Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

New York Dolls

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006

So, I listened to the new New York Dolls album, so-called: One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This. David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain are the only living members of the “original” New York Dolls, so the identification is a bit notional in any case. It might be more accurate to say that this is a New York Dolls cover band, which happens to have the original singer.

In any case, on its own terms, the album is pretty good. Albeit a bit retro, as might be expected of a revival of a band that originally played in 1973-1975. The album is skillfully played, cleanly produced, R&B-inflected hard rock, with catchy riffs (that wouldn’t be out of place in 60s pop productions) alongside churning guitars and Johansen’s mannered, ironically self-dramatizing vocals. Nice, if you like that sort of thing.

Which is just the problem. I am part of this album’s target audience. That is, I’m a “boomer” who loved the original band. (Actually, I never saw them live, or heard them when they were still playing as a band — but I became addicted shortly thereafter, in 1976-78, the early punk days, when the Dolls looked like the immediate ancestor of nearly everything exciting that was going on. I caught Johansen’s solo act several times in that period; every six months, he would further de-fang his sound and his band, making it sound less like the Dolls and more like a suburban New Jersey metal band. But I digress…).

The (original) New York Dolls were tense, intense, and sloppy. The hardcore, driving rock sound (evidently cloned off of the Rolling Stones) was both fueled and warped by the high-camp theatricality (arguably also something whose initial source was the Stones, though also post-Factory-Warhol New York). This duality was embodied by the contrast or tension between Johnny Thunders and David Johansen. Thunders clearly wanted to be Keith Richards; his devotion to pure rock ‘n’ roll was equaled or surpassed only by his love for heroin, which eventually killed him — he couldn’t sustain either Richards’ virtuosity, or his lifestyle — though arguably the former, the basicness of his guitar chops, was largely responsible for what was so great about the Dolls’ sound, a sound far more down ‘n’ dirty than the Stones ever had, with an intensity born of desperation, an energy that kept on building but never broke through into ecstasy, and was all the more impassioned for that. As for Johansen, I can’t add to what I have already written about him here. Suffice it to say that his campy excess, his over-the-top theatricality, though it channeled Jagger as much as Thunders’ performance channeled Richards, did so in an entirely different way. For (out-Jaggering Jagger’s own sense of derisive, ironic cool) it bespoke a cool irony that, while it was not above having fun, really marked the death of any sort of passionate committment. It was ultimately just a shtick — or even just a job, a way of making a living.

The synergy between Johansen and Thunders — the confluence, not of opposites, exactly, but of incompossibles, that nonetheless occupied the same stage at the same moment — is really what drove the Dolls. It’s what made them so powerful, and at the same time — how do I say this? — so devoid, even refusing, of transcendence (so unhippie-ish?); in Robert Christgau’s lovely phrase, “the Dolls’ raucous antiswing promised all the deliverance of the BMT at rush hour.” The Dolls really were (as the cliche goes) fast, cheap, and out of control. What’s more, they seemed to inhabit a place in which questions of authenticity or not, sincerity or not, committment or satire, passion or performance raucous excess or calculated effects… simply made no difference. In this respect, they were perhaps the first “postmodern” rock band. (Though far more conventional in terms of sound than the early, Warhol-associated Velvet Underground, they went places affectively and conceptually that the VU never reached). (And the impossible amalgam of Johansen and Thunders is not the complete explanation of this accomplishment, only its symbol and condensation. These two didn’t bring their already-existing differences into the band; rather, it is only retrospectively, after the band broke up, that their polarity can be said to have come into being).

Now, the initial point of this post was to say that the new, pseudo-Dolls album, for all its technical polish, and partly because of this very polish, is utterly hollow and unsatisfying compared to the “original” Dolls, as we hear them on their two albums actually recorded and released in the 1970s. The new album is an unsatisfying simulacrum. Because Thunders is dead, and instead of the tension between him and Johansen, all we have is the one-dimensionality of Johansen plus a competent backup band. Or because the attempt of someone in his fifties to recreate what he did in his twenties, in a very different world and a very different social and cultural context, is bound to come off lame. Or because, like all the other musical reunions we have witnessed lately (the Sex Pistols, the Gang of Four, etc. etc.) the new work is nothing more than a cynical attempt to cash in. And so on.

