Charlatans of Pop

The Task of the Arbiter

I am not a music-lover. A music-lover likes to sing along to the latest radio jamz; she’s moved to tears when the local college choir performs Faure’s Requiem; he likes every kind of music except country, or every kind of music except rap; she hates anything that sounds too weird, or too safe; he’s really impressed with his friend’s kid who plays piano and sings at the same time; and she’s totally stoked about that new Kings of Leon record… A music-lover is, in other words, someone who is not repulsed by sound in time as it relates to his or her own existence. This type of person has a real use for music: it captures his mood like a soundtrack to his daily experiences, encapsulates and triggers her memories, and gives both him and her something to talk about with other music-lovers. This is the only way to enjoy music, and if you’re one of these people, I urge you to read no further.

Because this is an essay for my people, the arbiters of music. We, the arbiters, have no real use for music—or any other art form—because it does not win us any friends, make us any money, or bring us any fulfillment. It steals the wind out of our lungs only to blow it up our spines. It empties our wallets and draws lines in the sand before our enemies. And when we try to confront it, all it does is ask us questions we can’t answer. Music for the arbiters is an invitation to philosophy, an arena in which history’s greatest minds have fought for their lives and lost their souls. And because there’s so much at stake down in the blood-soaked dirt, most of us spend our time up in the cheap seats eating hot dogs, drinking domestics, gazing upon and mocking that beautiful, terrible monster—that sweet, dreadful sound—impaling with her horn all the fools who attempt to mount her. I say it’s cowardly to sit up here throwing peanuts when we should be down there asking that purple unicorn to dance. And that’s what I hope to do with this column.

“Charlatans of Pop” is comprised of two main threads: 1) a defense for the best efforts of pop music (including those of the last hundred years), and an examination of why such efforts are considered the best; and 2) an invitation for music-arbiters to criticize music from a moral perspective. Though the first thread is loftier, I believe it to be the far easier sell.

What is pop music? First, it is music—sound in time—that is intended to please. When we think on this for a moment, we might object to the word “please” by citing music that, for example, intends to anger or depress the listener. I respond to that objection with the argument that angry or depressing music is intended to please listeners who invite feelings of anger or depression. Second, it is popular, of and for people, and it has earned approval by unifying listeners with a shared experience of pleasure. With the simplicity of these terms I hope to make a serious implication about the distinction between the function of something like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and something like Beck’s Odelay. That is, there is none. Both are examples of pop music in that they are pieces of music that have unified people through pleasure. Why and to what degree these pieces have succeeded is a question of criticism, which is the task of the arbiter, a task that is often neglected, bungled, or even maligned due to a misunderstanding about what pop music is not.

It is not merely an artifact of cultural anthropology, the most dangerous notion of music criticism. Because so many listeners have a limited knowledge of how music actually works—elements of timbre, rhythm, melody, and harmony—they are forced to limit their critical thoughts to amusical topics, namely what moods or images the music heard evokes. While thinking critically about mood is mainly a good thing, and perhaps inseparable from the art of music criticism, I believe serious problems arise out of listening with the eyes. To reduce a representation of musical tradition to any image depreciates the music heard, but it also limits the listener’s capacity for subtlety, which leads to harsh, binary distinctions. For example, because rap music is so visually associated with what is urban and/or African, listeners have been unconsciously encouraged to distinguish between black rap and white rap. When I was eight years old I remember begging my mom to buy me the cassette tape of To the Extreme by Vanilla Ice. We were shopping at K-Mart, and she had reached her tipping point with me by the time we neared the electronics section. Upon her concession, I raced to the racks to find my prize, and when I did I was confronted by a disillusionment not unlike learning that Ronnie James Dio was not a giant or that Nina Simone was not a man.

“Mom!” I screamed as I came back to the cart, “he’s not black!”

Now, I’m not sure if it was the culmination of all my prodding or the black family staring at us from fifteen feet away, but my tactlessness earned me a well-deserved slap across the face. I was too shocked to respond. My life up to that point had been a series of rejections symbolized by great black people: I’d never play ball like Michael Jordan, I’d never tell jokes like Eddie Murphy, and I’d never walk backwards like Michael Jackson. Rap music was yet another thing I would always adore and never get to participate in, because of my disposition to being white. Until that moment I was doomed to wear my skin like a badge of mediocrity, but this tape was a reversal of fortune. I held the case up to my mom as if the oracle had gotten it all wrong: I wouldn’t have to gouge my own eyes out after all.

