Monday, March 2, 2009

A Challenge to the Entire Genre.

Something major happened to me yesterday, readers. Brace yourselves. Are you ready? Okay, yesterday, I read an entry on Monitor Mix, the NPR blog written by Carrie Brownstein, and wound up hating it. This has absolutely never happened before. Carrie Brownstein is one of my idols, and my favorite guitarist of all time. She's one of my favorite musicians, but she's so much more than that: I would go so far as to say that Carrie Brownstein is a philosopher of music and pop culture. Her observations about how we listen to and relate to music are always sharp and funny, and I love them not so much because they're her observations, but because she always asks questions about people and music that I've thought about at some point.

Not this time. In this blog, Carrie asked us to consider who we think are 'quintessential' singers in various genres; she focused on rock and punk, nominating John Lennon and Pete Shelley, respectively. Honorable mentions went to Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Joey Ramone, and Paul Weller.

I have never once considered who might be the quintessential rock or punk singer of all time. And I certainly have never considered bestowing such an honor on Mick Jagger, a man I can hardly tolerate, or on Robert Plant, whom I used to enjoy before I found singers I simply liked better. Joey Ramone and Paul Weller are cool in my book, but quintessential? I've never thought of any of these people that way.

There is, of course, a pattern: all of these singers are men. I couldn't help but find this devastating, and I felt a knee-jerk reactionary rage towards Carrie Brownstein after reading this blog. Why is it always men? Why are men always the standard bearers, the typical examples, the perfect embodiment of everything? Perhaps my rage was related to the fact that yes, the majority of known rock and punk musicians are men, and that masculinity seems to be an integral and inescapable aspect of both genres.

Upon re-reading Carrie's blog today, I feel that I overreacted yesterday. My anger has since abated but I still find myself disagreeing with Carrie, and that in itself feels strange. If Carrie Brownstein jumped off a bridge I wouldn't automatically follow her. But when it comes to music, I take her opinions seriously, and consider her ideas and what their implications might be. (Note: this is what happens when you admire a person.) In this case, I actually didn't want to think about quintessential singers; the very notion seems to go against what rock and punk stand for. If these genres are supposed to be populist, individualist, and revolutionary, if they promise some kind of social liberation, and encourage all of us to DIY and to participate, why choose one voice out of so many as the embodiment of rock/punk practices and ideas?

Maybe I'm taking this too seriously. (Friends have told me on more than one occasion that I make too much of music debates, and that I judge fans of Interpol, Phish, Dave Matthews, and many others much too harshly.) Carrie herself clearly has a great sense of humor (um, have you seen "The Perfect Song"?), and she acknowledges in her blog that arguments over essentialness are "reductive". I would add that they're kind of pointless. I know I've never been swayed during one of these arguments, and I've never been able to convince anyone else that their musical opinion is wrong or off.

But these arguments can definitely be a lot of fun. I would like to think that we all have our High Fidelity type moments, where we hash out top fives and tens of record names and opening tracks and greatest concerts. I would like to think that we watch Vh1's top 100 programs, and read Rolling Stone's top 100 and 500 lists, and that we laugh at them, get annoyed at them, bitch about them to other people, and have amazing conversations with each other about music because of them. Carrie rightly points out that these sorts of conversations indicate more about ourselves than the music being discussed. She writes: "Whoever is at the nexus of our musical tastes becomes a litmus test; he or she helps categorize and map our own relationship to music." She goes on to say that the people we recognize as heavyweights in a genre help us form our conceptions of each genre, and helps us to figure out our own preferences. Talking about our favorites is a useful way to try to understand our tastes, and it's enjoyable, too. (Well, unless it's the Beatles v. Stones debate. That one is always serious.)

While I'm no longer opposed to choosing 'quintessentials', I do think I would have to go about it differently. Carrie ends her article by saying, "This notion of essence isn't meant to leave anyone out; it's more about who opened the door to let everyone else in." This doesn't make sense to me. If quintessential indicates the perfect embodiment of some thing, doesn't that mean the best of that thing? The first or earliest isn't usually the best, so why choose pioneers, even if they are pioneers like John Lennon, who are more than deserving of our respect? No, for me the perfect embodiment of punk and rock voices would have to be someone who embodies the revolutionary, sensual, antagonistic, aggressive, transgressive development of punk up until this time, someone different, someone provocative, someone whose entire being is a challenge to the entire genre.

And for me, that person would have to be Carrie Brownstein's old bandmate, the inimitable Corin Tucker.

No argument necessary. Just listen to any Sleater-Kinney album.

This blog is dedicated to my bff, Ashleigh, who is always willing to talk shit about music with me: to five years of bitching and bickering about music, and many more!

1 comment:

JMP said...

The first Interpol album is good. I stand by that.