Archive for Taste

Play It Again, Jon: Songs vs. Performance Pieces

Jon Brion at the piano

Composer/producer/musician Jon Brion distinguishes between songs and performance pieces. What’s the difference? In a 2006 episode of Sound Opinions (rebroadcast in a 2012 episode of 99% Invisible), he cites Led Zeppelin as an example of the latter. Though he’s “a big fan” of Zeppelin, their songs “are the ultimate performance pieces.” He explains,

And the way I can sort of prove my point is: have you ever listened to anybody else play a Led Zeppelin song and gone “Oh, that was a great satisfying experience”? Except for Dread Zeppelin, who I loved. What people like is that specific guitar sound, that specific performance, in concert with that specific drum sound, with that specific drummer playing that specific part.

Another example of the performance piece, Brion says, is most punk rock.

In contrast, a song stands on its own, separate from any individual performance. As examples of that, he cites George Gershwin, Kurt Cobain, Thom Yorke, and Thelonious Monk.  In the interview, which I’ve excerpted below (and to which you should listen), he demonstrates his point by playing songs on the piano — including a lovely arrangement of a few bars from Nirvana’s “Lithium.”

His distinction between songs and performance pieces is a really useful way of thinking about different types of music.  However, like all such paradigms, the more you look at it, the more the boundaries between songs and performance pieces start to blur.  For example, a key marker for Brion is the cover version.  As he says, you could play a Gershwin song “in the style of Led Zeppelin, and have a completely satisfying experience,” but “when you start playing Zeppelin songs, say, in the style of, like, 1920s music, suddenly it’s laid bare that, oh no, it was about those people, and those people were in a room, and it was great.”

Led Zeppelin in 1970, performing at the KB Hallen in Copenhagen, Denmark

There are two flaws in that otherwise compelling argument.  First, there are great covers of Zeppelin, and of punk. Bonerama does a fantastic version of “The Ocean” (2007). You listen to it and think: why didn’t Zeppelin ever tour with a trombone section? (Or, at least, this is what I think when I listen to it.) Dolly Parton does a lovely bluegrass cover of “Stairway to Heaven” (2002). And then there’s Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra’s swing version of “Black Dog” (1999)

Bonerama’s “The Ocean” (2007)

Dolly Parton’s “Stairway to Heaven” (2002)

Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra’s “Black Dog” (1999)

For punk rock, I could point you to Yo La Tengo’s surf-rock-lite cover of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1976) or the Indigo Girls’ acoustic version of the Clash’s “Clampdown” (1979)

Yo La Tengo’s “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1996)

Indigo Girls’ “Clampdown” (1993)

So, if (according to Brion’s rubric) punk or Zeppelin resists the cover version, well, there seem ample examples to contradict that claim.

The second problem is that a lot of Zeppelin and a lot of punk are already cover versions. In the case of Zeppelin, they tended to take from African American artists without attribution. “Moby Dick” (1969) borrows liberally from Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step” (1961), “Whole Lotta Love” (1969) lifts a fair bit from Muddy Waters’ version of “You Need Love” (1963, a cover of Willie Dixon).  And those are just a few examples.

Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step” (1961)

Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” (1969)

Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love” (1962)

Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (1969)

Some of the most famous punk songs are covers — the Clash’s “I Fought the Law” (1979) and Patti Smith’s “My Generation” (1976). The latter is a cover of the Who, and the former a cover of the Bobby Fuller Four (who were covering Sonny Curtis & the Crickets).


The Clash, performing in London, 1979

Patti Smith Group, performing in Germany, 1979

In sum, the line between song (which can be covered) and performance (which cannot) seems blurrier than Brion’s distinction admits.

Patti Smith, New York City, 1976I don’t think his distinction lacks utility, though. As a connoisseur of covers, I would add — in defense of his argument — that there are far fewer good covers of Zeppelin than there are of Nirvana or Radiohead. In this sense, we might see my examples above as exceptions to the rule. Similarly, what’s punk about Patti Smith’s cover of the Who is her performance. You can do a good cover of the Who’s version, but you can’t do a good cover of Patti Smith’s version. The only way to cover of Patti Smith’s version would be as a Patti Smith tribute band, a mere imitation of the original. (In my view, by definition, a good cover brings forth a facet of the song that the original version does not. In their attempts to be faithful, tribute bands don’t meet this standard.)

Brion’s song-vs.-performance-piece distinction is handy, even if it’s not quite the paradigm that it at first seems. That is, his idea is useful less for distinguishing songs from performances and more for giving us a way of thinking about musical taste.

