David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (pt. 2)

Ziggy

Dear Matthew:

I don’t think I get David Bowie.

Like, this is an OK album, I guess. I’m glad I listened to it. Art this legendary is always at least worth checking out, and this album is nothing if not legendary. I always try to remember that, if a lot of people really like something, they can’t all be wrong. But I’ve got to be honest: I didn’t love Ziggy Stardust.

Maybe this is just my own prexisting feelings about Bowie. I know his singles, because it’s kind of impossible not to, and I find them very hit or miss. ‘Fame’ is a jam, and I guess I can tolerate ‘Changes’. But I absolutely loathe ‘Space Oddity’. Everything about early Bowie is just so overwrought — whiny, almost. And sorry, but Ziggy Stardust is, for me at least, definitely still early Bowie. (Give me 80s Bowie any day.)

I realize that this is hugely hypocritical of me. I have no problem with musical ridiculousness. Perhaps more pressingly, one of my favourite records of all time is also a concept album about space bullshit. So, as I was listening and it was becoming clear that I wasn’t going to love Ziggy Stardust, I tried to figure out why that was. Why do I love the gritty weirdo space rap but not the gay space alien glam rock?

Maybe it’s that the gay space alien glam rock is too legendary.

I hate to keep coming back to this, but you know how I called Wu-Tang Clan the Seinfeld of underground rap? (By which I meant that they were so profoundly original that everything they did has been so thoroughly emulated that their profound originality isn’t obvious unless you know what came before?) I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. In the case of Wu-Tang and Seinfeld, their imitators aped what they did with completely straight faces. Subsequent generations of rappers and TV producers saw something that worked, so they adapted it for their own purposes. It was doable, because they weren’t aping specifics of the work so much as general principles. TV sitcoms are now populated exclusively by sociopaths, but specific Seinfeld parodies are pretty thin on the ground. Rap songs with campy movie samples and bitcrushed drums are now a dime a dozen, but no one ever tries to literally be another Wu-Tang Clan.

But with Bowie, there aren’t really any general principles to ape, other than ‘overwrought androgynous rockstar’. Everything about what he’s doing is so wildly, inventively specific that the only way to cash in on its success is to parody it, or directly reference it. It hit me like a thunderbolt about halfway through ‘Starman’: I am more familiar with homages to / parodies of David Bowie than I am with actual David Bowie.

Flight of the Conchords. Daft Punk. The Venture Bros. My own cultural experience is littered with caricatures of all things Bowie, to the point of cliché. I feel like I’ve heard ‘Starman’ a million times, when really what I’ve heard is a million things referencing ‘Starman’. So is it that I actually find ‘Starman’ overwrought and annoying, or has that sentiment just been clouded by endless secondhand exposure?

I am, of course, doing that thing where I’m making it seem like I liked the album less than I did. I am still glad that I listened to it, and there are some great moments on the album. (‘Suffragette City’ kicks ass.) And for what it’s worth, I listened to Aladdin Sane immediately after I finished Ziggy Stardust. (Don’t hold your breath — my feelings about the two albums are pretty much the same.) But as with a lot of things from the 70s, David Bowie just isn’t really my bag.

— Matt

PS: Do you watch The Venture Bros.? I think you’d like The Venture Bros.

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David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (pt. 1)

Ziggy

Dear Matt:

Lately, I am obsessed with Todd Haynes’s glorious, thinly-veiled David Bowie biopic Velvet Goldmine. It’s got everything that I look for in a movie, including fantastic music. Of course, none of the music is actually by Bowie, because he loathed the screenplay and refused to allow the use of his songs. Thus, Velvet Goldmine is scored with a spectacular mix of great tracks from A- through C-list glam icons who are not David Bowie. And, any movie with this many Brian Eno songs is pretty much guaranteed to grace my top ten for at least a short while.

I was thinking about just giving you the soundtrack, in the hope that you’d go on to watch the movie. But then I realized that hearing the soundtrack, or indeed seeing the film, would be a strange experience without you having experienced the music that haunts the liminal space at the edge of its narrative: Bowie’s classic tale of love, eschatology and gay space aliens, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. So, that’s what you’re getting this week.

