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

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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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

LCD Soundsystem: 45:33 (pt. 1)

4533

Dear Matthew:

In my last post, I mentioned listening to music while exercising. You also pointed out that your last three assignments to me have been long compositions. With all that in mind, there’s no way your next assignment isn’t going to be LCD Soundsystem‘s 45:33.

As a person who generally follows music, there’s no way you haven’t heard of LCD Soundsystem. They were indie rock royalty in the mid to late 2000s, unquestioningly loved by all of the hip music publications and blogs that were rising to prominence at the time; they’re probably the first ever ‘buzz band’, in the sense that we might use that horrible term today (though its use does, thankfully, seem to be fading). The band was a project of James Murphy, cofounder of the New York indie dance label DFA Records, who was already in his early thirties when he started the band. This lead to a lot of hacky music writers calling him things like ‘indie rock’s elder statesman’ and ‘dance music’s resident old guy’. He made a jammy, dance-influenced style of indie rock with often contemplative and ironic lyrics that put him squarely in the camp of music universally loved by sad college kids of the early 21st century.

All of this, and the band only ever released three proper albums, over only seven years. After a series of singles, LCD Soundsystem released a self-titled debut LP in 2005, a widely lauded followup called Sound of Silver in 2007, and a final album called This Is Happening in 2010 before Murphy announced the end of the band in 2011.

I’m not sure what to call 45:33. It’s not usually lumped in with the band’s three studio albums, but it’s too long for me to be comfortable calling an EP. The title is ostensibly a reference to the two most common speeds of vinyl record playback*. It’s a one-off composition written and recorded by Murphy in 2006, commissioned by Nike for release under their Nike+ program as a piece of music made specifically for running. (This would have been at the same time he was working on Sound of Silver, and indeed a large instrumental chunk of 45:33 ended up on Sound of Silver with lyrics as the song ‘Someone Great’.) Marketing copy for the piece’s release talked about how it was designed to ‘reward and push’ at ideal points during a run, and how it had been refined by Murphy after numerous runs on a treadmill.

…except that this was all bullshit. A few years later — presumably after Nike’s exclusivity license was up and he was able to release the piece himself — Murphy admitted he had been lying through his teeth when he said the piece had been designed for running, and that he doesn’t even jog. He just wanted to make a longform disco record in the style of Manuel Göttsching’s E2-E4, and given his own label’s hesitancy due to the format’s unmarketability, he figured this was the only way he’d be able to do it. The music press — who, you’ll recall, unfalteringly loved everything Murphy ever touched — had of course eaten the whole thing up, leading to some pretty hilarious reviews where music blog hacks lauded the mix’s peaks and valleys that coincided so perfectly with their workout. While his label’s trepidation was no doubt a factor, I like to think that, at least on some level, Murphy just wanted to fuck with people.

All of LCD Soundsystem’s stuff tends to the long and jammy side, but on 45:33, Murphy takes that aspect of his music to its logical conclusion. As often seems to be the case around here, this is not the band’s conventionally accepted magnum opus, but I see no reason why it won’t be a great introduction to the band for you — and you’ve told me you’ve been meaning to give the band a listen for ages. So, now’s your chance. Go for a run while you listen to this piece. Or don’t! By Murphy’s own admission, it won’t matter. Either way, I think you’ll like this album a lot.

— Matt

*If Murphy had made the piece about 30 seconds shorter, it would have been exactly 45 minutes and 33 seconds long. This frustrates me to no end.

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (pt. 2)

Become Ocean

Dear Matthew:

I don’t think you’re going to like this post.

Become Ocean is fine. It’s pretty. It’s interesting enough to listen to it ebb and flow, to build from silence to full blast and back again. But in the end, I have the same reaction to this piece that I did with the only other classic drone record I’ve listened to — Sleep’s Dopesmoker* — and it’s a question we’ve both posed on this blog before: What is this music for?

One thing this blog has caused me to examine about myself is the ways I like to experience music — and how that might affect my tastes more broadly, in a way I hadn’t really considered before. I think there might be a medium-is-the-message sort of component here, and if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to try to unpack it.

Generally, I listen to new music in only a few specific settings: while commuting and/or exercising (these have been one and the same for a while now, since I bike to work and almost everywhere else); while doing primarily rote and/or visual tasks, like cleaning or organizing or photo editing; or while playing the popular computer game StarCraft II. I also like to listen to music while I drive, cook, and do certain computer-based tasks, but I don’t like these situations for brand new music because I can’t devote enough attention to it and/or there’s too much background sound.

What I like about commuting/exercising, sorting/editing and StarCraft is that they don’t take a lot of processing power, or at least not all at once. (Not at my StarCraft skill level, anyway.) I find I can almost never listen to music while I ‘work’, because my work generally either involves writing and thus consumes essentially all of my available brainpower, or involves working with audio and thus precludes music listening altogether. I usually don’t even listen to music when I’m just surfing the internet, because I either won’t absorb what I’m reading or I won’t absorb the music, so I’ve realized at this point in my life that it’s a lost cause to try and do both. And even StarCraft isn’t perfect; if a skirmish gets particularly heated, I’ll completely lose the thread of whatever I’m listening to for a few minutes.

