Archive for November, 2007

For lack of anything new to read before bed, I’ve been reading random snippets from Fonarow’s Empire of Dirt. At the beginning of Chapter 5, Performance, Authenticity, and Emotion, Fonarow includes a Harry Weinstein quote from the Los Angeles Times in 1997. In this short anecdote, Weinstein admits to having snuck in his theater after hours to learn all of the tricks that a magician he booked had performed earlier that evening. “I ruined it for myself. So all that proliferation of behind-the-scenes stories… to me it spoils the wonderful illusion of walking into a dark room and waiting for the magic to begin” (Fonarow 187). Fonarow uses this excerpt to help us understand the nature of musical performance and how a behind-the-scenes look can change one’s perception of the event. “When a fan or audience member sees a performer as himself or herself rather than as the character he or she envisioned, it is difficult to go back to believing in the character. When you see how the trick is performed, you can’t believe in the trick anymore” (Fonarow 188). After reading this small section, I started thinking back to the Ryan Adams concert I saw a while back at UI and started wondering about what to make of a performer that appears to bring behind-the-scenes to the stage.

I like Ryan Adams because he seems honest and I believe his music. I hear touches of Gram Parsons, Neil Young, the Grateful Dead, and maybe even a little Dylan in his stuff. I guess I see him as a sort of torchbearer and I have to say that I’m a little jealous because I think he’s got it and I wish I had it. So, I was ready to see him live when he came here. I’d heard the horror stories about Adams playing Dead covers for four hours without any audience acknowledgment and stories of him walking offstage because people were talking during his second song, but I knew he had just recently gotten out of rehab and his new album sounded good. And besides, isn’t that kind of rock performance behavior somewhat authentic? If the guy is going to be a little neurotic, fine. Aren’t most? The show lasted almost a full two and a half hours with a five-minute pee break requested by Adams. The music was spot-on – vocals great, guitars great, harmonies amazing, and the band was really tight. So, no complaints there. It was the in-between song banter that threw me. I couldn’t understand how a guy who could write and perform such great tunes could be so annoying and indifferent to the way he was being perceived. From saying “fuck” every other word to picking a grundy out of his ass and calling it a “Calvin Klein date-rape” to calling to the side of the stage for his “hooker boots,” Adams without-music portrayed the exact opposite of what Adams with-music seemed to portray. He separated himself from his audience with his banter, told us how he wished he hadn’t written his stupid songs, rejected requests by verbally saying “no,” and really seemed to resent us even being there to listen. I now realized the horror stories I had heard regarding his performances. His music was the opposite, it pulled me in, rocked me, and really made me want to start playing more. It was like this push and pull from Adams, him wanting to be the brat-jerk and prolific performer, but with distinct separation between the two.

Going back to Fonarow’s comments, the thing that struck me was that as much as I detested and resisted Adams not-playing, I still believed him when he did play that night and have been listening to his latest albums pretty much non-stop ever since. I realize that Adams could have been hamming it up for the audience to play on the bad rap that he had previously been given, but I honestly don’t believe that it was the case that night. I really think that this may be how the guy operates. Judging from the responses of his bandmates that night, it appeared that they were as annoyed as I was, somehow justifying my feelings. In the banter, I felt like I had seen Adams behind-the-scenes as himself without the mask of performer, although it was right back on when the music started. It was weird. I left the show with mixed feelings, trying to judge how I felt about Ryan Adams and his performance. Ultimately, I got over his in-between song nonsense and realized how good the music really was, and was able to let the music transcend the bullshit. Thinking back to Fonarow’s comment above, I think I was able to go back to believing in Adams because of his music, even though I saw him seemingly as himself without it. I seem to have let the trick continue to amaze me even though I was granted a glimpse “behind-the-scenes.” I’d be interested to know if anyone else has seen Adams and felt any certain way about him as himself and/or as a performer. These rock guys, they’re a little funny, ya know?


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So I was delighted with the Rock seminar this blog grows out of on Tuesday of this week. We had a long and (to me, at least) thoroughly stimulating discussion of Theodore Adorno’s critique of the music industry, and some reactions to it. I am always happy when three hours of discussion slip by and I’ve been so immersed that I forgot to give the students a break. But I was also delighted because I feel like I haven’t really had a full grasp on Adorno’s critique and as a result haven’t had more than a knee-jerk reaction to it.

