Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Plug for Calvin/A Prayer for Britney

It will probably come as no great shock that I am not a Britney Spears fan. To my ears, she is a talentless hack famous for one and only one thing. To my eyes, she is, well, justifiably famous. And therein lies the American Dream and the American Nightmare. Somehow we have arrived at a peculiar moment in our culture in which image totally overpowers content and substance. And when the image includes beautiful bodies, drug and alcohol abuse, bizarre behavior, and nervous breakdowns in front of the camera, all the better. There are a few cultural outposts that still fly the old, tattered flag of substance and quality, Paste Magazine among them. And I’m thankful for them. But I watch the news at 11:00, and it’s not The Decemberists or The Hold Steady who command the leads-ins to Today’s Top Stories. It’s people named Anna Nicole and Paris and Lindsey and Britney, who self destruct right before our eyes, in high definition video, and who are big enough and dazzling enough to transcend the normal gossip shows and somehow become International News.

In a strange twist of fate that has me smiling, I will be traveling in a few weeks to a music conference at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan to participate in something called Bandspotting. Bandspotting is a variation on the American Idol theme. In this case, two judges (Asthmatic Kitty label head Michael Kaufmann and me) will listen to some musicians/bands looking for their big break, and declare one musician/band the Grand Prize Winner, complete with the opportunity to perform before the assembled conference masses. And if you know me and my antipathy to all things American Idol, you may see the humor in that, too. For me, American Idol is nothing less than the scourge of the music world, a show that contributes like no other to the cultural lobotomization of America, a worthless hour, now beamed into our homes two or three days per week, in which marginally talented Vegas wannabes do karaoke to songs that weren’t very good in their original incarnations, and eventually win enormous recording contracts and sell millions of albums to people who don’t know anything else. So I don’t know if I’m supposed to be Simon or Randy, but it probably doesn’t matter. In either case, there is a fair degree of ambivalence.

What helps is that the music I’m listening to from Calvin College is really good. It’s an amazing contrast. They just planted Anna Nicole in the ground, and Britney may be headed there any day now, and still the American Idol masses scramble to become the next Britney. At the same time, a bunch of kids have recorded some songs in their bedrooms, or maxed out their credit cards so they could spend a few hours in a recording studio, and have written and recorded songs in which their hearts are laid bare, and done their damndest to pin down the ineffable and the transcendent in rhyming couplets and major and minor chords. Michael and I are put in the impossible position of declaring only one of them a winner. And so, before that happens, let me go on record as stating that I salute them, all of them. None of them are losers.

Meanwhile, there are the disturbing images of a woman with a newly shaved head bearing the insignia “666,” an unsuccessful suicide attempt in a rehab center, and a media frenzy that simultaneously decries and celebrates the insanity. I truly don’t like Britney Spears’ music, but that’s not the Britney Spears I think about these days. I think about a young woman who is desperately crying out for help, and I can’t help but feel sad for this poor, lost kid who doesn’t know who she is, who has grown up in such an artificial, strange, soul-sucking world that she can’t tell what is real from what is glittering and shiny and empty. And that’s the person I pray for, regardless of whether she ever “sings” again. What happens when image is everything and you look in the mirror and see no reflection? I don’t know. But I hope she finds herself.


Karen said...

the whole thing about britney makes me so sad. i can't imagine going through what she is going through right now let alone in doing it in front of the entire world.

jackscrow said...

These media creations continually reinvent themselves and sometimes through this type "trouble".

I don't like the intrusion on my time and I stay away from as much of this as I can. When I see stuff like this, I can't help but wonder if these things are manufactured to create "buzz".

And I can't help but wonder about the people who soak this stuff up. I am so far away from what they see, hear and feel that, while I feel sorry for their spiritual and mental state, I can't even relate to them.

RC said...

thank you for writing such a thoughtful post.

i enjoyed it very much.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of another troubled artist that cut off his ear and gave it to a prostitute. That is not to in any way compare Vincent's art to Britney's.

I believe that artistic types will always have trouble finding their way in this world, regardless of the quality of their art. And I believe that Britney is an artistic type. I don't believe that this was a stunt or hype.

rob vg-r said...

If you're interested, you can hear the bands who entered bandspotting on the Festival web site. I agree with Andy ... there's a lot of great stuff there.

Morgan said...

