Saturday, September 24, 2005

Simon's got an interesting post up about authenticity and lack thereof. (Though I surely won't be the first to point out that the line is hardly Ian Brown's! Rakim, son, Rakim.) What struck me was this:

(Then almost immediately thought of the acrimonious debates earlier this year about a certain mud-hut dwelling young lady whose publicity shots invariably depict her crouching on a jungle tree branch; that bizarre net-spectacle of folks who disdain the concept of authenticity engaged in frantic authentication!) . . .

Don't ask me to say which of the two statements I agree with though; I take things strictly on a case-by-case basis. Both propositions have their merits, their utopian/counter-hegemonic/libertatory potential, depending on context.
Pop-rock-whatever is a tissue of realness and fantasy, of roots 'n' future, of the earthy and the outerspatial. Wood and plastic*. Where you're from and where you're at.

*a micro-critique of Morley's Words and Music, which exalts plastic and demeans the importance/allure of "wood"/woodsy etc in the history of poprocketc. But why do we have to choose between The Band's "Whispering Pines" and Kraftwerk's "Neon Lights"?

What strikes me about this is that, from my admittedly limited participation in this debate (I had enough headaches of my own at the time to bother diving in full-on, at least after the point where things started getting especially bilious on e.g. Dissensus), it was the exact other way around--the argument against M.I.A. seemed to stem (at least from the p.o.v. of e.g. Dave Stelfox) from the fact that she wasn't authentic at all, that she was a carpetbagger who was using "authenticity" as a signifier to get points from people who weren't waist-deep in the scenes whose sounds she was lifting from. And that the pro-M.I.A. argument was that where you're at was as important, maybe more (though not necessarily always), than where you're from. And that for a lot of us in the latter camp, it went without saying that plus/and trumps either/or as a guiding principle--which didn't seem to be the case with the anti faction, at least in this case. edit: At least this was my view of it, though I realize now the whole "But she's a refugee" thing might be what Simon's referring to more than anything.end edit

In fact, you might even say that this is the core difference between U.S. and U.K. pop criticism--that scene-and-fad-driven U.K. writers tend to be quicker to draw lines in the sand, to disdain the nearly-or-just-as-good follow-up because the debut already did it and we need to move on now (or maybe more accurately, things already have moved on and where the hell were you, anyway?), while U.S. writers tend to follow artists until they fall down dead. (In Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon explicitly mentions that Gang of Four's Solid Gold did well with American critics but that English ones found it redundant, presumably in both cases for being so close to Entertainment!) This is a humongous generalization with a plethora of holes and exceptions (Mojo, for starters), and from my limited perspective I get the idea that the pop press matters less than ever, if at all, in England these days as an arbiter of taste. (That's certainly true in America, though the only time it ever was the case was during the early days of Rolling Stone, when the idea of a magazine that took rock and roll seriously was so novel and such a flashpoint the fact of it drew its own line in the sand. Something similar applies to Pitchfork today, minus the lack of precedent.)

This has to do with the press's makeup in both countries. Unlike NME or Melody Maker, whose staff overturned every few years, positions at Rolling Stone and Spin started turning into lifer jobs, and in each case, as the staff's tastes hardened, so did the range and method of coverage. That seems to have changed in England with the more-or-less simultaneous arrival of Britpop and Mojo--both hugely popular and both beholden to rock classicism that appealed to older folks as much as younger. The Web aside, that's where the British music press seems to have frozen, not counting inroads made by pop writers into larger areas, a process that has its American parallels as well. It's also the reason people keep complaining that there's no good music writing out there when there's plenty of it--a lot of it has to be looked for (the Web) rather than arriving on your doorstop (the weeklies).

Back to From vs. At. I just got back from EMP, which screened (Simon will love this) No Direction Home at 10 this morning--unconscionably early for me, good thing I live across the street, heh heh. It's full of unanswered questions (drugs are mentioned precisely once, by Peter Yarrow of all people) and leaves out enormous chunks of pretty important information (Blonde on Blonde isn't mentioned at all), and it's great anyway. Scorsese's use of musical cues hasn't diminished in the slightest (the segue into "Rolling Stone" is as good as Goodfellas' use of "Layla," in both cases breathing life into what might as well be pop-culture corpses), and I salute his nonuse of Robbie Robertson as commentator. One of its achievements is how clearly it shows not just Dylan the magpie but Dylan the literal thief--one of the funniest portions is Paul Nelson talking about Bob stealing 40 of his and his housemates' rare records, and Dylan more or less admitting it, charmingly and almost (almost) convincingly explaining that he was simply doing what had to be done.

Where was Dylan from? Hibbing, MN, a place that as a native Minneasotan I wouldn't live if you paid me a million dollars. (No disrespect; I'm a city guy, that's all.) That wasn't where he was at, though, and his refusal to stop moving appeals not just to the listener and myth-lover in me but to the popist who refuses to choose between plastic and wood. It's not Dylan's fault that he's held up as an exemplar of All That Is Real when everything about him from his name on down was constructed as consciously as any Svengali'd boy band. Well, it's not strictly Dylan's fault, anyway.