Monday, September 13, 2010


There's an odd tendency that a lot of people have (myself, in my weaker moments, included). I've always been vaguely aware of it but it's been coming to my attention more and more in recent weeks. This tendency, whose existence I have introduced mysteriously so as to "hook" you into reading further, is to question other people's motives for liking things.

Consider this, from Rate Your Music member dnieper111's review of Lucio Battisti's 1974 album Anima latina (cut and pasted, so apply [sic]s as needed):
[G]eez, look at all these hyperbolic reviews. Unearth's review, for example. Funny how a high average rating seems to trigger so much subconscious sycophantic self-deception:

"I need to listen to this a hundred more times before sufficient words will form. I need to place these exquisite forms and colors within my framework of sound interpretation. I need to assimilate the rareness of this beauty completely before I can explain to you why this is one of the supreme examples of recorded art I have ever encountered. For now, just leave me alone with it."

Yeah, unearth, you *get* it don't you?

I wonder what prompted that review: was it genuine enjoyment of the album, or a desire to appear knowledgable about a highly rated obscure album that's far removed from typical pop music? A desire to tell himself "I seek to understand this album. I am noble and honest in my musical listening. I appreciate subtleties, and I have the ability to understand the nature of all music."

...a review like this, which basically says "This is a great album, but I don't know why..." is the best example I've seen of the fawning and delusional hyperbole that is an undercurrent for so many RYM reviews. Its purpose is not to honestly review the music but rather to make the author appear knowledgeable to others and, even more importantly, himself. I suspect a lot of the delusion is at a subconscious level. Unearth really *thinks* he's on the way to genuine appreciation of a genuine masterpiece. And what prompted that? The high rating at RYM and a bunch of other uber-hip reviews. The reason this straw hipster of mine gives the album a 5 is, I believe, its high average rating, NOT because he really likes it. The straw hipster is a textbook sheep.
Leaving aside the fact that hipsters are, in my experience, generally known for disliking things in order to look cool, I don't really understand the point of all this unpleasant, nasty psychoanalyzing. Unearth's review, admittedly, is a bit overwrought, but...well, it's hard to write about music, especially music as unusual and, yes, exquisite, rare, and supreme as Anima latina, whose beauty and power I certainly wouldn't be able to write effectively about if I listened to it a hundred more times. It is a great album, and I don't know why.

Basically my question is: why does dnieper111 want to question Unearth's reason for loving the album? Judging from the review, Unearth had a genuinely affecting experience listening to the album and wanted to share that. I can relate. Most of the posts on this blog labeled "music" or "tv" or "movies" or "books," and a lot of the other ones as well, are a result of exactly the same impulse. It is true, I suppose, that people will frequently "fake" this in order to present a particular image of themselves--I'm sure I'm guilty of it from time to time, myself--but to my thinking such a practice is, on the one hand, harmless, and, on the other, less likely to occur if people in general become less prone to cynically dismissing descriptions of emotion as mere posturing.

If I say that I had an unexpectedly transcendent moment once, listening to Buffy Sainte-Marie's "God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot" while walking in the snow, am I bragging about listening to semi-obscure music? Or perhaps bragging about my ability to experience genuine emotion? I'm not sure, maybe I am, but it's true either way. What if I say the same about, say, being one of thousands of people watching David Bowie in a stadium decades after his peak? Surely in that case I'm bragging about something else. If I say that a low quality video of Ike & Tina Turner is powerfully moving to me, why is a certain blogger's immediate response to obliquely accuse me of falling victim to the song's "legend," liking it only because it was a massive flop? That blogger went on to more directly (though not directly enough to give up plausible deniability should it be needed) call me ignorant and stupid, which was unpleasant, but it's that weird psychoanalyzing at a distance that really ended up bugging me. What if people like "River Deep - Mountain High" because they like it? Why must we assume that everything is a hipster pose? Once you start assuming that, it becomes an inescapable circle--because after all, nothing is more of a hipster pose than assuming that everything is a hipster pose. Starting with an assumption of insincerity is not going to take you anywhere good--or maybe I should say that, at least, it's not going to take me anywhere I want to go.