Except — and here’s where things get both difficult and interesting — that my (overly obvious) criticism of the latter-day Dolls would seem to depend precisely on the categories of originality, authenticity, etc., which I praised the original Dolls for rendering thrillingly irrelevant. (Johansen himself has made his lifelong career out of a virtuoso series of chameleonic impersonations, of which this is merely the latest). What’s more “postmodern,” after all, than cashing in on a reputation for rebellion by branding it, corporatizing it, stereotyping it, and multiplying its simulacra, in order to get money out of the pockets of 52-year-olds such as myself, who are led by this very branding to think back to when we were 22 instead of 52? I am frequently disgusted by the market-driven nostalgia our culture is filled with at the moment, most strongly of course when I find myself the very target of such nostalgia marketing. But isn’t my resistance itself a form of such nostalgia, a clinging to a mythical past in order precisely to evade the challenges of the present?

The point of this self-questioning is not to negate my initial aesthetic distinction, and to say that in fact there is no significant difference between the New York Dolls of 1974 and of 2006. I insist upon this distinction unreservedly. What’s at fault, or at least insufficient, is the way I have articulated grounds, or reasons, for making the distinction. Now, in itself, this is not surprising. Kant points out that aesthetic judgments are always singular and non-cognitive. But grounds, criteria, and arguments are always cognitive. Grounds and criteria are used (and probably need to be used) to justify aesthetic claims, but they are never the sources of such claims — they are only applied post facto — and they are never adequate to the claims in whose support they are cited. Yet we can’t avoid invoking grounds and criteria, because (as Kant also says) part of the very process of making aesthetic judgments includes wanting to share them, wanting to communicate them, wanting to convince others of them, or rather to gain the assent of others concerning them. Kant phrases it strongly: in expressing an aesthetic liking, “we require everyone to like the object,” and “we permit no one to hold a different opinion,” even though we have no cognitive or conceptual grounds for our liking. And this is why, Kant says, “one can quarrel about taste (though one cannot dispute about it).” We can’t dispute, for that would mean referring to objective grounds, which are altogether lacking here; but we can, and do, quarrel endlessly about our aesthetic likings and “preferences.”

Kantian aesthetics thus insists, on the one hand, on absolute singularity and incomparability; and on the other, on universal communicability, exchangeability, and equivalence. The paradox here is formally identical to the paradox Marx postulates as the presupposition of capitalism: singular objects must be rendered commensurable, through the equivalences established by exchange value (and hence commodity fetishism); singular acts of human effort and creativity must be rendered commensurable through the equivalences established by their translation into determinate quantities of “labor power,” which is sold and purchased as a commodity. Only under these presuppositions is capitalist exploitation possible. The pivot point, for both Kant and Marx, is the process of translation whereby things that are singular and incommensurable are nonetheless rendered universally communicable and thereby exchangeable in a common currency (whether of concepts, for Kant, or of money, for Marx). This formal identity between Kant and Marx is one of the key issues that I am trying to explore in my book in progress The Age of Aesthetics.

I seem to have drifted entirely away from The New York Dolls. The point I was trying to make was this. By any of the criteria we use to define “postmodernity” — including the rejection of myths of authenticity, the strategic recycling of already-existing cultural cliches, the cynical acknowledgement of the work’s commodified status, the placing of all emotional expression “in quotation marks,” and so on — there is no way to distinguish between the original New York Dolls and the current retread. For all these characteristics are features of both. The aesthetic difference between the 1970s Dolls and the 2006 model is non-cognitive and singular, and thus very difficult to express. Kant would have said it is a matter of genius, but this is a word that, for many reasons, some of them dubious but others of them quite good, we are reluctant to use today. If postmodernity has taught us anything, it has taught us to resist equating this sort of difference with the notions of genius, originality, authenticity, and so on. Indeed, to use these ideas or words is precisely to recuperate and efface the barely-existing, almost-nothing singularity, the nearly-inexpressible difference, that they are meant to designate. In cognitive terms, there’s nothing that differentiates the Dolls of 1973 from the Dolls of 2006; but this nothing is precisely the most important thing. It is precisely such a nothing that the early Dolls, with their rejection of transcendence and deliverance, expressed so powerfully, expressing the inexpressible, affirming the absolutely singular — and that the new album fails to express at all. It’s the very postmodern experience of non-originality and non-authenticity that the early Dolls make into a positive experience, while the new version simply takes it for granted as a negation.

