Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Great, Scott

"The nineties were better than the eighties, and one key reason was that there was less originality. Originality is unmusical. The urge to do music is an admiring emulation of music one loves; the urge toward originality happens under threat that the music that sounds good to you somehow isn't good enough."

Scott Miller, Music: What Happened? 

A clever thought - inspired by a song by Smashing Pumpkins of all things ("Cherub Rock")

Elsewhere, he picks up the theme:  

"As you know, I kid the 1980s. I wonder can it possibly be fair to condemn an entire decade as a horrifying decline in every kind of musical competency, but nostalgia for the Eighties baffles me. Eighties nostalgia has lowered my opinion of nostalgia. So you're right, I was unconsciously targeting that kind of decline with "What Happened?" But pop music is great in that a true decline fosters a true pop response, like R.E.M. Eighties music suffered from a coliseum spectacle mentality, and R.E.M. reached around that with a sort of small-combo, home-spun literary connection approach."

Music: What Happened?   - well, it's a view of music very different from mine... we do converge on early R.E.M., but it's a rare occurrence in  Scott Miller's year-by-year inventory + commentary on the best  best songs between 1960 and the end of the 2000s. (He carried on commenting on the year's output online, until his tragic too-early death in 2013).  Even when his approbation lands on a band I love, he often picks a song by them I don't rate or actively dislike. 

But it's a wonderful book to read for that very reason - full of unexpected insights and precision description of a song's moving parts, informed by his being a musician (Game Theory, The Loud Family) and operator in a scene (loosely,  college rock) that had its own distinct metric of evaluation (craft, structure, daintiness to a degree.... cleverness as a pure value... melody above all, but understood in a particular sense, that sense defined by the inside-out - in my view - position that the tunes of Grant Hart were better than the tunes of Bob Mould).  

So yes the '80s canon is dBs, Let's Active, XTC, the bleedin' Smithereens...  and by the '90s  (The Posies, Jellyfish, They Might Be Giants) it's getting even further from both my own aberrant pantheon and the mass idea of what pop is....  by the 2000s, it's beyond marginal. 

But Music: What Happened? - despite the implied, "it all went to shit" in that title -  reads neither as contrarian nor embittered, but as simply the eloquent expression of another way of listening, another kind of loving. 

Check it out here

Here's a review by Michaelangelo Matos that goes into Miller's methodology in the book (each year's harvest relates to a CD comp of his favorite tunes released that year).

A playlist of damn near every song that makes up Miller's personal pantheon

And one that goes from 1980 to when he left off in the early 2010s - what you might call A College Rock Canon

Interview with Scott by Matthew Perpetua.

There's a bit in it riffing off the Smashing Pumpkins / originality comments: 

Scott Miller: I don’t want to create the false impression that the more derivative a piece of music is, the more I like it. But liking something because it’s new is never a musical response. Music carries a lot of potential for emotional impact that is not musical impact. As a simple example, a moving set of lyrics may have more or less the same impact if you just read them. Five minutes of sound might have dramatic impact, and five minutes of compositionally vapid music in a film score might work great to telegraph a set of emotions and surprises to go with the scene. But a purely musical response always needs an existing music context. You can’t play Andean flute music to Rush fans and expect the value to be apparent in isolation, or vice versa. There’s a world of context needed by the ear to support a musical reaction. I like originality in music, but that is a non-musical reaction.

Matthew Perpetua: How often do you think originality actually occurs? I tend to think that it usually comes down to the personality of the artist more than the formal aspects of things, which are usually lost on non-musicians. I found it interesting that you chose the Smashing Pumpkins as the vehicle for this thought because while that band didn’t really invent anything, I would think that to some extent there is originality there simply because Billy Corgan is such a one-of-a-kind figure. If nothing, he has this distinct voice and persona.

Scott Miller: That’s a very good observation. On the artist side, there are gestures intended to be taken as originality, and on the listener side, there are experiences of novelty, and they might not match up at all! One of the most tried and true formulas is for musicians to strive mightily to do something as well as their heroes, but while failing miserably at that, arriving at something close enough for a certain size audience to relate to, but with a whole new aspect of appealing sound that simply came from who they are.



Phil Knight said...

I've got a friend who is my age and who absolutely loves modern rock from the last 10-20 years, stuff like Dream Theater, Muse and Queens Of The Stone Age, stuff I've not even bothered to check out. He reckons it's up there with Queen and Led Zep in terms of craftsmanship and musicianship, or possibly even better.

But he doesn't have my sense of temporality, of rise and decline; he's a person who lives in the eternal present. The whole idea of music having a history, or a historical significance, doesn't occur to him at all, he just has a vague idea that there is old stuff and new stuff, and the difference between the two is that the old stuff doesn't go on tour anymore.

So the idea of progress, that music should point to the future, that it should hint at some better world, is completely absent with him, it's more about how good the drummer is and stuff like that. When I talk to him and listen to his gushing enthusiasm, I always get a vague inkling that his outlook might be the better one.


It's certainly a recipe for a happy listening life, if you aren't fretting about the vital signs of a genre or music formation.

As a punter, I am kind of in that mindset myself - which is why I have being doing the Atemporal Faves, based not on the year's releases but on what I happened to listen to and get fixated on in any given year, which is like 90 percent not stuff from the actual year.

There's just no end to the great music that you can access with the greatest of ease, it's all spread out like a banquet, the archival panoply.

But I find an odd sort of melancholy or at least dissatisfaction in the very repletion of it all. The ennui of satedness.

It's like that odd syndrome I noticed in myself circa Retromania, feeling nostalgia for boredom of the old kind, the late 1970s /early 80s adolescence - the boredom of emptiness, long tracts of time when you felt starving for stimulation.

I miss the yearning that you felt during the Bad Music Eras, when pickings were slim, and you were just waiting and waiting for something to happen...

Now you have all the "happening times" that ever happened, available to you, instantly, and at no cost

But they are not "happening", they are just there, persisting in their accumulation... clumps of beautiful or amazing sounds.

Phil Knight said...

Yeah, repletion is lacking in dynamics, in drama.

I've noticed that as I've got older and saner, the more predictable and tedious my life has become. There's this therapeutic imperative that's prevalent nowadays, that you have to heal yourself, unburden yourself of your neuroses, your wounds, your complexes. What they don't tell you though is that sanity is incredibly boring. When I was younger and crazier my life was a lot more interesting; the inner drama necessarily generated an outer drama; there was an inherently dynamic aspect to life that has now largely disappeared. I barely even have an inner monologue anymore.

The dynamism of life is built around lack, around shortcomings. I had a serious health scare last year where for the first time in my life I really became aware of my mortality. But it made me realise how much I had enjoyed life, how even the bad times had also somehow been good times. I think the very purpose of life is to have experiences, not in the bucket list sense, but in the sense that every experience adds to your emotional and empathetic palette; that uncanny feeling you get when you experience a feeling or emotion that you haven't had for a long time. It's probably why people feel nostalgic for East Germany, or the Soviet Union.

Anthony Volpe said...

Is there a way to purchase this book without spending serious money on it? I always wanted to read it but I see that it's long been out of print.

Anonymous said...

I think the ebook kindle thing is reasonable - thats what i have