In 1972, Bowie was already something of a known quantity, but hadn’t attained any semblance of his later fame. Even so, he’d already been through at least one major stylistic change. This would happen again and again with Bowie. Even at this early point in his career, Bowie was aware of his impulse to change constantly and radically. It’s the subject of one of his most famous tunes.

By this point, he’d had a massive hit with ‘Space Oddity,’ and a couple of acclaimed albums. But Bowie was about to break through in a big way, thanks to the gradual development of his first consistent stage persona: Ziggy Stardust, the gender-bending extraterrestrial who brought everything that the early glam rockers like Mott the Hoople and T. Rex had built to its logical conclusion. Ziggy was new and exciting in a way that couldn’t not connect in the radical, post-hippie England of 1972. And he sang some great tunes.

Ziggy arguably predates the album that bears his name, but it’s this album that codifies him and his mythology — albeit vaguely, as we’ll see. Ziggy Stardust has guitar-driven cock rock, ultra-camp torch songs and inexplicable harpsichord. It is poetic at times, and self-consciously dumb at others. For an album with such iconic, mainstream status, it is very, very strange.

Way back when you assigned me Deltron 3030, you pointed out that it wasn’t like a traditional concept album in that it doesn’t have a distinct narrative arc. Well, that applies just as much to this particular traditional concept album. Ziggy Stardust posits a version of the 1970s where the world is set to end in five years. Suddenly, the radio airwaves are invaded by the cosmic rock ‘n’ roll of an androgynous Martian of indistinct and mutable sexuality. Ziggy Stardust’s revolutionary space music preaches a gospel of universal love and banging whoever the hell you want, regardless of normative social codes. In Earth’s final moments, Ziggy gives humanity its mojo back. But naturally, at some point Ziggy’s ego begins to supersede his message, and things end badly for him and his intrepid band, the Spiders from Mars.

If you try to situate every song on the album within this narrative (which, bear in mind, is just my interpretation — this album is super vague) you are not likely to succeed. I just think of it as a bunch of songs that could plausibly come from a world where the biggest celebrity on the planet is a glam rock alien. Like Deltron 3030, it is probably richer for its looseness of concept.

I’ll be honest: for all of its daring transgressiveness, Ziggy Stardust is quite far from my favourite Bowie album. (That would be Low, but that’s practically a Brian Eno album, and we’ve done that already.) I find Ziggy a bit inconsistent, and Bowie’s vocals — while incredibly distinctive — haven’t settled into the nuanced baritone register where I like them best. But I still think you need to hear this, because it is without question the definitive Bowie album where most of the world is concerned. You need to hear it because the highlights (for my money, ‘Five Years,’ ‘Starman,’ ‘Lady Stardust’ and ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’) really are staggering. And, of course, you need to hear it because you need to know what’s going on in Velvet Goldmine. And you need to watch Velvet Goldmine.

— Matthew

P.S.: One of the best blogs on the internet is Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a song-by-song breakdown of Bowie’s entire career, with substantive essayistic treatment of every track he’s ever released. For our purposes, I might suggest his essay on ‘Starman.’ If, you know, that sounds remotely interesting to you.

Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (pt. 2)

36chambers

Dear Matt:

Our little project has gotten me thinking a bit about the appropriate way to express a first impression of an album. I know we’ve both struggled with this on occasion: this format forces us to pretend that we have something meaningful to say about albums we’ve only just heard, and for which we only have the context the other provides. (Which, I mean, sometimes that’s plenty.)

Sometimes there’s nothing for it but to express total bewilderment. Occasionally, we’ve been merely nonplussed, or slightly distasteful. There have been expressions of immediate enthusiasm. And on occasion we’ve had something genuinely interesting to say, right from the get go.

I’m just going to be forthright here: I have nothing interesting or insightful to say about the massively dense album that I finished listening to for the first time mere moments ago. Frankly, I still have mild whiplash (and possibly tendonitis) from clicking all of the links in your assignment.

