Monday, February 27, 2017

Let's Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About Teaching Let's Talk About Love

Part Six of an ongoing series. Catch up with part One here. 
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Part One - The Modern Age 

With deep appreciation to Carl Wilson, who wrote the book
This is an intensive writing course. You will have writing homework every night and reading homework many nights. The theme of this course is taste – what you like, what other people like, how we define ourselves according to our likes and dislikes, and how we articulate these preferences. We will be examining the rhetoric of taste, as well as writing about how tastes are shaped by environment and culture. By investigating issues surrounding taste – good taste, bad taste and everything in between – we will be able to explore ideas of genre, audience, and persuasion that are central to the writing you will be expected to perform in this class as well as throughout your college career.

I taught college composition from the Fall of 2012 to the Summer of 2014. Freshman comp, compulsory general education requirement. My time teaching the subject was split between two courses, UWP 1 and ENL 3. UWP stands for University Writing Program, the department that administers the bulk of writing education on campus. ENL stands for English.

The two courses teach the same thing. My lesson plans in terms of writing education remained largely unchanged between them. UWP isn’t a “literature” course in the way most students are expecting – there’s still reading, but the course description specifically excludes fiction, plays, and poetry. Some degree of self-selection is anticipated, with students migrating to their preference. In reality the requirement is impacted to the degree that students land in one or the other class by virtue of scheduling. Everyone needs it – most students need very badly to become better writers – but freshman composition is nobody’s favorite. I accept that and try to make the topic interesting for students who may have very good reasons to dislike writing. 

As long as the basic writing education remains consistent I have leeway to devise my own courses. I enjoy challenging myself. Sometimes the experiments work, sometimes they don’t. The worst thing I can be is bored, and switching up the material every quarter keeps me engaged. My way of pushing through the drudgery of teaching writing – a valuable task but draining – is writing interesting syllabi packed with fun stuff that I want to read and teach. Variety makes a difference when you have to grade 25 near-identical papers on the same topic you’ve been reading about for a year. If I don’t stay engaged my teaching suffers.

The exception was the year I built a class around Carl Wilson’s 2007 book Let’s Talk About Love – A Journey to the End of Taste. This is volume 52 in the venerable 33 1/3 series, a series of small books each devoted to a different seminal record. Let’s Talk About Love is a 1997 Celine Dion album, home to Dion’s megahit “My Heart Will Go On.” This was the theme song to James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic, culturally ubiquitous for many years. That is changing.

Every other book in the 33 1/3 series is a labor of love. Let’s Talk About Love is the only volume devoted to an album the author dislikes. Neither hatchet job nor spoof, the book is an honest attempt to understand a cultural phenomenon whose appeal escapes the author. What could have been a joke becomes more. Wilson begins with a general and unexamined definition of  “cool.” He discovers that no attempt to define Dion’s appeal using the traditional tools of the paranoid critic accurately explains the sincerity and community he finds among Dion fans. “Cool” unravels. Wilson ends the book chastened, confronted with his shortcomings as a listener and a critic.

Wilson comes to understand that his antipathy to Dion’s music says more about him than her, and certainly more about him than her fans. The fans who agree to be interviewed are faultlessly polite to Wilson despite the fact that he is writing a book whose very premise is condescension. He ends the book certain “cool” and “uncool” are arbitrary labels affixed to certain kinds of cultural artifacts based on social, economic, and political factors that exist extrinsic to the artifact itself. There’s nothing in the music itself that makes it cool or uncool. Music is cool or uncool solely on the basis of who listens to it, and who is judging who.

What did you think was cool five years ago, and why? Do you still think it’s cool today? How is your idea of cool different from what you believed five years ago? Please explain your answer.
The subtitle of Wilson’s book – A Journey to the End of Taste – hints at the scope of the inquiry, but gestures towards possible misunderstanding. The book itself is ostensibly a tour of Dion’s music, and for prospective buyers Wilson’s “journey” appears to be an exploration of a distasteful cultural artifact. After reading the book it is difficult not to see that the title means, simply, that we have reached the end of taste.

