26 November 2009

Yeah, but is it Pop?

I soon realized that in the course of the previous discussion on pop, I omitted an important predilection of mine that happens to come from the pop world, that being Jimi Hendrix. Not that I'm any kind of Hendrix expert, but I do seriously dig his music. I'd venture that Hendrix's appeal is almost as universal as The Beatles', and also that it's more universal than the Beatles' among people who also happen to like atonal, modernist, and/or avant-garde music (whatever that is). If Dan had asked about Hendrix instead of the Beatles, he would have essentially been asking the same thing about me, I think, but he would have gotten a very different (and yes, probably shorter) answer, and that whole discussion would have gone in a completely different direction. Oh well.

For what it's worth, brass quintets, wedding bands, jazz combos, and pops orchestras don't cover Hendrix nearly as excessively as they cover The Beatles. That's no doubt in large part because they also do so far less successfully and they know it. Rock musicians have significantly less shame about imitating Hendrix, though they probably shouldn't. The Beatles certainly had their extramusical trials and tribulations, but perhaps Hendrix's were more well-known as they happened, and more of the kind that aren't typically discussed in polite company. I think all of these things probably factor into why The Beatles's music is seemingly thought to transcend instrumentation the way Bach's does, while Hendrix is just as popular but not covered as often or as well. I'd like to think that I could separate my own unpleasant experiences with poor imitations of an artist from my overall opinion of them, and certainly that I could prevent extramusical issues from coloring that opinion, but I'm human, and that may not be the case here. I really don't know. Gil Evans did an album of Hendrix's music that left me cold (frigid, in fact), but I still dig the original.

Stevie Wonder is an artist that many jazz musicians have covered, from Dave Pietro to Joe Gilman to The New Power Trio to Dan's own group Frankhouse. I'm not so set in my ways that I ignore and deny these kinds of trends. In fact, as I've said, the more pop music I can find that I actually like, the less I'll feel like a social outcast, and that can only be a good thing. And if so many otherwise like-minded people are into something, you'd think that would be a hint worth taking. To that end, I had the chance to investigate a Stevie Wonder box set while housesitting for a friend last year. When I saw it sitting on the rack, I got really excited. This was my chance! Well, I had to stop listening after a while. It just wasn't for me. It's galling in a way, yet not entirely surprising that while I really dig many of the jazz covers of his music that I've heard, I couldn't make it through an entire disc of the originals. Too bad for me, I guess.

I mentioned before that prog rock seems to float my boat. I'm not sure that really counts as pop music, though. Some pop people spew even more venom at prog rock than they do at classical music and jazz. It not only incorporates many elements of those more high-falutin' styles, but also hits closer to home by virtue of still being rooted, if not in some small way, in the rock and/or pop aesthetic(s). I was perusing some blogs that I don't get around to reading all that often and stumbled on a couple of posts over at Acousmata about a couple of prog groups I didn't know about:


Univers Zero

I dig both of these tracks a lot, and I'll definitely be investigating both of these bands' work more extensively at some point.

It's hard to talk intelligently about structure when you've only listened to something one time, but if there are profound large-scale structural concepts worthy of a classical musicologist's attention at work here, I missed them the first time. In fact, while I definitely dug the Univers Zero track more, the scattered nature of the structure bothered me a bit. That's usually my first and only complaint about the prog bands I'm into, which scares me, because for a long time, I resented the classical approach to form and believed in, essentially, doing what you want in that respect. It's not doing Kyle Gann's writing any sort of justice to lump him in with the clunky statement I just made, but if you read his blog, you know that he's written intelligently and repeatedly about composers (himself included) who have rebelled against such traditional formal strictures. What scares me is that while I nod in agreement when I read things like that, and always have, nonetheless, as I get older and listen to and write more music, I find myself hurtling towards the traditional perspective. It's bizarre.

By virtue of that traditional perspective, my trajectory is wholly unremarkable and quite predictable. Young people don't "get it" because they don't know anything, and once they learn something (if not everything), they see the light. It raises a question that's on the tip of most everyone's tongues these days when the pop and classical worlds collide: is this process an inherently positive, predictable, and universal one by which each and everyone of us can become an astute, structure-oriented listener and musician simply by trying, or does it represent the artificial domestication of the listener, their mere social initiation into a rarefied world of musical elitism where other perspectives are unduly dismissed as too unsophisticated?

