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.
It seems to me that there are a few popular ways of thinking about this. I'm not sure if they are the only ways, but they seem good enough to start with.
At the very least maybe we can agree that punk was ("is" too but I'm going to talk in the past tense for some reason) against something. Lots of people seem to think so, anyway. I get the impression that some people will even try to defuse talk about punk's mattering at this point, by saying that if punk was "against" anything, it was only against it in some shallow way, say stylistically, like as a fashion statement. Oh well. Maybe. Let's just ignore that for now.
So, punk was against something. Just that by itself presents possibilities for our question, for saying whether social conditions made punk obsolete. Think of it like two people. One is "against" the other. So one can disagree with the other. One can just plain dislike the other. One can carry on in a way that's contrary to the other, even inimical. These things could be done implicitly or explicitly. They could be done (forgive the unnatural division) on a purely musical level, or on some other social level.
How could it become obsolete, then? Talking about the way "social conditions" could change to make this happen is just a shorthand for saying that people could change, or institutions could change, or whatever.
1. Whatever punk was against could have changed so that it just looked stupid or silly to be against it.
2. It could have changed so that there was no legitimate reason to be against it.
3. The way in which punk was against whatever could have been dethorned. The main candidate I'm thinking of here is something like the way nihilism or irony is said to have been co-opted or commodified. Or even just the punk sound or style (including fashion!). The obsolecence here would derive from the fact that no one would bother to take punk seriously because of this co-option, though I want to leave things open. This make it sound like punk has a separate message to convey besides the style in which it conveys it; maybe it does, maybe not. I said "against" above to try avoiding talking about punk "critiquing" or anything like that, which might be seen as making it a little bigger or more developed in its antagonism than it was.
4. Related to 1, sort of - social conditions could have changed so that people didn't even know about the whole antagonistic relationship.
When the musical landscape changes, that counts as a social change too. I think all these things could be cached out either in terms of the "purely" (meaning non-musical, what we usually will call the real world stuff) social things punk was against, or in terms of the music punk was against (implicitly, sometimes). This split is an important one deserving of its own careful thought, because it matters a lot where the music hooks up with the rest of the world. So of course I'm not going to say anything else right now.
I don't know why I feel the need to apologize lately for being more careful and making my reasoning perspicuous, but I do. If you don't think this question is interesting, then at the moment I don't have anything to say to you. If you do but don't like the way I'm answering it (it sure ain't punk to do it this way I bet), then I wonder how you could answer it without being just as careful. Maybe seeing all the work, as it were, takes all the fun out of it, but this is sort of my lab notebook after all. If I were you I wouldn't trust an answer handed out without some thinking behind it anyway.
I referred just two entries ago to the idea that punk is no longer viable. Mike wrote in asking me, among other things,
Why is punk no longer viable? Has it been superseded? Have social conditions "obseleted" the music, or made it neuter, in spite of everyone's good intentions? Or... is just nobody bothering to make compelling punk? Or have all the possibilities within punk been explored, making any future attempts at exploration doomed and pointless? Or?
I want to note that I didn't say punk is no longer viable, just that people seem to say things like that a lot. Unfortunately I can't say who - I wasn't thinking of anyone in particular. It's just an idea you see invoked a lot. Sometimes it's done in social terms, so that punk failed because of its failure to achieve its social goals (and putting it in those terms is tendentious, I know). More often, I think, it's just done in musical terms - i.e. if punk had been more successful, music wouldn't be the way it is now (usually this means what's on the radio, or sometimes something broader, like what's popular among hipsters, or even what's taken as being progressive and akin to punk).
Mike is right, though, that just the idea itself bears more scrutiny. I'm not sure I'm the one to give it, but that's never stopped me before. Unfortunately I don't think I've heard much of the music originally called punk. Up to a point I don't think that matters for two reasons. A lot of the talk about 'punk' is talk about an idea that has a much broader application than one strictly referring to some bands or records from a set range of years. Most people pick up a lot of their thinking about 'punk', I think, in basically the same way I have. Thinking about questions like Mike's means thinking about this broad idea that people have picked up in this way. Second, I think that the questions are broad enough that having a good idea of how they could be answered (that is, asking about the logic of the concepts involved - what it means for a genre or social movement to be viable, or superseded, what kinds of social changes might be relevant to its viability, what the development of it as a music has to do with its continued existence, and so forth) is sort of preliminary to answering them, since no amount of direct experience of whatever records you think are important, or acquaintance with your favorite musico-social theories, will resolve the questions easily.
(This is called 'covering your ass' in philosophy. Yes that is a technical term. And oops, Mike also called me out for being too general.)
Obviously this has the potential to go nowhere or be dropped, but if I can I want to think some more over time about how to answer these questions.
The New York Times pop and jazz critics picked their favorite "obscure" albums of 2001 and the Dismemberment Plan is on it. I don't think they're doing anyone any favors with the leadin about bedroom and computer recordings, though.
