Monday, May 31, 2004

Back from N.O.; historical and therefore charmingly neutralized antebellum sleaze sits cheek-by-jowl with this-very-moment risque-t-shirt-shop sleaze. This is the only place where a restaurant menu would gloss bahn mi as "Vietnamese po'boy." Bree poked around the Faulkner House, I found a James White & The Blacks button on Decatur St.

Agreeing and disagreeing with everybody; going to bite part of Sasha's credo to the effect that this is the place where one writes the things one should think better of. (I've been annoyed by my own self-editing and lack of tendentiousness lately. My idea of overcompensating for this will not be yours, perhaps.)

I'm going to point out something here, once, and hope it will be recalled on occasions when I take the following tone. What I'm into, here and elsewhere, is figuring it out, not once and for all, but provisionally and as-it-happens, and this often means retracing my steps, as a matter of intellectual integrity, not only for the sake of the game, but as a matter of ethical responsibility. I'm going for informed-as-I-can-manage, but not authoritative, if I can help it. This, I suspect, makes it damn near impossible to be as tight a stylist (this goes for the published stuff too) as many that I admire. (My worries about the self-regard and mastery often implicit in the critical-authorial voice are not unrelated to the issues below, but had better wait to become less ill-formed.) But: If at any point in the future of this blog you read something that indicates, who is this fuck to tell me to rethink anything, well many of you have done the same to and for me, to my benefit.

So: I just don't find the term 'rockist' useful. Xgau coinage, circa '70s, correct? What did he mean by it?* Not that you have to mean by it what he did, but do you? Sasha took a stab at defining it in a Slate piece, I forget how right now, but I'm not swearing there hasn't been semantic drift since. Matos has a version in the Prince books -- there it has to do with how one approaches canon formation. So if I had a different list than the one in The Book of Lists, but used it to organize my further judgments in a similar way, would that be rockist, or just list-ist?

*One thing he meant has to do with his generation of critics' attitude towards pop's past; the assumption that very little of interest, especially regarding class- and race-related stylistic hybridization, happened before Elvis. There's a good passage where he admits this in the This is Pop piece; unfortunately, I've loaned out my copy.

Does rockism happen when one thinks that the transgressive or innovative character of the work, if present, is to be valued? Or is it the aggression, even if that's a highly non-transgressive feature of a given recording's sub-genre? Was it something about the historical connection between popular music and social change at a certain time, thought rightly or wrongly to be absent now? Is it rockism if you like tracking the basics in one room, even if you're a soul or salsa band? If I insist on mastering to 1/2-inch rather than DAT, even if the release is going to be CD-only? (I want to get back to this, and say something about the Tape Op conference, another day.)

If a musician makes some music that fares well on one or another rockist scale of value, is that musician thereby a rockist? Or is rockism a function of approving of that music's way of doing things? Am I rockist if I admire a live band's tightness (or looseness)? Or only if I think that ingredient Q of some music 'demonstrates' the bankruptcy of some other approach?

(There's a dozen versions I'm sparing us all, notably, variants around who's a qualified consumer/user/arbiter of music, the valorization of obscurity/authenticity/romantic notions of authorial integrity/popularity-independent scales of value. Also, there's the whole explicit view or implicit filter question.)

Am I a rockist because I got to sit in on keyboards with Vic Chestnutt at Howlin' Wolf in N.O. on Friday, and that the set seemed pretty effective b/c Vic and John Convertino and Joey Burns and Paul Neihaus (Lambchop) were a bunch of people collectively and simultaneously working out a dynamic that served the songs but was also of some independent sonic interest, having been handed some chord charts (in the drummer's case, not even that) ten minutes before going on stage? Is it rockist that we did it that way; worse, that it worked?

Maybe we're going to be pressed to a place where we speak of 'rockisms' the way academics have come to speak of 'feminisms.' But that won't do, because 'rockism' can, as far as I can tell, only be used as a perjorative; the word's power comes from the grammatical and even orthographic similarities to 'racism', which allow users to connote other sorts of relations between the two. This is a matter of pragmatics, not semantics, the way these things are usually divided. And that's something I distrust, in this instance. Look, my friends: In a few months or years, some clever but disagreeable writer is going to label a set of notions -- some unexamined assumptions, some hardwon insights, and some misrepresentations -- 'popism.' (To be, or not, confused with 'papism.') And if that writer, if clever enough, is going to make the label stick to a variety of views in an undifferentiated manner, and you, nascent 'popist,' will be pissed, and have a good deal of difficulty being heard when you say, 'no, no, that's not what I or any of us meant.' (When e.g. Curtis White applies 'cultural studies' in an undifferentiated way, this is halfway to happening, except his rhetoric isn't very seductive, and he's too obviously mandarin for many to rally round.) Because the term will be a substitute for an argument, and many folks will be relieved to have a word available to do their thinking for them. But none of you need that kind of crutch, even as a stick with which to award Nick Hornsby, again and again, a series of richly deserved beatings. (Whose books also, thank you Jane, suck, and I'm not even so sure.)

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