The version of Cantique de Noël on this album may just be my favorite one yet (there’s a sample at the bottom of the page.)
The version of Cantique de Noël on this album may just be my favorite one yet (there’s a sample at the bottom of the page.)
I love listening to a variety of Christmas music, sacred and silly, choral and corny, but I think I can name three favorite carols. First, a lesser-known one from the King’s Singers:
“O Holy Night” may be my favorite traditional carol, but I really like Puddles the Clown’s version. I’ll never begrudge a man his gimmick, especially when he has such a magnificent voice:
And finally, this is a version of a folk song that I got on cassette a couple decades ago. I’ve never been able to find it online, so I finally just uploaded it myself:
As for albums, this year I’ve been enjoying this one from the Prague Philharmonic:
And Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops is a perennial favorite:
I read Jack Weatherford’s book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World some years ago and learned that, despite popular legend, Genghis was practically an Enlightenment liberal. (Weatherford has since written a couple more books on the same revisionist theme, though I haven’t read either.) Not being a scholar, my impression was that, while certainly interesting, it seemed too neatly counterintuitive — sort of like a book-length exposition of one of those “Everything you thought you knew about X is wrong!” articles you see all the time. But from what little I read of the critical reception, which seemed generally positive, it seemed there might have been substance to the thesis after all. If anyone took ferocious exception to Weatherford’s work, I’m unaware of it.
Anyway, now it appears that modern-day Mongolians, rather than wanting to sack and pillage Europe, just want to rock. I suppose this merging of cultures represents commodification of indigenous music, Coca-Cola colonialism, etc., but I do like the songs:
She retired from the music business nearly thirty years ago, with the wise words, ‘All rock-and-rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire.’ In a later interview, she expanded on this theme: ‘You can do jazz, classical, blues, opera, country until you’re 150, but rap and rock and roll are really ways for young people to get their anger out … It’s silly to perform a song that has no relevance to the present or expresses feelings you no longer have.’ If only more ageing rock-and-rollers knew when to give up.
I’ve thought about this for many years now — is there such a thing as aging gracefully within the somewhat-limited confines of rock music? Is it possible to still use the same basic guitar-based template to express something more profound, more age-appropriate, than aggression, depression and sexual obsession?
It all depends, of course, on how we define rock (or, more broadly, pop) music. It’s not hard to think of instances where Grace Slick’s opinion is inarguable. I can think of many artists who have remained stuck in an image they cultivated as young men, even as it becomes pathetic to see them still playacting in middle- or old age. Certain genres, like Scandinavian extreme metal and gangsta rap, will always be the Lost Boys of Neverland, refusing to grow up or aim for any higher purpose beyond alienating parents and shocking the boorzhwazee. But rock ‘n’ roll contains multitudes; its family tree has countless branches. Was Morphine’s jazz-influenced minimalism adult enough to pass muster? Does Clutch sound creatively exhausted yet? Are TV on the Radio or Modest Mouse defined by a surplus of testosterone? Has there even been a Masters of Reality record that didn’t sound somehow both ageless and timeless? And how would we even classify Beats Antique? I could go on and on and on without doing justice to the diversity within mere “popular” music, so I think it’s rather obvious: an artform that has been around for sixty or seventy years has had no choice but to mature and evolve. Sometimes the critics, just as much as the enthusiasts, are guilty of refusing to allow it to age out of adolescence.
Besides, I take heart to think that even the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, a man who is practically the embodiment of highbrow taste, a man who colorfully claimed that the electric guitar “owes much of its immense appeal to the obvious fact that it is strapped on and brandished like a livid dildo,” nonetheless professed an appreciation of Metallica, calling them “genuinely talented,” as well as “violently poetic and musical.” Well, then; if he can say that, then I can certainly continue to find something musically redeeming in Godflesh, Goldfrapp, Rob Crow and Joachim Witt.
This is a formula to kill artistic freedom – yes even by artists we may find deplorable, like R. Kelly or Kill, Baby, Kill. Every artist should take a step back at who Spotify is entrusting to carry out its new content policing.
