Thursday, March 21, 2013

Feelin' aesthetical



The other day I was off to the side of a conversation about Tom Waits. I don't much care for Tom Waits, so I stayed to the side. One of them said something to the effect of "Tom Waits is the musical genius of our time." Nobody asked me, but that got me thinking about who I would call the musical genius of our time. I'm not sure what "our time" really delineates (Tom Waits' first record was released in '73 — 40 years ago!), but even if we're just talking about pop-type music, a lot of contenders spring to mind — Prince, Tori Amos, and Sufjan Stevens, to name a few. It's not just that I like their songs (I don't even own any Prince discography), but I think of them as virtuosic.

I drove to Boulder this morning to see a talk there, and listened to Seven Swans on the way. It's basically Christian music, and I'm an atheist, but I don't care because it's soooo beautiful. I don't really use iTunes anymore, but for four or five years, the main ways I listened to music were in my car on the way to and fro work (an old red GMC Jimmy that I bought from Chris Tonelli for $50) and via iTunes on my computer, because I didn't have a real stereo. I think my counts got reset when I switched computers and re-installed iTunes, but at the time, the most listened to song in my account was "The Dress Looks Nice on You."

I'm not much of a completist. Meaning, I rarely go all out collecting and/or consuming the complete works of any artist, even those I really love, unless it's easy to do so because they only made a few albums, movies, etc. When I've set out to do that in the past — read every book by a single prolific author, or buy every album by a single prolific musician — I've always eventually run up against stuff I didn't like, and lost steam. Now I get a kind of comfort out of knowing that there's stuff left to discover from artists that I really love. Like, if I ever got locked in my apartment in some kind of post-apocalyptic situation, I know I haven't even finished all the Anne Carson and Wallace Stevens on our shelves.

You know what? Meg Ryan is a really good actress. But you can kind of only tell when she's cast against type. I mean, I'm not saying she's always "made good choices," film-wise, but if you ever think she's America's Sweetheart and nothing more, watch Hurlyburly or Jane Campion's In the Cut. She can play seedy, trampy, drugged out no problem. I see her as more versatile than, say, Jennifer Jason Leigh, her co-star in In the Cut, who is great at seedy but is always kind of seedy. I think Meg Ryan could probably do anything. Too bad she's mostly done cheesy crap. She's also been in two of the worst movies I've ever seen: Joe Versus the Volcano and Prelude to a Kiss.

16 comments:

  1. With you on Meg Ryan. The persona she has for her typecasting is annoying as hell, but in "In the Cut" and even "When a Man Loves a Woman," she brings something more compelling there. I thought "When a Man Loves a Woman" was just a freak accident, but when I saw "In the Cut" and wound up feeling like I identified with the character--I identified with a MEG RYAN character? MOI??--I had to give it to her. I don't know why I felt begrudging about it--maybe because I think of Meg Ryan as a cutie-pie person, when in truth I have no idea and don't particularly care. (In fact, I've recently been thinking about why I do this--assign personalities to celebrities when it's really just the press coverage of them that I'm evaluating. I once found myself talking about how I felt about Halle Berry and then realized I'd never seen a single Halle Berry film, for example. Anyway, no conclusions yet.)

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    1. Oh, I have this tendency to form completely baseless opinions on celebrities, I'll just vaguely dislike certain celebrities for no real reason. I have this with Anne Hathaway, I think I decided I hated her when a woman I knew in grad school told me she used to babysit Anne Hathaway. But the only thing I've seen her in, I think, is Rachel Getting Married, and I thought it was good and she was good in it. Go figure?

      Anyway, yeah, Meg Ryan. She IS really good in that drunk movie! I forgot about that one. That movie is so intense, I think about the scene where she falls through the shower door fairly often.

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  2. So you're an atheist and a non-completist? That's awesome. Meg Ryan totally fucked herself up by having plastic surgery because...what, she broke up with Russell Crowe? It's hard to look past such stupidity.

