January 07, 2004



No, Keith, I'm not done with you yet. Mr. Harris was "kind of touched" to read Louis Menand looking down his spectacles at the pop culture shills of the...um, New York Times. Neither Keith nor I was shocked to see Menand dropping rhymes for the anti-pop consortium, but I was surprised his statcock was so limp. I usually dig Mr. Research. I thought American Studies was great, especially the Christopher Lasch essay, and The Metaphysical Club is a tight model for mapping the life of an idea, and how and when that idea becomes bigger than the people who found it. His paper on Birth Of A Nation, “Do Movies Have Rights?", is a balls-deep use of data to illustrate racism's deep roots in American popular culture, and America. None of this makes him less of a snob--look him up on T.S. Eliot if you're catching the vapors--but his work gives me pleasure.

This Talk of The Town filler is just pants, though. He name-drops Parmenides to set up his closing joke: Check. No shock that he implies Parmenides is worth looking up where Autechre is not. The next bit is what you expect: Popular culture won't stop breeding, it looks confusing, consensus has broken down at the record store, authority is dissolving. Help, I'm a melting modernist.

His kung fu is subtle--he expresses "gratitude" that critics make lists, because these "make sense" of the product avalanche. Can't call him a grouch now, can you? Then, with a faint praise sucker punch, he maps the tricks of the trade with a sigh, like he gave up making well-balanced, eclectic lists in 192whatever. I mean, it's so EASY. Timbaland does the same kind of un-secret dis in interviews: "You know, evveryone said so-and-so's album was wack and it didn't sell at all, but, hey, I liked it."

Then the importance of authority (jingle!) is established. We can assume the Times still has it in Menand's eyes, because his beef is not that Ratliff and Sanneh and Scott don't have juice. It's that 28 films or albums is just too much. That's all. It's a number that makes him snooze.

If Menand had taken on the cheapening of lists in the blogosphere, he mighta had a point. (Not an entire point, but closer.) But Menand himself emphasizes the product vomit that is Now: "Pop music has become so fragmented that it is a wonder the industry survives." A big shout-out to "people born before 1980," because they don't recognize any of these newfangled artists. Not like those friends of William James--EVERYBODY knows them. Or, no, he'd say, "That's why I wrote my book!"

But the Times is a daily newspaper, and news is like stuff you don't know? But then you read the words and you learn about it? Like cities in Iraq and stuff? And in these allegedly Melvillean lists, right there under the album titles are these words, see, descriptions that will help you to learn about these obscure, baffling musicians you don’t know. And here's the Achilles' digit: If there's so much stuff out there and it gives you a headache you want to cure (you didn't go into the Virgin Megastore just for a Talk of the Town piece, now did you?), wouldn't ten albums seem skimpy? Adjusted for inflation of output, 30 albums would probably have been three in 1968. And why does a dude who writes long for a living find three well-written, brief little lists so daunting?

Because pop culture is just temporary dirt in the wheels of a bigger, older machine and everything was better when the barbarians were outside the gates and all these people weren't, like, writing and thinking and shit. And putting out records.

Posted by Sasha at January 7, 2004 10:44 AM | TrackBack