The Closing of American Ears

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:

versus 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?

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18 Responses to The Closing of American Ears

  1. Tony from Seattle says:

    I liked video comparisons, an interesting (counter?)example is an old country singer appropriating consumer friendly music:

    Awesome idea to have your students keep a blog, it’s so teaching 2.0!

  2. Gavin says:

    Thanks for the comment, Tony. I would give Cash the benefit of the doubt on this one, since both he and Reznor are giving slightly different takes on the masochism of drug abuse. It’s not an attempt to sponge off someone else’s cred a la Clapton. And anyway, both Reznor and Cash were plenty successful off this tune!

  3. w&w says:

    Lots of this very resonant for me, esp as I wrap up a course on global hip-hop and learn that many students were expecting more in the way of “music appreciation.” Hmm. My short answer: our appreciation is enriched when we understand how the sounds in question become socially meaningful. Plus, how long should we really take to appreciate a good snare on beats 2 and 4? (Ok, as long as we want, sure; but doesn’t that snap, that ol boom-bap, signify even better when we hear what it’s snapping against?)

  4. Birdseed says:

    I notice you’ve left out the bit from the analysis in Faking it that claims Leadbelly was a huge, well-orchestrated fraud as well. :)

    Anyway, let me try to defend the thinking of my generation a bit. No offense. Ultimately, for me, I’m not going to sit around and shed any tears for po’ Robert Johnson, who is male, old and incredibly well-recognised in huge circles considering his initial commercial non-success. Compared to the thousands of performers that don’t meet up to the criteria of “authenticity” that the narrow (yes, rockist) mindset has set up as the only measure of quality, he’s a bright shining star on the heavens.

    I find it potentially more harmful (and maybe even a little racist) to single out and glorify “authentic” black performers like this – it’s the entire noble savage thing going on again. The image of the black man (not the woman yet again, mind) as the embodiment of the wise, the old, the real is very problematic I think, and it’s a destructive mythology because it fosters stereotypes and delegitimises those who fall outside the pattern. I’ve got very little respect for Clapton because he is essentially “shutting out” all of today’s black performers (and most from the past), but aren’t you pretty much doing a similar thing?

    (BTW, I disagree, vehemently even, with the thought that somehow the internet and the lame attentions of a few thousand hipsters is destabilising communities of music practitioners. I’d argue that far from it the amount of regional genres has been boosted incredibly by the internet distribution channels, and the past fifteen years has seen an enormous splintering and localisation of music in the US and elsewhere. Music takes care of itself, I think that’s the lesson of the past decades – if one vital genre Disappears in commercial schlock another will always rise in its place. Anyway, for me, bad music is just as interesting a field of study as good music – call that disengagement, if you will, but I spend a helluva lot of time studying and listening for someone who’s not “appreciating” music.)

    (Related-ish thoughts from my blog, a few months ago: http://downwithtunes.blogspot.com/2008/01/problematic-issue-of-white-audience.html)

  5. Gavin says:

    Wayne and Birdseed, thank you for the thoughtful posts.

    Wayne: any chance I can take a peek at your syllabus?

    Birdseed, you are right that I glossed over the Faking It chapter — it’s been a year since I read it, and unfortunately the book resides in a library far from my current location. But I was not exactly arguing that blackness made the OG blues-guys more authentic, but registering my surprise that although my students (most of whom are the same generation as me — I’m 26) seemed to buy into all the typical authenticity tropes, but when it came to actual music didn’t seem to care. Furthermore, didn’t even seem to consider the importance of music outside the consumption-pleasure conduit. And it wasn’t like they were rolling eyes at the preachy guy demanding they like the blues (I almost never listen to blues except for academic reasons). It was more of a blank-stare “why should I even care who ripped off who” look, which was striking for me.

    What I’m building toward in my own ideas, and vaguely gesture towards in this post is that authenticity can be deployed as a form of cultural resistance by marginalized groups to maintain control over their cultural production. As far as hipsters, I am less concerned about them “spoiling music” (I agree that music will always keep on keepin’ on), and more concerned that by relating to music only as a commodity we consume, we enable similar colonialist appropriations that happened 100 years ago. I guess I just want music to matter in a larger way than as the lifestyle accessory late capitalism’s turned it into.

    Not sure how I’m shutting out today’s black performers… I do not buy into the noble savage (part of why I like the hip hop spin on things, where little is noble and the savage bits are blown out to parodic extremes — everything weirded and denatured) can you explain that bit?

