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Hornby on pop music
May 26, 2004 10:11 AM   Subscribe

Nick Hornby discusses pop music in this NY Times essay: "Maybe this split is inevitable in any medium where there is real money to be made: it has certainly happened in film, for example, and even literature was a form of pop culture, once upon a time. It takes big business a couple of decades to work out how best to exploit a cultural form; once that has happened, 'that high-low fork in the road' is unavoidable, and the middle way begins to look impossibly daunting. It now requires more bravery than one would ever have thought necessary to try and march straight on, to choose neither the high road nor the low. Who has the nerve to pick up where Dickens or John Ford left off? In other words, who wants to make art that is committed and authentic and intelligent, but that sets out to include, rather than exclude? To do so would run the risk of seeming not only sincere and uncool - a stranger to all notions of postmodernism - but arrogant and vaultingly ambitious as well."
posted by grumblebee (28 comments total)

 
I'm not a fan of pop music, but I'm used to this issue from other art-forms.

I've always disliked looking at stories (narrative fiction, drama, ballads, etc.) as excuses to impart thematic information.

In college, when I was in lit classes, I was always trying to talk about plot and character (what happens and who it happens to). To me, this is what fiction does best. Sure, fiction CAN convey an idea, and there's nothing wrong with that. Sure, fiction can lead you down a self-referential post-modern road. But it can't do either of these things as powerfully as it can make you wonder what is going to happen next and who it's going to happen to.

But whenever I tried to steer discussion this way, I met with either stoney silence or mockery.

One professor suggested that if I was interested in reading THAT way, I should just read Harlequin Romances.

Which is, to me, the crux of the confusion. It's as if people think there are only two types of stories: difficult, intellectual works and crappy populist works. Why do so many people think this way?

Hornby has also been trashed for his opinion. You can read responses in this slate article, where Critic Keith Harris says, "I felt more pity for this sad old man than disgust."

If we look at TV, it would be stupid to divide all programming into either Bergman movies or Gilligan's Island. What about "The Sopranos" or "Deadwood"?
posted by grumblebee at 10:14 AM on May 26, 2004


Which is, to me, the crux of the confusion. It's as if people think there are only two types of stories: difficult, intellectual works and crappy populist works. Why do so many people think this way?

Three words: contempt for the masses.

Popular music, is by it's very nature populist. Many giants of the form (The Beatles, The Who, Springsteen, Hendrix, Sly & The Family Stone[exhibit A: "Everyday People"]) were informed at least somewhat by the tension between their desires to maintain personal and artistic integrity and to speak to as many people as possibly in everyday terms.

In other words, who wants to make art that is committed and authentic and intelligent, but that sets out to include, rather than exclude?

I do. Irony, self-referentialism, and all that have their place but taken in the mega-doses that we've been recieving lately, they're toxic. Gimme sincerity any day of the week. I rather be a sap or a rube than an bag of archness.
posted by jonmc at 10:24 AM on May 26, 2004


Interesting read -- thanks for the link! Personally, I think Hornby's own works disprove the binary proposition he presents. Better than your standard page-turning beach novel, but not exactly Pynchon.
posted by herc at 10:30 AM on May 26, 2004


Great link! I read Songbook earlier this year and I reccomend it to anyone who thought the article was worth reading.
posted by Jugwine at 10:34 AM on May 26, 2004


Hornby's successor as New Yorker pop critic responds

Music editor of the Seattle Weekly responds (scroll down to May 22)
posted by mookieproof at 10:39 AM on May 26, 2004


Man, there is so much great rock out there for someone with Hornby's tastes, it's a shame that he's just thinking in terms of mainstream hits. There is a whole movement underway of music that is informed by the very influences that Hornby cites, music that is played by young people, new original songs, etc. Go to Not Lame, Fufkin,, to read more about it and buy the CDs. Has he ever heard of Ron Sexsmith? The Spongetones? Bill Lloyd? The Lolas? The Soul Engines? (just to name a few) These are not mouldy fig, or 60s camp groups, but real, vital music makers. There are artists to be found on Not Lame whose influences represent every taste from the classic age. This is really a great age of pop -- you just gotta look for it.
posted by Faze at 10:48 AM on May 26, 2004


