Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On top of everything else, Rand Paul guilty of bad taste

The Rand Paul campaign is being enthusiastically pounced on by the media for a number of indiscretions, some general, and some that amount to simply not towing the line on political fashion.

But I am surprised that no one has commented on a matter of simple aesthetic taste that I find quite disturbing.  According to news reports, the Canadian band "Rush" has announced that it doesn't want Paul using its music at campaign events. 


Why would anyone use Rush's music for campaign events, much less listen to them at all?  Rush has to be the most pretentious rock band in the known world.  I can just hear it now: all those culturally illiterate music critics with absolutely no literary sensibility gushing about how profound their lyrics are.

As we used to say in California, gag me with a spoon.

The only reason anyone would say this is that they are completely unfamiliar with profundity.  Of course, when it comes to the poetic, the world of rock and roll could well be described as a kingdom of the blind where the one-eyed man finds it easy to be king.

Not to mention the fact that Rush's lead singer and bassist, Geddy Lee, has a voice that former L. A. Times rock critic Robert Hilburn once described as "like a rat whose tail is being run through the ringer." 

I saw Rush live in the late 70's (along with a much better opening band, UFO).  I had their very first album when it came out. I know what I'm talking about. 

It is one thing to be a cultural barbarian, tearing down Western civilization, which is what most rock bands do for a living.  But it's another to try to convince your listeners that they are being culturally uplifted in the very process of being culturally debased.

Paul campaign, trust me on this. Announce you are dumping Rush in favor of some mindless rock band that at least doesn't pretend to be engaging in art.


Lee said...

I think Yes and Boston at least place and show in any list of "pretentious" musical groups -- which I will interpret as bombastic and overblown.

Music that forgets it's entertainment seems to have that particular trouble.

R.C. said...

Ah, you're just being blowhards. Yes and Rush are a couple of my favorite bands. (Boston, being far more formulaic and never really departing from the basics of "rock and roll" compared to the other two, really doesn't belong in the same category.)

In what sense do you think any of the above "forget" that they're "entertainment?"

I mean, Different Strokes for Different Folks. I find Rush and Yes quite entertaining, without remotely feeling the need to regard them as, oh, I don't know...sources for philosophy or theology or whatnot. I am entertained by them. So are a lot of people, when they seek entertainment.

The Rolling Stones, Mellencamp, Springsteen, Dylan, and similar folks, by comparison, are utterly unentertaining to me, because their work is so devoid of effort by the composers.

The Stones in particular: Their ragged riffing, so far away from tightly played that they sound nearly unrehearsed, is nearly indistinguishable from what happens when a bunch of beginners get together and each plays the one lonely pattern he knows how to play.

You folk are entitled, if you enjoy it, to enjoy that kind of schlock and roll in which only the lyricist puts any work into what is produced, and he, not very much, and the rest is improvised and thus boiled down to the lowest common denominator of parts-writing; namely: "Whatever notes happened to fall easily under my fingers and seemed to fit."

For myself, I like for my ears to hear motifs not merely repeated but developed, and for something more to tie the whole together than occasional choruses. And my attention span is disgusted with a three minute song when a twenty-minute larger, structured work would have better suited. I've tried listening to more conventional stuff, but I get bored. There's just nothing fun about it. It's not entertaining. It's like wanting a steak and being fed a Chicken McNugget.

So, as I said: Different Strokes. But it's silly to criticize what someone else enjoys on the basis that it "forgot that it was entertainment." It never forgot; it is entertainment; just not for you, because you're entertained by something else.

Some people like soccer. Others, golf. Some like bird-watching; others, philately. Some like Irish jigs and reels, whereas others inexplicably go for Shostakovich or Stravinsky. And some don't go that far into pretentiousness, and stick to the middle ground of Yes and Rush.

Each group probably finds the other silly. But if one must be demeaning, I think the better case can be made for lampooning the philatelists.

Martin Cothran said...

