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Monday, August 23, 2004

A couple last-for-now notes on the multi-blog lyric dogpile, all meant as thinking aloud, not polemic:

A reasonable reaction to a lot of this could be that there's nothing at all, ever, useful to say about words abstracted from music. That strikes me as extreme, but I have a lot of sympathy with the notion, at least as a caution. It's even implicit in the use of the term "lyrics" -- not just words, but sung/rapped/not merely said or read ones. But I don't think that's really been at issue in the present discussion: The original claim about suckitude seemed to presuppose that something, if even only a little, could be said, so I reproduced that presupposition in my response. Who, anyway, would disagree that pitch and rhythm of delivery, not to mention tone and timbre, not to mention accompaniment, are transformative? Christopher Ricks, maybe, but even there, probably ultimately as a methodological principle to constrain an already-large project. To which I don't object, because, guess what, there get to be other books too.

Side question, asked out of interest and honest ignorance: Are there rappers about whom the conventional wisdom is that their delivery, even if not actively bad, is much lamer than the content of their rhymes -- and maybe, even, their potential in other mouths? You know, the way many people feel about Randy Newman. Or does that possibility just not make sense in hip-hop?

~~~

I don't know that I completely agree with the following, from Stanley Cavell's The World Viewed, but it's worth considering:

"...in the case of films, it is generally true that you do not really like the highest instances unless you also like typical ones. You don't even know what the highest are instances of unless you know the typical as well." (6)

and, a bit later:

"The requirement for a certain indiscriminateness in the accepting of movies (I don't say you have to appreciate Singing Cowboy or Comedy Horror movies) has its analogues in the past of the established arts; anyone who is too selective about the classical composers whose music he likes doesn't really like music; whereas a distaste for certain movements or figures in literature may be productive." (13)

First thing to be said is obviously: Well, why not Singing Cowboys? But let it pass. I'm wondering if there's something like this to be said about popular music, and of particular genres (though maybe not tiny sub-genres) within it. For myself: Though in some moods I'm picky (or worse, after listening to big pile of promos), I don't claim that every piece of rock and/or indie-rock I enjoy shoots the curve. And I might submit that something similar is going to be true of someone who lives and breathes hip-hop -- or, not to put too fine a point on it, dancehall, or drum-and-bass. (Or, to name something else I know fairly well, show tunes: Do I think every OCR that I own and have derived some pleasure from stands up to Gypsy? No.) This is not to say that "it all sounds the same," which is just what it never does, to someone concerned with making a variety of discriminating judgments within a field, not all of which are most interesting for being judgments of quality. [Maybe this even speaks a bit to Steve Evans' notion of "the banalization of the poetic good" in his "Field Notes" in The Poker 4. What would we make, right now, of a critic who said, "Oh, all contemporary American poetry is godawful -- except for X."?]

Again, I'm not certain I subscribe to what I just said: I'm tossing it out there because I think the passage and the thought behind it is interesting. (Please take it as read that I'm not dealing with a lot of the specifics of why Cavell says this about, especially, classical Hollywood; I can't condense the argument of the first few sections of the book at this speed.)

~~~

I do want to say a little more re 'lit-rock,' partly in re Jordan's recent posts, one of which appeared while I was writing the above, but this is long already. For now, re Sasha's latest olive branch (or maybe just detaching-of-the-red-wire-from-the-blue-wire-for-the-moment): I ought to say I'd have been unlikely to jump on the grenade in the first place if the claim had just been "rock has sucked for the past 15 years." Though I can't wholly agree, I respect the standpoint from which it would seem to be the case, and understand why one would want to say so. The narrower or at least distinct claim about lyrics seemed, somehow, more ill-considered. One thing has to be said about hip-hop, though: Unlike, probably, even the best of recent rock, it's practitioners have succeeded in "changing the language" while somehow also managing to "get famous," contra Bernadette Mayer's suggestion to poets. But, as signal an achievement as that is, you would probably have to drug me and move my facial muscles around with your hands to get me to say "Z would be better if it were better-known," [loose translation: "feh"] this fact can't be the only finally relevant one for me.

"Jocks v. geeks? Never that." Word.

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