January 28, 2006


Zoilus has a little round-up of articles on the influence of the iPod on how people listen to music. One of the pieces takes the issue of music as a commodity in a slightly different direction. Basically, as more and more labels release alternate tracks, old bootlegs, and complete sessions of albums, our enjoyment of the original releases is reduced.

If you're one to fetishize albums — spending hours staring at the cover art, reading and rereading the liner notes, forcing your friends to listen to the same tracks again and again — I can see how this situation would be a problem. To maintain your obsession with the album, you have to keep yourself in a perpetual state of ignorance about how it was put together. You may say you want to know "how it all happened," but by exposing yourself to the banality of the circumstances, the mystery will disappear completely.

If you give into the temptation to hear the original demos and studio sessions, you can't romanticize the process of creation any more. It becomes evident that the music you love was birthed through hard work. As the PopMatters writer pointed out, you realize that the Beatles recorded a lot of duds. When you hear the official release of SMiLE, you wonder whether it was worth the 30-year wait.

The article does not touch on the segment of the music listening population that wants to know what it takes to put out an album of legendary status. You know, wouldbe songwriters, producers, and probably a few composers. Beyond the simple lesson that hard work and dedication go a long way, you can piece apart the sessions and learn how the tracks were put together. You can examine multiple versions of songs and figure out what made the final version so great.

Artists in other media get copious opportunities to pick through the creative process. At a big retrospective exhibit of a major painter, you usually get to see sketches for his magnum opus, along with any canvases he may've done that didn't pass muster. Do people who see these "lesser works" go up the ticket window and ask for their money back? Pop music fans should be thrilled that this kind of opportunity is now available on such a large scale.

As far as the impact of iPods go, I don't think the situation is as dire as it's made out to be. Among any population of self-proclaimed music lovers, you'll have two groups: people who say they like music, and those who actually do. The people who only say so are put up to it by the same social pressure that foists any other kind of fashionable behavior on them. The other group, whether they're into it for the artist worship or the admiration of craftsmanship, will never give into a music-as-wallpaper lifestyle, no matter how much technology gets thrown at them.

January 19, 2006

Joining the Fray

Two fine bloggers have been discussing how fiction and reality bounce off each other in art. Reality shows are an extreme example of a diluted/deluded reality, but some things can build on reality without being emotionally manipulative. R. Crumb uses autobiography because it feels more real to audiences when the artist and narrator are integrated. Same with many good singer-songwriters.

Alex Ross's problem with with James Frey is that an essential truth was favored over a literal truth. The real problem is not in this shift in balance, but in the ultimate quality of the essential truth (which at least one analyst found quite damaging). Of course, the issue with my example is that Crumb's literal truths should not be taken at face value either. No one writes an autobiography without making choices about what they leave in and what gets taken out. For Crumb, however, the value of his essential truths outweighs any vagaries in the literal ones.

Also, an addict's memoir that wasn't quite an addict's memoir? Whoda thunk.

January 18, 2006

Tangle of Influences

I just got introduced to the work of R. Crumb. Anyone who has avoided his work for whatever reason needs to go and start reading it now. He's this amazing talent who just seems to have sprung up out of nowhere — no art school or formal training, no apprenticeships with big names in the business. There seem to be a lot of parallels between the careers of Crumb and Frank Zappa. Both of them are associated with '60s counterculture, despite the fact that both of them loathe hippies. They're both self-taught and work in the "low" arts, but have attracted the attention of many "high" artists. They also seem to have similar down-to-earth, no-nonsense attitudes.

One continuous feature in Crumb's work are all these old-timey cartoon archetypes: dancing movie theater snacks, people-like animals who wear shirts but no pants, the general layout and lettering in much of his work. He often transforms these stock tools of his trade into a means of cultural criticism. The targets of his criticism are artifacts of the present, though, not the archetypes which he has such deep affection for.

He maintains the appearances of these archetypes, but puts them in unexpected situations. This juxtaposition isn't made for its own sake, however. It's used to call attention to the assumptions that you may have about about these characters. These expectations fit into a broader cultural context which is usually covered with a patina of normality. When Crumb draws black people as racist stereotypes or puts together an incest story with Dick and Jane-style characters, he is suggesting that perhaps we shouldn't be accepting these images as part of the status quo.

Comic archetypes are reinterpreted in another way in Daniel Clowes's Ice Haven. It has a large-scale narrative, but it's broken down into very short strips. Basically, it's like you opened up the Sunday comics and each strip centered around an individual character, but you find they all lived in the same town and interacted with each other. The individual parts dip into the lives of their respective characters, but together, they form a larger story.

The characters in the strips are not your usual funny pages fodder, though. They're the black sheep of Dagwood and Blondie's extended family. You get six frames of a depressed kid staring at the ceiling and Family Circus-style single frames about grade schoolers contemplating murder. Clowes's work isn't a simplistic shockfest, either. He has a story to tell, but his preferred tools are usually employed in tamer settings. He takes to Sunday comics — as much of a throwaway form as you get — with novelistic aspirations.

If you check out your local comics shop, you'll notice that Crumb and Clowes aren't the only ones who like dipping into past images and forms. However, there's a big difference between the shallow nostalgia practiced by most of them and the deep love demonstrated by the much smaller group that these two fall into. The collection of images and ideas that they all chew over and redraw are the backbone of their medium's tradition. The artists even have a typical persona. They're "weirdos." They like drawing "sick" and "twisted" things.

Artistic media come attached with a set of cultural norms for the things they communicate, the ways in which they're communicated, and typical behaviors for the artists themselves (the sum of these norms usually goes by the name of "tradition."). They've got well-dressed farm animals with ukuleles, we've got polyphonic masses. As Feldman pointed out, the central point of interest from Machaut to Boulez is the construction (an observation he made to contrast music with the other arts). You can probably fill in the rest.

The question for the artist: how much of a weight does tradition bear on your work? Are you regurgitating its practices, building on them, or finding new ones (if that's even possible)? Crumb and Clowes provide examples of artists who can make new, personal work that is close to their tradition, but not close enough to suffocate it.