Charlatans of Pop

When We Could Be Diving for Pearls

A Twitter spat between country music artist John Rich and Nashville music writer/Rolling Stone contributor Adam Gold broke out recently regarding that publication’s cover choice of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev back in July. Rich took offense to what seemed to be the glamorization of a terrorist, while Gold defended what seemed to be honest journalism. Reading between the lines: Rich wants so very badly to get that cover for himself and is livid over the fact that he never will, and Gold knows this about Rich and enjoyed the opportunity to fart on his head in the name of defending his magazine behind a wall of laughing friends who tend to tweet without misspellings or grammatical errors. As with most pissing contests between blue and red—America’s favorite pastime—both sides failed to truly engage with the other’s point of view, which is regrettable considering the merit of both men, one a terrific songwriter and the other a terrific music writer. Their non-discussion shows how political ideology can distract from critical thinking, and I believe that distraction often extends to how folks define and project their taste in music.

The problem of political ideology is the tendency to sketch out a vague utopian vision, and then to bend and flex each issue into that contrived framework; the scaffolding determines the mural, which is something critical thinking should seek to transcend. But this “utopian” tendency runs rampant on how we perceive what is or is not beautiful, and it blinds us from truly engaging with art. If one listens only for the spiritual ecstasy of A Love Supreme, one is bound to miss the ecstatic spirit of The Love Below; in other words, the idealization of the perfect orange can be very distracting at an apple tasting. To overcome this shortsightedness is to achieve a kind of hyper-understanding at once of all possible points of view on hearing new music.

So, where does the ear get hung up? Consider two dichotomies: 1) tolerance vs. intolerance, and 2) acceptance vs. rejection. Set them up perpendicularly to draft a spectrum:

Rejection       Tolerance

    /

/

/

/    

Intolerance     Acceptance

Say you’re not familiar with much post-bop jazz, and then you find yourself confronted with Coltrane’s “Mars” from Interstellar Space. Wherever you drop a pin to map your response to the new sounds would provide some insight about your ideological inclinations toward music. If you are repulsed by the music, then you’ve taken a stance of rejection (a “rejective” stance). If you like it, a stance of acceptance (an “acceptive” stance). To reject outright the musical validity of “Mars” would be an intolerant stance, and a dispassionate acknowledgement of the piece’s musicality would be a tolerant one.

But this is just a map of how people get things wrong, or at least the limited extent to how people think about music. The problem is built right into the spectrum: each corner of these axial dichotomies lies in a trough, and the more an individual tends toward one corner, the deeper that individual sinks into that trough. This means that whichever corner you prefer pits you directly against the opposite quadrant and blinds you to the inverse dichotomy. For example, I grew up a naturally tolerant music listener. By the time I was fifteen years old, I only listened to the most confrontational avant garde music around, and I was entirely deaf to popular music, whether it be the rejective mainstream stuff or the acceptive indie stuff, both equally safe and uninteresting with regards to innovation (the acceptive folks never seem to understand this last point). The only other point of view I even considered was the “intolerant,” with me taking offense to even the slightest denial of an artist’s musical rights. You see, the truly “tolerant” listener loves to defend The Shaggs and Jandek as much as she loves to defend Boredoms and Diamanda Galas. Talent or no, tolerant ears crave novelty. Interestingly, a blindly tolerant listener engages in as much intolerance as the “intolerant” listener. When anything goes, a “tolerator” won’t tolerate critical dissent of any kind. On the other hand, the “intolerant” listener tends to tolerate as art anything that resembles music in convention alone: some talentless teenager’s piano recital, elevator music, Phil Collins, etc. These trenches are comfortable places to hang out, because they require no critical thinking. All judgments are preordained when the ideological ground rules are set. Ask the tolerant listener: is this music? Of course it is, and I particularly liked the part where he played the cabbage with his feet. Ask the intolerant listener. No way, there weren’t any drums!

Far more music listeners, however, slide into the reaches of the acceptive/rejective dichotomy. Rejective listeners seek music that preserves tradition by rejecting sounds more novel. Fans of Taylor Swift, for example, may reject the music of Animal Collective because it sounds too weird. These listeners may also fall into the trap of blindly accepting anything that resembles something consistent with their traditional aesthetic view. How do you send a lousy song up the charts? Get a star to sing it who has already recorded a lot of better ones. I’m still reeling from the fact that Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U” went top five in the US.

And what of the acceptive listeners, those probably most likely to resemble the Trop readership? As young teenagers we began to recognize how so many pop songs seemed to be cynically constructed in order to win our cold hard dollars. This insult to our intelligence reached the heights of absurdity with the SPICE Girls (whom I love to defend), so we found solace in the more serious, less conventional buzzes and swirls of Radiohead’s OK Computer, which sent us down the electronic rabbit hole until the jangly Strokes dangled the rock’n’roll carrot once more. While we found some great records to celebrate, we didn’t make these moves with critical ears so much as we did to carve out a new status quo for our counter collective. My point is that acceptive listening seeks a new sense of belonging in the name of a departure from the ingratiatingly popular. If it sells millions of units, then it is immediately suspect to being aesthetically compromised. Ke$ha can’t make a great record, because, me and my, we don’t do Ke$ha. The acceptive ideology is every bit as shallow as the rejective because it has nothing to do with music. Even if the preferences of the former prove more artistically substantive at face value, someone who admires Liars on grounds other than the actual music of Liars lays no claim to good taste more than someone who admires Miley Cyrus. That’s the main problem with all this ideology: it evaluates the listener as opposed to what the listener is listening to. Do you really like Liars, or do you just like to dress like an asshole and hang around Pete’s Candy Store? Do you really like country music, or are you just grasping at meaningless cultural tokens in order to project your identity?

When our ideas of what good music sounds like are fixed and rigid, then it is impossible to recognize beauty in anything other than the weaker facsimiles of our ideal records, much less the beauty in something truly innovative. The only thing Adam Gold or John Rich accomplished in their little spat was to collectivize and dig deeper into the trench of their respective quadrants of the spectrum (its political analog, that is), and this is precisely what happens between music fans and the music they attempt to engage.

Ideologies are neither right nor wrong; they simply inform right or wrong, rather better or worse, choices. Show me a utopian vision of what good music should be, and I’ll show you ten examples of classic works that are diametrically opposed and with a logically sound defense for their own idealization. A fan of music needs to fully understand and even be able to adopt and defend every possible ideology at the drop of a beat, and this is just the beginning of engaging an alleged work of art. This is also the kind of courageous thinking that can get you ostracized from your group of friends, but that’s why we have headphones.

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.