In praise of differenter things, suggestive titles and (relatively) unmediated aesthetic pleasure
|Robert Christgau||Dec 18, 2019|
Hello, Bob. Glad to hear your knee is doing well post-surgery. You have reviewed, mostly favorably, all of the Cloud Nothings albums except for the most recent, Last Building Burning, even though its tone and approach are not demonstrably different. But perhaps that’s the problem? — Jeff Callahan, Flat Rock, North Carolina
First, this gives me a chance to mention that although my knee is doing well I can barely walk due to a related IT band problem that affects my thigh. This is not so-called IT band syndrome, a nasty variant of runner’s knee. It’s in my thigh specifically, and finding effective treatment has thus far been alarmingly difficult, although I’ve just met a trainer who impressed me. So if anyone has undergone a similar problem I’d appreciate learning about it. As for the Cloud Nothings, you’ve nailed the issue exactly. Look at the last Cloud Nothings review and note how I dismiss complaints about his sameyness—a little defensively, I’d say. No surprise that the new one sounded to me like one of those marginally differentiated Honorable Mentions I’ve vowed to cut down on. I could be missing something, of course. But the likelihood is small. I’d rather check out something differenter.
Is there any chance of seeing your review for Artpop? Just out of curiosity after seeing it make zero appearance on the lists of critics for the best albums of the last decade. — Thomas, Beijing
There is no review of Artpop. It came out during the Consumer Guide’s 2013 hiatus between its long Microsoft sojourn and its brief stay at Medium. Played it recently out of curiosity and did not feel compelled to play it again, hence wonder whether I would have rated it so highly had I been compelled to write about it, a process that my ears invariably find educational.
Do you have any favourite album titles? Or book titles, for that matter. It seems like coming up with titles would be fun. How did you decide on the titles for your books? I know they’re music / literature references, but you surely had a lot to choose from and probably a few good final ideas before deciding on Any Old Way You Choose It, Grown Up All Wrong, and Is It Still Good to Ya? — Brandon, Waterloo, Ontario
A good title should be intriguing, suggestive, and accurate. Magazine editing is perfect training, because it compels you to think of a lot of them. Basic method: find some good language in there and work on it. Great album titles that come to mind are Rubber Soul and good kid, m.A.A.d city. Two great book titles are by people I’m close to: Mystery Train and The Only Ones. I don’t remember how I came up with Any Old Way You Choose It, but it came pretty easy and I’m more than proud of it—it was definitive, thank you master phrasemaker Chuck Berry. Is It Still Good to Ya? came to me early in the compilation process because it was the hook of what I always knew would be the prologue; Book Reports took forever, landing simultaneously with its subtitle, which just popped into my head one day. Going Into the City was there from the start. Grown Up All Wrong, on the other hand, was hard labor. I wanted to raid the New York Dolls and call it If I’m Acting Like a King, That’s Because I’m a Human Being. My editor Lindsay Waters vetoed it, never budged, although we had and still have a warm personal relationship. I was stubborn about it but finally gave up, just started thumbing through artists’ albums for something to filch. After half a glum hour, up popped the song title “Grown Up All Wrong.” I relistened to the lyric to make sure there was nothing I’d regret, rejiggered the intro to rationalize it, and have been very happy with it ever since—better than the Dolls one for sure.
The best music for me is by bands like Hüsker Dü and the Go-Betweens and artists like Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon. I also like Mississippi Fred McDowell, the Carter Family, the Ramones, and Wire. All names that fit well into an intellectual aesthetic spectrum. But I also like bands like Blink-182, who I’m glad to see you also like, and Ace of Base, who is often frowned upon in the intellectual community. I enjoy those bands more than the music of say, Lamont Young and Terry Riley. What are your views on the above-mentioned underlying expectations to a person’s taste? Does your answer have something to do with the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, ‘cause that would be pretty intellectual? — Martin Moeller, Aarhus, Denmark
I’ve never gotten very far in Bourdieu’s Distinction, an important piece of aesthetic theory I assume I agree with to some extent but in a less absolute, judgmental, dare I say snobbish way. So I can only wonder what if anything meaningful Bourdieu has to say about aesthetic pleasure itself, a real phenomenon however much it’s compromised or tainted that is clearly inflected by what we know and how we grew up but I very much doubt is coextensive with our social positioning dramas. You and I like the same kind of bands, it would seem, but if you also like Ace of Base, who I’ve never gotten into, go with it. There’s obviously real craft there. The idea is to let the music reach your ears unmediated insofar as that is possible, and although that’ll always mean relatively unmediated, there are various ways to trick yourself into being more spontaneous about it. I’ve made it a discipline to figure out the real reasons I enjoy individual pieces of music and put my conclusions into writing for over half a century. I’m real good at it and never perfect. It’s a contingent world. It’s also the only one we got, and music generally makes it better.
In your 2002 interview with Rockcritics.com you mentioned classical music as one of your blind spots. In one of your asides in Going into the City you referred to "a Germanophile musicological establishment that protects its academic suzerainty to this day.” Is your disposition towards musicology academes less than amiable? Do you have any friends at WQXR? — Tim Getz, Vernon, New Jersey
When the category is as vast as “classical music,” it’s not a “blind spot.” It’s something I’m not really interested in, like biochemistry or astronomy or sculpture, although in recent years I’ve come to care more about the first two than I do about classical music. That said, I’ve read a great deal of classical music history in passing, most recently when I was reviewing Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History for the L.A. Times. Most germane, however, is what I’ve written about the late great not-actually-a-musicologist (which-was-probably-a-good-thing) Christopher Small. My Voice piece about Small was eventually reprinted in a classical music journal whose title now escapes me. More to the point, the entirety of my long interview with him, transcribed over several days by none other than moi because like many who knew him I loved Christopher Small, was published in Jason Gross’s long-running online music mag Perfect Sound Forever and reprinted in Robert Walser’s posthumous Christopher Small Reader. I know no one at WQXR and have very little to do with academic musicologists, although onetime Times critic John Rockwell, who in “retirement” writes regularly for an opera magazine I can’t keep straight from the other opera magazine, is one of my closest friends. Of course, he was also a rock critic for a while.
Can your readers expect a decade-end list from you on your Substack newsletter? —Tom, Philadelphia