Thursday, December 6, 2012

Aspirational Aesthetics

I remember my mother taking me to the Tualatin public library, age 11. I was already at this point, fairly music-obsessed, if haphazardly informed. I emerged from the library with White Light / White Heat by the Velvet Underground under my arm. I have no idea why I checked it out: I hadn't heard the names Lou Reed or Velvet Underground yet. It may have been the cover that caught my attention... but I didn't actually know what was printed on the nearly indecipherable black-on-black cover until a few years ago. My mom certainly had no clue what the record was about or she would have nipped that one in the bud.

When I got it home, I waited to play it--I wasn't even sure the turntable in the house even worked. More than that, it intuitively seemed this was a private journey. If I wanted to go down this road, it would be alone. Without having a clue of their infamy, it was clear this was objectionable.

Imagine my look when I did listen to it: oversized earmuff headphones on my head, mouth agape, eyes off in to space. In short, horribly, horribly disappointed. Faulty memory has probably fraudulently filled in some blanks, but one thing is certain, it was terrible. Side A had its moments, granted; I clung to Here She Comes Now like a life preserver. Side B was irredeemable. I Heard Her Call My Name should have been a warning klaxon: it bursts in, as if the producer pressed 'record' too late. The drumming sounds like ham-fisted, off-beat thudding. The guitar is blistering from the get-go, but by the end, completely unhinged. I can't be confident, at this remove, if I made it through all 18 minutes of the orgiastic Sister Ray.

The point of recounting this part of my personal mythology is it was my first encounter with what I can only think to call 'aspirational aesthetics'. I felt sincerely cheated by my White Light / White Heat experience at the time, but I was also fundamentally changed by it. I was by no means ready to hear that record, but having heard it, Oingo Boingo and Erasure just didn't sound quite the same again. In retrospect, every band I got into over the next five years was like training myself to hear VU with new ears. By the time Scott gave me a dubbed copy of it my sophomore year in high school, it felt like  homecoming.

Since that experience, there are a clutch of artists that I've struggled with, until that fateful day when it suddenly clicks: Derek Bailey; Robert Wyatt; Vladislav Delay; Keiji Haino... Somehow, the only way forward is to push through and come to terms with this new aesthetic landscape, like or no. Even if less-than-impressed on first blush, notably, none of these are artists I merely appreciate. By the time I  come around, they're written into my musical DNA--a vital new part of my life experience.

These musicians, and those like them, forced me to grow. That's a healthy thing--in my opinion. By no means do I believe that everyone has to dig into the avant garde and I certainly haven't given up my deep love of pop... Lord knows, nowadays if you made something as safe as Beethoven your 'thing', you'd be branded an elitist. Of course, if everyone had some form of aspirational aesthetics, small, seismic shifts in their comfort zone, the world might be a tad more interesting.

It's easy to be preemptively defensive about suggesting your own horizon-expanding moments as some sort of model. Even friends can be quick to shoot back with accusations of snobbery--that you don't sincerely enjoy the music you like; that it's a pose. I hope in some way this story explains some of that away: aspiring to understand and enjoy things is different than liking them to aspire to whatever it is you might be accused of... social prestige?

Encountering these unique challenges altered my way of hearing, irrevocably. That way of hearing is how I formulate my aesthetics. It has never been a fixed target. I've learned to enjoy new modes of listening and it wouldn't be exaggerating to say I now need them. Observing this mutation within myself has amounted to a lifelong fascination and a testament to the subjectivity of personal aesthetics. I've arrived at where I'm at step-by-step. Your interest in music or sound wouldn't be the same as mine unless you followed that same path (and even then, who knows).

How do we each find our way? Magically stumbling on White Light / White Heat was a one-in-a-million, right? Why the fuck did the public library have it on vinyl at all? I've often needed some sort of guide: a more informed friend, a trusted record store or label or an exciting music magazine. It speaks to the power and value of critique, a value that tends to get overlooked in this world of peer-reviews, customer ratings and crowd-sourced best-of lists. Knowing what people like you are into is a great tool for discovering more of the same, but let's not substitute that for the influence a good critic can wield. They can not only lead you to new experience but help frame that encounter. (And yes, I see the irony of an amateur music-blogger advocating for the preservation of a professional critical class).

Of course, this 'critical class' has taken some blows to its credibility. I've smugly observed how the most popular review sites quickly slide into a high-median range: virtually everything reviewed is inexplicably 'better than average'. The only times they deviate are utterly predictable: reissues of classics? 10. New disappointing records by formerly adored stars? 4. Everything else? 7.5.

In that light it makes it even harder to navigate. My (highly) personal experience says it's worth trying though. I want to understand music more than I do. I want to catch glimpses of things I don't yet comprehend, in hopes that--one day--I will.

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