By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Performance is something else altogether. My rule of thumb is if there seems to be a credibility problem, there probably is. For example, I can’t help feeling that Britney Spears doesn’t sing that well, can’t dance and can’t write her own material. I suspect other people feel this way too and just like the cultural garishness of Britney, and that’s where I get confused. I get ill-tempered when there’s a reactionary thrill about liking stuff that’s corporate and overly format-conscious just because there’s so much of this stuff around, we might as well start liking it, because what else do we have? Through the same tortured logic, we start talking about how great American beer is, or which is the better 99-cent store.
Eminem is another good example. I confess he knows a lot about enjambment and how to vary line lengths. But there’s a lot about him I just don’t understand. To my ears, the beats and samples are really dull. If you listen to Terminator X and the Bomb Squad and then listen to what Dr. Dre has done on the Eminem albums, it’s really hard to understand what’s so good about the sound. It’s tinny, like advertising music, like he’s trying to sell hamburgers. From a political angle, it’s important to mention that he did advocate cutting his wife up and putting her in the trunk, right? I am used to being told that I am being oversensitive, but I don’t want to listen to him on this subject, and my repugnance has nothing to do with his success. If literature is about complexity and subtlety, then Marshall Mathers doesn’t have the thing that makes me want to stay with a piece of art. I understand that the form has hyperbole built into it (thus the cutting up of the wife), but it just doesn’t translate for me.
DARNIELLE: This is an insufficient response, but I must say the Backstreet Boys merit more than a passing glance, because they sing like angels and because I worked with children when the Boys were at their commercial zenith, and, well, when you lock into the joy that pure, treacly pop inspires in children, it’s a lovely wave to ride. I don’t think that everybody who embraces “dumb” pop is doing so from a transgressive urge, and in the end, I’m not sure that it matters what inspired the opening of the ears.
Rick’s dismissing of Eminem bears a little closer scrutiny, too, because Em’s craft isn’t just “good,” it’s for the ages, and there’ve been plenty of artists through history with considerably darker muses. In 10 years’ time, I think even his most violent fantasies will sound removed from the Zeitgeist, like the murder ballads they are. Dylan covered “Love Henry” a few albums back and nobody complained about it, and Nick Cave got a free pass for a whole album of gruesome murder ballads. Why the special animus for Em — because he’s more popular? Because kids like it? Because he prefers not to drop the mask? Yes, the centurylong tendency to claim low culture for high art, and the infatuation with this gesture, is an annoying reflex, but let’s not toss the baby with the bathwater.
I’m hoping I can inspire some summary thoughts: What should the world of music take away from the world of literature, and what should the world of literature take away from the world of music?
MOODY: Maybe what’s binding rock & roll and writing together these days is the sense of both forms becoming a less central part of the market-driven, homogenized, vertically integrated global culture. They are becoming like attractions in some historical theme park, a theme park with markedly bad attendance. When a form is neglected enough to be intimate, it’s more appealing to me anyhow.
To put it another way: The musicians who are interested in collaborating with writers are musicians who are readers. And what, finally, is more exiguous in the politics of the moment than reading? Virtually nothing in America supports reading as a way of life. Try reading in an airport. Likewise, the writers who want to be in the orbit of musicians are people who are really engaged with what’s happening in the most artful and speculative wing of contemporary music. David Gates is out there learning Old Time music, Paul Auster is writing for One Ring Zero, Dave Eggers is composing for Cheap Trick 20 years after their last hit, Myla Goldberg is providing fodder for the Decembrists, Denis Johnson is turning up in a Sonic Youth song, etc. I don’t see any novelists volunteering to write lyrics for the Top 40. In my view, this interest is not at all because these writers want to be “rock stars” but because music is a warm, open, responsive language and is therefore lovable.
I figure the forms are already married to one another. One of my complaints about contemporary fiction is that a lot of it is secretly obsessed with a potential movie sale, and the way you can tell is that the work is more preoccupied with appearances, with the way a director might look at a scene, and this to the detriment of the sound of the prose. When Ezra Pound said that poetry was language cut in time, what he meant was that our art is made out of words, and when the words become merely vehicular, the means to an end, then the work becomes transparent and calculating. On the other hand, if the prose is made to be heard, whether this is aloud or in the still, secret auditory nerve of a private reading experience, then it’s only natural that it would want to interact with music, because song is the most perfect use of language. When a voice raises up the words in song, it’s a really splendid thing, a moving thing, arguably the most beautiful thing you can do with language. Who wouldn’t want to try to do that?