Let’s just acknowledge that the appropriate response to a first hearing of 36 Chambers is to marvel at its obvious brilliance and not pretend like you have anything special to add. Having acknowledged that, I’m going to reel off some things I love about 36 Chambers.

I love the unified aesthetic of the album. Considering that it’s basically a cavalcade of great verses from rappers that have almost no stylistic common ground, it is a testament to RZA’s guiding vision that 36 Chambers feels cohesive.

I love the interview at the end of ‘Can It All Be So Simple.’ The members of the Clan are such interesting people that I could just listen to them talk about themselves and each other for the duration of the whole album. Which, come to think of it, I basically just did.

I love GZA. ‘Clan in Da Front’ is, indeed, genius. I feel an urge to check out Liquid Swords coming on.

I love the way Wu-Tang collectively assumes that we know everything about them. It’s like picking up a random issue of a long-running superhero comic and trying to follow the plot. This may sound facetious, but I mean it sincerely. The phrase ‘world-building’ can easily be made to apply to Wu-Tang, and they accomplish it by implying that you’re listening in on a small portion of a much larger saga. I love that.

I love Ol’ Dirty Bastard, because WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING NOBODY RAPS LIKE THIS

I love RZA’s verse on ‘Tearz.’ It’s got to be one of the most heartfelt rap verses I’ve heard, up there with Killer Mike’s on ‘Crown.’

I love complex dynamics between radically different creative individuals. One of the reasons I love writing about music is that music always involves throwing a bunch of creative people into rooms together, and that is a story-generating machine. The Wu-Tang Clan are every bit as fascinating an assembly as the Second Viennese School, the Canterbury Scene, or the lightly fictionalized glam rockers of Velvet Goldmine (the latter of which is explicit foreshadowing of your next assignment).

I love ostentatious displays of cleverness.

I love recognizing the DNA of music I love in much earlier music.

I love when universally acclaimed classics live up to their reputations.

— Matthew

Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (pt. 1)

36chambers

Dear Matthew:

In the spirit of your most recent assignment for me, I’ve also got a ‘back to the basics’ assignment for you this week. My first assignment for you was Deltron 3030, an underground rap classic. And I know you’re a fan of a lot of other modern underground/alternative rap, like MF DOOM and Run the Jewels. I’ve also often noted that I’ve heard the DNA of some of my favourite modern music in older records you’ve assigned to me. This is going to be a long post, so please bear with me.

Your assignment this week, then, is nothing less than one of the most influential albums in rap history: Wu-Tang Clan‘s 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

•          •          •

To understand why 36 Chambers was so influential, you have to know a bit about what hip hop was like before Wu-Tang. Rap music started in the late ’70s at street parties in New York City — specifically, in poor black neighbourhoods in the Bronx — thrown by guys like DJ Kool Herc. You’ve probably heard the song most often cited as the first recorded rap song, the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight‘. This is pretty representative of most early hip hop music: an MC performing rhyming spoken raps over a looped disco beat. (Kurtis Blow’s ‘The Breaks‘ is another good example of this.) The rhyming schemes don’t usually get much more complicated than having the last syllable of a line rhyme with the previous one. The words are generally about dancing, partying, and the talents and general desirability of the MC and his friends, and the delivery is almost singsong. At this point, musically, rap is kind of just this weird offshoot of disco.

By the mid to late ’80s, however, rap has taken off in a major way. In what is now generally known as the New School era, artists like Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and the like are all becoming household names. Def Jam, a NYC-based label specializing in hip hop, is now a record industry titan. Beatmakers start using technology like samplers, drum machines and synthesizers in their production. Turntablism is born. Soul and funk music, particularly that of James Brown, is sampled extensively. You also start to see rhyme schemes get more complex — rappers like Rakim start using things like internal and multisyllabic rhyming, and move away from that distinctive ’80s singsong-style rap toward a more monotone, yet aggressive, delivery. (A lot of critics say that, in terms of lyricism, you can draw a pretty distinctive line in the sand in terms of pre-Rakim and post-Rakim.)