Now, what these situations all have in common is this: while listening to the brand new music, there is something else that is actively demanding at least partial attention from me. With the rote/visual tasks or the real-time strategy, I’m diverting at least some attention away from the music, and sometimes all of it for brief periods. Commuting/exercising is probably closer to ideal, particularly when public transit is involved, but while this avoids the problem of concentration lapses, you’re also competing with other sounds. Cars, people, wind noise if you’re on a bike — all of it makes it harder to pick up on details in the music.

The more I think about this, the less of a coincidence I think it is that my favourite music tends to be energetic, driving, loud, bizarre, cerebral, and other similar adjectives — my favourite music tends to be stuff that really commands attention. I think this may be due at least in part to the types of situations in which I generally consume music, combined with my obsessive personality. (I’m one of those people who keeps entire albums despite only really liking one song, and I almost always prefer to listen to entire albums versus songs on shuffle or in a playlist or whatever.) In other words, I think my taste is at least somewhat affected by the use I see the music as having for me. Simply put, I seem to generally want music I can bob my head to while doing other things.

So, with that in mind, let’s consider my original question about Become Ocean a bit differently: What can I use this music for? It’s not rhythmic enough for bike riding. It doesn’t work for StarCraft at all. It’s far too droney and atmospheric for the bus. What I ended up doing was listening to it at work where, as you know, I’m currently doing some glorified data entry, so it worked well enough for that. But really, I find that music like this is of only limited utility to me. There’s only so much data I have to enter, only so many photos to edit. And besides, rote tasks like that are great opportunities for music that is too cerebral — some lyrically dense rap, say — for more attention-demanding situations. For me, this music falls into the same category as bands like Mogwai or múm: bands I really like, but whose music I really only ever listen to in specific situations, like at three in the morning on a deadline and I need something besides the silence to keep me clinging to consciousness.

I don’t know, maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I’m not approaching the music on its own terms. I mean, this piece clearly isn’t meant to be a workout mix, or a video game soundtrack. I’m sure it’s spectacular live. And I realize that it’s incredibly selective and hypocritical of me, given that one of my favourite musicians recently released an EP of moody space music, and I love it. But even though it’s selfish, the reality is that this kind of music is of limited use to me just because of how, why, and where I tend to listen to music, and I think that might be why I find it hard to get especially excited about.

All of this is to say: it’s fine music. But I think I understand your response to the Micronauts a lot better now.

But hey, speaking of workout mixes and long compositions, I think you’ll really like your next assignment.

— Matt

*OK, I guess it’s kind of obvious what a record called Dopesmoker is for.

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (pt. 1)

Become Ocean

Dear Matt,

I’m still reeling from my unexpected reaction to the Offspring. I’m assigning you orchestral music to rebuild my sense of self.

In your response to my Brooklyn Rider assignment, you thanked me for starting you out with a quartet, since it lacks the flash of a soloist or the bombast of an orchestra. And, while I may chafe at those characterizations of venerable art music genres, you’re clearly right on both counts. I mean, the first ensembles that we could recognize as orchestras developed in the only place where they feasibly could have gathered the forces: 17th-century Central European royal courts. It doesn’t get more bombastic than that.

But at the same time, thank god that art is like that sometimes. Occasionally, when you put a creative genius at the helm of truly massive forces, great things happen. I don’t want to live in a world without Ben-Hur, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or BioShock Infinite or any of the other great decadent works that obviously had huge amounts of money poured into them. I think that the symphony orchestra is one of the best things that humans have ever invented. And, the fact that the logistics and finances of it dwarf those of a chamber group is part of the appeal.

To wit, here is the greatest contemporary argument for why orchestras are still a good idea: John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean.

Adams has been the composer of the moment since he won the Pulitzer for Become Ocean last year. He’s lived in interior Alaska since 1978, and all of his music is written as a response to that landscape. This is a guy who used real-time data taken from the position of the sun in the sky, the fullness of the moon, the presence of minor seismic events, and the strength of the Aurora Borealis to produce a computer-driven audio installation at the University of Alaska.

But, as conceptual as Adams’ music can get, it never veers into territory that makes it unappealing to listen to. It’s powerful, cerebral stuff — but never obscurantist. Adams cites some frightening figures as influences: the player piano innovator Conlon Nancarrow, stochastic musician Iannis Xenakis, and that arch-avantgardist John Cage.

But possibly his most important influence was Morton Feldman, who practiced a sort of alternative minimalism that focusses on creating spare, spacious music rather than the driving rhythms of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. For my money, his Rothko Chapel is one of the most gorgeous pieces of the 20th century. And Adams’ music sounds a lot more like Rothko Chapel than anything by Cage or Xenakis.

(Around this point, it’s traditional to explain that there are two well-known American post-minimalist composers named John Adams. John Luther Adams is not the guy who wrote the hit opera Nixon in China. That’s John Coolidge Adams. He got famous first, so he doesn’t need to use his middle name in his credits.)

Become Ocean is Adams’ reflection on the rising sea levels caused by climate change. As Adams put it himself, in one of the more succinct program notes you’re ever likely to read: ‘Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.’