I rather agreed with what Luc Sante had to say about Mr. Hornby in his recent New York Review of Books article.
posted by dfowler at 11:09 AM on May 26, 2004


jonmc: please tell me you're a Jonathan Richman/Modern Lovers fan. Please.
posted by Ptrin at 11:19 AM on May 26, 2004


It's always been a great age for pop, if you're willing to look. Because there will always be someone with the guts to get in front of audience (regardless of numbers) and lay it down.
posted by tommasz at 11:21 AM on May 26, 2004


It's a bit sad that Hornby goes to see a vital new band in a pub and sits down to watch. Not exactly rock and roll is it.
Hornbys problem is that he wants every band to be Bruce Springsteen, circa 1975, he wants every new song he hears to be Thunder Road.

He says: I just turned 47, and with each passing year it becomes harder not to wonder whether I should be listening to something that is still thought of as more age appropriate — jazz, folk, classical, opera, funeral marches, the usual suspects. You've heard the arguments a million times: most rock music is made by the young, for the young, about being young, and if you're not young and you still listen to it, then you should be ashamed of yourself. And finally I've worked out my response to all that: I mostly agree with the description, even though it's crude, and makes no effort to address the recent, mainly excellent work of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Mr. Springsteen et al.
This is nonsense. Why shouldn't he be listening to a variety of musical formats, depending on his mood, if he denies himself jazz and folk he is denying himself some of the best, most innovative and exciting music around. Moreover, the recent "excellent" works of Dylan et al are no such thing, not that old gits can't continue to produce interesting if not excellent music, I am thinking, off the top of my head, of people like Richard Thompson, Lou Reed, Eno, John Martyn, all of whom have continued to make music over the years because they have to, rather than because they have a tax bill to pay.
Old Nick should try listening to the likes of Richmond Fontaine; My Morning Jacket; Drive By Truckers; Franz Ferdinand; The Shins; Amp Fiddler or countless others if he wants to hear young(er) musicians give us stuff that is chock full of: ....ambition and exuberance, a lack of self-consciousness, a recognition of the redemptive power of noise, an acknowledgment that emotional intelligence is sometimes best articulated through a great chord change, rather than a furrowed brow
posted by Fat Buddha at 11:22 AM on May 26, 2004


who wants to make art that is committed and authentic and intelligent, but that sets out to include, rather than exclude?

An awful lot of hip-hop artists I listen to, that's who.
posted by rocketman at 11:36 AM on May 26, 2004


plot and character (what happens and who it happens to)
that you felt it was necessary to explain that is hilarious.
posted by quonsar at 11:38 AM on May 26, 2004


I just turned 47, and with each passing year it becomes harder not to wonder whether I should be listening to something that is still thought of as more age appropriate — jazz, folk, classical, opera, funeral marches, the usual suspects. You've heard the arguments a million times: most rock music is made by the young, for the young, about being young, and if you're not young and you still listen to it, then you should be ashamed of yourself. And finally I've worked out my response to all that: I mostly agree with the description...

there was a scene in breakfast club, where carl the custodian tells dick the authoritarian the whole truth about these sorts of discussions. the kids, they have not turned on you. you've simply become a fossil. embrace it, dude.
posted by quonsar at 11:47 AM on May 26, 2004


jonmc: please tell me you're a Jonathan Richman/Modern Lovers fan. Please.

Readin' Metafilter with the RADIO ON!!!, Ptrin. :)
posted by jonmc at 11:55 AM on May 26, 2004


If he was a pop music critic for the New Yorker, he'd no doubt have been exposed to many, many bands, including those suggested above. It sounds like he's ignoring a whole lot of music that makes his crotchety old thesis out to be the lie that it is. I'd say that more than ever the indie scene is about embracing rather than rejecting the history of rock and pop sounds.

The line between the high and the low is so blurred now, and it's largely constructed by the record companies rather than the artists. I don't think taking record deals is spat on like it was, say, in the 90s. It's just a matter of who they think is worthy to take on, however the hell that's determined.