I know I'm not a paragon of acceptance, and I know I frequently make fun of people. Honestly it's not something I love about myself, though I at least try, when doing it, to keep focused on the content of what people are saying and doing rather than on bitchy second-guessing about the secret desire to seem cool that is supposedly driving what they say and do. Again, to stave off any potential accusation of hypocrisy, I know I'm not always good at this. Getting better at it is on my fucking bucket list, OK?

I don't really know where I'm going with this. It's an unfortunate thing that people do that I wish they--we--wouldn't. It's something I want to try to do less. There are a lot of norms of human interaction that deeply confuse and depress me, even as I engage in them myself, and this is one of them. I don't really know why anyone would want to navigate a world where every statement of feeling, every expression of emotion, every little "I like this" or "I don't like this," is examined with intent to judge.

In other news that makes me feel like never leaving my house, liberals are misguided, anarchy would be cool, Obama murdered more people, and wage slavery is a system to be opposed. I'll let you know if any of that changes.


¯\(°_0)/¯ said...

I've been thinking about this off and on all day, along with trying to determine what, exactly, a hipster is, besides something to be derided. Anyway, I can't help but think that this current trend you have identified (psychoanalyzing other people's likes, to insufficiently summarize it) is related to the incessant dehumanization that everybody feels, whether they can express it or not. I mean, obviously I am guilty of some similar failing, if it even is a failing, but it seems like people want to define their likes as inherently unique and human in an increasingly standardized and inhuman world. So, anybody (I almost wrote "anything") with antagonistic likes has to be defined as failing at some aspect of this. Or something like that. This is an interesting topic, and I wish I had the time to explore it further, but I can only hope my thoughts help some. Also, it is interesting that internet was initially hailed as a revolutionary way to meet people with similar esoteric interests, and seems to have progresses as a way to criticize people with similar esoteric interests.

¯\(°_0)/¯ said...

Woah. My comment may be inane, but at least I stayed on the topic of "tl;dr"

Justin said...

I think dropping the phrase 'bucket list' should also go on your bucket list. :)

So, I don't think the guy is wrong about what he is saying in a sense. To a much greater degree than we realize or admit to ourselves, appreciation of art (and I mean art generally, as in music/cinema/whatever) is more about what we believe others think of the object under inspection and how we see ourselves fitting into the various audiences witnessing the same thing.

There are no aesthetics in a vacuum, really. Our appreciation of art depends on the context in which the art exists. What is its perceived significance. Who else likes it. Who doesn't like it. If I like it, then how does that reflect upon me? That isn't to say there is not an aesthetic aspect, there must be something to evaluate on its merits, but those merits exist as a reflection of the audiences tastes, understanding of, and appreciation for the art. What would a caveman think of a Lady Gaga song? What would a frontiersman from the 18th century think of the Beatles? What would an Egyptian painter think of Picasso? Now, what would a group of any of these people think of the same thing? Now of the plausible reactions, ask yourself why and really think through what this would be like, and how all of your understandings of and appreciation for the aforementioned are influenced.

I think we want to believe that this is not the case, at least I do, that there there is a universal measure of aesthetic beauty to be appealed to. That 'hype' is bullshit and that art has some truth to it. That the opposite is more descriptive is almost more interesting once you start considering it and let go of an egotistical approach to taste. The commenter who offended you seems like he is aware of this to a degree, but hanging onto an ego driven, intrinsic approach to aesthetics. Its about defending ego, being smarter than others, more evolved, of higher taste, etc.

Richard said...

Justin, you make some good points. However, I think for the most part people are not aware of the fact that they like things in part for cultural/contingent reasons. That is, their enjoyment is genuine, and it remains theirs, even if later on they find they no longer like it, or decide their former enjoyment was only possible in the context of a certain social environment.

I think Ethan's point is, why assume that someone is consciously posing in their enjoyment? Isn't that a weird move?

Justin said...

I tried to address Ethan's point, I think the commenter's insults are coming from an egotistical conceit about his 'sophistication' and, I argued, ironically rooted in a limited and immature understanding evaluating art.

Dog's New Clothes said...

I'd just like to add that Anima Latina is indeed a brilliant album, as is most of Battisti's work.

