Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Revolution Will Not Have a Musical Score: Sanneh and "Before the Music Dies"

Kelefa Sanneh of the New York Times provided an interesting critique Nov. 16 of the new film by Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen, "Before the Music Dies."

Sanneh is a bit harsh in the way that friends who sympathize with an argument but think the argument is overblown can always be harsh. There are holes in both sides of this music debate, but I think Sanneh's conclusion speaks volumes at the end of this essay when he says that "It's nice to imagine we're all in this together. But we ain't." Remember Lou Reed's scathing critique of Jesse Jackson and his "quilt" theory? I disagreed with Reed, as he thought Jackson was too anti-Semitic and Reed himself was too accepting of Israel's policy, but I agreed with his observation that there may never be a quilt big enough to cover what once was called The Movement. And in fact, there was never a form of rock and roll that was going to lead the revolution. Despite what The Who, Springsteen, Abbie Hoffman, and Don McLean said, rock and roll was never going to save anyone's mortal soul.

Point for Sanneh: The so-called unity of music was largely a product of clever advertising during the 1960s, and a temporary media fascination with youth culture during that same period. Yes, AM radio programming in the 1960s provided temporary unity of genres, and FM underground programming a few years later presented an illusion of an underground. Yes, there was a lot more politics in million-seller music of the past, and it sure felt good to hear Grace Slick say, "Up against the wall motherfucker," but that particular revolution was always brought to you by RCA.

Point for Shapter/Rasmussen: The filmmakers recognize the star-making machinery has been broken for decades, and Sanneh points out that even its executives are willing to concede that now. But the same is true for mainstream media - the owners of newspapers and TV news concede they've been stenographers to power for over 20 years, yet they keep sucking up to the big corporate and government teats. Music industry developers knew they were touting talentless boy-girl bubble bands and flat hip-hop and R&B acts for many years, even as they were slicing out the hearts of good A&R people pursuing real talent. But as long as the money came in, they weren't willing to rock a boat that was obviously springing leaks everywhere. Sanneh isn't emphasizing how utterly hypocritical it is for former music execs to complain now.

Point for Sanneh: The column says the filmmakers don't identify what genre they support, though there are suggestions that the love for Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, and obscure blues singers may indicate a wannabe-hippie/world-music love. That does indeed seem to be the Shapter/Rasmussen bias. I have news for them: The best pop music was not necessarily made before 1975. The punk explosion of the late 1970s, the grunge/indie explosion of the 1990s, had just as much validity and talent as any late-60s cornucopia. (Maybe we can all agree that with exceptions like Smiths, Talking Heads, and REM, the 1980s were a pretty empty period.) Maybe it's a shame that a lot of good 1990s bands didn't get the attention they deserved, but sometimes it's better when certain revolutions aren't televised. Besides, if the filmmakers are hippie-jammers, what the hell are they complaining about, they've got more String Cheese Incident and Phish albums than could be listened to in a finite amount of time.

Uncertain Point: Power pop, values, and million-seller hits make for interesting debates, but please don't use Nickelback as an example of someone with all political and cultural hearts in the right place! Shapter and Rasmussen only were wrong in their particular iconic choice. The fact remains that hit-making radio goes through inexplicable trends in tastemaking. No form of power pop could get on a Top 40 station in the late 1990s and very early 2000s. Today, we have Killers and Fallout Boy and The Fray and Panic at the Disco, but we don't have a thousand more deserving indie bands. And it's not due to any band's inherent grace or better politics, there's a random suckup factor at work here.

Point for Sanneh: What in the world is the Shapter/Rasmussen obsession with Bob Dylan, and the queries on Dylan made to fans attending an Ashlee Simpson concert? Didn't the filmmakers read the excellent and highly-deserved slam on Dylan-worshippers by Richard Goldstein in The Nation magazine in May? ( Dylan gave the world two years of biting political commentary, five years of surrealist hyper-observations of the culture, and 38 years of uneven, shlocky material. Every decade has given us plenty of good, political, topical folk singers, many of whom have talents nearing Dylan's. (Best one today is David Rovics, The only difference is that revolutionary songwriters in later decades were singing to the committed, while Dylan grabbed a mass audience through good PR.

Uncertain Point: Neither the filmmakers nor Sanneh recognize the value in keeping your music-making away from mass culture as a deliberate strategy. I'm not arguing for willful obscurity, if you happen to find an audience of millions, good for you! But true underground music is healthier in the 21st century than it's ever been, and if you're not aware of it, it's because you may not know about it. Remember, the albums from the psychedelic era that fetch the highest prices on eBay these days are by bands that even the most adamant Haight-Ashbury acidhead wouldn't have heard of. They were released in editions of 200 copies by regional revolutionaries who never scratched the pop culture surface. There are thousands of great musicians and bands in the 21st century who tout their stuff only on MySpace, YouTube, and online mail-order lists, using the Internet to completely bypass the mass culture. Many use an art-curator model to offer hand-painted editions of CDs and vinyl in worldwide editions of 50 or 100. Sanneh mentioned the execs lamenting the kids who don't buy any physical copies of music today, and simply download files from iTunes. Well, let them have their Nelly Furtado or Kanye West in disposable format, since it's disposable music! Meanwhile, the true underground thrives, and doesn't care how healthy Sony Music or Island Records may be at any given moment.

Remember what your friends at indymedia say, "Be the media." Large corporations will never provide a soundtrack for revolution.


Dan said...

Loring, re: Nickelback, you said: "Shapter and Rasmussen only were wrong in their particular iconic choice." According to Sanneh, that was only the opinion of Bob Lefsetz, not of the filmmakers. (Although Sanneh does say that Nb's latest "hit" is a "first-rate power ballad.")

Loring said...

Thanks for the correction, Dan, and maybe I should award the points to S&R, if Sanneh's going to say nice things about Nickelback!

Vince said...

Nice post Loring!

Nice site too!


Andrew said...

I am the director of Before the Music Dies and I am amazed by the mind reading going on from afar.
I am not a hippie wishing for the days of old to return, I am a music fan. I like punk, pop, rock, country, rap, metal and a whole lot of jazz.

Sanneh took some cheap shots when he wrote about the film for the New York Times. It's all good, because, millions of folks became curious. Instead of mentioning the long line of of live music performances, he focuses on a few obscur lines and then attacks them as if the whole film is centered on them. He ignored the other opinions in the film that differ from the ones he chose to attack. I woke up and read my name in the Times and I was shocked to see two years of work on a music documentary came down to two lines.

He forgot to mention that Clapton, Elvis Costello, Les Paul and so many others offer great wisdom in the film.

So many people who've seen the film and read the review said to me "you think he really watched the entire film"? I don't really know, however, it seems he only saw a couple of clips and took it from there.

The film was so misrepresented. We state clearly in the film that the best music is ahead of us. We make it clear that the music industry has always been a numbers game and will always be. Now, more than ever, there are boundless opportunities for musicians. It's all in the film which many consider very a positive inspiration. Watch the film yourself and decide.

P.S. I like this blog and I look forward to reading more.

Loring said...

Thanks so much for posting, your film played in Boulder last week and it really WAS very good. As for Sanneh, I think it's true that ANY publicity is good publicity, and the NYT rant, despite its negativity, served the film well.