As a member of one of the bands who submitted to the bandspotting thing at Calvin, I really appreciate this post, and could not agree with you more. I keep thinking the stuff that's coming out of GR/Calvin is good, but I wonder if I'm just biased because I'm one of them. So it's nice to hear an outside voice. I really appreciate you.

And by the way, I'm one of the "maxed out credit card for little bit of studio time" kids. Hopefully that'll all be worth it someday.

Andy Whitman said...

Fred, although part of me chokes on the notion of Britney as an "artistic type," she is a human being, and I would have to be very cynical indeed to view a hanging attempt as a publicity stunt. I hope and pray that she'll figure out who she is and become comfortable in her own skin. I also hope that she'll figure out that hanging out with Paris Hilton is typically not the best way to do this.

Morgan, here's my story: I get inundated with music, far more than I can ever listen to. Most of the albums are accompanied by breathless press releases proclaiming that what I am holding in my hands will change my life, alter western civilization as we know it, etc. And then I put it in the CD player and press Play, and get disappointed because it's just like the other 5,000 albums I've already heard that sound just like it.

For what it's worth, there's some of that in the music I've heard from Calvin. But not too much. I'm excited by the intersection of creativity and passion, and it continues to energize me. And I hear a lot of that in the music from Calvin. It probably won't change the world. But it will change a few people for the better, and I'd to think that I might be one of them. I'm truly thankful for that.

I don't know whether I've heard your music. I'm told that 52 bands/musicians submitted songs, and Michael and I are listening to songs from the Top 10 musicians/bands as determined by a committee at Calvin. I like some of them better than others, but any one of them could blow away the talents and skills of the American Idol winners combined. Good for you for maxing out the credit card on the recording studio. That's where the action is. I don't know if it will all be worth it someday. I hope it's all worth it today, and that you've created something that reflects the best you can give. If you can manage to do that for a living, great. If you can't, then I'd encourage you to do it anyway, because it has a lot to do with living even when it has nothing to do with making a living. Best of luck to you.

Zena and Joshua said...

hi andy.

i'm jealous. i want to go to the music festival. i'd sit real close to you and get to hear you talk to sufjan then. darn it.

i see josh garrels made it into bandspotting. how great. i hope you see him perform because him live was (nearly) a wonder.

despite my self centered longings, i hope you have a blast and tell us all about it, too.


jackscrow said...

Scott, I know we've been through this before, but....

I'll start paying even a little bit of attention to AI when the contestants are required to write their own songs and play their own instruments....

Andy, I too look forward to you and Bandspotting.

Maybe you can enlighten us as to your criteria and judgment process.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so willing to write off Britney as a no talent hack. It's a pattern that goes way back through music history. There's two kinds of music: the good stuff, and this crap that is popular with the younger generation.

I'm speaking of course of the reaction of the fuguemeisters to the music of Haydn and Mozart which lacked what "everybody knows" is the hallmark of good music: brilliant contrapuntal technique.

The classicists got their turn ridiculing Chopin, who didn't do what "everybody knows" is the hallmark of good music: write symphonies with brilliant development sections.

So when I read that Britney doesn't write what "everybody knows" is the hallmark of good music: lyrics that make one think deeply; I have to say "hmmmm".

Is it beyond the realm of possibility that 30 years hence some critic will complain about the crap that is popular with the kids because it lack what "everybody knows" makes good music- that it makes you want to shake your booty and goes well with a light show?

Andy Whitman said...

This is a part of an ongoing discussion, Fred, spread out across the pages of this blog, that essentially boils down to whether it is possible to speak meaningfully about "quality" in music. I say it is. You say it's not.

I would submit that what Britney's music is about is hardly new, and hardly something that the kids of this generation have discovered. I'd say it dates back to the time when Og first did a lapdance for Ug in a cave in Lascaux. You can put some modern beats to it, and dress it up in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform and sing "Hit me baby, one more time," but it's the same lapdance.

I think it's possible to speak meaningfully about quality. Filet mignon is not a Big Mac. Britney Spears is not Haydn. Nor do I think that generational tastes have much to do with it. As I said, Britney's shtick is as old as music itself. I listen to plenty of music that the kids listen to, and plenty of music that the kids don't listen to, and plenty of music that hardly anybody listens to, kids or old farts. And it comes down to how we spend our time, what we focus our attention on, and those activities that help us to become, to put at its most grandiose, better human beings. Sorry, but I have a hard time believing that, even thirty years hence, anybody will be claiming that "Oops, I Did it Again" was one of those defining moments.

