Ordinary language is all right.
One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.
Here's one of the things I was agonizing over while I was away.
Basement Jaxx, "Jus 1 Kiss" - this, like many other songs recently, has been revealing things to me about dance music that make me wish I could better understand the sources of my ignorance earlier on, when I dogmatically refused to listen to or enjoy any dance music at all. For example, even though the primary beat stays going the entire time here, it doesn't do so in the same way. For the first ten seconds or so there's a muffled beat and some guitar in time with that beat, and other noises that all serve to establish the rhythm. In the twenty seconds after that, the song "proper" starts. "Proper", because it's really all chorus. The only words are "just one kiss / will make it better / just one kiss / and we will be alright / just one kiss / will make it better / just one kiss / and we'll be flying high". The last word is artificially extended into where I suppose the chorus might come in other songs, for almost four measures. At the same time, the bigger bass and kick drum come in. I used to think that the transitions in dance music were too contrived - I didn't see how they could do anything for anyone. Couldn't they see right through them?
Maybe I was just hearing the wrong dance music. Basement Jaxx are certainly different in some ways. It seems to me (and remember I'm pretty ignorant) that they're often just ("just") writing songs more or less like pop songs in other genres, but using the elements of dance music to get all the effects that make pop songs great. Sometimes that means changes must be made. But this is a practical art. Here, the effect is achieved, brilliantly, and simply: the transition to what I think of as the "serious" beat (serious because they mean it; serious because harder to shake) comes on the tail of the lyric about how the kiss will make us feel, and the beat-driven chorus (I know I screwed up my terminology, but I did it on purpose - isn't this the part of the song where you're caught up, where you never want it to end?) does its best to make us feel that way, the way a chorus should.
It may have been possible for me to understand the point of this technique for constructing songs, before I really started liking any dance music. After all, I think I explained OK it above, and you may not like any dance music, but follow my explanation. But I don't think it would've helped me like dance music any more. Something else was working against that. Somehow, I had the reaction to most dance music (and other kinds of music, but more on that later) that I shouldn't be enjoying it.
For a long time I've been hesitant to write about this much. It seems extremely easy to offer a simple psychological explanation: I react this way to that song because of so-and-so. I can come up with a big handful of them for you, but here's a sample:
I shouldn't be enjoying "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" because it sounds too faggy. I have that reaction because I have some kind of aversion to fagginess.
The explanation could be more complex, and attribute a lot more to me, but in general I figure it would involve me being put off by some kind of "other". I put it that way, a way that suggests other people are involved, because it seems like even when my reaction seems prompted by some quality of the music, I seem likely to associate it with people or something people do, just in the case of this weird reaction. You can fill in the details from there: it's a matter of me hating what's different from me, or fearing something I've repressed within myself, or whatever.
One obvious reason I don't want to give in to an answer like the one above is that I want to leave myself room to not be a racist or heterosexist or jerk or what have you. I'm sure I am - but as far as I can tell I'm not that black and white about it. At least I hope.
I also think an answer like "hating what's different" or "fearing something repressed" misses something important about what's going on. Perhaps those things are involved, but the distinctive response I'm thinking of feels more basic.
The trouble is, I have a hard time coming up with a good alternative answer - that's why I'm hesitant to write about this. I just have some kind of hunch that there's a better answer. I can offer some speculation, though.
I read something this spring that dissipated my confusion, at least momentarily. In his book The Emergence of Sexuality, Arnold Davidson quotes Michel Foucault at length (on p. 212, from the interview "Le Gai savoir"):
"I advance this term [pleasure] because it appears to me to escape those medical and naturalistic connotations that this notion of desire bears within itself. That notion was used as a tool, a setting of intelligibility, a calibration in terms of normality: "Tell me what your desire is and I will tell you who you are, if you are normal or not; I will therefore be able to admit or disqualify your desire." One certainly finds this "hold" ["prise"] which goes from the notion of Christian concupiscence to the Freudian notion of desire, while passing through the notion of the sexual instinct in the 1840s. Desire is not an event, but a permanence of the subject, on which all this psychologic-medical armature is grafted. The term "pleasure," on the other hand, is free of use, almost devoid of meaning. There is no "pathology" of pleasure, no "abnormal" pleasure. It is an event "outside the subject," or at the limit of the subject, in that something which is neither of the body nor of the soul, which is neither inside nor outside, in short, a notion not assigned and not assignable."
The kinds of desires a person acts on help make that person who they are. Pleasure is just something that happens to people. It's whether you want that pleasure or not that counts.
So what if I catch myself enjoying something, and I feel this voice (it's not a voice, but pretend like it is for dramatic effect) kick in: "JOSH, STOP IT! DO NOT ENJOY THIS."? Where does desire come in?
I find it almost impossible to talk about this with bringing in a whole bunch of language that makes me cringe - language about my mind, my subconscious, what I "really" want. But. At some level, I'm very aware of the things that I like, the kinds of things that give me pleasure, the kinds of things that I enjoy. That level isn't really some kind of lizard-brain level, where I know that what would really feel good right now is to listen to Basement Jaxx even if I don't think I should. The level is connected to a number of things. The part that decides what records to buy at the store. The part that decides what records to write about, or to talk to friends and acquaintances about. The part that decides when to change the radio station when a bad song comes on. The part that knows which record to put on when I'm riding the bus, or studying, or relaxing alone, or when I'm at a party.
