Friday, April 10, 2009

No? Yes!

Some time ago (2005), on the original Solo site, a prominent poster by the name of James Kilbourne attemped, in his own words, to "relate to today’s music, meaning basically rock ‘n roll (now called rock) music written since 1955 or so."

In a post on said site, he asked:
Will one of you lead me by the hand to grandeur and glory in any rock music? I guarantee that I will approach it with a fully open mind; I'll buy the CD's, listen to your explanations, and, if converted, will carry the message back to all at Solo. I do not ask this of you so that I can safely come back and say. "I told you so. This music sucks." I really, honestly want to find greatness in something new. "

Having tired of the dismissive attitude of some Objectivists towards rock music, I thought this refreshing, and made my own recommendations, most notably the album Going for the One by the band Yes. I recommended two specific songs from the album, "Turn of the Century" and "Awaken" for their beauty, thinking they would appeal to an opera fan such as James. (Not because they were "operatic," but because I think that they have a quality that would appeal to someone interested in opera.)

James, to his credit, DID listen to the album, and posted a review on SOLO, entitled "Yes? NO!". He described his listening experience, and in the process, pretty much did what he said he woudn't do. He did say that IF he LIKED it, he would carry back the message if he was "converted," but for whatever reason, felt compelled enough to write about his dislike. I forgave him for this, since he did try to point out what he thought were the album's strengths while giving some solid reasons for his dislike, mostly in the technical realm. Mostly I forgave him because of the spirit of his listening; at least he LISTENED before judging. I posted my objections to his review in the discussions that followed, so this is not posted today in ill-will, or out of a sense of lost opportunity. (Indeed, James was nothing but a gentlemen in the responses; my beef was with those who saw the review as an opportunity to indulge in ad hominem attacks against fans of rock music.)

So why bring it up today? Because that article was posted on the recent incarnation of SOLO in the neverending flame war as an exemplar of an Objectivist smack-down of rock music. The problem is that the person holding this article up as that exemplar did NOT listen to the album, and cannot honestly say if the reviewer was indeed correct his in his assessments. Since that article was resurrected for its perceived merits, I, too, will resurrect my arguments.

The full review can be found here. James gives a bit of history about his own musical tastes, and his past experiences with rock music (which had stalled out in the sixties.) He notes the irony of the selected piece for his review, which picks up where the sixties groups, in spirit, had left off:

In the mid 60s the Beatles, like their jazz and rhythm and blues predecessors, discovered drugs, and rock began to evolve from its simple, sexy, happy, in-your-face kind of sound into a more “serious” mystical fog. As the Beatles dissolved into sillier and sillier internal arguments, this trend was taken up by The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, and other such groups, and here, friends, is where, some thirty years ago, I left the world of rock.
Discussing the liner notes of the album for context, James makes the following observations:
“The overall concept of ‘the One’ is trademark Yes, a mystical quest for utopia juxtaposing Christian deism, gnosticism, and heliocentric paganism with modern Man’s materialist vainglory.”