None of which negates the fact that I'm concerned for Britney, and that I honestly do pray for her.

Anonymous said...

some comments to add...

i think that depending on ones taste, most music can fill a void at certain times. unlike science and math, there is a subjective element to liberal arts appreciation.

for instance, i am not a big fan of britney and her mouseketeers companions, but that style of music is fantastic for treadmill runs.

also, i would have to say that britney is an amazing entertainer. madonna and britneys genre of young entertainers have a certain nack for putting on a show. now, it can be debated that the quality and content is suspect, but i think it is necessary to acknowledge their performance art gifting.

as far as what message is delivered, i must admit that bubble gum pop music does not shed light on the nuances of human experience.

becuase i do watch and enjoy the american idol show, i feel the need to comment. i think all can identify with the passion and drive it takes to get discovered and live out a dream before the watching eyes of millions (in the case of AI). when i ran cross-counry and track, that adrenaline rush, cheering audience, thrill of victory and agony of defeat is appreciated in my book. unfortunately, my stage was not in a live audience, had no financial gains outside of a scholarship and the audience was 1,000 people at its height. the comparison is not 1:1 but can at least be appreciated.

in closing, i hope that this does not come across as disrespectful. sometimes my writing is not the most understood.


Anonymous said...

... whether it is possible to speak meaningfully about "quality" in music. I say it is. You say it's not.

Did I say that? If so I'm sorry for mistating my case so badly.

These discussions remind me of the ongoing discussions elsewhere about the evil of moral relativity. We are told constantly that there are hordes of evil people out there who say that there is no good or evil. But in fact this is a wrong way to frame the discussion. Almost nobody is a moral relativist, and almost nobody is an artistic relativist. It's more a question of authority: who has the authority to declare a certain action good or evil, or a certain piece of art good or bad? Who gets to make the rules? Who gets to change the rules?

For me the Britney thing harkens back to the disco thing. I read a fantastic theory once that there was a big conspiracy to quash disco because it was such amazing and powerful music. The problem (this person said) was that disco was equally popular amongst whites and blacks. Discotheques were places where race mixing could easily occur, and everybody knows what a catastrophe that would be. So the word was put out to the CIA and the FBI and, of course, the most influential music critics to pass the word that disco is all crap. And thus disco died.

Or did it? My son tells me that this whole dance/urban/techno thing is "everywhere" (he says this with a gesture that inticates his disgust.)

Certainly there is a strong "lap dance" element in both disco and it's modern reincarnation, but the stronger element to me is its reliance on rhythm as the main thing (as in traditional African music) as opposed to harmony (as in traditional European music). Certainly I don't believe the conspiracy theories, but I do sometimes wonder how much racial preferences in music influence what we think is good and what we think is crap.

Anonymous said...

It's great to see Josh Garrels getting some recognition. The guy's really got the goods, but he's shied away from publicity in the past.

Andy Whitman said...

Matt, I appreciate your comments. Yes, we all like a good competition. And yes, I can understand how AI fans develop their favorites, cheer them on, etc. I guess I would ask whether some competitions are more worthwhile than others. AI isn't a competition I really care about because the winners are no better than the losers, and I don't care for the music of either. I do think there's a great potential for "dumbing down" the cultural perception of music through competitions like AI, though. When most of America thinks that AI is a legitimate competition to reward the best previously unknown musician/singer, I'd say that the dumbing down has succeeded.

Fred, there will always be an element of mindless pop music. Even during the supposed glory days of the '60s, there was plenty of crap that filled the airwaves.

Who gets to decide what is good and bad music? Me, he chortled diabolically. There are plenty of people who don't give a rip what a particular music critic, or music critics in general, have to say. They're content to listen to the radio as background music, and sing along to their favorite tunes to brighten their day, etc. And that's fine. But there are other people who care about such things, and buy music magazines, and check out music-related web sites. The two approaches are probably meeting different needs. But the same dynamics are at work in every artistic medium. You can wait for the next blockbuster movie to come along, and go see it at the multiplex, or you can check out that obscure foreign film that's playing at the art house. But chances are, you won't know about the obscure foreign film unless you seek out some critics who will tell you about it. And for some people, that's a valuable service.