I should add that it is from the point of view of this aestheticism, which is ultimately an aestheticism of nothing, that I resist and refuse the current calls, from the likes of Badiou and Zizek, for us to reject postmodern multiplicity, perspectivism, relativism, artifice, and value-negation, and instead make some sort of return to the universal. There is more than a whiff of nihilistic desperation in Badiou’s and Zizek’s universalism. Such universalism is much more Nietzsche than Hegel, with its willful invocation of the Event as the point of a life-changing affirmation. This is precisely to turn the singularity of the Event, which is aesthetic and incomparable, into an ethical imperative, thereby destroying the singularity, making it into an exchangeable standard, in the very act of supposedly affirming it. This means asserting one side of Kant’s antinomy of aesthetic judgment — the universal communicability and compulsion to extort agreement — while entirely forgetting the other side — the continuing incommensurability of the singular aesthetic experience.

More Music

Friday, December 30th, 2005

Ted’s top 10 “world music” choices reminds me that I forgot all about Mutamassik, Konono No 1, and Balkan Beat Box when I made my own Top Ten list.

Pop Conference

Monday, December 26th, 2005

The Pop Music Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle is one of the best conferences I have ever been to — I’ve gone for three of the four yearly conferences so far. It’s great because you get a whole group of people who are really passionate about talking and thinking about popular music, and because the mixture of academics and music journalists leads to talks and discussions that are far more interesting than you would get from either group alone.

The theme for next year’s conference is: “”Ain’t That a Shame”: Loving Music in the Shadow of Doubt.” (You can read the details of the Call For Papers on the site). Anyway, here’s my 250-word proposal for the conference (I don’t think I will hear whether or not I’ve been accepted until February or so):

What Will the Neighbors Say?: Girls Aloud, the Blogosphere, and Me

My most embarrassing musical enthusiasm is undoubtedly my passion for Girls Aloud. This is not just because the Girls embody “sexy” female stereotypes so tiredly stereotypical that it’s hard to imagine anyone over the age of 12 lusting after or identifying with them; nor even because the group was created on a reality TV show so crass as to make American Idol seem positively authentic in comparison. But also because Girls Aloud, although a bit hit in the UK, have not been marketed or released in the US, which means that my American fan appreciation of them is entirely mediated through the Web. I have little real sense of the cultural and media context in which Girls Aloud operate. While I think their music is great on purely pop-formalist grounds, I remain unable to place them as cultural icons. Girls Aloud are sufficiently bizarre and extreme, at least in the displaced way I apprehend them, that they seem not to take one obvious side in the old pop vs. authenticity debate, but to displace the terms of dispute altogether. I remain suspended between the various bloggers’ estimations of them I have read, ranging from Tim of The Wrong Side of Capitalism, who asserts that “Girls Aloud create a genuine crack in bourgeois ideology,” to Simon Reynolds in his blissblog, who sneers that “even their most passionate and unstintingly analytical fans cannot distinguish between the girls’ voices on record (although some seem to be able to tell them apart okay as fantasy fuckmates).” My talk is an attempt to work through these confusions.

Music Top Ten

Saturday, December 24th, 2005

So here’s my top ten albums list for 2005. Usual caveats apply (there are lots of things I haven’t heard that I well might like if I did; I can’t always remember if something came out this past year or earlier; I might well feel differently tomorrow than I do today; etc.).

