Rachel, Our Father, and Me

 

I don’t know. No one ever knows his own father himself.

οὐκ οἶδ’· οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω. 

Homer, Odyssey 1.201

 

“To remember the past, you tell a story about it. And in recalling the memory, you tell the story again.  It is not always the same story, as the person telling it does not always want the same things….As children become better storytellers, they become better rememberers. But their memory system also becomes more susceptible to distortion.”

Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light, 98

 

When our father died, it was as shock both for its suddenness and for the cliché we all suffer when we lose someone who was part of our life: we (thankfully, in a way) don’t know how to cope with the erasure of a human being, the deletion of a presence that was part of our lives for their entirety.  But in writing about him over the past few years, I fear that I have done a disservice to him and to us.

In keeping to the age-old injunction of not speaking ill of the dead, we have erred too far and have created a fictionalized father, a man who in our telling is far closer to the father we wish we had known than he ever was. There is nothing wrong with such a hagiography on the surface, but in a world in which biology is ever more carrying the weight of destiny and where the stories we tell have always shaped the way we view and judge ourselves, such distortion through omission can have dangerous effects on what we believe to be true about our lives and our decisions. If I willfully change the way my father was and completely elide his faults and his fears, how can I be sure I won’t make the same mistakes when I tell my own stories?

Neuroscientists have shown (as some psychologists have suspected) that the act of recalling a memory exposes it to distortion. Memories recalled often become part of the stories we tell about ourselves and their details will change to suit both the needs of the tellers and the audience. I don’t want to write to slander my father, but I want to give him the fullness and complexity he deserves as a human being. We are all slightly less-than-stable compromises of divergent desires and often destructive beliefs. Learning to accept the contradictory strains in our loved ones is necessary to acknowledging fully the often hypocritical tensions in ourselves.

Elliott Smith, “Memory Lane”. “All anybody knows / is you’re not like them / they kick you in the head / and send you back to bed.”

When my father died, I expected some trouble. He was a man who it would not have been surprising to discover was leading other lives. He lived a rich fantasy life—always dreaming that he would accomplish something great, that he would end up someone different. It fell to me to try to make sense of some of the messes he left behind: years of unpaid taxes; a maze of debt and collection bureaus; accounts tied to strange addresses; unopened summonses and bills.

I had the strange voyeurism of entering into my father’s email account, at first to contact some business associates who owed him money, and later to sift through his last few weeks of correspondence to try to figure out whether or not he knew how sick he was. (He did. Forty-eight hours before his death he sent an email to his older sister, writing “This is the sickest I have ever been.” He still waited another 36 hours to go to the doctor.)

This type of textual analysis was probably my safest way of handling grief. As a student of literature, I practice the ancient art of Philology, described once as “the art of reading slowly.” No amount of slow reading, however, could brace me for all the discoveries I’d make. Infidelity, I could handle. Debt and delinquency? This had been the story of my/our lives. But during the process of arranging for my father’s funeral, writing a eulogy, and trying to make an initial reckoning of his accounts, I started corresponding with one of my father’s business associates, a man I will call Felix.

Chvrches, “Lies”. This will make sense in a minute.

Felix emotionally and generously confided in me that my father had become a close friend, in part because of his empathy regarding Felix’s daughter. His daughter had suffered from an “unknown progressive neuro-muscular disorder causing severe dystonia” and the pain she endured alongside the uncertainty of her diagnosis (which seemed to indicate a shortened life) wracked him and his family with the kind of suffering that only parents can imagine.

Felix made it clear that my father changed his life because he was always there just to listen and because he inspired him with his love of his family and his expressions of religious faith. He also inspired him, Phil revealed, because he shared with him his own story of loss, the loss of his daughter Rachel.

We never had a sibling named Rachel. But I didn’t say this to Felix because he had forwarded me an email from my father where he wrote

“Every day I wake up thinking of my daughter –Rachel – go to bed thinking of Rachel. We had 4 children – now 3 but the blessings and gifts they have brought blow my mind […] but always Rachel is the background- never goes away- but I have still have joy and overwhelmed with blessings.”

