“With its perfectly crafted zingers, waves of pure heartbreak, and a visual thread count so dense it may actually qualify as a controlled substance, ‘Downton Abbey’ is situated precisely on the Venn diagram where ‘prestige’ meets ‘guilty pleasure’: it’s as much cake as it is bread. And, sue me, I like cake.”—Emily Nussbaum, from her review of the TV shows “Luck” and “Downton Abbey,” published in The New Yorker. She writes, “I like cake,” and thus provides an entire aesthetic philosophy whittled down into an admission with three simple words. I’m on board Emily. All the way.
This Christmas I handed out two homemade mix CDs to friends and family: one has the unoriginal title “Alternative Nation,” and the other, “Robert’s Robyn,” recreates critic Robert Christgau’s preferred version of Robyn’s Body Talk. Three years ago I handed out fun single-CD histories of both rap and jazz, and this is my attempt to make it some kind of holiday tradition. I also asked my friend, visual artist Wes Stitt, to provide album covers for this year’s selections; the cover for “Robert’s Robyn” is posted above.
As you may expect, “Alternative Nation” is an overview of early ‘90s rock, which we called “alternative” back in the day, though that label doesn’t seem as necessary or descriptive now as it once was. Here’s the track list:
1. R.E.M., “Pop Song 89”
2. Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like a Hole”
3. Sonic Youth, “Kool Thing”
4. Pixies, “Velouria”
5. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
6. Pearl Jam, “Alive”
7. Ministry, “Jesus Built My Hotrod”
8. L7, “Pretend We’re Dead”
9. Radiohead, “Creep”
10. Smashing Pumpkins, “Today”
11. Liz Phair, “Divorce Song”
12. The Breeders, “Cannonball”
13. Beck, “Loser”
14. Soundgarden, “My Wave”
15. Hole, “Miss World”
16. Pavement, “Gold Soundz”
17. Veruca Salt, “Seether”
18. Green Day, “Burnout”
19. Elastica, “Connection”
20. PJ Harvey, “Down by the Water”
Perhaps it would have been hipper of me, and maybe even easier, to compile mostly lesser-known favorites for this CD. But I decided instead to stick with the fairly obvious stuff, presented chronologically. Except for “Down by the Water,” the songs end in 1994, which is the year many of my friends and I graduated from high school. I expected the CD to be nostalgic, and I expected it to rock, but I didn’t expect so many of the songs to be feminist and political, and then, further, to present these lyrical themes so baldly on each song’s surface. While I read plenty of press at the time concerning the “apathy” of such songs and performers, I didn’t remember this apathy carrying so much philosophical and political weight. And where hits by Tracy Chapman, Midnight Oil, Springsteen and Mellencamp from the ‘80s brought attention to the Other who struggled to get by both emotionally and economically within a large, relatively wealthy Western society, these ‘90s writers scoffed at the validity of the entire Western system and presented mainstream society as the Other. They naturalized what was once considered the margins, both musically and lyrically. And many of them were funny about it. And smart. Super smart.
None of this is news, of course, but I was surprised to realize just how present this ideology remains in the musical artifacts. R.E.M. parodies small talk and the basic assumption that verbal communication is inherently effective in “Pop Song 89.” Sonic Youth ends the bridge of “Kool Thing” with the sarcastic, “when you’re a star, I know that you’ll fix everything,” which digs hard into the self-righteousness of such late ‘80s star-activists as Sting and Peter Gabriel. L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead” is a call to political action: the title hook is set up by, “they’ve got us in the palm of every hand (when we)” and continues, “they can’t hear a word we said/when we pretend we’re dead.” And I’m convinced Veruca Salt’s “Seether” is about the very real fear surrounding the untapped power of the feminine spirit.
And so on. Even less direct songs such as “Loser” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are wracked with disillusionment, and yet the speakers do not come across as powerless. At the time I figured the apathy discussed was a kind of resignation. But now I don’t think so. I think it was an assertion that a better world requires changes at a fundamental level. And in retrospect that fundamental change seems to have been a dislodging of the primacy of modernism in our daily lives. Not that we aren’t still trying to do things better, faster and stronger. But modernism isn’t the driving engine of mainstream society like it once was. Formally marginalized boutique cultures have an economic and social validity now that was not present in the 1980s. And I think this music provided a commentary for that change.
The second CD, “Robert’s Robyn,” was originally a gift to me from Robert Christgau. I met and interviewed him just after Christmas 2010, and before I left he handed me a couple of mix CDs. (I think these are CDs he was mailing to friends and family for Christmas that year.) Besides Robyn, he also gave me a Das Racist mix alluded to in the title of his review of their first two mixtapes. Anyway, I wanted to share this with my own friends and family because meeting my idol was a big deal, and I consider this gift from him a symbol of what I now consider a friendship. So here you have a small piece of an important moment in my life. The track list itself was later published in an essay for Christgau’s Rock & Roll & column at Barnes & Noble Review. Read the essay for an explanation of the CD.
