Where and when to test the comfort zone?

A cryptic title for this post, perhaps, but one that best sums up the combined welter of thoughts resulting from an excellent one-two combination of posts today on Idolator.

First, Dan Gibson had an obituary up for Larry Norman, one of those musical figures I’d irregularly heard about over the years but hadn’t really pursued much. There was, frankly, a specific reason — he was, as Gibson notes, legendary for being the ‘Father of Christian Rock,’ and any time I hear that phrase (or CCM, short for ‘contemporary Christian music’), I heave a mental sigh and move on. I’m not offering any excuse for that, it’s as much an ingrained, kneejerk position as any one I’ve heard over the years saying that, say, rap isn’t music or country all sounds the same or whatever have you. I find those attitudes close-minded and mine on these bands, ultimately, is no less so.

The closest thing to any sort of explanation grows out of a few sources — my own disinterest in religious belief, my emphasis on music and sound rather than lyrics when it comes to musical appreciation, a lingering belief that nearly every overtly Christian rock/CCM identified group essentially seem to only offer a cloning of a popular (or alternately, formerly popular) style but with different lyrics and nothing new brought to the table.

It didn’t help that the audience for such music has always seemed rather…self-limited, to perhaps unfairly say. For a while in the mid-nineties I lurked a touch on a Usenet board dedicated to CCM, partially at the instigation of friends who regularly winnowed wheat from chaff in trying to find good bands out there in the field, but I grew tired of the attitude of fans there who would regularly say things like “Is there a band out that sounds like [band x, singer y, whatever], but Christian?” This ended up annoying me because it seemed very shallow — to turn it around, I really don’t have any problem in the slightest with the Christian symbolism prevalent in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, say, and while Philip Pullman’s work in creating an alternate children’s fantasy with His Dark Materials is lovely stuff, I didn’t go around asking “Is there a young adult fantasy series that reads like Narnia, but agnostic or atheist?” Frankly, I’m still surprised at the idea — which I’ve encountered more than once, in many guises — that to read/listen/watch something not specifically identified as ‘Christian’ is an attack upon your mental and spiritual integrity, which presumably fed into the worries on the message board noted above, with people desperate to enjoy a sound but only if the lyrics were not simply palatable, but explicitly focused on something to the exclusion of anything else.

The irony of course is that attitude can go many different directions — turn it around and you get people complaining “Love the way that band sounds but I wish they wouldn’t be so preachy,” and not simply in terms of religion. So rather than it being a case of one group locking themselves away from broader possibilities, it’s more like an overwhelming layer of biases, where knowing what works best for an individual means more automatic conclusions on what would be worse than should be made. Gibson notes this in his piece, prefacing a sharp, angry condemnation of the fly-by-night financial practices of supposedly godly independent record labels that regularly ripped off Norman and many others — a good warning sign for anyone who thinks that a fish symbol automatically means financial probity, or probity in general — with this pithy observation:

if someone had been this influential to a more popular genre of music (say, Lou Reed), they’d be lionized with an extensively reissued catalog, allowed to put out whatever their whims brought forth, coasting on whatever brilliant moment flickered once in the past. Instead, Norman’s obituary contained a thanks for “prayer and finance” in the past and a mention of likely future financial difficulties for his survivors.

Intriguingly, this question of audience acceptance and expectation unconsciously dovetails with the other excellent Idolator piece this morning, Michelangelo Matos’s latest entry in the Project X series of posts he’s made for the site. This one is a discussion of the legacy of John Peel, the rightly famed British DJ who was an icon for anybody who had hopes their radio show could somehow change the listening world, as well as for general music obsessives. Matos’s article is in part a response to another from Tom Ewing at Pitchfork, also worth the reading (as Matos notes, Ewing, who is from the UK, has a handle on Peel’s role that’s much closer to home and more knowing by default), and both talk about a quality that distinguished Peel and (sadly) still does in comparison to many DJs and people his age and younger — his sheer breadth of musical enthusiasm and interest in listening to all kinds of music from all over the world, from obscure African highlife to murky-as-hell grindcore and back again. Ewing himself sounds an appropriately aware, cautionary note that this reputation is as much image-making as anything else, but at the same time it’s very much part of the historical record.

Matos captures the spirit of this enthusiasm — and why it is important — perfectly:

His integrity had little to do with specific musical tastes and everything to do with being open to possibility. A good critic, as much as a good broadcaster, aspires to communicating the pleasures to be had beyond that which she encounters regularly, be it singer-songwriters or teen-pop or horrible noise, and that pleasure leads to knowledge, or at least more pleasure.