  6. Birdseed says:

    I guess I’m just allergic to courses that start off with Robert Johnson, that’s all. I guess it’s kinda the whole Orientalism thing – by presenting the oldest, most “authentic” music as the real deal, it simultaneously puts a down spin on whatever is going on now, degenerated as it inevitably is by the discourse of blues lovers.

    I don’t think it’s ever going to be as easy as commercialism being wrong and bringing in the wrong kinds of music and activism being right. My inevitable example is that of World Music in the eighties and nineties – most buyers and distributors in the first world were thoughtful, well-intentioned left-wing people, but has there ever been music more “colonially appropriating”? World Music exploited and warped talent from the developing world to create music solely for western ears, ignoring local music scenes or destroying them through stifling, tradition-oriented selectivity. Whereas I think in today’s commodified system we’re buying into (or stealing) the products of the developing world completely, shifting the power over to them.

  7. Gavin says:

    Well, the course started with Tin Pan Alley — it’s structured chronologically. I really don’t see my positions or tastes in your summary at all; this looks more like you have a bone to pick with another (Big Other?).

    Can you explain “shifting power”? I get most of my Nu Whirled music for free off the internet. I effectively contribute nothing to these artists in the way of income. It’s my privilege — and yours — as a technologically capable Westerner with high speed internet to experience this music for free. It’s pure, almost frictionless consumption. Maybe a couple people get cherry picked out of each scene (Catra, DJ Znobia, is there a cumbia great hope yet?), which ends up sapping the scenes of talent and energy. Yes, we can write about them, but really it’s us benefitting from their creative labor more than they benefit from ours. This isn’t a situation of our making, but it’s there.

  8. Birdseed says:

    I read an interview in a magazine today with a linguist who was talking about French suburban slang (European suburbs = US inner city and vice versa, symbolically). He claimed that the influence on the French language by immigrants represented a kind of mirror colonialism – mainstream France was buying into a culture where a marginalised group had all the power of inclusion and description. It’s not a monetary power, of course, but one of discourse – nevertheless it represents a shift in power.

    I think that’s kinda what I’m getting at too, although I wouldn’t put in those problematic terms.* Nu-whirld music is their music that we’re picking up. They are the ones who create, record, catalogue it, we “acquire” their own hit records and judge them more-or-less as they would judge them, on their terms.

    Whereas World Music (the hippieish eighties version) is them doing music for us, often recorded by us and with us, based on our values of what makes good music, successful only insofar as we like it.

    The thing is though, the first approach relies on there being a commercial product. It’s not ideal, I know how much the market can distort things, but without product it means we might have to be the ones to compile, record and market the material and that’s much scarier a prospect for me. It’s white man driving the discourse on the blues now, and that’s part of why I’m so wary of it.

    (I’m sorry about the first thing honestly – I haven’t read your blog before though I just added it to my Google Reader. You do come across as much older and more conservative in this post than the rest of what you’ve written, admit it. :) )

    *Although for convenience sake I’m using the equally loaded “them” and “us”.

  9. Gavin says:

    Hah, well I referenced Bloom in my post title so maybe I had it coming! I dunno, I think it’s echoes of an old post by Simon Reynolds about feeling like music isn’t at the forefront of youth culture any more — I kind of got that when all my supposedly provocative questions were met with shrugs and blank stares: nothing at stake! And I will admit I don’t have a consistent “voice” on this blog, but I think I like it like that.

    Interesting about the French language — of course, similar things happen in the U.S. where young I-bankers call each other “dawg” and women “hoes” and bandy about the n-word (only in proper company of course), but of course the French language has a much more symbolic significance to French culture.

  10. Dave says:

    I see that you’ve linked my own blog to supporting the PR campaigns of “starlets” of “meager talent” as a hobby.

    Anyway, if you want to talk about “poptimism,” I encourage you to read the Poptimists LiveJournal community — where you’ll find neither predictable consensus nor mere jouissance, nor any dearth of intellectual discussion of various types of pop music — and I also encourage you to read the actual words I’ve written about the stars whom I presume you take to be untalented, especially Ashlee Simpson (start with this post).

    I’m not against authenticity arguments (see Frank Kogan’s excellent post on rockism and antirockism here for a recent conversation on the topic), and the gleeful sort of “inauthenticity”-cheerleading you’re pinning to me isn’t what I’m all about. I genuinely believe in the authentic talent of most of the pop stars I’m writing about, at least when I’m praising them, and those are the arguments I’m trying to make. So if you’re getting “regurgitating ad copy” or “promoting media conglomerates” (in fact, I bet I know more about the Disney conglomerate’s actual production and distribution practices than most people writing about Disney, at least in the blog world if not the mainstream press — and I’ve been regularly, vocally critical of them), or if you think I’m blithely promoting ALL pop “product” without listening to it critically (as you seem to be — i.e., there are actually, believe it or not, differences between Jessica Simpson, Lindsay Lohan, and Heidi Montag, and I’ve never had great praise for the former or lattermost on my blog), then you’re not reading carefully enough.