My knee-jerk reaction is that Adorno’s talking about my mama, and though I can be dismissive of schlocky pop or overbearing rock, or whatever, he had better watch his ass next time he comes around because it is mine. He is dismissive of people who listen to popular music (A says, they are fed only what the industry wants them to have–to ask them whether they like it is beyond the point because they (we) have been so totally dominated by capital that they (we) are unable to have taste in any meaningful sense); he fetishizes the musical work (so that music people dance to is always suspect; he (wierdly, in my opinion) rejects out of hand any music written in tablature (why? who knows, but it is bad, and maybe evil); and so forth.

But, as Ben said, it’s possible that even if we disagree with all his examples, his basic point might hold, or at least have some significance. And I’m glad we got down to it, because, though I still disagree with him, I think it was worth getting there. The basic critique, as I understand it, is that having turned music into a commodity, the industry creates a situation in which music’s use value (its non-commodity purpose, whatever that is) is subordinated to (or perhaps replaced by) its exchange value (its commodity status). Again, I will say, I disagree, but I think it’s worth considering. I think it’s particularly worth considering, because a rational person could argue that the industry creates a situation in which music becomes incapable of, even hostile to the radicalization of oppressed social groups in the West. (Yes, I think this is wrong–just because music can be co-opted, in my opinion, doesn’t mean that people can’t/don’t still do personally and socially useful things with it–but I think the argument can be had between rational people).

All of this was on my mind today when I gave a presentation to a group of visiting scholars from overseas. I had been asked to speak on American music, and I chose to do my little spiel about blues, for a variety of reasons. Now, I LOVE blues. Love it. And have respect for it as a form and as a cultural manifestation. So you can imagine my consternation at the end of the presentation when one of the scholars (who had not listened to the presentation, but instead chosen to read an article on a different subject–at a table with nine other people…it was conspicuous) chose to lay into the old saw that blues/rock was socially corrosive. After hearing him talk about my mama, so to speak, for a few minutes, I suggested Adorno’s critique to him. I thought, here’s an opportunity: we can talk about whether this music/the industry does, in fact, stop people from effectively organizing into radicalized polities and objeting to their own domination. I’m willing to say that people do it, and sometimes they involve commodified music in the process, but that the music itself is basically neutral with regards to this sort of business.

But in the end he just said that popular music leads to moral degradation (proffering Elvis’s unsavory death as evidence), and the like, like a writer for the Ladies’ Home Journalin the 1920s. I was truly disappointed, at least in part because this is what I fear Adorno’s actually doing, too, but just with fancier verbiage and reasoning. It makes me wonder how common this sort of idea is among academics outside my little sphere.

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So anyone watch South Park this week?


I must say, that this wasn’t the funniest episode I’ve ever seen.  It did however represent the “rock lifestyle” well through the guise of Guitar Hero.  Yet this episode seems as much a parody of the hardrock life as it was a stab at the fetishization of Guitar Hero.

 Another interesting point to consider is the “Queer-O” aspect, which I didn’t totally get.  Are Parker and Stone being ironic, labeling these “Guitar Heroes” as queer themselves, or are they reflecting a common stereotype? 

 For more thoughts on this “Guitar Hero” issue, you may want to read Farhad Manjoo’s blog posting, which I think really relates to the South Park episode:


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Scott Tennant at Prety Goes with Pretty (a interesting music and lit blog) has a nice post here about the new Radiohead and Eagles albums. His point is basically that both releases (for different reasons) were like nails in the coffins of dedicated music retailers. I sort of wonder if there are any of those any more (old-school record stores).

The end of the record store is the one thing that really bumms me out about the shift to the internet-based new music culture. Call me a luddite, but I really have a serious nostalgia on right now for record stores. I used to work at one (Rose Records on State St. in Madison, WI) when I was in college, and used to shop at quite a few (Highlights included Rose, B-Side Recrods in Madison, Mad City Records in Madison, Amoeba in Berkeley, Rasputin’s in Berkeley, and Replay in Modesto California). I don’t miss the small selection and high prices, but I do miss the human aspect. I miss going somewhere where people worked who cared about records, and I miss browsing and b.s.ing about whatever was there.

