Saturday, December 08, 2018

a link or two for the weekend, Jeff Koons fined for plagiarism (again), an Atlantic piece on Beyonce and Sheeran reminds me of a Ted Gioia polemic that music journalism is lifestyle writing

an older story, of how Jeff Koons was facing fines after being found guilty of plagiarism, again.

over at The Atlantic there's a piece on the ... significance of Beyonce and Ed Sheeran doing a duet and what it's supposed to mean.  Yes, I'm signalling some ennui about the matter ...


In pop, image typically follows sound. The acoustic-guitar love song—Sheeran’s commodity—has a standard costume: jeans and tee. To see how tightly linked clothes and genre are, look to Nashville, or to the flashy pop icons who’ve had rock and country phases.  To pluck out just one example, in 2015, Kanye West made an acoustic ballad with Rihanna and Paul McCartney, and for the related visuals, they all wore denim. Of course, when pop or hip-hop crosses over to folk, it usually comes with notably polished and tweaked versions of rootsy outfits. You really can’t get less effortful than Sheeran does.
Which is ironic because that Sheeran is so successful is not simply because he’s “normal”—the ultimate plainspoken white boy staying in his lane. Rather, it’s because he has a talent for songwriting that reaches outside of the authentic-acoustic realm for which he’s known. Sheeran is a huge fan of hip-hop and R&B, whose innovations are often key to his songs. “Sing” from 2014 was stacked with fast and feisty #bars, co-created by Pharrell. The biggest smash of Sheeran’s career, “Shape of You,” used calypso-influenced sounds, hip-hop cadences, and was so reminiscent of TLC’s “No Scrubs” that he had to hand over a songwriting credit to its writers (Sheeran originally intended for Rihanna to sing it). His latest album, Divide was co-executive produced by Benny Blanco, who’s shaped many of the hugest hits across the glittering, artificial charts landscape, and who started his career dabbling as a rapper.

All of which makes notable just how flagrantly Sheeran insists on the character he’s perceived to be: unsmooth, unpolished, unfunky. That great groaner, “The club isn’t the best place to find a lover, so the bar is where I go,” from “Shape of You,” is a typical bit of posturing—he’s a creature of the pub, not of bottle service, even if elements of his music might indicate otherwise. His projected image of himself as sweet refusenik against pop culture’s superficiality really never breaks. “I’m all for people following their dreams / Just re-remember life is more than fittin’ in your jeans,” he sings on Divide’s “What Do I Know?” On “Eraser,” a song about resisting fame’s temptations, he again mentions legwear, boasting of playing a stadium with “my beaten small guitar, wearing the same old jeans.” Shlumpiness is thus portrayed not as laziness, but a kind of purity and trueness.

Some fans deeply relate to that shlumpiness. Others might sense a racial and gendered element to his performance of purity, given the diversity of today’s spectacle-rich, rap-and-R&B-inflected pop landscape. Sheeran would certainly never say he’s out to shade BeyoncĂ©, and the two are clearly mutual admirers. But when he stands next to her, the visual contrast plays to each of their respective constituencies’ attitudes around aesthetics and identity. The game he’s playing isn’t all that different from hers, and there’s a case to be made that her presentation is the one that’s more transparent about it.

Neither is more or less transparent than the other about the nature of persona being distinct from person.  A few years ago I recall seeing some articles written by women extolling Jennifer Lawrence as somehow "real" and Anne Hathaway as somehow "fake".  That was a couple of years back and the polemic is more refined by way of saying that Hathaway comes off like the kind of girl who practiced  acceptance speeches in front of a mirror when she was a kid.  My speculation in response to those kinds of opinions expressed by women about Hathaway is that there may be some kind of tacit law among cultural writers that thou shalt not look like you're working for it.  If Hathaway is attractive, well-spoken, and obviously puts in effort at what she does that can be construed as "fake".  But ... that's pretty literally her job.  It seems apt to compare Lawrence and Hathaway in another domain to point out that what journalists decide is somehow "real" or "fake" or what is "transparent" and what is not transparent is not necesarily what a person should take them to be.  For me it's better that Hathaway did one fantastic take on Selina Kyle than that Jennifer Lawrence did a passable turn as Mystique before slumping into phoned in performances for all subsequent X-Men films. 

Since I'm not exactly a big fan of either Beyonce or Sheeran I don't see that either one is more or less "fake" than the other or that either one is more "transparent".

Instead, what I am more attentive to is how what passes for music journalism is very rarely about music.  Ted Gioia was on to something when he lamented that most of what passes for music journalism now is really lifestyle reporting.

but I have sometimes been frustrated by Gioia's history of jazz and blues since it can at times be boilerplate "it didn't follow the rules of classical music".  That's become one of the laziest bromides from bros, whether in jazz rock or classical that I've seen.  There's plenty of debate on the distinctions between 18th century harmonic practice and 19th century harmonic practice.  The two approaches have commonalities and substantial differences.  So the idea that blues or jazz somehow "didn't follow the rules" of "classical music" is something that, when an author like Gioia or anyone else presents that, passes over the question of which rules, if any, aren't followed. 

