Tag Archives: books

Sobe Yourself

Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular MusicFaking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Barker
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As a teenager in the post-Nirvana 90s, I was an eye-witness to the strangling authenticity-above-all ethos of “alternative” music. “We dress this way because it’s how we feel,” said whatever amazing-looking, grunge-chic band member or skater kid on TV, “don’t be what other people want you to be, be yourself!” This was the “positive” message constantly rammed down our throats in those days: be yourself, unless “yourself” liked to wear the wrong thing, listen to the wrong music, or, especially, if “yourself” didn’t agree with the “be yourself” message. “Poseur” was a favorite insult during my high-school days–God forbid a teenager might want to try something new. I sometimes feel like I’ve spent my life trying to get out of the impossible labyrinth of this ethos. This book, about the “quest for authenticity” in its most natural habitat, the music scene, opens with the death of Kurt Cobain, a tireless promoter of the very catchphrases that were tearing him up inside.

The subject matter is interesting/infuriating, but the authors’ use of it is confusing and strangely banal. They come up to the point of demolishing the entire idea of “authenticity” altogether, but can’t seem to bring themselves to seal the deal, because they still want to say that Neil Young’s 70s albums are more “real” than Trans. They show how music has always been syncretic, and black and white musicians (before the segregation imposed by record companies) played the same repertoire, but they still imply that Moby and Paul Simon are cultural imperialists. They trace the genesis and eventual ubiquity of the autobiographical song–mostly unknown before the 20th Century–but put this research to use only to mock Tori Amos and other “confessional” songwriters that they dislike. They lay out a case (without quite coming out and saying it) that “world music” notions of authenticity are essentially racist, but still call commercial American releases like Buena Vista Social Club “watered down”. They love to point out that what white, rock-ish audiences consider authentic-sounding are in fact unpopular with the communities that birthed them–a strange “gotcha” that simply substitutes one arbitrary authenticity criterion for another. It’s strange to read these two authors building up all this evidence to undermine the entire edifice of music criticism today–as they point out, authenticity is still something by which music of any kind is judged–but refuse to follow through with it, so they can still criticize the artists they dislike (Europop, Yes, Fatboy Slim) with it.

In any book on popular music, I end up feeling that some band I care about has been neglected–I really feel like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion belongs in here, for example. I suppose I can accept their begging off the topic of hip-hop as being too complicated to fit into this book–it probably does deserve its own volume. But I really do think that the chapter which contrasts the “real” Neil Young to the “fake” Billy Joel would have been much more interesting if they had substituted David Bowie for the latter. The fact that Joel is relatively critically un-acclaimed stacks the deck; Bowie, both beloved and widely considered “fake”, complicates their whole thesis. Surely in a book about authenticity in rock’n’roll, Bowie deserves a place, if only to break down why on earth we call him, but not Joey Ramone, inauthentic.

In the most intriguing moments of the book, by breaking down the concept of authenticity, the authors end up chipping away at the very concept of the continuous self. The imperative to “keep it real” and “be yourself” has always been impossible. How can one be authentic if one is continually changing, moment to moment? All of us, not just the miserably pigeonholed stars they highlight (Cobain, Donna Summer, John Lydon, etc.) are to some degree trapped within our own identities. The insistence on authenticity is essentially an insistence on an illusory stability in a world of flux. To their credit, the authors recognize this. They quote Kafka: “I have nothing in common with myself.” With the early discussion of acoustic blues beloved of white record collectors, I was reminded of Steve Buscemi’s 78-collecting character’s lament in Ghost World: “I hate my interests!” I would have liked this book to go further along this path, but perhaps it ends up too deep into philosophy, and strays too far from the pop-music topic that they started from. But maybe someday we’ll find a way to let ourselves, and each other, change our minds, adopt new mindsets, try different styles, as unhesitatingly and smoothly as we change our moods.

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Book Bros.

Let’s see if this works.  My brother asked me if I wanted to do a book vlog with him, and I said sure.  Here we are talking about The Great Gatsby, mostly in reaction to the trailer for the upcoming movie.  Like anyone, I’m completely mortified watching myself, but I trust that you all will be more kind.  Presumably there will be more coming in the future, and perhaps I will get better at it?

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Month of Letters: Week 1

Three days in and feeling fine.  Something makes this so much easier than the “30 Days of Creativity” challenge.  I can identify some of it: the privacy, the fact that there is a recipient depending on me.  But there seems to be some other mysterious reasons why to be amorphously “creative” every day was such torture and these letters have been pleasant.  Really, writing them has not gone that well: they feel a bit stilted and uncomfortable, where I’d like them to float and soar.  But the physical process makes up for it: I love decorating and embellishing the letters and the envelopes, and pushing the possibilities of mail.

I’ve been reading some of Virginia Woolf’s letters, so perhaps I have set too high a standard for myself for the writing.  She never seems to have written a clumsy word in her life.  The funny thing about books of letters (I have several) is that the longer, more personal, more composed letters are rarely the ones that interest me the most.  Often the most fascinating are letters asking for money, or making appointments, that sort of thing.  I have a book of Delacroix’s letters, with one or two examples of his letters requesting certain colors from Mrs. Haro’s; though he was one of the few artists who could write compellingly about art, these businesslike paint orders are at least as interesting.