No, I am not kidding. That is word for word, and is just the first sentence. It goes on to explain the “mould-breaking tri-fold sleeve [cover], with monolithic World Trade Center-styled fasciae towering over an analogue Adam…..”…… I closed the cover. I can see that rock has to kept its roots deeply planted in the fertilizer of left-wing conspiratorial lunacy.
This is an extra-musical matter, more about philosophy than musical structure. As an observation from an Objectivist, I don't fault James for expressing it. The problem I have is that there is a double-standard that I've observed from some Objectivists, namely a condemnation of the ideology of music that has a left-wing ideology, or mystical ideology, or whatever your poison, but those same critics refuse to admit to, or gloss over, the same elements in many opera librettos. The response that I've heard is an appeal to Ayn Rand's own defense of the "better aspects of religion," namely the "sense-of-life" of the term "God Bless America," or the appeal to "individual salvation," or what have you. Now, in the context of Yes, it could be said that the lyrics of "sun worship" and religious overtones have the same "sense-of-life"; indeed, it is very similar to Rand's own use of the term "sun-lit universe." So for James to make this comment, to begin with, cannot sustain the argument. Wisely, he moves on:
Time to listen to the music...The music is better than the booklet, but that would also be true of a four-year bubonic plague epidemic. It is interesting for what it is and for what it is not. It is comprised of what sounds to me to be technically well-played steel and bass guitar with piano, drums and an electronic synthesizer keyboard, accompanied by vocals. The vocals are somewhat in the background. The voices are a bit strained, thin ... and decidedly, almost proudly, untrained, but all of them are remarkably on pitch. Gone is even the slight but sweet tenor sound of a Paul McCartney-type voice, replaced with a matter-of-fact unemotional approach. The music is New Age mystical and late sixties rock, but added to this is a Bach-imitating organ-sounding harmony, again played quite proficiently. This gives a strongly Christian religious feel to the whole project, which is the greatest difference to my ear from what came before it in rock music.
This is attempt at Objectivity here, but how Objective? The "plague" snipe can only be construed as opinion. Technically well-played? Well, I'm sure the band will appreciate that. :) The religious element is acknowledged, which Kilbourne is correct to point out as a divergence from earlier rock music. It is a bit "new age," even, but that term is retroactively applied. More accurate is the term "pan-theistic," as the lyricist, Jon Anderson, draws on religious imagery from not just Christianity, but other systems as well. (Tales From Topographic Oceans, another Yes album, was loosely based on the 'Shastic Scriptures' of the Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda). I have to point out here that bassist and co-vocalist Chris Squire was a church choirboy, and not entirely "untrained"; oddly enough, I like the sound of his voice, which is a very unorthodox voice, but one that I find has a certain charm. A statement like this would earn much scorn from "the elite." Said "elite," however, are quick to offer their own rationalizations when someone like Mario Lanza is attacked for not being "properly trained." Even the might Maria Callas is admittedly not the "best singer" by their own standards, yet still they listen. Again, the suggestion of a double-standard that is problematic, and indicative of the troubled status of music within "Objective" standards.

Technical merits aside, it is odd that James claims that the singers bring an un-emotional approach to the vocals. This is one of the drawbacks of reading about music, let alone reading about another's opinion of music. (Even more frustrating if the reader has not heard the music.) When I hear the vocals of Yes, I hear LOTS of emotion. I suspect this accusation is made in comparison to operatic vocals, with lots of volume and vibrato (and showing off!). Yes does NOT show off, does not employ vibrato. I can't discuss the vocals on other albums, earlier or later, in regards to the review. But on this album, I would counter that there is an emotional element, subtler in its quieter moments and simply "different" in its more boisterous, given Jon Anderson's unique high pitch. (Definitely not the rock standard, and certainly not the "macho" type of rock voice; it's more akin to a "feminine" folk voice.) I will say that it is not an overdone kind of emoting, the kind found in opera, but it could be argued that the latter is overdone and melodramatic.

James goes straight on to discuss the last song, the recommended "Awaken":
The last song, “Awaken,” is the most ambitious. The poetry, as in the previous songs, is pretentious and bad. This is not great music, but it shows some imagination and intricacy in the instrumentation, and is at its best when setting the mood between the vocals.
The criteria has not been set to determine what constitutes "great music," for starters, so again, this is left to the realm of opinion. This is also a noteworthy comment for an Objectivist, in light of Rand's own hesitance to make such claims in light of current absence of criteria. Still, Kilbourne does give SOME criteria for his positive comments. As it stands though, this is all merely opinion.

The real criticism is saved for last:
So what is this music NOT? It is NOT romantic. The entire romantic era from late eighteenth century Mozart through early twentieth century Mahler and Strauss is missing. We go directly from Bach to Eastern religion to New Age. The nineteenth century has been thoroughly expunged from Western civilization. Anything that could even resemble romance or sentiment appears not to have been even considered. This music is the perfect accompaniment to the "cool" personality that is victorious in our contemporary culture. It is detached, impersonal, and thereby, I gather by its own definition, profound. It is not as bad as most contemporary classical music because it isn’t as methodically unintelligible, but it would be if it knew how to be. Blessedly, some melody fragments remain, but not with any development of themes.
And HERE we return to the standard "Objectivist" exercise of substituting "bromides" for real argument, and "argument from authority" for arguments from reality. I do have to add my personal bewilderment at James' claim that Yes is trying to be "cool." I've listened to them for years, and was never considered "cool" for listening to them! (Also, James does not take into context that this album was released in the heydey of punk rock!). They certainly aren't "cool" in the sense of, say, Elvis Presley, or The Sex Pistols. Of course, it should be noted that in SOLO parlance, being "cool" is constrasted with being "hot!" or passionate. Well, I personally find Yes "hot," musically speaking, as well as emotionally. Indeed, they cover a wide range of emotions in their music. On this particular album, the song "Parallels" has a firey, smokin' finale, and the climax of "Awaken" is a heavenly ascension. For someone to try to convince me otherwise, good luck. Now, my claim is just my reaction, of course, but the difference is that I'm making a claim for what is does for me personally, and not telling people that it CAN'T do that for others. Without supporting the notion of unilateral cultural equivalency, as one Perigonian critic aptly put it, it's odd that someone whose reactions are confined to a limited selection of music can claim his experience superior to the experiences of others who enjoy other styles.

