Yes, this post is a reference to Harold Bloom, who I hate in your standard fuck-the-WASPy-elitist-guardians-of-imperialist-culture sort of way, but what the hell, I’m in a Bloom-y mood. The shoe fits, et cetera et cetera.
I’m teaching profusely these days, but have no fear: this isn’t one of those extended bitching sessions from a milquetoasty former overachiever currently rotting in adjunct hell. I have the luxury of fantasizing of moving on to greener pastures some day since I’m not saddled with something as unmarketable as a literature Ph.D. — or any Ph.D. at all. I find teaching to be mostly enjoyable, and I do not hold a monkish disposition that regards anything that takes me away from precious books/films/other cloaked consumer fetish as an unjust intrusion. Rather, it is my distinct pleasure to be teaching a class on popular music this quarter. In a fit of ambition, I decided that instead of papers, students would required to post on a class blog, located over here.
I’ve organized the class as a basic primer on 20th Century popular music, Tin Pan Alley to the present, with a heavy bias on American music since the text is Reebee Garofalo’s Rockin’ Out. Since straight-up music history is not really my bag, nor my strength (yeah, I’m one of those “theory” people always looking for RADICAL NEW PERSPECTIVES instead of facts and shit), I’m trying to incorporate more overarching concepts into the history. For the class on the blues, I attempted to introduce concepts of authenticity and appropriation. I asked the class for their take on what makes music authentic, and I was pleased that they gave me all the typical answers I was looking for:
“The artist has real talent, it’s not just studio tricks and production.” — Yes, typical rockism inflected with modernist technological anxiety! I am all over this.
“They are speaking about what they know, it’s not just made up.” — Ok, biographical keep-it-realism! Check!
“They play music for love, it’s not just about money.” — Wonderful! Residual Romanticist artistic purity!
“It’s like authentic Mexican food — it’s actually from the culture.” Cultural authenticity — perfect segue into my pre-planned discussion of appropriation of so-called “black music” by whites!
Now, Garofalo does an excellent job pointing out that the blues was not “pure” black music — it was a hybrid of Africanized Europeanisms and Eurofied Africanisms. Furthermore, many blues songs were strikingly similar to “hillbilly” music made by poor rural Southern whites, and there was considerable cultural crossover. I re-emphasized these points in the beginning of class, and perhaps cut my later points off at the knees without realizing it. Because my next trick was to play classic country blues alongside later covers by white rockers who profited far more than the originators. Like this:
which I actually find defensible — check out the first chapter of this book for a thorough analysis to which I am sympathetic. My students were understandably sympathetic to Cobain, the only rock star of their lifetimes that still matters (sorry Axl). After all, dude blew his brains out, he had to have had the blues.
I followed up with something I find far more atrocious:
versus the travesty of this:
Yes, a rich white British rock star doing a sanitized pop cover of a scratchy, haunting blues recording, backed by a gaggle of paunchy middle aged bro’s. Surely there could be some debate about authenticity here. This was the Blueshammer Effect if I ever saw it (and yes, I did play the Ghost World clip later on).
My students didn’t see it like that. Many preferred the white covers because of the more “modern” sound. Some saw Clapton’s crediting of Johnson, his positioning of his performance as homage, as sufficient payment for his cultural theft. No one, save a student who talked to me after class, saw much of a problem at all with incredibly successful privileged white musicians making their careers out of watering down music born out of resistance to poverty, degradation, and white terrorism in the feudal South after the Civil War.
I was puzzled. After class concluded, I thought about my students’ reactions (or lack thereof). In spite of their earlier stated beliefs in some of the classic tenets of musical authenticity, no one wanted to give Clapton the bashing I thought he deserved. Not even students who spoke about cultural authenticity voiced opposition to the covers. A possible answer hit me later: perhaps for most of my students, as for many people, music is entertainment, no more, no less. Its value lies in its ability to please and not offend. It should facilitate social situations (dancing, relaxing), and the listener should be able to connect with it on an emotional level (I must confess that “emotional connections” strike me as shallow and narcissistic, perhaps that’s another post), but nothing more. I am shocked, not by how little students know about the music they are fans of, but that knowing and understanding how various musics came doesn’t even register as crucial to appreciating it. All you have to do is listen and decide if you like it or dislike it. Pleasure is the only real value when it comes to music, and different music just arises from different opinions (and remember, all opinions are equally valid because, after all, we are all unique and beautiful snowflakes — another possible post).
Now perhaps I’m overstating my case — it’s early in the quarter and I’m sure my students’ views are more complex and diverse than my rough sketch. And even if my caricature is true, I don’t place the blame on my students for their lack of interest. But I do think it’s the case that the so-called “poptimists” have won — if you bring up authenticity in music, you are a fun-hating rockist Dad-type, and we will shove Kylie records in your face, nyaah! The poptimist “victory” (pushed by many a privileged liberal arts grad) was often little more than the ideological analog of the corporate music industry’s triumph over the global music market, forcing music criticism to judge third string teen idol pap “on its own terms.” The “revolutionaries” were more often than not trailing behind the real force in shaping music tastes — giant media conglomerates — and smoothing out the damage done. But now, with a little reading and cognitive dissonance, we can finally enjoy albums put out to promote the careers of meagerly talented starlets, and even join their vast marketing campaigns as a hobby. And mainstream music writing has devolved into promotional capsules regurgitating ad copy (but at least those hacks get paid).
Now, I am far from a rockist, and the backlash against rockism was in part a reaction to some highly articulate defenses of wonderful music that many yuppie rock writers had uncritically shat on for years — disco, hip hop, dance music — basically much of the music that I cherish today. But rockism isn’t the only type of authenticity, and I would (and maybe will, in another post) argue that authenticity is a necessary value in appreciating music. It’s certainly necessary if we give a shit about music beyond whether we would put it on our iPod. Mere enjoyment, jouissance, is the shallow response of alienated consumers to mass commodity music. I do like a large amount of such mass commodity music (witness gigantic Soulja Boy post), but I won’t waste my time building aesthetic defenses for it — what does that do but justify what we are already being given by incredibly unethical and incompetent corporations? But since corporations control the vast majority of music (and still do, despite the internet — yes, people download music, but a lot of what they pirate is major label mainstream!), this is the only mode of connection to music most can muster. There are few communities left in the U.S. outside of corporate media domination, and the internet has increased both their visibility and their ability to be cherry-picked and exploited by enterprising outsiders. Because our music comes to us mediated and packaged by our corporate overseers, not out of the communities in which we live and grow, it is incredibly difficult to engage with music beyond the level of consumers. If we want something more, if we want to see music as a part of cultural fabrics, as resistance, as alternative histories, we have to work for it, on our own time, and probably for nothing.
This is no doubt why I am so little interested in most American music these days, and instead pursue more exotic pastures on the third world internet. Is the music more authentic? Well, not because it comes from the poorer browner races of the earth — come on, I have a cultural studies degree, I’m not going to spew out the ol’ noble savage paradigm! But in many cases these genres come from communities, from people who touch and see and smell each other, who have a shared lot and a shared culture that, if not untouched by corporate media domination, certainly have a more complex relation to it than your average reality TV star with an album in the works.
This was far less pointed and rambling than a typical Bloom rant, but I am — disappointed, I guess is the word, by how meaningless music is to most people. It’s like cereal — there are lots of different types and everyone has their own favorite, but if we can all eat what we like, why argue?