After this decade of explosive creativity, rap is now A Thing. It has coalesced from a scene into a genre, and now it’s expanding. On the West Coast, Dr. Dre and N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) pioneer a style that comes to be called gangsta rap that focuses on the violent criminal lifestyles said rappers (claim to) lead. (Dre also pioneers a style called G-funk that features lots of smooth synth leads and highly synthetic drums.) Now there’s a sort of tension in the industry, because labels want to sell rap music to white people, but white people are kind of scared by black people who make songs with titles like ‘Fuck tha Police‘. So in the early ’90s, the major labels are still putting out rap, but it’s mostly a sort of ‘rap lite’ — marketable and completely inoffensive acts like DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince or Young MC.

In 1992, this is the musical landscape in which Robert Fitzgerald Diggs finds himself. His cousin, Gary Grice, has released a solo album as the Genius, but it was not particularly well promoted by the label. Diggs is pissed off at the industry for what he sees as an unwillingness to invest in music made by black street kids, from whence hip hop was originally begot. So, he formulates a plan: in five years, he and his high-school-dropout friends are going to take over the industry.

It’s an insane plan. But what’s even more insane is that it worked.

•          •          •

Drawing from the Supreme Alphabet, Diggs — formerly Prince Rakeem — rechristens himself the RZA. He rounds up his cousins and rap comrades Grice (now the GZA) and Russell Jones (Ol’ Dirty Bastard), and six others: Clifford Smith (Method Man), Corey Woods (Raekwon), Dennis Coles (Ghostface Killah), Jason Hunter (Inspectah Deck), Elgin Turner (Masta Killa), and Lamont Hawkins (U-God). Sharing a mutual love of kung-fu movies and Five-Percenter philosophy, they dub themselves the Wu-Tang Clan, after the practitioners of the most deadly sword style. In RZA’s Staten Island basement, he presents the Clan with his proposal: he has a plan to do nothing less than take over the entire industry — but the only way it will work is if he calls all of the shots. If you sign on, you’re essentially signing your career decisions over to him for the next five years, no questions asked.

The pact is made. RZA collects $100 from each member who wants a verse to produce the group’s first single, ‘Protect Ya Neck‘. It’s a gritty, lo-fi number literally made in a basement that doesn’t have anything you could really call a chorus, or even a hook. Instead, it’s got eight whiplash-inducingly different MCs trading verses for almost five minutes. RZA spikes his crunchy drum samples and eerie piano loops with kung-fu movie dialogue and a take-no-prisoners verse of his own. Verbally, the Clan is mixing post-Rakim lyricism with the violence and realness of gangsta rap, with a heaping dose of pop-culture references on top*. They bully a few local DJs into playing it, but they don’t have to try hard — it’s a dynamite record that sounds nothing like anything anyone else is doing.

Soon, hype for their first album is building. RZA is able to negotiate a unique deal with the nascent Loud Records. For a paltry $60,000, Loud gets the Wu-Tang Clan, but with a catch: the individual members of the Clan can pursue solo careers in any way they see fit, with any label they see fit, with the full backing of the Wu-Tang name. In 1993, 36 Chambers hits the streets, and it’s a smash hit. Already, RZA’s plan is working.

See, RZA’s plan isn’t really about getting the Wu-Tang Clan a record deal; remember, he wants to infiltrate the entire industry. So, almost immediately after 36 Chambers drops, RZA is back to work in his basement studio making beats for the first round of Wu-Tang solo projects. And RZA doesn’t just want his Clan members to get any old record deal — he uses specific members to target specific labels and markets. He knows Raekwon and Ghostface will appeal to the street/gangsta crowd. He knows the aptly named Genius will appeal to the college crowd. He figures Method Man has the most mainstream crossover appeal, which is why Meth gets one of only two solo tracks on 36 Chambers, and why RZA signs him to Def Jam. ODB is, as always, the wildcard. (There’s a great NPR On Record piece on this from which I am cribbing heavily.)