Another thing that’s interesting in books of letters is that, even in those epistolary ages, one of the most frequent themes is “write me back!”  I’m always self-conscious, even in e-mail, of asking for a reply, and of writing again to someone who hasn’t written me back yet.  But people were quite shameless about this in the old days, it seems, heaping comic abuse on their lazy friends for not writing, begging and pleading for mail, writing several times without a word in reply.  So perhaps I shouldn’t be so worried about it?  I don’t know.  In any case, I take comfort in Samuel Johnson’s saying, in a letter apologizing for not writing to Boswell, “Do not fancy that an intermission of writing is a decay of kindness.”

Really, the same sort of worries that make my writing on this wretched blog so bland have been getting in the way of these letters, and I hope I will shed them soon.  The only thing I have discovered about art in my life is that fear kills it: fear of incomprehensibility, fear of sentimentality, fear of bad taste, fear of pretentiousness, fear of anything.  I hope these letters to be something of a training regimen, for throwing away that fear.

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A Final Valentine: The Berenstain Bears’ Almanac

At some point in my life, I lost all connection to the seasons.  One memory stands out as an example: I think it was New Year’s Eve of 1996 or ’97, as a teen, I went to New York City with two friends to experience New Year’s there, and see the ball drop if we could.  It was extremely cold, with icy wind cutting through the skyscraper canyons, and everyone in the city was bundled up against the weather.  Everyone except me.  What did I wear?  I wore a rather thin coat, and underneath, a T-shirt and jeans.  No gloves.  No hat.  Just a coat and T-shirt.  I was miserable; every bit of wind sliced right through me, and my hands felt like they were going to break off and shatter on the ground.

Why had I worn such ridiculously inadequate clothes on such a cold night?  Because I had lost touch with the outdoors.  Whenever I went anywhere, I would simply run from my house to the car, from the car to the building, and never spent any time actually outdoors in the cold.  For this kind of life, all I needed was a thin coat, to keep me warm for the few seconds between climate-controlled interiors.

Life after high school has been a long process of getting reacquainted with the seasons.  College, and living in New York City (both pedestrian lifestyles) certainly helped.  At least I started dressing weather-appropriately.  But I think what changed my way of thinking was really living in Japan.  It’s a bit of a cliché, but nevertheless true, that Japan is a very season-conscious nation.  Everything has seasonal variations.  Restaurants, from the highest kaiseki ryori to McDonald’s, vary their menus by season.  (God I loved the autumn-only chestnut cream donuts at Mr. Donuts!)  Pretty much every advertisement will have some kind of seasonal reference, if only the appearance of cherry blossoms in spring and snow in the winter, red maple leaves in fall and fireworks in the summer.

For many people perhaps these commercial acknowledgments of season, more because they are expected than because of any feeling, are meaningless; but for me they made me think about and notice the changes as the year rolled on.  Mindfulness.  I don’t know if I would even have noticed the tsuyu or “rainy season”–not so much rainy as drizzly and humid–if people didn’t talk about it and the flowers that bloom then, but it became my favorite time in Tokyo and especially in Kamakura nearby.  In Japan I paid attention to the cicadas singing in the summer, the moon in autumn, all the conventional symbols, and it led me to notice more and more, to pay attention to the world and its changes.

When I got home and found this book, the Berenstain Bears’ Almanac, I realized that in some way I was just re-learning what I had always known as a kid.  This is a book about, as it says on the title page, “holidays, seasons, and weather.”  I’ve always loved it, especially the large illustrations with rhyming captions showing attributes of the seasons: “eggs hatching, bear scratching” in Spring, for example.  And every page brings me back to childhood, when I spent enormous amounts of time outside, unsupervised, running amok with my brothers and sister.  We knew nature intimately then, in our backyard and all the surrounding area where we would wander.  I knew what flowers bloomed when, and when the raspberries would come, and how long the shadows got at different times of the year.  I’m still working on re-learning all this.  But I think I’ll get there.

There’s something comforting as well as awesome about the seasons.  They are irrefutable evidence of enormous forces entirely beyond our control working on us; but they have worked the same way on all the people of the past.  To look at the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the prints of Hiroshige, or even at Stonehenge, is to see how universal their influence is.  Think of it as Persephone underground, or the Earth spinning tilted around the sun; either way the world around us changes into unrecognizability, and then it comes back again.

It’s New Year’s Eve!

A whole year ends.

Tomorrow we’ll start

A NEW YEAR, friends.

So, now, we can all turn back,

to the beginning of our Almanac.

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Not a Valentine, but a pretty good book

Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary WorldsOcean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds by David Toop
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even now, 15 years on, this is a book that makes me feel pleasantly like I’m living in the future. It’s sort of like a William Gibson novel, a constant stream of semi-bewildering cross-cultural syncretic references, in a fascinating poetic style. Appropriately enough, it’s a great book for browsing around in, which is what I did with it for all these years until just recently I decided to read it all the way through at last.