What is taste? How do we assemble these criteria? To where do we look to see our virtue as consumers reflected back at us?

My students had no feel for the idea of taste. The very idea of value judgments based on musical preference was alien. This was a representative cross section of older American teenagers, alongside a high percentage of foreign students badly in need of dedicated ESL resources I had not been trained to provide. They understood the idea of “cool” – that never goes out of style – but a high percentage of them were confused by the process by which coolness translates (or doesn’t) into tastefulness. I highly suspect most of the class didn’t even know Celine Dion, despite the fact that the book spends a great deal of time discussing her worldwide popularity. The circumstances of her initial fame have faded. The teenagers who lined up around the block to buy tickets for Titanic have kids of their own who are old enough to go to the movies by themselves.

Imagine for a minute explaining to a group of strangers why Elliot Smith is supposed to be cooler than Celine Dion, when no one in that group has heard of either Smith or Dion. Your understanding of taste is shaken. How do you explain why a sad white man with a guitar is inherently superior to the pretty white woman singer? Especially since many in your class would be more inclined to appreciate the latter than the former?

Taste is a weapon, constructed around class distinction, and exists in an uneasy relationship to cool. Coolness is neither universal nor timeless, but the concept itself translates. In four classes, out of 100 students, no one cared to mount a defense of taste.

But that’s not what this essay is about.

When a critic or heavily invested music buff says, as they often do, that discovering music or writing “saved my life,” I think what lurks behind the melodrama is a feeling that a facility with pop culture and words has saved us from the life of subservient career, suburban lifestyle and quiet desperation we imagine befalls people like Celine Dion’s white American fans . . . (Wilson)

Rock & roll lingered because a powerful demographic decided it would accompany them through the world for the duration of their lives. It probably reached the end of its natural lifespan some time ago, but lingers in permanent attrition. The music now looks inward and tacitly accepts a senescence of diminished expectations juxtaposed against consistent technical refinement. It was born as the plaything of the boomers and it falls into eclipse just as the boomers’ grip on cultural production has finally gone limp. Rock & roll is no longer quite so important as it had been, or perhaps more accurately, it is no longer quite so important as it had believed, and grows less important by the day.

(When I refer to “rock” in this context, it is meant and should be taken to mean non-metal, “alternative,” “indie,” white, with guitars . . . the kind of rock music to which music critics [and vestigial rockist organs such as the NME] gesture lazily when they discuss “rock” as a concept. A very small gene pool, something increasingly acknowledged even among partisans.)

Losing cultural relevancy turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the music itself, and no group symbolizes this paradox quite like the Strokes. For those who come in late: the Strokes arrive in the early 2000s, overhyped by the British press as the next big thing in rock music. They did pretty well behind their first album, 2001’s Is This It, but the massive sales heralded by the hype never arrived. The band became huge within the sphere of people who cared about contemporary rock & roll, but that attention never completely translated to the mainstream. Generation X was aging out of their most intense period of cultural engagement, and something about the studied insincerity of post-2000 bands never quite sat well with many older rock fans. Perhaps it was the arrival of the Strokes that crystalized the fact that in the United States by 2001 the sphere of people who cared about contemporary rock & roll was smaller than expected, and shrinking.

In hindsight the notion that the Strokes were ever going to be superstars in the United States is laughable. They were a band built from a kit, cobbled together with bits and pieces of the previous 25 years of rock history. There was no attempt at “authenticity”: the Strokes came from money, had no hardscrabble origin, and dressed quite well in that scruffy early 00s way. Previous generations would have labeled them poseurs and dismissed them sight unseen. But the Strokes were only the tip of the sword, the first of many prominent bands from the era who trafficked in pastiche and cultivated a blank affect that repulsed as many listeners as it attracted.

