Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Review: The Tastemakers - The Shaping of American Popular Taste by Russell Lynes



Book Review
The Tastemakers - The Shaping of American Popular Taste
 by Russell Lynes
originally published 1955
re-published by Dover Press in 1980

  I have fair collection of books on taste and aesthetics that I've read for the book (non-fiction) I'm writing that I've never mentioned here because I just don't think they are titles that interest people.  Any concentrated consideration of developments in Aesthetics in the mass-communication period needs to consider the influence of other related disciplines in the "social sciences" to the study of aesthetics.   Aesthetics in the 20th and 21st century is really about the development of a large, popular audience for works of art.  This represents a vast change from the study of Aesthetics in the 18th and 19th century.

  Specifically, in the 18th and 19th century, Aesthetics were largely a question of understanding and descriping art as "good" or "bad" within the constraints of "classical" or Greek/Roman Aesthetic principles.   This 18th/19th "classical" aesthetics was the dominant taste before everything started to change.  Understanding "Classical" and "neo-Classical" Aesthetics is largely a history lesson.
 
  That history lesson includes the development of neo-Classical aesthetics itself but that development is quantitatively and qualitatively different then the dominant aesthetics which followed.  How that happened in America during the early/mid 19th century through the development of the mass media of film, recordings and print media is the subject of The Tastemakers- The Shaping of American Taste, by Russell Lynes.

  With only a single Amazon review spread between two product pages I am convinced that The Tastemakers is a bit of a forgotten classic in the study of Aesthetics and the broader field of "American Studies."  Lynes, though not an Academic, possesses an authoritative background (editor of Harpers), a flowing writing style and a claim to the invention of the idea of highbrow/middlebrow/low brow culture.  This distinction is at the very beating heart of American Studies, and Lynes plausible claim that he coined the terms is matched by his accurate description of the terms themselves being problematic.

  A key issue in describing the development of aesthetics in America is the manner in which the ideas of early pre-modern thinkers like John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle were imported to the United States.  The question is "What was the vehicle for the transmission of these ideas?"

   Lynne provides a plausible answer to this question: Alexander Downing, a landscape architect from the Hudson River Valley who published books on landscape and architecture in the 1840s. The likely agent of transmission to Downing, who was raised outside of a formal educational environment, is posited to be "the elderly Baron de Liederer...the Austrian Consul General who was an "amateur naturalist" would likely have been in touch with the major currents of English thought.

   Downings program of Gothicly influenced domestic architecture is the first move beyond the "neo Classical revival" period that is so well enshrined in every aspect of the origins of the United States of America.  The taste for "carpenter Gothic" reflected the available mass media (printing press) and demand among the prospective Audience (people wanting to build homes in America.)
  Thus, from the very beginning, taste reflected the availability of mass media and a large prospective Audience.

  The development of taste from the mid 19th century on mirrored the needs and interests of its Audience.  In the 20th century the larger Audience for stylish possessions and ideas differentiated and grew.  Key events in this growth and differentiation were the invention of new Mass Media, particularly recorded music and film.  Lynes' contribution to the discussion of this growth and differentiation is the idea that the Audience was split into thirds "High Brow," "Middle Brow," and "Low Brow."   This distinction was never hard and fast, but generally the idea is that High brows despise Middle brows and like Low brows.  Middle brows don't care about High brows and think Low brows have bad taste. Low brows keep to themselves and don't care about Middle or High brow.

  Lynes also understood that tastes changed over time in predictive repetitive ways.  Something that was thought to be "high brow" in one time period (Lynes usually spoke in terms of decades) would become "middle brow" in the next time period and "low brow" the time period after that.  Things that BEGAN as low brow in the initial time period would ascend to being "high brow" the next time period, then sink to middle brow.

  The Tastemakers includes an afterward which contains a chart that Life magazine prepared for a 1949 issue.  In that chart you can see that he has listed "Pulps & comic books" and "jukeboxes" as "Low Brow."  In 2014 you could arge that all three of those things are High Brow.

 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Shadow Line (1915) by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad, author.