As far as the Britney/disco musical connection, and the supposedly racial overtones of its critical dismissal, I'll only point out that I have well over 1,000 jazz, blues, and soul albums, none of them made by lily-white members of the KKK. It's a goofy theory, and I'm sorry if I can't give it much credence.

Anonymous said...

Hey andy, I've got another theory for you that you might like better.

I've been thinking about how Britney is like Franz Josef. They're not exactly alike, of course. But Franz Josef and the sort of music that he made were in some sense a reaction against the fuguemeisters and 18th century counterpoint. Of course, as everybody knows, Bach fugues are wonderful music. And yet it's called 18th century counterpoint for a very good reason: it was fated to have a lifetime of only about 100 years. At the dawn of the 19th century it was all but dead.

Why? Because by the end of the 18th century the fuguemeisters had gained a reputation of being stuffy, insular, all intellectual and not emotional, and most of all out of touch with what the common man wanted in music.

Fast forward to the middle of the 20th century and you have a new movement based on the idea that songs don't have to be mindless dittys but can actually have some "substance." This movement was spearheaded by the likes of Dylan and the Beatles. It was and is a brilliant idea and, like 18th century counterpoint, took the musical world by storm.

About 50 years into the experiment things are still going great. But there are a few voices saying something vaguely familiar: that the proponents of the Dylanesque/Beatlesque ideals of songwriting are becoming stuffy, insular, and most disturbingly out of touch with what the common man wants in music.

The other thing about Franz Josef is the money connection. Sometimes I wonder if the cynics are right after all and that the guy who gets to decide what the best music is goes by the name of Almighty Dollar. Franz Josef wrote for the people who hired him and his music reflects that, just like Britney's.

Andy Whitman said...

Fred, Britney's music is not a reaction to anything, let alone some sort of concerted philosophical effort to topple the stuffy snobs, or whatever you're attributing to her. I think a few seconds of listening to her speak might disabuse you of such lofty notions.

There are those of us effete snobs who believe that we should try to raise the level of general cultural discourse, and that we shouldn't settle for the lowest common denominator approach to art. Is this arrogant as can be, and does it presuppose that the most popular is rarely the best? Maybe, and most certainly. But it's where I'm coming from.

jackscrow said...

John Prine. Bruce Cockburn. John Gorka. Patty Larkin, Lyle Lovette,
John Hiatt....

And Tommmy Womack, who I saw tonight in Lancaster.

Speaking as someone who is not an "effete snob", at least in the common use of the term: there is good music and good songwriting that speaks to both the inside and out,(I'll leave it to Andy and his "ilk" to refine those terms), the thought and the visceral, and there is crap.

Anonymous said...


Seen you at Central a few times...while I do agree that Paste is a decent mag...it often comes across to me as one for musical snobs. "There are a few cultural outposts that still fly the old, tattered flag of substance and quality, Paste Magazine among them."
I mean yes, it does indeed have substance. But it most often will draw a line for all things "indie". As in, whether it means to or not, it basically implies that punk/hardcore/metal...etc does not qualify as Paste-worthy...unless its of course some really old sh** or some artsy-emo.
Summing that up...I pretty much like it all...from jazz to alt-country to punk to grindcore (though I will admit leaning to the punk side of things). So...basically, I like Paste (and though I know they are shooting for a certain format) I guess I just wish the would include some other styles.
For Britanny...I mean, yes its sad, but in the media-driven world we live..its just a constant reminder that there are tons of people having breakdowns out there (I would know from personal experience) and for things much worse than fame or money.

Anonymous said...

Andy, I have listened to much more than a few seconds of Britney's music. And I admit my first reaction was to turn down the volume.

But I know from past experience that no one can judge the quality of any music from a few seconds of listening. So I persisted.

The reason I listen to music which I don't like is to try to understand the artist: why would they make such music, what were they thinking when they made such music: etc. Usually I persist until I have some idea of those whys- and also understand why some people may enjoy music which I don't enjoy. This is where I'm coming from being a musician myself.

An effete snob would hit the stop button a few seconds into Britney's music. From what I know about you, you would not do that. You are most definitely not a effete snob. But when it comes to music you are a textbook definition of an elitist: one who thinks that there are a few of us who have the right idea and a great many of them who have the wrong idea.