Almost anything that can be labelled as rock or pop is pretty much automatically in the middle road, in terms of accessibility. Opera, experimental stuff, classical, and even jazz, that's where things get harder to appreciate and venture into the so-called 'high' areas.
posted by picea at 11:59 AM on May 26, 2004


Waitaminnit. I think the artists (or at least the media companies) have to take some of the blame. In 10 or 15 years when 8Jr. comes running in to tell me about the latest "nu" electroclash band, don't I have the right not get excited?
The battle for me is trying to keep an open mind when there's revival after revival going on. Example? Take garage rock...I'll listen to The Sonics, The Mono Men and Thee Headcotes, but by the time The Von Bondies arrived, I kinda had it? Does that make me a fossil?
posted by black8 at 12:02 PM on May 26, 2004


who wants to make art that is committed and authentic and intelligent, but that sets out to include, rather than exclude? To do so would run the risk of seeming not only sincere and uncool - a stranger to all notions of postmodernism - but arrogant and vaultingly ambitious as well.

This is why Pitchfork Media tears guys like John Mayer and Toad the Wet Sprocket to shreds. I have as much respect for originality and innovation as the next guy -- probably more, as a I spent a year studying (and creating) 20th century art music in college. And I like some of it. But it requires a certain kind of brilliance to write stuff that has both mass appeal and musical merit, and so I have not only respect but sometimes slack-jawed admiration for Mayer, Glen Phillips, and others. And very little respect for critics who can't seem to see that.

That said, there's nothing wrong with writing to (or listening according to) your own set of aesthetics, whether it satisfies you, or finds a small audience, or ends up having mass appeal. The problem comes when you start whining about what audiences seem to like. A temptation I succumb to sometimes. :)
posted by weston at 12:35 PM on May 26, 2004


To do so would run the risk of seeming not only sincere and uncool - a stranger to all notions of postmodernism

I have no idea what this means, unless Hornby thinks that "postmodernism" is a merely a synonym for "insincerity." Newsflash Nick--it isn't. And your indie-kid insistence on "sincerity" bugs me, too. Performative arts by their nature aren't "sincere" or "insincere," they're performances. Of the many ways to judge the aesthetic value of a musical performance, looking for "sincerity" seems the least useful, to me. Thank God The New Yorker hired SFJ.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:24 PM on May 26, 2004


by "your," I'm addressing Hornby, not Weston.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:35 PM on May 26, 2004


Always good to clarify pronouns. :)
posted by weston at 2:06 PM on May 26, 2004


There's no accounting for musical taste, but reading the two Hornby critics linked above (the New Yorker and Seattle Weekly ones) makes me recoil from them. So much animosity over such a tempest in a teacup can't be healthy for the writer--or the reader.

Way too much "cooler than thou," and they try so hard at it that their strain is rather distracting.
posted by DaShiv at 2:16 PM on May 26, 2004


"Readin' Metafilter with the RADIO ON!!!, Ptrin. :)"

Thank God. I've wanted to ask you that for ages, but I wasn't sure I could go on if you said no ;)

As for Hornby, I don't understand what he wants. More cross pollination? Hell, we've got enough of that -- we're dangerously close to entering the realm of postmodern architecture with the postcontextual* recombining that is rampant in music these days.


* - Yeah, I made that up
posted by Ptrin at 2:36 PM on May 26, 2004


Octobersurprise, sincerity is perhaps the most important aspect of art to me. I will admit it's a bit of a fuzzy term, but I would place it in the following orbit:

If I see an actor playing George Washington, I want to really believe he IS George Washington -- I don't want to be reminded that he's an actor playing a part. (Those two options go hand-in-hand with two distinct styles which we might call immersive and alienating. For years, there have been debates about which is best. I've never liked the alienating or breaking-the-fourth-wall kind. And it seems to me that much post-modern stuff involves this, which is perhaps what Hornby is talking about.)

If someone is in love, I much prefer them to say, "I love you," than, "yeah, I'm kinda into you." I prefer direct, naive sincerity to coolness. I HATE coolness. Much po-mo is cool.

I would agree that po-mo isn't a synonym for insincerity, but I do think it often involves indirect, ironic, or impenetrable forms of communication. I prefer very direct communication.

If you think of art as an intellectual puzzle, you may be more interested in the po-mo stuff. If you're looking for art to move you emotionally, you'll probably prefer sincerity and directness.

I'm painting a binary either/or picture here to make a point. Obviously, there's a lot of art that falls into a gray area between the two extremes.
posted by grumblebee at 2:38 PM on May 26, 2004


All of this reminds of and interview I with composer Philip Glass that I once saw. He was talking about why he much prefers "Brechtian," alientating (breaking-the-fourth-wall) theatre to traditional storytelling.