I'm not sure I would put Yes and Boston in the same category either. Yes was attempting to be groundbreaking (and largely being pretentious when doing it, although the musicianship is pretty astounding), while Boston was trying to plow the same commercial ground more successfully.

However, I'm having some trouble accepting R.C. aesthetic theory, which seems to consist entirely of a platitudinous subjectivism in which one thing can never be said to be more inherently aesthetically appealing than any other thing.

This is what rock and roll does to people: renders them incapable of aesthetic judgment.

I warned you!

Lee said...

Well, R.C., we're into the aesthetic realm here, aren't we? As Dmitri Shostakovich (whom you cite as an example of someone who implicitly delves into pretension, though "not that far") observed, "There is no such thing as good music or bad music. There is only music that excites you, and music that leaves you cold."

As it turns out, happily, we share many of the same dislikes. Stones, Springsteen, Dylan -- ecch. Dylan is living proof that America is the land of opportunity, simply by being able to get rich based on his vocal abilities. A cat with kidney stones has a more pleasing voice. As for Mellencamp, I agree except for "Paper in Fire", a leftist song/rant which nevertheless strikes a chord in me, probably because his black female backup singer is one of the best I've ever heard, right up there with the angel who sings on the "Dark Side of the Moon" album.

My problem with "Yes" is like the problem an old jazz trumpeter related to me after a late-night session. Talking about "young 'uns" playing jazz, he sadly opined, "They try to show you everything they know in the first five seconds." Two or three choruses into a medley of their greatest hits (i.e., "I've Seen All Good People"), I am already so satisfied I'm on my way.

Boston's music may not be that bad, but the sound of the band is so shrill I can't listen longer than a couple of minutes. What I have sensed, like the other groups under discussion, is an overriding confidence that their virtuosity can rescue any lack of inspiration or taste. It makes me feel like Samuel Johnson, explaining why he didn't enjoy a violin soloist. His concert companion apologized for the soloist, saying how difficult it was to play what he was playing. "Difficult?" Johnson asked in amazement. "Sir, I wish it was impossible." Substantively, I'm not sure their music is actually any worse than Kansas's, but Kansas is much easier on my sensibilities.

Never been much of a Stravinsky fan, even though he is generally considered the greatest composer of the 20th century and his orchestrations are impeccable beyond belief. Shostakovich, on the other hand, is one of my favorites even though many "serious" music critics find him banal and juvenile. As you say, different strokes.

> In what sense do you think any of the above "forget" that they're "entertainment?"

What I mean is that composers sometimes forget that the purpose of music is for entertainment. Sometimes they actually think the purpose is to show what great composers they are, how brilliant, how creative, how original. Schoenberg was convinced he was right and the world was wrong about the beauty of his twelve-tone opuses. He would probably have sneered at someone who prefers listening to Shostakovich. Such music, as Mark Twain instructed us (about Wagner) must be better than it sounds.

Martin Cothran said...

So can we objectively say that Mozart is better than Snoop Dogg, given that "There is no such thing as good music or bad music"?

R.C. said...

An Apology

Y'know, I have to admit, I wasn't expecting my post to be received so evenhandedly.

In fact, I owe you folks an apology: I wouldn't have bluntly called you guys "blowhards" if I'd known that, in response to my disagreement, you wouldn't devolve into flamebait. Thanks for being a pleasant surprise.

Audience Selectivity

Do I think that there's no objective difference of quality between any two items proffered as "works of art?" Am I an artistic relativist?

Well, no; I'm not. I do think some stuff is actually, objectively better than others. I like pretty much any G.F.Handel more than any T.Rex, and I happen to think there's an objective as well as a subjective basis for the preference. I can hack my way through Grieg's famous piano concerto in A minor and think I'm doing -- okay, barely doing -- something more important than when I play Joplin rather better.

So then why my "Different Strokes" argument?

Well, because I think an artist does different things:

- He tries to PLEASE his audience;
- He tries to please HIS audience;
- He tries to remain interested in his own work while doing so; which involves artistic development and challenge and variation over time.

