Wednesday, January 30, 2008 


So today on the Stylus board we got into talking about that old canard rockism. I was asked about my terms by the esteemed Jonathan Bradley, and after I found I'd written a little essay addressing the whole thing on much broader terms, I figured I'd post it here. Caveat lector, unless you find philosophy and art interesting.


This is one of the reasons why 'popist' is a really ill chosen term. I guess 'rockist' and 'anti-rockist' would be slightly better, but...

For me, a rockist is a person who agrees with at least one (but usually both) of the two following statements with regards to aesthetics (we're talking about musical aesthetics, but I see no reason why the structure doesn't apply elsewhere as well):

1. There is something outside of our subjective experience of art that is valid to appeal to in terms of our critical and appreciative practice
2. A particular person's subjective experience is more/less valid than another particular person's subjective experience

Of course, I'm not sure #2 isn't just reducible to #1, so maybe think of them like Kant's different formulations of the Categorical Imperative.

Rockists are usually rockist because, in terms of 2, they think their experience is more valid than someone (everyone?) else's. But we all think that, deep down, or at least that our experience is more valuable (which is a different thing, and this distinction is why of course I don't discount breadth of listening, musical training, etc) than someone else's. The crucial turn the rockist takes is in being insecure enough that they require an objective foundation for this feeling, rather than realizing that since everyone has this feeling (including people the rockist 'knows' are 'wrong'), it isn't much more than our knee jerk feelings that we are special, unique, and so on.

In order for our feeling that we are 'right' and others are 'wrong' about art to be held openly and freely, we have to rationalize a structure that allows people to be right and wrong about art in a way that is, when you get right down to it, indefensible. Maybe your personal taste in music is that danceability is your be all and end all; well then, if you're a rockist, what makes music good for everyone is the extent to which it facilitates dancing. Someone will disagree, because aesthetic experience and that mysterious thing we call "taste" isn't even close to universal; but for the rockist, that person is objectively, demonstrably wrong. They run into so many problems with this for two crucial reasons: The first is that rockists don't agree on their universal standards and the second is that there is no objective way to demonstrate that someone disagreeing with a rockist is wrong. Even about something as basic as melody; not only do some people genuinely and in good faith not enjoy melody as much as other elements of a piece of music, but even among melody lovers there is not consensus about what makes a good melody (as past discussion here suggests).

Now, most people on some level know at least some version of this. And I personally do in everyday speech occasionally say something like "ugh, I hate this band, they're a bad band." But I realise that what I'm really saying is "I don't like this band." I should still stop saying it the other way - it confuses people.

There's a theory much like that in ethics (I can't be bothered to try and look it up - ascriptivism, maybe?) that says ethical statements work in this fashion, that saying "murder is morally wrong" is functionally equivalent to saying "I don't like murder," and it's had all sorts of problems (justifiably so). But that's because one of the whole points of ethics is trying to find a principled answer to the question of what it is about a statement like "murder is morally wrong" that goes above and beyond subjective experience. Maybe they'll find out that there's nothing there, but we feel very deeply (and have come up with a lot of really cogent thinking about the idea that) there's something more at stake in morality than just subjective experience. But with aesthetic appreciation, there has yet to be a really principled, defensible explanation of what's at stake above and beyond me saying "I don't like that song." That's what a rockist would have to do in order for me to stop being so knee-jerk anti-rockist - give a cohesive and, as I said, principled account of what's lying behind there.

Which doesn't mean that I, especially as a critic, don't have things to tackle myself. As Gavin Mueller put it after he stopped writing for us,

So if you've torn down every "objective" standard by which to judge music, and accept that everyone is free to like whatever they want, how the fuck do you write music reviews? It seems to me that the current format of music reviews is indelibly linked to rockism. It continually strikes me as a poor way to discuss music in this "new" critical language. Most critics lazily punt by calling stuff "catchy" or "fun" (like these are descriptors). I, more drastically, stopped writing reviews. If you position yourself as some sort of arbiter of taste, you have to privilege your musical values over other things -- but by "popist" logic, this is (at best) pointless (since everyone has his own opinion) or fascist (since you attempt to "impose" your own opinions on others). And with mp3 blogs and p2p, everyone can listen to the tracks themselves and make their own decisions. So where do reviews go from here? That's what I want to know.

The reason I've kept that quotation, from an old comment on an old Stylus article, is because I think he's quite intelligently and quickly summed up the problems for anti-rockists and anti-rockist criticism. And I do believe there's a principled, cogent account of what criticism is and is for that addresses these. It's what I almost did my thesis on. I don't have the time to tackle it until I've done my actual thesis, of course, but it's interesting to note how well Ingarden's notion of art as intentional object works with this kind of aesthetics.

Monday, January 28, 2008 

So it turns out Alexandre Dumas is awesome

How do I now know this, despite having no time to read? Via Hansel Castro's fine blog Hallucina, where he has been (among other things) recounting the plot of one of Dumas' novels. Very different than I would have thought, and highly entertaining. But that's not all - pretty much everything Hans gets up to is at worst entertaining and at best profound (I'd start with this post, about Heath Ledger, joking, and context). He's the friend of a friend, but I'd read him even if he wasn't.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008 

Getting my feet wet

So I voted in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll this year, as it would have felt weird not to, and my ballot is here (I did Idolator too, because why not?). Very little of my list made it anywhere near the top of theirs, and given my disdain for everyone's favourite record this year (and the paralyzing, smoothing powers of consensus) that's not surprising. I'm not boasting - sometimes I definitely wished I had more in common with my peers as far as taste went. But it's not really important, is it? Most of my friends like music I hate and vice versa, and agreeing on music is highly overrated, I think.

You may notice that the ballots are different - this was also the year I happily gave up on the notion that I'd have one, set-in-stone, real true definitive top ten for the year. Just some records that I really liked and wanted to highlight. (Hence why what switched from list to list were things like the New Pornographers and Radiohead, and not, say, Picastro) I did the Idolator ballot first, if anyone wants to know how my picks may have shifted. Making lists is fun, but I can't say I have the time or patience to pick through either massive undertaking; are clearly put together well and feature tons of great writing, but other than checking out what friends had to say I kind of have to, and want to, leave it alone.

Sunday, January 20, 2008 

You must have more important things to do

Want to know my glenn mcdonald is still my favourite writer about music? Here's the entirety of what he wrote about Drums and Guns, from his 2007 roundup:

More noises and more instruments and more words, and yet every record gets Low even closer to the perfect fury of silence. There was no more chilling moment for me in last year's music, or maybe any year's, than listening to "Murderer" on headphones, loud, in the dark, and hearing Alan tell God "I've seen you pound your fist into the earth" in only my right ear. Stereo may never have mattered more. And it's only one more rotation to get to the elusive third channel that goes straight through us without ever being heard.

You may not get the same chill running through you that I do, but you also probably haven't listened to "Murderer" as much as I have.

Saturday, January 19, 2008 

Shed some light, shed some light on me

So, I've been a bit overly busy (and stressed out) recently, working away at the draft of my thesis. I met with my advisor briefly yesterday and he told me he didn't really expect the rest of it until Reading Week or so (I was planning on end of January). It was also a friend's birthday festivities last night. The combination of my deadline being relaxed and the general "let's get druuuuunk" air of the party last night meant that I did, in fact, get really drunk for the first time in what felt like months and danced my ass off for hours (I think I may have bruised my feet a little, actually). I had a little money in my pocket, we had a bottle of Spumonti Bambino (ahh, the old days of getting drunk for $6), they played "Ready For the Floor" (Made in the Dark is crazy, crazy good, by the way - analogies friends were drawing to the career of New Order back with The Warning actually might be apposite), I got to hang out with people I haven't seen enough of recently, and it was just generally a great night. Probably the first time since I've sequestered myself away to write that I've been happy without feeling guilty about it at the same time.

So I don't work at the store again until Monday, and I've decided I'm taking the weekend off. I put in some really hard work the last two weeks, and damn it I deserve it. I'm going to go pick up ingredients for some curry I'm making for friends for lunch and then I'm going to see Cloverfield tonight. Yeah.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008 

Hold on a second

Sunday, January 13, 2008 


It seems like every time during my degree that I've had a strict deadline and some real work to get done, I happen to start experiencing some significant emotional turmoil that threatens to derail the whole thing. This turmoil is always unrelated to the events of my life, some kind of weird rootless feeling. I've decided it's an exceptionally baroque form of procrastination my subconscious is trying out.


No noise

The idea that, when I get a proper driver's license, I might not be able to get one of these in Ontario is kind of enraging.

