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I’ve been enjoying the year end music posts by the multi-talented Reinvigorated Programmer (and, if you’ve missed my writing I wrote a couple of long comments on his third post in the series).

But something in his wrap-up post caught my attention, he observes

Looking at the list, I am immediately struck that eight of the ten are folk music of one sort or another, with the only exceptions being the prog rock of The Incident at #3 and the Beatles’ Help! at #7. Of course it may be that this tells us only what a broad church “folk music” is, encompassing the jazz-folk of Joni Mitchell, the country-folk of Richard Shindell, and so on.

I’ve written before about the trickiness of the label “folk music” (and there are a number of good quotations about the nature of folk music posted by RS in the comments for that post). Personally I tend to be somewhat conservative in how I use the term “folk music” and prefer “singer/songwriter” as the broader term for people who write and sing music that has some degree of personal or social significance. I accept, however, that most people use “folk music” as an broader term than I do which refers to a genre of music, rather than some connection to a specific folk culture. I have no interest in policing that, even if I may grumble about it from time to time. When it comes to definitional debates I tend to be a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist, figuring that it’s generally more useful to have a sense of how phrases used than to try to preserve a more technical definition.

But, all of a sudden, I’m curious. How do people define “folk music” as a genre term? I always assumed that it was close to how I would use the term “singer/songwriter” but now I’m not sure. So, in the interest of clarifying, here are five songs which are, somewhere in the universe of singer/songwriter and I’m curious, for any or all of the songs, would you include them under a broad definition of “folk music” and if so why or why not? Leave your answers in comments, I have no opinions except to think that I wouldn’t expect all of them to be considered “folk music” but I’m not sure where the line should be drawn. We have:

1) On of Gil-Scott Heron’s more singer/songwriter songs (with a jazz backing) Lady Day & John Coltrane“.

2) A Joe Jackson song imagining that it would take a deal with the Devil to write anything as perfect as a classic folk song The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy“.

3) Amy Rigby on “The Summer Of [Her] Wasted Youth“.

4) A live acoustic version of I May Hate You Sometimes” by the Posies (album version discussed here).

5) Dave Alvin’s “Harlan County Line” from his latest album. Dave Alvin has said. “There are two types of folk music: quiet folk music and loud folk music. I play both.” This would be an example of the latter.

Fire away . . .

I just got a couple of comments last night that look like comment spam (comments on old posts that are short and don’t have anything specific to say), except they aren’t actually spamming anything. Does anybody know what that’s about? Is this some new style of spam that I should be aware of?

IF you are one of the people who commented then welcome, I’m glad to see that people are reading the site. Hopefully you’ll stick around and keep listening.

Update: The new spam filter that I had installed was blocking legitimate comments. I just changed to another different spam filter. Hopefully that will allow people to comment. Let me know if you have problems.

I recently read this post about gender roles in country music (via) which reminded me that I’d been thinking for a while that there’s an interesting space for feminism in country music. What follows is my somewhat haphazard speculations, but let’s start with Kristan Rawls, from the linked post, setting the stage:

There’s a script for women in commercial country music … Of course there are exceptions, but the ideal country woman is often blond (and white), feisty, world-wise, and hot. She is deeply possessive of her man, and aims to squelch competitors for his affection. She gives the appearance of working-class roots even if she didn’t grow up working class, and she’s equally comfortable talking about guns (Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead”), Jesus (Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel”), and heterosexual romantic relationships (Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away”). But the ideal country woman was not always thus. What has emerged as stereotype was innovative and fresh when Loretta Lynn began experimenting with these themes in the early 1960s. . . . .

I don’t listen to enough country music to know how prevalent that image is, but it isn’t surprising to hear that country music has, like many places in the culture, figured out how to takes images of forceful, powerful women and package them in a way that is safe, non-threatening, and sexy. I think, however, that there are ways in which Country music is hospitable to feminist material, which are minimized by that summary.

Let me suggest, as a very broad generalization, that pop music tends to describe emotional experiences — what does it feel like to be young and in love, or young and pissed off, or just young driving a fast car. It’s about the reactions that people have to the world. Country music can be much more specific about the actual experience in the world that prompt those emotions. As part of the genre it is more descriptive of life as it’s lived.

