Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What They're Telling Us Now

My title is a take-off on a headline that I saw long enough ago that I can't recall where. I do associate it with New York however. Google tells me that "The Way We Live Now" is both the title of a novel by Anthony Trollope from 1875 and a New Yorker piece by Susan Sontag from 1986, so I guess that will have to do. I associate the phrase with various items in perhaps The New Yorker or the New York Times chronicling the current cultural landscape. More and more I see these kinds of things as shaping the cultural landscape as in telling us how we should be living or appreciating. This is what is important now, they are always telling us.

I'm reading, finally, Michael Lewis' book The Big Short about how wildly things went wrong in the sub-prime mortgage market about ten years ago to the point that some very big players like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns simply went bankrupt and other very big names lost tens of billions of dollars. Why? Essentially because, as the Zen koan goes, they mistook the map for the territory, their models for reality. The whole of the established players on Wall Street, from Goldman Sachs to Deutsche Bank were simply delusional.

I have had a contrarian temperament for most of my life, part of which I attribute to my father and part to my own intellectual tendencies. I really do not put much faith in authority: by their fruits ye shall judge them. And their fruits are a rather mixed bag, are they not? A great deal of the way things are organized is simply to make life easier for those who are in positions of power. Yes, there can be accountability, but often it is simply one power nexus taking temporary advantage of another. This is how I understand the conviction of Martha Stewart, the impeachment of Richard Nixon and the current battle between Donald Trump and his own Department of Justice. Power in society is rarely monolithic.

All this is to lead up to a couple of items this week that seem to me to illustrate another kind of widespread delusion, this time an aesthetic one. The first item is the awarding of a Pulitzer prize in music to Kendrick Lamar. You can read about it here:
Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize win is the latest sign of the growing recognition of hip-hop—this time from one of America’s highest-profile cultural institutions.
The rapper, who won for his album “DAMN.,” is the first winner who isn’t a classical or jazz artist since the first Pulitzer for music was issued in 1943. Aside from previous award winners Wynton Marsalis, Henry Threadgill and Ornette Coleman, it has largely been a prize for classical composers.
Hip-hop fans cheered Mr. Lamar’s win and what it says about the artistic importance of the rap genre.
Or, more accurately perhaps, the shifting of culture away from things of artistic importance to ones of commercial importance? Let's have a listen to something from the aforementioned album. Just listen to the first cut, "Blood":

"Blood" is a little two-minute vignette that starts with some Manhattan Transfer-like harmony over a really inoffensive smooth background. This is followed by a recitation of astonishing banality. This is followed by a brief segment of what sounds like captured dialogue about police brutality. And that's it. Now there could be a lot more interesting stuff later on, but this first bit pretty much used up my boredom quotient. The next track is "DNA." Yes, the major creative advance here seems to be the random use of the period. The musical accompaniment to "DNA." is so dull that it nicely sets off the extremely annoying sneering, trite vocal recitation. For me this is way beyond just unlistenable.

Ok, on to the other item, Beyoncé's triumphant headlining at the Coachella music festival. According to everyone this was just cosmic in its wonderfulness:
INDIO, Calif. — Let’s just cut to the chase: There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon, than Beyoncé’s headlining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Saturday night. The New York Times.
Tonight, Beyoncé plays political as fiercely as she plays feminist. During Sorry she hones in on the line “suck on my balls” with furious wrath. She flits between going hard and expressing sweet graciousness towards the audience during her addresses. The artistry of the transitions between songs, and the travel across her 20-year catalogue – combined with the sheer awe of scores of people on stage moving and playing in perfect unison – proves that Beyoncé is in a league of her own. She is the greatest of a generation, both a leader of a huge group and a solo star of unconquerable talent. The Guardian.
Beyoncé captures popular music’s zeitgeist: She is a pop-R&B entertainer fluent in hip-hop and a social-media-savvy businesswoman. Her 2016 tour was that year’s highest-grossing in North America, according to Pollstar. Combined with music sales, streaming and publishing, she was 2016’s biggest moneymaker, Billboard says.
Her Coachella performance will be the first time a black woman has headlined the nearly 20-year-old festival. The Wall Street Journal.
Beyoncé became the first black woman to headline Coachella in a breathtaking set that featured her best material from a staggering back catalogue... and set a near-impossible standard for every headliner that will follow her.
Appearing at the festival in Indio, California, Beyoncé  performed one incredible dance routine after another – those rumoured 10-hour day rehearsals ahead of the show certainly paid off, as she didn’t put a foot wrong. The Independent.
And these are the more restrained tributes! Ok, let's have a look. Here is a clip of the opening:

UPDATE: My original choice got taken down, but this seems to be the same material.

That's not quite the most annoying seven minutes I have ever experienced, but it's close. It combines the refined subtlety of a college football marching band with an interminable fashion show catwalk with the kind of semi-religious mass celebration that was popular in the early days of the French Revolution. What it does not seem to be, to any significant extent, is a musical experience.

Now I have always been a pompous, pretentious little git, but I have refined it a bit over the years and when I look at the two biggest musical events this week, I think that we really must be in the grip of a delusion as massive as that which preceded the mortgage credit meltdown ten years ago.

Do we really want to claim that either of these "musical" events had anything to do with serious music? In any way? Now I can very much sympathize with Duke Ellington who was denied any recognition by the Pulitzer Prize board in 1965.
In 1965, the jury unanimously decided that no major work was worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. In lieu they recommended a special citation be given to Duke Ellington in recognition of the body of his work, but the Pulitzer Board refused and therefore no award was given that year.[3] Ellington responded: "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young." (He was then sixty-seven years old.)[4] Despite this joke, Nat Hentoff reported that when he spoke to Ellington about the subject, he was "angrier than I'd ever seen him before," and Ellington said, "I'm hardly surprised that my kind of music is still without, let us say, official honor at home. Most Americans still take it for granted that European-based music—classical music, if you will—is the only really respectable kind."[5] --from the Wikipedia article on the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
The Pulitzer Prize is an American award, of course and there is a very good argument to be made for including jazz musicians even if that was not how it was originally conceived. My personal view is that these kinds of awards should be reserved for pieces, forms and genres that are NOT widely popular to both promote the kind of aesthetic activity that is not commercially successful and to acquaint audiences with that sort of music. Under these terms, jazz would qualify while hip-hop would not. Perhaps the solution is to carve out three prizes in music: one for "European-based music" though that is a bad characterization, one for jazz and one for popular music.

Last year Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature amid quite a lot of criticism. I thought that it was a perfectly justifiable award because Bob Dylan has certainly written a lot of very interesting, creative, and serious lyrics in his career. If there is a justification for giving the Pulitzer Prize to Kendrick Lamar, I certainly haven't heard it. Maybe next year they will give it to Beyoncé...


Jives said...

I find the whole Beyoncé spectacle to be downright fascistic in it's pummeling aggression. She's approaching cult figure status here. There's something unsettling about the large group of people on stage moving in lockstep. I kind of got the same queasy feeling from the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with the hundreds of drummers pounding away in eerie unison. Impressive, but unnerving. Your comparison to the mass entertainments of the French Revolution is well drawn.

As to the Pulitzer, they just recently awarded it to Become Ocean, and Anthracite Fields, both of which I detested, so...unsurprising I guess.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Jives. I write what I hope will be an incisive criticism and along comes a commentator to point out that I likely haven't gone far enough!

Patrick said...

We can only hope that the quality of the music we love will help it outlast momentary incidents such as the awarding this year of the Pulitzer in music. Mozart, Haydn, and the entire millennium of Western 'classical' music are still performed, recorded and vital due to only one thing - the extraordinary quality of the music. Certainly not to prizes awarded. In this sense, we should see our participation (by playing, listening, attending concerts) in the classical community as a way for future generations to have this genre enrich and touch their lives. Thanks, Bryan, for your wonderful blog, which is also helpful.