Over the next three years, RZA produces a whopping five Wu-Tang solo projects, all on different labels. All are well received. (He also somehow finds the time to join Prince Paul’s Gravediggaz.) And now, not only is the Wu-Tang name everywhere, but so is the sound. Cut-up soul samples are everywhere. Harsh, street-life rhymes are everywhere. The Ol’ Dirty Bastard is everywhere. Wu-Tang is nothing short of a movement. In 1997, the group reunites for a double LP, Wu-Tang Forever. It debuts at number one.

RZA has done it. In five years, he has taken over the industry, exactly as promised — and he’s kickstarted a major East Coast rap renaissance in the process.

•          •          •

So, how does 36 Chambers hold up in 2015? Well, I think the first thing you’ll notice is how modern it sounds. It’s certainly a product of its time, but it’s not that big a leap from this record to something like Deltron 3030 or Madvillainy, or even RTJ2. To use a comparison I’ve used before on this blog, 36 Chambers is the Seinfeld of underground rap: to a modern ear, its explosive originality is essentially invisible, because so much of what set it apart from its contemporaries has been so widely adopted in its wake. Lots of rappers and producers owe their entire careers to the sound pioneered by RZA and the Clan, musically and lyrically. (Kanye names RZA as one of his biggest production influences.)

Of course, the Clan ended up being a bit of a victim of its own success. At the conclusion of the five-year plan, RZA took on more of a managerial role in the Clan, and its solo and group efforts thereafter have been met with very mixed responses. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, arguably the biggest mainstream success story of the clan, was in and out of prison and became increasingly unstable, as so many big musical personalities do, and eventually died of a drug overdose in 2004. And of course, the Wu-Tang sound and name being everywhere became a problem in itself; listening back on them today, the first round solo projects all sound kind of samey**. They oversaturated the market. He who fights monsters and all that.

Having now written 1,400 words about a 60-minute rap album from 20 years ago, I realize this is a lot of baggage to have to unpack. But luckily, even without this tome, 36 Chambers stands up on its own merits. Even though there are nine full Clan members, the chemistry between them is electric. (Don’t worry too much if you can’t pick everyone out by name by the end of the first listen, although a few are bound to stick in your mind. I’m curious to know who, though, and why.) The corny kung-fu dialogue, the sludgy soul loops and bloated low-end, the ghostly bit-crush of the RZA’s shitty sampler — it all just works. Even without the backstory, 36 Chambers is just a damn good rap album.

I hope you enjoy it.

— Matt

* This is yet another rabbit hole in a post already full of rabbit holes, but there’s a very interesting discussion to be had about the idea of masculinity in the lyrics of 36 Chambers. Maybe not on your first listen, but when you’re more familiar with the record, pay close attention to the things they rap about — and just as interestingly, don’t rap about — and how they rap about them. I’d love see an academic article that really digs into this aspect of the album.

** GZA’s Liquid Swords is still great, though.

Berlin Philharmonic & Herbert von Karajan: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (pt. 2)

Karajan_Beethoven_Symphonies_1963

Dear Matthew:

I’m not sure I’m sold on recordings of classical music.

Don’t get me wrong — this is a heck of a piece of music. The last movement is particularly striking. Everyone knows ‘Ode to Joy’, but we’re really only familiar with the main hook of it, and the final fifth of this piece is spent doing all kinds of interesting things to that hook — and, as you’ll recall, I love musical recontextualizations.

But the problem I was having while listening to this was this: I kept losing focus. Maybe the problem was, as previously discussed, that I’m doing it wrong — I was doing more mindless data entry as I listened. Even so, my mind kept wandering in the quiet parts.