    Anyway, as for your students, if they can’t make any critical arguments about why they prefer a given performer to another one, they probably lack basic critical skills; that isn’t to say that there is no reason whatsoever to prefer any given performance of something to any other, but attributing it to some sort of out-of-control poptimism as some kind of cultural “symptom” that has any major relevance outside of the LiveJournal page I linked to above (and maybe a few blogs that your students likely don’t read) is misguided.

  11. Dave says:

    (I don’t mean that last graf as a swipe at the students — I mean to say that if they’re being uncritical, that’s its own issue, and one that probably has nothing to do with “poptimism.” A bigger issue I have here is that you’re taking your own assumptions about the music you’re talking about — be it the blues stuff or the pop stuff — and suggesting that disagreement on these fronts are the result of some kind of uncritical engagement.)

  12. Gavin says:

    Hi Dave,

    Apologies for taking so long to respond to your thoughtful post. I think you are right that many of my students lack a lot of critical faculties, and indeed, it is my responsibility as an educator to remedy these. And you may be right that it has nothing to do with poptimisim, though I think a certain strain of that fetishizes this critical naivete. This was the kind of rant-about-a-bad-day post that I initially tried to avoid on this blog, and perhaps will avoid more in the future, since I’m not exactly happy with how this post turned out. For instance, I named the wrong Bloom. Oh well, it’s up here, and I’ll leave it.

    I will engage some of your other points though, since, well, I think you’re wrong. Some (not all) “poptimist” (having avoided these debates for a while I’m probably not even deploying these terms according to current usage) criticism strikes me as excessively fan-like and at times disingenuous, specifically what I’ve read by you and by Frank. This is fine, write how you wish, but this is not what I consider good criticism. For me, criticism is not just about a specific object under the critic’s gaze, but about what such an examination tells us about the world in which we live: what we can find out about culture, politics, economics, power relations, life, etc. When I read your exegesis of the latest Ashlee album, most of what I find out about is… Ashlee. You do a close reading of these texts and come up with theories about how she’s feeling, what she’s trying to say, how she’s changed from the last album. I also find out a lot about your opinions of plenty of minutiae about her music. Fine. But for me, this is totally uninteresting because I don’t care about Ashlee Simpson or her music (except for “La La”) or your opinions in and of themselves. I would like to read good (my definition) criticism of Ashlee which pointed to something larger than what’s on the CD, but I just don’t get that from your writing.

    I also think that criticism has a responsibility to be honest. This is why I feel compelled to note the disingenuousness I get from your writing, and it’s not just because you are not in the appropriate demographic for liking teenpop or whatever. I point to your post where you confess to being a troll, and even defending trollish behavior. This is revealing to me. Trolls are primarily concerned with getting attention, and one major way they do this is provoking debates/arguments by holding opinions for the sake of their controversy. This is not behavior that should be applauded or emulated because it is dishonest, the antithesis of what good criticism should be. Ads and politicians lie to us all the time, criticism should work against that. But you pretty much admit that part of your project on your blog and on ILX is to troll, although you argue that it reveals… something we took for granted about something? Perhaps this is why some teenpoppers have trouble interrogating their own position: they are being dishonest. You started trolling, you wanted to be funny, have arguments, whatever, but now these controversial trollish opinions are your taste. Kogan couldn’t even answer a straightforward (if antagonistic) question about how sexuality plays into his enjoyment of teenpop. He rambled on and on and on about feelings, emotions, personal past, but never actually answered the question. He never furthered the debate, just muddied the waters. Similarly to how an incredibly wordy essay about an Ashlee Simpson album makes the music and what it stands for LESS clear, at least to the uninitiated, rather than clearer. Which is your point, right? — there was something everyone else missed, that everyone thought was clear, but wasn’t. I’m not so sure, mostly because I can’t figure out what you guys think is so important that no one else understands. When you are completely honest with yourself, don’t you get satisfaction at being able to defend a seemingly indefensible position? Isn’t that part of the allure?

    I hope this doesn’t seem like a personal attack, because it isn’t. It’s a frank opinion (mine) about your writing, about why I disagree not so much with your opinions, which are yours to hold and treasure, but with how you hold them. So maybe you can correct my misconceptions and confusion: What exactly IS your project? What do you think good criticism does? And how will Ashlee make the world a better place?