I once told a friend that it was a book about ambient music, and saw his interest instantly disappear. It was the wrong choice of words. Ambient music was still a hip concept back when the book came out, but the book is more about the concept of ambience in general, environment as art, and ranges very widely outside the marketing category of “ambient”. John Cage and minimalism, Miles Davis and Sun Ra, the Velvet Underground and Kate Bush, as well as Brian Eno and Aphex Twin. And that’s only the music of the West. The parts about then-contemporary rave and ambient culture, all rainbow-clothed kids taking ecstasy and talking about digital psychedelic shamanism, tend to be the most dated bits; but then, it’s now an intriguing time capsule, and they do say that the 90s are coming back. I have an abiding nostalgic fondness for that 90s cyberpunk aesthetic, and Ocean of Sound is a hell of a lot less embarassing than that movie Hackers.

There are some weaknesses here and there. Most of the book is in short vignettes, but there is one extended narrative of Toop’s visit to Amazonas in Venezuela, visiting the Maquiritari and Yanomami peoples, which started to drag. But the real problem is that heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. It’s almost impossible, for me at least, to accurately imagine what music sounds like, based on a description. Toop’s way with words makes everything seem amazing and compelling, but actually hearing the music is often a disappointment. For me it’s usually the stuff that Rolling Stone used to call “electronica” that lets me down; for you it might be John Cage or Sun Ra, but it’s sort of inevitable one way or another. Nowadays it’s not as big of a deal–you only lose a few minutes on YouTube, where in 1997 you spent hours searching through used record stores only to be disappointed when you got home–but it’s still sort of a drag. I don’t want to blame Toop for this, but I can’t help it. I blame William Gibson for making Steely Dan sound interesting too.

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Valentine to a Novel: Sixth Grade Secrets

This is another in a series of love letters to favorite books.

For the most part, when I read the standard-issue advice to writers I despair: “Show, don’t tell”, or “Murder your darlings”, etc.  Because this advice seems custom-made to eliminate everything that I love best in books.  I like writing that calls attention to itself.  I like long authorly digressions.  I like abrupt shifts in the point-of-view.  I like books where keeping the plot moving is the very last concern.  I even love adverbs!

I’m also not a fan of Aristotle’s theories, if that’s the word, about tragedy, at least not in the form that they’ve been corrupted and passed down in every discussion of plot from high school onwards.  (For one thing, they don’t fit a single Greek tragedy that I know of, not even the supposedly illustrative Oedipus Rex.  What’s his tragic flaw supposed to be?  You’ve got to really, really stretch to make the case for hubris–what causes his downfall is nothing about him, just his circumstances.)  His followers’ advice too: the “rising action-climax-falling action” diagram, for example.  Fairy tales follow none of these “rules”, and obviously very many of them are completely satisfying and great.  Rapunzel meeting the blinded prince in the desert is pure coincidence, and nothing has “established” that her tears will heal his eyes; but no one complains about it, unless maybe they’ve been reading a bit too much discussion of plotting.

All that said, there’s certainly something incredibly satisfying about a good plot, a perfectly constructed machine that fits together just right.*  That’s what I love about this book, Sixth Grade Secrets by Louis Sachar.  If there ever was a story which fit the high school English class description of a Greek tragedy, it’s this one: all the action and trouble flows directly and logically out of the hubris of the main character, who comes to a recognition of herself after an apocalyptic downfall which brings great catharsis to me at least.  And it’s a silly, funny kids’ book about dueling secret clubs in grade school.

If it is a Greek tragedy then it’s a lighthearted one, with no sadness to be found; none of the melancholy that Sachar put in Holes, another perfectly-plotted book.  As far as the “dignity and importance” part of the definition, there isn’t much to be found.  But everything runs like clockwork in such a way that you say, “of course, of course it happened that way.”  I especially like how certain things become important simply through the silly non-sequiturs of kids under stress–like one character says “bacon and eggs” instead of “bacon and ham” when prank-calling, and for the rest of the book, eggs are a major part of the war between the clubs, because obviously they couldn’t admit to blowing their lines!  Sachar really gets how kids’ minds work–or at least, I recognize myself and my friends, at that age, in the way that the kids in his books think.

If the idea of Sixth Grade Secrets as tragedy seems strange, well, there is another form of play, which requires perfect plotting, and is about as applicable: farce.  In a farce there is a single crucial misunderstanding or misrepresentation which leads to all the ridiculous situations that follow.  Just like in a 19th Century play, the plot of Sixth Grade Secrets depends on a letter gone wrong, and if the characters would just sit down and talk openly and honestly to each other for a moment, they wouldn’t end up covered in mustard, forced to eat a raw egg, humiliated in front of the entire school, or any of it.  But of course that would be no fun.  And tragedy or not, fun is what this book is all about.

*Probably my favorite movie moment of the past couple years was the literal deus ex machina towards the end of Toy Story 3: it so perfectly brought together things set up in all three movies, while being a joke on the term itself, while also being a perfectly timed and edited moment which, both times I saw it, caused the entire theater to burst into applause.

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Valentine to All My Books

If you click and go to Flickr, you can learn how they’re organized.

left side

right side

literary shelf

special collections

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