Now if Rush or Yes, or any other prog-rock/art-rock band, were to understand themselves to be competing for the same audience as the Rolling Stones, and if they responded by putting out the kind of work for which they're famous, they would justly be accused of failing to entertain their intended audience.

Likewise, if G.F.Handel were to understand himself to be competing for the attention of Rolling Stones fans, and if he responded by putting out the kind of work for which he is famous, he'd be justly accused of failing to entertain his intended audience.

And in both cases the accusation would be that they were assaulting the audience with some pretentiously complicated show-off stuff, some songs that were too long with way too much going on, when all the audience wanted was a good groove.

And in both cases, the assumption would be that these pretentious composers had allowed their desire to show off their best stuff get the better of them. The assumption would be "When this Handel guy writes like that, he's just saying 'Look at Me! Look how I can layer parts and bring back the same set of notes in different ways.' It's all tasteless exhibitionism."

And if Rush/Yes or Handel were actually trying to please the Stones' audience, all this would be true.

But I don't think the Stones' market-segment has much of anything to do with Rush's market segment, let alone Yes'. The fan base for the Stones is not quite so distant from that for Yes as it is from that for G.F.Handel. But it's close.

You see, Rush and Yes quite definitely please their audience. But they do so because they write for their audience, not the Stones'.


R.C. said...


That changes everything. When Yes writes well for their audience (as opposed to the Stones' audience), they're not forgetting to be entertainers, but are instead being better entertainers than if they'd just churned out three-minute ditties in 4/4.

Now, borrowing from the Yes catalog, I happen to think that "Heart of the Sunrise" and "And You And I" are extraordinarily well written to please that prog-rock/art-rock audience. "Tales From Topographic Oceans" and "Sound Chaser" are not, and I think I could demonstrate that objectively. So, even within a given market-segment, I think there's objectively better work, and objectively worse work. And I think that difference can be measured in audience reaction within the correct audience.

Can One Genre Be Superior To Another?

"Okay," you might now say. "So, you're an aesthetic non-relativist within a given genre/audience/market-segment. Fine. But what about humanity taken as a whole? Aren't some styles of music more uplifting and worthwhile overall than others? Do you think that the best hip-hop tune ever written and the best romantic-era piano concerto ever written, because they're equally high-scoring within their respective genres, are therefore of equal value to humankind? Or don't you think that the piano concerto has some objective edge, because its genre is better?"

In responding to that question, I'm on the side of the piano concertos over the hip-hop stuff...but with this major qualification: I think that genres differ so much in intent that comparing them is nigh-on-impossible. (Not apples to oranges, but apples to orangutans.) There are times when an angry rock anthem is needed, and on those occasions, one cannot pretend that "Water Music" is better suited to the purpose.

Therefore, the only means I have to compare two genres is something like this:

(a.) Does one genre take significantly more musical education to compose well? To play well?

(b.) Does one genre musically educate the ear of the listener more than the other...without challenging the sensibilities so much that, by the time one can appreciate it, one finds it wasn't worth the effort to learn it?

It is on that basis that I judge Handel superior to Hansen. But on the same basis, I find Yes far superior to the Stones.

Returning to my "Different Strokes" argument: Did you notice that I wasn't particularly complimentary of the Stones, Mellencamp, et alia?


R.C. said...


They're a different genre than Yes; as different from one another as bluegrass and cool jazz. (There is some crossover in instrumentation, of course; but then, bluegrass and cool jazz have instrumental crossover as well; e.g. Bela Fleck.)

I like the genre of prog-rock/art-rock better than roots-rock. I think it's a musically "higher" genre: It takes more effort to do well, and the listener's ear has to stretch to take it all in. You hear new stuff on the 100th listening.

But, they are different genres. If you can't stomach prog-rock/art-rock, it may be because your ear isn't educated. In that case, I leave you to the Stones and Mellencamp. To you, I say "Different Strokes for Different Folks"...but, though I say it as politely as I can, inwardly I feel that you really ought to try to stretch to be able to enjoy both the lower and the higher form. It's a shame only to enjoy the lower.

