Advanced-pop criticism would be criticism premised on the belief that you can talk about cultural goods loved uncritically by millions in terms originally developed to talk about cultural goods known mainly to an overeducated few. Advanced pop is Boethius and Springsteen, Artaud and the Ramones, and it yields sentences like “I assume that what Burke”—the literary theorist Kenneth Burke—“says about poetry applies, mutatis mutandis, to the songs of Def Leppard.” It’s erudite but caj, geeky and hip, alienated and savvy—on the inside of the outside.That's just so ... twee. After much pondering, I decided that the mysterious word "caj" was actually a hip abbreviation for "casual." This is where diversity has led us: to sentences that contain both the Latin phrase "mutatis mutandis" and Def Leppard. I also heave an internal sigh over the phrase "cultural goods." What they mean, of course, is "aesthetic objects" but you can't say that any more because it implies the existence of aesthetics. "Cultural goods" is appropriate because we have turned aesthetic objects into consumer products and no longer even recall that they were ever anything else.
The New Yorker essay is actually a book review of Michael Robbins’s new book, “Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music” (Simon & Schuster) and the act of writing tweely about a book that has its own tweeness issues results in passages like this:
There’s only one full-dress essay in the book, and it’s much more heavy-duty than the rest. The subject is the poetry of Frederick Seidel, and the essay handles a familiar critical problem—the morality of bad taste, the Jeff Koons–Michel Houellebecq–Bret Easton Ellis problem—expertly if not entirely originally. The essay does include observations like “The death drive is figured here as the desire to literalize the trope of the subject’s dispersal.” When I hear the words “literalize the trope,” I reach for my remote.The real problem with this kind of stuff is that it is semi-educated: all sorts of clever references are semi-correctly referenced. Take this, for example:
“Listening to most rock and roll now involves remembering what it used to do for me that it can’t anymore,” Robbins says. And, in fact, a surprising amount of pop-music criticism is bottled nostalgia, owls that fly at dusk. In preparation for writing about “Equipment for Living,” I got a copy of “Shake It Up” (Library of America), an anthology of fifty years of pop-music criticism, “from Elvis to Jay Z,” edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar. I figured I would dip into its pages and refresh my recollection of the field of play. Many hours later, I had to force myself to put the thing down.There is some truth there in that as we grow older and listen to the popular (and classical) music that we adored in our younger days, we hear it with a different perspective. Our tastes have developed and the rawness or triteness is evident to us now, but we still recall the excitement with which we listened to the music before. But notice the tossed-in reference to Hegel: "owls that fly at dusk?" Educated people will vaguely recall this quote, something about the owl of Minerva only flying at dusk. So we get a little frisson of pleasure: "I'm reading someone who can make clever allusions!" The thing is that the allusion butters no parsnips, it is just a meaningless genuflection to learning. The quote is from the preface to Hegel's Philosophy of Right and the meaning is that philosophy, wisdom, only understands reality after the event. It does not mean anything like "bottled nostalgia" which has nothing to do with understanding, but is merely an emotional residue.
It is all too often the case that as soon as we actually look closely at this kind of so-called criticism that we see that it is all smoke and mirrors, clever but faulty allusions, sneaky hip turns of phrase and wayward conclusions. Poor criticism, in other words. In good criticism, I suspect, you are always going back to the details of what you are critiquing in order to examine it more clearly and to check your interpretations. If the post-modernists are correct and everything has a near-infinity of interpretations, then the conservatives are also correct that most of them are useless and farfetched. Criticism is about good interpretations of aesthetic objects. It ain't "erudite but caj, geeky and hip, alienated and savvy—on the inside of the outside." Whatever that means!
And I would be willing to bet actual currency (not a lot, but some) that the author, Louis Menand, has not actually read Boethius.
Let's have a musical envoi to clear the palate. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was an exact contemporary of the German/Austrian composer Ludwig van Beethoven so let's listen to his Concerto for Piano no. 3, op. 37, composed in 1800. The pianist is Mitsuko Uchida and the conductor Seiji Ozawa: