Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Zither Music is Awesome. So is “Milkshake.” (Mine Doesn’t Bring All the Boys to the Yard L).

 Warning: this post does seem rather pretentious, given that I’m railing against pretension. Please forgive me.

           OK, I admit, some of my musical tastes are rather highbrow. I have an absurd fondness for Chinese ‘80s music, Irish Gaelic folk music, traditional Spanish music, and hymns from all over the world. I go crazy for Borodin and Bartok. I can sing sean-nós and Syriac paeans. I’ve gone to Russian folk concerts with friends in Chicago (hey Arthur and Gwen!).
            I also think Lady Gaga is epically amazing and awesome, Ke$ha is a wonderful thing, and Taylor Swift is growing on me. The Dixie Chicks and my YouTube searches are intimately linked (I can sing Travelling Soldier in a heartbeat). Beyoncé is underrated. Hillel (who truly understands my love for trashy music) and I watched ALL the Eurovision entries in a few days in March (SERBIA!!!).
            Note: Rebecca Black sucks. Sorry. I’m also not into rap that much. Not sure why.
             I do not care how contradictory this may seem. I like my unusual tastes. I also like the fact that I could totally have a debate on Blah Blah Blah v. Tik Tok with a bunch of 13-year-old girls.

            So this tendency leads me to ask: why do a lot of people at UChicago look down on this kind of music?

              Sure, I get it. You’re at a top research university, you’re special, you can tell apart pseudo-heteronormativity and the conscious display of socio-sexual conformity (and if you’re really smart, you can tell me why those two aren’t really that different, and if you do, I’ll make you brownies).

           But why does that mean that you can’t like the same thing a sixteen-year-old girl in the ghetto or a twelve-year-old farmer’s daughter likes?

           I’m not going to address everything;  I’m just going to state my thoughts on two aspects of this division.

1.      The charge of destructive pop culture. OK, admittedly, bubblegum pop-culture and Coca-Cola haven’t been the best for old-school vernacular culture. But I have two problems with this charge:
a)      Pop culture can often give old forms of art new life. For example: several pop artists across the world have included folk motifs in their work; a Maori haka (war dance) is performed by the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team and basically national religion, before every game; a Canadian artist takes traditional Native American themes and art and incorporates them into manga-style graphic novels. Pop culture is not so destructive.
b)      The destruction of older forms began not with pop culture, but with its rejection by the elite in favor of more socially acceptable forms, which is exactly what a lot of Maroons do. The decline of Irish and Turkish folk music started in the twentieth century with the wholesale rejection of both forms by the elite, who preferred supposedly avant-garde stuff from London or France. Their grandkids today disdain “pop norms” and listen to some bullshit imitation of what was destroyed. The quashing of folk stuff – that comes from the elite. Folk forms would have been much stronger had the big people not decided that it was too trashy or too provincial for them.
Also, it’s usually ordinary people who drive revivals. Both Irish and Turkish folk were partially revived not by well-meaning liberal elites who never heard Madonna, but by a giant national interest spurred by the sudden popularity of folk-informed music with modern twists. Think Enya.

2.      The charge of inherent racism and classism and biases and such. Yes, I get that country music is very white, and R&B music is quite African-American, and that white jocks sometimes try too hard to be “gangster” under the influence of rap. But what about you? Indie rock has got to be the whitest genre ever. If anything, it’s whiter than country or R&B combined. It all seems to be rich white kids who failed at life and now pluck guitars. OK, that’s unfair. But it’s white people playing to white people using references tailored to white people of a certain social class, and usually in a faux-poor-actually-posh context.
                             I can see why pop music might seem rather…monotonous, but I see a huge diversity within it: from Taylor Swift’s country anthems to Beyonce’s R&B, multi-influenced songs. Enrique Iglesias gets people of all colors and backgrounds swinging their bottoms to the beat.
Admittedly, I can see some improvement with indie rock, but it seems pretty white. Not as white as metal, but still white. I think it also seems to avoid admitting a lot of influences – including that of country. My sister listens to a lot of indie rock and it’s striking how much of it reminds me of Johnny Cash.

Then again, no one in Wicker Park would be caught dead listening to Johnny Cash.

Look, I get that what I’m saying might upset you. Feel free to disagree with me. Feel free to continue disdaining pop culture, and allow yourself to be isolated from American vernacular culture. Feel free to say things like “JK’s got some really cool musical tastes like Gaelic stuff, but then he blasts Ke$ha and I want to punch him in the face.” Stick with that proud tradition of kicking “low” culture! I’ll stick with my Irish folk songs, my Coptic hymns, and my GaGa.

And you’re welcome to respect my near-addiction to Gaelic music, and to piss on my liking for trashy bubblegum pop. Just don’t be surprised when, while visiting the museum, after a deep historical analysis, I start singing this, quietly, before a nude painting in the Baroque wing of the Art Institute:

My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,
And they're like
It's better than yours,
Damn right it's better than yours….”-Kelis, whose song is still fresh and awesome eight years later

1 comment:

  1. To paraphrase the excellent Ted Cohen: Does a person who likes 'high art' get more pleasure out of music than a person who likes 'low art'? If so, how and why? He said he didn't know the answer to this.