Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Singer Not the Song (Or Why Performance is as Important as Form)



The single most important thing that ever happened in the history of popular culture was the arrival of Elvis Presley. His rise at once signified the end of an era. Behind Elvis was post-war austerity, uptight (white) social mores and the young being seen and not heard. In his wake came a let-it-all-hang-out looseness, an embrace of black musical figures previously unheard of (hitherto only permitted in the highly intellectualised circles of jazz) and the young as an angry, impetuous and highly marketable entity. While 60's musicians are perpetually rediscovered and cherished, Elvis seems cut off in another era, as if he managed to fall on the wrong side of the dividing line that he created. While the simplistic feel of 50's rock 'n roll is partly to blame, the fact that Elvis continued to record, and continued to have sizable hits, right up until his death suggests that another factor is at play. The biggest difference between Elvis and The Beatles (or Dylan or The Rolling Stones) is that Presley was not a songwriter. He remained an interpreter up to his final days. In this regard he comes across as a relic, somehow more connected to Sinatra or Bing Crosby than to his true cultural heirs of the 60s (of course his residencies at Vegas didn't help). Presley is showbiz, Dylan is art. This is unfair, however, because people don't actually rate "songwriting" as highly as they think they do. This essay is not an attempt to rescue Elvis from his kitsch, sequined place in cultural history (though it should, with any luck, prod you into giving him a fresh listen); rather it's an exploration of what modern songwriting has actually become. When songwriting became a byword for artistry, its place of privilege meant the demotion of what, in truth, are essential elements of modern music. Why it happened will be dealt with in due course. For now, though, let's asses the state of affairs as they stand. What exactly is a song? Let's find out.

Diversion # 1
I'm attending a concert by Neko Case. During said concert she sings a song called "In California" that I fall in love with instantly. Upon purchasing her mini-album "Canadian Amp"  which includes the aforementioned song I discover that it was, in fact, written by someone named Lisa Marr. I duly purchase the Lisa Marr Experiment album with "In California" on it named '4 AM'. With high expectations I give it a listen. Nothing. After several spins I remain unimpressed. After a few weeks  I go back and focus on "In California" , but even it seems flat and uninspired compared with Neko's version. A feeling of puzzlement washes over me and I'm struck with a thought: "How did Neko Case know that there was a good song to be had from this? What did she hear that I can't? Was it a good song badly recorded, or a mediocre song elevated by Neko's superior delivery?" Without Neko, had I ever been exposed to this song in it's original incarnation, I would have dismissed it.





List-making is an integral part of internet culture. Top tens abound, with one of the most popular being "Top Ten Favourite Songs". Check out one of these lists and you'll immediately notice something interesting. Let's say curiosity gets the better of you and you click on some old classmate's top ten to see what kind of music they enjoy. At number one sits "Jeremy" by Pearl Jam. First off, my advice is to defriend them. You may be a more forgiving soul, though, and continue to check out their list. As your eyes move downward you've already missed the interesting part. When people list their favourite songs, they always include the artist who recorded it as part of that list. Why is that interesting? Because a song, and a recording of a song, are two different things, or at least they used to be. What people are actually listing are their favourite recordings. What's even more interesting is that almost everybody manages to simultaneously believe that a song and a recording are two different entities and that the original version is always the best. Why is that interesting? Well, take a look at any list of the greatest songs of all time. There's a good chance that it will contain "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction". Great song. Have you heard the Britney Spears version? Pretty terrible. Now, imagine that the Britney version was the only one that existed. Would it make any Best Of lists? Not a chance. So is it still one of the greatest songs ever written? Granted, Otis Redding and Devo made great versions but, when the song makes those lists, they're talking about the Stones version. In fact, if anything is written about the song, you can bet they'll talk about the snarl of Jagger's vocals, the rough hewn simplicity of the distorted riff that Keith blasts out, the propulsion of the drumming, etc. In other words, they're not talking about the song. They're talking about the recording.

We've all read stories of artists spending hours, days, weeks on a song, all to ensure that it sounds just right. Surely, though, a classic song should not be laboured on for such a time. Great songs should emerge regardless, shouldn't they? That depends. In the early part of the 20th century, two artistic approaches can be discerned in the history of songwriting. On the one hand, we have the likes of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, songwriters whose interests lay not in recording any kind of definitive version of their songs but in writing standards for others to perform. On the other hand, we have  Robert Johnson, Skip James, and a host of other blues singers whose appeal lay more in their idiosyncratic approach, unfathomable time signatures, and heightened emotion. Few, if any, of the blues singers could read music so the line between what they performed and how they performed became blurred. Robert Johnson used many themes and lyrics that were familiar to other blues players but his particular style elevated them to a highly personalised and very modern Art (not Modern Art). It is important to draw a distinction between these two approaches. The former is now all but extinct, but it is from this method that our idea of "the song" comes from. Distinct from folk music of any kind, songwriters like Gershwin et al wrote songs and immediately had their works published. This meant that the songwriters would benefit from sales of the sheet music. Recording was still in its infancy so the songwriters got their royalties mainly from the aforementioned sheet music sales. From this came the idea of the song having some kind of idealised Platonic form that floated free from any particular version that existed. What, in fact, was a business measure gave the songwriter and the song a privileged position over the performers. Things moved fast in the 20th century though. While the visual arts existed for centuries before the challenge of Impressionism, no sooner had the songwriter triumphed than the performer struck back. The difference was the performer now wrote the songs, and recorded them too.

Diversion # 2
I'm attending a gig at First Avenue in Minneapolis. It's a double bill of Love featuring Arthur Lee and The Zombies. On the surface it looks like any other 60's has-been reunion tour, but I hold Arthur Lee in such high esteem that I feel like his presence will elevate it beyond the realms of dewy-eyed nostalgia and actually create a memorable gig. When Love come on stage I hear the whisperings of the crowd; "That's Johnny Echols on guitar".  Dumbfounded, I stare at the stage and, sure enough, there stands original Love guitarist Johnny Echols. The gig is mind-blowing, with Arthur Lee in fine form. His voice has retained all its menacing power, the backing band capture the energy of the songs perfectly and, to top it all off, THAT'S JOHNNY FUCKING ECHOLS PLAYING LEAD GUITAR!!! OK, so they could have gotten some other guy to play those lead guitar lines, but this is the guy who played guitar on the original recordings. Why does that mean something? I'm not sure why, but it does. If we see songs performed by the original line-up of the band, it somehow makes it more special. We feel that it comes closer to the spirit of the music, to its idealised form. That form has nothing to do with an exact replication of the chords and melody (the song), but with how the songs were recorded and who played on them, and I can't figure out why that's important.





From the blues came rock 'n roll, and from rock 'n roll came rock and pop. When rock 'n roll exploded, it popularised emotion and expression over craft. Capturing an incendiary performance became key. In the tradition of singers like Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf who could elevate mediocre material into the realms of Art with their performances, rock 'n roll singers used the song as a springboard to emphasise their unique approach, their uncompromising attitudes, their very beings. Just as rock 'n roll was about to disappear, though, something amazing happened. A new generation of bands emerged that fused the emotion of rock 'n roll with genuine craft and musical ingenuity. The problem was that, like the blues players before them, almost none of this new generation knew how to write music. For business reasons the songs still had to be published and authorship certified, but their real existence was not on paper but in the recording. Dylan stated that he wanted his albums to be viewed the same way as a Picasso painting. He wanted his music viewed as Art. While many of his early acoustic numbers were accepted as standards, Dylan's adoption of a nasally, unlovely singing style suggested he valued performance as much as song. His leap into electric music fulfilled his dream of being comparable to Picasso, with Highway 61 Revisited capturing a highly individualised talent who wanted just the right feel for his songs. In popular music terms The Beatles soon moved ahead of Dylan and, indeed, everyone. Songs like "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" were astounding as well as being utterly modern in the sense that one could not separate the song from the recording. The song was the recording. I challenge you to find me anyone who prefers other versions of these or other Lennon songs from '65 onwards (McCartney leaned more toward the old school approach. His songs were more cover version-friendly and so melodically rich that they were a gift to other singers). It does not lessen a songs greatness to imply that only the original recording is truly great. It merely speaks of a misunderstanding of what a modern song is. To say that "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a bad song because some kind of idealised acoustic version does not exist and that it would fail without the samples and the processed drums is to miss the point. The samples and the processed drums are the song. The songs took shape in the recording studio and their very existence is inseparable from the recorded versions that continue to inspire.