To fully discuss this in the detail it deserves will take much more time than I have to hand right now — maybe even ever, because it’s been both my own lodestone and problem as listener over the years. Problem because at a certain point a few years back I had to get out of the mindset of trying to keep up with everything at once, to fully explore as I ought, because the sheer volume of available music out there — formerly the type of thing that was an issue faced by a few people like Peel, who had labels and bands worldwide sending him huge streams of physical product on a daily basis — had fully exploded via the Net and mp3s. The adjustment I went through is something I’ve mentioned here and there on the blog and elsewhere and was a fairly internally violent rethink — melodramatic perhaps, but I had to realize (and, I hope, did) that life in the hothouse of music and cultural overload was untenable given all my other interests, and especially given whatever creative endeavours I wanted to pursue, however fitfully.

So while I still hold that Matos’s point about being open to possibility is crucial, I don’t regularly practice it as I could — indeed, we’ve all come to a point now where the accumulation created by decades’ worth of favorite styles and genres, increasingly broad and deep, means it’s easy to dwell in there. Arguably I experiment more these days with food — a recipe or foodstuff is suggested and I go to town with it, seeing what can be done — but I don’t find that a loss, if anything it’s a major gain, in part because it does give an outlet to that creative impulse I mentioned earlier. But the larger point to be had is that this is a natural consequence of finding a new balance in one’s life, as interests and obsessions shift, and as new matters of importance rise.

Matos himself touches on the idea of split decisions and differing priorities at the end of his piece with his irritation at a ‘typical’ Peel fan Festive 50 tempered by his own acknowledgement of his love of classic film noir, wryly noting “There’s a thin line between a lost cause and emergent classicism.” And in a way this ties back in obliquely with Gibson’s point, with his passionate take on a ‘lost cause’ — that of trying to establish the place of Norman in wider musical discussion, in a canon that is now simultaneously hardened into the most sclerotic of forms (look to the Grammy Awards a couple of weeks back if you dare, how all sorts of obvious signifiers and past-worship were piled on to create a formal history of music for the mass market) and fraying at the edges more and more.

More really can and should be said about all this — I’ve only just read these pieces and these are initial thoughts touching on a variety of questions. If nothing else it shows that the question of importance of music (of art, really — even, if you like, of what and how we spend our time in our lives with, a life which as Norman would have argued is only transitional anyway in preparation for something more, thus the title of his early seventies album that Gibson rightly cites as a logical obit meme, Just Visiting This Planet) still holds a prime place in my head and those of others in this time of political uncertainty and future concern. And given that it does, no surprise also, perhaps, that I’m content with a certain comfort zone still — something to rely on in a gathering swirl that might yet be a storm.


4 Responses to “Where and when to test the comfort zone?”

  1. marc h. Says:

    The irony of course is that attitude can go many different directions — turn it around and you get people complaining “Love the way that band sounds but I wish they wouldn’t be so preachy,” and not simply in terms of religion. So rather than it being a case of one group locking themselves away from broader possibilities, it’s more like an overwhelming layer of biases

    Just for the sake of argument, why should either a pro-preachiness or anti-preachiness view of lyrics be viewed as “biased”?

  2. Ned Raggett Says:

    Hmm…this’ll be quick (and I really need to get to doing some other stuff right now) but very reductively: you could argue that a ‘pro-preachiness’ view assumes that there is a message in each song which must be conveyed clearly at all costs or else it has failed, while an ‘anti-preachiness’ view resists all intent to convey that message no matter what. (I’m not happy with this formulation at all but it’s the best I can come up with on a moment’s notice.)

  3. marc h. Says:

    Yeah, I mean, as critics I agree that we should be open to art from a wide variety of moral viewpoints (particularly critics who, like you, take the view that lyrics aren’t important). That’s partly because morals tend to change over time, so a critical opinion based on morality is more likely to end up looking “wrong”, and partly because “We Are the World” sucked.

    At the same time, we all make moral judgments about music every day: There’s a reason we’re talking about being open to CCM here, not being open to neo-Nazi hate speech or some other moral viewpoint that is violent and hateful, rather than simply disagreeable to some.

    Even though fans may be self-limiting by only listening to CCM (or only listening to Dixie Chicks), I think it’s fair to assume that lots of non-critics do factor this kind of thing into their decisions about what sort of artists to spend money on. And I’m not convinced that an opinion about words is any more subjective than an opinion about sound. It’s all subjective, even though I agree that we critics should try to listen to as much as possible and therefore have a viewpoint as close to objective as possible.

    Anyway, I should be working, too. Nice post, thanks for letting me ramble!

  4. Ned Raggett Says:

    That’s partly because morals tend to change over time, so a critical opinion based on morality is more likely to end up looking “wrong”, and partly because “We Are the World” sucked.

    I roffled.

    Anyway, I should be working, too. Nice post, thanks for letting me ramble!

    You’re welcome, thanks for the input! I’ll actually try and follow up on your points here some more if I can, not necessarily today but later in the week perhaps.

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