You may have heard the joke, what happens when you play a country song backwards?

“You get your truck back, you get your dog back, you get yer girl back and life is good.”

That may be an old joke, but, having just heard a country song about somebody losing their dog, it’s an amazing thing. It doesn’t hurt that that particular song was written by two of the best songwriters alive, but it’s really powerful to hear a song about that personal an experience that’s written so directly.

If you believe that country music is more open to stories of lived experience, and you also balieve, as MMelissa McEwan wrote (via*):

Making the personal public and political is serious business. Because women’s stories aren’t told, it’s incumbent upon female feminists to tell their own stories, to fill that void, to be unrepentant and loquacious raconteurs every chance we get, to talk about our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, our needs, our lives in every aspect.

It would follow that there is a way in which Country music is inherently hospitable to feminist storytelling. I have no doubt that there are many other ways in which it’s inhospitable but, perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that Loretta Lynn, mentioned above, was writing country songs. There are famous feminist songs in many genres, but it’s hard to imagine The Pill as anything other than a country song.

I was thinking about all of this when I recently heard “Say Yes To Booty“, about, as she puts it, drunk sex, and the lack of appeal thereof. It’s true that she fits the description quoted above, she is white, blonde, and attractive. But I would argue that is a feminist song, and that it describes the frustrations from life experience, in a way which seems distinctive to country music. You could also compare that to the more explicitly political song, “I Spent My Last $10 (On Birth Control And Beer“.

Which, finally, brings me to the song which got me thinking about this question a year ago which is, perhaps, a harder case. When I listened to, Crazy Dangerous And Blue” I thought it was a feminist song — not in any explicit way, but in the story that it chooses to tell. I continue to believe that, but concede that it’s takes a little bit more work to make that argument. It’s a song about temptation which, arguably buries anything which would be challenging under a certain seductiveness. But I listen to that song and have a hard time thinking of any other songs which are that directly about female desire. There must be other examples, but notice how the desire is not displaced in any way. It’s not a song which builds up an image of the ideal object of desire. In this case the person who is the cause of the temptation is barely described at all. It’s just about her mix of feeling elated and excited and knowing that it’s all going to come crashing down at some point.

There should be example of non-country songs that are that direct, but I’m not thinking of them at the moment. So I’d be curious to know, what’s the closest match to a song like that, or the previous songs, in the pop genre?

Updates: I should add that I don’t disagree with the Kristin Rawls post. I think, ultimately, we’re both interested in people that are doing things outside of the mold of mainstream country. One video that she links to Single White Female lives up (down?) to all the negative stereotypes of country music, both musically and in the gender politics (though interestingly, Rawls notes that the woman who performed that, Chely Wright, has since come out, and believes that part of what that song may feel so cautious in it’s gender presentation is that she was trying to conform to a gender identity that she didn’t personally share).

Also the album version of “Queenie’s Song”, by Guy Clark, is very good, and I’ll post it later today. That was a song I wanted to share, as soon as I heard it and then I happened to realize that, from a certain perspective, “some kid got a gun for their birthday and ended up shooting my dog” sounded like it could be a cliche of a country music song.

* For the record, I had decided upon the thesis for this post before finding that post. Seeing that somebody else was making the same argument that I was, I was happy to steal a citation, but the overall thought was something that I already believed.

I’m continuing to work my way into the book slowly and am enjoying it. I could read it more quickly but I’m enjoying that the slow pace gives me the time to enjoy his many interesting asides or digressions, rather than trying to follow a thread of argument too closely. I will post some more quotes later but I wanted to follow up one one of the quotations from the previous post.

When Simon Reynolds says that, “This is the way pop ends, not with a BANG but with a box set whose forth disc you never get around to playing” or quotes Sufjan Stevens as saying that rock is dead*, the obvious example of what this might look like is Jazz. For years older albums and reissues have been outselling new music in Jazz. People still play and listen to jazz but, as a genre, it is no longer part of the pop culture landscape, more or less. It’s possible to imagine the same thing happening to rock music.

