Saturday, August 20, 2005

Defending the Theory

I just read an ancient (last December) post: about the theory that was interesting, though it had the theory all wrong. Here's some of the post:

The problem with the theory is it is self-defeating; it asks artists to do what we don't expect them to do in avoiding "overtness" and "predictability," but in doing so becomes predictable in itself--we can now simply think of what an artist would do between these, and that is "advancement."

Better still, the whole idea that an artist would premeditate this decision--or better yet, produce a result "typical" of advancement--is contrary to the idea of the masses simply being too "unadventurous" to "understand" the music. Radiohead doing an album of blues covers wouldn't make any sense, so it fits this theory, but it is hardly more "advanced" than listeners--absurd, perhaps, but not advanced. Blues has already been done and, generally speaking, what is "advanced" hasn't been done, and won't be "understood" for a while--case in point, Lou Reed (and, among others, a lot of what "ambient" music pioneers were doing on various sides of a coin, like Brain Eno with atmospheres, Karl Heinz Stockhausen with electronic music and Miles Davis with instrumental mixtures).

...As such, this theory doesn't work predictively because whatever "advanced" is we SHOULD NOT be able to guess. Radiohead will advance when they release something entirely new to the musical dialogue--not blues, not machine music, not any of this. If someone introducing new ideas to the musical dialogue becomes "predictable," this does not mean they are not advancing their field--some artists are simply expected to continue to breakthrough genres, though the method and is never known until after the breakthrough, and perhaps not appreciated until years afterwards. This allows room for Prince, who was for a while essentially expected to do the unexpected, instead of relegating him to "overtness" or the repetition of non-repetition.

...But it will indeed take HINDSIGHT to understand what music was indeed simply too advanced for its time, and what music was simply ill-conceived and failed to deliver ANY kind of message. We cannot discern this simply by method of formulaic projection; we can easily discern what might be "ahead" of our generation, but as to whether it will connect at all at any time is another matter altogether.

Therefore I MUST say that this "advancement" theory is woefully narrow-minded and simplistic to have anything but comical value. A better version--the understanding that music has as much to do with the listener as it does the audience, and this is subjective without time reference, not linear and a matter of "advanced" and "degenerate," is more suitable to such a subjective form of expression.

This new view allows us room for irony, but not repetition, as being precepts to music which fails to communicate to a contemporary audience but may communicate to future audiences--which is the general shift music has undergone since the combination of harmonies, rhythm, and a written form of music "recording" was introduced by monks in the middle-ages.

Perhaps the most advanced music under the "new" view would be John Cage's 4'33" which is, of course, four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, and is just about the most irony-drenched piece of anything ever thought up.
So here's why this person is wrong: First, he's a little carried away by the Radiohead business. The point of that was that no one would expect Radiohead to make a blues record for the very reason it has been done before. Advanced artists do not what is expected of them nor the opposite of what is expected of them, and the "Radiohead plays the blues" was an attempt to show that to be Advanced they would need to go to some other place besides a straightforward pop album, which would be the opposite. And the hindsight question is all wrong too. You can't predict an Advanced project because it is by definition ahead of its time and so of course it takes hindsight to see it. However, for the truly Advanced like Lou Reed, I can confidently predict that his next record will be Advanced because of his long track record of Advancement. In fact, I would say once you achieve Advancement, everything you do will be Advanced. It won't see that way at the time, but eventually we'll all catch up. Some people think that this is a license for mediocrity, but they don't see how difficult it is to be truly Advanced. And it's not like I'm saying the Advanced are infallible, but on the whole, they are consistently correct about the directions they take. It just doesn't seem that way at the time. After all, they're Advanced. The last thing he writes about Cage proves that he doesn't understand the theory, but Advanced artists have no use for irony because for the most part it is an excuse for saying nothing.


Henry said...

I really enjoy the theory, but this post made me wonder about a few things.

Metal Machine Music seems very overt to me in the same sense as the John Cage silence piece. Does it seem overt to me because it is overt (in the same sense of Radiohead putting a lot of junky robot noises in the bacground is overt) or is it just so advanced that I can't even begin to approach it for some period of time? (The Russian critic George Starostin, at the end of his review of Metal Machine Music*, says "As I finished this review and, morally exhausted by the effort, went to the fridge to grab a sandwich, I heard the fridge making the exact kind of noises as captured on some of the album's passages. I swear I'm not lying.")

What is the relationship between advancement and commercial success? Isn't the advanced theory predicated on the fact that the public won't accept advanced artists or art because they're not ready for it/them? 'Walk on the Wildside' was a popular song, but seems really overt compared to like Coney Island Baby, which seems to just drip with advancement (at least in my limited understanding, which at this point compares advancement to some sort of ether). I remember a post a few weeks ago about R. Kelly's new closet thing and his Advancement status. How can it be advanced if it sells well at the time of its release?

Side Side Question:

When do Artists become advanced? In the Velvets, Lou was Overt, and the same seems to hold for at least Transformer and Berlin, but I don't understand the theory enough to pinpoint a specific time of advancement. You write "In fact, I would say once you achieve Advancement, everything you do will be Advanced." Well, ok, but what does it take to achieve Advancement? One album, song, Mingus's cat training method? A lot of people in shitty punk bands wear black leather jackets, but I wouldn't say they have the smell of Advancement. Regression, maybe.


Jason Hartley said...

Hi Henry.

"Metal Machine Music" was Overt (though it is sometimes called an Advanced Irritant because it was a response to Reed's popularity), and I don't think that Lou Reed was Advanced just yet. I think it is a gradual thing (to answer your last question first) because to be Advanced, you have to have the potential to be Advanced (be brilliant not just good, be innovative not derivitive, change the world of music in the next generation) and also have a long track record of brilliant music. One thing you have to say about "Metal Machine Music" is that it was incredibly audacious and sure to please almost no one, which are signs of Advancement.

As far as commercial success, you can be Advanced and be wildly popular, too, but usually it's an accident. Also, for a "cult figure" like Lou Reed, for him to cultivate a larger audience would disappoint his fans, who in their narrow-mindedness feel like he somehow belongs to them or that it's cooler to like something no one else does. Disappointing your Overt fans is Advanced, so if that means being really commercially successful, then so be it. Usually it doesn't last because somehow disappointing the masses is probably the next step. R. Kelly can't be Advanced yet, but some people seem to be excited about the prospect. I don't know much about his music so I can't say, but I will say that his selling a lot of records doesn't preclude him from being Advanced.