Tuesday, February 9, 2010

retort: "Blog Rock has No Political Edge"

"Inane Modernity"

(This piece is in response to Ben Beaumont-Thomas's article "Blog rock lacks a political edge" in the Guardian.)

It's not easy to talk about politics. Ever. It's even harder to discuss politics inside of music, an art form that, for better or worse, means something different to everyone who listens. There are a few major bones I'd like to pick with Ben Beaumont-Thomas's article in the Guardian. His use of the term "blog rock" immediately deems this piece unworthy of being taken seriously, but any editor worth his weight in hit-count/comments, knows this is a good way to get a rise out of readers. Either way, this piece seems void of any real focus, as if its sole purpose was to call out American musicians for being politically lazy, whatever that means.

BBT, as I'll refer to him, claims that American "indie-rock" musicians' "fascination with the pastoral and apolitical is augmented by the other major strain in the US underground: nostalgia." Having probably downloaded the Underwater Peoples comp and a few Ducktails bootlegs from MediaFire, it's easy to see why one would come to this conclusion. Childhood; summer; fond memories many of us have of life before, well, LIFE. On the surface it's all nice and well and good; and nostalgic. But its much more than that. Living in a world fraught with corruption, scandal, seemingly endless wars, a universal health-care initiative that political red tape is holding up, states that are bankrupt and mounting unemployment, it's ignorant to claim that these young musicians are not only apathetic, but completely misguided. If anything, the sound BBT criticizes is completely reactionary, providing an outlet for those who don't want anything to do with bourgeois economic and political value system. BBT seems to think that all these musicians are living comfortably off-the-land, and hence-forth, feel no need to "rage against the machine." To be honest, having heard a lifetimes worth of Joan Baez records, Bono pedestal sermons and anti-whatever songs by Arcade Fire, why would anyone want to make the same sort of redundant, cliche protest/politico music? It's boring and often, I believe, comes from an even greater place of privilege (aka liberal guilt), rather than the heart. (Bob Dylan knew this. It was why he stopped writing "finger pointing songs.")

In response to BBT's claim that "blog rock lacks a political edge," I'd like to think about the sociology of how all this music was created. Julian Lynch, an acquaintance, dare I say friend, who was mentioned in the article, may be one of the best examples of a young artist "attacking the system" through the backdoor, without a foundation (slush fund) or a "Fuck You Bush" sticker on the back of his Prius. The fact is it's been over a year since the Bush-era ended, and not much has changed. If anything, there is even more reason to be disillusioned at the current state of the United States government, as many of the political promises Barack Obama made have not, and seemingly will not be fulfilled. Any young voter who found hope in his message is probably scratching his/her head, wondering why our fractured Congress can't get it together for the good of the people.

Point is, Julian Lynch has been making music since he was a child. His music is often homespun, recorded in his parents basement when he lived with them, and now his bedroom in Wisconsin. It is homemade. BBT claims analog recording "is now often merely retro, or used to signify reality." He's wrong. It's much deeper than that. For years the forces that be have been championing digital life as a positive way to take us into the future. First it was the CD player. Then the Internet. Etc. And while digital devices have created a lot of good, they've never solved any problems, rather created an entirely new series of problems on top of those already established. In Field Notes, a piece in the first edition of The Report, Emilie Friedlander tackles the idea of technology leading to a utopian future, which, she notes "the advent of the analog synthesizer once promised, but somehow never delivered." Much of the same can be said about digital culture, limitless technology that was "supposed" to solve our problems, but, in the end, those promises were left unfulfilled. (The same could go for political promises as well. But that's an entirely different piece.)