Book Review
The Shadow Line (1915)
by Joseph Conrad

  Total fan of Joseph Conrad.  He's a repeat player in the 1001 Book project,  You've got the immortal Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1899), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907.)  There's also Victory (1915) which didn't make the 1001 Books list but is worth a spin regardless. The Shadow Line is late Conrad. Despite the fact I actually enjoy reading Conrad, the reviews haven't done well in terms of page views:  35, 79, 42, 38.

  So yeah... no hits for Jo Conrad.  The Shadow Line like Victory and Heart of Darkness is a novella more than a novel. Despite his reputation as a literary author today, many of his books were published in serial.  I haven't done the research, but I suspect that during his lifetime Conrad was often characterized as a writer of "adventures."  His favored settings in the tropics of the East Indies and other then exotic locales like Africa (Heart of Darkness) and Central America (Nostromo) reflect his life experience as a sailor, but the locales often serve to emphasize the social isolation of his characters.

  In many ways The Shadow Line, about an ill-fated voyage that ends with the death or near death of every man on board do an unnamed tropical fever, can stand in for all of his books.  His characters are lonely people, struggling against a cold, uncaring world. His world is the modern world in miniature and it is a dark place.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Meeting Jimmie Rodgers by Barry Mazor

Jimmie Rodgers in his guise as "The Singing Brakeman"

Book Review
Meeting Jimmie Rodgers
 by Barry Mazor
p. 2009
Oxford University Press

  Meeting Jimmie Rodgers was a totally random pick up, found by a friend at the always-amazing dtla used book hot spot The Last Bookstore.  Can't say enough about The Last Bookstore, from the location to the selection!  And the crazy second story! So many books, much reading.

  Jimmie Rodgers is constantly mentioned in almost an book you read about twentieth century popular music.  He's a key nexus between older genres of popular music like Blues and Hill-Billy and newer genres like Country and Rock and Roll.  He was also a prototype for the single singer songwriter accompanying himself on guitar, and an obvious inspiration for Folk trends of the later 20th century.

  While Rodgers hasn't exactly been forgotten, the fact that all of his recordings were done on now scarce 78s gives his story a bit of a "lost and found" vibe similar to what accompanies the re-discovery of African American bluesman.  However, that is a misleading comparison, because Rodgers recorded more than 111 "sides" via 78 and sold hundred of thousands if not millions of copies of those records, before succumbing in proto-rock star fashion to Tuberculosis during the Great Depression.

 Meeting Jimmie Rodgers devotes itself equally to chronicling Rodgers true life biography and then chronicling his long afterlife as an inspiration for broader popular music trends of the 20th century.  The most interesting of these descriptions is Rodgers relationship to the country-music establishment in Nashville Tennessee.  Rodgers recorded when what we call country music was called "Hilly-Billy" and when what we call "Western" (as in "Country and Western") was a largely separate genre called Western Swing.  Nashville did not emerge as "Music City" in a formal sense until the 1950s, roughly the same time Rodgers was going through the first of several "revivals."  One problem: Rodgers maybe played one show in Nashville, and was from Meridien Mississippi.

 Obviously it is a battle that Nashville was destined to win, but it's interesting to see the way Rodgers was initially held at arms length as an outsider before being broad into the warm embrace.   Mazor's chapter on the Rock influence is weaker- perhaps it's simply more obvious since Elvis Presley was from Tupelo Mississippi and had parents who were Rodgers fans.  Rodgers influence on rock music is less direct because the star of his early 50s revival had waned by the time of the British Invasion.

 Mazor deserves high praise for turning out an Oxford University Press title on such an interesting, but traditionally "non academic" subject.  There need to be more titles that bridge the gap between "popular" biographical accounting of pop music stars and academic treatises that focus on narrower subjects.  This is one of those books.  For other books on popular music that reach this level of sophistication without being obtuse, check out The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry (Duke University Press) by Diane Pecknold and Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music (Harvard University Press) by David Suisman.

  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Show Review: Coachella 2014


Show Review:
 Coachella Arts & Music Festival 2014

 It very much seems to me that whether you like or dislikes Coachella Arts & Music Festival and what it "has become" it simply needs to be acknowledged that Coachella is incredibly successful as an enterprise, that it has become a southern California cultural institution in its first 15 years of existence, that it stands at the beginning of the "festival season" which is particularly vibrant and healthy part of the post internet music industry and that it is the primary music festival for people Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside, California Desert and arguably Las Vegas/Phoenix AND Tucson.  Those markets comprise something like 10% of the total population of the United States.