Maybe it’s a function of the way music is recorded. I’m sure you’ll agree that dynamics make music interesting — a song that does the same thing at the same volume all the way through is probably going to get boring after a while. In my experience, classical recordings feature pretty huge dynamic range. I don’t want to get into a whole debate about sampling rates and bit depth, but the salient point is this: I listened to this recording on a set of studio monitors in a soundproof radio studio, and I found myself constantly adjusting the monitor volume. I had to turn it up to hear the quiet bits, but I’d have to turn it back down for the loud bits to keep things at a comfortable volume. It’s like that thing when you’re trying to watch an action movie and you have to crank it to hear the dialogue, but then something explodes and your neighbours call in a noise complaint.

So maybe the problem is that I should be using headphones? You’re a headphone guy — do you find you have this problem? Don’t get me wrong, I love a good pair of headphones, but it seems pretty limiting to have an entire genre of music that you can’t listen to on speakers without deafening yourself. Say what you will about the loudness war, but at least I can listen to (most) modern albums without riding the volume knob the entire time.

It’s a bit of a copout to write off an entire segment of the Western musical canon for something like that, but the fact remains that most of the rest of the symphony still didn’t really grab me. Has pop music ruined my attention span? Am I still having that kneejerk ‘ew, classical’ reaction that young people have to most things their parents like?

I would really like to think it’s not either of those, so the only thing I’m left with is that maybe recordings just aren’t the best way to experience a symphony. I can’t help but think how much more impressive this sort of music would be in a giant concert hall directly in front of the 50+ people performing it. It’s the same problem I have with live albums in general: it’s a losing battle to try and capture the live experience in a recording, especially if sonically superior studio versions already exist. With a few exceptions, I really don’t like live albums.

You pointed out in a real-life discussion that a major problem with live classical music is that quality can be hugely inconsistent, and having a good experience hinges entirely on living near a good orchestra. That may be true, but isn’t that true of any live music experience? You’ll only see big international rock shows if you live near/visit a city big enough to warrant a tour stop. The sound guy might have an off night and ruin the entire show with awful mixing.

I don’t know. Again, this symphony is full of some seriously impressive music. But the entire idea of a symphony — of getting 50+ people to play an hour-long song in a giant concert hall on, let’s face it, some totally ludicrous instruments — it’s insane. It’s a spectacle. It seems like some of that spectacle is lost when all you have is an audio recording.

But hey, this piece did stir something in me that I had completely forgotten until this week: when I was a kid, I’m almost positive I had Beethoven Lives Upstairs on VHS. Only 90s Kids Will Remember Beethoven Lives Upstairs.

— Matt

Berlin Philharmonic & Herbert von Karajan: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (pt. 1)

Karajan_Beethoven_Symphonies_1963

Dear Matt:

I have been looking through my past assignments to you and I’ve discovered a flaw in my approach.

From the start of this project, each of us has been trying to guide the other into unfamiliar musical territory. As you’ve pointed out a couple of times, we’ve generally been providing fairly non-standard entry points. That’s to be expected given how nerdy we both are, and it’s part of what keeps this so interesting.

But as I scanned our oeuvre thus far, I couldn’t help but think that my assignments have been borderline perverse. Nobody has ever suggested Van Der Graaf Generator as a possible ‘in’ to prog — let alone Magma. And, even my assignments drawn from the pool of ‘standards in their genre’ — Red and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady come to mind — have tended to be the sort of music that’s become standard specifically because of how it plays against the conventions of its genre.

This all goes double for my approach to classical music, so far. Come to think of it, I haven’t assigned you anything that can even be called ‘classical’ without some heavy qualifications. (Bartok, maybe. But even that’s a stretch.) Perhaps I ought to defer a bit more to the broader public’s notions of ‘the essentials.’

Yes, I like the sound of that. You need a firm grounding in the basics, Matt. You need ‘core repertoire.’ You need something that is, for us classical concert hall types, utterly standard to the point of monotony.

You need Beethoven 9.

(You can tell a real classical type by whether they refer to symphonies by cardinal or ordinal numbers, i.e. ‘Beethoven’s Ninth’ vs. ‘Beethoven 9.’ Incidentally, that’s the same way you can tell an old-school Doctor Who nerd from a Nu-Who fan: ‘the Ninth Doctor’ vs. ‘Nine.’ In either case, both options are acceptable nomenclature.)