I don't have the answer to that. What I do know is that as I gain experience, structure comes to matter more. I'm more aware of it when I listen, and I agonize over it more when I write. In all but the most extreme cases, it's not enough to turn me off entirely from a piece of music that I have only good reactions to otherwise, but I wonder if the current trajectory, assuming it continues, doesn't dictate that sooner or later that will change? That thought scares me a bit, though there's nothing I can do about it. Clinging to previously held beliefs simply to avoid admitting you were wrong is always a bad idea; labeling those who are willing to admit as much as "wishy-washy" also misses the point; and purposely remaining ignorant or cutting oneself off from the learning process when it becomes obvious that this process is changing your long-held beliefs is stooping quite low, dare I say it, in a pop sort of way. That's my philosophy with regard not only to the question of structure, but also of taste. If there's a time in my future when I will worship The Beatles, then so be it.

As a parting shot, check out this band from Vancouver:


A friend hipped me to them the other night, describing it as "Free Emo." That sounds about right. I could listen to this by myself in a quiet, dark room without getting bored, the same way I listen to Lutoslawski, Ives and Monk. But is it Pop?


Anonymous said...

Okay, about Stevie Wonder,

Stefan, Songs In The Key Of Life is in my opinion the best pop album of all time. (But as I write that I wonder if that is true.) But seriously, you must listen to it thoroughly, as he has much to show us. I do confess that I am most taken by musicians of the soul persuasion in the Jazz genre, soul, pop, whatever. Its what really really hits me. So maybe thats why I feel like Stevie is an utter genius.

I know you can appreciate a heavy African influence in rhythm and form. Its here in "As" and "Another Star", and "Black Man" is just plain nasty.

Whatever. "Knocks Me Off My Feet" is also great and check out the beautiful Ballad "If its Magic". These songs are all on the aforementioned album.

Also listen to George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" which he released a year or two after the last Beatle's album. Also one of my all time pop/rock favorites.

I'm very interested in what pop/rock/hip-hop/ mainstream music you DO like. What is it?

Stefan Kac said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I can't say I'm going to drop everything and investigate, but I'll certainly file them away for future reference. I didn't list those Wonder covers just to list them, but because I really dig all of them. Filtered through the jazz perspective and process, I hear it; without that, I don't, not yet at least. That's frustrating, but oh well. Again, too bad for me, but no one else need lose any sleep over it.

I don't think there is much "mainstream" pop or rock that I can tolerate, let alone that threatens to attain the status I accord to my favorite classical and jazz artists.
Is Hendrix mainstream? I'm not so sure. He has some baggage, and he did some edgy shit at his live shows. Like bebop, I'm not sure polite white culture (yeah, I said it) really embraces him yet, or if it ever will for that matter. I could be pulling that out of my ass, but it's certainly observable that groups like The Beatles and Radiohead have been fetishized (and co-opted also) by mainstream white culture in a way that Hendrix hasn't. It's because he can't be, but I'm not sure he would be anyway. I'm going to shut up about that now because I'm out of my league.

The artists I listed in the thread are the best I can do, but as I implied, I don't think most people would even count them as "pop," and certainly not as mainstream. As far as rap and hip-hop goes, I still have "E. 1999 Eternal" by Bone Thugs as well as Eminem's "Marshall Mathers LP" on my shelf, though I haven't listened to them recently. There are only a couple of tracks on each of them that I dig, though. I like Tupac, but I only listen to him on Pandora, and only occasionally at that...and only when the algorithm gets around to it at that. As you can see, I'm not current on this stuff. I've given some thought to checking out some local artists, but frankly, I need someone to go with. I go to classical and jazz concerts by myself on purpose so that people won't bother me, but in this case, I simply hate being in a "club" setting by myself (actually, I hate it period, but I'll go if someone else really wants to and there's a musical payoff).

Anonymous said...

IMO, Hendrix is harder to cover because his soundscape (guitar, distortion, vocal sound) is as important as his melody or harmony. The Beatles or Stevie Wonder have easier melody and harmony to lift and change.

You raise an interesting point about age. When I was younger, I was more interested in the abstract elements of music (structure, new harmony, the unexpected). Lately, I've been more interested in immediate emotional impact (how to make a listener feel a certain way).