Lots of people didn’t like the Strokes. Some people were incensed by the Strokes. But although it wasn’t clear at the time, they did actually live up to the hype by ushering in a new generation of rock roll – a generation defined by shrinking horizons political, economic, and social.

The buzz on the Strokes for better and for worse was that they were a band that sounded like another band, another cooler band from twenty-or-twenty-five years earlier. No two people agreeD on the same band: some heard the Ramones, some Television, or the New York Dolls. I always heard the (early) Cars. All of these bands are there, and a dozen more, but none of them are dominant. Just bits and pieces, a little sound here, a guitar tone there. But even though it appears as if it should be an easy matter to dismantle the music, reduce it to its components and dismiss it in pieces, the finished product is more than the sum of its influences (in this case, any band that could theoretically have cut a 12” for Ork Records in 1977). The Strokes sound like the Strokes, and that’s a pretty distinctive sound, even if born familiar. There's no mistaking "Last Nite" for anyone else but them.

The Strokes assembled a sound by mixing-and-matching a group of primary influences whose common denominator was not musical but visual. They play music that sounds like it should be played by guys who look like the Strokes. Music history reduced to fashion.

Or at least that’s how it started. The Strokes got two albums out of their “classic” sound before changing. Inevitable, given that the band’s sound was as arch as it was limiting. The Strokes’ brief mystique effervesced around the idea of limitless cool, cool without measure. Being cool means no one sees you sweat. How, then, do you change?

Is This It was a magic trick. Room On Fire was the same trick again, in some ways better developed but lacking the immediacy of its parent. They had to do something different for their third album, and they did: 2006’s First Impressions of Earth showcased a band completely transformed. Now they sounded like a contemporary rock band. Reviews were mixed – polite verging on indifferent. It wasn’t that they had tried and failed. The album itself was hardly terrible. But it was different and, what’s worse, it was normal. A difficult third album, one by turns admirably abrasive and ineptly commercial, is hardly a great sin, and certainly a common one. But the Strokes weren’t just any band, they were the Strokes. With their aura of invincibility punctured, were they really even the same Strokes anymore?  

The Strokes couldn’t go on as they were. It was five years from First Impressions of Earth to 2011’s Angles, bizarre and baffling. Two years after that came Comedown Machine, a sturdy synthesis of the better pieces of the Strokes’ modern sound – odd pop trinkets juxtaposed against fast-paced rockers that reveal themselves pleasantly intricate on closer inspection. “Slow Animals” is the best distillation of later Strokes, an effervescent and effortless uptempo number built on a rhythm that somehow manages to stomp and skitter at the same time, powerful and nervous in equal measure. It’s an extraordinary composition, and ample evidence that the band did not cease being interesting after their first two albums. 

The Strokes play really well together. Their problem was one of expectations, born partly from their Oedipal relationship with their influences and partly from commercial prospects that failed to materialize. What exactly people expected, I couldn’t say – nor even if there were specific expectations. Maybe there were none, maybe I'm imagining it. Maybe that was the point. The future seemed quite far off. No one was making long term plans in the Fall of 2001. 

But that’s not what this essay is about.

In chapter 6, Wilson states that, “to supposedly more refined, educated ears, being a ‘showoff’ is the height of tackiness.” In this chapter and throughout the book, Wilson explores the concept of audience as it relates to the kinds of music we listen to. Here he presents a dichotomy between “more refined, educated” listeners and those listeners who are impressed by tacky, “showoff” music. What kind of assumptions is Wilson making about the type of people who like to listen to “tacky” pop music vs. those who listen to “artier” music? Do you agree with these assumptions?

I exhort my students to remember three principles of good writing: concision, precision, and clarity. They’re all related. Look for one and you’ll find the others.

A person’s writing can be as distinctive as a fingerprint, but bad writing is usually bad in all the same ways. Most writing does not deserve the courtesy of close attention. Writing in which the writer has little invested requires a similar investment from the reader. Good writing is good courtesy, a reflection of the sincere appreciation that you extend to your readers for the time spent with your words.

