Tom Waits/Pusha T
Well, They Both Kind of Growl
Tom Waits: Bad as Me (Anti-)
The three strongest tracks on Waits's most rocking album ever all feature not just Keith Richards but Tom's drummer son Casey‑-Richards alone doesn't rock as hard. Not to equate Casey Waits with Charlie Watts. But since "Chicago" invokes the Great Migration and "Satisfied" namechecks Mick Jagger himself, I believe the grooves on this album are thematic. Of course, the themes are thematic too. The carpet-bombing "Hell Broke Luce" and the one about bailing out millionaires while the rest of us murk around in the mud are low-life chronicles for a time when it would be stupid to ignore the historical connection between low-life and poverty per se. A MINUS
Pusha T: Fear of God II--Let Us Pray (GOOD/Decon/Re-Up Gang)
You know him‑-runs Clipse Cocaine LLC with his sharp-voiced brother Malice, who want you to know that, in the hallowed tradition of Handsome Dick Manitoba, music is just a hobby for them. The grand beats are safer than the clenched, confining, arrogantly hookless minimalism of Hell Hath No Fury. But every mean word delivers, and with cameos from Tyler the Creator to 50 Cent it's as if he never went solo. Like it or not, the volume dealer who raps for pocket money remains a good act‑-does he sound miserable in his thousand-dollar sneakers. Of course, we who buy our footwear online may prefer the price of the mixtape where half these tracks surfaced last spring. So maybe it would be poetic to try and obtain this improved version free as well. He won't spray us. That's just talk. A MINUS
I'll have some of that! YES I'LL HAVE SOME OF THAT!!!!
A Waits-related anecdote from Connie Land.
When I was 18 yrs old I moved to NYC and it coincided with Waits' "Mule Variations" tour. I ditched my science class, went down to the Beacon Theatre and scalped a solo ticket. I remember I still had my backpack on from class.
I went in there lookin like a teenage bum. Elvis Costello walked by me and Lou Reed was sitting not far from me. The guy next to me was whispering that Keith Richards was there somewhere. I had never been to a concert in New York, never seen Waits, was alone and very internalized at that time. My heart was racing even before the show began.
And then what unfurled over the next 2-3 hours pretty much changed my life and made me want to be a performer. He came back for 3 encores and people threw roses onto the stage. I can literally remember how the theatre SMELLED that night (sawdust and old velvet) and hanging out in the lobby until most everyone had left. It was one of the greatest nights of my life...really really really!!
1) Having no information about who created a work of art for what reasons obviously doesn't mean you throw the work in the garbage can. You work with what you have. But when you do have the auxiliary information, then it enters the discussion. Not that it isn't a good idea to try and isolate your "pure" "aesthetic" response. But it's also completely fine to think about it in the broader context you have at your disposal.
2) The further you are from the culture that produced a work, the harder it becomes to cross-moralize. This is a major factor in enjoying African music. But it does happen that when you realize a lyric concerns why a man should never marry a woman older than himself, for instance, you enjoy the song a little less even though you don't understand the language. In the case of Paleolithic art, from a culture about which we know as opposed to surmise very little and don't surmise all that efficiently either, moral questions would be pretty much off the table even if we did, for instance, know the painter was a "mass murderer," whatever that could even mean in such a society.
3) Most important, there's a logical problem. Which do you think happened? a) Milo believed in applying to morality in art until the example of cave painting occurred to him, whereupon he did a 180. b) Milo didn't believe in morality in art and was delighted to think of this dandy argument. Me, I say (b). Which means he really should be telling us about where his presupposition came from (as in the past he sometimes has). The cave paintings are just rhetoric.
You go Irene.
What a time for my EW access to be blocked, with this fiction talk. So I will hitch a ride again.
For a long time, I have noticed that music tastes rarely coincide with fiction tastes, at least for me. Like, after the 1983 poll, I was saying, my God! A world where so many people also voted Aztec Camera and Marshall Crenshaw and DeBarge. But while I'm excited to see all this fiction commentary, I feel on a different wave length so far.
