Get local news delivered straight to your phone

Is it necessary to our enjoyment of music that we understand the particulars of “necessity,” “enjoyment,” and “music”? Is the pop experience indeed dulled by exegeses of one’s relationship to music? Why does a book like this (“this book”) exist at all? Is the publish-or-perish rule of academic seriousness solely responsible for such a thing?

Reading Simon Frith’s Performing Rites, with its restless, scrupulously fair Hegelian push-pull—experience vs. experience as defined by being not like existence and then again the meaning of “existence” and “experience,” sliced every direction—gets one’s brain moving down that same, endlessly reductive path. Naturally, such thinking raises questions about the book itself—haven’t we had enough corked-up academics poisoning any pleasure to be had from pop music by rabbiting on irrelevantly about what it all means? And isn’t even raising the specter of empirical meaning arrogant? And finally, isn’t it all tremendously un-fun, like those sober explanations of why jokes are funny?

But Frith makes it safe to wade back into the critical pool; in fact, he reaffirms the necessity of lucid, enthusiastic criticism. He’s an academic (professor of English at Strathclyde University) and a working critic, so his taste for annoying academician’s lingo (bloody “discourse” everywhere you look) is tempered by a sense of how this stuff plays in the real world. He’s also an unapologetic music fan, and Performing Rites functions in all three capacities. The writing owes a little to each, but is mostly a set of clear, unhurried musings that attempt, with plenty of delightful footnotes, to take in everything before processing it all.

Frith is aware that not only have academic approaches to pop forms become the stuff of parody (parodies often indistinguishable from their targets—I give you the infamous French take on the anarchistic genius of the Three Stooges), but that the definition of pop value itself has become discredited in a world in which artlessness passes for authenticity and is never differentiated from outright chaos. This confusion has skewed the language of criticism, possibly irretrievably. The critic’s worst fear is coming the snob—thus the thousands of minuscule distinctions among acceptable musical forms and forms of forms.

What Patrick Kane calls “aesthetic hauteur” drives well-meaning bohemian intellectual critics to scale better-than judgments in direct relation to lack of polish. Labeled “authenticity” and justified by a variety of racist and classist assumptions, this standard of musical value carries with it a vast weight of social signifiers as well. As Frith points out, “such judgments are taken to tell us something about the person making them,” and it’s a rare critic who’ll get up on his magazine soapbox and declare an un-self-conscious love of slickly produced disco or what’s commonly called “soulless” synthesizer music.

Frith reveals these judgments as hopelessly entangled with assumptions about race, class, and culture, and makes the sensible point that musical objectivity is wonderfully and necessarily impossible. The problem of taste—its very reality—goes unexplored in most critical venues, since the existence of taste as a factor in judgment implies that the critic is irrelevant to understanding, much less enjoying, music. Most high-end critics beg the question by aping academic language, through the use of trendy argot and a pose of emotional detachment from the subject matter. (There’s also the school of rillyrilly excited men in their 40s whose pose of air-guitar fanaticism is equally unconvincing.)

Support City Paper!

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

But Frith’s point is that the whole musical universe exploded from a big bang of subjectivity, and its every aspect is informed and distorted and enhanced by choices at every turn. The author relates how after a long night of arguing music with Swedish intellectuals (probably more fun that it sounds), he realizes that any argument is a screed written in sand. “We believed, passionately at times, that we were describing something in the music, if only other people could hear it.” Hence this book.

Is there anything “in the music” that gives it value, makes it “good”? No, of course not. But Frith isn’t putting the critics out of business. Our need to listen, to participate, to respond, as well as our human need to make music, is so absolute as to stand as a scale of value itself—any argument made in defense of music one likes is also chiseled in stone.

Standards of quality, it turns out, are like predictions of response: arbitrary, culturally mandated, and socially conditioned. A recent study of the question of innate vs. learned concepts of euphony found that Chinese infants expressed the universal baby thumbs-down—squirming, fidgeting—to such pleasant Western melodies as Bach cantatas. The notes we find incontrovertibly “witty,” “smooth,” and “natural” sounded jarring and queer to the schoolchildren—as good an argument for multicultural arts education as I’ve ever heard.

Frith walks the reader through each aspect of the value problem, meticulously pointing out all the sights and even describing monuments that have been torn down. Despite off-putting chapter headings like “The Sociological Response” and the closer, “Toward a Popular Aesthetic,” the chapters’ purposes and subjects are clearly defined and tackled without too much distraction. If Performing Rites has a flaw, it’s the boxes within boxes of punctilious note-making and -taking—our subject is A, which brings up these three points, each containing four major arcana and within those, two minor—until you forget what he was talking about to begin with.

Frith makes sure to begin by leveling the playing field, exposing the high/low dichotomy as a way of talking about conflicts between consumer elites, which are disguised as class distinctions. Then he moves on to ideology and the social and intellectual aspirations it indicates. The often contradictory “Common Sense and the Language of Criticism” takes up the next chapter, and so on until the nuts-and-bolts section: sounds, lyrics, voice, performance.

Any examination this self-aware necessarily wanders into vague territory. Sometimes this vagueness is amusing, as in a discussion of how genre distinctions are virtually arbitrary in terms of the music they describe. The author notes that he gets a kick out of finding brother Fred’s recordings in bins from New Age to world beat to pop to alternative. Certainly genres describe cults—bohemian not conformist, select not mainstream—better than they do an assemblage of sounds. Whatever his bin, Fred Frith will never stray from being perceived as of the top-out-of-sight bohemian/select class.

While some chapters are more engaging than others—the taking apart of “sound” is useful but tedious, whereas a chapter on “voice” is dead fascinating—there are points and paragraphs on every page that have the reader nodding along in agreement. Finally, someone says in print that the paternalistic critical fondness for traditionally black musical forms at their most “primitive” or “tribal” is not only racist but historically preposterous. In addition to explaining how sophisticated African rhythm systems work, Frith explains why we hear them as only one half of the tired old Apollonian/Dionysian split.

Anyone who’s ever wanted to conduct like Bugs Bunny along with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture or felt guilty and square for thinking about a Pearl Jam song will be relieved to read that acceptable norms of audience behavior supposedly appropriate to the music being performed are always culturally, never musically determined. And Chapter 8, “Songs as Texts,” will give a boost to skeptics sick of pretentious oafs who equate song lyrics they like with poetry; this naive conflation negates the intentions and purposes of both forms, so there.

While Frith acknowledges his entrenchment in the critical and academic communities and quotes generously from a huge number of sources—fellow critics he admires, the occasional crank rock-hater, academic publications of dog-whistle pitch, pulp manuals on songwriting, and quickie musical bios—he refrains from making value judgments even when examining the self-aggrandizing poses that lead to so much musical phoniness and form the bulk of the critical oeuvre. Without naming names, it bears noting that rock ideology has led to a peculiar and often pitiful kind of review—the earnest confessional that sheepishly admits to taking pleasure in (invariably only a few specific performers of) a genre otherwise considered unsuitable for music thinkers, usually mainstream pop or heavy metal.

But validating a musical form for oneself—when one’s job is to process all music—is the same as validating it for the 16-year-old in Ohio who was already a fan without the critic’s say-so. And finally it validates the kid himself. Frith’s refreshing exploration of the problem of musical value harbors no such presumption. Performing Rites gives every reason in the world why music can be called “good,” and agrees that the best reason is because you like it.CP