I'd also recommend Fabrizio de Andre, if you aren't already acquainted. I don't speak a (non-food-related) word of Italian, but his lyrics still mean something to me. Maybe non-English speakers feel the same way about Dylan.

More to the topic, did you catch the comment tread to this IOZ post? That Devin Lenda chap must be fun at parties:

¯\(°_0)/¯ said...

"I think the commenter's insults are coming from an egotistical conceit about his 'sophistication' and, I argued, ironically rooted in a limited and immature understanding evaluating art."

I look back to when I was younger, and I had some very strong opinions about rather inconsequential things. Perhaps the commenter that inspired the post is 14?

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps the commenter that inspired the post is 14?"

another quirk or the internet: you never know, you might be arguing with a teenager.

on topic, i'd say that music is far more private to us today than it has ever been to any human being. once a form of social interaction, music has become a form of social disengagement. the only way people can connect over music is if they disengage with the same artists!

the community no longer exists, so people become angry (because they feel isolated) and insecure (because they feel left out). an important pillar of human culture has been replaced by earbuds; until the communal experience is restored, writing about music will continue to devolve into an even softer version of pop psychology.

Randal Graves said...

I'm actually glad it's busy here at work, because I'm digging this topic and the comments, but I can't seem come up with anything coherent or that hasn't already been said.

I think this antagonist attitude certainly exists outside of the "hipsters" (however that's defined beyond an overreliance on disdain and irony - oh shit, I'm guilty of it, too!) because that's what humans often do. We bag on others to pump ourselves up.

As for music (or any art), recognizing that I dig/don't dig something is easy; the fun part is finding out why, especially as one gets older because the tastes change and expand and it's not all sound and fury at the expense of everything else.

Joe Blow likes the Beatles. Is that because he's expected to, or is it genuine? Since I'm no mind reader, I sure as hell can't answer that. Which has already been said. Damn you, worthless brain.

Anonymous said...

Richard said:

I think Ethan's point is, why assume that someone is consciously posing in their enjoyment?

As with all forms of criticism, however guided (or mis-), such commentary tends to relate to two levels of appreciation:

1) the felt response

2) the communicated semblance of the felt response

I would submit that critiquing (1) is foolish, but dissecting (2) can be thought-expanding or -provoking in a good way.

All perception of the external world (external to ourselves) depends on our respective unique (as it were) perspectives. I remember when I didn't know who Bill Hicks was, and was stating that I thought Denis Leary was funny. Someone told me, very disdainfully, that Leary has simply stolen Hicks' gig in a kind of unimaginative grave robbery. This person typically is not disdainful and is almost treacly toward others. What explains the jab toward my comment on Leary?

Long-term impact of the disdain: I discovered Bill Hicks, and realized the grave robbery accusation was pretty good aim. I lose respect for Leary's comedy. My knowledge of comic forms expands somewhat.

That's bad?

Ethan said...

Man, I like these comments.

All: I probably shouldn't have used the word "hipster," but I was mostly trying to go off the "straw hipster" definition that dnieper111 used in the quoted section: a kind of hypothetical conglomeration of insincerity and nothing else that very few people would actually want to be, so yes: "something to be derided." It can be a useful fiction for talking about some things, but probably it just ends up obscuring things more than clarifying them.

Going through the comments:

Symbol person: Not inane. Your point about using what we like to cling to human identity and individuality is interesting, and also rather depressing; pretty much what Debord and all them were on about with the Spectacle.

Justin: First, I hope it was clear that using "bucket list" was a bit of hipster irony on my part. Good points about the importance of context in our appreciation of art. If anything, knowing this makes me even more perplexed by the urge to assume bad faith in discussing individual responses to art. It does seem, like you say, to be all about ego--and it's the neverending circle I was talking about in my post: this person only likes this to look cool, and I can make myself look cool by pointing that out. And of course now in some ways I'm engaging in the same thing by pointing that out. It's awful.