It's ok to be an elitist. It had better be, or we'd all be in deep doo doo. There seems to be a basic drive in all of us to be one of the few who's got it right about something, whether we're talking about the nature of God or who's going to win the latest pop singing contest. I don't know if you've noticed, but even I can be an elitist at certain times about certain things.

One of the things that I'm an elitist about is that I think I have a good handle on what the New Testament says, and I think it's brilliant (despite the high content of gutter prose). One thing I think about frequently is the fact that what is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the eyes of God. That is just a really weird "knife" that cuts everybody every which way.

I don't disagree that there is such a thing as quality in music. But it's not the first thing I listen for. Maybe I'm just loony. But when I study the teachings of Jesus one theme I find is that He really doesn't care much for elitism. I actually think he's more fond of people that sit at the foot of the table and eat hamburger than those who sit at the head and eat steak. But I might have it all wrong. I'm not really an authority on those things.

Andy Whitman said...

Fred, I've got to hand it to you. You're the only person I know who can start with someone's dislike of Britney Spears' music and turn it into a spiritual reprimand.

If elitism means that there are standards, and that it's okay to use one's mind and heart to critically evaluate the many facets of life, then I am certainly guilty of being an elitist. Some would call this thinking, others would call it judgment. I think I know which way you would come down on that argument.

But you consistently confuse my evaluation of art with my evaluation of human beings. I have said more than once in these comments that I feel sorry for Britney, and that I pray for her. And I do. As a human being, I cannot judge her, and I don't. However, as the creator of mindless pop music, I reserve the right to call her creations mindless pop music. I'm not sure why this is such a difficult concept for you, but it appears to be so. I can read a verse in a Hallmark Card, compare it to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, and say that the author of the Hallmark Card verse is not as good a poet as T.S. Eliot. This does not mean that I wish to consign the Hallmark Card writer to the flames of hell.

Please spare me the piety. I read the New Testament too, and one of the things I read is, "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things." In order to do that, Fred, one must make judgments. One must be able to determine what is honorable versus what is not honorable, what is lovely versus what is not lovely, and so on. The solution is not to turn off one's mind and heart and think nice thoughts, and call a big, steaming pile of crap pleasant and lovely.

I also hate that I feel the need to respond this way, but you seem to draw that out of me as well. To that end, I need to let this go. We're going to have to agree to disagree. Can we do that? I don't at all agree with your point; you don't agree with mine. In the meantime, we need to relate to one another as brothers in Christ. And I'd like to do that. I regret being pulled into this conversation because we've had it before, and it never goes anywhere. We seem to approach life from such radically different viewpoints that we have a hard time understanding one another. In spite of that, my desire is to honor you. I don't always know how to simultaneously say "I completely disagree with you, and you're far more judgmental that you pretend" and "I still need to love you as my brother." But I can certainly say the former, and I'd like to say the latter. Let's talk about how to do that, and let's do it outside the context of this blog.

Anonymous said...


immediately after I posted what I did I felt really bad about it. It was admittedly a huge cheap shot.

I would love to get together with you and apologize to you in person and discuss these things. I think that if we could just talk face to face many of our misunderstandings would clear themselves up. I suspect that, like with matt, a lot of the problem is that I'm just not expressing myself very well in writing. But, unfortunately, that face to face meeting never seems to happen. That is why I feel constrained to make one last written comment.

I am very well aware that I am very "judgemental" (if that's the right word) and maybe it would surprise you to find that I would judge you to be a wonderful music critic. I don't return to this blog time and time again because I think you're writing is a steaming pile of shit. I enjoy thinking about musical standards: how they come about, how they change, and, yes, even how they relate to spiritual matters. Because I believe that at heart everything is spiritual. And the stuff that you write is great food for thought (steak, not burgers).

Having said that, I must say that I got my dander up primarily because of what I considered a cheap shot on your part:

Fred, Britney's music is not a reaction to anything, let alone some sort of concerted philosophical effort to topple the stuffy snobs, or whatever you're attributing to her. I think a few seconds of listening to her speak might disabuse you of such lofty notions.

Perhaps it wasn't fair of me to take this badly and we can start by talking about it (face to face).

Andy Whitman said...

Fred, yes, that particular Britney comment was a cheap shot, and I apologize for it. In any case, let's get together and talk. I'll try to connect with you tomorrow at church so that we can set up a time to do so.