What we don't have here is a "breakdown" of the individual pieces of the album, except for the brief comments on "Awaken." There is no analysis of the individual songs, no look at the specific musical elements. There IS an assertion of what elements are there, and an assertion of what is NOT there. The problem is two-fold. It criticizes the music for NOT being "Romantic." Is it fair to criticize an orange for not being an apple? It is, if the review is of an apple. James is coming at this from his personal bias. On a quant, personal level of discussion between friends, that is acceptable, but one's personal bias cannot be the basis for an artistic review in the Objectivist point of view.

If this were the extent of it, that would be minor. At least James does define Romanticism here. (Unfortunately, he does not explain just "how" music expresses "Romanticism" in the literary/Randian sense without the aid of a libretto.) But I claim that the songs on this album ARE Romantic, particularly "Turn of the Century," which exhibits BOTH these sentiments; the music has passages that could easily be described as "Romantic," in the sense of the musical style, while the lyrics, a retelling of the tale of Pygmalion, are Romantic, not only in the sense of "romance," but in the Randian sense of choice, volition, and creation.

The omission of this song by James reveals either ignorance or dishonesty; I don't know the motive, but whichever it was, the omission was necessary in order to make the claim of a lack of "Romanticism," which is used here as an argument from intimidation ("Why Romanticism is the Best...and anyone who doesn't get it is a moron!"). It also reveals an argument from authority, with Rand being the authority, as James relied on the reader's assumed knowledge of Rand's favoring Romanticism. But like Rand the polemic, at her least "academic", there are assertions made here without references for comparison (the lyrics aren't quoted, and the music is not heard.) We are left to rely on a second-hand account of the music. As an opinion piece, that's fine. But if it's going to be held up as an example of an argument against another's musical taste, (by the likes of Lindsay Perigo) it fails miserably. Even though the author tries to be positive ("I don’t mean to be completely negative. There is much greater virtuosity in this music than in the insipid music of the early rock period"), the intent goes beyond opinion when the author writes this: "But words like “great” or “soul-enriching” are not words that immediately come to my mind when I hear it."

Sure, it could be said that this is simply his opinion, but what is the point of offering this opinion (especially when James first claimed that this is exactly what he WOULD not do in his solicitation)? Even under the best of intentions, the point comes across: if you like this music, you are wrong to find it "great" or "soul-enriching." This point is driven home with the final paragraph, which claims that "what this music is crying for is drugs." Now, this is a common "complaint" made by many critics of rock music and its counter-culture behavior. But the irony here is that James and Perigo had a falling out over the issue of alcohol, with James making the claim that Perigo was an alcoholic. That matter is beyond the discussion of music, and it is not my wish to address that matter. But that the incident occurred at all is made all the more ironic by James' claim regarding drugs and music in this review. Indeed, he did, in the posts that followed this review, qualify his statement. But why include it in the first place, then? Given that Perigo is both an opera fan and a wine drinker (indeed, he proudly posts a "Politically Incorrect!" picture of himself with a cigarette and a bottle of wine; which (again, ironically,) makes him look more like one of the "headbanging cauterwaulers that he hates so much.) Perigo is quick to mock teetotalers and quote Oscar Wilde's maxim that "work is the curse of the drinking class." Now, should a review of Mario Lanza's music end with the claim that "what this music cries out for is booze?" (Of course not.) Again, it is not Perigo's drinking that is in question here, but the meaningless introduction of the topic into the review. (But since Perigo, despite his falling out with Kilbourne over the matter, still saw fit to reprint this review in agreement with its premises, it's on him to deal with the hypocrisy.) At any rate, James seems to realize the flimsiness of this argument, and tries to soften it by saying that "any music, by the fact of its unique connection to one’s life, can be moving and personally meaningful, and I don’t mean to make light of that. But it doesn’t connect with anything that moves my heart or soul." But he follows that with a return to the drug statement; only this time, seeming to reject Nancy Reagan's advice:
For now, I am taking this CD and placing it in its jewel case behind its tri-fold World Trade center capitalist-bashing cover and placing it at the end of my shelf in my music room—there to gather dust until the next time one of my motorcycle gang visits with his bong. They do visit on occasion, and I bet it will sound a LOT better then.
So, would it be fair to say, then, that if I don't like a certain opera, that maybe I should put it away until James and Perigo come over with a bottle of vino? (First of all, a religious-sounding song like "Awaken," does not lend itself to a biker gang get-together. [And I speak from actual, first-hnd experience with this scenario, believe it or not, so the claim here is pretty amusing to me.]) The argument, via this comparison, only reveals the snobbery involved; Bacchus, in the operatic version preferred by James and Perigo, is simply dressed up in the Emperor's high-class nudity.