Those parts of me - of my mind, of my self, whatever - are so intimately and intricately tied up with who I am, in every other conceivable sense of the word, that I can feel myself deliberately making this sentence more complicated in order to make that observation seem less prosaic.
All of the things I mentioned seem to me also to be extremely self-conscious ones. It benefits me when, say, choosing a record, to be more aware of what I'm like, what I will like.
Things are falling apart right here, but something's going to come later: something about me and my sense of identity, and how strongly I protect it even when I don't want to.
Oh, Josh Blog. I could never stay mad at you.
I could delete the entries below. But let's just get back to work and talk about those later.
(Yes I am still here. I've been busy and have had trouble finishing my new piece of writing. Try back in a couple of weeks after school's out.)
For the time being, I am going to stop writing here.
Writing to take full advantage of some of the aspects of the weblog format - specifically, the logic of having a number of short related or unrelated pieces of writing in possibly quick succession - really demands, I think, a certain kind of day-to-day life that for the most part I just have not been having since I moved to the Twin Cities. As a consequence my entries since then have tended toward being more encapsulated, and longer, on the one hand, or longer in coming, on the other. I think this conflicts slightly with the way I've been writing this weblog in the past, and the conflict makes me uncomfortable. It can also keep me from letting those entries be written down differently.
In order to work with this change I am going to set myself some different formal standards: whatever I write will be all by itself, and new writing will intentionally appear less often but regularly. I will put up the first such thing sometime soon, once I get the time to take care of some minor technical details. Watch here to find out what's up.
Taking a hint from something Michael once wrote, I'm not ruling out the idea of returning to this project. I would just do it when it seemed like I had something to write which could take better advantage of the format.
Simon Reynolds poses a question in Generation Ecstasy, "how do you write the history of a culture that is fundamentally amnesiac?" He also notes early on how there is psychological research to the effect that people's timbral memories are not as powerful as their melodic memories. Surely observations like this are relevant to lots of other music. I've been listening to Mogwai's EP+2 constantly the past few days, and marveling at how hard it is for me to remember the melodies of most any Mogwai songs. I think that this makes the powerful effects the music can have on me more mysterious. At the moment I can sort of come up with the horn melody to "Burn Girl Prom Queen", but it's hard: it's very slow, and made up of a four-note figure whose notes change a little bit from phrase to phrase, and it's played in chord with a big group of horns so it's hard to focus on one note. Some other things I fare better with, like the beginning to "Helps Both Ways" (the beginning being pretty good, because my memory for melodies isn't great anyway so it tends to trail off for most songs regardless of how melodic they are) or "A Cheery Wave From Stranded Youngsters", which is admittedly a good deal more hummable than many others. Most of the parts I have the hardest time remembering are built out of the slightest melodies, or those which are the most stretched out; slower, relying more on the buildup of sound or the combination of different guitar tones or noises (that noise at the beginning of "Small Children in the Background": surely there is some affinity between that and the Roland 303 acid squelch, so far as Reynolds remarks that the latter is somehow instantly memorable, endlessly fascinating, impossible to recall).
By sort of mentally squinting now I'm remembering more and more things, but they feel hard to hold on to: the opening guitar part to "Dial: Revenge", "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong" (that drum part).
Five songs for Ethan:
A few years ago I was stunned by the last track on Mogwai's EP+2, "Small Children in the Background", so I tried to write a paper around a review of it for an aesthetics class. I don't really think it came off. I was in exactly the right frame of mind to have the bejeezus scared out of me or something by the outburst at about 2:30 in, especially the way the bass comes in a few measures later, with its wounded-sounding thud. So it was hard to capture that frame of mind (whatever it was - I remember I was in the middle of walking home, at night, in the cold, and I had passed through a building to get warm for a few minutes) or even really hear the song the same way again.
Tonight it's different still - not the same but new. There's something relaxed about the way the figures come crashing down at the loud part. It may seem as if that might raise the tension, but it dissipates it all almost immediately, maybe because of the initial burst. After that it just feels so peaceful, so relaxing. The best I can come up with is that the violence is welcome because it eliminates any reasons I might have for doing anything other than sitting back and listening to the drift of airplane-engine feedback that follows, drifting.
I haven't been able to articulate it but I find something interesting about the way Sadie Benning uses music in her videos. Aside from some concessions to golden-age and eighties black music, and some silly wicky-wicky funk guitar (and those things are easily accomodated I think), her soundtracks - which show the knowing touch of an inveterate music fan - seem entirely typical of young people who became (rock) music fans at the time she was coming of age. Moreover, she uses it largely in conventional ways, I think. There are times where she seems to explicitly subvert the expected effects gotten from the music, but I think she mostly just gets something like the usual effect that a semi-informed listener (maybe not even that much) would get from hearing the song. This is in contrast to a whole bunch of the other things going on in the videos, all kinds of avant-garde techniques and strategies for destabilizing notions of self, gender, sexuality, narrative, and so on and so forth. She doesn't go nearly as far with the soundtracks.