What shall I say about Beethoven 9? Well, I suppose the most important point to bring up is that there’s more to it than ‘Ode to Joy.’ That may seem obvious. But then, that melody is so synonymous with the phrase ‘Beethoven’s ninth symphony’ that it may indeed come as a surprise for some that the ‘Ode to Joy’ doesn’t even crop up until over 45 minutes into the piece.

And when it does, it’s one of the most gratifying moments in all of music.

To my ears, even the most familiar parts of Beethoven 9 don’t have the whiff of mould about them that, say, Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ does. Or Beethoven 5, even. I can’t begin to speculate as to why that is, or if it’s true for anybody except me. But for all of my bluster about how the classical repertory is strangling the modern concert hall and silencing living composers, I would never question the common wisdom that this symphony is one of the best things ever accomplished by a human.

A colleague of mine, who isn’t really that much of a classical music person, once opined that Beethoven 9 is the best piece of music ever written because anybody can listen to it and enjoy every part of it. It isn’t my personal favourite piece, nor even necessarily in my top ten. But I find it hard to disagree with my colleague’s assessment. In modern parlance, Beethoven 9 is chock full of hooks.

Okay, enough eulogizing. You need context. This is Beethoven’s final symphony. It is the only one that he wrote during what’s thought of as his late period, premiering a full decade after his eighth. It was the first symphony of note to use voices and text — the ‘Ode to Joy’ is a setting of a poem by Schiller. There’s no overstating what a massive deal that was. Wagner would later interpret this as Beethoven proclaiming that instrumental music had run its course, and he used that interpretation to justify his decision to only write operas (or Gesamtkunstwerken, if you insist).

A quick word about the recording I’ve chosen: it’s a classic performance from 1962, by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Herbert von Karajan. Karajan was an old Nazi (no, an actual Nazi — though his sincerity has been questioned) who led the Berliners with an iron fist and a contemptful scowl for over three decades. By the end of his career, he’d shaped the orchestra into a slick monolith that sounded the same in Debussy as in Wagner. But early on, he made some recordings that are still considered the gold standard. This is one. (And for what it’s worth, it has sold massively well, over the years.)

Beethoven and Karajan were both angry, serious and unpleasant men, but this music is none of those things. It is effervescent and powerful, and has no desire to alienate anybody but rather to reach everybody. I hope it reaches you.

— Matthew

LCD Soundsystem: 45:33 (pt. 2)

4533

Dear Matt:

BING-DUNG! Activity started. Warm up: five minutes.

In criticism — I’m using the word here in the sense that academics use it — the notion of authorial intent has been nearly irrelevant since 1967, when Roland Barthes wrote this thing, and probably for some time before. I know this is a thing you think about because you wrote this on your other, Parsons-less blog. (Can I call it “One Matt?”)

As I understand it, in the limited way of somebody who’s never formally studied any of this, author-based criticism reached a tipping-point around the time of Barthes’ piece. Barthes railed against critics who attempted to use the life experiences, politics and social milieu of a text’s author as evidence for a single, authoritative (I use the world pointedly) reading of the text. He called for the author’s voice to be drowned out by the voice of the text itself, which is the thing that truly speaks.

In criticism, on the other hand — now I’m using the word in the sense that most people do, as regards movie reviews and blog posts by armchair scholars like us — we seem to still be holding on to the author, such that questions like “To what extent is Mr. Oizo taking the piss?” “Does Ian Anderson secretly love prog?” and “Is James Murphy fucking with us?” still seem to be worth posing.

BING-DUNG! First interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

I listened to 45:33 while running, with regular interjections from the female robot voice of Runkeeper, my workout app of choice (and also the source of this post’s silly structural gimmick). I took this approach because I wanted to assess, with the benefit of knowing the background you outlined in your assignment, whether 45:33 is actually good running music or not.

It is. It’s quite excellent running music. Slotted right in with my intervals. So, if we accept that 45:33 is good running music, what does that say about James Murphy and the critics who took him at his word when he lied to them about his jogging habits?