Richard: I do think I was overly conflating conscious and subconscious poses in my original post, but yes, I think "their enjoyment is genuine, and it remains theirs, even if..." is exactly what I was trying to get at (along with "Isn't that a weird move"). To get anecdoty: in early high school I listened pretty much exclusively to "classical" music, mostly of the Romantic era, but my tastes were beginning to move in two directions, to earlier (specifically, baroque) and later (20th century avant garde) periods. But then I met a guy who for various reasons I wanted to impress, and he listened to a lot of pop music, particularly singer-songwritery Lilith Fair type stuff. So for a while I liked that stuff and gave up on classical. Looking back on it, I realize that if not for that guy I probably wouldn't have ever given Sarah McLachlan the time of day (and I don't now, having turned in other directions, including the one I was heading in originally), but at the time the feeling seemed genuine--and so it was. Sure, now I think of it as a bit of an embarrassing detour in the development of my own personal taste, but at the time it worked for me. It's like that Love lyric: "You think you're happy and you are happy, that's what you're happy for." What's the difference between thinking you like something and actually liking it?

Dog's New Clothes: I've only just been introduced to Battisti. Any particular recommendations for other albums? I've heard Amore e non amore is a good one. Thanks also for the de Andre tip, I'm not familiar with him but will check him out. (And yes, Devin Lenda was...interesting.)

And, yup: I'm also keeping on the tl;dr topic, apparently. It's telling me my comment is too big to post. To be continued...

Ethan said...

Symbols again & anonymous: In general I'm of the opinion that the traits we tend to think of as being exclusively "teenager" are actually traits that carry through just as strong into adulthood--and it's just that they first appear in the teen years. But yeah, you could very well be right about that. Though I'm not sure how many 14 year olds listen to obscure Italian prog. Anonymous, you bring us back to the Spectacle, and it is important to remember that what was once a community activity is now a commodity to be marketed to ever-smaller fragments of consumer groups. And yet we (certainly I) cling to it. It's hard to say what to do about it beyond my general desire to bring it all down--not that I know how to do that, and not that I actually do want to do it, in my secret heart. I wrote about something similar when I was reading the first volume of Endgame.

Randal--you're right, thinking about and discussing why we like what we like is interesting and worthwhile. I just wish it was easier to do it without reverting to the kind of ritual dominance games you describe.

Charles--you're right, too, in the same way Randal is. The Bill Hicks example is a good one--being called out on your ignorance (seemingly in a constructive way) led to you fixing your ignorance. To use Justin's word, sophistication is a strange thing--it can be a wonderful thing to achieve (recognizing that Leary's a pale imitation of Hicks), but it can also lead to some real shitty behavior, like the ego games Justin described.

Dog's New Clothes said...

re: Battisti,

Anima Latina is his best album, but Amore e non amore is nice. Here is "Una":

Il nostro caro angelo, the album he made before Anima Latina, is a great warm up.

Here's Fabrizio de Andre:

I'd recommend most of his albums, especially Non al denaro non all'amore né al cielo and La buona novella (his Biblical concept album).

In the same vein, if you like Serge Gainsbourg you should check out Jean-Claude Vannier, who did the orchestral arrangements on Melody Nelson:

This isn't the best version of the title track, but it's a great find:

Hope this doesn't warrant a tl;dr.

Justin said...

Ethan, sometimes its hard to tell. Either way, I hope it was clear that my bagging on your use of bucket list was an ironic nod toward the ego games or condescension that I then went on about.

Your anecdote about SMcL was a pretty good illustration of exactly my point about interpersonal context. You were at a the smallest possible end of the examples, it helped you relate to a single individual, but obviously we could keep adding numbers.

The Tim Leary-Bill Hicks example was another good example of how with age/experience/knowledge, one's evaluation of a work's importance/relevance/value changes.

At a personal level, I can relate to this with my ongoing project to work myself into an artist. I am getting to the point now where my judgments of what makes something hackneyed and trite vs. interesting and progressive differs from more casual observers. (Note: To be clear, I am coming to see my work as hackneyed and trite.)

I use words maturity or sophisticated with hesitation about this because both imply a more evolved or advanced state of being, which I don't think necessarily apply in the same way that I would use in other situations. The important thing to me is experiencing an art form. In other words, I don't think it is important that you listened to bad pop music or CFO liked thieving comedians, what's important is that you enjoyed those things at one time, that they spoke to you, and that when you found them lacking because of more experience, you kept finding new things to experience and appreciate.