  13. Dave says:

    I’m not really following your logic here, but I’ll go point by point:

    what we can find out about culture, politics, economics, power relations, life, etc.

    Well, what can we find out about culture, politics, etc., from what’s on Ashlee Simpson’s CD? You can learn a lot from reading about it, understanding how she came to be in her position (even her reality show is pretty clear that the opportunity arose because she is her sister’s sister, but what it also shows is that she has a mind of her own, co-wrote the songs with her collaborators, and wrote at least one of them WITHOUT the “brain trust,” John Shanks and Kara DioGuardi, who are responsible for some of her best songs). One thing we find out about culture is that being twentysomething entails a lot of ambivalence (Ashlee herself was 19, her cowriters in their 30s) and second-guessing and confusion, a lot of which is evocatively expressed on her first two albums. Things we do NOT learn is that she was manipulated as a corporate mouthpiece, that she was a passive actor in the creation of her music, or that she actively contributes to an uncritical reading of her own music (since most of her music is about self-examination, and a lot of her contradictions aren’t simple enough to be written off without some investigation). In “La La,” she’s a flirt, a sex object, but for a specific person — someone who makes her feel “safe.” What are her sexual politics here? I’ve argued they’re not easy to pin down, because from within a legit S&M relationship, what she’s describing is fairly accurate, isn’t it? And it’s NOT, upon even somewhat fair examination, advocating, say, promiscuous behavior or whatever else (and even then I might say “so what if it did,” but we can avoid that point entirely since it’s not in the song); it’s about liking kinky sex, and feeling safe telling someone what you like.

    So to jump ahead, that song makes the world a better place, for me, (1) by being a great-sounding song, (2) by making me think something other than “this is a great-sounding song,” (3) by giving me an incentive to do a double-take when elsewhere I wouldn’t (like in Pussycat Dolls “Dontcha,” let’s say, which isn’t anything more than a come-on).

    you confess to being a troll

    Well, for one thing, I was talking about an impulse that gets categorized as “trolling” that I don’t find to be trolling, an impulse toward provocation. I don’t provoke just for provocation’s sake usually, and I’m not against that, either; I usually provoke when I feel like I’m right and a lot of others aren’t seeing what I’m seeing. Like with Ashlee. So it’s not only not disingenuous, it comes from a sense of unease (and sure, excitement) in not being in sync with a majority opinion with something, precisely because I feel personally, passionately right about it.

    You started trolling, you wanted to be funny, have arguments, whatever, but now these controversial trollish opinions are your taste

    This is convenient, but bullshit. For one thing, I’m usually accused of NOT being funny, and my “changes in taste” were gradual, and most came before I wrote Opinion One about most of it. In fact, you can go way back in the blog and find some proto-poptimistic (“anti-rockist” or whatever you want to call it) ideas floated (poorly) before I gave it up and just started writing at length about the music that interested me. Engagement with dissenting opinion is a good way for me to formulate my own opinion, but it’s not my stimulus to like what I like, or else I would defend everything without distinguishing which battles to pick. I pick the ones I’m already passionate about; I don’t just do a search of where people are saying dumb things about an artist with great frequency and “learn to like” from there (I’m not going to start writing an exegesis on K-Fed’s short-lived career anytime soon), even if obviously it’s possible that one can “learn to like” something.

    Similarly to how an incredibly wordy essay about an Ashlee Simpson album makes the music and what it stands for LESS clear, at least to the uninitiated, rather than clearer

    Why do you think that essay makes the music less clear, except that it had “too many words”? Why should the “uninitiated” need their hands held — does other criticism make great efforts to include every reader who might know nothing about the music? In that post I do a semi-systematic breakdown of several important points/tracks in the album and discuss production technique, lyrics, and IIRC a little backstory of the production itself. To me that’s good criticism, even if you think my particular essay isn’t any good. What I don’t do, and what is a common feature of bad criticism, is project poorly-informed opinions of music I dont’ care to know any more about onto the cultural, political, etc. experiences of a presumed audience. (And what are those experiences? Is anyone writing about them? I have an interest in knowing how “regular fans” listen to Ashlee Simpson, but is that really a prerequisite for good criticism? And are all critics actually held to this standard?)

