Monday, May 17, 2004

S/FJ worries himself into a corner over Stephin Merritt -- as theorist, not practitioner -- in the process calling Mr. I-Claim-To-Loathe-Notions-Of-Originality-Then-Proceed-To-Make-Highly-Iconoclastic-Records a rockist, not to mention 'self-deprecating,' for what must be the first time ever. I'd point out that SM generalizes yet more daftly about hip-hop in a recent Salon interview [the author of which is in every way the sort of strawman SM lives to epater], but I worry that Sasha might take up arms.

I empathize. Anything I say about SM is vitiated by the fact that I've been arguing with him in my head (respectfully, which may just be my curse) for about 10 years, since an infamous-to-a-few CMJ songwriter's panel on which I committed the cardinal sin of claiming to attempt to 'avoid cliche' in my own lyrics. He also corrected Barbara Manning's grammar. My spirit has been to some degree broken ever since; I can't speak for Barbara's. Also, no one asks me to name Pantone colors.

All that as aside as I can manage: He's pretty clearly not a racist, and has actually thought hard about some of this, as demo'd by Douglas' interview excerpt. (In the dreaded 10th anniversary issue of Magnet, an amazing document of know-nothing anti-representation, he repeats the gist of the quoted point as "the smartest thing you've said in the last 10 years," and it's about the only thing in the mag that kept me from taking up arms.) Even here, though, you can read "very recent traditions of black radio" as a mild-sounding way of dissing hip-hop; if you think that dismissal of the form is by def. racist, well.... As for rockism, well, he's well-documented as giving the gasface to 'false realist' production, doesn't appear to valorize the capacity to reproduce what one records live, and I believe scandalized some other panel with his excitement about Ricky Martin's records, mostly b/c they supplied proof that hugely successful recordings could now be made with no studio costs of the traditional sort.

But the "Playlist" piece, and certain features of the new album, have me scratching my head. First off, either Stephin has not been oiling his critic's pen lately, or was rushed, or the prose was edited with a heavy hand. "Best lyricist in rock" doesn't sound like him, to say nothing of other bits of boilerplate: "Americana-rock purveyors," "gorgeously ragged voice." He was better in O'Hara-era Tony, right? I also have my doubts that Gomez and Steve Forbert are really his call, though anything is possible. (That Delays album does have its charms, btw, I would have said a male-fronted Sundays.)

I don't go about attributing cynicism to others, but I think some of these moves can be interpreted strategically. The pro-pop stance he took when he was trying mightily to escape the smothering proprietariness of indie-rockers served very well to make said community cluck nervously and view him as all the more sui generis, but it may not come off as interestingly contrarian when one has changed publicists from the indie-rooted Girlie Action to the high-class Sacks & Co., shill for many a 'career artist,' and thus has a shot at space in the dailies. (To say nothing of Harriet-to-Merge-to-Nonesuch.) At times, I think there's not a 'view' on offer, of the sort that can be assessed by the theoretically-minded, but shadowboxing and an overarching desire to give good quote. Which is fine, unless you're a plodder like me, easily tricked into believing that I really ought to work out my 'position' vis-a-vis the Great Brain's, only to find that the latter has shifted.

Then you have i, with its "no synths" policy (the trick being that "I Thought I Was Your Boyfriend" sounds like Erasure anyway, though the hook is by way of Tears For Fears' "Mad World") and first-personal emphasis. Yes, these are just new 'constraints,' in the Oulipean sense whose relation to song-form is probably the feature that makes me feel the Fields at all; but at times, I think, if it walks like a singer-songwriter and talks like a singer-songwriter.... For the record, I'm w/ everyone else on "It's Only Time," and like a lot of the back half of the album, which seems to be intentionally more harmonically sophisticated, though since the titles are alphabetical, this could just be an accident. I wish he hadn't used the bridge of the otherwise perfectly-wrought "Is This What They Used To Call Love" for a joke.

I also wonder if he hasn't given up on what I thought 69 Love Songs was partly designed to do; place him in a position, hype-capital-wise, to actually be Irving Berlin and write massive hits, or at least common-currency popular songs that might well be sung by other artists. Those on i certainly aren't like that; too many tricks, too much perversity, too much baring of the formal device -- nice for me and the Fresh Air audience, but patently doomed as chart fodder. (And musical theater, his other outlet, is a pretty rarified endeavor itself, nowadays.) Despite his protests, the 'personal' is in there, not as 'autobiography,' but as 'integrity' -- that the work satisfy, and even show off, his notions of craft is ultimately more important than their effectiveness for those who don't give a fig about the acrobatic succession of bridges in the ironically hyperarticulate "I'm Tongue-Tied," much less its ironic hyperarticulateness. Again, this is not something I have a problem with -- I'd be more than pleased to have written most of the songs on the new album to no acclaim whatever -- but I thought he was looking to be 'in the show.' Is there a bit of sour grapes in his apparent disinterest in Justin, Britney, OutKast, along with a recognition that he either can't or won't write that sort of material? When's Douglas' Nation piece coming out? Why was I up at 3:30 a.m. reading Dorothy Parker's book reviews?

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