More on taste: Elvis and MySpace

The following is my response, posted first as a comment over at the Valve, to Bill Benzon’s interesting response to my essay on taste.

I want to know objectively what’s there – wherever and whatever “there” is, the text, the mind, the interpretive community, the culture, society, whatever. -Bill Benzon

This is exactly what I think scholars should be telling us: what a work of art contains. They should be providing close analyses and explanations.

I also think this is what ordinary people should be telling each other, because it makes for interesting conversation. This will have a specifically personal element, always: I will be drawn to a particular metaphor or melody or figure for my own personal reasons. But I can explain the objective basis for my reaction to another person.

The alternative to this is aptly illustrated by MySpace. A user splatters his profile with a list of things he likes, then adds to this a series of embedded YouTube videos of which he is also fond. The people commenting on the profile page oblige with pre-fabricated postcards, animated .gifs, other YouTube videos, and so on. The result is that he becomes a visible (uploaded pictures) but not articulate pass-through for a series of cultural artifacts that he indicates mutely.

There is no need to go into a study of a work of art with the intention of deciding whether or not it is healthy for society; one merely has to state what is there, at which point an ethical debate can begin. One site that linked to my post on Murakami’s Norwegian Wood thought the book was trash for exactly the same reasons that I liked it, but agreed with my description of it. The same possibility of objective agreement and subjective disagreement exists for Nabokov, Armstrong, and the rest.

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I’m trying to create aesthetic frames that enable us to go beyond monumental artists. It’s a fact that my own taste is mostly canonical. The reason is autobiographical: I grew up in a small town and then became an English major at a fairly conservative college. Outside of class, what I read was dictated by lists written by people like Harold Bloom or The Modern Library. Same thing with music: my source for music history was Rolling Stone magazine. It wasn’t like I could walk down the street and hear a show at CBGB’s, or tune in to John Peel.

That said, the more taste fractures, the more important it is to be able to speak expansively about what art we like, because the chances are higher that the other person won’t know them at all. As I’ve said before, now is a great time for minor bands, minor writers, and minor filmmakers, mostly because of the ability to create buzz and distribute media through the Internet. (The “buzz” factor also applies to the rest of the arts, though they can’t be digitized.)

There’s a big difference between attending a live performance and making live music oneself. Within certain circles, attendance at live music is a huge part of life; most of the young urban professionals I know inside and outside of academia make a point of going to concerts. They dance, they cheer, and they are exhilarated, but they do not gain technical skills or the kind of intuition needed to create synergy with other players.

I completely agree that consuming music should not replace learning to play it, even on an amateur level. I am ashamed of the fact that I don’t play, although I recognize that I am specializing in writing rather than in making music. However, something changes when I start demanding an audience for my art.

No person is obliged to attend concerts by a local covers band. They might stay at home and watch a Springsteen DVD, or they might go out to hear a new band playing original songs. Ruth Brown is a great singer; I’m delighted that I can listen to her on my stereo without having to seek out a covers band that cares about her music and performs it with the same gusto she brought to the studio.

I’m not suggesting that you were demanding an audience for yourself. I’m just wary of idealizing the kind of restless waiting-for-one’s-turn that happens at open mike nights.

Technically it is possible that a performer and his audience could share “What A Wonderful World” without ever having heard Louis Armstrong. This sort of thing happens all the time. Many people who heard the Alana Davis cover of “32 Flavors” had no idea the song was written by Ani DiFranco, who was resolutely passed over by radio stations. But that’s not creation ex nihilo. It’s just a circumstance of cultural forgetting, like an amnesiac who forgets he’s from the South but still has a drawl. Somebody could write an interesting, historically grounded account of the phrase “rule of thumb” despite the fact that most people nowadays don’t know where the phrase originated.

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I’m not using authenticity to mean earnestness; I’m using it to mean innovation. It’s not necessary to hear something new every day. In fact, one the best experiences is hearing something new in a familiar piece of work. Furthermore, Elvis is somebody I’ve only recently begun to seek out. He’s new to me even though he’s old hat.

That said, if I’m the sort of person who wants to spend their whole life repeating the same experiences through art (either the same exact artwork, or via a series of highly similar works), that’s significant. Imagine if I said, “I’m looking for the experience of (gentle folk strumming / hardcore punk), which conjures up (pastoral images of a bygone age / a suicidal crisis of bile and despair), to be repeated over and over for the rest of my life.” That would just sound too strange, so instead one says, “My favorite performer is (x), I’m a huge fan.”

There are all kinds of other euphemisms that serve a similar function. “I like uplifting music” replaces “I like to be constantly reassured by everything I hear that I am needed, that my life is significant, that fate is not random, and that love conquers all.” The second formulation makes it clear why a lot of overly positive music is not to be trusted; the first is obfuscatory.

As for the phenomenon of rehearsal: it is misleading to suggest that people seeing an Elvis impersonator are having the same kind of revelation as people did who saw Elvis on a good night. People who saw Elvis were seeing somebody take new material and imprint it with his own style, and perform it that way: in other words, they were seeing the possibility of an articulate personal style. Elvis changed over time, experimented, declined even. Even if audiences in his time had booed, Elvis would have meant something historically, which is not true of an impersonator because the audience is actually part of the act. Original art presents to us the possibility of responding to history through art; imitative art represents little more than a flight from history into an agreed-upon fiction of timelessness.

Finally, markets. I must say that many of my worst problems with markets have been overcome by the growth of the Internet, although that has in turn led to new problems. It used to be the case that record companies were able to successfully push “safe” bands, and got buyers to chase after a recognizable and pleasurable sound at the expense of substance. This strategy was usually based around imitating one successful performer — for example, the Vines were marketed to people who liked the Strokes. As a teenager, I had two choices for music television (MTV or VH1), and I would buy albums that were advertised by music videos, only to find that a) the albums were full of filler and b) the single didn’t hold up after repeated listens. Marketers lean heavily on something being “close enough” to what a consumer likes to be considered worth purchasing.

In other words, much of my current interest in aesthetics has to do with my pre-Internet experience purchasing and listening to entire albums by Joan Osborne, Natalie Merchant, and Blues Traveler (and those are only three examples). Once burned, as the saying goes…but thrice?

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