Whadda You Got?by George Grella
Welcome to the new Brooklyn Rail music section. If you don’t notice anything new, if it seems fully congruous with what you’ve been reading for the past few years, then we’re doing our job right.
If you follow the behind-the-scenes minutia of independent arts publications, then you may have seen talk of some recent large-scale changes at the Rail. Though the impression that outlets like Hyperallergic gave was one of turmoil, the Rail is as stable as ever, and on the editorial side no beats were skipped—the beat was hip and funky.
Before the July/August issue was set, Phong Bui, publisher, man with the plan, HMFIC, met with us editors and laid out what had happened, why it had happened, and where things were headed. To be clever, we’re headed forward into the past, which is to say that what you read in these few pages, the critical ideas and values, will, we hope, define and build a counter-cultural stance through, and about, music.
As Phong recalled, that was the original purpose of the Rail, and so it shall remain. But it’s easier to seize those words as a slogan and a flag of resistance, and harder to be clear about what being counter-cultural means to us. It’s a moving target.
Resistance is one of the keys; define the cultural context and we’re on our way. As I said to Phong, whatever the prevailing culture is, I’m against it. And yes, I was thinking of Brando.
In music (though not music alone), the prevailing cultural context starts with money. It’s the American way, and the number one value in our culture. Nothing else even comes close, not even ostentatious Christian tribalism—the louder the public talk about Jesus, the surer that the gnostic god is actually Mammon.
Anything having to do with the “music industry” has to do with money and has nothing to do with music other than as an assembled product designed to move physical and digital units, or rack up streaming hits. The industrial model of music is so pervasive and long-standing, and so deeply ingrained in consumerism, listening habits, and thinking, that the mass cultural idea of music is limited to vocals, beats, samples, and almost nothing else. There are entire universes of music, global in scope and with hundreds of years of tradition, that are simply unseen, unheard, and unimagined.
This blind, narrow culture is reinforced by writing on popular music in major mainstream publications meant to appeal to an educated, upper-middle class readership. They chase trends, always at least one step behind, admire celebrity status for its own sake, and are uncritical of poseurs and charlatans. They leave the strong impression of employing editors whose main concern is trying to keep up with what they feel is hip, rather than defining hipness.!!img2!!
So we have a good half of the picture, what to be against. But what to be for? This has been a vexing issue for devoted fans, critics, and even musicians for decades. Bob Dylan was once truly counter-cultural, and of course also in the deeply ambivalent position of being sold by Columbia, one of the titans of the music industry. Same for Miles Davis, also sold by Columbia and also deeply counter-cultural, even more so because he made music in the increasingly cultish field of jazz and managed his own business as a black man in a white world. He famously (and perhaps apocryphally) once asked a fan if he should wait in his own artistic journey until that listener had finally caught up with the ideas he was laying down.
So an artist can be counter-cultural, make money, and also be a celebrity. On this issue, I’m firmly on the side of the artist being paid, rather than starving. They are doing and making the thing from which executives, who fundamentally do nothing, are skimming revenue.
A musician who can support her/himself in America is at least in that way counter-cultural. In the culture biz, artists should always make more money than management, whether that’s at a record label or the New York Philharmonic. And if in the end Dylan makes terrible records of standards, just as Miles made slick, unadventurous jazz-pop, well, everyone has a right to retire on their own terms.
Dylan and Miles made music against the prevailing culture and, crucially, against the prevailing culture of their own genres. In another great American tradition, one we usually only experience at the movies, supposed mainstream figures are actually counter-cultural—they went their own way. Charles Ives, working the day job as an insurance executive, created an original music that deliberately rejected the musical culture he grew up in and heard around him; Raymond Scott made some of the most astounding and inventive electronic music of the 20th century by building his own instruments and pioneering the commercial use of his work.
Of all things known, being both in and out at the same time—this is the most difficult. It appears to me that our contemporary cost of living and the perverse isolation of the web has made this even more so.
The previous century was the great and terrible age of ideologies that left tens of millions dead. All because of the phantasms of utopia and the structured thoughts that made other people into so much disposable raw material with which to manifest the future.
Now we live in extraordinarily decadent times. Capitalism is a system that protects and enriches a handful of neo-feudal gentry, the Nation is defending an authoritarian Russia, and personal political thinking has, on a large scale, devolved into puerile virtue signaling and call-out culture.
Musically, though, we live in amazingly rich times. Outside of market forces, poly-stylism abounds, and it is good. We are past consequential judgements over the quality and importance of styles, and we have a new generation making music in their bedrooms—or their parents’ basements—cannibalizing the past into something new. They have a freedom (which seems to me originates with the digitization of music distribution) that used to be the mark of the rare avant-garde artist.
The danger in this is that things are too free, too easy, with too little critical thinking and too much reverence. And if you want to be counter-cultural, you have to be irreverent.
You should be anyway, irreverence is your American birthright. It’s also hard, and takes commitment—not everyone can be Jerry Rubin or Hunter Thompson, especially if they want to pay the bills—but irreverence does not have to be a total lifestyle. You can be an irreverent musician, listener, and critical thinker. You can love Bruce but think that some songs or albums are subpar; you can satisfy your curiosity about the black avant-garde with Moor Mother, Black Spirituals, and Hieroglyphic Being, not Kanye; you can remember that John Lyndon was always a celebrity, and celebrities are not your friends; you can put down the Rolling Stones’ latest, dreadful album and pick up the new one from Benjamin Booker; be skeptical about new music from composers who teach at universities, and be curious about what those who have mere Masters degrees (if that) are doing; remember that before the producers and DJs and machines started backing every disposable dance-pop diva, there was rhythm and blues, soul, and rock and roll, and it was for dancing with a partner, in time, touching...
The bizarre genius of America is that it has produced true cultural rebels amidst all the profit-making and profit-taking. They set the pace: Thoreau, Dorothy Day, John Cage. Counter-culture follows their lead, while of course always looking askance at their examples, so think of Bogart, not Brad Pitt; Michael Gordon, not Michael Daugherty; James Brandon Lewis, not Kamasi Washington. They keep grinding out their own path, as will we.
This is the first of two articles.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.