Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Leading From Behind?

The idea of "leading from behind" has its origins in politics, but reading a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal brings it to mind. I read the WSJ primarily as a guide to business and economics related events, but it is also good for general news. I find myself often reading the arts coverage as well. USA Today is the largest circulation paper in the US, but the WSJ is a close second. The New York Times is a distant third along with the LA Times. I guess USA Today skews more to the middle class reader and the WSJ to the upmarket reader. Whatever that means. But what has long puzzled me is the WSJ's coverage of music as in, what they choose to cover and what they don't.

Today's article, "Deconstructing Beyoncé’s Most Intriguing Samples on ‘Lemonade’ " is an example. It seems to be a review of Beyoncé's new album just released titled "Lemonade". But, as so often these days, it is not a review in the sense of being a critical evaluation. The writer, Neil Shah, says:
Critics are praising the project, which initially was an exclusive for husband Jay-Z’s Tidal music-streaming service, but is now available for purchase as a download from Apple’s iTunes and digital retailers. (A physical version is coming too.)
The "critics" referred to are NPR with this piece: "Beyoncé's 'Lemonade' Is Defiant In The Midst Of Upheaval" which is a critical review in the same way that a Donald Trump rally is a critical review of his foreign policy. Here is a sample:
Beyoncé couldn't have produced a body of work this defiant, or blunt, two years ago. Lemonade has been made possible by the cultural, social and political upheaval we're in the midst of, triggered by the deaths of boys and fathers and women, who will never be forgotten.
We've all been changed by these events. Beyoncé may be a machine, but she's changed, too. And so have Serena Williams, actress Amandla Stenberg, literary giant in the making Warsan Shire, and the other figures featured front and center in the visual version of the album — from the women who look like my mom and my aunties and my cousins, to those carrying the grief of a nation: the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown.
So, pretty much a manifesto for Black Lives Matter. Without in any way commenting on that political movement, I think it is safe to say that this review has nothing whatsoever to say about the music on the album. The other review linked to is in the New York Times: "Review: Beyoncé Makes ‘Lemonade’ Out of Marital Strife." As you would expect, the NYT review is more in depth:
Her reactions swing from sorrow to rage to determined loyalty, and she reaches beyond the electronic-R&B of “Beyoncé” to embrace new influences and collaborators: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Father John Misty, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Animal Collective and Led Zeppelin. “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a collaboration with Jack White, is a funk-bottomed blues-rocker that has Beyoncé fighting back, declaring, “You ain’t trying hard enough/You ain’t loving hard enough,” working up to a scream. “Pray You Catch Me” is one of two collaborations with the British songwriter James Blake: slow-motion ballads of suspicion and longing. During “Forward,” the other Blake collaboration, the video has its most moving sequence: family members stoically holding photographs of men who were killed by police. It’s followed by a scene of a New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian in full feathered and beaded costume, shaking a tambourine in posh dining rooms as if to exorcise them.
This is as close as they get to a discussion of the actual music--most of the review talks about the costuming, the visuals, and associated poetry by Warsan Shire.  This bit is revealing:
On their own, the songs can be taken as one star’s personal, domestic dramas, waiting to be mined by the tabloids. But with the video, they testify to situations and emotions countless women endure.
Yes, situations and emotions of countless women who are perfect material for reality television. Frankly, we seem to have reached the point where pop stars like Beyoncé and reality tv stars like the Kardashians are barely distinguishable.

But enough of that, back to the WSJ piece. It is actually the most detailed, in the musical sense, of the three articles:
Executive producer Beyoncé Knowles Carter’s artistic choices are always a fascinating slice of the pop-culture zeitgeist.
Is followed by a listing of five samplings that are used on the album. These are all legal, by the way. Sampling of older recordings is so prevalent these days that artists pay a fee for the use of them. Here is the song "Hold Up" from the album (just the audio):

This is supposedly based on Andy Williams "Can't Get Used to Losing You" from 1963:

Just the staccato chords, I guess. Anyway, the point is the WSJ did track down the samples relating to five of the songs on the album. Is the WSJ readership appreciating their efforts? Not at all. As I write this there are just a few comments and this one is typical:
Only in America can a hair extensioned, silicon pumped up, no talent, photo shopped, spouse of an alleged thug drug dealer get press.  A non event - irrelevant.  Nothing like spot lighting law breakers.  This delusional 'sage' thinks she's some kind of 'river to her people'  yeah right.  A river that flows directly into the $ bank.  She's nothing more than a shill for Soetoro in other words - A Useful Idiot.
Let me hasten to say that this is not my view--just a comment on the WSJ review and they were all completely negative.

So why does the WSJ continue to review this sort of cultural artifact? Is it "leading from behind"? Do they want to go to any lengths to avoid being seen as a stuffy newspaper for the rich? Oops, it may be too late!

I think that what we are seeing here is one of the fundamental problems in our culture. In order for any concepts of aesthetic quality or moral content to be transmitted generally in the culture, they must be promoted by figures and institutions that have cultural, moral and aesthetic authority. This basic mechanism has been eroded to the point where it is not those with authority that have the microphone, it is those opposing, deconstructing and rebelling against authority. Even the WSJ, which should be a bastion of traditional aesthetic values, feels it has to deliver appreciative articles on artists like Beyoncé--and this in the teeth of the obvious tastes and interests of their own readers! A few weeks ago they published an article on a particularly painful recording of jazz fusion. I left the first comment which described it as being very painful to listen to. I expected some push back, but when I checked a week later, mine was still the only comment.

Perhaps the WSJ just thinks it is leading from behind as in keeping an eye on and reporting on cultural trends like Beyoncé's album and its unrelenting rage against everyone who isn't a black woman--from her husband on down. But what they should really be doing is exposing this as the rancid politics of personal destruction and glorification that it is.

Don't you think?

My review of the album: nasty, sneering and unlistenable.

UPDATE: Of course you won't want to miss the review in The Onion.


David said...

The WSJ is a "stuffy newspaper for the rich"? I would never have guessed, except the issue I scanned recently contained the "Mansions" section, the WSJ version of a real estate section. In that section I discovered that your millions don't go as far as they used to. Of course, BeyZ are very comfortable in their rental accommodation in LA (the $45 million, 20,000 square foot pile that was once owned by the former owner of the LA Dodgers. Do you think the motivation is leading from behind, or the possibility that BeyZ might actually send some business to the high end real estate advertisers in the Journal?

Bryan, I am sure you know that none of the "snark" is aimed at you.

BTW, I agree with your assessment of the value of the WSJ on matters financial and actually newsworthy.

Marc Puckett said...

I miss the point of the howling, the baying voices throughout. In case you aren't reading there these days, Althouse has had a couple of posts in re this Lemonade, although of course she is interested not in the music but in the politics. Today's linked to a very amusing article at the Onion, 'Beyonce Releases New Song About How Buying Tidal Subscriptions Empowers Women', something like that.

Bryan Townsend said...

The first time I ever heard of Jay-Z was in an article in the WSJ. They were writing about him because he had a net worth of $500 million dollars. I guess maybe that is a reason to write about Beyoncé as well?

Marc, I discovered the Onion piece just before seeing your comment!