Saturday, January 12, 2008 

That's how it starts

The second entry on What Was It Anyway?, and the first by me, is up today. Watch me bash Sound of Silver, if you like - I'm still bummed it was Stylus' last ever #1. Not a horrible album, but so woefully undeserving of the praise lofted it's way that I wince. As opposed to M.I.A.'s Kala, which I also dislike but have no response beyond apathetic boredom, as the DJ playing "Bamboo Banga" last night reaffirmed.


Don't you know, baby

Feel good hits of the 12th of January, 2008:

The Go-Betweens - "You Won't Find It Again"
Wheat - "Some Days"
Silver Jews - "Tennessee"
Pet Shop Boys - "Love Comes Quickly"
The Delgados - "Pull the Wires From the Wall"
The Four Tops - "I Can't Help Myself"
Hope Sandoval - "Around My Smile"
Josh Rouse - "Hey Porcupine"
Fennesz - "Transit"
The Go-Betweens - "Rock and Roll Friend"

Friday, January 11, 2008 

Caught in the vortex

One of the nice things about getting a bit older is being able to re-evaluate albums that I listened to a lot when I was a teenager. In some cases they don't seem to have the charge they used to, whether because I've since found better replacements for them, or my taste has changed, or I just burned myself out on them at the time (it's hard to tell). It's been more productive, enjoyable and fun to go back to ones I found muddled or unsatisfying at the time, especially as I seem to like those more now.

Primal Scream's Vanishing Point is an almost perfect example. I loved, loved, loved "Kowalski" when I heard it, and the album is responsible for introducing me to the film and to Flannery O'Connor, both of which I adore. But as a seventeen year old I had a fairly rigid idea of how albums worked (what a relief, to find that in some ways at least I'm getting more flexible as I age!) and also didn't have the patience for the kind of genius that "Trainspotting" exhibits (as opposed to the dumb but thrilling cover of "Motorhead").

"Burning Wheel," for example, fit the idea of the sort of thing I would have expected to see at the end of an album. The damn thing takes two minutes to lumber to its feet, out of the murk! It's the kind of self-consciously expanded pacing I was used to encountering only after several more conventional tracks, and it wasn't helped by the fact that the song never builds to anything more determinate or pithy than "If you could see what I see, feel what I feel / When my head is on fire, I'm a burning wheel." I love the track now, especially as a forerunner to the many self-loathing lyrics on XTRMNTR as well as for its druggy whirl, but the slackness of focus at the time I took for damning.

But I was at least able to appreciate "Burning Wheel," as opposed to the one glaring error that makes Vanishing Point as issued one of the most glaring missteps of 1997. "Get Duffy" isn't a horrible track, I guess - at 4:10 it's at least twice as long as it should be, yes, but it's kind of pleasant. But it's also the kind of thing that is almost designed to be shoved into the last four minutes of a thirty minute last track index on a CD, one of those odious 'hidden track' things that everyone did once they figured out they could on CD without much difficulty. Primal Scream instead shoved it into the second place spot, killing whatever momentum "Burning Wheel" painstakingly builds as surely as Kowalski's own sudden impact in the movie that gives the album its name. These days I just skip it or, when adding it to the iPod, leave the track out altogether (I feel no guilt over this), but at the time my impulse wasn't to skip it so much as put something else on entirely. The other two instrumentals on Vanishing Point are good - in the case of "If They Move, Kill 'Em," among the best tracks they've ever produced, so why shoehorn such a tepid slice of soundtrack stuffing into that essential second spot?


You're killing me stop killing me

While putting more stuff on the iPod tonight I was reminded of the infinite genius of the amazing, unheralded, disbanded and too good for this world Prolapse and especially their The Italian Flag album. "Killing the Bland" may have saved my life once, and the only reason TIF wouldn't make a list of my top ten albums of all time would be that I'd forgotten about it (I do that a lot, sadly, and not just with Prolapse). The above song, "Pull Through Barker," is not from The Italian Flag. In fact, if allmusic is to be trusted, it's not on any of their albums, and certainly not on the two I own. It's still a pretty good introduction to their genius, although the Linda Steelyard/Mick Derrick interaction isn't quite as psychotic as it could sometimes get.

Thursday, January 10, 2008 

Blood a Necklace

My reaction to my coworker calling in sick and having to run the store by myself from 10-2? Put on the Goslings' Between the Dead. Loud. It makes me feel better, and tends to make people more efficient in their shopping.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008 

When we're all fully grown

Considering its near total absence from the music actually played in the bars I go to, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Free Falling" soundtracks a disproportionate number of my solitary walks back to my apartment at the end of the night. Not in any sort of maudlin way - I just heard Full Moon Fever way too much as a kid (I could still hum all but one or two songs from it, I think). Today I was discussing Pulp's "Disco 2000" with Stylus people, and we had startlingly different opinions on what was going on in that song.* One idea being tossed around, and largely agreed with, was that the narrator in "Disco 2000" never loved the girl in high school at all.

"Free Falling" seems to me to be a good way to approach the topic. The most striking thing about the song as a kid, during a period when I was still used to liking narrators, is that section in the first verse about "I’m a bad boy, ‘cause I don’t even miss her / I’m a bad boy, for breaking her heart." Yes, his depiction of the 'good girl' previously isn't exactly free of contempt (and as a young Canadian boy who already had a sense he'd be spending most of his time on the fringes, I shared that sense of dismissal, even then), but I always took those lines as sincere. I'd heard enough Petty by that point to know that his voice always sounded kind of like that, and too much of the song doesn't make sense if he doesn't actually regret it; the "write her name in the sky" part, yes, but even his sudden leap into the anguish/joy of the chorus after those lines about being a bad boy.

It wasn't until years later, hearing songs like "Refugee" that I got a better sense of what Petty's narrator is up to in "Free Falling." He's sincere, yeah, but that initial sense of mocking (and not just self-mocking) is valid. Listen to the way he sings, in the second verse, "And all the bad boys are standin' in the shadows / And the good girls are home with broken hearts" - that same smarm to his voice as he elongates "good" and "bad" as before. Yes, he wishes he could be home with the good girl, no broken hearts. But he also revels in the situation, in the 'coolness' of being one of those bad boys. He knows he's done wrong, but at the same time as he coolly damns himself for it he tries to squirm away from the real force of his petty emotional crime. It's the sound of someone trying to have their cake and eat it too, and it's what gives "Free Falling" it's very real force.

To any Pulp fans, I'd like to think the parallels to "Disco 2000" are beginning to become obvious. "The boys all loved you but I was a mess / I had to watch them trying to get you undressed / We were friends but that was as far as it went / I used to walk you home sometimes but it meant / Oh it meant nothing to you / 'Cos you were so / Popular" is a heartbreakingly blunt and common reading of shy schoolboy romantic trauma, and the pain here is twofold; both the remembered failure and the fresher sting of knowing that he's no longer quite so awkward. Don't get me wrong, he may not suddenly be irresistible to women, but growing up imbues enough social skills that he's presumably had dates, relationships, intimate contact. He knows, in other words, how easy it would have been not to have been so awkward and fumbling, that it wasn't anyone else's fault, and that it doesn't matter now - he's never going to have her. He may not even want to any more.

There are two readings of Deborah's situation which are equally valid, I think, given the lack of clues in the song itself, and which give slightly different feels to the song but that both fit into the same basic picture. The video, of course, remains teasingly vague; the impression it always gives me is of what the narrator would imagine some sort of teenaged success with Deborah would be like. But in the now-present day of the song, I can't see both of them being happy. So, in the first case, Deborah is. She's married, she's got a kid, successful, etc. While he's "living down here on my own." He wants to see her again, still wants her, knowing nothing will happen. "You can even bring your baby" is bitterly self-mocking. He knows he shouldn't even be calling. He's better with women than he used to be but it doesn't matter. The song is both achingly, sincerely romantic and full of the bitterest mockery.

Or, our narrator is happy. He's single and he enjoys it. Deborah has aged into a drab housewife, with a husband she tolerates and a baby she's not even sure she wanted. He's possibly a cad, a womanizer, but enjoys it even as he knows it's wrong. He's not even sure if he wants her, but the idea of success, or rather of her wishing now, too late, that he'd try is sweet to him. "You can even bring your baby" is about the cruelest thing he could say to her. And yet, he knows he's being horrible, and he hates it even as he revels in it and can't escape it. He's better with women than he used to be but it doesn't matter. The song is both achingly, sincerely romantic and full of the bitterest mockery.

Either way, the narrator of "Disco 2000," like the narrator of "Free Falling," wants what he can't have, what he won't let himself have. Either way, on some level what Jarvis wants is what he never had in high school, but he thinks it's impossible (either because she's happy and will reject him again, or because their roles have shifted too much for it to mean anything). He can't help asking, just as Petty can't help empathizing/regretting, but the only way he can bring himself to do that (both because he thinks its doomed and because he genuinely enjoys his status as lech/sad bastard/"bad boy" even as he laments it) is by role-playing. The role-playing, of course, is his sincerity. Only by joking or posing or mocking can he fully get across the whole "I need you / I don't need you" (to quote Cohen again) in his heart.

