Friday, May 21, 2004

Fight Songs | The splendid novelist and music writer Nick Hornby files a rambling and observant New York Times op-ed piece today on the state of rock music, one which appropriately includes several references to the rambling and uneven yet entertaining Philadelphia band Marah. Besides exploring the importance of rock for people of all ages, Hornby delivers some spot-on notes about the intersection of art and commerce, and laments that so few musicians are trying to have it both ways:

In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of "David Copperfield," the novelist David Gates talks about literature hitting "that high-low fork in the road, leading on the one hand toward 'Ulysses' and on the other toward 'Gone With The Wind,'" and maybe rock music has experienced its own version. You can either chase the Britney dollar, or choose the high-minded cult-rock route that leads to great reviews and commercial oblivion. I buy that arty stuff all the time, and a lot of it is great. But part of the point of it is that its creators don't want to engage with the mainstream, or no longer think that it's possible to do so, and as a consequence cult status is preordained rather than accidental. In this sense, the squeaks and bleeps scattered all over the lovely songs on the last Wilco album sound less like experimentation, and more like a despairing audio suicide note.

Maybe this split is inevitable in any medium where there is real money to be made: it has certainly happened in film, for example, and even literature was a form of pop culture, once upon a time. It takes big business a couple of decades to work out how best to exploit a cultural form; once that has happened, "that high-low fork in the road" is unavoidable, and the middle way begins to look impossibly daunting. It now requires more bravery than one would ever have thought necessary to try and march straight on, to choose neither the high road nor the low. Who has the nerve to pick up where Dickens or John Ford left off? In other words, who wants to make art that is committed and authentic and intelligent, but that sets out to include, rather than exclude? To do so would run the risk of seeming not only sincere and uncool -- a stranger to all notions of postmodernism -- but arrogant and vaultingly ambitious as well.

Any thoughts on who's taking such risks these days? Off the top of my head, I'd argue that Counting Crows and Old 97s have produced recent records that are smartly written, well performed, and sprinkled with enough hooks to earn a lot more radio time than they got. The late and dearly missed Kirsty MacColl spent a career recording superb and accessible albums that barely registered on this side of the Atlantic. I could go on and on, I suppose, but then I might sound like Hornby when he worries that he "run[s] the risk of being seen as yet another nostalgic old codger complaining about the state of contemporary music."

Even if it's true.


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