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This interview at Salon with legal scholar Cass Sunstein is really interesting. It’s not obviously germane to a pop music blog, but bear with me and I’ll try to say why I found it so interesting.

Sunstein has done some suggestive research regarding political culture that shows that media fragmentation in the post-network-news era has a sort of echo chamber effect. Basically his argument is that if people (progressive and conservative alike) hear only political reporting that supports their positions on issues of the day, they move to extreme versions of their positions quickly. So, he says, the blogosphere has the effect of insulating us from opposing views and leads to a more and more deeply divided America.

What might this have to do with contemporary pop music? It’s the slightly elegaic tone he takes regarding the era of network news. The basic point is: at one time we basically all had to hear opinions we didn’t specifically choose to hear because it was what was on, and this was good (for us, for civic life, for civility, etc.) There are some un-unpacked assumptions in this, I think, but in general it seems appealing to me.

More, it makes me think about the issue of gatekeepers in the music industry that I discussed a couple of weeks ago (in a posting I’ve since taken down because it seemed intemperate–no doubt tech savvy folks can hunt it up). The equivalent argument might be something like, back in the day, before internet radio, before pc-based recording, before whatever, there was only so much on the radio, and everyone pretty much had to listen to what was there. A lot of really great music, a lot of the music those of us who love popular music respect deeply, came out of this situation. I think, particularly here, about musicians like Ray Charles, who knew and liked a lot of country music, not necessarily because it was music he identified with, but because when he was growing up, that was what he could get on the radio at night. perhaps having some shared musical culture–tunes _everyone_ has heard–due to limited choice has or had its value. I’ve seen this argument made in the past. And perhaps pop music could be headed for a bad future if the internet facilitated the creation of echo chambers of niche sub-genres.

It’s my impression that this is not the case, though. It’s my impression that young people now listen to a more, not less, diverse array of kinds of music than they/we did 20 or more years ago. But as I said in that last post, I think the key thing is that we need some data. I think I’m going to start putting together some grant applications to actually do some serious, quantitative research on music listening patterns, consumption, and so on among “kids these days.”

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So, I recently read Jan Jagodzinski’s Music and Youth Culture (2005) and was exposed to more psychology than I ever knew existed.  After a vigorous reading (and subsequent re-reading) of some of Jacques Lacan’s terminology and Jagodzinski’s application of these terms to music, I figured the best way to see if “I get it” is to apply what I think I have learned to our classes recent topic of cock rock and heavy metal. 

For starters, Jacques Lacan’s version of psychology continues in the vein of Sigmund Freud (and anyone who knows anything about Freud knows that everything subsequently revolves around the male signifier: the phallus).  Lacan furthers Freudian psychology with his ideas of drives and desire: our biological urges vs. our subconscious needs. I will discuss “cock rock” and heavy metal using one of Jagodzinski’s main theses from his work: post-modern music is characterized by a perversion of male pre-Oedipal drives into “pure desire” and a hysterizaion of female post-Oedipal drives into “pure demand.”  Jagodzinski does not discuss “cock rock” specifically in his text, which is an obvious oversight, so I’m going to do my best instead. 

For this posting, I will focus on idea’s primarily from Robert Walser’s chapter “Forging Masculinity” from Running With the Devil (1993) in regards to his strategies of gender and power: exscription, misogyny, romance, and androgyny. 

EXSCRIPTION: why are no girls allowed?  “Cock rock” and heavy metal seem to be an all-boys club, so what is the Lacanian psychological reason for taking women out of the picture?  Walser claims “Feminine intimacy …produces a dependence on the other that threatens masculine independence” (115).  Jagodzinski would counter that then “perversion inverts the struggle of separating from the Mother and establishing masculine authority….Rather than being the phallus…he attempts to have the phallus” (52).  A man can therefore only be a male because he is independent of the female.  Walser continues, “Metal shields men from the dangers of pleasure—loss of control—but also enables…images of…metalized male bodies” (116).  Jagodzinski supports this notion with “becoming metal” and the “death drive,” describing a “Body without Organs” that is machine-like and free of desires, especially the death drive, which is the pursuit of pleasure to excess which leads to death (18).  It makes sense that the male would want to protect himself from the “anxiety about the vagina” and distance himself from as much temptation as possible (54).  Walser’s interpretation of “women as sex objects” is supported by Jadogznski’s idea of the hysterization of the scopic drive, which makes women a demand of the male gaze (Walser 116; Jagodzinski 54). 