In other words, jazz critics and historians have supermyths like everyone writing in music criticism in genres can run into.  A supermyth is an idea that, when you stop and think about it in light of primary source materials, evidence and accounts, doesn't even make sense but because it has been passed down within and across generations of scholars or historians or journalists is taken as given. To give an example from the realm of biblical studies Jacob Wright pointed out that the theory that Samuel-Kings whitewashes the life of David and exonerates him of any wrongdoing collapses the hour you read 1 & 2 Samuel!  Wright pointed out that it is only because of the sheer momentum of scholastic conformity that such an obviously wrong explanation of the nature of the material in the biblical literature is explained as "whitewashing" David's reputation.  David's refusal to punish one of his sons for raping one of his daughters inspires enough resentment in another son that an assasination happens that leads to an eventual coup that causes a series of civil wars that only end near the end of David's life and then, when at last he tries to take a census to see how many people are in the kingdom after all that, he's described as ignoring the advice of a trusted general, incurring the wrath of YHWH and thereby instigating a plague that kills off thousands of people!  That's whitewashing the reputation of David?  What idiots think that?  Scholars.

So in a way there's no "winning" side in the spat between Ted Gioia and Jody Rosen. Rosen's response a few years back conceded a few points and amounted to a question as to where the bad music journalism is. 

The Beyonce/Sheeran editorial isn't exactly bad music journalism ... it's just that it demonstrates how often what is published as music journalism isn't about the music so much as about the extra-musical or non-musical codes and semiotics through which the music, if ever you hear it, gets mediated in journalistic discourse. 

This kind of failure is not unique to pop music criticism or jazz writing.  Even someone like Roger Scruton can toss out lines about how Schubert's string quartets don't follow the rules of sonata form, as he does in his most recent book Music as an Art

But if it seems that a Roger Scruton is an old fogey one of the object lessons in the last century of writing about music is that anyone can end up a fogey at some point.  The fogeys of the Boomer generation were at one point perceived as daring, radical and willing to question the status quo.  Now they are consider an albatross to younger music journalists.  Gioia's critique was, in a phrase, that musical literacy was no longer required for music journalism and that even a musician like Jennifer Lopez could find fault with Harry Connick Jr for using the term "pentatonic" because it's musician jargon.  The symbolism of that cited case shouldn't be lost on those who disagree with Gioia's claim.  He wasn't citing a case where a non-musician asked a musician to not use jargon.  This was an intra-entertainment incident. 

Let's put this another way, when journalists lament that in the age of Trump people don't trust experts and don't trust people with technical training doesn't there seem like a possibility that this sort of disapproval of the uneducated or those unmotivated to attempt to explain things in technical or guild-informed terms seem like a possible double standard?  If music journalists hate Trump as much as I suspect many of them do and regard his disregard for institutional knowledge, norms and study as terrible does that "complicate the narrative" for journalists who think Gioia's criticism of music journalism as having devolved into lifestyle reporting by opening up the possibility that there's a comparable problem in music journalism itself in the United States that could potentially map on a Venn diagram to the kinds of complaints that have been made about 45?

My personal conviction is that if music journalists are not musically literate enough to discuss the music in the technical terms of a musician then if they have issues with Americans not caring about intellectual topics or having an "anti-intellectual" streak or regarding Trump as having a low view of experts that's the pot calling the kettle black.  If anything in the age of Trump Gioia's complaints about the lower state of music literacy in music journalism could invite a proposal that the kind of president we got may be symptomatic of problems in American culture that can be observed beyond the Oval Office.  If the entertainment industries had not cumulatively made him a celebrity would he have been in a position to run?  If journalism that dropped to the level of lifestyle reporting and a reality TV industry managed to keep someone in the spotlight long enough for the person to decide to run then the press may have reason to despite Trump, but Trump sure seems like the kind of famous for being famous person who couldn't have become that kind of famous had journalism in the United States and entertainment more generally not been at a level where he could have staying power.

Hollywood may regret making certain people stars but there's no reason, after so many decades, to think that Hollywood at all regrets the star system itself.  But when controversies about misconduct emerge about a Sherman Alexie or a Ronell it seems impossible to chalk that up to a political spectrum.  It seems our stars and celebrities can't resist the temptation to leverage that starhood.  In such a culture the prospect that one person is "real" and the other "fake" seems like one of the cogs in the machinery of entertainment. 

Given how many rock and roll heroes turned out to be physically abusive drunks and rug users and creeps perhaps an apt summation of Beyonce's appeal could come from a little spiel given to someone on an episode of South Park. South Park Kanye West says of his lady love, "My girl may not be able to sing like Beyonce, or talk like Beyonce, or act like Beyonce, or be a decent human being like Beyonce, but with the help of Photoshop ... ."

If the creators of South Park namedrop Beyonce as someone whose prominence in the world of celebrity and entertainers is "decent human being" that is funny both because it comes off as such a damning assessment of what the baseline behavior is for celebrity on the one hand and that, against all those tendencies, Parker and Stone think Beyonce is a decent human being. 

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