexual fan) than their emotional fluency . . . Simon Frith, Performing Rites, pp. 8-9

The Black Metal band Abbath in concert. I'm listening to a concert of theirs while I write this.

The Black Metal band Abbath in concert. I’m listening to a concert of theirs while I write this.

While this past year sucked for so many reasons, it also offered the solace of three excellent yet musically very different concert experiences. In late April, I saw the Black Metal bands Myrkur and Behemoth. In October, it was Marillion followed by Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman playing two hours of Yes music. Other than people making music, these concerts would seem to share little in common. The styles of music, the approach to stagecraft, how they “handle” an audience – whether of metal heads out of their minds or middle aged or older men and women, at least some of whom thought it a good idea to wear tweed to a rock concert – and their accumulated goodwill with their fans are all very different.

One thing, however, that unites them is this: They seem to take themselves not very seriously at all, while they take their craft and art very seriously, indeed. One does not stand and sweat through a live performance of an album entitled The Satanist, or a 17-minute long song about the peculiarities of parental love without understanding the performers are fully invested both in the performance itself as well as the specifics of the songs they are playing. Atmosphere, stagecraft, the precision (or lack thereof) of their playing, the physical reaction to playing particular musical passages, the emotion on their faces – these are signs of people who not only love what they’re doing, but are fully and completely invested in it. Whatever else the performers may be, at these moments the only thing that matters is the music. It is the music that brings the audience in, keeps it there, and leaves them sweaty, exhausted, and high (metaphorically or otherwise) when all is said and done.

It has been an article of faith among rock critics, at least since the early 1970’s, that the best rock and pop music performances are those in which the artist seems to distance him or herself from the music itself, inhabiting some space outside the musical performance. Even in live performance, critics insist that when artist and audience share the joke that, for all its seriousness, the music is just pop music and doesn’t matter all that much, we are in the presence of the best rock has to offer. At the same time, some of rock critics’ favorite performers – Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, The Beatles and Van Morrison, The Sex Pistols and Barry White – are perhaps among the m, post serious musical performers ever in pop music. They also seem to love David Bowie precisely for the reasons there are many who find him an also-ran, someone far more interested in stealing and borrowing from other artists (like not including Rick Wakeman or Stevie Ray Vaughan in musical credits, denying them royalties) in order to present less a pop-culture collage than a random set of images unconnected to anything other than his own rather inflated ego. Bowie’s ironic distance, at turns born of the hauteur of youth combined with a serious drug addiction, later flowing from his own sense of himself as a musical icon. The others, many critics insist, only seem to inject any serious intent into their music or its performance. At heart, the Beatles are cheeky Liverpudlians having a laugh on a gullible world; Bruce Springsteen is just a superannuated teen, with the audience his bedroom mirror as he plays air guitar and sings into his brush. Barry White may have seemed to be playing at being sexual, but in fact he was toying with lyrical and musical conventions offering listeners a sonic backdrop for their own sexual escapades; Barry himself wasn’t interested in performing music so much as he was interested in creating a particular sound pallet to accompany the sexual experience. The Sex Pistols? How can anyone take their music seriously particularly since they were supposed to be the antidote to all those artists who seemed to take themselves far too seriously.

This is just canonical music criticism anymore. It seems almost impossible to challenge. Yet, in what sense can it ever be said that the best art is produced by those who don’t care whether it’s good or not as long as people think it’s good? What if, rather than offering a nod and a wink to the audience as both they and the artist share the in-joke that their mutual engagement isn’t anything serious at all, at its best pop and rock music is a shared sense of the importance and seriousness of the musical performance itself, with the artist not taking him or herself seriously precisely because it is the musical performance, rather than his or her ego or personality, that matters? What if The Pet Shop Boys’ being gay wasn’t beside the point, whether any particular fan is straight or not, but rather essential fully to understand and appreciate their work? The Indigo Girls, a duo who seem not to take themselves very seriously at all, nevertheless inject their hearts into love songs, their rage and sense of justice into protest songs, and over it all their identities as gay women. Even when Amy and Emily do covers, it’s impossible to appreciate the cover as their interpretation without holding fast their sexual identity.

