Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Random Cultural Criticism Time

Regarding the last two posts:

The Jackson Browne video is truly beautiful to me, despite what everyone will say, which may sound like, “Jesus, that is soooo dated.” Well fuck you. It is, but it is still cool to these old eyes. I mean, the video is from 1983, back when videos were still young. It looks like ass at times, yeah, but the yuppie in the car rowing along the moon and skyline really kind of gets me for some reason.

I heard the song on the radio this weekend, a song I have (thanks, Xtop) on my laptop. But you rarely hear it on the radio, not these days. No, stations tend to favor Jackson’s earlier works. I was trying to decode the lyrics, explaining to mi bella niña what I though they might mean. Granted, these are hardly the most inscrutable of lyrics and if I can attempt to interpret Paul Muldoon I can certainly give Jackson Browne a whirl. I won’t get into my thoughts on the song’s meaning, the ideas of a rapidly vanishing culture replaced by television, Cold War propaganda and the Reagan/Thatcher era celebration of corporate life.

But since we’re on the subject:

I am reading another book for the publishing seminar, The Business of Books by André Schiffrin, a book much like Jason Epstein’s except this one eschews name-dropping and nostalgia for a closer examination of the ways in which the bottom line began to dictate how publishing houses were run. A lot of mention is made of the ‘80s emergence of monoculture and how it reshaped the way a lot of business was conducted. The conclusion is not so much that this era was bad, or even that corporations are inherently evil, but Schiffrin echoes much of Epstein’s thoughts on how a “cottage industry” became obsessed with profits to the point of dispensing with quality products. Worse, it makes reference to the power of publishers and how they ultimately decide what books and ideas get discussed by the world’s population.

The idea seems simple. A publisher goes into business to make a modest living knowing that the reward is the finished product and, most importantly, the backlist. Establishing a reputation as knowledgeable men (and eventually, sadly quite late in the game, women) eager to promote emerging talent while making a name as lovers (notice this comes first) and purveyors of the timeless tradition of the written word was once the highest calling of any publisher. You publish the stuff that sells to subsidize the more “challenging” works that you believe will endure long after the tell-all bios and fad diet books are forgotten. Somewhere along the line this changed and many publishing heads (and Schiffrin names names) decided that every book ought to turn a larger profit in order for these houses to be competitive. Never mind that the same corporations own a good number of the houses, so in essence the money ends up in one hand. Penguin and Signet could each publish Mark Twain pocket paperbacks and compete for sales, but what does it matter when both publishers live in the same corporate house?

Schiffrin has nothing against profit. Who would? What is called into question in his engrossing book is what this means for the literacy and collective culture of our nation. When all publishers want to see are bottom line results, the books that will make it into stores will largely be, to borrow a phrase from Jeanette Winterson, printed television. Philosophy, hard science, quality literature (forget about poetry) and real history (not collected sound-bites and sweeping overviews) be damned, there’s money to be made.

Okay, it’s a bit negative of me to consider this a crisis. Truly there are good books and important authors still around and still managing, somehow, to make it into print. Quasi-intellectual assholes like Jonathan Franzen can publish and sell their books without much ado, even after spurning Oprah’s Book Club. Dave Eggers, the literary prankster, can get a book deal. Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon are (or at least were) hot, the former starting off pigeonholed as a sci-fi writer and the latter somehow netting a Pulitzer. Regardless of what I think of any of these writers, they do represent a new generation of people writing seriously (sometimes) and managing to raise the public’s awareness of what’s going on in literature (somewhat). All four represent an unlikely success story. Good for them. Of course, all four are Americans. Literature in translation is a whole other story. And of these writers, Eggers is perhaps the most experimental. Lethem was at one point, but his broadest recognition came after publishing Motherless Brooklyn, his first book to dispense with sci-fi elements and surrealistic absurdity. What can one conclude other than Americans don’t like the strange?

Is it the Americans who don’t care for experimental or “challenging” books or is it the result of a long process of dumbing-down stemming from the Media that caters to the lowest common denominator? Not sure, but an interesting thought.

What does this have to do with Jackson Browne? Plenty, but you know, I think I’ve made my tenuous connection clear. If I haven’t, go watch the video below and pay attention to the words and see what you get out of them.

Regarding the Melvins video I posted:

It ties in as well. The Melvins have made a career out of influencing other bands and then outlasting them. Nirvana, Soundgarden, basically all the Seattle bands of the ‘90s, not to mention bay area metal bands and dirtheads around the world, all owe a debt to the Melvins. Mainstream recognition has eluded them, largely due to their very strange, often heavy, often just plain weird music. They are pretty unclassifiable and always daring, even after 20 odd records. One of the reasons the song “Boris” is a fan favorite is because it epitomizes what the Melvins were doing all the way back on their third record that made them so interesting. They were playing SLOWLY when the rest of the rock/metal world was obsessed with musical calisthenics and playing at a 100 MPH. And the guitar tuning is in drop-D, which people had shunned in the ‘80s and which so many grunge bands would later adopt. And the song is over eight minutes long, rare for a rock band at the time, unthinkable for a punk group. Stunts like that helped keep the band a cult favorite. Eventually Atlantic signed them hoping they would be the next Nirvana. Three albums later, they were dropped. What’s really amazing is that Nirvana ever broke through. Of course, they had a certain pop appeal that the Melvins rarely display.

“Boris” is not what popular music sounds like. Not a dis against pop music, but the Melvins don’t fit into that world. But they do make incredible music and are apparently quite happy being on smaller labels. The argument any rabid fan would want to offer is that bands like the Melvins ought to be given more exposure and greater recognition, but now we’re getting into the whole punk rock idea of a band (or a book) being cool solely because only a handful in the know are into it/them. There’s little to argue. We cherish our indie bands and obscure literary titles just as much as we rail against the system that keeps them small. I suppose blaming the conglomerates is not entirely wrong, but the culpability is mutual, especially in regard to indie music, a collective of the most rigid thinking conformists, via obvious nonconformity.

Where am I going with all this?

If anything is going to change a definite plan would need to be constructed, one free from rhetoric and the tired bullshit about revolutions, televised or not, and sticking it to the man. And such a plan would require organization, money and dedication, things I lack. So in the meantime I’ll just keep over-thinking the importance of nearly forgotten Jackson Browne songs and do little more than spew this fake cultural criticism online, the place where all bullshit gets disseminated without editing or readership.

Thank you for your time.