  Another simple fact that must be acknowledged is that Coachella is an instant sell out BEFORE THE LINE UP IS ANNOUNCED.  In other words, the vase majority of the people who attend Coachella would have purchased tickets for any combination of Artists.  The Audience for Coachella is people who are fans of Coachella itself, not any particular Artist or Genre.

 The "official attendance" for each weekend of Coachella is 90,000 per weekend.  According to multiple sources, the number of "tickets sold" is 75,000, meaning there are additional 15,000 attendees who do not purchase tickets.   I have been to enough Coachella's to remember a time when VIP tickets were not actually available for purchase, in 2014, what appears to have happened is that there is a three class system- general audience, VIP and then the Artist/Crew/Press/Hangers On community, which is like a festival within the festival at this point.

  This year I was fortunate to be a part of that third group- a good thing because my forays into the VIP section were enough to make me of the firm opinion that VIP status is not worth having at this point.  My experience in General Population this year was limited to Sunday afternoon, when I strolled the terrace, had a Stumptown iced coffee and chilled in the brand new Beer Garden which has been built between the Do Lab and the Yuma Tent.

  The main arena for the Artist/Crew/Press/Hangers-On is the Artist Village, located in a corner between the main stage and the VIP area.  Here, each of the major-ish acts have their own "Star Waggons" trailer (or segment of trailer) arranged in a court yard fashion.   Part of the fun of the Artist Village scene is the hierarchy of trailers given to each act.  More privacy is good.  The older and more established acts were located off "the main drag" with the smaller acts placed in the main walk way.  Some acts stayed on their bus, and Main Stage acts had special trailers behind the main stage.

  All weekend celebrities, music industry types and significant others comprised a majority of the traffic, while actual Artists tended to limit their time milling about.  Periodically free water and beer (Heineken light) would be dispensed in large plastic tubs around the grounds.  Each stage now has a VIP area at the front of the stage, and there is a walkway/track around the back so that people with VIP and Artist/Press/Crew level access can navigate without walking onto the festival grounds.   The VIP area was alternatly a god send (any time you wanted to watch a main stage act), a disaster (you couldn't even get in during Pharell's set on the second stage) and irrelevant (for Courtney Barnett it was a better view from the sparsely populated general population area, with the gobi tent vip viewing area shunted off to stage left in front of a screen and wall of speakers.)

  As someone who naturally gravitates towards the least crowded part of any space for watching a show, I found myself in the unusual position of standing in the back of a sometimes sparsely inhabited VIP viewing area looking at people who had been uncomfortably pressed up against metal railing for hours at a stretch.

  On Friday I arrived to see Broken Bells play the coveted "magic hour" set on the second stage.  That set on the second stage at sunset typically kills, and Broken Bells was no exception to the rule.  I'm a fan of the new record and it was a bit of a thrill to see the songs performed live for the first time.  I was surprised to see that the entire band is only four people, James Mercer, Danger Mouse and two additional people.  James Mercer gave particularly memorable performance "he was swiveling his hips!" other people observed after the show.

  After Broken Bells is was back to the Artist Village area for a discreet and sophisticated celebration, largely industry people.  Then I walked to the second tent to see Bryan Ferry, who was resplendent in the kind of multi colored dinner jacket that only looks right on aging British rockstars.  The crowd for Ferry was largely comprised of older dudes and their younger girlfriends, and I actually physically saw several examples of that combination who I'd met at prior music industry type events.  Ferry was backed by an excellent band- including two energetic african american back up singers in the classic mold.  Everything was very tight and on the money, leading me to the conclusion that Ferry keeps in practice and has pride in his work.

 After Bryan Ferry there was more agreeable socializing in the Artist village, listening to but not watching Girl Talk (missed all the guest stars), followed by an attempt to watch Outkast's headlining set from the VIP section- which was  mistake and let to my departure after half of the first song.  Back in the hotel room, I watched the stream and was not impressed.  The next day I spoke to someone who watched from the main stage vip area and said it was great.  Observers who criticized the crowd for failing to respond are stupid.  I think Outkast was disappointing as a main stage head liner, even compared to recent hip hop headliners like Dre and Snoop or Kanye West.