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    1. Oh, I KNOW. Why did she do that to her face?!!! It kills me. She would have aged beautifully.

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  3. My totally favorite musician is Joni Mitchell. I'll listen to anything of hers I can get my hands on. She does astonishing things with harmonies, melodic lines, lyrics. I like also how her vocal style has shifted over the years as her voice has matured and aged.

    I'm not sure offhand who I would name as a "musical genius of our time," though Tori Amos and Sufjan Stephens are two who come to mind. Though I've only listened to Stephens kind of randomly, and the only one of Amos's CDs I strongly liked was Boys for Pele. (Tori Amos reminds me a lot, musically, of Joni Mitchell. Sufjan Stephens reminded me, especially his lyrics, somewhat of Simon and Garfunkel, who I also really like.)

    When I find a poet or writer or musician or painter whose work I really like, I do tend to seek out whatever I can find by them. Sometimes I'll then be disappointed, but more often than not I continue to like their work. Some years back I started reading Grahame Greene's novels, I've read seven or eight of them by now, and the only one I haven't liked very much was The Power and the Glory. I really liked his novels The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana.

    John Berger is another writer I've kept reading. The first thing of his I read, years back, was Ways of Seeing. Besides his essay collections, he's also written novels, and I've only read one of his novels, though I really liked it too, his novel From A to X.

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    1. We have an EXTENSIVE collection of John Berger books, John loves him. The only one I've read from F to B is Ways of Seeing. I tried to read To the Wedding once but I just wasn't into it at all.

      Authors who I've read multiple (3 or more) books by include a bunch of the Old White Dudes (John Updike, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo ... this was mostly in high school and college, I hit a wall with all of them. Before that, I read probably most of Ellen Gilchrist.). More recently, Kazuo Ishiguro. People I've read only one book by that I want to read more of: E.M. Forster and Jean Stafford. With poets, I approach the whole thing differently. I have books of poems that I love that I've probably skipped a few poems in. You don't have to read every page!

      Both Tori and Sufjan, I think, are virtuosos with their instruments and compositions and have been quite innovative over the course of their careers, though perhaps eventually innovating themselves into un-listen-ability ...

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    2. Yeah, I agree, with reading poets it works a little differently. And there are many poets I like enough that I look for anything by them I can get my hands on, though I may not read every poem in every book of theirs, or not all at once.

      Other fiction/prose writers (besides Grahame Greene and John Berger) that I've read multiple books by include Kurt Vonnegut (in the early '70's I read all of his books that were available then, though I've only read a little of his stuff written after Breakfast of Champions), John Steinbeck, Meridel LeSueur, and Richard Wright.

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    3. Breakfast of Champions was my favorite book in high school.

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  4. Were the people talking about Waits Californains? Maybe by "of our time" they meant "of our time zone." Waits lives in California, which I guess is Pacific Time.

    We have nine time zones, so if every time zone has a musical genius, these genii could be like the nine muses.

    Reading about your musical enthusiasms, I gather that you're partial to smooth tenors such as Morrissey. Maybe you'd like early-70s, pre- Foreign Affairs Waits, where the Armstrong influence wasn't as strong. I don't know--do you like the blues? Do you like a Howlin Wolf kind of voice? A Captain Beefheart or Van Morrison kind of voice?

    I tend to define "our time" broadly. For me it can be synonymous with modernity. I might think of it as beginning with the origins of romanticism or classical liberalism or something. "Our time" can antedate me. So I feel right calling Dylan, Lennon & McCartney, The Velvet Underground, Laura Nyro, et many alia the pop-music genii of our time. Also because of my natural vintage-goth nostalgic temperament--a temperament you may not have. Just Kids: that's a book I can really connect with. All those melancholy descriptions of Patti Smith woolgathering over her Joan of Arc picture, playing Beggars Banquet over and over, mooning and praying around the Musée Rimbaud and Jim Morrison's grave. Or that Woody Allen movie about the guy who looks for Cole Porter records in Paris: I can relate to that. I like new things, but usually they're new old things. For example, I got excited about The White Stripes, but they were ultra-retro.