He brought up the example of "Hamlet," saying that in order to enjoy the play, you had to identify with Hamlet, which means that you somehow feel -- while you are watching the play -- that you ARE Hamlet. But that's a confusion, because you're not. The whole play is based around a kind of emotional trickery.

Whereas with an alienating performace, you're always aware that it's a play, which gives you some distance. Which keeps your head clearer so that you can think about the issues raised in the play.

The key here is "so you can think about the issues." If that's what you want to do, fine. But I'd rather not "think about issues." I want to be confused into thinking I'm Hamlet.
posted by grumblebee at 2:44 PM on May 26, 2004


There is more. "I've never been fond of Modest Mouse," Bartlett writes, "and I can't really explain why, except to say that Isaac Brock's voice doesn't appeal to me." Guess what? You are, nominally, a writer--specifically, a music critic. That means your job is to explain why you do or don't like something. If you can't really do this, perhaps you should learn to do your fucking job. And failing that, perhaps you should find another line of work.

Hornby pisses me off, too, but at least he doesn't sound like Comic Book Guy.
posted by Tlogmer at 4:56 PM on May 26, 2004


Actually, I retract that criticism just because he also wrote this:
More questions, more answers:

Julianne Shepherd:

I can't think of a single instance I've liked an envelope filter, or a flange, in music recently (at least when they were employed obviously enough for me to identify). Can you give some examples of envelopes/flangers you like, and what you like about them?


Kylie Minogue’s “Love at First Sight,” which the filter makes. It’s right on the intro, on the bassline, and then applied sparingly to the lead guitar line, which is basically nicked from Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better with You”; it gives the whole thing a starry, floating feel--it’s there to tell us we’re in fantasyland now. Then the second verse is filtered to fuck, dublike (it all submerges into the middle), and when Kylie reappears over it, the contrast between her clear-as-day vocal and the kindly-black-hole whoosh going on behind it is fucking delicious. Armand Van Helden’s “Flowerz,” maybe my favorite house record ever; the climax occurs over a filtered-and-flanged version of the track, when Roland Clark starts doing the spoken-word bit and the background flattens out only to spring back louder than ever (I’m convinced AVH boosted the EQ a dB or two to achieve the effect) after an a cappella pause. Go Home Productions, “Rock with Addiction (Awww)”: mash-up producers use filters all the time to effect transitions or cover up bad cuts, and when he swamps the backing track (by Jane’s Addiction) under the second verse and Ashanti just shouts over it (slightly echoed), it’s testifyin’.

When I read this question to Rod Smith over the phone just now, by the way, he coined the term “filter fairy.” He’s one, too.
m-matos.blogspot enters my bookmarks.
posted by Tlogmer at 5:01 PM on May 26, 2004


Triple post. Sorry. But I actually have something intelligent to say now: The critics bashing Hornby are funny, but they come across as needlessly assholish -- it's not because they're assholes, but because they think Hornby's column is going to change minds and feel they have to fight its insidious influence. Music columns don't change minds, which everyone but music critics knows.
posted by Tlogmer at 6:32 PM on May 26, 2004


If you think of art as an intellectual puzzle, you may be more interested in the po-mo stuff. If you're looking for art to move you emotionally, you'll probably prefer sincerity and directness.

I like both. My point is that considered as a performance, there's very little difference between the two. Sincerity is a quality of truthful representation. Performance is play-acting. If I say to you "I love you" and I do, I'm being sincere. If I sing "Baby, baby, I love you" while performing your favorite song, I'm not, regardless of whether I pick it on a hand-made mandolin, play it on a Fender Strat, or speak it through a vocoder, in your living room or in a studio, I'm performing. Which isn't to say that performances can't be "true," they can be, but only in a metaphorical way.

When it comes to music, pop music particularly, my gripe with "sincerity"--besides the fact that I'm not sure if "sincere performance" is even a meaningful phrase--is that it's usually just a way to avoid engaging with the performance. It's usually anti-pop. It usually embodies a whole lot of myths about performative honesty and intimacy and populism that either aren't or can't be true and it usually excuses way too much dull music just for playing at earnestness.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:37 PM on May 26, 2004


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