Thursday, April 9, 2015

Popular music as cultural analysis

We're going to be seeing The Decemberists in a few weeks, and I'm starting to get really excited about the show.

I had listened to them, on and off, but hadn't paid enough attention, and with the upcoming tour as inspiration I've been really paying a lot more attention to them.

And they're fascinating.

Musically, I started listening to them because I picked up Long Live The King due to its inclusion of a cover of a wonderful Grateful Dead song, Row Jimmy.

Then I moved on to The King Is Dead, their blockbuster, which of course I adored because of Peter Buck.

So at first What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World freaked me out a little bit, because it's considerably different from The King Is Dead. But over the last few months I've grown to love WATWWABW at least as much as TKID, if not more.

Besides just their music, one of the interesting things about The Decemberists is how much people like to talk about them as a way of talking about the world at large. This is true of many popular artists, but it is particularly true about The Decemberists, perhaps because their songs get people thinking about larger topics.

So, for example, we have Colin Meloy being interviewed: YA Books, RPG and the New Decemberists LP: Colin Meloy Rolls the Dice:

That relationship between bands or singers and their audience, it's kind of a funny relationship and abusive in its own right, going both ways. I shouldn't say abusive, but it can be antagonistic. I think that it's an odd relationship, and it's just that particular singer trying to come to terms with that aspect of it. Having an audience, you may want to continue doing things on your own terms, but that becomes more challenging when there are expectations. And audiences have more of a voice than ever with the advent of the Internet.

Over at Slate, Carl Wilson takes an even broader view: Against indie: New albums from Modest Mouse, Sufjan Stevens, and more show it's time to eliminate the racist term for good.

Other music listeners might ask if bands of the Decemberists’ vintage can change enough to feel pertinent in 2015. A decade ago, music blogs, film and TV music supervisors, Pitchfork, and other new media outlets boosted “indie” to a rare visibility. Now, many of those acts are returning from long absences to quite an altered atmosphere.

Wilson goes on to explain why he uses the powerful term "racist" in this situation:

Few of them claim to be fighting any kind of battle against pop anymore—fans are almost always worse than artists on that count. But this decade has also seen a more widespread suspicion and critique of the workings of social privilege, and “indie” has a problem there—because its creators and listeners seem so disproportionately white, male, and upper-middle-class.

Later, Wilson more directly skewers The Decemberists for what he sees as their failings:

Likewise I am a bit skeptical that without “indie,” the Decemberists could even exist. If there were then still a call for a post-modern folk-rock Gilbert and Sullivan, it would have to have more of the courage of its strangeness. The band’s hiatus has done it some good, and the songwriting is more grounded on this year’s What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. But I still find Meloy’s unrelenting streams of conceits wearying, like a prog concept album from 1975 without even the gonzo musicianship to liven up the occasion.

More than any other band, they bring me back to the self-regarding turn that America made in the 2000s—the post-9/11 world-wariness and self-soothing. It would be too much to say that’s what made it an ideal period for “indie.” But when I listen to the Decemberists, I’m tempted.

I am, indeed, white, male, and upper-middle-class. So, guilty as charged. But does that mean I'm somehow committing a social offense by being a Decemberists fan?

I'll have to spend more time listening to their music before I can come to a more considered opinion about whether they are letting us down.

But it also seems like Wilson is asking Meloy and company to fight Wilson's battles, which is unfair. As Meloy says,

I just like stories. I like people telling stories.

Seems fair enough, to me. I'll keep listening, and hopefully I'll enjoy going to their show and meeting the people I meet there.

Sometimes art can just be entertainment, after all; it doesn't always have to change the world. That's a lot to ask, of anybody.

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