Diversion #3
Imagine, if you will, that you are a session musician. When it comes time to record a song, oftentimes you will be given very specific instructions. Other times, though, you're given free reign to do what you feel and, if the songwriter approves, it stays in. On one such occasion, you arrive at the session and the songwriter has nothing specified. They tell you to play whatever you feel. After a couple of practice runs you come up with a funky little guitar riff right before the chorus that enhances the song perfectly. The songwriter is impressed and it's allowed to stay in. You love the song in question and know that it would still sound great without your riff, but you're  proud to have contributed to the sessions and also pleased the songwriter. The session is done, you receive your standard payment, and you go to the next job. Fifteen years later you're listening to the radio and you hear something that astounds you. Your guitar riff, and only your guitar riff, has been sampled and looped and forms the backbone of a very successful hip-hop song. Just to satisfy your curiosity, you buy the album that the song is from and rush quickly to the songwriting credits. Your jaw falls open. The members of the hip-hop group are all credited, along with the songwriter whose song you worked on that day. That damned songwriter's publishing company is even named in the credits too. Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

As if hip-hop and dance music didn't do enough damage by breaking rock music's stronghold on the charts, they confused things even further by muddying the waters in regards to songwriting. When a song is sampled, somebody has to make money, and somebody needs to get credited. In both circumstances, the biggest benefactor is the songwriter. But what is being sampled? Is it a song or a recording? Clearly what is being sampled is a recording. One of the most famous examples of a recording being sampled is not actually a hip-hop song but a rock song-- "Bittersweet Symphony" by The Verve. The song samples an orchestral rendering of "The Last Time" by The Rolling Stones. To repeat, the song did not sample the Stones recording but an orchestral version. The Verve were sued and, as a result, the song is now credited to Jagger / Richards with Richard Ashcroft receiving zero money. Now, how much money did the orchestra players make? Can you guess? Did either Jagger or Richards arrange the orchestra or instruct the players in any way? Can you guess? So, despite not being at the recording in question, or arranging it in any way, and despite the fact that the the orchestra in question embellished the song in order to make it more orchestra-friendly, and despite the fact that Richard Ashcroft wrote the lyrics, the only people who make money from the song are Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Oh, and you know that Jagger and Richards were "inspired" to write "The Last Time" after hearing The Staple Singers "This May Be The Last Time" don't you?  Another casualty of sampling is the idea of the song as having a Platonic existence separate from recorded versions. For instance, is it possible to cover "Pump Up The Volume" by MlAlRlRlS? Clearly not. The song is the recording. That's not to say that dance music doesn't have its own version of the cover. It's called the remix. You need a copy of the original recording (for an official remix), but it amounts to the same thing as a cover. You get a remix credit, you get paid a remix fee, you move on. Even if your remix becomes better known, in fact even if it becomes the definitive version, you still don't get a songwriting credit. Surprise, surprise, you can't always get what you want.



Let me be clear, though, this essay isn't some Deconstructionist tract declaring the "death of the songwriter". On the contrary, the craft of the songwriter should never be underestimated and I hope it remains an integral part of music creation.The greatest moments in any art form should be a healthy marriage of craft and performance, content and style. The fact is, however, that a lot of the time the songwriter has no idea how he or she wants the recording to sound. It is surely their ambition to record the definitive version, the true version if you will, and this can only be achieved with the help of producers, engineers, other band members, string arrangers, etc. Original ideas can be changed around and, in the case of something like "Enjoy The Silence" by Depeche Mode, it can bear very little resemblance to how the songwriter envisioned it. One could argue that the work and pure inspiration put in by fellow Depeche Mode member Alan Wilder warranted him a songwriting credit. But alas, no. The song is still considered something apart from the recorded version, as far as music publishers are concerned anyway.Take also the example of "All Along The Watchtower" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The performance and musical textures of the song are so different that Hendrix deserves a credit on his version for its radical reinterpretation and sheer bravado. In modern composition terms it's a new song, in the same way that "Masters of War" is a different song from "Nottamun Town", despite sharing the same melody and chords (It was part of the folk tradition to take a well-known song and change the lyrics and/or melody to suit your own purpose. The advent of music publishing made this practice obsolete. The notion of intellectual property has made originality one of the modern virtues of Art. Until recently, however, it meant very little. Blame the suits again).  Every now and then you should listen to a cover version of a song you love. In fact, pick a version that you do not enjoy, then ask yourself if it remains a great song. Indeed, ask yourself if it's the same song.

Diversion # 4
In any list of the best Bob Dylan albums, 'Blonde On Blonde' usually rests in the top three. More often than not it makes number one, with many putting it forth as a candidate for greatest album of all time. By all accounts it should be one of the greatest albums ever made. The playing is brilliant, the sound is intoxicating, and it's Dylan in '66, supposedly at the top of his game. If you start to break the album down, though, and count the number of Dylan classics, all at once you realise that the going isn't good. Take away "Visions of Johanna", "I Want You", "Just Like A Woman" and "4th Time Around" and things begin to look grim. We can perhaps let in "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", but it remains overrated nonetheless. Worse than that, "Temporary Like Achilles" and "Obviously 5 Believers" are plain awful,  the two worst songs Dylan has written up to this point in his career. As for the rest, it's all passable, sometimes even somewhat enjoyable, but it's mediocre by Dylan's, or indeed anyone's, standards. So why is it rated so highly? It's the sound, the year, the idea of a sprawling double album by a wayward genius. It's all the things you want from a great album, except the songs. Seems like classic rock fans, those supposedly staunch defenders of the "content over style" school, are as susceptible as anyone else to the lure of the surface, to the charms of performance without substance.

 In the introduction to his gargantuan history of the novel, appropriately titled The Novel: An Alternative History, literary critic Steven Moore asks readers to think of  writing as a performance. He notes that Shakespeare took most of his plots and characters from older sources and that what makes Romeo and Juliet great is not the story, but the way it is told. After all, there were earlier versions of this very tale. Shakespeare's version just happens to be better written. The idiosyncrasy of Shakespeare's stylistic performance is what elevates it to genius. Shakespeare needed  the plot in order to work his magic, but the magic was in his own performance. The story of a novel in this way is analogous to the song in its relation to the recording. Without the song, the performance could not exist, but to privilege the songwriter in it's final creation is to misunderstand the entire process (The comparison doesn't work perfectly as the writing of lyrics could be thought of as a performance all it's own, but how many truly great lyricists are there in music? And how many times have you heard people say "I just ignore the lyrics and listen to the song" ? ). Would "Unknown Pleasures" have been a classic without Martin Hannett? Why have almost all of New Order's strongest creations been made in tandem with a strong producer/remixer (Arthur Baker, Shep Pettibone, Stephen Hague)? Why have so many classic albums involved the input of Brian Eno?  Did anyone else notice that The Band lost it as soon as Robbie Robertson began to dominate the musical arrangements and give the other members less free reign? Business practices have limited our appreciation of truly creative individuals. How a song sounds, and how it is played, can change our perception of that song for both better and worse. A great singing voice can often be dismissed simply because its power comes easily to the performer, whereas songwriting implies work and craft. Just as much work and craft goes into recording and playing, however, but it somehow still isn't held in quite the same esteem as the song or the songwriter. Which brings me back to Elvis. If you have a minute, take a listen to "That's All Right". So he didn't write it. Listen, though, to how his band performs it. Listen to the echo of Sun Studio. Above all, listen to Elvis' voice. It's a gift to humanity, full of hurt and defiance, tenderness and loneliness, showing strength in the face of insurmountable odds. It could transform a pedestrian piece of hackwork into a soulful expression of human frailty. If that's not genius, then I don't know what is.

Lady Gaga Thinks Homosexuality is Perverted

Imagine you're browsing on youtube and you find one of those ten minute videos where a young liberal minded reporter enters the lions den and starts asking conservative types what they think of gay marriage. The reporter is saying nothing, letting the typical bile flow out of the interviewee's mouths, condemning themselves with their ignorance. An older man appears onscreen and starts lambasting the gay lifestyle. "They're all a bunch of perverts. Dressing up and whipping themselves all the time. Not one of them is normal. They're all perverted freaks having orgies all the time". We allow ourselves a chuckle while inwardly gasping at the sheer idiocy of it all. But get this: Lady Gaga thinks exactly the same thing as this imaginary gentleman. Don't believe me? Read on friend.

Lady Gaga from day one has set herself up as an advocate of gay rights. Let me say right off the bat that as a position this is obviously admirable, especially as many gay couples are fighting to secure what should be unarguable rights. So far so good. But does Lady Gaga herself understand the association she is making by having gay rights advocacy infused so strongly with her highly stylised overtly sexual imagery that looks like dance night at an S and M club? Lady Gaga wants to be controversial. This is a given. Therefore she is playing with imagery that is meant to ruffle the feathers of the more prudish elements of American society. All fun and games, but if she imagines homosexuality to be one of those highly stylised shows of sexual degeneracy that will cause a stir then we have a problem. The problem is, homosexuality is normal. When a 25 year old man gazes longingly at the handsome stranger who just entered the bar, he is not engaging in a degenerate, perverted activity. He is obeying a natural bodily impulse. Do some homosexuals dabble in S and M? Obviously they do, as do a great many straight couples. Do I have a problem with S and M? Not in the slightest. One thing should be clear however: the rights of the S and M enthusiast come from a different legal and moral tradition than gay rights.

One of the great defences of gay rights goes something like this: gay people do not have a choice and should not be condemned by society for obeying natural impulses that cause no harm when practiced by consenting adults. As a position it is unarguable; but what if it weren't a choice? What if everybody felt raging sexual emotions toward everyone, but homosexuality were simply frowned upon or outlawed as unnatural due to religious beliefs or folk traditions? A case could still be made for the practice to be legal among consenting adults, but it would not come from a gay rights philosophy, it would come straight out of the John Stuart Mill tradition of the individual being at liberty to do as they wish as long as it does not harm others. It's all the same isn't it? No, it is not. A gay woman can press for her right to marry but still support the war in Iraq, or the law that a Corporation should be allowed to make donations to political parties, or indeed any political position she pleases. She can even think S and M is perverted. Being gay does not come with a set of beliefs. The civil rights movement was not based on a John Stuart Mill philosophy of individual rights, it was founded on the notion that black people had the same rights under law as white people. Gay rights advocacy groups ask that we see homosexuality as normal, and that homosexuals be given the same rights as heterosexuals. I wouldn't imagine that they want to see homosexuality viewed as a kink, or as a challenge to the patriarchal society, or as a rejection of norms. No, they simply wish it to be seen as normal.

So back to Lady Gaga. Let me reiterate, I see her support of gays rights as noble, and her support of gay charity groups can only be helpful. There is however, something not quite right in her portrayal of homosexuality as a kink, as a pervy side show to make the soccer moms blush. It makes it look like a marketing strategy rather than a genuine concern for gay rights, and it associates homosexuality with sexual practices that are obviously seen as deviant and shocking. In a Rolling Stone interview she claimed bisexuality, stating that her attraction to women was a problem for the men in her life. The fact that she never mentioned whether her attraction to men was a problem for the women in her life, and the interviewer never thought to ask, suggests that there really are no women in her life as a serious relationship prospect and that her "bisexuality" is entirely imagined, an image building excercise, or an occasional indulgence in what she sees as shocking behaviour, and something she will grow out of. By this point it hardly needs pointing out that her supposed bisexuality is nothing to do with gays rights and everything to do with individual rights, closer to Ron Paul than Harvey Milk.