I don’t think that will happen to rock, anytime soon. But I do think it’s reasonable to assume that, if Rock dies, something will replace it. I don’t think there are fewer people making music now than their used to be — to a first approximation at least it’s possible that some people who would have picked up a guitar twenty years ago are now spending their time blogging instead or some other waste of time. But generally, I don’t doubt that people, including young people, are doing some music, somewhere. So if Simon Reynolds no longer feels connected to a contemporary music scene that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

I don’t mean that to be too easy a response. It’s entirely possible that nothing happening today feels like a satisfactory replacement for the music that Simon Reynolds cares about, and I don’t want to dismiss that. But I will turn the mic over to George Starostin at his cranky best.

Now the problem is: when and how does a new musical revolution occur? The obvious answer is – when the previous musical genre has exhausted its possibilities. While a certain genre is new and fresh, its supporters are many and its new creations are welcome. But sooner or later, it inevitably dies down – simply because no type of art is limitless. Classical music was given two centuries to flourish, after which it withered down and, let’s admit it, died a miserable death. How many important classical composers do we know in the 20th century? One can probably count a handful, but even these won’t really be able to compete with masters of the Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin or Tchaikowsky species. And it’s no big surprise that the most accepted ‘classical’ composers of the 20th century were much more ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’, rather than purely ‘classical’, like Stravinsky or Schnitke.

Jazz was given even fewer time: about half a century. Again, jazz is not completely dead today, but who has superated or even come close to Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, etc., etc.? Nobody. Jazz is exhausted as a genre, and today’s jazz is an esoteric and almost perverse affair enjoyable only by complete jazzmaniacs.

Why the hell does that happen? People will tell you about the lack of brains, the corruption of our time, the conservatism, the need to grow… rubbish. It all happens simply because the ‘pool of ideas’ has become shallow. Like I said, nothing is limitless. After all, music is not magic, at least in the process of being composed. Music consists of notes played by people on instruments. The number of notes is limited. The number of instruments is limited. The number of note combinations is huge, but, first of all, not all of these combinations are pleasant to the ear, second, even this number is limited, too. No matter how long you are able to create good music using a given pattern, you won’t be able to do it forever – even if you’re the greatest genius on Earth.

The musical processes that happen now may be interesting to some, but they’re so tiny, pudgety and midgety as compared to the global cultural revolution of 1966-75, that I’m not really interested. It is true that I do not, and cannot, observe much of the things happening in the States, or, in fact, anywhere in the world except Russia, but after all, isn’t Russia part of the world? Here, we have the definite rule of recycled, brainless pop music; the few good bands that are in existence are mostly unknown to the general record-buying public, and have no hope of becoming known someday. But are these ‘few good bands’ really good? Answer is – they’re… okay. There are some bands who I don’t mind listening to; some bands that have interesting melodies I ain’t never heard before; some bands that I’d really like to see in concert, etc. But there are no bands of which I’d say: ‘well, this is definitive modern Russian rock!’ Russian rock also passed its heyday, by the mid-Eighties it was already half-dead, and now it is struggling, but less and less and weaker and weaker….

Which brings me to my final, and decisive point. Rock music is dead. The few interesting bands that are still in circulation today can be fun and entertaining (even if 99% of them can only be found in the Underground), but overall they are mostly conservative – bringing up and fostering the old values of the same Beatles, or Yes, or Mott the Hoople, or the Police, but not coming up with ideas that would be essentially new. The widespread idea that rock is alive and well and the only problem with it is that it needs to be saved from corporate greed and greedy, murky managers that only feel the need to stuff the public with all that brainwashing crap like Alanis Morrisette or Puff Daddy or Marilyn Manson, is a myth. It is a myth created by people who simply do not want to face the obvious: there will never be another Beatles, or another Doors, or another Jethro Tull, in rock music. There will be amusing, entertaining bands that’ll go in and come out and be forgotten, but that’s not it. Rock is dead. We do need another Beatles – but these new Beatles, if ever they are bound to appear (and I do hope for it, since I’m an optimist), will not be an element of rock music. They will create another type of music – I don’t know what’s it gonna be called, nor what instruments or harmonies it is bound to exploit, but it’s gonna be something different. Something totally different from rock – rock that died, just like jazz and classical died before it. Do not try to deceive yourself and say, ‘oh no, you’re wrong, it’s all the fault of our commercialized and greedy recording industry’. Recording industry was always commercialized and greedy – yet it let out the Beatles. Do you think today’s recording industry would miss another Beatles if it saw ’em? They sure could bring even bigger bucks!