George GershwinUltimately, that’s what his distinction highlights: Jon Brion prefers Gershwin and Cobain to, say, Page, Plant, and Ramone. His too-frequent mentions of his alleged “love” for Led Zeppelin are him protesting too much, giving him rhetorical cover for saying that Led Zeppelin didn’t write songs. And yet, even while his rubric is just disguising personal preference in the language of objectivity, this is one key function of criticism. We find formal terms to talk about what moves us, or fails to move us. Or, to put this another way, we need to find these terms in order to have a conversation with people whose likes and dislikes differ from our own.

Terms like Brion’s help us talk about taste. They don’t need to be perfectly theorized to be useful.

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Photo credits: Jon Brion from MTV, Led Zeppelin from Performing Musician, Patti Smith from Morrison Hotel Gallery, George Gershwin from Music Times.

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Moomin Merchandise

Occasionally, publishers and authors send me children’s books. When time and interest coincide (alas, too infrequently), I review them and post my reviews here. More often, I write reviews of books I’ve bought. I do not review children’s-book-related tie-ins. I view such products with some skepticism, and have written critically about merchandising that targets children.

But I really like the Moomin products that Chronicle Books sent me — sent each of us Niblings, in fact — to congratulate us on the launch of our new blogging group. They’re adorable. Tasteful. Nicely produced. And, yes, they’re an appropriate gift for a group of bloggers who have named themselves after a minor character in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books.

If you do not know the Moomin books, you will want to read this post before reading further.  Take your time.  I’ll wait.

Moomin Notecards (Chronicle Books)Back? Well, to continue: I find myself puzzled at why I feel more comfortable admiring my new Moomin notecards than I would, say, a package of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. Why does it feel “OK” to blog about these Moomin goodies but not the latest Potter merchandise?

One could argue that it’s because Moomin marketing is less ubiquitous than Harry Potter marketing. There may be something to that argument, but the Moomins are hardly obscure.  Sure, people in the U.S. are less Moomin-literate than the rest of the world, but Jansson’s characters are globally recognized. There are books, animated cartoons, stores of merchandise, and even an amusement park (in their creator’s native Finland). So, I don’t think it’s just fetishizing a pop cultural obscurity. Moomins are world famous.

Nostalgia, then? As Julie Sinn Cassidy argues in “Transporting Nostalgia: Little Golden Books as Souvenirs of Childhood” (2008), the Little Golden Books “function as snapshots, souvenirs, or relics of an imagined ideal of childhood,” and are often marketed to adult readers as such (148). While nostalgia also underwrites Moomins’ marketability, I never read Jansson’s books when I was a child. I first read them in my mid-20s. My wife grew up on them, and — as my scholarly interests shifted to children’s literature — she introduced me to the Moomin stories.  So, for me at least, childhood nostalgia falls short as an explanation.

Moomin journal (Chronicle Books)To say that these items have been tastefully made moves us into highly subjective aesthetic areas, but the designers have created products with an aesthetic that closely matches Tove Jansson’s.  I’m sure that good design is one reason for their appeal, but it feels insufficient.

The answer comes, as it often does, from Henry Jenkins. My relationship to Jansson’s Moomin characters is that of what he calls the “aca-fan,” a “hybrid creature which is part fan and part academic.” I simply like the Moomin characters and stories. They make me happy, in the way that the Mills Brothers’ recording of “Funiculi Funicula” does, or Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon does. And Chronicle Books’ Moomin products are kinda cool.  If you’re a Moomin fan, you’ll probably enjoy these, too.

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Let’s Talk About Taste

There’s a new Facebook meme: “How to determine who to unfriend on Facebook.”

How to determine who to unfriend on Facebook

Click on the link, and you get a list of “Friends who like Nickelback.”

Friends who like Nickelback

The joke depends upon pervasive dislike of the popular Canadian band. At best, I find the group’s music benign. I could imagine it being used to sell soda or life insurance. Yet Nickelback’s massive success suggests that its fans are hearing something that I’m missing. Perhaps they hear vocalist Chad Kroeger’s raspy shout as emotional intensity, the bland homilies (“every second counts because there’s no second try / so live like you’ll never live it twice”) as profound insights, and the bombastic production as appropriately anthemic.

Or perhaps it’s more complicated.  Certainly, it’s a question of taste.

Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007)In his book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007), Carl Wilson tackles this question using another Canadian megastar as his case study: Céline Dion.  Most of the books in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series examine a critically important album: the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Prince’s Sign the Times, Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, Elliott Smith’s X/O.  For his entry in the series, Wilson chose Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love because he wanted to answer the question of why “do each of us hate some songs, or the entire output of some musicians, that millions upon millions of other people adore?” (1). He picked her Let’s Talk About Love because it has that Titanic song on it.

