Siding with Kant

“There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.”

– Duke Ellington

cdFantastic rock webzine Crawdaddy! have an interview up with rock critic Carl Wilson, author of the latest book in the legendary 33 1/3 series of album critiques. Rather than reviewing a new or ageing classic, Wilson decided to do something original, to attempt an irony free appreciation of the 1997 Celine Dion album ‘Let’s Talk About Love‘. Writing the book as an analysis of elitism and class related rock music prejudice, Wilson seems to have become rather the Dion apologist.

“When you start getting to know her biography and her persona, it’s clear that she’s kind of helplessly sincere. Yes, she works the pop game—to her, that’s her job. And she has people around her whose marching orders she takes, primarily her husband. But she cares about her job, has a strong work ethic; that makes her work personal to her. She probably doesn’t conceive of herself as an artist-with-a-capital-A at all. She’s more like a very conscientious, enthusiastic craftsperson, like a terrific plumber. (An analogy that comes to mind because people are always talking about her “pipes.”) That may not meet with our expectations, but it’s a long tradition in show business, and none of us disrespect, say, Judy Garland for being primarily concerned with being a great performer rather than a creative original. It’s just that in many ways that social role has become disreputable.”

I haven’t yet read the book, but judging by the interview Wilson seems to have missed the point. Dion is disliked in part because of her nasal voice, uncreative interpretation and blandly unoriginal pop sensibility, but also because of her palpable lack of sincerity – describing her output as skilful is all well and good, but it does not forgive the offensively banal turf that she produces. Wilson argues that class and taste are inextricably interlinked (which is a little like saying ‘it’s not their fault, they’re only trailer trash’), in a manner reminiscent of left wing cultural relativists shying away from criticising African female genital mutilation.

“So there’s a tone of contempt that we adopt about what we consider inferior music that I think is contextual: “This music doesn’t make sense within my life.” And maybe that does mean it’s second-rate, or maybe it means that it’d be first-rate within another kind of life. The background sense that what we’re debating is ways of living might make us slow down a bit in our snap judgements. It’s probably not a way any of us can think all of the time, but like any sort of moral thinking, it can be a check upon our worst instincts.”

Perhaps in Wilson’s hipster milieu, musical tastes are worn almost exclusively as socio-political badges, but he might be surprised to learn that others genuinely appreciate music because of it’s innate quality. Post modern claptrap about how all taste is culturally relative is a tabula rasa rejection of the last half century of biology. Our tastes may differ, based on developmental factors (e.g.: growing up learning a language in which prosody expresses meaning rather than merely emphasis – why Chinese opera can sound so strange), innate differences (the frequency response range of our ears), and experiences (our parents looping a Carpenters Best of, or exposure to the quarter tones of Middle Eastern music), but fundamentally those of us who enjoy music for it’s aesthetic qualities, in addition to it’s anaesthetic or phatic utility, share an appreciation of quality and creativity, and more importantly agreement about their lack, even when we differ on the specifics of a given artist (most of the time!) or genre. Pretending that all work is equally valid has killed fine art, and it’s possible to underestimate the potential of the same sort of thinking to fuck up music (read the M.I.A review in last years Electric Picnic Foggy Notions for an example of this kind of muddy thinking). Whatever your perspective, it seems an argument worth having. I look forward to reading Wilson’s book.

New York Times article – Tasters Choice
Crawdaddy Interview – Carl Wilson: Tastes Are Composed of a Thousand Misunderstandings

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