I was thinking about the Folk Revival in the US and possible causes. It occurred to me that, if you date it as starting in the fifties, it isn’t a coincidence that it would happen as the development of the interstate highways system and the internal movement following WW II. I theorize that bringing more people into contact with unfamiliar local culture and traditions would lead to an interest in documenting or preserving those traditions.

Before I thought about it I would have said that the interest in local culture was a response to the rise of a more national culture — radio, movies, etc. I think that’s part of the story, but, upon examination, that transition started in the 20s and 30s, which leads me to think that transportation and the mixing and movement of people during and after the war were more important.

Comments? It sounds reasonable to me, but it’s just inference.

Three pop songs about women named, “Annie” (the first two links are youtube links)

Annie Get Your Gun” (Squeeze)
Annie” (Pete Townshend / Ronnie Lane)
Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song” (Tom Paxton; from this post).

Plus, of course, the musical.

Is there something in the name that makes it particularly suited to fitting a lyric, or could you make a similar list for any common woman’s name with two syllables?

I want to try an experiment that I’ve been thinking about for a while. As I’ve mentioned, working on mixes is when when I do my most focused listening — in terms of paying close attention to both individual songs and what elements of the songs contribute to smooth or jagged transitions. I always end up learning something from constructing a mix. So I thought it could be interesting to walk through a mix song by song.

To start with, my most recent mix. I’ve put the entire mix up here (I burned it from a copy of the mix, so the artist information won’t be available, but otherwise the metadata should be accurate). I hope to post about each of the songs every couple of days, so it will probably take a 4-6 weeks to go through the entire mix (and I reserve the right to post on other topics during that time), but I think it will be interesting.

To quote what I said earlier about the mix

have a large set of childhood memories of hanging around in the living room while my parents played music with their friends. . . . I realize those memories are what define traditional music for me. When I’m listening to recordings of folk or acoustic music one of the things that I listen for is whether the performance and recording capture something of the spirit of making music for pleasure. It is, of course, a subjective category, and the musicians in my parents’ generation that I knew, growing up, represent a specific style of making music. Still, there are many recording in which I do feel that sense of music as a social activity shared among participants — rather than between a performer an an audience.

I would add a couple of notes to that, along with a copy the tracklist below the fold.
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The discussion about neglected and or minor musical figures, and the ways in which they feature in music criticism, got me thinking again about the idea of a world in which a standard avenue of exposure to music happens through free, user-directed online channels.

This is an interesting subject for me, because I’m well aware that I am on the wrong side of history on this topic. I’m not completely comfortable with the idea of that world despite the fact that, as that showed, it’s tremendously useful to be able to include something like a youtube link in a blog conversation and that I’m very glad that Matt McGrattan posted links to several songs that were very good and not things that I’d heard before. So I wanted to try to think through my discomfort a little bit.

First, and foremost, I suspect that I’m just reacting to habit experienced as a social norm. I’m used to the idea of paying for music and so, even when musicians are perfectly happy to have their work shared electronically I feel like it’s a violation of appropriate behavior. Even when I decide to participate, for example by starting this blog, I still have a strong impulse towards minimizing — try to share less and take maximal use/value from each instance. I feel like that’s a reasonable attitude to have but I recognize that it’s somewhat arbitrary.

But that concern properly belongs with the question of, “how will musicians get paid” rather than “how will the change the experience of the listener” which interests me at the moment. There is also a way in which I am uncomfortable with being a music listener in a world in which vast amounts of free music is easily available. As useful as it is, there’s also something intimidating about that. Let me see if I can figure out why.