  1. M.I.A., Arular. After all the controversy, still the best beats of the year.
  2. Kevin Blechdom, Eat My Heart Out, which I just wrote about yesterday.
  3. Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out. Unearthly.
  4. Missy Elliott, The Cookbook. Missy in her commercially-calculated, humdrum, unambitious middling range (as I said here) is still superior to most rappers at their best.
  5. R. Kelly, Trapped in the Closet 1-12. I know the songs weren’t released together as an album — though they were as a DVD — but this musically minimal melodrama is so ridiculously over-the-top and go-for-broke crazy, how can I not love it?
  6. Lady Sovereign, Vertically Challenged. I adore the S-O-V and her demented, tough, and smart-alecky ways. So I have to list this EP, even though the versions of the songs, in this her first American release, are inferior to the UK versions I originally downloaded as mp3s (not to mention that some of her best stuff, like “Sad-Ass Strippah,” probably the most brilliant and vicious diss ever recorded, is not included here).
  7. Fannypack, See You Next Thursday. I can’t understand why this group isn’t more popular. I find their Miami-bass-goes-Brooklyn (with a touch of ESG down from the Bronx) synthesized music, and their sassy, cartoonish, jail-bait girl vocalists, irresistible.
  8. Vex’d, Degenerate. It’s strange channeling these new London sounds — grime and dubstep, though I know there are also other names — entirely through the blogosphere, without access to the scene in any more direct way. In any case, I find these doom-laden instrumentals quite haunting. (Doom-laden isn’t quite the right word, since “doom” implies finality, but the sense that there could be an end is precisely what this dark music denies us).
  9. Four Tet, Everything Ecstatic. Quite different in feel from his previous album — this one is more propulsive, less (seemingly) “organic” — but none of the other electronic-music-without-vocals that I’ve heard this year is anywhere near as metamorphic and light- and open-sounding (not to use the obvious cue of the title and say, ecstatic).
  10. Miranda Lambert, Kerosene. I don’t listen much to country, and basically I don’t get country at all, but nonetheless I find a lot of this oddly compelling.

Eat My Heart Out

Saturday, December 24th, 2005

I’ve been listening a lot to — OK, I’ve developed a minor obsession with — Kevin Blechdom‘s album Eat My Heart Out (iTunes) (you can also buy un-DRMed mp3s of the album from Bleep).

The songs in Eat My Heart Out seem to tell the story of an unhappy love affair: they are about being in love, trying to get over a disappointed love, being dumped and not being able to stand it, hating the person you love because he dumped you, wanting revenge, pleading to be taken back, resolving to forget him and get on with your life, not being able to forget him and get on with your life, reveling in abjection, rejecting abjection and finding strength in yourself, realizing that he wasn’t worthy of you, and so on, and so on — only in no particular narrative order. There are 19 songs in 39 minutes; individual songs range in length from 0:19 to 3:19. It feels like they just come pouring out, breathlessly, one after another, in manic, hysterical confusion. Most of the songs are fast, though a few are slow; some are harshly dissonant, but most of them sound harmonically and melodically familiar, as if turns of melody everybody knows, cliches of pop music, in great variety, have come pouring out, only somewhat distorted, and also carnivalesque, as if they had been filtered through an alien consciousness that didn’t quite “get” human emotions. Or perhaps a better description would be that it’s like children’s music from Hell, pounding away on a toy piano (though I think the instrumentation is actually all or mostly electronic) — but anyway, the music is perversely upbeat and cheerful even as it is recounting nightmares, there are these simple little bouncy, dancelike refrains cycling over and over, layer over layer, except that often the music changes tack radically in mid-song. There’s also something a bit childlike, or perhaps better naive, about Kevin’s voice, I mean naive in the way she modulates from one passion to another without any sort of transition or attempt at plausibility in the shifts, sort of like she’s singing an opera (or a movie soundtrack) whose arias are all melodramatic, and out of proportion with the feelings they recount, with heartfelt choruses and everything, but not logically connected in any way. One moment she’s sounds like she’s hyperventilating, screaming/crying, “I love you from the heart, so fuck you!!”; the next she sounds like she is gleefully reciting some twisted nursery rhyme. The effect is that of something almost naked in its intensity, and yet something totally theatrical and made up, at the same time; crediting the album with either sincerity or irony — or trying to distinguish between the two — would seem to be utterly beside the point. The rush from one song, one mood, to the next, is so frantic, and so unmediated, that it is almost as if all the attitudes, all the affects, all the possibilities, all the stages of a failed relationship, somehow coexisted simultaneously. I’ve often written about how the theatricality of melodrama makes emotions seem “real” precisely because they are distanced by being placed “in quotation marks.” I don’t quite know how to formulate this, but Eat My Heart Out seems to me like the exact inverse of melodrama, as if all its emotions seem formally patterned and aesthetically distanced, a detached and cynical game of some sort, precisely because they are so raw and immediate at the same time. If that makes any sense at all? This music is doing very strange things to my head, and I can’t stop listening to it.