And because it gives him an opportunity to create humorous chapter titles: “Let’s Talk About Hate,” “Let’s Talk About Schmaltz,” “Let’s Sing Really Loud,” and “Let’s Talk About Taste” are a few of them.  A music critic for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, Wilson has a sense of humor, but the book is a serious inquiry into taste.  It’s also become one of my favorite books. As anyone who has spoken to me in the last few weeks will tell you, I’ve been evangelizing it — rather as one does upon hearing a particularly wonderful piece of music.  I want to share this book with everyone.  If you have any interest in taste or in music, you really must read it.

The book both is and is not about Céline Dion.  Wilson takes her and her work seriously, but does so as part of his larger inquiry. In “Let’s Talk in French,” he considers her Quebec roots and the province’s particular musical culture — specifically, the conflict between the chanson (the poetic, sometimes political work of “homegrown Gainsbourgs and Dylans (it was mostly guys)” that began in the 60s) and the kétaine ( “tacky” or “hickish,” pre-60s “variety-pop”) (26-27).  In “Let’s Talk About Schmaltz,” he historicizes the term: Yiddish for “chicken fat,” schmaltz comes from vaudeville, and it’s not a bad thing. If a song or performance lacks schmaltz, then it’s too dry. However, if it has too much, then it’s, well, schmaltzy. But schmaltz can be about big emotions… which, of course, are what defines Céline’s music.

I especially enjoy that the book engages with questions of taste — and, yes, Hume, Kant, Bourdieu, & others make appearances here (Wilson has done his homework). In the twenty-first century, we don’t talk much about taste any more. As Wilson puts it, “We don’t commend someone’s good taste because we don’t want to be caught wearing morning coats and waxed mustaches and asking what the devil is up with the wogs. We don’t use bad taste except as a jocular antagonym in which bad means good” (149-150). He’s right. Making judgments on taste feels anachronistic or elitist. We’re much more likely to use “taste” in a fuzzy, laissez-faire way, dismissing (or accommodating) difference by saying “oh, it’s just different tastes” or “well, people have different tastes.”

As a scholar, I’m constantly called upon to appreciate works that may not be to my taste. So, I read in terms of genre, evaluating a work as, say, an excellent example of a horror novel, or a picture book, or a poem, or a graphic novel — or, really, many genres.  (It’s rare to find a work that fits only one genre.)  This mode of art appreciation feels natural to me because, for as long as I’ve been listening to music, I’ve been listening to different kinds of music. The music I remember from earliest childhood includes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.  My parents must have had !!Going Places!! (1965), because I distinctly remember Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s version of “Walk, Don’t Run” — I knew that before I knew the Ventures’ original. By about 11 years old, I began to develop my own musical tastes: novelty records (“Weird Al” Yankovic and anything played on the Dr. Demento Show, really), the Beatles, AC/DC, ’50s rock ’n’ roll, and the J. Geils Band (this was 1981-1982). That soon expanded to encompass ’60s R&B, ’80s new wave, jazz, what is now called “classic rock” (but was then AOR), hip-hop (then known as rap), and, well, nearly any type of music.  Here’s a snapshot of my “Top 50 Most Played” in iTunes — or Top 35 because that’s all that fits on the screen (click for larger image).

screen shot of Phil Nel's "Top 50 Most Played" on iTunes, 21 June 2012

That’s quite representative, although it skews towards music I’ve had longer and omits the top two most-played artists in my iTunes: They Might Be Giants (292 songs, excluding covers, solo work, and podcasts), and the Beatles (194 songs, also excluding covers and solo work).

I’ve long prided myself on my eclectic tastes, but Carl Wilson has me pegged.  As he says,

American sociologists Richard Petersen and Roger Kern in the mid-1990s suggested that the upper-class taste model had changed from a “snob” to an “omnivore” ideal, in which the coolest thing for a well-off and well-educated person to do is to consume some high culture along with heaps of popular culture, international art and lowbrow entertainment: a contemporary opera one evening, the roller derby and an Afrobeat show the next.  They speculate that the shift corresponds to a new elite requirement to be able to “code switch” in varied cultural settings, due to multiculturalism and globalization. (96)

So, while I may think my wide-ranging tastes are democratic or open-minded, Wilson would claim that I’ve just adopted the contemporary “omnivore” ideal.  In fairness, Wilson indicts himself, too: “Indeed you could fairly say that my experiment is an attempt to expand my cultural capital among music critics, to gain symbolic status by being the most omnivorous of all” (100).

I can’t think of a better or more succinct education in taste and in popular music than Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love. It’s delightful, fun, and compact (only 164 pages).  If you’re interested in music, you’ll enjoy it.

Even if you listen to Nickelback.

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