I worry that, in a PR sense, her attempt to connect homosexuality so strongly with what are seen as deviant sexual acts will actually play into the hands of many religious bigots who see homosexuality as a perversion. One can perhaps say that it isn't Lady Gaga's fault if they make that connection, but seeing as Lady Gaga clearly makes that connection too it doesn't really stand up as a defence. So what if Lady Gaga thinks none of these acts are deviant? Well, she clearly knows that other people think they are, and by wrapping them all up in a provocative package she is at the very least exploiting their ability to shock, and by including homosexuality in that product she seems to be exploiting the idea of homosexuality as a deviant act rather than trying to show that it is in fact a normal thing for a human being to be. Don't tell me that the video for "Alejandro" was anything other than a second rate attempt to shock, a pale shadow of Madonna's "Like A Prayer" controversy. If she wants to shock people, fine, but by tying her actions in so closely with gay rights she risks reinforcing all the most bigoted and backwards beliefs about the homosexual lifestyle, and right now that's a problem.

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I wanted to add a postscript. As many have probably seen, Lady Gaga made a video asking for the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell'. While humbly positioning herself as the voice of her generation, she also made this curious statement:

"We are not asking you to agree with or approve the moral implications of homosexuality"

Now, can someone tell me the moral implications of homosexuality? It seems like either she wanted to sound intelligent and failed, or she is clearly confusing gay rights with individual rights. She seems to think that being homosexual should be categorised with all libertarian causes, and not tied to basic human rights like the civil rights movement. Imagine if you will at the height of the civil rights movement, when many expressed open disgust with the idea of a black man and a white woman marrying, someone were to say "We are not asking you to agree with or approve the moral implications of interracial marriage". Yes, the legislator does not have to agree, but what would the moral implications be? There would be none, other than some people thinking it is wrong. Now, in the case of 'don't ask, don't tell', nobody is asking for soldiers to have the right to engage in sexual acts that are categorised as gay, simply that they are allowed to BE gay, and not have to hide it. Again, I'm struggling to see any moral implications. It may seem like an insignificant point to raise, but I think it shows a muddled understanding of the issue at hand. Gay rights is a fight against discrimination, just as the civil rights movement was. It should not be something individual states get to decide, like drinking age. Being gay is a fundamental aspect of a persons being that nevertheless implies nothing other than what sex one is attracted to. Like being black or Jewish, there are certain cultural tendencies that are associated with being gay, but these cultural aspects cannot and should not be thought of as applying to all gay people. Homophobia should always be categorised alongside racism and anti-semitism, not with people who disapprove of smoking or owning guns. I find it a little unnerving that the voice of our generation doesn't seem to get that.

Hipster: A Short Rumination

"If you don't think drugs have done good things for us, do me a favor, go home and take all your albums, tapes, cds...and burn them. Cause, you know what, all those musicians who made that great music that has enhanced your lives throughout the years...real fucking high on drugs"

Bill Hicks

 I've noticed that there's a group of people who all seem to hold in the lowest regard, and it's hipsters. Look at them, walking around thinking they're so much better than everyone, never realising that they're simply pathetic trend hoppers, slavishly following Pitchfork's recommendations and looking like an American Apparel advert or a vintage store freak. God, they take themselves so seriously. And if you live in Minneapolis, well Uptown is just filled with these creeps. You can't move without tripping over a hipster. Everyone HATES them. This overblown hatred seems to overlook two very salient facts:

1) Almost all great music is made by people who fit the description of hipster.

2) There's really no such thing as a hipster anymore.

Now, I know those points seem to contradict one another, but bear with me. There really did used to be such a thing as a Hipster. They emerged in the 40's and listened to bop (then the hippest thing around), smoked pot and generally lived bohemian lifestyles. It should also be noted that many hipsters were white and came from a privileged background, but saw the world of jazz and the musicians who made it as an escape from their uptight world. Hipsters begat Beats, Beats begat Hippies. Each subculture centered around music and, due to the Beats, also literature. The Beats' fascination with Eastern philosophy and religion flowered in the Hippie era. Rock and roll emerged around the same time as the Beats, and shared many of its most notable traits, which were an overt emphasis on sexuality and white society's fascination with black music. Hippies simply represented a new allegiance for the evolving subculture, with rock (with it's roots in blues, folk and country) replacing jazz as the musical lynchpin of the movement. Every rock and roller was hip to the core. They were drawn to blues and R & B and saw in them an authenticity and rawness missing from their own lifestyles. By the early sixties there had also emerged an achingly hip folk and blues collector's mentality, which spurned commercial product and reveled in obscurity. Records by previously unknown bluesmen were brandished with pride as marks of hipness.  Today we view this attitude as pitiable; the obvious product of an insecure, contemptible mindset, but without it there would be no jazz, no rock and roll, no folk revival, no psychedelica, no country rock, no electronica, no hip-hop, and no indie, in other words, nothing you listen to would exist.

Every major sixties band was made up of hipsters (in the sense that we use the word now). Jagger and Richards bonded over Chess records. Lennon was a teddy boy bruiser who openly mocked anyone whose tastes did not match his own. The Kinks, The Who, The Byrds; you name it, they were all hipsters. Even the Beach Boys stole riffs from Chuck Berry. (The Beach Boys are the closest thing that sixties music has to an unhip group of people, but when your main songwriter drops acid and writes songs with Van Dyke Parks, we're hardly in the realms of "Leave It To Beaver"). Gram Parsons was able to hook up with The Byrds and gab his way into the Rolling Stones' inner circle because he was hip, and he was rich, and he brought with him knowledge of obscure country music recordings.  Neil Young was the ultimate hipster, driving around LA in old western garb behind the wheel of a hearse. When I hear people talk with such venom about their hatred of hipsters I tend to think "Wow, you would have hated Neil Young if you met him in 1967". The fact that many of these same people own many Neil Young albums and see him as a benchmark for authenticity and unaffected "realness" gets to the heart of the problem. It would become boring to keep pointing out just how hip Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead and David Bowie were. The list goes on and on, and we haven't even gotten to punk or post-punk, movements that were fueled by an epic rejection of everything deemed uncool. Hipsters, obscuritans and snobs have forever been the catalysts of modern culture, yet the hipster is the ultimate figure of ridicule. The problem is that the advancements of hipsters have become so prevalent that nobody imagines themselves to be in thrall of hipsterism. The other problem is that because hipster is such a dirty word and somehow indicative of a slavish, unthinking mindset, people have attempted to distance themselves from it by wanting to appear the exact opposite, but in doing so have become part of a modern mindset so strong and all encompassing among the young (and the not so young) that it resembles the popularity of hippiedom in the sixties. And what is the exact opposite of the hipster? The nerd.

What could be more helplessly uncool than a nerd? Well, as the term was originally used, nothing. A nerd was someone who knew computer languages or who studied quantum physics. Nobody wanted to know them. They joined the chess club and finished their math homework before everyone else. Something curious has happened though. With hipster now only a few steps above sex offender in terms of the disgust it brings about, people's need to define themselves as something so very uncool has led to the term nerd being synonymous with what are in truth everyday activities. "I watch that TV show all the time. I never miss it. I'm such a nerd", "I watch movies a lot. I'm just a complete nerd","I wear glasses. God, I'm so nerdy", "I wear clothes that are actually pretty fashionable, I like lots of musicians that many people have not heard of but who nevertheless are famous enough to people of college age, I have lots of friends, and I have a job. I AM A COMPLETE NERD". This overflow of supposed nerdiness, coupled with that other modern scourge ironic appreciation, has all but rendered the term hipster obsolete. Everyone from The Beatles to Phil Collins is now seen as equally cool/uncool. There does not exist a musical act that could be deemed thoroughly uncool (OK, maybe Reba McEntire). Listening to Garth Brooks is now a daring show of individuality ("I know it's not very cool......"). Want to talk about why "The Avatar" is your favourite movie? No problem. Simply frame your discussion in terms of your genuine love of this movie being a fuck you to ideas of what is cool and what is uncool. I mean, you love the highest grossing movie of all time, a product that almost everyone in the world knows about, and has been watched by millions. YOU ARE SUCH A NERD. You just don't care about what's considered cool. You live your life free of such hang-ups, not like those pathetic hipsters. A person can even invoke hipsterism to dismiss the tastes of others, whether the thing in question is hip or not ("I know Murakami is really hip right now, but it's really.......").

The hipster has become the elusive demon who represents all that is wrong with our world. Yet nobody believes themselves to be a hipster, even those who are able to pen withering put-downs of hipsters and seem to know all the latest trends that hipsters are sporting. Nope, they aren't hipsters. Uptown Minneapolis is overflowing with them, but all of Minneapolis hates them: Vita.MN, The City Pages, people buying the new Best Coast album. They all hate those fucking hipsters. But this person does not exist. They are a voodoo doll conjured up by the modern mind to ease our own capitulation to modern capitalist marketing. They are the doppelganger who likes all the same things we do, but for all the wrong reasons. The real hipster died off sometime in the early nineties, when loser culture got its major foothold and the rise of the everyday nerd began in earnest. But even this stemmed from hipsterism. (Remember how hip Beck and Pavement were?) At all times though the hipster must be invoked, tried, and thrown to the lions, as a sacrifice for our own fears of depersonalisation and to bolster our individuality. The next time you take a shot at a hipster though, do me this one favour. Go home and take all your albums, tapes, cds...and burn them. Cause, you know what, all those musicians who made that great music that has enhanced your lives throughout the years...real fucking hip

Oops!...I did it again (Motown, Warhol and yet more Lady Gaga)

I’d like to begin by contrasting the critical appreciation of two artists who emerged in the 60’s. The work of one is almost universally adored while he himself remained firmly in the background; the other used his work to propel himself to the centre stage. One created a modern business so successful that our lives would seem the lesser without its presence and influence; the others work is of almost no real importance, with even admirers knowing only a smattering of his output, preferring instead to discuss the man himself, the concepts behind his work, and what he represented. One shaped and influenced culture, enriching people’s lives in the process; the other merely had an ability to exploit people and images for his own purposes and went along with cultural currents that were strong enough to guarantee the fame he so obviously craved. These two men are Berry Gordy and Andy Warhol. It’s a sad comment on our culture that many at this point have no idea who Berry Gordy is, while Andy Warhol’s name gets immediate recognition.

