Friday, May 01, 2009

I'm Not With the Band

A while back I was talking with some friends about a local singer/songwriter who, for these purposes, we'll call Scott Latte. Said friends are fans of Scott Latte. I am not.

I'm not a fan of Scott Latte for several reasons. Most of them I've enumerated in the past. Some I've kept quiet because, why piss on someone's sundae? I said that I didn't enjoy Latte's music because I find it dull and humorless and borderline offensive and left it at that. The reply:

"But do you know Scott?"

Of course I don't know Scott. I don't want to know Scott. I wager--right here and now--that I'll never know Scott. But it ultimately doesn't matter if I know Scott Latte, because I know something else: his music.


Ten years ago, mainstream sportswriting was dominated by Old White Guys. Like professors with tenure, the Old White Guys were entrenched at their newspaper/periodical/magazine, and had been for decades. They knew their beat, they knew their organization, they had personal relationships with everyone involved with the team, and conventional thinking was that this was a good thing. Because of their familiarity with the team, their unparalleled access, and their years logged behind the scenes, they could give fans a perspective that they couldn't get from their living room. That intimacy theoretically gave us better insight to the game we were watching.

Eventually, the opposite became true: writers made friends of the players and executives and lost their objectivity. For example, most noteworthy American sportswriters have an unadulterated mancrush on Brett Favre. When Brett lost his fastball and still tried to force throws, he began throwing interceptions on crucial drives. His team lost games because he was making bad decisions. He simply wasn't the same player anymore. Even great players age. It happens.

But to anyone watching a Green Bay game--hearing it called and reading about it afterward--it wasn't happening. The Packers were losing for seemingly every reason except Favre's turnovers. The gap between commentary and reality was stunning. Football fans everywhere thought, "I know what I'm seeing. I'm not crazy. Favre's past his prime, he's throwing picks on crucial drives, and they can't win consistently like that." But the coverage itself focused on the defense, the offensive line or, if it had to, the consummate brilliance of Whatever Team Favre Just Played. The writers loved Favre, and they weren't going to report objectively about his demise. They couldn't see the forest for the trees.

When the internet hit, sportsbloggers everywhere used this to their advantage. They saw the gap between reality and mainstream media's perception, and figured, "I know what I'm seeing. I don't need media access. I don't need the locker room. I'm going to write about exactly what I see transpire on the field." They figured that fans everywhere experienced sports this way--thoughtfully, devotedly watching the game itself--and doubled down on that viewpoint. Of course, they were right. Sportsblogs have become the mainstream sports media, with even SI and ESPN adopting their own blog-system and hiring the best and the brightest of these former "amateurs" and "armchair quarterbacks."

And what I'm trying to say is this: I don't need the backstage pass. I don't need to know Favre's birthday to know he's throwing picks in a 2-minute drill. I don't need to know Scott Latte's wonderfully enigmatic persona to hear his music. All you need are two ears that work and a finger to hit play, and nothing about personal familiarity changes what actually happens when you do.

The issue, I fear, is that more people need to experience music this way than they do sports. So while sportsblogs take a staunchly objective viewpoint, most music blogs do the opposite: they write about the artists themselves rather than the music. And, to an extent, I get it: artists build their image and construct their persona. They're selling themselves as much as the music. To some degree, we all buy in to a cult of personality when we buy a record. But why hasn't pop culture's dialogue with music evolved like it has with sports? Why do I have to like or dislike a record through the prism of how I feel about the person who made it? Why does seemingly every conversation begin and end with, "But do you know Scott?" Or, why is it important that I feel like I do?


Last week I watched some YouTube videos of Kings of Leon. To promote Only By the Night last fall, they released home videos of them making the record, talking about the record, rough-housing and prank-playing between sessions, etc.

They were semi-entertaining and largely uninteresting until I got to Day 22, in which Caleb talks about the song "Cold Desert." He describes in great detail the process of recording that song drunk. How drunk everyone involved was. What a moment of inspired drunken genius the performance was, etc. It's the type of video a KOL fan would love, because it fits their persona as simple-minded, fun-loving alcoholics who constantly stumble into success despite their ne'er-do-well antics.