Chasing the experiencing of art is like chasing the thrill of drugs without all the self-destruction.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the idea that the experience of being moved by something created by another (colloquially, "art") is the important thing.

That's why I emphasized the two facets of art & criticism -- and said it's foolish to criticize another's feelings, impressions, etc, but possibly enlightening to pick apart how that person relates his/her impressions, feelings, etc. experienced when exposed to the art.

To me, the notes of disdain offered by another reflect mainly the difference between where I am, and where that other person is -- intellectually, aesthetically, spiritually, existentially.

I also think there is definitely something to the idea that some people will express admiration for an artist or a work of art in order to positively impress another person. This superficial type of "appreciation" (euphemistically speaking) is to me akin to "small talk" as compared to meaningful conversation.

Everyone I know has a sense of loneliness in tension with a desire to belong to a group larger than him/herself. The idea of saying, for example, that TV show XYZ is great... when stumbling into the office break room where people are talking about XYZ... seems to me like small talk, nosing into a conversation, gaining camraderie -- rather than a deeply considered appraisal of the artistic, etc., merits of XYZ.

The struggle to fit in, versus the urge to be an individually unique person with interesting tastes... that's what seems to be at play here.

Finally, I have to observe that certain aspects of this thread remind me of a fairly recent thread at Jack Crow's place:

...and mainly, the individuation vs fitting-in themes.

Randal Graves said...

At the end of those rare days when I'm feeling sociable, I want to know why someone does/doesn't dig something, but as Charles points out, there's a danger (not the term I'm looking for) in that someone's like is a pose. And they could certainly think the same about one of mine.

And forgive me for donning the cap of Captain Obvious, but the beauty of art isn't just in the art, but in our emotional/intellectual/physical interaction with it, and since we're dealing with the ultimate variable, us, the exploration will never have an end.

Oh, and everyone's favorite band sucks.

Ethan said...

Dog's New Clothes, thanks again for the tips. Lots of stuff to check out. Speaking of people who did arrangements for Gainsbourg, have you listened to Alain Goraguer? His soundtrack for Fantastic Planet is beautiful.

Justin, yeah, "maturity" and "sophistication" are very problematic words. The language is actually very bad at expressing the concepts we're talking about here without reinforcing the ego games I'm trying to avoid.

You and Randal seem to be talking about the same thing, about the ever-expanding interface between us and the art that's out there being the important thing. It seems to me actually that if you broaden this to the interface between us and the world at large, always expanding as we play and discover more, you come to a decent description of what I suspect we're all trying to get out of life, that the interference from this insane society we've built up around ourselves keeps us from getting. Speaking of which--

Charles: The struggle to fit in, versus the urge to be an individually unique person with interesting tastes... that's what seems to be at play here

God, that's all of life, isn't it? OK, maybe it's trite of me to say so, but it doesn't make it less true (at least from my perspective). I honestly don't see the first part as a problem, per se; after all, watching a TV show so as to be able to take part in conversation with people about it is surely better than watching a TV show just to pass that one free hour you have between getting home from work and making dinner and going to bed, right? Of course, we run into the problem here that we discussed above, where we're replacing what used to be a communally creative activity with passive reception of some corporate conglomerate's creation, but the urge itself strikes me as a good one.

Anonymous said...

Ethan --

after all, watching a TV show so as to be able to take part in conversation with people about it is surely better than watching a TV show just to pass that one free hour you have between getting home from work and making dinner and going to bed, right?

Yes... and no. Meaning, I think the answer depends on the pull of one's personality. Extrovert? Introvert? The more extroverted, the more it's better to watch for the sake of cohort interaction. The more introverted, the more likely it's just a way to kill loneliness.

I'm a massive introvert so I've never watched a TV show or gone to see a movie, or listened to a musician/band, simply to be able to talk about that stuff with others. On the other hand my brother is much more extroverted and I watched, curiously, as he took on the new clothing of a "sports fan" after finishing college. He'd never spent much time watching pro sports when we grew up, but after college he became a massive hockey fan, knowing statistics, debating player trades, etc.

I think of appreciating things for their own inherent value and the responses I have to those things, whereas extroverts seem to appreciate things as vectors for bonding with others.

(dangerous generalizations there, I know)