Difficult Listening Hour, with Seth Colter Walls: The Pleasure Principle

So what purposefully counter-intuitive music article raised a lot of question marks for you yesterday?

Unless we all missed a silly Weekly Standard essay making the claim that GG Allin is best understood as an undercover Christian rocker, whose songs reinforce “traditional values” by taking scum-filth to its terminus point of meaning (and thus subverting the scum impulse in general), my guess is it was Slate’s close reading of Creed’s awesomeness that got stuck in your aesthetic-critical craw. People are already making much better ha-has than the one above, of course. (Check the #slatepitches on Twitter, or just follow Brian Beutler already.)

Unlike Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, though, I don’t really feel like I need to react here by inveighing against the tiresome preponderance of counter-intuitive articles, or even against Creed. The band’s entirely earnest brand of boring anyone not operating under the influence of an immature persecution complex has been old news for about a decade already-and besides, by rising to elitist-bait so adroitly, I’d simply be doing what Slate wanted its counter-intuitiveness to achieve the first place.

But just because I’m not particularly in a mood to put Scott Stapp down today, that doesn’t mean I won’t do it to Jonah Weiner, a generally interesting critic who commits some fouls here that turn out to be totally unrelated to his assessment of the cultural import of a song like “Higher.” The first thing that struck me while taking in “Creed is Good” was that it reads like the music journalism equivalent of Sarah Palin’s GOP convention speech: feisty, attention-grabbing for sure, and sort of difficult to believe was executed in good faith by a responsible adult. I’m not saying Weiner doesn’t genuinely like what he says he likes here. But I doubt (or at least I hope) he doesn’t believe in the ludicrously false dichotomy between intellect and emotion his piece wants us to believe exists, simply because … well, maybe some unnamed jerk hipster somewhere stupidly thinks her immaculately-curated record collection makes her a better or smarter person than regular folks who cotton to Creed.


This completely unsupported, faux populist, straw man passage blows in particular: “And it’s not that the band didn’t deliver. To the contrary, Creed seemed to irritate people precisely because its music was so unabashedly calibrated towards pleasure: Every surging riff, skyscraping chorus, and cathartic chord progression telegraphed the band’s intention to rock us, wow us, move us.” [emph. added]

Wait, who ever gave disliking pleasure as a reason for not liking Creed? I’m actually pretty certain that while Creed’s intent was to wow me, the reason I don’t like them is because I feel they “didn’t deliver” in this regard.

There’s so much more unpacking to do here, insulting implications-wise. You’re meant to understand that some music wants to give you joy, and that this totally helpful classification includes Creed, because they’re direct in their presentation and don’t hide behind anything annoying like artifice or subtlety. And then, I guess, there’s music that’s ashamed of pleasure or otherwise objects to its delivery in some fashion. And, apparently, the partisans of this latter style are inflexibly hostile to music that intends to “move us,” because not only don’t they appreciate being moved by music themselves, they’re angry when others find this pleasure out in the world. These horrid people probably have other reasons for listening to music that exist outside the Aristotelian-sensual sphere, though the article doesn’t bother to explain how this might work. At any rate, heal thyself, discerning consumer of music: if you don’t like Creed, you best consider whether you’re one of these snobs, or if you’re actually even into the whole notion of getting pleasure from music as opposed to posing about music.

And that’s just the part of this article that’s insulting to listeners. How about the artists themselves? Well, the suggestion seems to be that musicians who embrace sophistication or conceptual gambits don’t really mean to move us as much as our misunderstood hero, Scott Stapp. Miles Davis? Didn’t want to wow you like Creed, by the way. And turns out, last year, folks got their hopes up for Chinese Democracy for some other reason than that they thought it might possibly rock them.

Now, in my job, I spend some part of my time talking to musicians, and not only pop artists. Some of these people work in unpopular or “difficult” genres, like noise, or jazz, or classical music. And I swear I’ve never met a single individual among this set who was driven into his or her life of penury and total aesthetic dedication in order to make the few people they encountered at concerts less joyful in life.

Just for example, this young composer named Mario Diaz de León is working in a really fascinating way with chamber music and electronics. It’s a union that could easily be lame as hell, but he’s put some real heart into the enterprise, and his absolutely phenomenal first CD, titled Enter Houses Of, is a sensual delight (at least if you’re the kind of person who likes Fennesz and/or Luciano Berio).

Here’s the first half of the album’s leadoff track, “Mansion”:

[wpaudio url=”http://choiresicha.com/Mansion.mp3″ text=”Mario Diaz de León, ‘Mansion’ (first half)” dl=”0″]

Believe it or not, I put that up because I wanted to improve your day! I think the mix of alto flutes and laptop noise is exquisite. And I know the composer hopes you’ll like it too.

Again, it’s worth saying that the critical argument Weiner advances about Creed is a fine enough topic for a piece, as far as it goes. Leave aside the author’s incomprehension over the disfavor Creed has accrued over the years. (Though really, is it too difficult to understand why the zeitgeist in 2009 may feel as though this decade has heard enough from the species of the “well-meaning, Bible-fluent doofus”?) There’s something deeply and properly illogical at the heart of music criticism as an enterprise in the first instance-the whole “dancing about architecture” thing. How can we make sense in print (or online) about what we love at a non-textual level? Anyone can make an argument for almost anything-which is why people loathe critics in general, and yet also find criticism rather addicting to consume. But rather than constructing unexpected, potentially unpopular arguments by tearing down competing traditions-or even worse, tapping into the easy anti-intellectualism that dominates numerous other American debates far too frequently-it’s probably better for us on the whole if writers train their critical-poetic arts onto the works they want to champion. The critic should reveal to us what it is we’ve been missing, and if we find out the critic is correct, we’ll chastise ourselves for having held blinkered assumptions-and we’ll do it on our own time.

‘Bullets’ is a furious blast of metal and one of the most galvanizing persecution anthems ever penned,” Weiner writes, trying to do just this in the not-at-all objectionable part of his piece. The only problem is that the evidence he submits for this claim-the lyrics “At least look at me when you shoot a bullet through my head! Through my head! Through my head!”-doesn’t do much to back up his praise.

At least for me. See, I don’t much care for Creed.

Previously: Come Ye Despondent Cable News Watchers, And Restore Your Faith In Things

Seth Colter Walls is a culture reporter at Newsweek. Previously, he wrote about U.S. and Middle East politics for a variety of outlets.