Saturday was a late start.  I sat pool side at the Renaissance Esmerelda, bemused from behind my used copy of Slaves of New York as some basic bitches and Coachella bros organized, I shit you  not, a race in the hotel wading pool.  How bro ish can one possibly get?  The same group also brought a regulation size football which they threw around in the pool at rapid velocity, splashing strangers like assholes.  Any argument that the normal general admission folks who go to Coachella in 2014 are in any way cool or fun was dashed by my observations of the non industry festival goers pool side.  They seem a loutish bunch, the equivalent of the British term "punters."  Well heeled punters, because that hotel was four hundo a night, but loutish.

 I arrived early Saturday night for the second major highlight of my festival experience, Lorde's set on the second stage.  I arrived puzzled at the discrepancy between laudatory reviews of her touring show vs. my own experience watching her perform "live" on tv where she typically stands still and declaims at the audience with hand gestured.  Quickly I learned that Lorde does in fact have moves, that put her somewhere between a Lily Allen/M.I.A./17 year old who watches 80s rap videos on youtube.  It certainly works.  She has a solid voice and the Audience (myself included) ate it up.

 Left after she played Royals (towards the end of her set) to catch the main stage show of Foster the People.  I really have a deeper appreciation for this band after a couple of live viewings, and I'm attempting to be complimentary when I observed that Mark Foster is like the platonic ideal of the Bro.  The Archetype, if you will.  He is also a cutie pie, and his biggest fans in the VIP area seemed to be super hot girls in their 20s, so it is hard to say he's doing anything wrong.  I don't believe they've really won over the fellas, but I'm certain they are not going for a hard edge.

 After Foster The People I watched Queens of the Stone Age deliver a deadening, hit filled set, then walked over and watched most of Mogwai, who were great but had a small crowd.  Their dramatic compositions played well against the Coachella night sky, and the idea that they might be "boring" live was outweighed by the joy of simply seeing Mogwai live.  After that, tried to go see Pharell but was warned off the VIP viewing area, so went to see Darkside instead.  Darkside was good, very much reminding me of Michael Mayer's Sahara room set a few years back, but it was clear that the Coachella likes its EDM like it likes its hip hop, big and dumb.

  Closed out the night with twenty minutes of Pet Shop Boys- who were also not particularly popular but it was a thrill to see them in the flesh.  They wore giant black porcupine style rubber suits and had a splendid video back drop.

  Sunday had to go early (Noon!) to watch Ratking, who were the discovery for me of the festival.  With a throw back style of hip hop and interesting IDM/EDM-y type beats, they were a real fresh voice in the Coachella crowds, and the new record on XL is excellent.  Later I had a chance to chat with lead rapper Wiki back stage and found him to be an interesting and well informed young man, far from any stereotype about rappers.

   After Ratking, I wandered around the Terrace area- which holds the double EDM barrels of the Yuma tent and the Do Lab (and the Heinkein Lounge which I didn't even want to look at.)  Goldenvoice built an actual craft beer bar back there in "Craftsman" style wood- it was a great place to pass an hour Sunday.  Then I watched Courtney Barnett- who is a real discovery! You need to check out her new record- she's like a cross between Bob Dylan and Best Coast, with a sharp band that gives everything a very Nirvana vibe (she plays guitar left handed.)

  Left the festival grounds for a couple hours to hang at the Beerhunter-which is an amazing Coachella convenient sports bar/restaurant.  Then came back for a terrible Calvin Harris and an even worse Lana Del Rey.  Even after watching four songs live I'm not sure if she is a drugged up train wreck or PLAYING a drugged up train wreck, but that was def. the vibe.  It could also be both or neither.  The fawning coverage I've read of the performance is baffling and I honestly wouldn't trust anyone who said she was "great"- she was terrible- fascinating all the same- but objectively it was a terrible, obviously lip synced performance.  Bear in mind Lana Del Rey has sold a million records, so any criticism of the live show is meaningless and shouldn't be taken as anything other then objective facts.

  I am 100% spoiled for regular VIP after the Artist level access- thank you to my hosts at Goldenvoice!  And I am very excited about Stagecoach Festival in two weeks- which I will also be writing about on this blog!




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