    In the Cut is the only Meg Ryan movie I like.

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    1. It's not really a tone or range of voice that I like, but a certain kind of song structure, mood, etc. I don't care for most Tom Waits songs because they often feel too basic, like old standards; he also does this thing I can't stand: slow songs in major keys. Pretty sure I've talked about that here before. Stuff like "Fannin Street" -- intolerably boring to me. It's why I don't like a lot of classic folk music either (Bob Dylan, etc.). I do really like the main song from that Alice musical, which has tons of atmosphere, is more dark.

      Did you like Amy Winehouse? She seemed like a new old thing.

      I like When Harry Met Sally, but it doesn't exactly show off her range.

      Also, re: In the Cut: Have you read the book? The movie butchered (no pun intended) the ending.

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  5. I've never read In the Cut, so I don't know how the novel ends. A more giallo-like ending to the movie--the murderer turning out to be her lover--would have been more to my taste; but it's a commendably audacious and quirky flick.

    Amy Winehouse: I enjoyed the retro strands in her fabric, yes. I like jazz. I'd rather listen to Sarah Vaughan, however.(Sarah Vaughan singing Gershwin is one of my favortite albums. I've heard nothing by Winehouse that can rival Vaughan singing "He Loves and She Loves.") I'd rather listen to The Ronettes, too; they were fantstic. But yeah, Amy Winehouse was talented, and I've always been attracted to troubled women. About her hip hop- and reggae-tinged stuff I'm less sanguine. For hip hop I've never cared greatly, though after watching Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, which I loved, Cypress Hill exerted a lurid and fleeting pull on me. I still listen to Temples of Boom now and then.

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    1. In the book, she doesn't get away. It's supremely gory. And the idea of her being complicit in her own victimhood much more fully realized.

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  6. I'm always interested in the concept of Christian music. If Sufjan's music is "Christian" does that make Tom Waits's music "non-Christian"?

    There's this whole subculture of Christian music, complete with its own magazines and everything. So there's clearly a recognizable phenomenon, but what makes the music Christian? Does Christian music count as a genre? Is the designation only about lyrical content? If so, what if one of these "Christian" bands writes a song about romantic love, nature, or heartbreak? Is that song a "non-Christian" song?

    Sufjan is a good example because there's often overtly "Christian" lyrical content, but just as often there's not. So is his music "Christian"?

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    1. I'm definitely no expert. I don't think of him as a "Christian musician," and that album is actually the only music I know of his that has such obvious and overt Christian content, lyrically. As far as I can tell, lyrical content IS the only thing that distinguishes "Christian music" from "non-Christian music," because sometimes I pause on a Christian station on the radio and don't know it until I hear the lyrics. It sounds like regular mainstream pop/rock to me.

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    2. Yes, I agree. It seems like lyrical content is the primary marker. So that leaves me with the question: Is "Christian music" only an appropriate designation for specific songs?

      After all, if a band that gets airplay on "Christian radio" has an album with 10 songs, and only half of them have overtly "Christian" lyrical content, does that qualify their music as Christian?

      Perhaps the designation "Christian musician" that you want to avoid using for Sufjan can be reserved for artists whose entire catalog is overtly "Christian" in terms of its lyrical content.

      You can probably tell that my impulse is to question the usefulness of "Christian" as a marker for music, and for anything aesthetic more broadly. Is a painting of a scene from church history or the Bible "Christian"? I grimace at the thought of approaching Michelangelo's _David_ with chin resting on hand and remarking, "Hmm...that's such a Christian sculpture."

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    3. I was never trying to make some big statement about "Christian music," to be clear. But overtly Christian lyrics do tend to turn me off, because I'm not Christian. Unless, you know, as in this case, the music is interesting enough that I'm not turned off. The point is, I don't have any rules in place exactly. I don't think I went out of my way to say that Sufjan Steven is NOT a "Christian musician" -- it's probably up to him to identify that way or not.

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