One of the easiest ways to communicate a lack of appreciation for your reader is to turn in writing rife with misspellings and grammatical errors. I ask my students to put themselves in the shoes of their prospective bosses, reading poorly written resume cover letters and making snap, often quite unfair judgments based solely on whether or not the applicant took the time to run spellcheck. In writing, as in life, we are often judged on the basis of small gestures that are expected to serve as shorthand for larger trends. Still: turning in a piece of writing, produced on a computer in the year 2016, that is nevertheless rife with the kind of misspellings and petty grammatical errors that Microsoft Word automatically fixes, broadcasts complete contempt for your reader. 

The best writing is the simplest writing. This is true in most instances because we judge a piece of writing based on how well it communicates its message. A good idea deserves to be understood, and the best way to ensure that your ideas are understood is to communicate clearly and precisely.

1.     In chapter 7 of LTAL, the assertion is made that two different audiences heard The Rite of Spring in 1913 and 1914. Furthermore, they suggest that the difference between these audiences was that the first audience was completely unprepared to hear a new and challenging piece of music, while the second audience was “eager to be shocked” (LTAL 78). What does that tell us about how the effectiveness of certain rhetoric might depend on its audience? Is it possible that the effectiveness of certain rhetoric might be changeable?

2.     How might these ideas of audience relate to our own discussions, in terms of what kind of audience might enjoy pop music like Celine Dion vs. what kind of audience might enjoy “difficult” or “challenging” music? How would you describe your own tastes according to these standards? What sort of preconceptions do we carry about the kind of audience that prefers one type of music (popular, accessible) to the other (obscure, difficult)?

Interpol is first and foremost a drummer’s band. Wipe every preconceived notion about the group from your mind, and begin again with the assertion that Sam Fogarino’s drumming is the most vital and necessary part of the band’s sound. Perhaps it doesn’t jump out at you. Listen again.

Few bands have been worse served by advance hype than Interpol. If the Strokes suffered from a sustained but diffuse familiarity that befogged the minds of listeners desperately searching for some kind of ironic “tell” that was never forthcoming, Interpol suffered from one specific comparison, a comparison which has dogged them since the very beginning of their career: Joy Division.

It would be difficult to deny that Joy Division was a strong influence, at least for 2002’s Turn on the Bright Lights. But the influence has been overstated, primarily because of a surface similarity between the sound of Paul Banks' and Ian Curtis' voices. This similarity has been overplayed, particularly since – beginning with 2004’s Antics and continuing through to the present day – Banks has changed his singing slightly with every album. His voice is recorded different each time, or at least carries a different affect based on the album’s tone: for Turn on the Bright Lights he is febrile, exhausted; for Antics, cold, alternating between emotionally distant and imperious, almost barking in places. For 2007’s Our Love To Admire he is flayed, harsh, metallic, but morose and vulnerable on 2010’s self-titled affair.

But make no mistake: it’s Fogarino’s band. Interpol is defined by a semi-antagonist dynamic between the drummer and the vocalist, the latter perpetually one half-step behind the beat and running to catch up. Fogarino is implacable, a metronome in human form, unerringly precise but still effortlessly loose. Banks is just a singer, Fogarino is a force of nature. A drummer’s drummer, in essence. Fogarino is ten years older than banks, six years older than guitarist Daniel Kessler.

The early 2000s were consumed by the hunt for the saviors of rock & roll prophesied during the Clinton administration and desperately hunted by an industry whose A&R men stuck to the idea of rock as an art form of mass appeal longer than most of the rest of the country. At the time the Strokes’ failure to conquer the American airwaves was still seen as a temporary setback for the industry and not a sign that rock had lost its gravity. At the time every subsequent much hyped band was still greeted with wary enthusiasm: every buzz band represented a new chance to win the hearts and minds of a generation who would otherwise have little connection to the genre.  

