Diary of a Mad Composer
I’ve been listening to the blues lately, a lot of blues. I was filling out my ballot for DownBeat magazine’s jazz critic’s poll, and when I got to the blues artist and blues album categories, I had a lot of catching up to do. During the course of a year, I dip into the music now and then, but the bulk of my new releases listening is jazz, classical, experimental, funk, post-punk—you know, the hip shit.
But holy shit the blues is hip. As a part of the overall cultural fabric, that’s a given—names like Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, and Howlin’ Wolf are out there in the firmament, known if not heard.
Of course, they’re also long past. And as the musical question goes, what is hip? Cultural hipness in America is currently a shambles: a vapid, shallow concoction of materialism, youth (or immaturity), and white faces. A sea of Jeffs everywhere I look—they think they’re hep cats, but they’re not even beat. And if you don’t got your boots on, it’s probably because jive is just another fucking software program.
I jest you not. The hipster used to be an outsider, and now it’s a personal brand, because in America if you don’t sell yourself you don’t exist. It was ever so, but it was never cool. Now it is. How this happened is a long, fascinating, infuriating story (a good place to start is with Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool and the current or any previous issue of The Baffler), which I am not here to tell; I’m reporting on the wreckage.
The wreckers have been music critics who have not only allowed, but eagerly assisted in creating a musical culture (musicians, critics, audiences) that obsesses over and exalts the industrial, manufactured model of music. They are the courtiers of our de facto aristocracy, which is made up of celebrities, fawning over fame and basking in its shadow no less eagerly than our embarrassing political journalists.
The New Yorker is, strangely, the leading royal house organ. Starting with Sasha Frere-Jones and continuing through a handful of current, academically-approved names (this is a whole other problem: music criticism in the mainstream has been taken over by people with English degrees, who went to the right schools, who in turn hire other people with English degrees, who went to the right schools, transforming critical writing about music into a field for jousting over one’s pedigree in half-apprehended philosophical and sociological nostrums that answer all our questions and solve all our problems) who, perhaps because of their constant exposure to America’s youth, chase trend and fad after trend and fad. We get Hua Hsu praising Future Brown’s vapid, calculated dance music assemblage; a whole book from John Seabrook, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, that admires the industrial creation of a commercial consumable (he considers it music); and Amanda Petrusich complaining, in her essay “The Music Critic in the Age of the Insta-Release”(March 9, 2016), about how unfair it is when a giant star like Kendrick Lamar or Rihanna just releases a new recording, out of the blue, forcing helpless music critics to respond hastily.
The only thing that produces such force is the marketplace, and if Petrusich and other critics feel they need to immediately respond to an album, then consider that they are not writing music criticism, they are writing profiles for tweenage girls and boys, and the twenty-somethings those kids become. They are writing popism, examining relative gradations of stardom, obsessing over music videos. They are writing about Debord and Deleuze—meanwhile, no one’s writing about D minor.
Nitsuh Abebe uncovered this, unintentionally, in the introduction to the March 13 New York Times Magazine cover story, “25 Songs that Tell Us Where Music is Going.” Abebe explained why he at first ignored Beyoncé’s “Formation:”
“The point being: Here, for a moment, was music that actively dragooned me into paying attention to it, based not primarily on sound, performance or composition, but on the rolling snowball of perspectives, close readings and ideological disputes accreting around it.”
Popism—in other words, a solipsistic examination of reflections on music, not of music itself. Not listening, but strategies for listening. Generally favorable examinations of the artifice of the thing, but not the thing itself. Interchangeable with political coverage, which confuses the firmness of a politician’s vocal tone with the quality, ethics, and morality of that person’s ideas and values.
Abebe, of course, doesn’t see this as a problem, because popism is his world. He values what he describes as pop music’s use “as a way for listeners to figure out their identities.” Nothing wrong with that, except when it is the only thing. Because figuring out your identity through something that is purposefully artificial and disposable is a path toward what Joseph Brodsky described in his Nobel lecture as susceptibility to political demagogy.
Ostensibly, authenticity is an issue in both pop music and politics. If it were, our political journalism would be entirely different and I’d be reading about the blues in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. I’m not talking about name-dropping Skip James to prove that you know what America sounds like, I’m talking about how the blues is the musical language of authenticity. Judging by the astonishing number of great new blues albums put out last year, this continues to be the case.
As opposed to the artificiality of pop (or the affectlessness of it, depending on your listening habits), blues musicians are telling you exactly what they are thinking and feeling, and their opinions on worldly matters, directly, all the time. There is no space for bullshit in the blues. Even Joe Bonamassa, controversial for his slick production and hard-rock stylings, is an almost overwhelmingly direct, urgent musician. Goddamn he has something to tell you.
The blues is hip, even if music critics don’t know it—and why don’t they? I feel intuitively that it comes down to the usual blindness about class. Not the current fashion for privilege, but class. An essential root of the blues is the work song, and the work song exists to assist in the endurance of physical labor: “Early in the Mornin’” is a work song; “Code Monkey” is not. Jonathan Coulton went to Yale, like a lot of writers for the New Yorker. Son House, Lazy Lester—and contemporary musicians like Albert Cummings—hauled, pounded, sweated.
When there’s room for bullshit, when artificiality and lack of affect are valued, then there’s room for lies, and worse. An artist who sings you a song that tells you, seriously, how amazing he or she is, is a demagogue—if you like that artist you are not just a listener but a follower. An artist who sings you a song and refuses to give you a clue as to what he or she thinks and feels about it is worse: amoral, unethical, calling insinuatingly for conformism and groupthink. Neither are to be trusted, nor are their courtiers. If you want to trust in someone, start with Gary Clark, Jr.