    My “project” is accidental, and it’s not very cogent as a “project,” which is why I try to avoid calling it that when I can — I found the best music I was hearing anywhere where other people weren’t hearing it. That gives me an extra spark that matches with a prosecutorial bent in my own personality to argue with earnest engagement and a sense of purpose, i.e. to convert people to my side. (I readily admit to being evangelistic in my own arguments, and it’s a feature of a ton of rockcrit that I admire.) I want readers not necessarily to hear what I hear, but at least to admit that hearing what I hear is within the realm of possibility. If you don’t think it is, then it’s not my problem, but you’ll need to come up with better counter-arguments as to why it’s outside the realm of possiblity that what I’m hearing, and subsequently writing about, in Ashlee Simpson could be accurate. What in the music tells you otherwise? What in the culture makes it impossible for you even to listen?

  14. Dave says:

    *why my observations and opinions couldn’t be accurate, not “could”

  15. Dave says:

    I don’t care about Ashlee Simpson or her music (except for “La La”) or your opinions in and of themselves.

    Not to be too snarky about it, but that’s kind of astonishingly ignorant, especially on the heels of this particular post. I mean, it’s the definition of ignorance, isn’t it? “I don’t care about Robert Johnson or his music, except for “Crossroads,” or your opinions in and of themselves.” How can you possibly find a “broader context” without starting at the source, i.e. the music itself?

    I find it hard to believe you can hold your students to higher critical standards without being interested in actually learning about the music you’d like to make “part of the problem” before deciding it’s actually part of the problem (not that I’m sure what you actually think the “problem” is).

  16. Dave says:

    *”Cross Road Blues”

  17. Gavin says:

    Hi Dave,

    I think your defensiveness and polemicism about this stuff is what makes it seem strange to me. For instance, I don’t care that she wrote her own material or if she didn’t. I never brought this up because I don’t subscribe to the authorship notion of authenticity. Yet you trot these arguments out — you already have your weapons honed for a specific enemy, you are ready for battle. I think this is what you want more than simply sharing your passionate love of Ashlee: you want the fight, the controversy, the lines drawn in interweb sand (and go running to livejournal so you can bitch about my rather insignificant blog post with your friends — it was a weird moment for me when I saw the volume of vitriolic responses there).

    I don’t care about Ashlee because she seems like just another boring celebrity with boring music — the only song I’ve heard by her that I liked a little was “La La” (which I guess is more than I can say most starlet-popstars). That’s what I meant by saying I don’t care about her. I am not interested in idol worship, what starlets are going through in their personal lives, and how they sing about it. And I don’t care about opinions on their own; I care about opinions that make me think. Some of yours do though, I must admit, at least through sheer force if not seductive argument.

    Anyway, to put this debate back on to a more substantive track, I will take your challenge and listen to the latest Ashlee Simpson album, which I haven’t heard, and review it on my blog, without prejudice or preconditions. And I invite you to riff on my forthcoming review to your heart’s content, on my blog or in your livejournal community.

  18. Dave says:

    Couple conciliatory points then I’ll scamper off for a while…

    (1) the idea that some great music criticism is happening on LiveJournal is a tough sell, but it’s also true. Unfortunately, the reason it’s a tough sell is that it can be hard to distinguish the good criticism from the bitching. The thread in question does not fall into the “good criticism” category and in hindsight it was really stupid of me not to post it on my blog instead to rein in the discussion and make it more likely you’d actually want to respond for yourself. To the extent that it feels like ganging up, I apologize.

    (2) All that said, you’re right. I do love the controversy and the lines in the sand — think I said as much above — but that’s not mutually exclusive with being passionate about the music. These two aspects of my personality/writing complement each other.

    (3) And all that said, I disagree about my bringing cowriting into it — it’s my stock “authenticity” line, you’re right, but it’s a shorthand way of restoring a kind of agency to Ashlee, playing by rules that I, maybe like you, don’t hold most acts to. But your issue with the blues musicians above is all about understanding the social contexts of future appropriation (and wanting to engage with these contexts, even if we probably disagree on how best to do that). It’s about understanding who made the stuff, and what’s more, who has the right to make the stuff, even if we don’t have to say it’s an argument about “songwriting.” And I’m saying that the starlets have the right to make the stuff as much as anyone else, which is true, but not that interesting. The interesting part of the argument is that a lot of them are making the best music around. (I share your lack of interest in tabloid/personal stuff; most of Ashlee’s writing, even if it’s loosely based on real experience, doesn’t read that way any more or less than it might in a blues song. Her first two albums are blues.)

    (4) You won’t find much of what I’m talking about here on Ashlee’s newest album, which is a pretty strange departure. I’d suggest a listen to Autobiography, her best album, which is what I start to talk about in the post I linked above.

    (5) “Making you think through sheer force, if not seductive argument” would make an excellent tag line for my blog!

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