BING-DUNG! Next interval: two minutes. Slow.

Let’s work backwards. The story as you told it ends with a legion of overzealous writers having egg all over their faces. They had failed the Emperor’s New Clothes test. Shorn of all credibility, they stood exposed as charlatans; mountebanks; hacks.

Except, of course, that they weren’t. Murphy’s truth may have been that 45:33 has nothing to do with running. But the text’s truth contradicts that. And the text is the thing that truly speaks. I daresay that if Murphy believes that this album isn’t running music, he’s misunderstanding his own work. As such, I hereby find those critics innocent of these particular charges. There are other charges they will have more trouble dodging. But more on that shortly.

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Before we move on, I want to address how angry I sometimes get about the derision levelled at critics by artists. Frank Zappa comes to mind, immediately. So does Birdman. The theatre critic in that movie (which I love in every way except for this) has a shitty attitude towards art, but the movie has an even shittier attitude towards that critic. It makes her openly, gleefully malevolent, which I sincerely don’t believe is a truthful characterization of how respectable critics think.

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No doubt many individual critics deserved Frank Zappa’s derision. But, I personally believe — in utterly self-aggrandizing fashion — that criticism, journalism, and related disciplines are arts no lesser than the arts they critique. I had an epiphany to that effect near the end of my music degree program, at which point I immediately applied for journalism school.

Evidently, you disagree with me on this, or at least you did in February of 2012. But Barthes appears to be on my side. If the author is metaphorically dead, that leaves only the reader. Good critics are very skilled readers and thus, invaluable — so long as they focus on the texts themselves. If, you know, you agree with Barthes on this. Which I only sometimes do.

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The narrative you outlined with respect to 45:33 suggests Zappa-like malevolence on Murphy’s part. If we accept for argument’s sake that there was something for Murphy’s critics to be ashamed of when the ‘truth’ came out, that means that it was Murphy himself who pulled the rug out from under them. And that would make him a more mean-spirited, slightly lesser human (though not a lesser artist, because the art speaks for itself).

But, like you, I’m not exactly convinced that Murphy was actually pulling an Emperor’s New Clothes swindle. If there was a swindle afoot (pun?), one suspects that Nike (pun.) may have been the target.

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But, naturally, we now come to the point where I say that none of this matters. I’ve already absolved Murphy’s fawning critics for praising his possibly bullshit workout mix, on the basis that it is a good workout mix. But there’s another sin that I can’t absolve them of, and that’s the fact that they so resolutely based their critiques of 45:33 on any professed authorial intention at all.

In other words, we’re charging these critics with the wrong crime. It isn’t that they have faulty bullshit meters. They are not charlatans; mountebanks; hacks.

They are fetishists.

They fetishize the personalities behind the things they are ostensibly critiquing, such that the novelty of Murphy making a workout mix supersedes the music itself. Indeed, the fact that LCD Soundsystem could become a ‘buzz band’ at all comes entirely down to this critical approach.

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Perhaps that’s why criticism — in the common sense, not the academic sense — is derided in so many quarters (not least of which is academia — someday, I’ll introduce you to the work of Joseph Kerman). It is at least partially about applying value judgements to people’s personalities. And that is ever-so-slightly skeevy.

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Here’s the part where I capitulate.

Naturally, music criticism and journalism that focuses on the musician often makes for deeply interesting reading. I am endlessly fascinated with the process of making art, and I don’t have any desire to see music writers stop interviewing artists, or taking note of the autobiographical elements in music. But, I would like to see close listening take more of a role in what music writers do.

(I admit that I’m saying this partially so that I don’t have to hold myself to the standards I’m setting up in this post. Take heed of my current Twitter bio: “Opinions mutable, fatuous and best ignored.”)

BING-DUNG! Next interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

Thanks for this one, Matt. 45:33 is fantastic, and thinking about all of this really put me through my paces.

BING-DUNG! Workout complete.

— Matthew