Felix assured me in the email that he had never mentioned this email to anyone. Even as I type this now I can smell the stale smoke in my father’s office where I read this for the first time. I remember calling my wife in to read it. Under the pall of our grief, we couldn’t process this, we couldn’t make sense of what it meant or whether it was possible. Soon, like my father, I was waking up and thinking about Rachel.

A

Typhoon, “Young Fathers”. Nothing has made me think more of what my father was like as young father than being a father myself.  Did he change my diapers? Did he hold me the way I hold my son and think about the terrible and beautiful brevity of life?

My mother had a miscarriage before me and after me and, as family mythology goes, was told she wasn’t able to have children. When I was younger and the whole family was more religious, they told me (the oldest) that they hadn’t had a child until they joined a new church and started to pray. I was baptized and confirmed in that church.  The minister was my godfather. I have a picture of him holding my daughter.

But when I asked my mother, in a probably less than sensitive way, if there were any other children or if they had planned on naming one of the miscarriages Rachel, she thought it was absurd. It didn’t seem to me likely that my father had spent years brooding in secret over a miscarriage when he had three healthy children. But he was a man who looked good in a disguise.

In the days before the funeral, I imagined myself as part of a future story. In my fantasy, I interviewed distant relatives and friends about his past, the type of people who might know about a lost child, about a baby born out of wedlock whose brief existence had been hidden from my mother. It was not inconceivable to me that such a thing might have happened. As the long hours past, it seemed more than likely that this was Rachel: a brief alternative life in the past whose loss had festered in my father as a metonym for all of the other lives he could have lived. Or, as that fourth child, that extra helping of happiness that might have tipped the scales in a middling life.

The Beatles, “Nowhere Man.” A ‘friend’ in high school once told me that this song should be my anthem. It was cruel, but it was true: I have long lived only half-engaged with those around me. My father was the same. Or more.

As the first step in this imagined memoir (the type of rangy self-discovery at home in The New Yorker), I emailed a friend of my father’s, a woman whose name would bring explosions of rage to our home, and asked her directly if she knew anything about it. She, who had known my father differently but quite well for years, said she would have been shocked if there were or had been another child, that my father loved his children so much that it would be inconceivable that he would have never mentioned Rachel. And, then, she added enigmatically, “He did say last summer that he would have named your [daughter] Rachel, if it was up to him.”

After my father’s funeral, things spiraled downhill for my family. We eventually got most of the finances under control (although we’re still working on it); two new grandchildren were born over the next year; and my mother suffered some of the most harrowing effects of grief. I left the issue of Rachel aside to protect her and us from the uncertainty. But I never stopped mulling it over.

Muddy Waters “Fathers and Sons”, Appropriate and inappropriate for this post. But my father would probably appreciate that.

I eventually concluded that there were three possibilities: (1) that my father had emotionally connected with a miscarriage, naming it Rachel and keeping the pain to himself; (2) that he had fathered another child who died (or was estranged); or (3) that he had made up the child drawing on his experiences to empathize with Felix. Given the absence of any evidence for the first two options, I decided that the last was most likely.

What does it mean to believe that your father was the kind of man who would fabricate a dead child in order to make a connection with someone? Is this even possible? What was the name Rachel to him and why did it recur in different contexts?

My father was a man cut off from many people by his deafness and his aloofness (probably interconnected). He was also capable of long-term deceit (for self-defense) and short-term confabulation (to try to keep others happy). If he did manufacture the memory of a child, I am almost certain he did it with a full range of emotions drawn from the rest of his life and that part of him wanted to believe it. We make up stories all the time. We all bend the truth and introduce new details into old stories. If he invented a Rachel to console Felix, he did it because he wanted to feel with him, to be his friend, and through grief to be more fully human.

Pearl Jam “Better Man”.  This song has always made me think about my father and myself.