Gordy not only founded Motown records, he also wrote or co-wrote many of its most iconic songs; “Shop Around”, “Money (That’s What I Want)”, “Do You Love Me”, “I’ll Be There”, “I Want You Back” and “ABC” to name a few. The founding of Motown was helped by the success of the Jackie Wilson single “Reet Petite” which Gordy co-wrote. Where would modern music be without Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye or Michael Jackson? Motown records altered the fabric of America, inciting cultural changes that went beyond music, helping Civil Rights and Black Pride. First wave British invasion groups were in awe of Motown, and its influence is all over early Beatles and Stones records. Who in their heart does not rejoice upon hearing “I Can’t Help Myself” blasting out of the radio? Berry Gordy’s name should be honoured by all who love music, and all who claim a love of pop culture. Without his talent, tenacity and ability to foster and encourage genius in others there would be an unfathomable black hole in our world. Yet who ultimately cares who Berry Gordy is? And how honoured is his name when compared to our other personality mentioned above?

Andy Warhol is seen as important, controversial, visionary, a mirror of our times, but why? He recontextualised iconic images. He helped create Pop Art (a phrase invented so cultural puritans could don latex gloves and delve into the murky world of commercialism and still come up smelling like academics). His work was vampiric, feeding on others, exploiting them, and disposing of them when necessary. So why is his work taken so seriously? Conceptualising. Warhol was obsessed by fame, but so was America, so Warhol’s work represented all of America’s base commercialism and spirit crushing Hollywood dreams. Warhol helped foster these very ideas, and half-witted cultural critics ran with it. Didn’t everyone see? Warhol contained all the glamour and artificiality of America itself. His flaws were Americas flaws, his inconsistencies and shortcomings (which constituted his entire output) became “complexities”, and to accept these complexities was to come to terms with America in all its plastic glory. This pyrrhic victory of Concept over content all but destroyed modern art, as “iconoclasts” multiplied, all determined to conceptualise their work into museums, along the way trampling on such (so called) bourgeois notions as talent, work ethic and morality. This was the biggest victory party yet for intellectualised banality and if you care to take a look at any art magazine or modern museum, you’ll see it’s still going on.

Now, let us return to the main thrust of this essay, which is; why is Lady Gaga’s music so awful? I know that all things are a matter of taste and that ultimately my dislike is subjective, but I can certainly point to aspects of her music which I think make it a poor piece of work. Namely all of it. First though, let us go back to the birth of modern dance music. It all started with that much maligned genre disco, which was really a minority backlash against both mainstream societies and counterculture rock’s rejection of the hedonistic joys of dancing. Instead of letting it all hang out though, people who danced to disco got dressed up, and for a few hours lost themselves on the dance floor. Women were as important as men to the disco scene. Not confined to the role of groupie or expressing freedom through exposing their breasts, women had power on the dance floor. They could accept or reject suitors, and men were expected to do their best to impress, through their clothes and through their dance moves. Disco was hugely popular in the gay subculture, as well as in black and Latino communities. For this reason it was not unusual for it to be dismissed using both homophobic and racist epithets. As for the music itself, at its best it represented a glorious seduction, a sirens call to let go of your cares and live for the moment. Disco songs exuded a condensed euphoria, taking the most pop elements of funk and soul and making them dance floor ready, replete with soaring strings, latin rhythms and a dominant bass high in the mix. “Young Hearts Run Free” by Candi Staton, “Night Fever” by The Bee Gees, “Love to Love You Baby” by Donna Summer, “Le Freak” by Chic and “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson all exemplified the brilliance of disco. Seductive and sensual, the songs were not aimed at the intellect. For this reason they were often thought of as being stupid. Stupidity though implies a failed intelligence, or an oafish slow-wittedness. Disco was neither. Its arrow aimed for the heart, its grooves for the body. It did not need to be intellectualised (though that didn’t stop people), simply enjoyed. Rock’s bully boy thuggery and incitement to prejudice however, soon turned into a cultural backlash so strong that 90,000 people turned up at Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 12th 1979 with the express purpose of smashing disco records. Disco wasn’t really dead though, it merely changed its form. In fact, by ’79 it was moving in an exciting new direction.

Disco’s reining queen Donna Summer had already made waves with her orgasmic moans in “Love to Love You Baby”, but in ’77 the songs co-writer and electronic visionary Giorgio Moroder propelled her to greater heights with “I Feel Love”. Instead of orgasmic groans, the song instead sounded like a continuously building musical orgasm. Waves of electronic noise washed over the listener repeatedly as Summer harmonised with herself. In a stroke, disco cut loose from its previous reliance on traditional instrumentation and embraced electronic sounds. By ’78, under the influence of Bowie and Eno, British post-punk bands were exploring electronic sounds (Kraftwerk being the band to name check), with even Public Image Ltd endorsing disco (though their reasoning felt a little pseudo-intellectual, describing it as “functional”). Gary Numan, Ultravox! and Depeche Mode took synth-pop into the charts. Disco though, had gone underground and suddenly found that its spiritual homeland was Europe. Embracing electronica and futuristic themes, italo disco produced an astounding magnitude of dance floor favourites, with Klein & MBO’s “Dirty Talk” achieving the status of underground classic (and inspiring New Order to write “Blue Monday”). It was in Europe that the pop and thrill seeking aspect were really kept alive. In America things took a slightly darker turn, with Detroit Techno artists exploring darker soundscapes that married funk with synth (influenced by British synth bands, Kraftwerk and Funkadelic), and Chicago House more influenced by r n’ b and funk than pop. Both, though, had roots in disco and italo disco and as these tracks went overground they did contain a certain let loose on the dance floor disco spirit, with both “Your Love” by Jamie Principle and Rythim Is Rythim’s “Strings of Life” sounding euphoric and anthemic. The early 80’s also saw the emergence of Hi-NRG. This was dance music stripped of its black roots and featuring a relentless pop beat that all but coerced the listener into joining the dance floor party. What saved it from banality was an often irresistible pop touch that kept it just the right side of catchy without quite driving everyone crazy (“You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” being a fine example). This European “everybody on the floor” dance at its most frivolous was to prove very influential, as different dance genres began to influence one another and dance culture itself began to regroup, never quite reaching the all encompassing embrace of disco, but nevertheless always showing traces of its roots. As dance music achieved new levels of popularity and credibility, a bomb dropped on the dance scene. Ecstasy.

By 1987 House music was taking off in Britain and mainland Europe, but as always morphing from its original Chicago source. Clubs catered more and more to people’s desire to dance uninterrupted for hours at a time. By coincidence, it was around this time that Ecstasy became readily available to clubbers. Inducing a trance-like state of euphoria in the user, it also changed dance music forever. Though drugs were always part of clubbing, the whispered highs of E tempted many to late night clubs, the very people who, a decade earlier, would probably have rejected disco as too girly. All night raves appeared all over Britain and Europe, and though Ecstasy’s first wave produced historic nights for many, it soon had a detrimental affect on the music. Many of dance music’s subtleties got lost as ravers only wanted to dance to the most basic of beats, and for as long as possible. Elements of funk or soul gave way to outright monotony, with dancers caring little for what they heard other than the beat. House and techno overtook Hi-NRG in terms of its unrelenting devotion to an overpowering beat devoid of American influence. You can hear the change in terms of the biggest mainstream dance hits of the day. Consider the 1989 club smash “Pump up The Jam” by Technotronic. Not the most subtle piece of music ever created, but it still had a certain swing, an unmistakable groove to get lost in. A mere 4 years later the Euro dance scene was dominated by “No Limit” by 2 Unlimited. This was dance at its most charmless and dull. With enough humour and alcohol / drugs one could certainly do damage to it on the dance floor, but it was apparent that something was lost. Another low point was “Raving, I’m Raving” by Shut Up and Dance, which gave Mark Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” a rave friendly make-over. The Hi-NRG crowd had always reveled in a certain defiant trashiness, and now the ravers were gobbling up anything that could be moved to. The results, from a musical perspective, were a disaster. That everyone was having a good time on the dance floor can perhaps be believed, but that did not justify the awful mediocrity that many took refuge in.

