The (Supposed) Mediocrity of Now — Canonical Musings

(Rambling in multiple directions below, holes and all…)

They don’t make ’em like they used to.
Dead artists sell more.
If only they went back to the roots.

Yada yada…

While the above statements can convey a fair amount of truth in a great many applications, they also carry with them an implied bias against the now, be it for better or worse. One way in which I’m regularly dubious of these claims is when discussing artistic style and merit, particularly in music. (Since I’m a musician, that’ll be the focus, though I see it in various media.) By and large, there’s an inherent institutional bias in favor of those artists and works that have come before. The argument in support of this is that an artist or work must “stand the test of time” — whether it holds up under prolonged cultural, critical, and communal scrutiny. Those are noble criteria. After the initial fanfare of a premiere or release, it’s important to look under the hood and see how much there is there and how — or if — it influences the field. But, ultimately, this of course begs the questions: WHO is dispensing this approval and HOW and WHY?

In music, one aspect of this criticism is that pretty much everything’s been done before (until it hasn’t, that is), and so to really appreciate something one must just go back to the “original sources.” One doesn’t get Lady Gaga without Madonna. Fair enough. One can of course give credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t mean that anyone who likes Gaga should just shut her off and go back in time. She also plays piano and can sing (can Madonna do much of either consistently?) and wears costumes — enter Elton John. (And I do love Elton.) But, again, does this mean that Gaga’s Monsters should just listen to Madonna and Elton for the “authentic” Gaga experience? It’d be a good frame of reference, but it’s no substitute for Lady Gaga herself. In appreciating Gaga, they are footnotes, and footnotes and references are important. Go read them. But a series of footnotes does not automatically synthesize to create a new and original idea or argument. (Of course, this says nothing of the influences of Elton and Madonna, and their influences, etc…)

Having influences — and/or building upon their work — doesn’t automatically strip an artist of their originality. Also, yes, there are plenty of derivative artists working today. Just as there were decades and centuries ago. (The new wave of blue-eyed soul singers is but one exponent of this.)

One current group making noteworthy, original music is Bon Iver, having recently released another jaw-dropping album. I’ve been listening to 22, A Million on near-repeat for weeks, which is how I reacted five years ago when I first heard its predecessor Bon Iver. I received Bon Iver as a birthday gift a couple weeks after its release. At the time, I recognized the name and peripherally noticed praise online, but I hadn’t listened to anything from the album or artist. But I clearly remember being floored the first time I listened to it. (Specifically, I was in my Houston apartment packing late at night for my first stint teaching abroad.) I was transfixed and utterly distracted from the task at hand (packing). I gave the album three full listens back to back. And then I just kept listening to it. I never wrote much about it (except here), but it quickly became a desert island disc for me. Fast forward five years and 22, A Million seems to be on a similar trajectory. It’s an engaging and beautiful extension of Bon Iver, taking Justin Vernon’s project to new sonic and artistic planes.

All this is to say that, even though Vernon is in his mid-30s, I don’t hesitate to say that he’s written some truly great albums, and I easily place them alongside other, older works.

In a related vein, I praised Mette Henriette’s self-titled ECM debut as a wholly original statement. I thought then, as I still do now, that one of the album’s strengths was that, artistically, I could only really hear Henriette’s voice and vision. I can make a couple of leaps and say that a couple sections may sound similar to this or that, but overall it’s a pretty self-contained statement.

Of course, my argument isn’t to throw out the titans and disregard history. (My various entries on Wagner, Liebman, and Einstein on the Beach, among others, are evidence of such.) However, they have their place, just as newer artists have theirs.

In pop music, “the good old days” are roughly the late fifties through the mid-seventies. There was a lot of great music produced then, and my music collection is a testament to my agreeing with that sentiment. It was the result of countless factors, including but not limited to various cultural, political, and technological developments. That said, is nostalgia on behalf of the baby boomer establishment — those who were young fans at the time but now old enough to be the journalistic gatekeepers — not also a factor? I often think so. In another twenty years, will canonical focus shift to emphasize the nineties and aughts?

Another aspect of this phenomenon is older artists, who themselves created now-classic pieces, who continue to work today. Generally the argument is that they’re not producing at their former (“classic”) level. (Sub-argument: does the new, “lesser” work degrade their overall output? Or, as asked in High Fidelity: is it better to burn out than to fade away?) Consider two sides of the piano rock coin: Elton John and Billy Joel. I’m a fan of both, but, admittedly, much more so of the former than the latter. (I think Joel’s The Stranger is a near-flawless masterpiece, but I think a number of his other albums sound like good imitations of other styles/artists rather than good Billy Joel records.) They’re both held up as rock icons, and they both continue to sell out arenas throughout the globe. Joel, similar to many of his musical generation, hasn’t released new material (save a couple songs in the mid-aughts and a classical album in 2001) since 1993’s River of Dreams. Elton, however, keeps putting out new albums every couple of years. (His 32nd studio album was released this year.) Sure, they’re of varying quality. Wonderful Crazy Night (2016) doesn’t really hold up against 2010’s The Union and 2013’s The Diving Board, but he’s still creating and regularly releasing quality material.

I’ve noticed similar criticism regarding Matthew Barney and Jonathan Beplers’s River of Fundament. (AKA, the piece that has dominated my attention in 2016.) In many of its mixed-to-negative reviews, one criticism often levied against it is that it’s not as good as The Cremaster Cycle, Barney’s 1994-2002 film pentalogy. Other than what I’ve read about it (and its few connections to Fundament), I can’t speak to Cremaster because I haven’t yet seen it. (That’s not out of lack of interest, of course. Many of Barney’s works are difficult to see outside of controlled exhibitions. There’s always YouTube, but I haven’t yet gone done down that road…) Sure, my view of River of Fundament is hardly objective at this point. Instead of mainly considering the work in relation to Barney’s ouvre, I’ve tried (and continue to do so) to consider the work itself in relation to what it was trying to do by, among other things, reading Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings and its review by literary critic Harold Bloom (the former is the basis for the film and the latter also strongly influenced Barney’s interpretation), and also the exhibition book produced by Okwui Enwezor, director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Yes, criticism itself should take the larger picture into account, but the artist’s overall output can’t be the primary focus — just part of it. Alone, “Was it as good as _____?” isn’t a fair assessment.

(As for Fundament itself, I could write another several essays on the work after reading Mailer’s source text. Only if you’re lucky, I suppose…)

To reiterate, this isn’t to say that “new” is inherently better than “old.” Rather, new and old can both be important. Furthermore, going back to the post’s beginning, when considering The Canon, it’s worth remember that who’s granted membership to that esteemed club isn’t an apolitical decision. As Bob Shingleton has wonderfully documented over the years at On An Overgrown Path, plenty of the recent past’s first-rate composers and pieces have been neglected by the artistic establishment. (One example of many here. Also notable is the highlighting that Simpson is often compared with past composers at the expense of his own originality.) Exploring neglected works of the past can be as illuminating and offer as much discovery as absorbing new works of the present.

More music is being written, recorded, and released than ever before. Similarly, access to music is more open and universal than ever before. However, the canonical narrative of the good old days remains, and at the expense of what’s happening now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.