Another record that is one of my favorites from 2001 is Fugazi's The Argument.
It seems to me as if Fugazi have mostly been staking out the same kind of ground, exploring more or less the same region of space, for a long time now. This isn't meant to say that they've been making the same album for years, because I don't think they have been. It's not a matter of circling around, either. Instead it's something like this: from record to record, they do some things that are sort of new-sounding. They also do some things that are old-sounding. Sometimes on the newer records, some of the newer-sounding things seem to be prefigured by parts of their older records, in the way that hearing the newer record can make you hear the older record as being more of a piece with the newer one, even if you may have thought beforehand that the old record had nothing but old things to offer. This is different from but related to the phenomenon of hearing a new record which does some new things, and hearing them as extensions or changes of the old things. That's why I said 'exploring space' above, because I think it can capture well the kind of moving-standing-still that I want to get at: because there's both exploring a big space, expanding the outer boundaries of the space you know about, and there's looking more closely at the space you've already got, seeing what it's like, where it hooks up with other spaces, catching little spots inside that you may have missed because before you were so busy looking for the big stuff.
Although most music involves this kind of looking-more-closely, I think people tend to ignore that and look for the the boundary-pushing, or at least try to take whatever they like as being boundary-pushing in some way. That's what I have seen people doing in just about every review of The Argument that I read. This talk is also unfortunately couched in terms of 'evolution' - here, the band's sound is 'evolving', and so on. This makes me want to diagnose the reviewers.
If you look at 13 Songs or Repeater on the one hand, say, and Red Medicine or The Argument on the other, it can seem like Fugazi have made protean strides to advance punk music. I would imagine that this could seem pretty satisfying, since punk music is often thought to have died or ended up going nowhere, even to be a genre which has no future, which can't go anywhere by its very nature. This view makes Fugazi standard-bearers for punk's possible future, which means that punk could still be viable in some sense tied to its mythical beginnings.
None of this is to deny that punk is no longer viable, or that Fugazi didn't make great strides. All I'm suggesting is that things may be more complex than that. For example, it seems to me that Fugazi's last four albums especially (not counting the Instrument soundtrack, but even if it's included I think this makes sense) are mostly exploring a certain ground that they've staked out. Perhaps they've been expanding that ground along the way, but this could just be a matter of exploring different parts of the big space that was already marked out. This can seem sort of static, because of the tendency I mentioned above, to hearing things only in terms of the large boundary-pushing. I think this would present reviewers and listeners looking for the big changes with a problem, then, and possibly make them prone to making a big deal out of the changes Fugazi seems to have made on The Argument. They've evolved, they have a new pop sensibility, they are more mature, etc. Again, to some extent these things may be true, but I think things are more complex than simply stating those truths would imply. (Because, for instance, you can find reasons to say these things about earlier records.)
Hearing their work of the past half-decade or so does make things harder on critics, I suppose, but oh well. It's tougher to talk about an album that does this kind of stylistic settling-in and roaming-around, I think because it focuses the talk on the musical elements, what they do in the music that makes it sound the way it does to us, relative to the space they've staked out. It makes the distinctions between Fugazi's music in general and other music potentially finer, more subtle, which can be a pain in the ass to write about. That's OK, though.
This is all very high-level stuff, I think, considering how I don't think much of it when I'm listening to the album. I do think that my reactions are colored in part by how I perceive the band to be doing this kind of inner-space-exploring, but it's a lot more intuitive (on my part) than I've indicated here. This is an analysis after the fact.
I also haven't said anything about how this supposedly static music makes it sound more familiar - and remember, familiarity breeds comfort. Comfort has a lot to do with why I like this album. In part it has to do with why I opened up to it enough to think about it more.
The Necks' Sex is a fascinating album - or song, or performance, or whatever, since it's only one forty six minute or so track. Piano, (acoustic) bass, drums, loosely barely classifiable as some kind of avant-garde jazz maybe. They set up three-note (using only two tones) bass ostinato, some basic and quiet ride cymbal accompaniment, and then some spare piano tinkles and maybe something high and bowed on the bass or played inside the piano (I'm not sure) less frequently. Changes come slowly. I think a big one comes about five minutes in, I don't know, I haven't been paying close enough attention. The first time I listened to this, I couldn't shake the feeling, for at least 15 minutes, that it all sounded preparatory - like the very drawn out introduction to a relaxed, casual song, or maybe even just the bulk of a long piece like Miles' "He Loved Him Madly" which, though it often seems to not consist of much locally, or seems like it's not going anywhere or hasn't yet for a long time - despite that it seems to make up a fairly unified piece. After that 15 minutes, the minimalism kicked in and "Sex" started to uh like freaking me out in that cool minimalist way: it just barely grated, you know, the kind of thing where maybe being so repetitive isn't the best idea, but then it slides back repeatedly to seeming like the greatest trance-inducing idea in the world.