*I think. The people I was talking with will remain nameless, not because they would be or should be embarrassed, but because I concede I might have totally misunderstood them.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008 

We get on

It's been a pretty productive day - got my glasses fixed, got the reimbursement check for same from CUPE, had a good day at work, am busily working away here - when Todd Burns lets me know that my first (but hopefully not only) review for the Village Voice was published today. Which marks, I guess, my first formally paid music writing outside of my Hillside article for Stylus this summer. As much as I love Stylus though, this is a bit more high profile. You'll hopefully be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing once I'm done my thesis.



I can't believe I forgot to post this a few days ago, when I read it; What Was It Anyway? is the newest thing from the House of Ideas that was Stylus, a group blog (accepting submissions) determined to carry on with the spirit of our old On Second Thought column, one of the more universally praised columns (and from the inside, one of the biggest sources of pride) at Stylus back in the day. Scott McKeating, back in the fold after too long, starts us off with a fantastic dressing down of Loveless (I've said it for years, Isn't Anything is better, though I certainly like Loveless more than he does, but then again, that isn't the point).

I've got some harsh words for Sound of Silver coming up at some point which should bring out the haters. Should be fun. Keep an eye on it, kids - it oughta be a pretty great ride.

Monday, January 07, 2008 

Did we go too far?

So I'm sitting here at my computer this morning, not doing much of anything, when all of a sudden my nose starts bleeding profusely. I have no idea why, no. It seemed a little like it wasn't going to stop, which was disturbing. Thankfully it has stopped, I think, and salt and cold water gets bloodstains out of clothes pretty easily when they're fresh. Strangely, a single drop of blood got onto my F11 key, which given my keyboard's location seems a bit unlikely. This just reinforces what I was thinking last night: No more hot dogs.


Best laid

So I can't quite remember what I had planned to do today, but what wound up happening was I went to Ikea with Ben, Julia and Andy, where Andy and Ben and I had a semi-impromptu hot dog eating contest (the most disgusting thing I've ever done to myself), and then on the way back one of Julia's tires blew. So after the tow truck got there to put the spare on (who puts a spare and half a jack in a car, but not the other half of the jack or anything to take the bolts off of the tire? the people who made Julia's car, that's who) we drove to Andy's where, from about 5:30 until 11 we drank (a case of Lucky and a bunch of "Porn Stars," our new favourite mixed drink - think this, but with full ounces and topped up with club soda), laughed our asses off and listened to a ton of good stuff on vinyl (Closer, New Order, Bowie, Black Dice, Teengeneration, Black Uhuru etc). A hell of a way to spend your day. I'm listening to Desmond Dekker and reading about horror movies, and then I'm going to go to bed. Thank god today was my Saturday.

Thursday, January 03, 2008 

Jigsaw falling into place

While talking to a friend on Gmail chat tonight, I finally articulated one of the things I love about Philip K. Dick's work:

me: [The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is] maybe the height of his narrative didacticism, but kind of weirdly powerful as a result

i mean, like half of the book is the internal monologues of characters as they realise just how existentially fucked they are now, but it gives the whole thing this kind of weird pulp gravitas

there's showing, but there's also a lot of telling, if you get what i mean

It's weird, because it's a storytelling mode that goes against a lot of common sense and that I should hate, but it's actually one of my favourite things about The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubk, VALIS, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said et al.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008 

Everyone here does so just enjoy yourself

Happy New Year, everybody!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008 


So I spent all of today at a friend's, drinking gin, watching Leprechaun: Back 2 Da Hood and marathons of that godawful Tila Tequila show and When Animals Attack, eating lots of good food. It was a pretty fun day; I was DD last night and so did my drinking today instead. I kind of preferred it that way.

So I'm relaxing tonight, re-reading Philip K. Dick's terrifying The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and on page 71 of the Vintage TPB edition, where Roger Hnatt is experiencing his first evolved thoughts, I run smack dab into nothing less than a pretty good description of Spinoza's metaphysics in precis form. I think the last time I read this book I hadn't read Ethica yet; my shock was pretty monumental. My appreciation of the interweaving, though, is even bigger.

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About me

Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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