The most direct explanation is the paradox of choice; that having more music available more easily makes it more difficult to chose what to listen to. This is somewhat silly, I’m sure that people who get their music online develop filtering mechanisms and I suspect that music downloads, like almost anything else available online, follow a power law distribution, meaning that most people are drawn to what’s popular rather than feeling like they have to evaluate all of the possibilities and select from them. Additionally, I would note that as happy as I am with CDs as a format for acquiring music, I occasionally wish they were easier to organize. I’d be happy to be able to search my music electronically, and if I feel that way about my own music, there’s no reason to assume that search tools wouldn’t also make it easier to find music that I wanted online.

On the other hand, writing this blog does make me feel occasionally, that there’s something intimidating about writing about music online. For me, at least, I have the worry in the back of my mind, “what counts as an informed opinion.” In many ways it’s easier to make clear the limits of a statement in conversation not least because most of the time you are talking to someone with some preexisting knowledge about your musical tastes and collection. The conversation about soul vocalists makes me think that the advantages of being able to easily introduce new points of reference is important and valuable, but there is something to the disadvantage of, given a functionally unlimited space where does one begin or end.

The second thought I’ve had, which has been covered by smarter people than I, is the ways in which electronic sharing of music changed what metadata is available for the music. Albums and packaging tell you something about the music that is being transmitted and give you some introductory context before you start listening. Obviously metadata can be connected to music in various ways; the fact that youtube connects music and images, for example, can provide a great deal of information that wouldn’t have been possible on an album).

My final thought, however, is that I’m very much used to the idea of a personal music collection and widespread free music challenges that somewhat. I’m used to have a boundary between “my music” and “not my music” and that boundary becomes more porous the more abstract music storage becomes. On some level, if it’s all free, what is the difference between having a song on my computer and a song on somebody else’s server? There’s reason, of course, to want to download things so as to have them available offline but that’s hardly necessary. There are various youtube videos that are part of my mental catalog of music that I would never even think of downloading. I expect that they will be generally available and, in most cases, I’m fine as long as most of them remain online. If one or two were removed I might not even notice. This is true for me even though I have only recently started thinking about youtube as a source of music. I can only imagine that the long one has spent accessing music would become more comfortable with the idea of their sense of music including both music that they store locally and music that is just generally available online.

The worry for me is that boundary slippage accentuates my second concern — where does one begin and end. Even though I own some music that I’m not completely familiar with I still use my collection of CDs as an organizing tool. The act of deciding to buy something is a commitment to intending to listen to it, and where I put that CD (at work or at home, on the shelf or by the stereo) is a way of thinking, with physical objects, about what I want to prioritize for listening. This isn’t, of course, inherently related to the idea of free music. I could use CDs as an organizing tool regardless of the source of the music but, psychologically, I am used to the idea that these items have value and that, I think, is a big part of why I’m not sure what to make of the idea of a world with very different patterns of music distribution. None of this is, specifically, an argument that such a world would be worse, just the awareness that the idea creates some mental slippage for me.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been listening to a bunch of new music that I’ve liked, lately. I want to go through some of that that. I don’t necessarily have a lot to say about all of it, but I want to share. Let me start with Ian Dury who, as it turns out, is the subject of an upcoming biopic.

I didn’t know who he was, but I saw him mentioned in the liner notes of a Squeeze compilation. I read his AMG bio and decided it was worth getting some of his music. It turns out to be very likable. I had imagined, from the description, something geekier, but it’s smart, clever, goofy pop music without being geeky (I suspect that the cultural divide has something to do with that judgement).

One of my favorite songs is “Razzle In My Pocket” (a true story) about him shoplifting a “lads magazine” as a kid. The performance is good, but his songwriting is what stands to me in that track. The pacing is masterful. It tells the story in a very compact way that, nevertheless, feels detailed rather than like a summary. He’s able to easily blend his ability as a raconteur with the music. It feels very unforced.

The other thing I notice about his performance is that it’s unhurried but, at the same time, it feels like he’s always looking ahead to the next turn in the story. Not in bad way but it feels like as he describes each moment there’s something in his delivery that seems to always be saying, “and, just wait until you here what happened after that.”

Following up on the previous post, I have been mulling over exactly what set of traits are implied by the phrase “Rock and Roll attitude.” It is, of course, an amorphous term, and no single trait is either necessary or sufficient. Play along with me for a minute, and see what you would think of.
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