Bob, his sister Georgia, and I all bond over Dreiser, and she and I like what I somewhat idiosyncratically call naturalists--not necessarily Zola, but Willa Cather, say. I trace my love for Daniel Defoe to the same taste--has something to do with the journalistic style and a certain kind of not obviously poetic repetitions. I see some version of it in Roberto Bolano--and by the way, some time back I posted here that I found 2666 too scary. I've gotten through 4 of the 5 books in its 893 pages, and my fear has turned to awe, but I'm taking a pause. Had nightmares. Just to explore the music/fiction overlap, I'd say maybe Wussy is a little related to this naturalistic thread. Tragedy in plain language, not sentimentalized. Funny doesn't hurt. Bolano is a little funny.
I found Goon Squad thin--would have liked more texture--but the power point stuff almost changed my mind, and I liked the beginning of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius much the same way but was disappointed by the characters, though I really liked Egger's Zeitoun--read it about the same time as Ned Sublette's wonderful New Orleans memoir, The Year Before the Flood.
Ok, better stop now, this could go on too long.
Before I even reply, a Preamble: In my experience, carrying discussions from thread to thread (or from review topic to review topic, in the case of EW) sets a Very Bad Precedent and is to be discouraged, avoided, whatever, as much as possible. The times I've read people getting most overheated was when debates-which-became-spats are allowed to go on and on and on with no respected mechanism to signal "enough, end of discussion, let's talk about something else."
Alright. I had no idea what I considered a kind of noncontroversial point would provoke such responses. Interesting to me that some people seem to have read what I wrote and some people read an alternative-universe version of it. I suggest folks re-examine what I posted. It's less than 150 words.
My basic comment on art and morality goes back to the earliest examples of art in Europe: cave paintings.
There's two I always hold out as works you can't deny:
"The Sorcerer of Lascoe"
And this is an honest abstraction of it, far as I can tell:
And the rhino/bird/birdman/buffalo painting at Lescaux:
I think these are unquestionably magnificent works of art. They were created by genius-level artists, even if two or three were involved. Many hundreds of years apart, even.
We will never know anything. Anything. About the lives and moral character of the artists who created these works. They could have been saints. They could have been serial killers.
Their "moral lives" have absolutely no effect on the power of their art as it exists today, thousands and thousands of years later. And it never will.
Now, I will say that when first responses call the poster "crazy" a "chump" and the argument "a crock," it tends to push the discussion down an unfortunate hill, doncha think? In this case, however, it matters not a whit because, as far as I can determine, both Irene and Bob are responding to an argument I didn't make.
I would change one word in my original statement: "My basic comment on artists and morality goes ..." Maybe all the confusion stemmed from that careless word choice.
How does ancient, non-narrative art's endurance preclude the social meaning of the contemporary art, rich with many near universally understood signifiers, made by infinitely more accessible human beings, which we now comment on?
Does my post state, suggest or even hint at such an argument? I say no.
Does this (thanks, Jason Gubbels) seem a lot more like what I was saying?
But the greater the distance between the point of creation and the aesthetic appreciation of such, the less imperative it becomes to equally weigh the creation with the individual artist's morality.
I say yes.
I also say it's neither Bob's (a) or (b) but (c) Milo isn't talking about applying morality to art, he's talking about the relevance of the moral behavior of artists to our appreciation of their work.
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The box should be available for under one hundred and fifty American dollars and includes a number of other tricks and treats. Frankly, the music is vastly superior.
imagine my consternation at not being taken seriously as the sole young lady commenter in these parts.
BTW, Irene, if you think "pretty much a crock" is gentle you must be into extreme fighting (of which I disapprove morally). I just hope Milo's still speaking to me.
Prelude: Somewhere Thomas Aquinas (perhaps cribbing from Aristotle) noted that all acts are moral acts, although some—perhaps many—are simply morally trivial. I think that’s basically right, but I think it needs to be qualified because of our different context. Modern Western society tends to think of ethics as a matter of issues or quandaries about which we have to find the right answer. Thomas, following Aristotle and much of the ancient Western heritage, had a more organic conception. (It’s a sign of this difference that many of us think of Jane Austen as a romance novelist and not as a moral philosopher, which she is. We simply don’t recognize what she’s doing as ‘ethics’.) All that to say, art—both the creation and the enjoyment of it—is moral, as is any human activity.