But it might also be that you can't stomach prog-rock/art-rock because your ear is so educated that nothing short of Mozart will satisfy your craving for depth of artistry.

In that case, I still say "Different Strokes for Different Folks," but with less regret. For in your case, your ear doesn't stretch to enjoy both the higher form (Mozart) and the lower form (Yes). But at least it's the higher of the two that you can enjoy.

I think it's better to be able to enjoy both, if one can. But if one can't enjoy both, better the higher than the lower.

I enjoy the Classical aisle and the Prog-Rock aisle. I sadly can't enjoy both the Prog-Rock aisle and the Roots-Rock aisle. But that's not much of a tragedy, in my view. It would be worse if I could only enjoy the Roots-Rock, and not the Prog-Rock or the Classical.

Not Showing Off

That leaves one more criticism of prog-rockers like Rush and Yes to be addressed. They often play billion-note keyboard solos, or use complex time-signatures. Isn't that all showing off?

I don't think it is. Because, you know, one doesn't "show off" one's workaday equipment. A 7/8 measure is part of the working vocabulary of the art-rock composer just as a blues scale is part of the working vocabulary of Keith Richards, or a clarinet part, part of the working vocabulary of Handel. You don't accuse Handel of showing off because he includes clarinets?

But what of the person who doesn't appreciate why a 7/8 measure was called for, there? Well, what of the person who can't tell blues from jazz, or the person who can't tell a clarinet from an oboe? While one doesn't exactly say "to hell with them"; nevertheless, such folk aren't really part of the audience for that genre of music. They can either educate their ears, and thus learn to appreciate it, or...not. But for the composer to fail to include it, when it was called for, just to dumb-down his music to appeal to folks who aren't in his core audience anyway? That would be treachery to the fans.

One More Apology

Sorry this was so long. But hopefully at least some of it will be worthy of consideration.

Lee said...

I don't think so, Martin, but let's entertain that notion for a couple of minutes...

You're the philosopher, I'm just a an ex-professional musician -- which makes me an amateur, I suppose. What does the philosophy of aesthetics say about this sort of thing?

I think there is a physical components to music -- i.e., tonality or the lack thereof is not an arbitrary choice, never mind how much Schoenberg would have liked it to be. The mainstream "serious" composers of the 20th century basically serioused themselves out of a gig -- or, at least, changed it from writing music for syphonies, to bullying college students in musicology class.
On the other hand, I have met good, honest musicians who appear to enjoy atonal music, or serial music, or the way-out avant-garde stuff that I won't go near. It sounds like radio static to me, but they say they like it. What am I to do with that?

For a classically-trained musician, my own tastes tend to be quite unsophisticated. An evening of Beethoven string quartets will put me to sleep. I could not care less about 99% of the stuff written before 1830; the only Mozart piece I can sit and listen to is the Requiem. Mind you, I'm not saying it's Mozart's fault -- just that the "Classical" style, narrowly speaking, isn't my cup of tea. I've studied it. I've written papers on it. I get the sonata-allegro form. It's easy to see Mozart does it better than anyone ever did. I respect him. Just don't make me listen to him.

Shostakovich remarked on a visit to the Soviet Union of Paul Hindemith. Hindemith, he saw as a brilliant craftsman, a dedicated worker, a true gentleman and a pleasure to work with. But despite the wonderful craft in his music, Shostakovich confessed it left him cold. How can it be, he asked, that a marvelously crafted symphonic work leaves him indifferent, but the song of an old Gypsy woman could move him to tears?

My two favorite composers are Shostakovich and Bruckner. They are book-ends of a sort, really. Shostakovich is mostly brooding, sarcastic pessimism -- not an irrational attitude for a non-Christian living in a socialist paradise. Bruckner, on the other hand, is the way "Praise Jesus!" sounds when the composer is a master of Viennese-style counterpoint and harmony.