But perhaps this conclusion is still just more evidence of me creating the father I wanted to have rather than acknowledging the man he really was.  To some, inventing a dead child might sound diabolical. But, given the other options, it speaks to me of someone who wanted to feel, of a man who into his last days was trying to be something real.

And this in turn is a lesson on the complexity of what makes each one of us who we are.

 

 

Advertisements

Ending is a New Beginning?

“No other Odysseus will ever come home to you”

οὐ μὲν γάρ τοι ἔτ’ ἄλλος ἐλεύσεται ἐνθάδ’᾿Οδυσσεύς,

Homer, Odyssey 16.204

 

 “Music-cued autobiographical memory can also demonstrate the power of first associations. A song that might have been heard many hundreds of times can nevertheless send the listener back in time to its first listening…” Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light, 54

 

After too much thought and time, I have come to the conclusion that I am not going to write for this blog any longer. Because I cannot let good enough alone, I will explain this. And, because I would much rather go out with a bang than a whimper, I have written a few final posts (after this one) to rectify some of the mistakes I have made and to bring the whole project full-circle.

 

This blog has/had two starting points and many other ancillary goals that were all in some way related to our favorite subject, our father. I don’t want to rank any of these points, lest I give the mis-impression that one in some way outweighed another. But the first time I remember thinking about it was after a call and an email from my father. He told me he was worried about my brother, that he needed direction and some way out of his depression after the end of college and the end of a relationship.

 

Tegan and Sara, “Goodbye, Goodbye”. I still love this band. This song may be a bit harsh.

 

I had been trying for some time to be a better brother—but the majority of my attempts were merely talking to him frequently on the phone and trying to help him continually spruce up cover letters and his resume. Once my father made a specific request (something he rarely did), I started daydreaming and eventually came up with the idea for a blog. In part, as my reasoning went, my brother needed something else to do, but he also needed something else that helped him change his vision of himself, to introduce new ideas about his future.

 

In a way, and this is where another motivation for the blog comes in, I needed the same thing.  I was definitely not loving my career; I felt unmoored and exiled in Texas; and I was languishing emotionally and intellectually because of both. The blog seemed like a salve for both of us: we could be closer; we could work on something together; and we could explore different visions of ourselves and different options for the future.

 

Social Distortion, “Bye, Bye,Baby”.  I am still pissed that I never went to CBGBs. I suck

 

When my father died, the writing of the blog also had a therapeutic function.  As I re-read pieces, I can see us coping with our loss in different and mostly productive ways. In his absence, being there for my brother was even more necessary. I threw myself into writing for the blog and cajoling him into writing, editing, and then re-writing.  Before we posted anything online, I think we had nearly 75 1000-word pieces ready.

 

My reasons for leaving the blog now are in part related to its origins. The therapeutic effect has waned; my brother has grown up a lot, found music in new and exciting ways and has a full-time job in his own field; and I have learned an immeasurable amount about myself. I am a better writer now, a better thinker (I think) and I know a lot more about what goes on online.

But my frustrations with the blog have to do with my own contributions, what they cost me in time and energy, and what I derive from the process.  If we have any regular readers, you will know that I have posted sparingly during this year. While not writing for the blog, I have done more writing for my career than ever before. Obviously, the practice of writing daily has helped my discipline. It has also helped make my writing less stilted (seriously) and my interests more broad. And, yet, this has also helped me see the limitations of my writing on the blog—I don’t know as much as I should about music to keep this up. The dilettantism shows up too often. I can’t write well for the blog and write well for the many other projects I have going on.  I am an all or nothing person.

When it comes down to it, though, the simplest explanations for my departure are these: I have many other things to do (and for two years I was spending 6-10 hours a week working on the blog); and the writing of the blog has ceased to make me closer to my brother. If anything, it has had the opposite effect.

 

Guster, “So, Long.” I still love this band. This was recorded in Portland, Maine.  In another timeline, I might have been there.