Mainstream dance continued in this vein, with vacuous ditties like “We Like to Party” by Vengaboys reminding everyone that catering to the lowest common denominator was still what Eurodance was about. Clubs were huge booming businesses with thousands of people turning up drugged or drunk and ready to dance to just about anything. Now, I know what you’re thinking; why drag up all of Dance music’s lows? Why no mention of The Prodigy, The KLF, The Orb, The Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, Fatboy Slim, Daft Punk, Orbital, Basement Jaxx etc? Why no exploration of DJ culture and its influence on the American dance scene? Why overlook Hip-Hop? Let me remind you, and I understand why you may have forgotten, that this essay concerns Lady Gaga and why I think her music is terrible. I put it to you that her music is the spiritual offspring of this descent into crowd pleasing banality that Euro dance became in the 90’s. Hi-NRG without the pop thrill, any r & b elements that may exist in her music are the whitewashed Britneyisms that manage to reduce any implied sexuality into auto-tuned sterility. If anything lies beneath the shiny surface it is dreadful MOR songwriting at its worst (she did co-write a song on the most recent Michael Bolton album), with the chorus of “Paparazzi” managing at once to sound like Euro dance banality and a “Raving I’m Raving” style reworking of “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin. “Poker Face” could be Vengaboys with a Britney makeover to appeal to a new generation of teens. “Bad Romance” is a “Poker Face” rewrite. It goes on. Everything she does has an air of familiarity. Everything is drowned in overproduction and auto tune. Created for maximum impact, the songs come across as sexless club anthems, with pop being misunderstood as an asinine catchiness. On a larger scale her image seems ready made for a sizable clientele of clubbers who revel in pop trash, diva antics and showbiz pizazz. That her tactics succeeded is no surprise. That her cause has been taken up by those who supposedly favour a more intellectual approach is a little more surprising, though nonetheless still predictable given the names she drops and references she makes.

She claims Madonna as an idol, and immediately the game is up. Gaga not only seeks Madonna’s fame, but also the weighty post-feminist theorising that followed in her wake. Throw a pseudo-intellectual a Foucault reference and they’ll slobber over it like the most well trained Alsatian. Before you know it lots of intellectuals who feel, in some vague way, that they’re part of some post-Marxist tradition will begin using phrases like “the mechanics of the song” or “the sublimated desires of marketplace politics”. Imagine if you will an essay that explored “Mr. Vain” by Culture Beat by name checking Erich Fromm, “Breathless” and Guy Debord. The fact that this is within the realms of possibility is an indication of just how much we have let our culture be swamped with smug theorising and one-upmanship name checking. Simply saying the name Rilke now provides an artist’s work with an intellectual context hitherto unguessed at. The usual line of thought with Lady Gaga is that she is skillfully using the dance pop genre to subvert the mainstream and comment on commodity culture in America, thereby helping her achieve a fame which she nevertheless craves despite being aware of its emptiness (complex, right?). So if her music is a façade to expose celebrity culture and commodity fetishism from within, then her lyrics must be pretty subtle and intelligent? You would think wouldn’t you? Except her lyrics are no different from any other teen oriented fluff. In fact they're worse. It isn’t even worth quoting any of them to prove their stupidity because it would be too easy. That’s quite an act of subversion; critiquing the mainstream by writing mainstream songs with brain dead lyrics that appeal to the masses while becoming rich in the process. Clearly this is a brave act which we should all applaud. Wait! What’s that you say? Her image? This is perhaps the key to her subversion? So let’s look at her image. Apparently a toned down Peaches persona represents some kind of act of subversion? She hints at a dark sexuality, and this is good because……well, don’t question it, just accept that it’s subversive, because God knows no mainstream female artist has ever explored her (kinky) sexuality in public, caused controversy with shockingly graphic images mixed with religious symbolism or stirred gossip columns with proclamations of bisexuality. No, this is all shocking, new and utterly subversive.

Liberal intellectuals of a certain mindset will always want to have theories that attempt to explain what is happening in Western capitalist culture. It gives the impression that they know exactly what’s going on, that they “get it”. Which brings us back to Andy Warhol. Here we see intellectualised banality in all its dim-witted splendor. The mode of thinking that accompanied Warhol’s rise to fame is so depressingly prevalent that it seems almost inescapable. It is the same mode of thinking that leads Lady Gaga to be championed among those left leaning intellectuals who have managed to acquire a smattering of knowledge about Marxism, about post-modernism, about the various fanciful theories of Baudrillard or Derrida (who discovered the very important truth that if you stuff your works with enough out of context scientific terminology, multi-syllable words and numerous references to other authors who share your penchant for out of context scientific terminology, multi-syllable words and referencing similar authors, then people will be so befuddled that they will assume that there is some profound truth behind these willful acts of arrogant obscuritanism), and who feel the need to use these ideas to imply a deeper understanding of the way in which peoples sense of reality and sexuality is affected by the market place. It is the desperate sound of individuals who feel the need to provide an intellectual context for their dealings with commercial endeavors. While doing their best to show that they are not cultural snobs by enjoying a pop song, they overload their defence, never truly understanding that a pop song can be enjoyed for what it is, a catchy pop song. Motown filled the charts with pop songs; brilliant, effervescent, heartbreaking, danceable pop songs. This was real pop. But to many, the most important artistic achievement of the 60’s was when an ex advertising employee put a frame round iconic images and “challenged” the art world, leading to a debate about what art really was. With the safety of an “intellectual” context, academics were now free to theorise to their hearts content about commercialism and commodities. Meanwhile ordinary people had their lives enhanced by pop music, far away from the impotent debates that rage to this day (Of note is the fact that Warhol has joined those select few artists who have had a piece sell for more than $100 million. The piece in question is “Eight Elvises”. I wonder if the buyer listens to Elvis much. I’ll bet they “get” what the image represents about celebrity and commodification though).

Lady Gaga is pop in the worst sense. Bland, unsatisfying slabs of irritatingly banal mindlessness, I would lay a bet that sometime soon she will “mature” into piano MOR boredom and / or become a Linda Perryesque songwriter for hire to major labels. Let’s see if she’s working with Miley Cyrus anytime soon. If she falls from grace with the culture studies crowd I’m sure they’ll find a new artist to champion, and come up with brand new scholarly treatises that attempt to sublimate the worst elements of our society so that even intellectuals can “enjoy” pop culture while simultaneously feeling above it. The fact that these theories are almost always fueled by an accentuated desire to prove that the writer is not weighed down by a perceived middle-class revulsion to commercial art renders the whole exercise even more worthless (we should embrace commercial art because it is often despised by the bourgeoisie, those gatekeepers of high culture so detested by Marx, the same Marx who decried the way that modern industries filled peoples lives with base commodities like, say, commercial art). It seems like all modern artists and (liberal) cultural commentators are most keen to get across one thing; they reject middle class mores and will do anything to prove that they have not been infected with the virus. In doing so they have reduced art to its most superficial level, making it a playground for anyone reveling in pseudo-semiotics, while also making the job of the marketing executive all the easier. Warhol’s victory was making his fans enjoy banality, and Lady Gaga’s defenders are championing the same cause. I suggest we end this capitulation to the commonplace in the name of theory and trust our senses to tell us how much we enjoy a piece of art and how important a place it should take in our lives. Until then we will remain hopelessly cut off from our real emotional responses, forever looking for an intellectual context or persona induced justification for our choices and tastes, thereby turning what should be internal pleasures into public displays of capitulation to cultural ideologies or self-celebrating identity props. That does not mean our lives should be filled up with only the most erudite of art and literature, but simply that we accept with good grace the different merits of the things we enjoy, and that ultimately art should be judged for what it is, not what it stands for.

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I apologise for my truncated history of dance music. I tried to keep it to the elements that were most pertinent to my essay. For those who may not have heard all the songs mentioned, I have provided links to many below so that you may enjoy them, for good or bad.

Candi Staton "Young Hearts Run Free" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3G5IWESfqg
The Bee Gees "Night Fever" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-NEA3ud2YA&feature=fvst
Donna Summer "Love to Love You Baby" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAD9DdtnKoQ
Chic "Le Freak" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TBublGERS4
Michael Jackson "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yURRmWtbTbo
Donna Summer "I Feel Love" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8TBmeK9Abg
Klein & MBO "Dirty Talk" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTbKuU59KF8
Jamie Principle "Your Love" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bu8hVn_0Lq4
Rhythim is Rhythim "Strings of Life" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcVdg3aZjGE
Dead or Alive "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJv5qLsLYoo
Technotronic "Pump Up The Jam" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1K7fL5s_1ac
2 Unlimited "No Limit" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFd5Cci_pE4
Shut Up and Dance "Raving I'm Raving" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0drSzhnMbJg
Vengaboys "We Like to Party" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Zbi0XmGtMw
Culture Beat "Mr Vain" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvgUdrzGNys

You can find all of Lady Gaga's songs easily on youtube. That you have to work for.

The Resistable Rise of Lady Gaga (except it's not really about Lady Gaga)

Something has happened to pop culture. The monster that emerged in the 20th century to define the Western experience was not a planned exercise in crowd control, no matter what anybody tells you. It was the result of cross-cultural explosions, exploitation, placing bets on teen crazes, talent, egomania, madness and for a while it managed to wed the sublime with the ridiculous in equal measure. The marketplace will always be clogged up with garbage, but it also leaves a doorway open for individual expression hitherto not afforded to anyone not born into wealth. This smorgasbord of genius, money and genuine artistic merit has created works of art that range from brilliant to horrendous. Artifacts that amount to terrible lapses in taste or cheap exploitation of the most clumsy fashion have managed to acquire a huge corner of the market all their own. Ironic appreciation of bad taste and base commercialism is now so commonplace that it at times seems to constitute the majority of culture produced. Music and movies are even marketed for their awfulness, and any complaints are rendered all the more futile by the self awareness of everyone involved. "Of course it's awful, that's why we like it. Duh". Which brings me to Lady Gaga. As of now she seems like the biggest star in the world. Her picture adorns magazine covers, her videos are watched by millions and what is more, she is taken seriously by everyone from Pitchfork to music industry veterans. The feverish excitement that surrounds her though is nothing to do with the music she creates, despite the rather pathetic examinations of her songs which more often than not remind one of the music reviews in "American Psycho". No, what is being celebrated is her savvy media manipulation skills, her old fashioned showbiz values (putting on a show, dressing up for the crowd, the ability to play the piano!!!) and ultimately her creation of a brand name. I can't help feeling, however, that adoration of Lady Gaga has taken on a life of its own that goes beyond even her image creation. What is being celebrated is people's ability to recognise the media manipulation and congratulate themselves for it. In other words, Lady Gaga has become an image through which people can consume their own gestures. This idea has already been explored, most notably by Greil Marcus in regards to Michael Jackson, but before it has always rested on the assumption that the consumer was not in control, that they were being swept along with no self-awareness. Now, however, we see all around us individuals who exude a crippling self-awareness, whose gestures of admiration only make sense in regards to how they are witnessed and consumed by other people. It doesn't help that the so called alternative media (people who write about indie music / culture) have bought into this wholesale and clog up the internet with overtly high-brow readings of low-brow creations. To sum up, ironic appreciation and the intellectualisation of pop culture have conspired to create thinking people who celebrate banality and give themselves a pat on the back for being so aware. To understand how we got here, we must go back a few decades to the 50s, and the birth of pop culture as an all encompassing force.