Part of this notion of “irony” and “detachment” comes from the best of the earliest rock critics – Robert Christgau, Frith, Lester Bangs – guiding assumption that the music they loved as youth, with its raw intensity matched by raw (often indiscernible) production values, was not taken very seriously precisely because those who performed such music were very often far more amateurish than they were artists. The Kingsmen were a bunch of party boys from the Pacific Northwest who’s “Louie Louie”, with its muddled mix and indifferent vocal performance is often cited as a kind of proto-punk anthem in terms both of musical style and artistic presentation (to take an example from Lester Bangs). The combination of big business and artistic pretension in the mid- to late-1970’s ruined rock music precisely because pop musicians usually only barely able to play their instruments suddenly became serious artists in their own eyes and through the eyes of their management and promoters. A junkie like Jimmy Page casts himself as distant, cold, mysteriously enveloped in the trappings of British occultism while in fact nothing but a common heroin addict who had a nasty habit of stealing riffs and even whole songs from other artists without credit. When Sid Vicious gets his nose bloodied when an audience member breaks his nose with a thrown beer bottle, rather than a sign of dangerous nihilism it becomes a kind of epic Punk moment (even though most critics recognize that Vicious really was a truly awful bass player, barely coherent at the best of times). In words Tom Petty said with which rock critics would agree whole-heartedly, the music isn’t supposed to be really good.

All this plays into the nonsensical cultural bifurcation that sees a real qualitative distinction between a Beethoven string quartet and the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”. Since the emergence of class split between the bourgeoisie and working class in the late 18th century, a lot of effort has gone into creating a distinction between “high” culture and “low” culture, with what seems to be the obvious “truth” that “high” culture is inherently more valuable aesthetically and ethically than “low” culture. Even as composers in the 19th century began to incorporate folk musics into their compositions, or were little more than pop composers themselves (think of a Strauss waltz; it’s nothing more than “Electric Boogie” for a bunch of drunk Viennese nouveau riches), the spread of affordable pianos for middle class homes drove a thriving and expanding market for popular tunes that could be played at home. Musical theater in its various forms, whether the operetta  or minstrelsy, created mass markets for popular songs that many still perform today, forgetting that both were considered vulgar at the time they were created. The creation of the masses also created a kind of mass anti-art that just is not to be taken very seriously.

We live in the legacy of these attitudes. It’s still nearly impossible to get any but the most dedicated fans to hear more in the best pop, hip-hop, and rap than entertainment. As if entertainment in and of itself were not a cultural good, even necessity. We continue to harbor an essential distinction between, say, Richard Strauss’s operas and the concept albums by The Moody Blues, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and DMX. When pop music critics refuse to take popular art seriously, how are their judgments valid? If one is like Frith and insists the dialectic of distance and conviction leads to a sidelining of the Pet Shop Boys’ sexual identity, what becomes of possible alternate readings of their songs?

As long as we continue to believe the indefensible – that there is something inherently “better” about orchestral music (of whatever form, which itself demonstrates a certain cultural ignorance) compared to popular musics of any kind – our critical appreciation of both categories is impoverished precisely because we are afraid to hear the obvious similarities between a Mozart symphony and “A Day In The Life”.

A final word about Abbath, whose image appears above. In interviews, they’re as self-effacing and humorous as most rock musicians, able to laugh at themselves while insisting their music and stage presentation is very serious indeed, intended as it is as an attack upon the Christianization of the Nordic countries. There is no distancing the performers from the performance in their case. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why heavy metal is considered only with disdain among many rock critics. How are we supposed to take them seriously, we are told, precisely because they take themselves so seriously? Don’t they realize it’s just music?

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