Clearly, instrumental music is a strange medium by which to approach such specific themes. But, Adams isn’t being didactic in this piece. He’s doing what modern composers do best: expressing vague notions, sensations and anxieties by way of sound.

The work is a single, 42-minute composition (I know, I know, I know) for large orchestra. It is purely textural music — I believe that when I first discussed this album with you, I described it as ‘drone music for full orchestra.’ I basically stand by that. But as with the inventor of drone music, Richard Wagner (not trolling, listen to this), Adams employs a wealth of textural effects that intermingle to bring the music to crashing peaks and tense troughs — brought to life beautifully in this premiere recording by the Seattle Symphony and their brilliant musical director Ludovic Morlot.

Certainly, Adams would never deign to incorporate anything so vulgar as a melody. But I think that the side of your taste persona that’s into droney electronic music (a taste attribute that we share) will also appreciate this different sort of droney music — a drone made more vibrant for being played on acoustic instruments and orchestrated by a master. Feel free to zone out during this music. It’s approachable on a number of different levels of attention.

One of these days, I’ll assign you some proper core orchestra rep. But as much as I love Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, they’re not coextensive with what is erroneously called ‘classical music.’ John Luther Adams is, to me, just as central to that tradition. I hope you enjoy this.

— Matthew

P.S. This New Yorker profile of Adams by Alex Ross is one of my favourite pieces of music journalism. Just, as an aside.

The Offspring: Americana (pt. 2)

Previously, on Two Matts:

Matthew has complicated feelings about punk. He doesn’t like it in principle, but when confronted with the actual music, he has to admit that there’s more to it than he usually tends to think. Matthew’s complicated feelings got even more complicated when he found that he absolutely adores NoMeansNo’s Wrong, the second album Matt assigned him. Matthew was forced to admit that there’s a tremendous chasm between the Platonic ideal of punk rock he has in his head and the reality of a genre that has evolved and fragmented over the course of decades. Now, Matt has assigned Matthew a successful late-90s pop-punk album, and Matthew’s complicated feelings are being dredged up again…

americana

Dear Matt,

Well, shit. I like this one too.

I’ve got to admit, I wanted to despise this album. In general, on this blog, I’ve tried to keep an open mind. I’ve written before about how I generally think that when I don’t like something it’s my own fault, so I always approach new music hoping to like it. But when you assigned the Offspring, my first thought was ‘Ah, here’s my opportunity to really tear into something.’

I’m not quite sure why I had it in for Americana. I certainly didn’t feel the same when approaching Wrong. Maybe it’s because, now that we’ve established that I can’t attack punk at its ideological roots and have it be anything other than a totally facile critique, I feel more comfortable lashing out at a band that’s signed to a major label and scoring massive radio play. But that doesn’t make any sense, because the whole notion of ‘selling out’ doesn’t actually upset me. Plus, I don’t even have any sympathy for the SoCal skatepunk DIY values that the Offspring were probably betraying, here.

All the same, for whatever reason, I came to this album expecting some blend of annoyance and outrage that could only be mitigated by writing something angry and indignant about it. But around three songs in, I was unable to deny that I was enjoying myself. No matter how hard I tried not to.

You pitched Americana to me as a disc of summer jamz, and it is that. I listened to it on a bus, on a sunny day, after work. When the album was over and I found that I was early getting to my destination, I immediately listened to ‘Why Don’t You Get a Job?’ three more times. Then ‘She’s Got Issues’ twice. Then ‘Pay the Man’ again.

So basically, I’ve once again been confronted with the difference between the way I think about punk and the way that punk actually works, and I come out looking like an ass.

I want to try out an idea, here. You’ll know by now that I spend an awful lot of time thinking about prog rock. To me, one of the watershed moments in the history of that music was a point somewhere in the 80s when a wave of ‘neo-prog’ bands emerged, playing music that was explicitly modelled after the prog of the prior decade. This, as opposed to working in the original spirit of progressive rock, which dealt with genre fusion and independent experimentation. There was never a prog ‘sound’ in the 70s. In the 80s, with bands like Marillion and IQ cribbing the aesthetic trappings of a few key bands, there suddenly was.

We could define this as the point where prog calcified into a ‘genre’ in the strictest sense — a category of music with a defined set of traits — rather than a ‘movement,’ or perhaps a ‘scene.’ The result, initially, was a lot of pretty formulaic music: quite the opposite of what King Crimson and Magma were trying to do. But more recently, bands like Opeth and the Mars Volta have found a way to use what they’ve learned from classic prog bands to create music that sounds distinctly different.

All of which is a self-indulgent aside leading up to this relevant insight: clearly, something similar has happened to punk. Punk was a scene or movement prior to becoming a proper genre, and the aesthetics of that genre (as opposed to the ethics of the movement that produced it) have been stripped for parts and used for various purposes with varying degrees of relation to the original source.

One of those purposes turns out to be writing pop songs. And I do love me some pop songs.

So, you’re batting two for two in terms of punk assignments that worked out. However, I suspect that I remain one of the least punk rock people that either of us know. And that is unlikely to change…?

To be continued.

— Matthew