It started with Elvis. His popularity changed Western consumer culture forever. Suddenly, marketing executives realised that not only was there money to be made exploiting teens, there was big money to be made. Huge amounts. Hitherto untapped billions of dollars. Now, this being the early days of teen exploitation, there was a certain innocence about the whole enterprise. Movies were pumped out about creatures from other worlds, from black lagoons, from, well, just about anywhere. Comic buying exploded. Records were bought by genuinely weird artists who sang about voodoo, or teen dances, or both. This was the cornerstone of modern popular culture. This marriage of innocence, weirdness, money and talent produced not only exciting music, it fueled the upcoming generation who thought they could do better. What made The Beatles, Dylan and The Beach Boys different was that they felt a calling to elevate their work into the realms of genuine Art. And in doing so created the schism that pop culture is still unable to reconcile. The question is how seriously do we take pop culture? Should it just be a mindless diversion from the monotony of our lives? Should it try and inspire us like great works of literature? Can it do both? This internal dialogue rumbled under the surface until the emergence of punk in the UK, where lines were finally drawn. On one side you had Prog, Zeppelin and other monsters who had (supposedly) lost touch with pop music’s origins, who took themselves and their works so very seriously, and who encouraged a certain divine worship from their fans. On the other side you had rough and ready punk, which soon turned into post punk and its embrace of many things scorned by the serious music head (reggae, disco, funk, electronica, pop). Think of a time when members of the group Public Image Ltd discussing how they liked disco was seen as genuinely shocking. Rockist became the ultimate put down. It reeked of macho posturing, lyrical inanity and the desire to take oneself too seriously. It also spoke of a non modern approach to pop music. Not embracing the new meant you were a misogynist, classic rock hippy to be scorned at all costs. Looking back though, this didn't really solve the problem of how seriously pop culture should take itself. NME, Melody Maker and Sounds seemed to insist that it had the right to decide who should be taken seriously and for what reasons. The reasons for the UK music press's castigation of the stodgy rock lover emerged in the 70s, thanks in large part to the ideas of one man. Brian Eno.

To understand what Eno was up against it has to be understood that most rock bands despised new sounds. Synthesizers were the work of Satan. Disco was for "faggots". Unless it was good honest rock music then it was bullshit. Eno, both with Roxy Music and solo, embraced atmospherics, quirky new sounds and androgyny. He rejected rock clichés and wanted to infuse pop with ideas from the world of arts. In doing so he opened the door for the intellectualisation of pop music that fueled post punks rejection of rock values and laid the groundwork for New Pop, the UK's alternative music attempt at subversion and stardom (as well as producing everyone from Devo, Talking Heads, DNA, The Contortions and U2, and working with Bowie on his hugely influential Berlin trilogy). Synthesizers were embraced because they annoyed rock purists. Pop and androgyny were celebrated because it went against the macho posturing of the 70's. This never really caught on in the US, whose music press viewed with suspicion those girly Brits with their make-up and electronic garbage. The US alternative press instead embraced the reassuringly macho and serious Hardcore. The UK press though has never really gotten over this rejection of rock values, and still sees the celebration of Pop music as subversive and a blow against the aging "Mojo" reader. Recently, the US has finally been given its own version of 70's NME values, in the shape of Pitchfork. Here we see all the aspects of the UK alternative press applied to US music. If you want to find a review that takes the lyrics of Lil' Wayne seriously, then this is the place (it should be noted that the UK alternative press championed rap music with a certain glee precisely because it annoyed so many rock fans). Now, all of these things are not necessarily bad per se, (well, taking Lil' Wayne's lyrics seriously is), but this embracing of all things pop and sparkly in order to strike a blow against the ponderous rock music fan has become married to another idea, and in doing so has led to a smug celebration of the self. Ladies and gentlemen, the curse of modern living: The ironic persona.

You've seen them. You've heard them. They revel in bad taste. They like themselves. They like talking about what they like and what it implies about them. They spend their days consuming the idea of themselves. The ironic persona is the death of the intellect. From what hell did this emerge from? The ironic persona seems for the most part an American creation. It came about when America started celebrating its own kitsch. Bad 50's monster movies were enjoyed for just how bad they were by snotty suburban kids in the 70's. Suburbia was pristine so what else was there to do but celebrate the trash of American pop culture? The Cramps and the B52's each in their own way reveled in B movie junk and what it said about America. John Waters took bad taste to new levels. These examples though are merely pointers to a larger trend, that America in the late 70's was celebrating its own past, its own childhood with its bad movies and TV. Trash culture was representative of what America stood for in some way. Bad taste was intellectualised. (In this sense it started with Andy Warhol, who made pop art reproductions for snobs who couldn't appreciate the pop culture Andy Warhol took from unless it was framed and discussed in a highbrow manner. From this came the championing of trash because it represented consumer culture and by extension America. This in turn popularised the idea that bad art was the true American art form, and that we should all revel in it rather than escape the murk). From these beginnings the ironic persona took hold. Soon new generations emerged that loved bad horror movies, bad TV shows from their youth (can we stop discussing "Saved by the Bell" now?), and made a great show of their love for all things crass. It meant you were self aware. It meant that you didn't take yourself too seriously (though nothing could be further from the truth). It meant you were superior to the trash culture around you. And it meant that your tastes never needed to be defended because it was all done with a knowing gleam in your eye.

Somehow, these two strains of thought have combined to create human beings who celebrate shiny, gaudy pop in an ironic way that is meant to say more about them and their personality than the thing they are enjoying (I will resist the desire to blame Facebook and people's desire to create a living, breathing quirky character assessment of themselves in easily digestible form to appeal to those around them. For now). The result being that critical thought is all but dead in the water, because there is nothing to discuss. Also, worth noting too is that because there exists an alternative culture of some kind, then all sorts of hugely popular activities are seen as rebellious. Enjoying mainstream pop could only ever be seen as subversive when placed in the context of indie culture. Otherwise, it's simply what most people do. It bears comparison with so called angry comedians claiming some kind of rebellion for smoking and eating meat, simply because anti-smoking campaigns and vegetarians exist. It also bears comparison with the right-wing media's championing of Sarah Palin. She is going rogue. Why? Because she doesn't agree with certain left wing media ideas. Outside of that context she is simply doing exactly what Americans are expected to do by capitalist institutions. At this point almost anything can be seen as rebellious because there exist some people who do not engage in that activity. Actions become representations of some kind of illusory persona. This makes me wonder if the ironic persona is just the brain’s way of dealing with its capitulation to mainstream tastes. That criticisms of successful performers are met with touchy responses ("You're just jealous", "It's just a song" or "It's just fun", as if because something were supposedly fun it was beyond criticism) is indicative of some kind of cognitive dissonance in regards to the person's choices.

Which brings us all the way back to Lady Gaga. The fandom surrounding her seems the perfect distillation of the tendencies described above. People enjoy talking about Lady Gaga. They enjoy the feeling of talking about her, what it says about them. Those with a more intellectual bent will discuss her savvy media skills, her way of gaining publicity, the fact that she can really play piano (yes, I said it again), the significance of her videos. There is clearly a thrill involved. (I know that by talking about her some will claim I am giving her a victory. After all, it's all about the publicity, and no publicity is bad publicity, and she plans every aspect of controversy that surrounds her, etc. I view this tactic as the rhetorical equivalent of "I'm made of rubber, you're made of glue"). Her music though remains awful. Clunky and awkward, her last song "Telephone" was so truly, unaccountably terrible that it defied belief, but it mattered not a jot. Her video was seen as clever (apparently out of date Tarantino references are now on the cutting edge of pop culture) and sexy. Liking Lady Gaga is not really about listening to her music, it is about what liking Lady Gaga says about you. You are knowingly shallow in all the most adorable ways. At what point does it stop being ironic though, and does it become just you? When people saw women on Jerry Springer yell "You go girl", they thought it would be funny to say "You go girl" to friends, because they saw it as dumb and funny. Except they felt superior to the people who said it on Jerry Springer. So now we have people who say condescendingly ironic things all the time (borrowed mostly from black American vernacular), and listen to music for ironic reasons, and watch movies for ironic reasons. I'd like to know if people love things for genuine reasons that they could defend and not get touchy about. I realise that I am committing the worst cultural crime imaginable right now, which is judging people's tastes (I mean who do I think I am?) but as culture becomes more brain numbing it seems to me the only way out is through critical thought, questioning ourselves, and questioning others. We have a right to criticise, and I'd like to see an end to this self-congratulatory persona mongering that passes for character these days. As I finish though, I suddenly remember that things have been quiet on the Lady Gaga front of late. Has her moment passed? Is this essay as passé as a Tarantino reference? I'd like to think so. Something tells me though that she's just taking a breather before a new media onslaught. After all, you have to know how to play this media game just right. How clever of her.