Both mix CDs are burned from Apple Lossless files and are therefore CD quality. So enjoy! And Merry Christmas!
To the apparent surprise of many of his readers, Robert Christgau posted a rather positive review of Rihanna’s latest album Talk That Talk on his Expert Witness blog two weeks ago. In the comments section, several of Christgau’s fans complained of how R.’s music is beyond terrible because 1. it is hopelessly derivative of other, better music, and, 2. tracks such as “Cockiness” and “Birthday Cake” are too overtly sexual to be of any aesthetic value. Me, I immediately put “Cockiness” and “Birthday Cake” on repeat because I find them both exhilarating on a formal level, and, truth be told, crass sex talk doesn’t really bother me very much, especially when said sex talk includes puns and wordplay. So I posted a rundown of musical events in “Cockiness” that I find particularly meaningful, and I presented my analysis in the best way I know how: via terms and methods associated with academic musicology. Here’s an excerpt:
I have a particular skill set, and music like “Cockiness” and “Cry Me a River” and “A Milli”—to choose three seemingly unrelated songs—make my brain get a buzz on in a way that I don’t read about too often. I streamed “Cockiness” for a third time today just to see if its novelty had worn off, but I still totally love it. I typed some notes as I listened, and here’s the cleaned up version:
The first thing I love is the 3 against 4 “chop. chop. chop.” sample that underlies much of the song; you notice it most when it is left unadorned right at the end. I love when producers do this at the ends of songs—Timbaland does the same thing with “Cry Me a River,” when he strips away each layer near the end to reveal the song’s astonishing, effortless complexity. I also love the fanfare horns and the “YOU!” samples that punctuate the lyrics in the pre-chorus.
Another fun surprise is the song’s structure. When you map it out, it’s not like, “wow, such complexity!” But where the different parts fall in the series compliments the whole brilliantly. It opens with a brief intro, then we get the main refrain, a verse with killer call and response in R.’s trademark vocal effect, a “pre-chorus” with the aforementioned horns and “YOU!,” and then the “I love it when you eat it” before returning to the refrain again to repeat the sequence. Then we get a bridge or “development,” then pre-chorus, “love it,” and outro breakdown. Each piece is very different, but each also fits together with the whole perfectly, and with harmony that is never actually performed; it is only suggested by the melody. Listen close and there is very little toned music aside from the voices, some of the sound effects, the “chop.” sample, and the toned bass drum. Which is kind of like “Single Ladies,” but with elements that sound less disparate to these ears. It reminds me more of “A Milli.”
I didn’t intend my post to stir up too much controversy, but it did, and the subsequent debate concerning the value and assumptions of such formal analyses of music was compelling and valuable if you enjoy discussing aesthetics. On Christgau’s blog, readers are able to thumb up or thumb down comments if they wish, and within a few minutes I had already earned a thumb down. I expected a few of these, but what I didn’t expect is for Christgau himself to immediately, and sharply, criticize the aforementioned thumb bomber, calling him or her “a know-nothing and an imbecile.” In a later post he explained that what I had written could not be refuted with just a simple thumb-bomb: that he believed my formal discussion of favorite musical events was a list of facts, and that—as long as they are accurate—could therefore not be disagreed with.
Just as compellingly, however, the thumb-bomber in question, who goes by the handle Jackson Cage, fessed up to his crime and subsequently wrote a strong defense of his opinion. He complained that my post was arrogant because of how I introduced myself as a musicologist with special skills—a detail I included so as to justify my inclusion of a potentially controversial formal analysis (see Not. Milo. Miles. post for an explanation). Jackson C., however, thought I was simply showing off how I could complete an intellectual task I expected others were not intelligent enough to do on their own, which irritated him. But, ultimately, he seemed most frustrated by how my analysis did not add up to anything of value—that I simply stated information about the song rather than actually cracking open the song’s meaning and larger value. At first I disagreed with this—I explained that the musical events create musical meaning in and of themselves, and that the matter needn’t be elaborated upon further. “Sometimes sounds are pretty when put together in a clever manner,” was the extent of my reasoning. And I left it at that.
But now I think Jackson Cage’s criticism pointed out a serious flaw in my reasoning, and now I agree my analysis was indeed missing something important. I was making too broad of an assumption concerning musical meaning and how that meaning is produced in my mind grapes. Though I still believe the formal elements in R.’s song are what arouse my cranium’s spongy head, I don’t think it’s just the confluence of these events that provides for me such a reaction—by which I mean that it takes more than just the impressive and efficient combination of musical ideas to excite me as much as this song does.