 

At the same time, we never really achieved the success I imagined we would in creating a community or in attracting readers. Part of this is certainly due to my own writing style (which isn’t always friendly and which is also not well-suited to the medium). My frustration derives also from my ego—I think we’re doing more creative and interesting stuff than people who have a hundred (or a thousand) times the daily views. Because WordPress gives you graphs to show all of these things, I became somewhat obsessed with tracking our pageviews: looking between classes, in the middle of the night, even while running.

And another nail in the coffin has been the superficial and narcissistic nature of the medium. The content, level of discourse, overall tone of conversation on the internet has only served to undermine my confidence in the medium as a force for discovery and debate. It may sound dramatic, but I am sure there are days where my involvement in the blog has been mentally unhealthy. I don’t think the world needs access to everyone’s opinions.  I am sure that little good has come from my words thrown into the mix.

I don’t think I will ever stop searching for new music, ruminating on why I love the music I do, or writing. I want to write more freely and more pensively and I also want to shed the veil of anonymity. One of the things I have worked on outside this blog is the danger of living separate lives and how emotional instability and narrative uncertainty can ensue when you maintain separate personae. A watershed moment came from me when a blogger wrote on his site that “this [the blog] is real life”.

“Farewell and Adieu To You Fair Spanish Ladies.” As a Mainer, I love Sea Shanties.

I disagree wholeheartedly. The internet is a mirror of a picture of real life. It is an echo chamber twice removed from real sound and real experience. It prizes noise and frequency over quality and beauty. Perhaps I came to this too old or perhaps I am just too natively intense to spend as much time as I have online without losing something of myself. But I have been spending random days unplugged, and the quiet is beautiful.

The last few posts I leave all in some way contend with other frustrations that I have had during the writing of the blog. Much of it will seem too confessional, but I strive to narrow that gap between the person I am and the one I want to be.  I will post a story about my father we should have put up earlier.  I will post an early piece we were too cowardly to post because it was too ‘real’ and then I will close with an adaptation of a letter that I wrote to my brother before all of the blogging started.

I am grateful to the readers we’ve had and the empathy and consideration they’ve shown. I am also forever in debt to my brother for his patience with me.  Everyone in my family thinks I am hard to please. And they are right. But as my brother put it in his most recent post, we cannot rebuild the past, we can only lay out better designs for the future.

NSync, “Bye, Bye, Bye”.  A little fun to end the game. True story: I hate this song. But I like it too. That’s about all you need to know.

Everything (is) Good (On Criticism)

“When the critic has said everything in his power about a literary text, he has still said nothing; for the very existence of literature implies that it cannot be replaced by non-literature.” Tzvetan Todorov
“Fuck y’all, all ya’ll / if ya’ll don’t like me, blow me” Dr. Dre

In The Simpsons Episode 229 (“Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner”), Homer’s ability to speak eloquently and evocatively about food—from his own gluttonous experience—earns him a position as a restaurant critic. His early enthusiastic reviews attract the gratitude of the restaurateurs and the scorn of fellow critics who see his approach as too easy and, I suspect, unsophisticated and popularizing.

Under the spell of the evil critics’ cabal, Homer becomes an all too easily recognizable caricature of a critic who barely deigns to judge his material and whose blistering reviews can be explained only by how elevated and sophisticated his taste has become. Of course, Homer can’t have it both ways—he cannot be the food-loving hero of the people and the gastronomic esthete.  The restaurateurs conspire to poison him.

What does this have to do with music? It flirts with several issues at the center of criticism—issues that make the act of reviewing or judging music, for me, nearly paralyzing. What is the relationship between the critic and the object of criticism? Is it love for the form/genre? Is there a profit/commodification link between the two?

These questions are not restricted to food and music—indeed, anyone who has followed the 20th century crises in literary criticism will recognize some of the same issues. Why does a critic make judgments? Is it to  understand the specific instance of a genre or the genre as a whole? Or, more problematically, how can we tell when the review stops being (primarily) about the object of criticism and instead is really about the critic?