The Emmergence of Innovation as a Defining Artistic Trait

Innovation as an artistic value did not exist previous to modern times, and by modern I mean modern industrial societies. I'm not saying art did not change, but it was in slow increments. An artist, novelist or poet deemed great was basically expected to just be great. With age, a certain maturation of style was expected, but nothing revolutionary. Was Shelley considered an innovator? Certainly not. Was what made Shakespeare great his innovative recasting of the genre? Not in the least. So what was it? Genius. Yes, not everyone agrees that all of the "greats" were talented, but that's the nature of humanity and the mystery of great art. Something is going on that we cant quite put our finger on.

Style, technique, form, character, dialogue, etc is what we're talking about. How an artist was able to mold and use forms to their own vision was what made them great. Now, two very important things happened to change peoples conception of art. One, the industrial revolution, and two, Marxism. Now just hang in there and everything will become clear. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the ideas of the marketplace became a philosophy to live by. To be static was to be dead (as you lost your place in the market to some new up and comer with fresh ideas). The goal of any new business person was to find a niche in the market that had never been exploited. Innovation became the ultimate watchword for greatness. Turnover could be quick and fortunes could be won or lost in a matter of weeks (then days, then hours, then minutes). With the industrial revolution there also came a new market. The proletariat. Yes, they were exploited and overworked, but over time many began to accumulate money. So emerged popular culture. Remember, art previously did not care for the masses. It catered to a few highly educated and privileged members of society and was not at all ruled by any market dictates. Onward....

People often lament the fall of literacy and the shortening attention span of the average person, forgetting the fact that mass literacy did not exist until relatively recently. The masses, even those of western nations who are for the most part literate, have not been schooled in epics, or poetry, or fine art (the debate as to whether this is a good thing is for another time), and therefore have a lesser interest in "great" literature with its innumerable classic references, and joys that emerge over time, rather than instantly. There never has been a nation of great readers schooled in the classics with overlong attention spans. So anyway, given that the proletariat and the emerging middle class had to be marketed to, so came the pulp novel, the romance novel, popular music as opposed to classical. And with the emphasis on the new and unheard of in the marketplace, what better signifier of greatness in the world of the arts where the emerging audience had neither the time nor the inclination (for the most part) to absorb art over the long term, than to worship innovation and make it the ultimate signifier of great art.

Now, lets back up a bit. The writings of Marx were on the minds of every intellectual in Europe (and elsewhere) in the late 1800s. In his writings, the ultimate enemy was the middle class, or the bourgeois. Exploiters of the common man, enemies of freedom and gatekeepers of intellectual thoughts and ideas, the bourgeois became the ultimate symbol of the comfortable, civilised oppressor. Since the arts in general were made or sponsored by the upper classes (and the emerging middle classes), then it was only a small leap to think that the artistic ideas that the bourgeois cherished (form, plot, dialogue, technique, etc) must in some way be false and indicative of oppressive ideas. Beginning with modernism, art began to throw off what were seen as middle class shackles and explore other territories. Picasso is the best example, but is a dangerous one because the man was extremely talented and for all his explorations was still ultimately concerned with form and technique. From modernism of coarse came post-modernism, and with it a rejection of form, technique and even basic artistic talent. Craft and ability were viewed with suspicion, indicative of some kind of comfortable bourgeois thought process. Art became about art, and about what art was (hence the last refuge of bad art became "At least its creating a discussion", thereby removing any aesthetic purpose from the art, aesthetics being a middle class pass time. Art must be instructive, utilitarian, "Great art makes you think", all sorts of tired, anti-beauty modes of thinking emerged. Beauty itself was seen as a bourgeois pleasure that the masses should reject). Important European thinkers (Foucault, Barthes, etc) derided "bourgeois" modes of expression as lulling the reader or viewer into comfortable, middle class thought processes (while also assuming that people were unaware that the artist as an individual was a result of the genetic and societal forces that shaped him or her). Art should (supposedly) free the proletariat, cast off the shackles of bourgeois thought, make people see "reality" for what it really was. In short, it should be anything but a skilled piece of work carried out by a talented individual. That reeked of middle class mores, exploitation of the masses, sexism, racism, and Christ, everything wrong with the world. Art attacked values. That became its very purpose, so much so that people believed that this had ALWAYS been the purpose of art. With enough of this kind of art, we could have a revolution!!!!???

The irony is that this left-wing anti-middle class thinking collided head on with market values implemented by the emerging middle class (and established upper classes). Suddenly enjoying anything more than 10 years old was somehow indicative of stodgy, bourgeois ways of thinking. Everyone had to bow down to the new, the innovative....because really, how else do you keep the attention of thousands of people with short attention spans other than telling them that this NEW THING is so NOW and REVOLUTIONARY that in order to be considered a NOW person you just had to own it. As a result of these two powerful forces merging, we now have an art world that doesn't value art. Ideas are seen as the most important thing (what is the concept behind the piece of art?), just as in the business world. We convince ourselves that if we understand the concept behind a work of art, the art itself must be good and that we therefore enjoy it. Art exists on the surface level, doing nothing but making points about art ("This redefines what we think of as art"....one more yawn). Aesthetics, talent, form and artistic ability are scoffed at, somehow being indicative of dullness.....oh god, you have a craft???? Society revels in the shallowest waters that art can exist in and we wonder why the music that makes lists year after year are not cared for five or ten years later. (Though we are at the point now where many people are thrilled to be reveling in cultural shallowness, but this is part of the emergence of a modern persona that combines ironic distance, showy displays of affection for kitsch and non-highbrow creations and an unwillingness to apply critical thinking to anything, unless it's people criticising their shallow tastes or not sharing their "awesome" approach to life).

Understand, I'm not saying there's anything inherently wrong with innovation. Its just that you can't enjoy innovation 10 years later. You can only talk about it and remember that this was once on the cutting edge. Unless there's genuine talent beneath any work of art, then it will die, and quickly, though among the intelligentsia, unlistenable, unreadable and just plain banal works of art are given life support thanks to the concepts that the art supposedly embodies, or how our bourgeois/commercialised (depending on who is criticising) sensibilities cannot handle being "challenged" by works of art that are "ahead of their time". To repeat, innovation, in and of itself has zero aesthetic value. What it does have is market value and cultural currency. Art, until fairly recently (and everywhere else in the world right now not culturally invaded by market principles) was nothing to do with innovative ideas. It was about the aesthetic pleasure given to the listener, reader or viewer. To be honest, I'm not sure there's anything we can do to change things now. Concepts and business-think rule and our arts are the worse for it.

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As a postscript I'd like to add that Steven Moore makes a pretty good case for innovation being an important catalyst in the history of art in his book "The Novel: An Alternative History". I found myself rethinking many ideas as a result, but I still stand by the basic premise here.

Ghost in Every Town-The Haunting of Elliott Smith



The front cover is stark and tragic when inspected, but its muted tone makes it easy to miss what is going on. A featureless figure is leaping from one rooftop to another. Suddenly one realises there is a second figure who has obviously made the same leap as the first figure but has failed to reach the other side. They are falling to their death while the first figure looks like they will (probably) make it to the next rooftop. The image is an apt metaphor for the life and artistic message of Elliott Smith. It graces the front cover of his second, self-titled, album, perhaps also his bleakest. Smith's songs were populated by back alley losers, moving in a moonlit world of cashed checks, track marks and bad luck. Smith himself seemed to manifest himself in this world as some kind of phantom omnipresent narrator, sympathetic to the protagonists human failings but also possessing an unflinching critical eye that allowed him the emotional distance to observe, but not get caught up in, the ensuing drama. While Smith struggled with alcoholism and depression his entire adult life, he at least seemed to posses the strength of mind to avoid the dark mistress who seduced so many of his most desperate characters, the ghostly white lady, Smiths epithet for heroin. That he did indeed succumb to the white lady's advances represents the great tragedy of Smith's life, which throws a sickening question mark into his entire artistic purpose. How did grim determination in the face of life's many obstacles turn into some kind of no holds barred self-destruction manifesto? What tipped the balance in favour of Smith's unapologetic, gloating nihilism. Elliott's death by his own hand means that there will never be a definitive answer, but if we examine his life and art, perhaps we can find some kind of respite from the permanent midnight of Smith's world, which his artistic spirit seems condemned to forever inhabit, and reclaim some of the hard-headed determination to endure that threw broken light on even the blackest events of his songs.

"I can't go on, I'll go on." If any one phrase seemed to sum up Smith's life it was this Samuel Beckett quote (Smith was a fan and in his darkest days took to writing the title of one of Beckett's short story collections on his arm in black marker for no apparent reason). He had all the ingredients of a truly miserable childhood. Parents divorce, Mother moves him to another town, Mother remarries the stereotypical violent, bullying Step Dad whose taunting slights on Smith's sense of manhood tortured him to the end of his days. Steven, his birth name, moved to Portland aged 14 to be with his father and it was there he entered his own private world of home recording. After graduating from college Steven became Elliott and he soon found himself in a loud rock band named Heatmiser who, for all their attributes, remain a footnote to Smith's main artistic endeavors, his solo career (he stated that he always felt uncomfortable being in a rock band because, having grown up in a household filled with angry shouting, the last thing he wanted to do was scream). Though Heatmiser's fame was growing, it was Elliott's first solo release "Roman Candle" which elevated him beyond moderate indie success. His subdued delivery married to his intricate finger picking and literate lyrical attributes were a revelation in 94, as the American music scene reveled in the artless soul bearing and rock dynamics of Grunge, or took refuge in the ironic distance of nerdy indie rock. Here was an artist who did not shy away from his own unhappiness, but whose lyrics did not make you cringe with embarrassment. Each release both built from and made an artistic leap from the last, resulting in both an Oscar nomination for best song ("Miss Misery") and a major label record deal with Dreamworks. 2000s "Figure 8" seemed to appeal to all bases. Intelligent, well produced with hooks and catchy choruses to spare, Smith toured the album heavily and hopes were high for that mythical crossover hit that took Elliott from respected independent songwriter to universally recognized genius and hitmaker. Ultimately it didn't happen. Though sales were healthy, there were hints that Dreamworks had expected the album to perform a bit better. The tour wound down and fans were eager to hear what the ever prolific Smith's next move would be. Then, nothing. Smith appeared to all but drop off the face of the earth. Live performances became sporadic and fans began to notice a tendency for him to forget lyrics. Even darker rumours began to circulate that Elliott was now using heroin.



