Wednesday, March 28, 2007
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (and other designations therein)
Lately I've been reading, and this has been a frustrating experience. Admittedly, reading is almost always a frustrating experience; I'm prone to headaches. Large words and complicated syntax confuse me. I am, in many ways, still learning to read. Usually after a marathon session (I invite you to picture me curled up on a mahogany armchair with an afghan, looking through empty tortoise rims with a quizzical expression, rubbing chin-hair that doesn't exist, etc.), I need an Excedrin and a solid punch in the face. Yet I digress...
What's been bothering me lately has been the inordinate amount of musical criticism--authored by writers I respect and frequently agree with--that's off the mark. In Chuck Klosterman's Klosterman IV, he includes an essay about his distaste for calling anything pop cultural a "guilty pleasure." His point is primarily that people use "guilty pleasure" as a term of intellectual snobbery, and that people should not feel ashamed of their individual tastes. To him, the people who speak of "guilty pleasures" are the people who would champion Sigur Ros over Oasis, on pseudo-intellectual and anti-populist terms; Oasis was more popular than Sigur Ros because they were better, not because they were dumber.
In Nick Hornby's Songbook, he frequently touches on the issue of guilty pleasures. He argues in favor of unabashed pop fandom, focusing on the innate aesthetic merits of a song despite its possible inanity (Nelly Furtado's "I'm Like a Bird"). He chooses to see the glass as half full. Mind you, what's in the glass does not matter. It remains half full, ready to be consumed.
These are good points made by two men who simply love music. They write often and well on a broad range of musical topics and often articulate--as close as anyone I have read--what it is that makes music special to us. But here's the rub: near as I can tell, neither one of these guys play music, and that can be a problem.
In my defense, and in the defense of other artists, I've outlined a primitive breakdown of song types for the basis of critique. While both Klosterman and Hornby both recognize a song's merit for its lyricism, cultural relevance, impact, aesthetics/catchiness/beauty, nostalgic/sentimental power, and influence, they neglect its actual composition. And ultimately it's a song's composition that determines whether its pleasures are guilty or innocent.
Allow me to introduce THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY, AND THE PRETTY. For purposes of fair comparison, I'll be using four songs by the same band as hopefully representative samples of each song-type. That band will be Pearl Jam, because they are extremely popular, still contemporary, and nearly universally respected. And because they're awesome and I know their catalogue a little too well.
"Present Tense," No Code
By any measure, this is a great song. It's immediatly listenable, catchy, multi-dimensional, and well-performed. At the time of its release, it was a musical departure for Pearl Jam, and foreshadowed the direction of their next three albums. Its lyrics are among the best Eddie Vedder has written--introspective, interesting, even poetic at moments. It even adds crucially to the unity of the album, offering a single alternative (living in the present) to the conflict of the album (struggling with the past, afraid of the future). Its composition is pain-stakingly deliberate and thoughtful, as the minor shifts of the bridges reflect the emotional instability of that lyric and the song teeters precipitously between resolution and dissolution. I could go into minute-by-minute musical analysis of this song's composition (as I do with the "Songs of the Week"), but I think you get the idea. Also, its sports great nostalgic value for anyone who listened to Pearl Jam in their formative musical years. This is a great song by any and every measure.
Contemporary Rock Band That Writes Chiefly Good Songs: The White Stripes
This song, as anyone familiar with Vitalogy knows, is bad in every way. It is a musical throwaway, a goof-off, and a non sequitur. The lyric (regardless of what Vedder himself might say about it) is at best funny and at worst dumb. It is aesthetically harsh, grating to the ears and numbing to the mind. Perhaps its only redeeming trait might be its marginal humor, but even that is a stretch. This is a joke of a song by a band that, at the time, wanted to take themselves less seriously. Useless lyric, grating arrangement, sloppy playing, etc, etc. This is a bad song.
