Sunday, October 12, 2008

Critical Consensus

Time for another navel-gazing post from me about the Rock canon:

I just saw this on Pitchfork:

Pitchfork is making the leap from pixels to the page: On November 11, Simon & Schuster imprint Fireside Books will publish The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present. This handy paperback chronologically explores Pitchfork's 500 favorite songs from 1977-2006, constructing an alternate history of the past three decades of popular music-- one that extends beyond the typical Baby Boomer-approved canon of the Clash, Prince, Public Enemy, Nirvana, Radiohead, and Outkast.

From art-rock and proto-punk godfathers such as Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie to today's leading lights such as the Arcade Fire, the White Stripes, and Kanye West; from superstars to cult heroes; and from punk, indie, and pop to hip-hop, electronic music, and metal, we've created the ultimate playlist. Interspersed throughout are sidebars on the most vital subgenres from electro to grime to riot grrrl, along with pieces like "Career Killers: The Songs That Ended It All" and "Runaway Trainwrecks: The Post-Grunge Nadir."

A few preliminary points:
-I think bashing Pitchfork is, at this point, tiresome (sorry guys-- I know it's one of our favorite activities) because at this point, they've clearly descended into self parody on some points and have proven to be a clearly useful site on other points.

-This is, in and of itself, exciting to me because I used to LOVE Big Rock List/Review books. For better or worse, I seriously grew up on the Rolling Stone Album Guide, the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, and the original print version of the All Music Guide (not to mention the Rough Guide, Music Hound, Spin Alternative Guide, and others I just browsed in the Tower Records and Borders Books on Rockville Pike). I say "for better or worse," because while it is undoubtedly what made me the music-obsessive I am today, it also made me the music-obsessive I am today. And it reinforced certain what I guess I'll call "rockist" (though I hate the term) biases that it has taken a very long time to shake off. (Broadly speaking, a basic preference for white male bands with guitars over all others). There hasn't been a new book like this that anyone cares about in a long time-- and why would there be? The action is all online anyway. So the fact that Pitchfork is trying to enter the print world is kind of exciting just on that basis.

Anyway, what actually struck me was the juxtaposition between the two lists of artists. To wit:

the typical Baby Boomer-approved canon of the Clash, Prince, Public Enemy, Nirvana, Radiohead, and Outkast


art-rock and proto-punk godfathers such as Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie to today's leading lights such as the Arcade Fire, the White Stripes, and Kanye West

A few things strike me about this. But in short, I'm not sure I see a difference between the two lists in terms of either alternative "cred" or acceptance by the critical establishment. Honestly, they could have swapped out any artist from one list to the other and it would be equally meaningless. In the first place, it's one thing if they were contrasting the Baby Boomer canon of Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Jimi with people like Bowie and Eno. But I don't see how, at this point, championing the Arcade Fire or Kanye West brings you so far outside of the mainstream critical establishment that boosts Radiohead and Outkast. They're just slightly newer artists. It would also be one thing if they said, "Damn the man, but Boyz II Men, Bush, and Offspring were the secret artistic leading lights in 90s music" or something like that. That would actually subvert the critical canon in a meaningful way too. But to force you Clash fans to think outside your narrow boxes and embrace David Bowie?? What does that even mean?

Anyway, the point is not just to bash Pitchfork's slippery sense of genre and the critical establishment. I also just find it interesting how the idea of a rock "canon" changes. The aforementioned Illustrated Guide to Rock and Roll (See here) went a long way towards establishing the rock and roll canon. I still remember it fairly vividly-- the article on the Band, for example, made me truly appreciate them for the first time. There were chapters on all of the usual suspects (Beatles, Stones) and genres (rockabilly, soul, girl groups). And though this is partially because of when it was first written (mid 80s I think), it is so strongly tilted towards the 60s, with full articles on overrated 60s bands who, at this point, could almost qualify as underrated because no one cares about them anymore (The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane) that I remember, as a young burgeoning music geek reading it (and watching the multi-part PBS documentary with all the great talking head interviews with people like Jeff Skunk Baxter and Bob Geldof) that upon the calendar turning to 1970, All Good Music Stopped.

