October 03, 2005

What's Good (tarrying with the negative)

Instead of taking cheap shots at Kanye West (and implicitly at Kanye West fans, since what's really annoying isn't his total lack of conviction but the fact that said lukewarm temperature is exactly what makes him a convenient love object for lovers of big beats who wish to be free of almost everything that makes hip-hop a problematic category), can I take a cheap shot at Thomas Bartlett?

I do not know this personage but he writes a column for Salon in which are posted links to songs and videos. So far so good, and as for those who complain that the column's tastes are slanted absurdly toward a post-indie quasi-obscurantist mildly-quirkcore lilywhite taste, well, it is after all a Salon music column: what did you expect, and let me know when Tikkun climbs on the M.O.P. bandwagon. Moreover, I am grateful for every Salon music piece that isn't about Bob Dylan (speaking of which: oh come off it. Eveyone hates Boomers. The thing is, they weren't the conspiratorial force driving Bob Dylan '63, and to confuse Dylan-worship with the aesthetic object of, say, "Masters of War" is drivel. I'm all for blaming Boomers, and what they should be blamed for is clinging to the particular story of "enduring genius" when what they mean is "enduring demographic omnipotence"; or, even more absurd, dreaming the tale of "genius recovered"; one can see why this would be a salutary delusion for a nation of sixty-year olds nervously watching their own world-historical relevance fade in the rear-view, leaving nothing but masturbatory fantasies starring a cherry Mustang and Norah Jones. No, really, after being lost since "the Sixties," you can just get it back and show those whippersnappers how it's done! Dylan's ubiquity, the hysterical celebration of a particular narrative these things should not be tolerated, we should admit that the last, um, thirty albums are really not up to the snuff that ran out in, I dunno, '67 or '75, we should enjoy the couple good songs since then just like we enjoy the handful of good Elvis songs after Punch the Clock, the couple good Elliott songs after Figure 8. But none of that can really make "Visions of Johanna"" suck, right?)

No, the problem with the column is not its taste. It is that this gentleman (I assume) writes little sentences along with each recommendation and they are the most offensively wooden, hobbled sentences I have encountered in the uneven field of music writing. Here is but a little example: "The video for the title song off of Gretchen Wilson's new album, "All Jacked Up" revels in many things, chief among them the subtle glories of abusing as much alcohol as possible." This isn't inaccurate (who would care?); it's just unpleasant to read. If given just 31 words to mention Gretchen Wilson, surely almost any 31 words are better than this. First off, might we cut it down to 30 by changing "off of" to "off" or "of" or "from," any of which would mean the exact same thing, be less awkward, and free up a word later. But why wouldn't one just write, say, "All Jacked Up," the title-track video for Gretchen Wilson's second release.... I'm not saying this is Proust; it just says the same thing, actually more, with 20% fewer words, saving an ungainly preposition along the way.

So what? Yeah, so what. If it doesn't annoy you to read prose like that, you're just easygoing. Or not a reader. Or expecting to live forever. But I haven't even gotten to my real concern here: the concluding phrase "the subtle glories of abusing as much alcohol as possible." He can't mean it literally; is that...an attempt at irony? Is the entire purpose of the adjective "subtle" just to point up that what's being described is not, in fact, subtle? Doesn't one move past that level of compositional, er, subtlety around sophomore year? But even if you decided that this was to be your move, to bring some flavor to your prose to be in fact the only thing in the entire passage which is not dully and unpleasantly quasi-informational even if you decide to go with that, why would you then render it even more inept by saying "abusing"? That word sets the moral tone for the sentence; it serves to make sure that nobody misunderstands that elegant irony-move you just made three words back. Isn't "subtle" and one-shot irony in general only interesting, if at all, because the literal meaning that's being implicitly reversed is at least a possibility? Doesn't irony produce whatever slim affective frisson in the reader by posing the literal and contextual meanings of the phrase against each other in a kind of balance which shifts over the course of the passage?

This would annoy me less if I didn't know three dozen talented, interesting, competent and underemployed music writers right now, any one of whom could fake Thomas Bartlett's taste without insulting the reader, the vocation, and the very concept of prose itself.

Posted by jane at October 3, 2005 08:42 AM | TrackBack