What the heck am I talking about? Alex Ross, though usually an interesting writer who occasionally has something interesting to say, is one of these foot-soldiers in the ranks loyal to the cultural PTB and so he is always, not only careful, but eager to promote the Cultural Commandments. But since he is a sophisticated and subtle writer, he does so in clever ways. For example, he has just written an essay on Björk excerpted in the Guardian titled "How Björk broke the sound barrier". He remarks:
Let's take a few moments to unpack the assumptions underlying these two paragraphs and what they reveal about the Commandments of the PTB. This idea of "tell us your favorite records" is, of course, a very old tactic not terribly dissimilar from TeenBeat magazine asking George Harrison what his favorite color is. It creates a wholly illusory connection to the artist because it mimics what might have been a conversational exchange. Sometimes, in the case of the list Alex Ross provides, supposedly uttered by Björk, it also has an indoctrinating function: it is meant to teach us what sorts of music to value and why. It is in service to this propagandizing that Ross's prose gets so very purple in the second paragraph.A few years ago, for a feature on a music blog, I asked Björk to make a selection of her favourite records. Her list included Mahler’s 10th Symphony; Alban Berg’sLulu; Steve Reich’s Tehillim; a collection of Thai pop, entitled Siamese Soul, Volume 2; Alim Qasimov’s Azerbaijan: The Art of the Mugham; Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter; Kate Bush’s The Dreaming; Nico’s Desertshore; Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back; Aphex Twin’s Drukqs; the Ranges’ Panasonic EP; Black Dog Productions’ Bytes and James Blake’s debut album, James Blake.What’s striking about the list is not just the breadth of Björk’s taste – this is no surprise, given her obsessive curiosity about every corner of the musical world – but also the animated map of genres that materialises in the background. It is as though, in a reversal of tectonic drift, isolated land masses of taste were re-forming as a supercontinent. A grandiose howl of late Romantic agony; a juggernaut of 12-tone modernism; a cool minimalist dance through Hebrew psalms; off-kilter pop from south Asia; a virtuoso survey of Azerbaijani mugham; three defiantly idiosyncratic albums by female singer-songwriters; three pathbreaking electronic records; a raging tour-de-force of political hip-hop; a collection of dubstep ballads: Björk’s list circumnavigates the globe and, at the same time, it overruns the boundaries separating art from pop, mainstream from underground, primeval past from hi-tech present.
Now let's look at the details. If I had been in conversation and Björk had come up with this list I would have had some follow-up questions. Such as:
- You have a wide variety of genres and artists there. Are there some you listen to more than others?
- Do you spend more time listening to Mahler or more time listening to Public Enemy?
- Do you find all this music equally appropriate? What sort of mood do you need to be in for Azerbaijani music? Is it a different mood for Mahler? Or Thai?
- Is this typically the range of things you listen to? Or some weeks do you spend listening just to one kind of music? If so, what?
- Do you like to take some time, days or weeks, to NOT listen to music?
- Why do you enjoy such a wide range of styles? And do you enjoy them equally?
- Do you like some because they are soothing and others because they are challenging? And which is which?
But look at Alex Ross' second paragraph, his commentary on the list. Instead of trying to make some sense of it, he just keeps underlining what he wants us to take away--what the PTB commands us to believe: that all of this music is equally important and valid because All Cultures are Equally Valid. This imperative overcomes any aesthetic judgment or personal taste. Thou Shalt Not Question This Commandment! How Ross sells us this ridiculous idea is by carefully selecting descriptions of the different musics that make them appear to be equally exciting, even if in different ways--and this very Diversity is another Fundamental Good.
Here are some of the descriptive phrases: "grandiose howl", "off-kilter", "virtuoso", "defiantly idiosyncratic", "raging tour-de-force" and so on. Of course these kinds of descriptive phrases are all of a certain metal: they celebrate the illusory freedoms of the 60s cultural revolution where we are all enjoined to "let it all hang out". The grandiose howling, defiantly idiosyncratic raging tours-de-force musics are actually not all that diverse after all. The virtues they stress are all 60s virtues that, no matter how tired they get, will still suggest youthful rebellion. Björk circumnavigates the globe so she can reinforce her, and Alex' and our basic assumptions about art and the world.
When you cite a list, with no specifying principles, that puts Mahler side by side with ethnic folk music and particularly offensive political rants, then you are saying that there are no aesthetic standards that "All Music is Equally Good". But you are also saying that only some styles and genres are valid. Only some are "authentic". Mahler is ok, as kind of a token art music composer, but he must be put on the same level as Public Enemy and Kate Bush. The one kind of artist or genre that cannot appear on the list are the kinds that I would pick. It is "cool" to do this kind of list that defies aesthetic standards. Doing what I often do, pick out the best of a genre or style, put different performances side by side and evaluate them, this is uncool. And, Thou Shalt Be Cool. But, alas, this whole cultural project of the PTB is to deny civilization in favor of doctrinaire commandments that are, as soon as you state them clearly, obviously wrong. Which is precisely why they must never be stated clearly. Which is why you must dress them up with a lot of purple prose.
As soon as you see someone saying things like this:
the animated map of genres that materialises in the background
It is as though, in a reversal of tectonic drift, isolated land masses of taste were re-forming as a supercontinent.
Björk’s list circumnavigates the globe and, at the same time, it overruns the boundaries separating art from pop, mainstream from underground, primeval past from hi-tech present.Your Spider-sense should immediately activate. All this stuff about overrunning boundaries and reversing tectonic drift is to short-circuit your ability to think and evaluate. Honestly.
I'm not sure, at the end of the day, if the music even matters much. Not next to the Commandments...
I won't go on as I have already made my point, but it is interesting to examine statements like this one:
The partition of music into distinct genres, each with its own history, philosophy and body of technique, is a relatively recent development. Before a global marketplace emerged, with the advent of recording technology in the late 19th century, there was little talk of the classical, the popular and subdivisions thereofWhich is a beautifully nuanced lie. Music has, the whole span of Western Civilization, been created and listened to in different genres and sub-genres: Plainchant, Gregorian Chant, antiphons, graduals--these go back a thousand years and more. Yes, "classical" music has been turned, by modern marketing machines, into just another "genre", but the way Ross describes it in the quote above, is historically illiterate. I won't bother to dissect any more of this tediously long article.
Let's end with some music that would never find itself on a Björk list: an acknowledged masterpiece of classical music:
UPDATE: Browsing through the comments on the Guardian site for the original essay, this is the third comment:
Yep. And it's the back-beat that gives it away.this is very clever marketing, pushing the art/music crossover, in an age where brand identity is more important than ever, an album launch coinciding, roughly, with an exhibition at MOMA, a hagiographic book excerpt (Alex Ross being commissioned) serving as a press release - one of many doing the rounds right now to push the new release.People forget that, despite her name checking of so called "serious music" composers, her enthusiasm for "experimentation," and the music press's efforts to align her with some kind of popular "avant garde," she is, at the end of the the day, a pop singer, it's pop, quirky idiosyncratic pop, but relative to other things going on (largely unnoticed by the mainstream) - it's just more of the same.