Pitchfork's guide doesn't start until 1977 (which is actually consistent with the old establishment line that that was the year that Good Music Started Again, only to end in 1980, but then start again with the release of Nevermind in 1991), so it won't have the same problems regardless. But I think the canon has already shifted to embrace the figures they're writing about anyway. Also, the Whites Stripes are overrated.


Via Chicago said...

I too was confused by the lists of artists you mentioned - specifically tagging the first group as "Baby Boomer" approved. Radiohead? Really? If you are talking about your average boomer, they likely have no idea who Radiohead is. If you're talking about your musically saavy boomer, then they know The White Stripes just as much as Radiohead. Bizarre.

I do find the idea of a changing rock canon interesting, and agree with you in the way bands like Jefferson Airplane and their hippy-dippy brethren have stepped out of that spotlight. Unlike you though, I don't find them underrated, as I think Airplane sucks. As does Big Brother & the Holding Company, Country Joe & the Fish, etc, etc.

So, this begs the question from me - who are the equivelent of these bands from our lifetime? The bands that received great attention, and were in many ways considered part of the canon (largely just for competently playing the kind of music that is canonized), but either have already slipped away or are destined to?

I have my opinions on who this is, but I'll see if anyone else has thoughts first...

Eric said...

I'd say it's too early to tell, because depending on how music changes and develops, we'll see who was actually "influential" and who was a flash in the pan. It's the whole "no one bought VU & Nico but the 100 people who did all started bands." But I wonder if there could even be something genuinely underground like that anymore given how the internet makes it possible for fans of every niche genre to find obscure bands they'd like.

And I agree with you on the SF-psych bands. I seriously never listen to that-- but I think there might be a critical reappraisal of them once the conventional wisdom that they suck sets in. Then it will be like, "actually they weren't so bad!"

dr. kittybrains said...

Most recently, I'd say the Strokes are a strong possibility, unless they come back with a really strong album on their fourth try.

Oasis seemed poised to be a canonical force after their first two albums, right around the same time Smashing Pumpkins seemed destined for the history books after their first three albums. "Mellon Collie" might as well have been the only album in stores in 1996, at least as far as L.A. radio was concerned.

I actually didn't really care much for either band, although my appreciation has gone up for the Pumpkins in recent years, and down for Oasis. I really can't stand that fucker's voice. And those lyrics don't mean shit - they're not charmingly incoherent like many Beatles lyrics, they're WILLFULLY incoherent, and therefore totally obnoxious.

But I digress.

dr. kittybrains said...

S.F psych-blues bands... it's funny how lionized they were by the conventional rock press growing up - it's like I felt I was *supposed* to like them, and couldn't understand why they didn't appeal to me. Now I understand: it was mostly just a bunch of unwashed, white acidheads playing their lazy approximation of Southern black blues. The real thing will always be better.

That said, the Airplane had a few good singles, the Grateful Dead have four albums I love (two studio, two live), and I've recently realized that Santana's "Abraxas" is a pretty unassailable masterpiece.

Also Moby Grape's amazing first LP remains totally underappreciated.

Quinapalus said...

Well, to be fair "unwashed white acidheads playing an approximation of Southern black blues" would also be a fairly accurate description of The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Band, Everything Eric Clapton Was Involved With....and take out the "acidhead" and you could basically apply that description to every rock/country artist who picked up a guitar between 1950 and the present day.

Also, I don't think Janis Joplin belongs in a category with The Jefferson Airplane: nobody has anything on Janis' voice. And she never changed her name to Starship. Also, maybe the critics don't take them seriously anymore (maybe few critics ever really did) but there are few measures by which you could say The Doors are under appreciated. They're staples of classic rock radio to a degree that more critically lauded artists like Bob Dylan will never be, and they still have a number of ardent, hardcore fans. Just ask the 13-year-old version of me, he'll talk your ear off about those guys. (So would the 20 year old version of me if he was totally wasted at the time.)

drischord said...

I love it when Q 'fesses up to his shameful Doors past. And very astute about Zeppelin, Stones, etc.