In reverse order. Criticism almost always reveals more about the judge than the judged. And this isn’t a bad thing. For instance, each generation’s reaction to Shakespeare communicates the values, emphases, and historical contexts of that time. On the other hand, a great deal of criticism suffers from personality cults. Too many critics write for the purpose of glorifying the critic by revealing through the sensitivity of the critic’s judgments and the dexterity of his/her writing the superiority of the critic over the creator of the object, other critics, and, of course, the reader.

Continue reading

The Cover Song: Repetition. Imitation. Innovation.

“The author is a modern character, no doubt produced by our society…discovering the prestige of the individual, or, as we say more nobly, of the “human person”. Hence, it is logical that in literary matters it should be positivism, crown and conclusion of capitalist ideology, which has granted the greatest importance to the author’s “person.”” – Roland Barthes (from The Death of the Author)
Nihil sub sole novum, Ecclesiastes

Years ago a roommate (the Historian) and I got in a furious argument about Lauryn Hill’s cover of Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You” (a ‘hidden’ track on the U.S. release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)). The Historian lamented both the lack of originality and the lameness of the cover in comparison to the ‘original’. Now, apart from the fact that Valli didn’t even write the song (Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio did, which complicates any claim of originality), Hill’s version, far from being a slavish imitation, is, I contended, a unique and worthwhile exercise that reflects her musical genre and time period and also enters into a long-standing tradition in art and literature. By updating the old, she created something new. And, as I added as an afterthought, originality is a false premise to begin with.

While my roommate retreated from his extreme “only the original and unique is good” position, he did not, lamentably, learn to love Hill’s version of the song. He has, however, come to see the importance of the cover song in popular music. Music is one area where we cherish repetition and imitation. Classical music and opera constantly revisit familiar territory; Jazz performance is built on a foundation of standards; Rap and Hip Hop made sampling at modern art form; and the history of Rock n’ Roll has the cover song as a staple of any new artist’s introduction.

Indeed, early canonical artists like Elvis and the Beatles were, at the beginning, cover artists (of course, some of this has to do with commercial viability; the rest of this has to do with re-packaging black music for white audiences). Anyone who has been in a band knows that you need cover songs to keep people listening to you and that learning and performing them is an essential part of musical and artistic development.

Somewhere along the way the cover song tarnished a bit. I suspect that part of this is a modern hang-up about “authorship” and “texts”; I suspect even further that once popular music was transported from its performance context where ‘authority’ resides in the current iteration (the performance) of the song rather than some dusty and fixed constant we started to be confused about its status.

Bear with me on this one. In classical music performances and live jazz shows, the money is for the performers—the commodity is in the moment. Since the dominant form of popular music has conventionally been the single played by the DJ and bought at the record store, the commodity is the fixed ‘text’ rather than the live performance or even the ‘transcript’ of the live performance. So, one explanation for the denigration of the cover song is that technological and cultural change facilitated a move away from a performance culture to prize the fixed recording instead.

Another explanation, and this one may be even more of a stretch, is that culturally we prize originality in artistic production because we overvalue ‘genius’. Some explanations for this phenomenon that I have encountered suggest that in a Christianized world we have followed the analogy author : text :: God : creation and that this implicit analogy has led us to devalue reinvention and repetition in favor of the divine original genius model. Another idea is that in a culture that so thoroughly praises the work of individual geniuses rather than the collective forces of human society, there is a certain psychological pressure on individuals to believe in this notion of ‘the genius’ with the secret and desperate hope that they might be one.

In truth, even the most innovative work is built on something that came before. In the ancient world, this idea permeates poetry. Telemachus claims in Homer’s Odyssey that men are always searching after the newest song—implying in some way that his song is new even as it builds on conventional and inherited language and motifs. In accepting a traditional form but claiming a different spirit, the Augustan poet Horace famously describes his poetry as “Roman wine in a Greek vase”. Imitation takes so many forms and is, like repetition, essentially paradoxical. By occurring in a different time, by having the ‘original’ behind it and in the mind of the observer/audience, a copy is never just a copy. The old is already something new. And nothing is ever truly new.

