Pete's Blog

The Larger Question

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My friend Steve Simels and I have been exchanging posts at his excellent blog Powerpop.blogspot on the subject of the '60s band the Velvet Underground, whose relative value is in dispute between us, to put it mildly. After writing the phrase "static, unswinging, painfully self-conscious pastiche of borrowed riffs and snobbish attitudinizing" I feel I've said all I can say about this particular group. So I'd like to address a larger question raised by their popularity and, indeed, by an entire subset of music. It boils down to this: Why should I pay to see musicians who can't play their instruments better than I can? Groucho Marx said when he heard that the hit Broadway musical "Hair" featured full frontal nudity he went into the bathroom, took off his clothes, and looked at himself in the mirror. "There," he said. "I just saved fifty bucks." Sure, I'll go see friends of mine, and cheer lustily and sincerely. And any teacher will tell you that there is no musical experience as profoundly moving as hearing your students starting to get the hang of a new piece. I'd rather hear Cody Cannon play "Layla," however haltingly, than the great Clapton himself. But that's not really what we're talking about. We're talking about The Cult Of The Inspired Incompetent. "A compelling performer," people say, or, "They really know how to express what the audience is feeling." What they're really saying, it seems to me, is, "Those guys are just like me. That could be me up there." And I think this attitude is the hallmark of a culture in decline. Because what art says about a culture is read by the historians of the future as a statement about the culture as a whole. If the album they dust off and listen to strikes them as a static, unswinging, painfully self-conscious pastiche of borrowed riffs and snobbish attitudinizing they're not going to say, "Well, how democratic. What a blast of gritty, street-level energy." They're going to say, "This was a society that didn't care as much about music as Vienna did in the 1790s." And that will be a shame because, if anything, New York City in the 1960s was even more musical than Vienna in the 1790s. It's just that ambitious non-artists wanted to get rich making a point about the marketing of art. And in the process a lot of great art was pushed aside in favor of trendy incompetence. Please prove me wrong, Steve. This is 'way too gloomy an outlook even for me.

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