In 2002 Pitchfork prefaced their review of Turn on the Bright Lights with an allusion to the “veritable shitstorm of publicity drummed up by a certain New York City band, one that had the audacity to not be the denim-clad messiahs of rock & roll we'd been promised.” The industry was wise to be wary of buzz bands who failed to make the turnover, because the music itself had become insulated from a mass audience through a gradual distillation of style down to a patchwork of genre signifiers. The best rock music in this period was rock music being made by and for people with large record collections, people who got the jokes. Rock music in the first decade of the twentieth-first century was defined by consistent refinement of existing principle, without a lot of outsized novelty. The humility is itself confrontational. 

This turn inward on the part of rock & roll was mirrored by a general cultural turn away from rock over the same time period. Hard rock and metal had long since segregated themselves on the airwaves, thriving as they still do on a wavelength apart from other forms of contemporary rock and pop. Teen pop never really went away after the high tide at the turn of the century, although the stars kept changing and only a few of them managed lasting careers. Hip-hop reigned. It was important for rock's self-image to continue to be able to dominate the cultural conversation. It's a genre that has historically relied on the the illusion of universal appeal to provide thematic ballast. Without its reflexive self-importance, where did it have to go? 

Interpol did not arrive borne on the wings of the same ruinous expectations as the Strokes. They were a decidedly murkier, less mainstream proposition. Instead of taking their cue from the kind of bands that could have been seen skulking around the East Village in 1977, Interpol were devoted to post-punk and proto-goth influences like Joy Division, yes, but also Magazine, early Bauhaus, and any number of groups that could have been shelved alongside them at Rough Trade in 1979. As with the Strokes, however, the band quickly moved past the simple recitation of their earliest influences on their way to developing a distinctive and recognizable sound.

The critical consensus of 2002, while enthusiastic, could not shake the compulsion to comparison, and the incessant drive to quantify influences marks reviews from the era as surely as the incessant use of the word “angular” as an adjective to describe any random guitar noise. Here is a section from that same Pitchfork review, written by Eric Carr:

Speaking of Closer, Interpol can't seem to shake being likened to Factory prodigies Joy Division. The cause, however, isn't necessarily evident. Indeed, Daniel Kessler's sublime, angular downstrokes follow the smooth confidence of Carlos Dengler's basslines, and Paul Banks sings with Ian Curtis' downcast delivery and dramatic flair. The difference, however, lies in the music itself: what Joy Division played was sparse and jagged-- punk with a melancholy, but often minimalist bent. Interpol, meanwhile, are punk in ethic alone; their music bears few of that genre's signatures, with the band instead immersing themselves in a grander, more theatrical atmosphere with lush production that counters their frustrated bombast.

The situation was egregious enough that it became, in hindsight, the single most notable thing about the band’s reception. In 2012, writing about the album’s tenth anniversary for the same website, Matt LeMay wrote,

In retrospect, 2002 may have been the very year that we stopped talking about how music sounds, and started talking about what other music it sounds like. "Interpol sounds like Joy Division" was one of the first critical observations to turn into a full-fledged meme. In the intervening years, other bands have sounded a whole lot more like Joy Division, and the comparison now feels like just that: a comparison.

The mania for comparison infected critical discourse to the extent that, for anyone looking inside the echo chamber from outside, it would have been difficult not to come to the conclusion that the genre was hopelessly narcissistic, stuck playing variations on a theme for a dwindling coterie of fans and critics who were happy to assume that the culture still revolved around them. Most fans and critics were certain that the lifestyle and fashion of twenty-something middle-class white kids would remain the cultural norm, as they had been for much of the previous century. 