Continue reading

Sunshine On the Radio: Variations on a Theme with Ron Carter

I was about to drive home today in the oppressive heat of my adopted state and when I flipped on my car the radio was set to the local jazz station. This station plays mostly instrumental pieces, heavy on standards and classics with some great programs that highlight new jazz, Brazilian jazz etc. from time to time. So, I was a little surprised when the piece playing was just an upright bass.

Ron Carter stretches, rocks, rolls and massages out of “You Are my Only Sunshine” a timeless lesson in the relationship between a standard, a musician, and the audience. I can’t stop listening to or thinking about this number.

Continue reading

Angry Music

“You guys should play more angry”

–The Mixtape Girl’s Brother

“Goddess, sing the Rage of Achilles, the son of Peleus / the destructive rage that sent thousands of Greeks to their doom”

Homer, Iliad 1.1-2

(We never took time on this blog to note the passing and commemorate the memory of the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch. It is always a loss when a good man dies young. Coverage of his passing made me think of this subject.)

When I was younger I had the peculiar experience of dating a girl a few years my senior. Now, as far as the dating goes, there was really nothing unexpected or abnormal (indeed, it was a formative and not atypical adolescent firestorm); the peculiar part was that her (the Mix Tape Girl’s) younger brother was my age and in my classes at school.

Perhaps that is not all that strange—it was, however, a bit awkward. At the beginning he and I were not friends or really all that friendly. (In fact, I am sure he was not all that happy to have me around.) But, by the end of the relationship, we were friendly enough—we actually ended up in a related network of friends. We went to at least one movie together. He farted around me openly.Where the Mix Tape Girl was a little ‘alternative’ (but still close enough to the in-crowd), her brother started out a little nerdy without being a geek—that is, he took AP Physics and Calculus, but definitely wasn’t into Dungeons & Dragons or They Might be Giants. He was a bit of a clown, atypically kind in private, and charmingly goofy outside of school.

One day, when the two of us were working together at a convenience store, I was inflicting another conversation about my band on him.  I am sure he heard me sing and play the guitar more than anyone not dating me or related by blood should have had to. But he never complained. Instead, he seemed to try to understand the maudlin lyrics, the prog-rock harmonies and the attempts to imitate TMBG on one day, Nirvana on the next, and bad folk music on the third.


I think I was complaining about how no one we knew would come see my band play. And then, he said it: “Why don’t you guys play more angry? You know, like Rage Against the Machine or something.” He impressed upon me the value of letting people feel pissed off, the adrenaline sparked by angry music.


In all honesty I have always been a little bewildered by the attraction of the heavier and angrier bands (to the extent that my own affinity for Fugazi is only half-hearted). Moshing, slam-dancing, intentional violence—all these things always seemed off to me. Of course, at the time, the alternatives were to be a full-fledged Lilith Fair supporter, or to dwell somewhere awkwardly between the extremes.


The angry, or aggressive side of rock was not a new phenomenon even then—the heavier sounds that arrived with Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath set the stage for the much later mainstream popularity of a band like Rage Against the Machine which drew on the Hard Core movement of the 1980’s. Punk, especially in its early days with the Sex Pistols, shared the same genes.



Of course, I did not think any of this that day behind the register as we sold 99 cent King Cobras to local drunks. Instead, I tried to figure out what such a kind, often quiet, and altogether ‘happy’ guy like my girlfriend’s brother found to identify with in the anger of Rage Against Machine and the mad noise of “Sabotage”?


The complicated answer I come to years later is that for most of us who lead normal lives, such flirtation with anger acts like an emotional release valve. On a cultural level, our raging musicians, artists (and sometimes crackpots) express the destructive emotions that might just destabilize society if they are given no release.