The use of lo-fi technologies, be it recording straight to a 4-track or 8-track cassette recorder, or simply recording directly to GarageBand through a computer microphone, is simply the easiest and cheapest way to record. If an artist, any artist, wants to make a statement, be it political, or just to start a dance party, the democratization of the tools needed to create allows them to do just that. It's a means to an end. Even further, they can send their works off into the world for others to enjoy without having to deal with the corporate foundations that control the media. No, Julian is not Ian MacKaye, but I'm pretty darn sure as a former-DC resident some of MacKaye's anti-corporate, anti-political, pro-Human/artist ideals have crept into Lynch's foundations. If there is a nostalgic trip in Lynch's songs, which there surely is, it's due to the genuine nature of his work, music that is unapologetically pure. Unlike many of his peers (post-collegiate 25 year olds, such as BBT himself), rather than continue to stabilize the status quo, Lynch's work stays uncorrupted, unphased by political scandal and hopeful for the future. For some it may seen childlike, but I think that's a superficial criticism. Unlike many, his work is simply not hardened by the corporate overtones and political unrest of the time. He is not pissed off. He is not commenting on Huffington Post about the latest Sarah Palin scandal outrage, or firing some cheap blows at tea-baggers. In a complete reaction to all the political bullshit, Lynch simply creates hopeful transportive, and often transformative music that crosses cultural boundaries, and does what is arguably the most important thing any musician could do: it makes us think.

Why rage against the machine, when you can organically build a "new world" within America outside the status quo? A social revolution unconcerned with Abbie Hoffman/Black Panther antics and more concerned with treating people well would be incredibly more effective than barging the New York Stock Exchange or Congress, or a bunch of privileged NYU students taking over the library. It's cliche, but the treat your neighbor like you'd want to be treated analogy is apt. And in this day and age, treating people with respect and dignity is about the most political thing you can do.

PS- Listen to Woods cover of Graham Nash's "Military Madness" on Songs of Shame.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner: Julian Lynch [Part 10 of 14] from Ray Concepcion on Vimeo.


Sarah Lynn Knowles said...

nicely put throughout, mcg

Unknown said...

Hell yeah dude. Really good piece here.

Unknown said...

Hell yeah dude. Really good piece here.

Bryant said...

Here, Here! Very well said. I especially like the part "Why rage against the machine, when you can organically build a "new world" within American outside the status quo?" -- so true. Before changing a country, maybe change a small community first.

Cole Garner Hill said...

Totally agreed. Real political activism comes through personal, sincere acts, not following some contrived formula for descent. Equating the escapism of some "blog rock" (whatever the hell that means) to complete apathy or ignorance totally misses the point.

andré said...

I see your point and agree it's important to start with the personal. But it's still a bit of a cop-out.

Here's why: a lot people simply don't have the choice of building an organic community within America. For young people in particular, with school budgets being cut, their only option for employment or education is to join the Armed Forces and go to war. Unemployment hasn't been this high in decades.

There is something profoundly unfair about young people being deprived of their shot at equal opportunity because our economic system currently allows conduct so risky that it can derail the world economy for half a decade. The segments of our society that are hit hardest are probably the ones that don't create or participate on blogs . . .

I'm really not trying to force my political opinions down anyone's throat; all I'm trying to convey here is that some things simply shouldn't go unaddressed by artists, least of all young artists.

A few years ago I came across an interesting quote in the obituary of Russian author Solzhenitsyn. He wrote that while an ordinary man was obliged “not to participate in lies,” artists had greater responsibilities. “It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!”

ws said...

Both sides of this debate are ridiculously shaky.

1. All music is political by virtue of its necessity, and people who bemoan any genre's lack of politics are clearly running out of things to be outraged about.

2. All music is political, and trying to make out 4-track recording in 2010 as some sort of protest, prima facie, distracts from the music's real enduring value.

By the way, for what it's worth (probably nothing), you are taking that "inane modernity" turdphrase out of context. He was saying Mountain Man's music was actually some sort of refutation of modernity. All of this is such sophomore year of college, naomi klein dust-jacket reading absurdity it makes my fingernails hurt.

McG said...

at ws,

yeah, i understood exactly what he meant by inane modernity in regards to mountain man. probably the only part of his article i agreed with. i just liked it as a faux-title, subject

Unknown said...

Military Madness covered by Woods is one of my most favorite covers ever. It's up there with Patti Smith's cover of Gloria. I guess Port O'Biren and Papercuts are covering Military Madness on that new Graham Nash tribute album.


Politics. It's like... Whateverrrrrr.


Ben said...

hey, ben beaumont-thomas here, writer of the original article. I'm glad this has sparked so much debate, but I feel that you've simplified my stance somewhat.