“Alternative” culture – which was very much still a thing in 2002, even if the label was falling out of use – was premised on being in some way “other,” a way for white kids who grew up in the wasteland of the 1980s and 1990s to focus their dissatisfaction through inappropriate or edgy music and lifestyle choices. It was difficult to mask the privilege inherent in the enterprise, however. Teenage rebellion is a wonderful idea when rebellion is merely a lifestyle choice, symbolic and of little lasting consequence. But the instinctive posture of rebellion adopted by so many rock fans and critics who believed that liking rock music in the twenty-first century was a brave attempt at thoughtful iconoclasm was sour and curdled at its core.  
As Wilson wrote, describing the split between Celine Dion’s fans and Elliott Smith fans, this was,

one of the ruling paradoxes for partisans of ‘alternative’ culture: It might look like you were asserting superiority over the multitudes, but as a former bullied kid, I always figured it started from rejection. If respect or simple fairness were denied you, you’d build a great life (the best revenge) from what you could scrounge outside their orbit, freed from the thirst for majority approbation.

There’s nothing worse than a former outcast with a small cache of cultural capital. The problem with this mindset is that as the market for rock music shrank, the idea of rock critics as cultural gatekeepers was revealed to be a remarkable feat of self-delusion. Only rock critics believed themselves to be arbiters of taste. As the rest of the culture moved on it became easier to walk past them altogether. The vaunted “authenticity” represented by artists like Smith could be seen for what it was: elitism built around a set of stereotypes and suppositions that betrayed a rigid adherence to the promulgation of class, gender, and racial restrictions that dated back to the 1950s and 60s.

Wilson's book was just one of the signs from this period that the previous critical paradigm was crumbling, not just in terms of what people wrote about rock but how musicians regarded themselves. The magpie styles and studied professionalism of groups like Interpol and the Strokes (and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the White Strips and Arcade Fire and Spoon, et al) was a direct challenge to the notion that rock needed to enact a revolutionary pose and reinvent the wheel with every new generation in order to be interesting. Without the comforting illusion of middle-class rebellion to fall back on, what was rock? Something people wrote about on their blogs. The goal of rock stardom even for popular bands was no longer mansions and limousines, but being able to pay a mortgage and afford health insurance. No one gets to be Led Zeppelin anymore. It's a job now. There's no such thing as "selling out" when corporate sponsorships, licensing, and constant touring can't even guarantee a decent middle-class living for popular bands. To pretend otherwise is pure fantasy. 

The sterotype of the tortured artist – an Elliott Smith or Ian Curtis - will never fade from pop culture. But the idea that art is only as good as the degree of suffering involved in its creation is no more an objective standard than the idea that Celine Dion produces superior music simply by virtue of her plainly being a more technically proficient singer than either Smith or Curtis. 
That’s not to say that Elliott Smith isn’t pretty good – or Interpol or the Strokes – just that there’s no moral high ground gained from preferring Smith to Dion. My students had no problem understanding this idea. It’s music created for a specific audience, just like any other music. Maybe you fall into the intended audience, maybe you don’t. Maybe it changes your life, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s just pleasant background noise. People enjoy what they enjoy for a wide variety of reasons. Maybe it might be more productive – as Wilson ultimately posits – to ask how the music makes you feel, and why it makes you feel that way. That feeling is the only “authenticity” that matters in music, any kind of music.

But that’s not what this essay is about.

In the end, if delight is where you find it and myriad pop pleasures meet the heterodox needs of diverse publics, what is the real substance of the dislike I and so many other commentators have for Celine Dion? (Wilson)

Before the first day of class on my first day of teaching what became affectionately known among my fellow teachers as the “Celine Dion class,” I was certain that Celine Dion was a figure of enduring prominence who required no explanation. Surely she’s a massive star whose music is still played across the world, and who will remain a fixture in the firmament for so long as Titanic remains a touchstone in the culture.