Mark Anthony Neal on Jay-Z

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

I am happy to announce the second DeRoy Lecture of the 2005-2006 school year. Mark Anthony Neal, professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University, and author of books on hip hop, r&b, and “black masculinity,” will be speaking about Jay-Z.

The talk is tomorrow, Thursday, October 20, at 3pm, at Wayne State University in the English Department Conference Room (suite 10302, 5057 Woodward).

The Cookbook

Wednesday, July 27th, 2005

Some scattered remarks on Missy Elliott’s latest, The Cookbook (iTunes).

  1. Missy really is the best. Hip hop is largely a boy’s/man’s game; women are usually more successful in (and more identified with) r&b. Although there were successful women hip hop artists who preceded Missy (Roxannne Shante; Queen Latifah; Salt ‘n’ Pepa; Lil’ Kim; etc.; for that matter, I still love Sha-Rock of the Funky Four Plus One) none of them have been so successful for so long as Missy has. And I’m talking power and authority and artistic success, not just sales figures. In The Cookbook, once again, Missy (seemingly effortlessly) beats the boys at their own game.
  2. Snap, crackle, and pop. Even though there are only two Timbaland tracks this time, nearly every cut in The Cookbook is bursting at the seams with rhythmic vitality. The Neptunes outdo themselves in “On and On,” with its monster bass and its dynamic burbling/gurgling. Rich Harrison surpasses anything he’s done for Amerie with “Can’t Stop.” Missy herself produces some killer tracks, especially “Lose Control” with its transversal Juan Atkins sample.
  3. Missy insists on the links between hip hop and r&b. It isn’t just a matter of putting a rapper’s guest verse inside an r&b song, or of having an r&b chorus in a rap; but of mixing and matching the genres, and of moving fluidly back and forth between them. Mixing and matching the genres also means mixing and matching the genders. Missy insists on this fluidity by the way she orchestrates the guest appearances on the album: having Ciara sing a bar a capella in the middle of “Lose Control”; having Mary G. Blige rap instead of sing; and (moving beyond r&b to dance hall and I’m not sure what) uniting Vybez Cartel and M.I.A. on the album’s final cut. The r&b slow jams in The Cookbook, by the way, are gorgeous.
  4. Missy’s own voice needs more recognition than it has hitherto received. There are endless nuances to her tone and delivery: both between songs (compare the slyly seductive boasting of “On and On” to the hard-edged aggressiveness of “Mommy,” the song in which Missy announces that “in 2005, the industry will be pussywhipped”), and from line to line within individual songs. The beauty of Missy’s inflections is even greater than the beauty of her innuendoes.
  5. For that matter, Missy’s lyrics repay attention more than you might think. On the surface, they seem straightforward and banal: either she’s boasting about how great she is, or she’s repeating the familiar r&b themes about love and sex (the latter in moods that range from tender to raunchy). But listen closer: beneath the familiar framework, these lyrics are as filled with wordplay and dense allusions and self-reflexivity as Bob Dylan’s lyrics are. No doubt many people will find this assertion outrageous; but I think that banal obviousness plays precisely the same role in Missy’s words as willful obscurantism plays in Dylan’s: in both cases the question of meaning (all-too-clear in the one case and all-too-unclear in the other) is a red herring, a sleight-of-hand to distract us from (and thereby make us all the more vulnerable to) the real life of the songs, which takes place on a level before meaning, a level of infra-meanings and emotional feints and jabs and fluctuations.
  6. Nonetheless, I simply don’t believe the love songs on this album. Missy is just too butch for me to find the oh-I’m-so-deeply-in-love sentiments in cuts like “Irresistible Delicious” and especially “My Man” to be at all credible. As for the hymn to fellatio that is “Meltdown” — “bet it tastes like candy” — let’s just say that her ode to sex toys on This Is Not A Test fit better with her persona, as do the songs here about female sexual satisfaction, about the woman being in control (like the already-mentioned “Can’t Stop” and “Mommy”.
  7. I loathed the three “skits” interspersed into the album. The opening Latina monologue is pointless at best, and I wondered about why the accent; the one with the Asian manicurist is racist and offensive; the closing phone message is just inane and stupid.
  8. If — in spite of all I’ve said so far — I have an overall objection to, or sense of disappointment with The Cookbook, it has to do with a sense that Missy is just coasting, rather than pushing boundaries or pushing herself. Of course, from a commercial point of view, that is probably the right calculation; but I can’t help wishing/hoping/thinking that Missy has a strong enough position in the industry that she could eat her cake and have it too. The first few listens, I was inclined to agree with Julianne Shepherd that somehow the album seemed less than the sum of its parts, great in theory but not transporting the listener (Julianne or me) in practice. Now that I’ve listened a number of more times, I find that even the lesser cuts on the album tend to grow on me. But I still can’t entirely shake the sense that the whole album is too calculated, too willed, too much this-is-a-commodity-and-nothing-more. (Which is not to imply romantically that there is a category of supreme music that isn’t calculated, willed, commodified-from-the-start; it’s the “and-nothing-more” part that bothers me. There’s a certain wildness, or ecstasy, that’s missing; not that I can think of anything else released in recent months that has it…)