Because the repeated rhythm is fast enough, at times when listening I can get sort of jittery, like I'm waiting for it to go somewhere but it doesn't. An almost identical thing happens to me sometimes when listening to Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. Sometimes this feeling is interesting in and of itself. Usually, though, I prefer to take it as a sign that I'm listening in the wrong mode, or at least in a mode I'd like to leave.
Interestingly enough (because this sort of thing is stereotypically background music), I get more jittery when I'm listening while working on something else, with the appropriate level of attention. (There's a higher level of attention where I don't pay it much mind, so no jitters.) This might serve as an injunction to lay about and be put into a trancelike state (hello Mogwai) rather than work and listen to this music simultaneously.
I listened to a lot more of it than two songs today, but I have retained my habit of laying in bed and not wanting to hear anything else when the album is on.
"Stephanie Says" comes a ways into The Royal Tenenbaums, and it felt warm and familiar to me, despite probably not having heard it that often. I guess it had to do with two things: listening a lot to the self-titled album and thus just having my reactions to it extend to their other songs, and just having a tender reaction to it because of that familiarity and recognition (whether direct or in this extended sense).
There was at least one place in the movie (two if I remember right) where Nico sang, too, and I didn't think they were Velvets tracks. So a similar thing happened, but maybe with the recognition playing more of a role - that is, me thinking that it was some solo Nico (even if it in fact wasn't) made hearing it in a movie feel more special, somehow. More personal, maybe. Though that's certainly an odd kind of 'personal' connection.
When "Ruby Tuesday" plays during the tent scene, I didn't have quite the same reaction. I knew it and had heard it before, sounded fine, etc., but that wasn't enough. I don't have enough of a personal connection with the music (through listening to it a lot, living with it), even if I'm counting 'personal connection' to be as extended a thing as 'it sounds a lot like the singer on a Velvets record that I don't listen to as much as the one that I listen to all the time'.
I supppose I can clarify that a bit. First of all, I listen to the album in a maybe nonstandard way (though I bet there are others who do this too), since I have the version from the Peel Slowly and See box set. In that version, the album is preceded by a live version of "What Goes On". This has a couple of side effects for me. First, even though the next song, "Candy Says", is the beginning of the album proper, I don't think of it as such. The next song after that is the studio version of "What Goes On", so I somehow associate that track (the third on the CD) with "the beginning of the album," maybe because it's the first song again, only the studio version. This means that I think of "Candy Says" as some kind of bonus track, a demo or single or something stuck in before the album starts. None of this is deliberate, by the way, and it's not as if I've never known or been able to know the proper tracklisting and source of the tracks. I'm just stopping to think about what it seems to me I actually do when I put the CD on.
More importantly, because of that first live track, I always start the disc there and think of it as being part of the album that follows. I think this makes me less concerned about wanting to stop so earlier. Also, after the album there are a number of other live and bonus tracks, which I've never yet paid much attention to and never care to hear. So, stopping early for me sort of involves treating the songs I cut off as part of all that other junk at the end that I'm avoiding.
Why stop at "I'm Set Free" rather than "That's the Story of My Life"? Admittedly, although I'm not really big on the latter, I don't think it's a bad song. But the next song is "Murder Mystery", which I don't want to be on this album. Yes, the Velvet Underground were an experimental band at times. No, I do not want their half-assed "experiment" of a song stuck on after all the great songs that precede it. Surely it fits in better on an earlier album, if it fits anywhere. The record as a whole isn't "experimental" enough to warrant saying, in the song's defense, that it's kind of a patchwork thing, with some songs more experimental than others. The song sticks out too much for that to work, because the other songs are too conventional. So, again with the guilt by association stuff, I don't want to hear "Story of My Life" because it precedes "Murder Mystery" which I don't want to hear, and I consider "Story of My Life" more of a piece with "Murder Mystery" than with "I'm Set Free" because... why?
I'm not sure I have a good reason - remember, I said I'm just reflecting on what I do by habit.
I do like my records to end on end-of-record-sounding songs like "I'm Set Free", though. That may have something to do with it.
Also, it may be that I just consider "I'm Set Free" to fit in better with what precedes it than I do "Story of My Life", which would mean that I think the record as a whole is more unified if I stop there. Possibly this explanation, though it's not much of one, is more acceptable (because it is more plausible for me to say without further explanation that "Set Free" goes better with the other songs than to say that "Story" goes better with "Murder Mystery" than "Set Free"). Unfortunately "Story" and "Free" fit together lyrically...
Jimmy found my blog recently and we got to talking. I'm happy to see he's moved his own journal online. I think everyone should, of course.
Coincidentally, I found myself listening to The Velvet Underground today, but I still would prefer it if it stopped with "I'm Set Free".