This is not to say that artists like Rage Against the Machine, Black Flag, or Fugazi have nothing to be angry about, but, rather, that their appeal to those who are not defined by protest and inspired to challenge authority confirms that they are filling a larger cultural need.
Or something like that.

But, when I think about this topic further, this explanation makes sense (although it needs nuance and support). Anger, or perhaps something more basic and animalistic like rage, appears as the central theme of one of the oldest narratives in the Western tradition, the Iliad, where the main character’s rage (Achilles) is so super-human that it not only destroys his enemies but it results in the deaths of his friends. In turn, as Achilles follows his anger to its (il)logical end, it secures his death as well. It is only when he gives up his rage to make common cause with Priam, the father of his enemy Hector, the man he kills and then whose body he disfigures in fury, that Achillles becomes something like a human. He re-enters society. To become a civilized man, he must foreswear his rage.

Led Zeppelin got angry. About a foot.
Yet, the society that tells his tale still ponders the dangers and effects of anger. Why? Because the sub-human, animalistic spirit resides within us—especially within men. I used to think that angry music was popular because anger is a simple emotion that often covers for more complex things. Now, I think that while anger may correlate with many other emotions—loss, frustration, jealousy, to name a few—it is more basic and profound than a mere cloak for tender feelings.

Anger, I could say, is that battle within as we negotiate the balance between our needs and the world that confounds us. Anger, on a larger scale, is the expression of fundamental disappointment in the way things are. Anger, when sampled even vicariously, must be tamed or released for us to live together in something like peace.

Or that’s the answer I have now for why a nice young man essentially implied that my band was too whiny and needed (as he put it later) “balls”. Perhaps this too may explain my brother’s disdain for ‘emo’. Who wants every day and self-pitying emotions  when stronger stuff is on offer, when angry music lets us feel something or express something that we don’t find every day?
Here’s some real angry stuff:

And what do you think my brother?  Does the theory pass the smell test? Did you ever think you’d read about Achilles and Black Flag in the same post?

Everything (is) Good (On Criticism)

“When the critic has said everything in his power about a literary text, he has still said nothing; for the very existence of literature implies that it cannot be replaced by non-literature.” Tzvetan Todorov
“Fuck y’all, all ya’ll / if ya’ll don’t like me, blow me” Dr. Dre

In The Simpsons Episode 229 (“Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner”), Homer’s ability to speak eloquently and evocatively about food—from his own gluttonous experience—earns him a position as a restaurant critic. His early enthusiastic reviews attract the gratitude of the restaurateurs and the scorn of fellow critics who see his approach as too easy and, I suspect, unsophisticated and popularizing.

Under the spell of the evil critics’ cabal, Homer becomes an all too easily recognizable caricature of a critic who barely deigns to judge his material and whose blistering reviews can be explained only by how elevated and sophisticated his taste has become. Of course, Homer can’t have it both ways—he cannot be the food-loving hero of the people and the gastronomic esthete.  The restaurateurs conspire to poison him.

What does this have to do with music? It flirts with several issues at the center of criticism—issues that make the act of reviewing or judging music, for me, nearly paralyzing. What is the relationship between the critic and the object of criticism? Is it love for the form/genre? Is there a profit/commodification link between the two?

These questions are not restricted to food and music—indeed, anyone who has followed the 20th century crises in literary criticism will recognize some of the same issues. Why does a critic make judgments? Is it to  understand the specific instance of a genre or the genre as a whole? Or, more problematically, how can we tell when the review stops being (primarily) about the object of criticism and instead is really about the critic?

In reverse order. Criticism almost always reveals more about the judge than the judged. And this isn’t a bad thing. For instance, each generation’s reaction to Shakespeare communicates the values, emphases, and historical contexts of that time. On the other hand, a great deal of criticism suffers from personality cults. Too many critics write for the purpose of glorifying the critic by revealing through the sensitivity of the critic’s judgments and the dexterity of his/her writing the superiority of the critic over the creator of the object, other critics, and, of course, the reader.

 

Continue reading