My point: Even if we don’t know anything about the ‘moral life’ of an artist, art still has moral import. The general dislike I expressed toward classical music many, many threads ago was, in part, moral. Orchestras in classical music seem to embody a bad hierarchy to me: conductors, first chairs, etc. (I’ve never played in an orchestra, so my outside observations could be rubbish.) Jazz represents a better hierarchy, with players taking turns in the spotlight, but even here it can be a bit too meritocratic, too individualistic for my tastes. Pop/rock—or at least the pop/rock that exists in the platonic ideal of my mind—is my favorite in part because it is so communal, yet so egalitarian even as the hierarchies that are unavoidable in life are still in play. (For instance, Page and Plant are clearly out front in Zep, but anyone who really listens hears how Bonham and Jones are just as integral—just as equal—in the sonics of that band as the glamor boys up front. They never sound merely subordinate to guitar and voice.)
If we do know something about the moral life of the artist, it can shape how we interact with the work, which can alter its moral impact. But it doesn’t simply determine the moral import of the art. Michael Jackson may have been a pedophile (to select a moral failing many find particularly wrong), but it doesn’t erase the good in his life or the good that was his music. If he was a pedophile, he wasn’t a monster; he was still a human being and, just like any of us, capable of good and evil acts. Good art—morally, aesthetically good art—can transcend the moral limitations of the artist, but it also doesn’t erase the moral complexity of the artist (which is to say the moral complexity of any human being). Reading the Fela biography included in the box set I mentioned yesterday, I was put off by the hagiography. Fela was merely the hero; his problematic sexual politics, which are part of his music, were, at best, merely implied. But even as I acknowledge problems in Fela’s ‘moral life’, I also see tremendous heroism. And knowing both those enriches my interaction with the music.
I was rereading Cam’s Brazil project posts on Tom’s website yesterday. He noted that the cover of Ze’s Todos os Olhos was one of the greatest album covers ever. (For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s a marble stuck in a rectum so that it looks like an eye.) I agree. But the reason is contextual, not merely aesthetic. It’s a coded middle finger to a repressive regime. In another context I might find the picture annoying or bratty, the kind of false rebellion, shameless shock showoff that one sees in too much recent art. But knowing the risks Ze is taking, his political intent and how he pulls one over on a regime that deserved nothing but contempt changes the interpretation—the moral significance—of the cover.
Sorry for the lengthy diatribe.
The morality in art in question has always been a minor irritant to me, which is why I reacted the way I did to Milo's post. This may seem odd from someone who others might regard as a little overly "politically correct" (I've been told more than once that I taught them the word "misogynist") but it bothers me for the following reason:
To give you the best example, I once had a conversation with a friend of mine about Picasso, who is one of my favorite artists, in part because I believe his aesthetic breakthroughs forced us to look at the world a little differently. Her response was: "I don't like the way he treated women."
Now, I agree that Picasso treated women abysmally. I also know you can argue there are some heavy misogynist undertones in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (in which five naked prostitutes are given the Cubist treatment, in a manner that makes them menacing). But this is one painting in a diverse body of work, and even so, that one painting is fantastic. This is slightly different than someone like Axl Rose or Hemmingway, people in which a hatred of women seems to inform their entire body of work.
In the course of this conversation with my friend, I rattled off a list of other famous artists with woman problems: James Brown, Sinatra, Al Green, etc. Are they on the list, too? (My friend wasn't aware that Sinatra hit women, which I have to admit, bowled me over.)
Too often, people treat artists as their mirror: they must reflect the social conventions of the beholder. This is ridiculous. Artists should be judged on their art. Their moral lives is an entirely different discussion altogether.
I remember a professor of mine attended a conference on the 18th century literature. One of their objectives was to figure out if there were any writers of the period who "weren't racist." The only author they came up with was Voltaire. Now, as a jaded optimist, I love me some Candide. But am I going to live without Fielding or Sterne because they were lacking modern enlightenment? Uh, no.