MISOGYNY: why do men hate women?  Maybe “hate” is strong, since both male authors seem to prefer the term “anxiety:” Walser claims to “assuage male anxieties about the sexuality of females” whereas again Jagodzinski claims a more general “anxiety about the vagina” (Walser 117; Jagodzinski 54).  Again, both authors seem to agree about the mysterious dichotomy of the nature of the female: Walser’s angel/witch and Jagodzinski’s virgin/slut.  Yet again, this all returns to Lacan’s notion of the female Otherness and her eternal “lack” of a phallus.  Jagodzinski points out the source of misogyny being this angel/witch or virgin/slut dichotomy, since this is the way in which the “castrated” female is able to pursue her pleasure (without the need for a phallus) (54).  The fear of the phallus becoming insignificant would be enough to make any male potentially anxious. 

ROMANCE: is this just a silly girl thing?  As according to several of the other authors from this weeks reading selection, apparently it is commonly held notion that men are interested in sex and women are interested in love.  So where does romance fit in to “cock rock?”  Walser cites Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet (1986) as the first instance of commercially successful romantically-themed metal songs.  This album’s biggest hit, “Livin’ on a Prayer” was responsible for Bon Jovi’s increased appeal of female fans.  Jagodzinski would posit this as a perfect representation of perversion in postmodern music.  In Lacanian terms, a perversion is the inverse of a normal fantasy model (12).  A fantasy: I need capital to acquire the object of my desire.  A perversion: someone’s object of desire can bring me capital.  Thus, Bon Jovi adopted a more commercially appealing style (jeans and no make-up) in order to sell more records and attract more female fans.  As Walser states, “To offer such a pay off, [a band] must break away from metal” (122). 

ANDROGYNY: why do men want to look like women?  This is perhaps the most baffling trend in heavy metal; a male-dominated genre where men dress like hyper-females.  Walser argues that glam metal represents “the dissolution of the ego in the flux of musical pleasure,” and briefly cites the castrati as a historical counterpart (124, 126).  Jagodzinski also discusses the interesting disposition of the castrati, giving them the unique status of the “disembodied voice” from a castrated body (either male or female) that is pure, and free of death and desires (56-57).  Thus, the glam metal bands also become free of desires as they to, in there grotesque “feminine” appearance are able to become disembodied and free of their perverted desires.  (On a side note, I would like to laugh at the ridiculousness of this interpretation, seeing as the members of the quintessential glam-band Poison were all notorious womanizers and/or coke-addicts). 

In general, Walser and Jagodzinski have similar interpretations for the psychology that makes “cock rock” tick.  Of course, one would have to buy into this psychology in order to believe it.  Gender is a social construct, and somewhere along the way, American society decided that the guitar was a phallic instrument that boys should play in order to impress the pants off of girls.  Of course there is no natural significance to the guitar; it is simply an extension of male-dominated/phallocentric notions.  I would wonder if Freudian/Lacanian theory would pan out in a vaginocentric culture.  As Freud would say, sometimes a guitar is just a guitar.   

PS – I may have completely butchered Lacan’s psychology.  I’m not even 100% for certain which aspects of Jagodzinski’s book are based on Lacan and which are based on Deleuze (i.e. “Becoming-Metal”…which I don’t really understand anyway).  But I did my best, and please any comments are welcome.

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So the template we’re using for this blog doesn’t seem to have a way to put in trackbacks, but we’ve had some good interest in a variety of our posts.

First, I want to give a shoutout to Phil Ford at Dial M For Musicology, who has said a variety of nice things about us. That site is excellent, and I really like Phil’s latest post (a meta talk he gave at AMS about academic blogging)

Also I was DELIGHTED this weekend to find that the Chronicle of Higher Education had picked up the Tarzan post for their blog digest; and so did 43(b)log, a legal blog (maybe written by Georgetown people?).

Nice to be getting some notice out there!

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