Anyway, none of the preceding is an argument on "superior" musical grounds, and it is not an argument from "Randian" authority, but from "Kilbournian" authority. (To put this review in context, it should be noted that James bore the status of "writer-in-residence" at SOLO at the time, and was close to Lindsay Perigo as well as Barbara Branden, who was "jokingly" referred to as "Her Majesty." James was also considered by Perigo to be the prime choice to run the SOLO music forum.) The irony is that James has demonstrated his knowledge of the music he likes, he does not claim to be a musicologist, or particularly qualified as an expert beyond being a "passionate lover of life, liberty, and great music, particularly symphonies and operas." (To be fair, I myself am not "certified," though I have educated myself on these matters. But then, as I stated at the beginning of this forum, I don't claim to preach the superiority of my choices! Still, I have not seen anything from James that would demonstrate his knowledge of the psychology of musical appreciation, let alone anything that would allow him, as an Objectivist, to "cut the Gordion knot" of Rand's musical challenge. So, in response to James' claims to authority, the reasonable response is: "by what standard? By what measure?").

With little of actual musical justification offered in this review, the "Kilbourne" argument really doesn't deliver. Given my opinion of James at the time, I forgave this article in light of his other offers on the site; this review, in my opinion, was not his normal mode of discourse. (And his claim that the music in question did not develop "themes" intrigued me, because up until that point, I was under the impression that such things were not essential in the end, that such things were only means to an end; what did it matter if the music moved me? I just "assumed" that others felt the same way.) But since this review is still being held up as some sort of testament to "objectively superior music," even though it is nothing but an opinion piece, well... I am reminded of a passage from Bill Martin's Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock. Regarding keyboardist Rick Wakeman's solo album The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Martin writes:
Six Wives is a pivotal moment in what we might call the 'campaign' of progressive rock, its march toward a more general musical credibility. This was the sort of album we got our music teachers in high school, and other 'adults' who had some experience with 'serious music,' to listen to-and we were happy when they pronounced Wakeman's effort good, and even 'valid.' The funny thing was that we gave these adults too much credit. They were able to relate to some of these musical structures because they were coming from the keyboard; other instruments common in rock music, especially electric guitars, bass guitars, and drums, they couldn't relate to so well. Therefore, constrained by some rather silly ideas of what it takes to make good music (orchestral instruments, pianos, and operatically trained voices, apparently,) they were impressed by Six Wives, and yet not impressed by other rock music that was far more adventurous.
(Incidentally, THIS is why I did not recommend the Yes albums Close to the Edge or Relayer by Yes to James; Going for the One is much more "conservative" in its instrumentation and tonality. I can attest to being one of those students who remembers the "backhanded compliments" of said music teachers towards the music of the likes of Yes. Peter St. Andre, on the other hand, offers his own defense of Yes against the so-called "adults" in his essay "Saying Yes to Rand and Rock.")

So, in the end, let's remember to be on guard from arguments from intimidation. While people like James (and even Lindsay Perigo) have a lot to offer in their enthusiasm for their own musical tastes, anyone can throw around terms like "Romanticism" and "sense-of-life." It is important not to give anyone too much credit when it is unearned.

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