Will Wilkin said...

I agree with everything Patrick said. No matter how vulgar and banal are the pop and politically-correct versions of music at any moment, genuine art will survive and stand tall when all the din of our day has been replaced by a new din. I never did pay attention to prizes or critics or opinion trends. I judge the work for myself, I don't want to know anything about the artist nor about what other people think of the work.

Marc said...

Read this post after the FM one. Now I think I need not listen at all to Kendrick Lamar. If I had copious and always-increasing amounts of free time, I could see making a point to listen to something of these celebrity musicians but until that happy day arrives, am planning on sticking in my own narrow rut.

Christine Lacroix said...

Musicians or politicians who are able to produce music or rhetoric that taps powerfully into the fleeting mood of the moment seem to be richly rewarded these days.

As for your comments on the power nexus victimizing Donald Trump, it seems a stretch to put Martha Stewart, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump in the same category. Martha Stewart, from the little I know of her, strikes me as a fundamentally honest person who did something dumb in a moment of panic. Putting myself in her place I can imagine she had no idea of the implications of her actions. On the other hand, both Richard Nixon and Donald Trump are known for patterns of deliberate dishonesty. You said 'Yes, there can be accountability, but often it is simply one power nexus taking temporary advantage of another. This is how I understand the conviction of Martha Stewart, the impeachment of Richard Nixon and the current battle between Donald Trump and his own Department of Justice'. I missed out on a lot of the Watergate saga since I was living in France but apparently, Nixon was guilty as charged. If you wiretap your opponents and get caught it's bad luck but can you claim you were being taken advantage of by another power nexus? As for Donald Trump if he's innocent he'll be more than vindicated if he lets the FBI do their job.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, all, for some very insightful comments.

Christine, thanks especially for pushing back on my brief political comment. I do need to elaborate a bit. What I was trying to express was my sense that we seem to be living in a time of warring nexuses of power that are blurring or even erasing moral clarity. That so many, like James Comey, are claiming to have moral clarity is simply not credible. The "patterns of deliberate dishonesty" that you mention are found in the behaviour of Donald Trump, probably, but also, most certainly, in the behaviour of Bill and Hillary Clinton, James Comey, Bernie Sanders and his wife, numerous highly-placed officials in the FBI and on and on. I just finished reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis in which he sketches out patterns of deliberate dishonesty mixed with disingenuous naïveté and cultivated ignorance in virtually the entirety of Wall Street AND its regulatory bodies. I look at the case of Conrad Black and see a justice system entirely out of control, demonstrating that unaccountable prosecutors can put anyone, ANYONE, in jail.

I don't think this is going to end well.

Christine Lacroix said...

Your defense of Donald Trump sounds like the kid caught misbehaving who claims 'But EVERYBODY is doing it!'. Sorry, but not everybody is doing it, and especially not to the same extent. People all have varying degrees of 'moral clarity' and the spectrum is pretty large. I don't think anyone would deny that James Comey has seriously messed up but from what I've seen he seems to have a moral and ethical compass that he struggles to respect. He clearly tried to do the right thing however clumsily. No one is totally objective. The everybody is the same, everybody is equally dishonest argument just doesn't hold up to scrutiny. But don't worry about Donald Trump. If he's innocent as he claims he is he'll be just fine. And let's hope he is because if there is one thing the country doesn't need right now it's another Watergate type mess.

Bryan Townsend said...

I wasn't even attempting to defend Donald Trump! And I don't think I was offering a schoolyard argument that everyone is doing it. What I see is that there is very, very little objective moral judgement being exercised. Trump's supporters believe that he is being attacked on all sides, unfairly. Comey believes that he is a lonely moral exemplar. What we have, in fact, are warring nexuses of power, as I was saying. I'm not worried about Donald Trump. I'm worried that when there is enough widespread ignoring of the rule of law, then there will be some serious rents in the social fabric.