The lesson I learned is that culture doesn't work like that. I was usually too afraid to ask what percentage of my class had never heard of Dion before walking into class on the first day. I would wager that most had heard Dion before, even if they may never have known the woman’s name, much as kids from my generation grew up surrounded by the previous generation’s AM Gold without ever knowing who sang “Superstar” (unless we asked). At a certain point extraordinarily popular music graduates to the status of background noise. The idea that someone who sang adult-contemporary ballads might be prima facie uncool, and therefore a ripe target for mockery, was alien.   
Students already understood a great deal of the cultural hierarchy that Wilson explores so painstakingly throughout his book. There’s no intrinsic reason why rock music sits at the pinnacle of culture, so it just doesn’t, and no one under the age of approximately thirty-five seems to think that’s in any way unusual. It’s music for white people, what’s more, a certain type of white person. Anything that smacked of contemporary rock was understood by my students as being for a very specific demographic: hipsters.

For all the controversy over the definition of a “hipster,” my students knew the type immediately: white, middle-class, snotty. People who think their tastes make them more interesting than you. The music they listen to is consequently branded as “hipster music” – and subsequently dismissed.

To understand the significance of “audience” to rhetoric – the first principle of any rhetorical instance, be it a song or a college paper, is the recognition of your audience – we watched a few music videos. I took the class step-by-step through the process of reading music videos for signifiers that indicate demographics.

The first video we watched was always the video for Katy Perry’s “Roar.” Although the song isn’t much (nothing compared to anything off Teenage Dream, one of the great pop albums of the new century), the video is quite well constructed. Directed by Grady Hall and Mark Kudsi, it makes a reasonable effort to make Perry palatable to a potentially much larger audience after her early success with teen pop.

The video begins with a plane crash in the jungle. Perry is marooned and left to fend for herself, a process that includes turning into a distaff Tarzan and conquering nature through her indomitable will. The song itself is innocuous, a standard female-empowerment (but not too empowered) anthem with a rhythm sufficiently ponderous to ensure it can crossover to modern adult contemporary stations (or Spotify streams). It’s been constructed primarily for a demographic roughly five-to-ten years older than the teenyboppers who rushed out to “buy” 2008’s One of the Boys. She strikes a blow for female empowerment by taming a tiger through the power of courage. She even outfits her new pet with a “Kitty Purry” collar. Of course, Perry is mostly naked throughout the video, ensuring that teenage boys (and their dads) will at least find her interesting to look at.

Every quadrant accounted for: while (assumedly) the core demographic of teenage girls is already invested due to familiarity with Perry, the message of genial if noncommittal female empowerment offers a patina of respectability for moms and older sisters. Perry’s dress, on the other hand, appeals not simply to men and boys but to girls themselves who admire her and aspire to her confidence and attractiveness. Every element of the video, including the clever winks at older viewers intimately familiar with the tropes of the jungle adventure, has been precisely calibrated to appeal to a different audience. Showing students how something as innocuous as a music video has been carefully constructed for the purpose of selling them a product – in this specific case, Perry’s music, but also Perry as a star and commodity independent of any specific hit song – was a key moment in the class. 

The second video we watched was Danny Brown’s “Grown Up.” The video, directed by Greg Brunkalla, is based around the conceit of a school-age version of Danny Brown rapping the song while on a walking tour of his neighborhood. He’s a class clown with rapid-fire delivery, and the video does an excellent job of selling him as a talented rapper with a sense of humor. It’s also a grounded video, following Brown’s child doppelganger – played by nine-year-old Dante Hoagland – on a walk through the streets of Harlem and Williamsburg. This communicates a sense of location, a necessity for new acts who often struggle to leverage regional popularity into national exposure. A rapper needs a hometown to rep, and (although it’s worth noting that Brown himself is a native of Detroit, not New York) the video asserts through its street-level focus that Brown is still a product of the neighborhoods from which he came, grounded even while striving for success. It’s a different valence of authenticity, it should be noted, than the self-excoriating misery of an Elliott Smith, but just as legible to its intended audience.