Furthermore, modern artists should go to YouTube and dig up the footage of Frank Zappa and Dee Snyder testifying in front of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985. If Spotify continues down this path, then artists need to realize they have the power to make Spotify suffer the same fate as the Tipper Gore group – an extinct laughingstock and stain on the history of free expression through music.
If you’re just joining us, we’re reading an article on Fox News’s website defending freedom of expression in…uh…popular music against new demands for censorship from…um…religious fundamentalists, a.k.a. rainbow-haired, pussyhat-wearing feminists, who are being supported, at least implicitly, by milquetoast liberals who see nothing wrong with organized pressure campaigns by moralistic zealots attempting to create obstacles between artists and willing audiences since only government can officially “censor” anyone. Well, the neo-Whigs who think that “It’s the current year!” counts as a persuasive argument will have fun making sense of this one, at least.
If there’s any reactionaries out there who can write a decent melody, the stage couldn’t be more perfectly set for you to position yourself as the newest phase in rock ‘n’ roll rebellion by giving this generation of church ladies the middle fingers and mockery they’re begging for. And best of all, they’ll give you all the free advertising you can handle. They won’t be able to help themselves.
If Schopenhauer had a religion in his youth, or at any time in his life, it was music. It was in music that he found intimations of a realm beyond the human world. The nature of things, he came to think, was ineffable. Language could not capture the reality that lay behind changing appearances. But what could not be spoken could still be sung or played.
— John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism
As Mark Sandman sang, “Music is like our prayer; it helps you reach somewhere.” Likewise, my faith is the substance of rhythms hoped for, the evidence of melodies not heard.
In The Opium of the Intellectuals, Raymond Aron wrote, “It is always astonishing that a thinker should appear indulgent to a society which would not tolerate him and merciless to the one which honors him.” In a slightly more colloquial fashion, Eric Hoffer echoed this with his observation that “people who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them.” Hold that thought for a moment; we’ll come back to it.
Recently, I was reading some old interviews with the members of Alabama 3, one of my favorite bands. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at parts like these:
I ask him if he believes that the Sopranos helped them to cultivate their outlaw image, something which reflects itself as clearly in their music as in their personal politics: “It certainly did. I tell you what – we never had any trouble at any gigs in America. We’ve certainly been known to hang around with a few naughty characters both in the states and around London…we formed Alabama 3 with a certain set of beliefs in mind and they’ve always been a part of us right from the start.” Although Larry also points out that they view a lot of the revolutionary spirit within their music as being reflective of a lot of the unheard opinions within UK society as a whole: “A lot of the time we’re not explicitly saying ‘go out and grab a gun,’ but what we are saying is, as our song goes, ‘Mao Tse Tung said change must come through the barrel of a gun.’ The messages are already out there.”
Most of the other interviews contain similar examples of typical rock-star radicalism, a sort of non-denominational Marxism seasoned with Romantic self-destructive decadence (or maybe that should be the other way around). I don’t expect my entertainers to be sensible or level-headed, of course, especially when they’ve written as many brilliant songs as these guys. It’s just that I can’t help but marvel at the cognitive dissonance involved in yearning for a revolutionary left-wing society, as if it wouldn’t immediately execute a bunch of drug-addled, antisocial musicians as socially degenerate elements. For all their clichéd complaints about the bourgeois stupidity of American and British society, at least those tolerate and provide a comfortable living for malcontents who would otherwise, come the revolution, be slaving away in the fields or dead in a mass grave. Ah, well. Hoffer also wrote about the mysterious alchemy of the human soul, in which the base materials of our flaws could be miraculously transformed into the precious metals of art and nobility of spirit — “the continuous traffic between good and evil proceeding within us.” Likewise, people who might sound stupid and trite when speaking somehow become inspiring when they pick up an instrument and sing. Only the naïve expect a harmonious symmetry between motive and result. I don’t need to understand how the ingredients combine. It’s enough to just appreciate the magic.
