Thursday, April 01, 2004


My recent chiding of JB Doubtless from Fraters Libertas for rejecting darkness in music seems to have struck a nerve. We've exchanged a couple of e-mails so far, and the ball is now in my court. And at this point I figure if I'm going write this much about something I might as well post it.

For context, here's JB's most recent e-mail:
A few points...

The Carpenters. If there is one group that seperates the music lovers from those who are confused by what they should be listening to it is the Carpenters. Simply, if you hate them you hate music because you have to hate melody, tenderness, emotion, powerful singing and romanticism in general. Many people do hate those things.

And you said that music doesn't HAVE to be entertaining? WTF? What is it then? Entertainment is what music is. It's like saying that carpentry doesn't HAVE to be about building stuff or being an abortion doctor doesn't HAVE to be about killing babies.

It reminds me of that great scene from Deer Hunter where the guys go hunting and the dorky guy forgets his boots. Deniro gets exasperated with the guy and tries to explain to him what a clueless jackass he is. He finally produces a gun and says "This is this".

Music is entertainment. Seriously, what else could it be? Work? Religion? It's there for our entertainment. Are you saying we should listen to music that we don't like because it will make us better people or something? Should it be like medicine?

Robert Johnson. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The guy had an incredible feeling of joy in his music and it comes out loud and clear. He had some dark stuff, but mainly the dude was horny and wanted to make money so he could get drunk and chase womens. Listen to Hot Temales and tell me there aint joy there. Or Come In My Kitchen. Dust My Broom. The list goes on and on.

Do you really look for music that is (as Jim Fusilli said in the WSJ) menancing? Do you want to be menanced by music?
And here's my response.

(1). If you want to pick a totemic artist to sit on the dividing line between "music lovers" and your despised hipsters, the Carpenters are a pretty lousy choice. Hipsters love the Carpenters. Think I'm kidding? Check out If I Were a Carpenter, a Carpenters tribute album from 1994 featuring such artists as Sonic Youth (one of your faves, I know). Think this is just ironic po-mo posturing? Think again.

From a Los Angeles Times article about the album by Paul Grein entitled "Trust Us, This is Real" dated September 11, 1994 (I found it in the ALLNEWS database on Westlaw; you can buy it from the Times here):
Thurston Moore, the Sonic Youth guitarist, has hours of Carpenters TV appearances on video-what he calls "a gold mine of Carpenters glory."

Like most of the artists on the album, Kim Gordon
[also of Sonic Youth--ed.] points first to Karen's voice when asked why she is drawn to the Carpenters.

"There was this girl-next-door image with this incredibly soulful, and at times sexy, voice," Gordon said. "Even though Karen didn't write the songs, she really made them her own-in much the same way that a singer like Billie Holiday did. With both of them, the words came right from the heart."

Gordon said that she became a fan just five years ago. Before, she was put off by the Carpenters' Establishment image. "It was music your parents would like you to listen to," she said.

But when Moore brought in a Carpenters tape, she ignored the image and simply focused on the music.

In 1990, Gordon went public with her affection for the Carpenters. She co-wrote and sang lead on "Tunic (Song for Karen)," a dark-edged but sympathetic song that was featured on the band's album "Goo." The song depicts Karen, happy at last, speaking to her family from heaven.

Initially, some Sonic Youth fans took it as a joke.

"I'm sure a lot of people just thought, 'Oh, they're into it for the kitsch factor,' but it was a sincere song," Gordon said.

"I really think the Carpenters have transcended kitsch because the music is so good."

In the years since Karen died, Richard Carpenter, 47, has spent much of his time preparing compilations of Carpenters songs for release around the world. The composer-pianist, who was married in 1984 and has four children, also served as a consultant on a top-rated TV movie about the Carpenters in 1989 and cooperated on an authorized biography about the duo that was published earlier this year. On Oct. 1, he will perform at the formal dedication of the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at their alma mater, Cal State Long Beach.

And what does the man who produced and arranged the Carpenters' long string of hits think of "If I Were a Carpenter"?

"I'm impressed with the whole project," he said. "I find the fact that they wanted to put this project together touching and a real testament to the Carpenters and Karen in particular."

Carpenter, who played piano and sang background on Matthew Sweet's version of "Let Me Be the One" for the new album, said his initial concerns that the collection might be tongue in cheek were quickly dispelled.

"I can hear that . . . it was all done from the heart," he said.
Personally, I don't care for the Carpenters. I hardly hate them--they made lots of very melodic and well-crafted pop songs, and Karen Carpenter had a great voice--but I've always found their stuff too cloying and fulsome for my ears. I like a little grit in my music, or in my pop music at any rate. Then again, maybe I'm just not as hip as you and Kim and Thurston are.

(2). What exactly does it mean to counterpose "music lovers" with "those who are confused by what they should be listening to"? Do you mean that people who don't (in your world) qualify as "music lovers" (people like me, presumably) are "confused by" the Carpenters? Or did you intend to say that people like me are confused about what we "should" be listening to? If it's the former, I can assure you that I'm not confused at all by the Carpenters; like I said above, I just don't care for them. If it's the latter, I can similarly assure you that I'm not confused at all about what to listen to: I trust my own ears and the ears of those whose taste and judgment seem reliable.

(3). "Entertainment is what music is. ... Music is entertainment. Seriously, what else could it be?" What else could it be? You're joking, right? All right, I guess I'll have to start listing things: music can be prayer (e.g., church hymns); music can be ceremony (e.g., the National Anthem before a sporting event); music can be a subordinate element of another creative form (e.g., film scores); music can be aural wallpaper (e.g., Muzak). Where do you want me to stop? And I haven't even mentioned the most obvious one: music can be art.

I repeat: can be art. Doesn't have to be art. Doesn't necessarily succeed at becoming art just because it aims for it. And isn't necessarily superior to other music even if it does succeed at becoming art. Just can be art.

And I'm afraid I'm going to have to repeat something else, too, since you completely ignored it the first time around: Music, indisputably, can be entertainment, and there's nothing wrong with entertaining music. I find all sorts of music entertaining, just like I find NFL football and sitcoms and Charles Bronson movies and card games and People Magazine and crossword puzzles and countless other things entertaining. I love entertainment, and so does anyone who isn't a prig. But entertainment by its very nature is diversion--it's easy to pick up and easy to put down. And I just don't think that's the sum and substance of aesthetic experience. Apparently you do.

(4). "Are you saying we should listen to music that we don't like because it will make us better people or something? Should it be like medicine?" No. What I'm saying is that just because we don't immediately like something doesn't mean that we should categorically reject it for all time as crap. It may indeed be crap, and thus our initial reaction may be justified, but it's just possible that--brace yourself, now--we were wrong not to like it. In other words, I follow Terry Teachout's credo: "trust your first impressions — but don’t be afraid to change your mind." And his admonition, cribbed from Hans Keller: "As soon as I detest something I ask myself why I like it."

(5). Robert Johnson had a lot more than "some" dark stuff. Listen to "Preachin' Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)." Or "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day." Or "Stones in My Passway." Or "Hell Hound on My Trail." Or "Me and the Devil Blues." Et cetera, et cetera. Was everything he recorded of this ilk? No. But I think any objective listener would conclude that it was the dominant strain of his music.

(6). "Do you really look for music that is (as Jim Fusilli said in the WSJ) menancing?" No. I look for music that is good. Sometimes it's "menancing [sic]," sometimes it isn't. Is that really so hard to understand?


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