Contemporary Rock Band That Writes Chiefly Bad Songs: Practically everyone. At least ninety-percent of local bands. They don't often appear on a national scale, because bands with national popularity at least know how to write a "Pretty" song, which tend to be catchy, which tend to be popular, etc. But the vast majority of dudes out there with guitars are creating bad, bad, bad music. Don't worry--they're everywhere.
"Push Me/Pull Me," Yield
This is a musically ambitious, sonically experimental, carefully composed piece of music. It is thoughtful, deliberate, multi-dimensional, cerebral, and challenging. It's also unlistenable. The problem with the "Ugly" songs is not that they're mindless, it's that they're often heartless. Or, given their aesthetic failures, earless. I often cannot appreciate "Push Me/Pull Me" past its innate intellectual merit, because it offers nothing else to enjoy.
Music snobs tend to love the "Push Me/Pull Me's" of the world. The more experimental, the less accessbile, the better. They tend to ignore the simple aesthetic joys of music and appreciate it only on an intellectual (or, Klosterman might say, pseudo-intellectual) level. I'd rather have an insipid "Pretty" song than an avant garde "Ugly" song any day, but that's just because I need music to feed more than my head.
Contemporary Rock Band That Writes Chiefly Ugly Songs: Again, these are harder to find on a national/global scale because popular bands tend to write accessible, catchy, "pretty" stuff. You could say that, at their worst, artists like Bjork and Sigur Ros might fit this bill.
"Release" is a song that is good in every conceivable way except composition. Above all else, it is a powerfully gorgeous song--a truly great aesthetic achievement. It is remarkably pretty. It also contains a classic early Vedder lyric (elusive, cathartic, imagistic, moving) and brilliant performances (the band's build-up is masterful). It closes an album that helped change the musical landscape for the next decade. Its impact on Pearl Jam fans, avid and casual alike, has been enormous. But the song's composition itself is unremarkable and one-dimensional. A repeated finger-picking phrase tinkles over three repeated chords for the span of six minutes. The story being told--by the lyrics and the arrangement--exists independently of the song's non-structure. This is largely because the song was born out of an improvisation in the studio; Stone Gossard picked around the D chord, Eddie started humming over it, the band joined in, and a few minutes later they had "Release." Take two appears on Ten. This is an amazing testiment to the collective powers of the band at that time, but the fact remains that the song's structure doesn't tell us anything new about its lyric, and doesn't enhance our understanding of its spirit.
Now, here's the issue: songs in the "Pretty" category often get misplaced. Music critics that ignore song composition would likely put "Release" in the "Good" category with a song like "Present Tense." That would slight the masterful composition of "Present Tense." There is also the tendency--among theory-hungry powersnobs--to take a "Pretty" song and put it in the "Bad" category for its lack of thoughtful composition. This would be to ignore its aesthetic achievements and profound emotional impact.
Finally, there are many "Pretty" songs that contain less merit than "Release" (dumber lyrics, worse musicianship, thoughtless composition), but appeal to us on a purely aesthetic level. Pearl Jam hasn't written any of these songs because they're a better band than that, but you can find them all over the radio. And this, finally, is the genesis of the "guilty pleasure." Guilty pleasure--though a term often misused--simply refers to songs that are undeniably enjoyable/pretty/aesthetically pleasing/full of sentimental value, but remain mindless, uninteresting, derivative, and borderline unlikable. For example, I will freely admit to liking O-Town's "All or Nothing." This is a stupid song with shaky vocals and cheesy arrangements. It's also a great, Motown-derivative melodywith easy pop-song devices (key change for the last chorus, anyone?). It's simply a fun listen, even though I know better. It's a guilty pleasure.
Contemporary Rock Band That Writes Chiefly Pretty Songs: Coldplay
The best bands, of course, find a way to do it all, regularly, and in varying ways. That's why they're so hard to come by. Meanwhile, I just wrote a lovesong to alcohol in which I rhymed "beer" and "everclear."
So what do I know?