Underground Resistance

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

Tonight at Fuse-In, the Detroit techno music festival, I saw/heard the legendary Underground Resistance (performing under the name, one of their many pseudonyms, Galaxy 2 Galaxy). It was a great hour and a half (almost) of music, cool and yet bombarding the senses, with UR’s pounding rhythms and sheets of (often melodic) sound. But the set extended beyond basic Underground Resistance, as they showcased other affiliated performers (including Los Hermanos and Red Planet), and sometimes dancers, and played in a range of styles, including nods to Motown and Carlos Santana. All in all, the set was less SF/futuristic than it was multicultural/fusion: I mean a hard-edged multicultural, not the sappy corporate/liberal kind. A projection screen behind them showed/mixed images that ranged from kung fu film shots to Native American dances to stills of such figures as Frederick Douglass, Mother Teresa, and MLK/Malcolm. The set went by in a rush. At the end, Mike Banks (I presume it was) said to the crowd, “you’ve been schooled.”

Save CBGBs!

Wednesday, May 4th, 2005

Action is needed now, to save CBGB’s, the club on the Bowery in New York City where American punk music really got its start in the late 1970s. I won’t pontificate like an old geezer on the evenings I spent there in 1977-1979. I’ll just say that CBGBs is part of musical history, and doesn’t deserve to be destroyed by the forces of gentrification. Nightspore alerted me to this, and he has more information here; the official “Save CBGBs” page is here.

On and On

Friday, April 29th, 2005

“On and On,” the new Missy Elliott song from her forthcoming album Cookbook, is really amazing: gurgling synthesizer lines over a heavy booming beat, and the art of declamation honed sharp as a razor. Wow. Produced, not by Timbaland, but by the Neptunes, and one of their best tracks ever (enough to make you forget “Milkshake”or “Drop It Like It’s Hot”).