I agree with you absolutely that nostalgic music can have political element to it - I stated as much in the penultimate para of my article saying that it has "a bitter, implicit rejection of the now". And it's a worthwhile political statement. I was saying that as well as these acts (and I didn't have the space to say which were political and which were not), there are also merely apolitical musicians situating themselves outside of modern life and making escapist music (not necessarily a bad thing, but when half the blogosphere is doing it, perhaps it's a cause for concern). Similarly, lynch and other nostalgics' use of lo-fi clearly is political and a major part of their statement, but their are others (and again I didn't have room to say who was doing which) who are using it in a rather retro way, that is a fast-track to cool rather than a genuine statement.

I'm not promoting sloganeering in music, but the challenge is to situate yourself within the modern political world - that's the only place you can make a difference and really speak to people. i don't mean party politics here but engagement with society. lynch et al may be making a political statement with their music, and I think it's valid, but we also need people making music that engages more explicitly with the here and now, and there's a danger that this kind of music is being neglected in favour of either blithely apolitical music, or the veiled criticisms of lynch and company.

Also: journalists for major newspapers don't get to choose their headlines. That's the job of the sub-editor. "Blog rock" may be vague, but it will at least mean something to a lot more people than something more specific.

By the way, I've read your blog for a while and its near the top of my favourites tabs. Thanks for posting so much quality music.

Julian Lynch said...
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Julian Lynch said...
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Anonymous said...


Jimmy said...

Really well written. Well done mate

Emilie Friedlander said...

Hey Ben Beaumont-Thomas,

Have you ever heard of a philosopher named Theodor Adorno or an art critic by the name of Clem Greenberg? I doubt they ever heard anything resembling "lo-fi" or "h-pop" in their time, but last time I checked they were required reading for anyone looking to call themselves a cultural critic and write about the intersection of politics of art, let alone perform said function for a "journal of record." I'll admit that the whole debate is a thorny one, but you should probably be aware that even back in the 1940s and 50s people were already arguing doesn't have to be OVERTLY political in order to take a political stance. In fact, there were some writers who made that observation their entire thesis, arguing that the most effective type of oppositional art does NOT talk DIRECTLY about society, but carves out an autonomous existence for itself outside the visible and audible surface of society. Obviously we are no longer living in the post-war era, and a lot of the bands you mention in your article are making careers out of recycling and reshuffling elements from the pop cultural landscape, but I think Adorno's wisdom still kind of applies: “Playing with elements of reality without any mirroring, taking no stand and finding pleasure in this freedom from prescribed activity, exposes more than would taking a stance with the intent to expose.” As far as I am concerned, expressly political art is usually either bad art or propaganda.

One other thing: how are musicians supposed to broach overt political themes in their music if they are working primarily with sounds, which are not inherently semantic, and not words? Do bands that don't have lyrics automatically disqualify from your definition of political art?

futuregarden said...

I don't believe that your article has sparked any kind of debate but instead has persuaded a number of people to try and convince you how big of an idiot you are.


Ben said...

@julian lynch - critics don't pass off their opinions as truth, at least the good ones don't. I was expressing my opinion in an opinion section of the Guardian's website, which should be enough to show that I'm not presenting anything as fact. But it's a fairly high-profile forum, and I appreciate you don't want your music pigeonholed as being one thing, so I understand your frustration.

Music is open to interpretation - I'm sorry if you feel I misrepresented your music with my interpretation of it, but it's thought-provoking and complex stuff, and therefore open to various interpretations. I'm afraid that unless you make extremely boring and obvious music, people are going to always draw different things from your work, and some are going to write about what they've drawn from them. Get used to that.

As for the drugs thing, there was IN NO WAY even an intimation that you took drugs. i used the work intoxicating to refer to the heady and intense feeling your music can give the listener. I really don't know where you got this idea from.

and as for my twitter, i'm just pleased that a piece I wrote was getting noticed. journalists don't like obscurity, simple as. i don't think what I wrote was particularly provocative, and was pretty even-handed. most people just took one argument from it, or didn't read to the end.

I think your music is excellent and it's a shame I've pissed you off.

@Emilie Friedlander - I address that very idea in the penultimate paragraph of my original article, and in the comments I posted underneath it.

