Out and about (Christmas edition)

With the exception of Friday’s “Looks of Love,” this will probably be the last Quiet Bubble posting until January 2008. There’s lots to read below, and to your left. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and all the rest. Thanks for reading.

Jazz, perhaps more than any other musical genre, has been shaped by its critics. Audiences, concerts, reputations, and even recordings have been influenced deeply by such writers as Whitney Balliett, Nat Hentoff, Ralph Ellison, and Stanley Crouch. It’s understandable that there’s a continual push-and-pull dynamic between the musicians and the writers, but few historians have taken the time to explore this relationship in full. John Gennari, whose book Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics tries to do just that, giving a history of jazz criticism and its influence on the music. Over at Jerry Jazz Musician, there’s a long, fascinating interview with Gennari. A taste:

Since one of the jobs of a critic is to mediate between the bandstand and the audience, and because musicians’ interactions on the bandstand are so personal and “inside,” they can feel resentment toward anyone trying to speak for them outside of that insider’s realm.

Another role for the jazz critic is to spread the news of this great American art form that has not received the acknowledgement it should and may otherwise slip into obscurity. I believe the musician understands that role. So, while they want to hold on to their insider, almost hermitically-sealed realm of creativity, they realize that if they are ever going to be known or understood, they need critics to spread their message.

Bruce Springsteen’s career, particularly in the 1970s, was shaped by critics calling him the “future of rock and roll.” He was too interested in looking to the past—and to siphoning styles and concerns from older, black pop—for the phrase to truly stick, and audiences were far ahead of writers in noting the supernovas of his live shows. Still, criticism certainly helped establish his reputation, and he continues to have hosannas flung upon him by boomers and the indie crowd alike. Consider this concert review another log on the fire, but it gets at what makes the Jersey man worthwhile even now:

But for the most part, there’s more darkness on the edge of the Magic show than any tour before it. In the context of such alienation—especially in the D.C. setting, which Springsteen acknowledged with the hot-cha zinger, “I’m so glad to be in your wicked, I mean beautiful, city tonight!”—“No Surrender” became a fierce challenge (the “wide open country in our eyes” seemed a lot more distant). “Reason To Believe”, meanwhile, was rebuilt as a dust-spitting Western rocker in the vein of “La Grange” and “Radio Nowhere”. The tune opened with a war cry (“Is there anybody alive out there?”, which Bruce has been stage-pattering since the ‘70s) that was part call to arms, part indictment—a line that can kick off a big rock show while slyly wondering what, exactly, in the hell have we let happen around here.

If jazz and rock has had a tense relationship with critics, though, that’s nothing compared to the media’s conversation with hip-hop. Hell, at least there are jazz studies departments at universities now. Hip-hop is unquestionably more popular and more influential to the culture at-large, but there’s basically no academic component worth noting (Mark Anthony Neal is a significant exception.), and the media outlets devoted to the genre—XXL, The Source, and Vibe—often seem more like fanzines than serious periodicals on hip-hop. One of the most contentious debates in the rap community concerns the place of white folks within it: Can authentic hip-hop be created by whites? Is hip-hop even still a black form, seeing as its most popular subgenres (as well as its most self-consciously “underground”) are consumed primarily by whites? What happens to hip-hop production, lyrics, and themes when white boys (and a few girls—hello, Northern State!) enter the fray? I think the Beastie Boys, Eminem, Beck, 3rd Bass, Peanut Butter Wolf, El-P, RJD2, and especially DJ Shadow have answered the first question in the affirmative, but the rest still float out there, making us black folks a little uncomfortable. (I resented the Beasties for a decade—until I finally heard Paul’s Boutique—because their Licensed to Ill felt like a thinner version of a Run DMC, but sold three times as well. My experience isn’t uncommon.)

So, when a friend sent me a link to her boyfriend’s new label, Beats Broke, I wanted to beg off writing about it. But the label ups the ante. Beats Broke focuses on rap from the Netherlands, especially Utrecht. I wouldn’t have thought Utrecht would be a site of beats-bonanza, but groups like Illicit and Pax & Pry, and producers Inf and Arts the Beatdoctor prove me wrong. Yes, white folks dominate the label and set the terms—the lone American rapper there is named after the quintessential Wes Anderson character, which pretty much defines arch-whiteness. (But he’s good, like an even-more-adenoidal, and less grating, Eminem.) The label’s music tends toward live instrumentation, particularly keyboard washes and good guitar, and the short-and-sweet aesthetic of Stones Throw. (Not many songs cross the four-minute mark.) For starters, try Kapabel and Inf’s EP (especially “Beter Wel,” which I think is a Dutch-language cover and reinvention of Ghostface Killah’s “Shakey Dog”) and Pax & Pry’s album; both are downloadable for free. Beats Broke is worth checking out.

Julie Doucet left comics a decade ago, but we still can’t get over it. She talks with The Walrus here about her current art projects, and even offers a rare comic strip.

I’ve said unkind things about Sheila Heti’s writing in the past, but she conducts a good, sometimes combative interview with art critic Dave Hickey.

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have a long, long conversation about the merits and (mostly) demerits of Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture Beowulf, and what it means for film and video culture and technology. (Animation historian Michael Barrier hated it, by the way, and this even after being a champion of Zemeckis’s The Polar Express.)

For filmic praise, please read Roger Ebert’s beautiful, inspiring letter to Werner Herzog. In the middle of it, there’s this paragraph:

You often say this modern world is starving for images. That the media pound the same paltry ideas into our heads time and again, and that we need to see around the edges or over the top. When you open Encounters at the End of the World by following a marine biologist under the ice floes of the South Pole, and listening to the alien sounds of the creatures who thrive there, you show me a place on my planet I did not know about, and I am richer. You are the most curious of men. You are like the storytellers of old, returning from far lands with spellbinding tales.

That seems like a good toast to what artists can do for us, and a good way to end this post. See you in January.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to Out and about (Christmas edition)

  1. Laura says:

    Just so you know, we have a course in Hip-Hop Music being taught here at MTSU by a short white girl who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation at Indiana on the rap music of the Five Percent Nation. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, figuratively.

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