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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Down with Poptimism!!

(in which I lapse into grandiosity)

For those of you lucky enough to receive the Somerville Community Access TV newsletter, you read a blurb for my program (not written by me) which I think made it out to be more exclusive and snobby than I intend it to be. (and this is mostly my fault since I've been terrible at describing the show, I'm not mad at anyone over it) To be clear, I'm not aiming for the select few, but I (and I'm sure everyone on Boston Free Radio) am trying to bring forward an alternative to pop radio hegemony. I certainly don't want to be one of those dj's who are too cool to even like the music they play.

Which brings me to
a link I followed from Do the Math, the blog by Ethan Iverson (of the Bad Plus), to this New York Times Magazine article  by Saul Austerlitz on the previously unquantified (at least to me) idea of "poptimism", a celebration of the mundane ubiquitousness of today's top of the pop chart stars, over the infinite variety of unheard music which has traditionally been the music critic's realm. While I can nitpick a bit (I, for one, will take the deliriously artificial over the artificially genuine any day), Mr. Austerlitz is spot on for most of the article. For example,

Prefer Queens of the Stone Age to Rihanna? Perhaps you are a “rockist,” still salivating over your old Led Zeppelin records and insisting that no musical performer not equipped with a serious case of self-seriousness and, probably, a guitar, bass and drums is worthy of consideration. Find Lady Gaga’s bargain basement David Bowie routine a snooze? You, my friend, are fatally out of touch with the mainstream, with the pop idols of the present. You are, in short, an old person. Contemporary music criticism is a minefield rife with nasty, ad hominem attacks, and the most popular target, in recent years, has been those professing inadequate fealty to pop.
In the guise of open-mindedness and inclusivity, poptimism gives critics — and by extension, fans — carte blanche to be less adventurous. If we are all talking about Miley Cyrus, then we do not need to wrestle with knottier music that might require some effort to appreciate. And so jazz and world music and regional American genres are shunted off to specialized reviewers, or entirely ignored. If this sounds like a fundamental challenge of the contemporary world — preserving complexity and nuance in a world devoted to bite-size nuggets of easy-to-swallow, predigested information — it should.

So yeah, not everyone likes  Julius Hemphill, Witold Lutosławski, John Cage or (let alone and) Harry Nilsson as much as I, but I don't see why anyone couldn't be. Austerlitz quotes music historian Ted Gioia as saying “music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting” and I think there's a lot of music out there that is more of a "lifestyle experience" than music (or at least just music), which is nothing new (my teenage years were in the MTV heyday of the '80s after all).

Which brings me to an article in the May 2014 Harper's called Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives: A poet's guide to metal, by the poet Michael Robbins, in which bands like Immortal, Poison Idea and Repulsion are discussed in relation to poets John Milton, Arthur Rimbaud and John Ashbery and musicians Steely Dan, Weather Report and Pauline Oliveros (and that's just on the first page).* Robbins quotes a line by Ashbery (to whom I once sold a CD of the music from the '30s King Kong): "the songs decorate our notion of the world / And mark it's limits". This very much says what I'm getting at with this show - a broad notion of music can lead to a broad notion of the world, with farther flung limits; a broad curiosity about the variety of notions which the world contains, can lead to a better understanding of the people who hold those notions, and yourself.

Oh God, here I am trying to save the world. No really, I'm just trying to do a little radio show and introduce a few people to some new tunes.

*If, like me, you're not at all familiar with these bands, Never Stop the Madness and She Likes It Heavy on might be of service.

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