As best as I can tell, the only constants in musical aesthetics I can find are this:

1. You have to have some consonant harmony; otherwise, there is no beauty.

2. You have to have some dissonance; otherwise, it's too insipid.

3. Dissonance, at some point, must resolve to consonance; otherwise, there is no feeling of conclusion.

4. The rest seems pretty much up for grabs.

Some composers stretch the 3rd rule amazingly far. Listen to Khachaturian's 2nd Symphony, for example. His style is marked by dissonance that resolve to other dissonances. It is a parade of dissonant sonority after dissonant sonority, coming to a dark climax in the 3rd movement with the subtle appearance of the Dies Irae theme -- and then the 4th movement finally resolves it, but not without just enough dissonance even then to make it tragic.

As for rap (the "c" is silent), that's easy: I don't consider it music. It's poetry of a sort, except instead of bearded beatniks saying irrelevant things to the snapping of fingers, it's all tough-guy posturing to a sea of annoying noise with a beat.

Martin Cothran said...


Can I suggest a method by which we can judge such things? At least a general one? I think in doing so I am just putting my finger on what you have tried to approximate, but that you haven't explicitly articulated.

Here the two general aesthetic questions I would suggest:

1. Does the work competently achieve its purpose?

2. Is the purpose itself a good purpose?

It seems to me that these two questions cover (in a very general way) everything that is relevant to an aesthetic question. Now, of course, it gets complicated from there on out, and we could explore that, but I think all we have said would come under those two categories, with somewhat more having been said about the first, easier question.

Lee said...

I don't think that works, Martin. What is the purpose of music? And who determines it? The composer? Or the listener?

For some composers, the purpose of composing is to make money. Making money is pretty value-free, I'd say. Everybody likes money, but not everyone wants to do something good with it. And you can write pretty darn good music sometimes, even if making money is your only aim. Such is the accusation, for example, against Richard Strauss. Not my favorite German composer by any means, but his early tone poems are are quite good. Perhaps it's apocryphal, but I've heard he would lay around the house and do nothing at all if his wife hadn't nagged him to compose. Turns out, he had the Midas touch, turning music into money probably on the scale of John Williams today. In any event, it is not apocryphal that Debussy (not nearly so financially successful) hated running into Strauss, who would regale the sensitive and envious Claude with a litany of all the financially successful works he'd been composing.

For Wagner, the purpose of music was to achieve the Gesamtkunstwerk -- the all-in-one art form. It was the highest expression of German nationalism. Hitler showed us where that leads. As ugly a person as Wagner was, and as ugly as the people who wallowed in his Teutonic swaggering... much of the music is gorgeous beyond description. An ugly purpose begets a beautiful work of art. Sorry, don't think that's going to satisfy anyone.

I'm afraid music is the one subject where I turn humanist. The measure of music is, does it edify the listener? Perhaps we are not all conservative about the things we know, after all. I will be happy for God to set me straight when the time comes, if I'm wrong.

Lee said...

I should add that maybe it's not all humanism. Bruckner composed for God. All of his symphonies are dedicated to God. And his music (to my ears) sounds like music that was intended to please God.

Not everyone likes Bruckner. I'm sorry for them. I can't count the number of times I've heard people say, "I prefer Mahler," as if Mahler was some sort of improved version of Bruckner. If we're measuring craft, Bruckner's was in harmony and counterpoint, while Mahler had 99% of Bruckner's technique in those areas and then outstripped him by a thousandfold in orchestration. I will grant Mahler the edge in technique, but it's a small edge, and doesn't apply to counterpoint or harmony.

But does technique make a great composer? The aforementioned Hindemith is up there with Mahler as one of the greatest technicians of all time. Stravinsky as well. Even Bartok. Technique is to music as technique is to writing. A great writer can sell horrible ideas. Likewise, a great musical craftsman can sell mediocre ideas.

Run, don't walk, to your computer and order Bruckner's 8th Symphony by Lopez-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It's like the Book of John set to music. Bruckner's craft did serve a purpose, and the beauty of it is as close as we get to heaven on earth.