“Of course he’s not black,” she said in an agitated whisper. “His name’s Vanilla.”

Black rap vs. white rap is one of many distracting dichotomies that arise out of listening with the eyes; think about macho rock vs. emo, conservative country vs. progressive country, cool kid indie vs. weird kid indie, and an archipelago of competing social preferences in metal and electronic music. None of these binary distinctions tells us anything about music and why it’s popular. We don’t sing along to the lyrics of “Ice Ice Baby” because of the vanilla flavor. We sing along because it’s a fun, gloriously stupid song that bears repeating because it unifies us as fun, gloriously stupid people. What cultural anthropology ignores about Vanilla Ice is that if the sound in time pleased no people, then there would be no dance or haircut to hark back to.

But is it any good? I believe this is a moral question. We currently live in the intellectual hangover after the crazy night out that was postmodernism—when everything meant nothing and something was relative to anything—so wake up to an Aristotelian idea: the more a thing’s capacity is realized, the better a thing is; therefore, the best things are those that actualize their best, most real capacities. This statement makes some logical leaps, namely that the goodness of a thing is real, that goodness is neither static nor necessarily consistent between different things, and that there is a distinction between actuality and potentiality in the goodness of a thing. For example, Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo is really good, it is better than most other Italian Baroque operas, and it achieved this status by realizing the potential of Monteverdi as a composer, Italian Baroque opera as a genre, and us as a listening and disseminating body of human beings through the last 400 years.

Music—all art, really—consists of form, content, and context. Form is the thing that most easily eludes us, but, in the aforementioned case, it is the thing that manifests itself as something we now call Italian Baroque opera and/or all of its possibilities therein. The content is the life of the piece itself, and Monteverdi, the singers and players, the producers and business people, and all of the entities responsible for the production of L’Orfeo from its conception to the present are all responsible for it—Monteverdi, mainly, but everyone else’s hand or finger or fingernail is also present. And finally, context starts with Monteverdi’s biographical data and motives for writing this opera—his style, essentially—then extends itself to the social climate of the times in which he composed the opera, and finally makes its way to every single human being who ever endorsed Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in any way.

Before you label me a Marxist, please let me illustrate. In setting out to write music, the greatest artists act as mother’s (form’s) midwife to bring forth baby (content), but whether the setting (context) that baby gets born in is a hospital, a taxicab, or early 17th century Italy, it is still part of its life’s story. It is the music-arbiter’s job to be the biographer of the content’s life and, like Plutarch, to shed light on the content’s virtues and vices. Arbiters become a part of the process of art by writing its history; therefore, music-arbiters directly influence what music will be considered good enough to influence the music of tomorrow. To criticize is to field questions of conduct, the shoulda of music making. Failed criticism is mere propaganda, the poetry of Nazis.

So Charlatans of Pop is about criticizing pop music, which is done by acting as a moral biographer of the lives of the great works. This column will include a history of critical theory, an assessment of current music criticism, a guide for how to become musically conversant, a new theory of music criticism, and finally a proposed canon of what I believe to be essential listening for the music-arbiter from Euripides’ Orestes to Outkast’s Stankonia.

We all become music-arbiters when we choose to step into the arena. The charlatans sit at a distance and commentate in sensational terms for the benefit of each other’s amusement; they mock the movements, the clothing, and the very spirit of the players, the poets and philosophers in the dirt. They mock the buffoons with insults, and they mock the champions with flattery. They mock themselves with frivolity. They gape at but won’t acknowledge that purple myth in center of the pitch—the reason we came in the first place—because it stands for everything they do not believe. That is, whether beauty is natural or artificial, rational or empirical, real or unreal… it is, and we must accommodate it. So let’s take our leave from the noisy charlatans, make our way down to the dust, pray with the fakirs and shake with the rakes, and, most of all, let’s dance to the music.

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.