Struggle was always part of Elliott's world. From the beginning his songs were the poetic laments of outsiders stranded on the sidelines searching for some spiritual release, be it in the form of drink, drugs or obsessional love. He took on the roll of astute observer, even when obviously talking from experience (as stated, Smith struggled with alcoholism). Themes began to emerge in his songs, recurring side characters like Charlie (his bullying Step Dad) and Mary K (representant of the mother whose love Smith ultimately craved and felt rejected by) who inspired two different songs of the same title, "Pretty Mary K", the earlier of which has the protagonist yearning for contact with said Mary K, who is a prostitute on the dockside, but who must pay like all her other clients (this song remained unreleased until after Smith's death). Despite the gut wrenching darkness of the subject matter, Smith also possessed what seemed to be an unbreakable spirit, a willingness to continue no matter what. He would balance out the lure of heroin's false release ("Needle in the Hay") with a stinging rebuke to users ("you idiot kid, your arm's got a death in it"). Perhaps he always walked that tightrope of recognising heroin's appeal while also sensing its obvious dangers, but something obviously changed and his wariness was to transform itself into an unabashed, taunting endorsement of junkiedom. Newer songs emerged in Elliott's live performances from the "Figure 8" tour and beyond that were obvious indicators that Elliott was now using. While the results could at times be astounding ("True Love" stretched the "love as drug/drug as love" metaphor to its reaches without breaking it), more often than not it resulted in appalling lapses in taste a la "it's Christmastime, and the needles on the tree, a skinny Santa is bringing something to me" or "it don't matter cos I have no sex life, all I wanna do now, is inject my ex-wife" both from the should have been much better lyrically "King's Crossing". Even songs that didn't deal brazenly with the subject of drugs showed Elliott's once superior lyrical skills seriously flagging, with the truly awful "So disappointing, so first I put it all down to luck, God knows why my country don't give a fuck" from "A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free" perhaps taking the prize as the worst line Smith ever penned (never mind that we have no idea what he means by "country" or what it doesn't give a fuck about, when the work "fuck" is echoed by backing singers on the album version released after Elliott's death we rightfully feel that something has gone terribly wrong). That many of these songs were rewrites of earlier material also indicates an artistic crisis in Smith's life, as heroin use seemed to have both sapped his creative energies and weakened his once high lyrical standards. The question remains, what turned Smith from a somewhat distanced observer to a helpless user?

The first finger of blame is usually pointed toward the record company. An easy target, especially given the fact that Smith indicated in an interview not long before his death that the record company were out to harm him. The fact that he also displayed paranoid delusional qualities to the interviewer, maintaining that every white van that he saw was a record company stooge following him, would seem to indicate that Elliott's observations were perhaps not to be fully trusted at this point in his life. He certainly tried his hardest to make "Figure 8" sell, and when it didn't do as well as projected there was perhaps a feeling of "What more can I do?". I wonder though if Elliott was not somehow brought down by the dangerous artistic notion of the authentic. Could he have been driven by some twisted guilt to use heroin in order to fully authenticate his own lyrical impulses? Elliott had once stated that when writing lyrics in bars, he made a point not to listen in for lyrical inspiration, as cannibalising the bar was "not cool". Maybe he somehow felt that he had cannibalised the world of the user for his own artistic purposes? "The method acting that pays my bills" sang Smith in the aforementioned "King's Crossing". Could this be another clue? It was not enough that Elliott simply observed the world of the user, he had to use himself in order to make his songs more authentic, hence method acting. The fact that the resultant songs lacked the lyrical insight of his earlier creations makes a lie of all notions of the real and the authentic. A great writer uses his or her poetic imagination to empathise the life of another human. A lesser one must use the prop of a lived experience to enhance their work, but all great works of art must be able to survive free of their creator. Not that a writer must shy away from the autobiographical, but if the art in question must use the realness of the experience which supposedly inspired it as a means by which to hold it up, then the art itself must be judged the weaker for it.



All this of course avoids the fact that Elliott may have started using heroin as an escape from the horrendous depression that seemed to shadow his every step. The lure of heroin is that it has the power to obliterate all other problems. As the character of Frankie Machine states in Nelson Algren's "The Man With the Golden Arm", "There's so many little worries floatin' around 'n floatin' around, why not roll 'em all up into one big worry? Just like goin' by the loan shark 'n gettin' enough to pay off all the little debts with one big one?" Elliott's beatings at the hands of his stepfather (plus his hints of sexual abuse), his sense of betrayal from his mother, his friends pestering him to deal with his drinking problem, his relationship troubles, all shrunk before the white lady. Elliott became one his characters, trapped and doomed, something that his literary forefather Algren never succumbed to. In the beginning his unbowed determination to go on marked Smith out as the ultimate underdog. By the end his rationalisations over his obvious self-destruction came across as weak cop outs in the face of overwhelming evidence that it was doing irrefutable harm. Friends indicate that anyone who tried to stop him from destroying himself were unceremoniously dropped from his life. He was going to do heroin and nobody was going to stop him, after all, we all have our vices, right? The tragedy is that many of Smith's earlier songs ranted against expectations, of what was expected of him and others, of the mind-numbing cliched lifestyles that so many chose to live ("if I had to be like them I'd rather be no one"). For a while, it was enough to observe from the sidelines, each day mustering up the energy to continue, but when that energy dissipated Smith became what is perhaps the most cliched image of all, the strung out rock star, the suffering artist. That he was aware of this represents an even deeper tragedy, as his way of dealing with this knowledge seemed to consist of a cold embrace of every junkie cliche imaginable. It was Smith's life, and if he wanted to destroy himself it was nobodies business, and if he wanted to do it while dredging up the most tasteless, jeering drug references he could muster that was nobodies business either. I wonder though, if Smith's most excessive drug pandering was not some kind of public retribution for Charlie, the shadowy Step Dad who existed both in Elliott's songs and in his life. "Look at what you've done to me. You destroyed me and now I'm going to suffer in front of everyone in order that you should feel real guilt and pain". Was this Smith's message to Charlie?

Can the actions of an artist undo the art itself? No. Just as great art survives without the prop of real life, so also it cannot be undone by the life of its creator. We may take the body of work that Elliott Smith produced in his lifetime for what it is, that of a genius. Lacking the blatant innovations demanded of the modernist era, he nevertheless showed an unrivaled grasp of form, refused to hide his vast musical abilities, (Smith played almost every instrument on his albums), while at the same time uniquely displaying a keen lyrical insight. Many wordier songwriters, from Dylan to John Darnielle, have rejected the overtly melodic in order that the focus remain the words. But Smith was a master of melody, the only modern songwriter whose gifts equal those of McCartney or Wilson (who both, in a mirror to their lyrical counterparts, spent less time on words, feeling that the overall feel of the song was more important, an attitude which has become gospel to all). While a crippling heroin addiction and eventual death from self-induced stab wounds is enough to make us reassess the work of any artist, his failings should not be viewed as some kind of betrayal, either artistically or philosophically. Smith submitted to a personal agony that most of us will never have to wrestle with. While it's easy to focus on the darkness of Smith's life and message, there is much to find comfort in. Elliott's last release was a 7" with "Pretty (Ugly Before)" as its a-side (where again we question whether the feeling of well being that Elliott revels in is love or drug induced) and an alternative version of "A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free" as its b-side. On this b-side version we find the real Smith. Damaged but determined, hurt but unyielding. Again he is the passive observer, lamenting the human follies around him and feeling justified in his alternative path.

"I’m floating in a black balloon
I must make it through this afternoon
Shape shifting shadow down drifting
Way out of town
And all you ladies and you gentleman
Unhappy where you could have been
You drive people like you drive a car
Till you don't know where you are
You don't impress me
I'm sorry that you're chained to the ground
But no big brother is gonna bring me down now"

It's easy to see that this could easily be another heroin reference. But Smith's genius lay in his lyrical ambiguities. Yes, it could very well be about heroin, but it could also be about a general determination not to get caught up in the everyday vanities that inspire others to use and abuse whomever comes their way. It could be about his ever-present depression. The built in ambiguities allowed Smith to make a connection with many lost souls, even those who didn't struggle with addictions. Things began to go wrong when his lyrics became clearly about one thing, his heroin use and his justifications for it (please note also there is a difference between deliberate ambiguities and lazy, unfocused writing). But if we look back over his songs, we find in the vast majority of cases not a blustering user intent on his own demise, but a sensitive outsider struggling with notions of self, manhood, happiness, freedom, success and love. In other words, a real live human being. This is the Smith we should remember and go to for solace and resolve when our worlds close in on us. He ultimately gave what he could, and if he couldn't outrun his own shadow our world is still richer for his contributions. Amongst the cult of Elliott there are many who choose to revel in the darkness, who were drawn in by the gory details of his demise, who wear their distress like a mantle of pride, but for others, it is not the darkness which draws us in, but the chinks of light that Elliott let through, his steadfast, unwavering ability to navigate life's minefields while trying to remain an essentially decent, honest individual. If his life failed that does not mean that his art did too. We should take this man's gift for what it is, the chronicle's of a desperately unhappy person with no inkling as to how to resolve his problems. That there were some of us who felt stronger, more human and less alone because of his accomplishments is a testament to his great soul, which aspired for more than his short life was able to achieve.