The final video we watched was Beach House’s “Wishes.” Directed by comedian Eric Wareheim, the clip defies easy categorization. Ray Wise is a ringmaster of a strange troupe of acrobats and cheerleaders who perform for the edification of an impassive crowd in a mostly empty stadium. Such a description does little to communicate the strangeness of the exquisitely produced clip, with Wise mouthing the words to an aching and languid dream pop ballad about, well, wishes. And love. Or loss? It’s difficult to tell precisely. Which is probably the point.

No one ever knew what to think of the clip. Most students appeared unimpressed, as stone-faced and silent as the crowd in the video. When I asked about the audience for this video – asking them to pull out the same kind of demographic information we had found in the previous two videos – they didn’t know and couldn’t guess. The signs and referents were alien. The sense of humor was alien. It sticks with me that at least one student found the music itself upsetting and sad. Much of the video was simply illegible to them. Most probably dismissed it as hipster bullshit. As inexact a measurement as that may be, its also not completely wrong.

I love that video, and I love that band. The class, however, did not love “Wishes,” and the majority of students found no purchase in the clip’s pervasive weirdness. They understood the effect of the video in toto was to broadcast a message that this music was simply Not For Them. It was a product produced for a highly specialized audience who can enjoy not just Wareheim’s anti-comedy, but Beach House’s gossamer synthpop. No one is born knowing either.

But that’s not what this essay is about. 

To Be Continued


 Part Six of an ongoing series. 

4. Someday We Will All Be Free
5. Trifles, Light As Air 

Let's Talk About What We Talk About When We
Talk About Teaching Let's Talk About Love
6.  One - The Modern Age
7. Two - Slow Decay
8. Three - A Time To Be So Small


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MarkAndrew said...

I... UH.. Oh God.

I read that. I remember that Celine Dion was a hero to French speaking Canadians, and that was kind of interesting.

I don't remember anything else.

I heard maybe three songs from Interpol and decided I really, really strongly disliked them. Now I think I should go listen to some more.

I'm really enjoying this anyway!

Unknown said...

Have loved Beach House since I found out about them in 2008 or so. Have hated Celine's voice since the 90's.

what said...

A really good essay, and valid points about the self-referential nature of alternative rock criticism. Personally, I loved and continue to love The Strokes. Is This It never left my discman for two years.

Also, a small thing, but his name is Elliott (with 2 T's) Smith.

Archibald said...

Good piece. I was unfamiliar with Beach House and liked the song quite a bit. Liked the video too. But I guess I would being an old school "hipster," you know, the geeky weirdo kind - I'm 58. Is BH aiming at geezers? It certainly was aimed at the David Lynch crowd - why else cast Ray Wise (lets face it). It also seems like it has some Matthew Barney "Cremaster" cues (the football field etc - kids LOVE Matthew Barney!). I'd like to hear more Beach House so I guess it worked. I hope you never expose the poor dears to Leonard Cohen.

I don't have a strong opinion on Katy Perry (I like her censored Sesame Street video with Elmo (who I do hate)) but I think I had enough of the song and video after almost a minute no matter how little Katy was wearing (I cheated and skipped ahead to see how little - I'm not dead yet). I got it already.

As a lifelong depressive, my melancholy demeanor is attracted to sad songs more than happy although I enjoy good pop confections with weird edges (I'm looking at you Gnarles Barkley). Surely the lack of mopey and morose young people, thanks to the age of antidepressants on demand, has got to be factored in. People seem like they want to be comforted and reassured by new versions of the same old thing - like the new Star Wars product.

True mind-blowing, unsettling weirdness may be largely relegated to a tiny audience aside from the occasional blip (like the original Twin Peaks). Will TP still do it - we'll soon see. Or is it just more comfy nostalgia for ageing weirdos.

Kyle Gorman said...

Thanks for this!

There’s nothing worse than a former outcast with a small cache of cultural capital. An extremely timely observation.

Unknown said...

A really good essay, and valid points about the self-referential nature of alternative rock criticism.....!

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