Despite ample evidence to the contrary, I still find it difficult to accept that a life spent creating music and becoming rich from it could ever feel pointless. Oh, believe me, I’m well aware that many celebrities are utterly miserable and self-destructive, despite seeming to have it all. It’s just that music is still as thrilling and meaningful to me as it was when I was an adolescent, both as a listener and as a creator. How could anyone talented enough to create beauty out of nothing but imagination fail to be rejuvenated by the healing waters of musical creativity? Perhaps asking that question indicates that I’ve only ever been splashing around in the shallow end, safe from the dangerous undercurrents out where the truly gifted swim. Or perhaps, to borrow religious terminology, salvation is purely a matter of grace, not works. Maybe talent and undying passion are just more false idols. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, and he became unlucky, and there’s no more reason to it than that.
Doubtless, subsequent reports and eventual biographies will fill in further details, and they will likely offer seemingly clear reasons for why a man with a happy marriage, three kids, and a successful musical career would kill himself. Goodness knows, even a brief reading of his lyrics over the years can plausibly seem, in hindsight, to suggest inevitability rather than impulsivity. Was it depression? A relapse into substance abuse? Some other kind of personal trauma that became overwhelming? Any name will do; any rhetorical candle to provide a comforting, explanatory glow against the inexplicable darkness.
It’s not quite survivor’s guilt, but the shock of something like this almost makes me suspicious, wanting to look closely behind and under all the things that provide so much meaning in life for any telltale hints of gathering shadows. What if love, music, books and writing all desert me one day? Asking that question reminds me how quickly powerless we can all become, even as we build our lives around the illusion of control. And so we tremble and comfort ourselves with ritual words and behaviors while waiting and praying for the periodic darkness to pass without something in it lingering and turning its gaze in our direction.
Some of us are more susceptible than others, but eventually it happens to us all. You know what I’m talking about: the inability to appreciate new music – or at least, to appreciate new music the way we once did. There’s a lot of disagreement about why exactly this happens, but virtually none about when. Call it a casualty of your 30s, the first sign of a great decline. Recently turned 40, I’ve seen it happen to me – and to a pretty significant extent – but refuse to consider myself defeated until the moment I stop fighting.
Aging is like hiking up a mountain. I speak as someone who has done a fair amount of both. What seems like a unique and fascinating tree down at ground level is just another tiny dot of green in nature’s stippling when seen from above. Only a few striking landmarks stand out from that vantage point. The broader perspectives seem more meaningful than the particular nuances. The further you climb, the more you tire, and the more important it becomes to conserve your breath and energy. The external boundaries of the environment constrain your choices.
As a middle-aged music listener, your ability to luxuriate in new sounds the way you did when you were a teenager is constrained by the responsibilities of adulthood. It’s curious that Wallace never mentions, over the course of three thousand words, the most obvious reasons why most people don’t keep up with the contemporary music scene beyond their young adulthood: they have careers, families, and household chores which consume most of their limited time and energy. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, of course; it just means that you’ll have to sacrifice things, and frankly, a lot of rock and pop music, obsessed as it is with the adolescent themes of horniness, chemically altered consciousness, and emotional melodrama, becomes less compelling for people who have moved on to more mature interests. Plus, when you’ve already loved and lost geniuses like Mark Sandman and Peter Steele, you simply don’t have it in you anymore to give your heart to some derivative band who, if they’re lucky, might write three decent songs. There’s no squirming out from underneath the weight of history.
Moreover, as Shakespeare said, there are more things in heaven and earth than can be contained in the typical baby-boomer experience. (Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing from memory.) That is, what Wallace is bemoaning as some perennial mystery of human nature has only been the norm for the three generations born after World War Two. The world of pop culture and mass media as we understand it only developed in tandem with the famously self-centered boomer generation, notorious for its inability to age gracefully. It’s not a surprise that the people who turned “never trust anybody over thirty” into a slogan would have bequeathed to their children a Peter Pan-like desire to stay in Neverland playing air guitar in front of the bedroom mirror forever. Our early thirties loom in our awareness like the River Styx, with Charon extending his bony claw before us, demanding payment in the form of our golden years, before ferrying us across to the land of responsibilities, opportunity costs, and music containing more than three chords. A living death, in other words. But why should we assume that this pattern will still be the same three generations from now?