But what comes across on the actual record is something else. Everything about the song--from the tightness of the performances to the mid-song fadeout--is done deliberately. Anyone with two ears and a finger to press play can hear it. There is nothing accidental or thoughtless about their decision to fade the song out in its middle and fade it back in. The song is, by definition, the antithesis of "incidental boozy afterthoughts."

And while it's marginally amusing to say, "I feel like I know Caleb and was with him the night he got so drunk and just felt it and out came 'Cold Desert,'" it's a less rewarding way to experience music. People themselves will let you down. They'll give a different interview every time. They'll self-mythologize. They'll bullshit, cop-out, play-up, and change daily. They're people, after all. But Track 13's the same every time you hit play. It's constant, and identical whenever you come back to it. It's there as a self-contained experience ready to meet you wherever you need it. If you feel fatigued and drowned out, you can revisit that fade-out and know you're not alone.

No, I don't know Scott, and I don't know Brett, and I don't know Caleb.

And if I'm lucky, I never will.

Too young to feel this old,

P.S. Songs for May will be up on Monday, plus another YouTube concert! Tons of updates next week, so check back early and often.


ross k. said...

I couldn't agree more that it's the songs/stories/achievements and not the gossip...I try to avoid reading blurbs and fetishizing trivial critical commentary about artists, but I've got to ask, how do you reconcile this with having a blog about music? Isn't it unavoidable that you will sometimes contribute to this same noise? Really not trying to start static this time, but it seems like a fundamental question.

By the way, the name "Scott Latte" is hilarious. Since he would inevitably be booked with metal bands, it would be funny if his backup band had a much tougher name, and you could get Scott Latte and the Brawlers at Twice-Told-Coffee-Pretense's open-mic night with Lucifuge, Hammerfall and Dead Chthulu Waits Dreaming.

Chris Milam said...

That's a great question, Rossman. It's really THE question. Probably deserves its own post at some point, but for now...

Yeah, it's unavoidable. I'd love to say I provide nothing but a pure critical perspective about music from a musicians' standpoint, but artists are tricky: part of what they're selling is themselves. Any discussion about their music is partially a discussion about them...and ultimately our own story (who was it that said all criticism is autobiography?).

All I can say is that I think music's big enough to support a ton of different types of conversations, not just one ("OMG, he/she is so hot" or "I luv the way it makes me FEEL"). I think there's room for technical criticism, and cultural commentary, and satire, and pure unadulterated fangushing, and all of these things. I'm the least interested in the people, so it's what I write about the least. But, sure, it happens.

Chris Milam said...

I would LOVE to see Scott Latte open at Twice Told. Are those ACTUAL BANDS? The names are amazing.

Lady M said...

Chris, I just have to say that I'm amused that you used the word "unadulterated" in your comment because that's one of the words that popped into my head when I read this post. I enjoyed it. Thanks.

ross k. said...

I LOVE funny band names. HammerFall is a real metal band from Sweden, Lucifuge is the name of a Danzig album but sounds like the name of a metal band, and "dead Cthulu waits dreaming" is from H.P. Lovecraft.

I've never read Lovecraft, but I saw this funny cartoon in our local music paper about Dick Cheney's daily schedule, including wake up covered in sweat to Obama's socialist paradise, have heart attack, shoot breakfast, appear on talk show, have heart attack, and extend unnatural lifespan by sacrificing a goat to Cthulu, the devourer of souls. I looked up Wikipedia's squib on Cthulu, and it's some mythical demon-god which is referred to in many of H.P. Lovecraft's stories. Cthulu is not really dead or alive, but sleeps in a suspended state waiting for the stars to align right for taking over the universe again. Or something. Wikipedia cites this saying that is often repeated in the stories, "In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulu waits dreaming." I thought "Dead Cthulu Waits Dreaming" was a perfect band name.

Also, you know how bands perform or guest-record under different names to avoid contract problems and keep shows low-key? I would love to perform falsely as Scott Latte and the Brawlers, or have a bogus credit on an album to that name. "Scott Latte" could become the unofficial guest credit to those who wish to remain anonymous. Hell, I might even start using it as a pen name. Guess I'd have to start doing all the writing on a laptop at a Starbucks, though.

Lady M said...

No no Starbucks. You'll have to go completely local. And I think Scott should be made more indie by dropping a t and changing it to Scot. =)

ross k. said...

Here is the toon in question:


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