Miguel Teixeira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
parallelliott said...

Jumping in a little late here. I wrote the below comment on another blog, and almost everything I say has already been said by someone:

But, you know, it’s THE GUARDIAN, and like other bourgeois media they never seem to quite “get it.” Lynch is correct to point out how Thomas amateurishly attacks, not his music, but the popular understanding of it. It’s a very sloppy argument, which seems to be the norm with the bourgeois music press.

Furthermore, while Lynch’s music may not be overtly political, I think there are other legitimate arguments one could give for his political worth. Most obvious is how Lynch produces his music in comparison to, say, how Coldplay does. Then, how Lynch distributes his music, again in comparison to some mainstream band. Both these production and distribution aspects are grounded on more egalitarian (um, leftist) rather than capitalist values. This list could go on for anyone thoughtful enough to think it, unlike the Guardian dude.

Also, the Guardian dude makes another funny move. While he doesn’t overtly say it, he seems to think that “political” = “left” and “apolitical” = “right.” He goes on to say that Lynch et al are apolitical. Well, what if they ARE political, but they’re just fucking fascists? What he means to be saying, if this is the case, is not that those artists lack a political edge, but that they lack a leftist political edge.

Finally, why is escapism necessarily opposed to leftist politics? It may be a bit more Rousseauean or Kantian than Marxian, but that don’t mean it ain’t leftist. On the one hand, we can say it's politically utopian (and, sure, this can be a problem if you're not a Straussian or Platonist). But if we get into the popular post-Keenan rhetoric about "imagining possible worlds that were never actually materialized," well, here we have a fucking disjunction between the actual and the possible...and what happens in such disjunctions? POLITICAL CRITIQUE, and if we've read our Badiou, ACTION, dog.

professor quadrangle said...

I'm kinda confused here, but who said you use drugs? And why are you so angry about this even you claim to understand the death of authorship? Use it don't lose it. (I'm talking about using your frustration for music, and not losing your creativity. Just thought I'd make that clear so you didn't misinterpret that as a pot reference.)

Unknown said...

this is great, super well-written. i wish that there were more debates like this on blogs more frequently. it always makes me wonder what lester bangs would say.

one thing i find so confusing about all this is that a lot of both arguments are centered around "nostalgic" music as being either political or apolitical. as has already been said, nothing is apolitical, but i also don't really understand how "nostalgic" became the classification of the tunes here. ducktails, real estate, woods, julian lynch...they all play really different kinds of stuff. sure, a lot of it is kind of homey or beachy, but i've also seen julian lynch rock the fuck out with sweet, soaring guitar solos and whatnot.

besides, aren't 70s-influenced punk bands more nostalgic than people recording on four tracks? the things about music i'm nostalgic for aren't recording methods- it's the lower-east-side punk ethos of the 70s. i'm totally with chocolate bobka on this one, and i wish someone else hadn't been able to define the terms of the discussion beforehand. it seems to me like someone who really knew the scene would have framed it differently.

Julian Lynch said...

That reference came from a comment the author posted on his own article: "a worldview that encompasses work, society, interpersonal relations, and psychology, rather than just getting stoned on the beach (as valuable and enjoyable a part of life that is)."

Sorry...for some reason when I wrote my comment I had thought it was in the article itself.

Dr. President said...

I come to music blogs to get FAR AWAY from politics, thank you very much...

Aaron Andrews said...

So I decide to write a paper on the political implications of seemingly apolitical indie music and I randomly find this blog.. you guys have already articulated the arguments surrounding the political nature of pop music, nice job! Plus, I can't believe people are tossing out Adorno and Badiou outside of Cultural Studies faculties.

Wanna hit me with any more ideas?

Bob Dylan stepping away from the folk movement seems to mirror post-structuralist thinkers shying away from traditional Marxist theory. To me both cases seem to be political in nature. If stepping away from the political arena can be seen as a critique of the system itself, though, than how do we judge the political effectiveness of the musician or the indie community at large?

Does the apolitical (anti-political?) style of indie music have something to do with the socio-economic status of the artists themselves? Do we consider indie artists as coming from a generally privileged location?