Had lunch with the gracious Adam Weiner of Low Cut Connie today. Graduated from my high school five years before me. Dude knows music, people and stories. And we both have Canadian girlfriends.
I am hoping the discussion about morality in art that began on the preceding thread can continue here.
Okay, I'll put a small stake in the ground. One, because I think this is very well said by Irene toward the end of the Loudo thread,
For a critic, though, I still think there might be more specific and discerning criteria in mind. I suppose in my mind the responsibility of a critic is to inform a readership what is worth their contemplation, even if that audience won't end up personally identifying with (and thus enjoying?) everything there. So even if a critic takes issue with some aspect of the moral content of some work, if the music itself is aesthetically important for a subgenre or mini-epoch of pop music, it is still worth informing the people about.
And two, a small stake because every minute I spend doing this is a minute I'll have to apologize being late for at my next location, but since that's a way of life for me, I'm really good at it.
You can capture some elements of the very last sentence in today's Pusha T review, as in when "every mean word delivers" and when the moral contradictions of "the volume dealer who raps for pocket money" is observed or even honored, although dissed with the Dictators reference. I get that Bob disapproves personally but recognizes some artistic worth, ergo the A minus, but even more, the concentrated attention on the artist's work.
Me, I can't get there. I'll go ahead and own being one of the most strait laced here, a product of growing up in a small town in Oregon in the 50's and 60's I've always thought, who can't abide intentional meanness wherever I encounter it and harbor a life's work aggression against America's drug life. So when music bumps up against that, I spend my time elsewhere.
I think that means I'm making a moral judgement. Doesn't mean I'm right, doesn't mean anybody has to agree with me, just means I'm opinionated and yes it significantly influences what I like and listen to.
I'm really late now so let me stop with these last two --
I wouldn't even mind the mean, profane and thuggish if the same genre had a platform, a campaign even, that was public and intentional and star powered to provide a balance. Why that hasn't happened is shocking to me. And yes I love K'Naan and Shad, but I'm also talking about country music as long time witnesses will note. Of course, Dolly Parton got blasted for trying exactly that on her last album, which proves to me that 1) it's a long road, mostly uphill, and 2) the cynic will always win the argument (not meaning that they will be correct, just be more influential) for reasons of either human nature or current culture I can't tell which.
I am a public figure who's held accountable for all his published words, I have to be sure I get mine right
This amounts to a moral code as well and is one of the most compelling reasons we are here on this site with Bob. Thanks.
I'll be back. Gotta run.
Michael--I don't think it's very interesting to simply write off someone solely because of her or his personal behavior, but it's one of the factors that informs how we interact with the art. In some cases, Miles Davis or Picasso, the failings seem less central, as you point out. In others, Riefenstahl, the failing is central to the art. (Heidigger is an interesting and difficult case here.)
Sinatra's an interesting case. About six months ago, I listened to him for the first time in, gosh, years? Much to my surprise and contrary to previous experience, I didn't enjoy him very much. I kept listening. I read some Xgau. Listened some more. Finally decided that it was the macho that informs his singing and his treatment of women. Don't misread me: he's a magnificent singer. But I couldn't hear the vulnerability Xgau mentioned that undercut the macho. In the end the macho overwhelmed the pleasure of his singing.
Maybe six months from now, I would hear it very differently. And that goes to the other part of the equation: the moral lives of the audience. How we interact with the art also says something about us that's potentially interesting. All this may be morally trivial in the sense Thomas meant it, but maybe not. (Does someone love Sinatra because he captures some lost fantasy about manhood? That might bother me.)
The challenge, personally and intellectually, is to figure out what the art we cherish says about the lives we (and the artists) live. And such an investigation, in my experience, enhances pleasure. Should it ever devolve into a mere boycott of those not deemed perfect enough, count me out. Let he without sin....
Finding pairings can be a real pain in the fundament. Expect truly outrageous and/or abjectly defeated headers in the future.
Never shave your own head drunk.
about the blogger
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.