the child grows enormous but never grows up


A rant about Grizzly Bear and writing with an audience in mind


There’s a good profile of the band Grizzly Bear by Nitsuh Abebe with the headline-as-question: “Grizzly Bear Members Are Indie-Rock Royalty, But What Does That Buy Them in 2012?” Spoiler: not much. Everyone who’s interested in making a living in the music business and what it means to be “big” in the indie scene should give it a read. (I was a little surprised how much their rundown read like Steve Albini’s classic “some of your friends are already this fucked.”)

What’s truly strange to me is how divorced these guys seem to be from the old-school music notion of writing “a hit” — a song that moves units, yes, but also moves asses (and hearts) — while simultaneously being baffled by why their songs aren’t played on the radio.

“I’ve always thought we write pop music,” Ed Droste says. “I think songs of ours could be on the radio. They’re not.”

Having actually listened to their music (I’m in the “suffocatingly fuss[y]” camp), this is baffling to me. 

Austin Kleon on Nitsuh Abebe’s Grizzly Bear profile in New York magazine (featured yesterday on Longreads), and what it means to “write hits.” Some additional background from Abebe here.

On advertising: Banksy vs. Gossage


This Banksy quote from Cut It Out has been making the rounds:

People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.

You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity.

Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.

Compare to what ad man Howard Gossage was saying 50 years ago in “How To Look At Billboards,” quoted in The Book of Gossage:

Outdoor advertising is peddling a commodity it does not own and without the owner’s permission: your field of vision. Possibly you have never thought to consider your rights in the matter. Nations put the utmost importance on unintentional violations of their air space. The individual’s air space is intentionally violated by billboards every day of the year.

But doesn’t everything visible violate one’s air space? Not at all. Visibility is not the only consideration. The Taj Mahal, street signs, the Golden Gate Bridge, a maze of telephone wires, even a garbage dump–however they may intrude on the eye–are not where they are merely to waylay your gaze; they have other functions as well. A billboard has no other function, it is there for the sole and express purpose of trespassing on your field of vision. Nor is it possible for you to escape; the billboard inflicts itself unbidden upon all but the blind or recluse. Is this not an invasion of privacy? I think it is, and I don’t see that the fact that a billboard is out-of-doors make the slightest difference. Even if it were possible for you to not look at billboards if you didn’t so choose, why in the world should you have to make the negative effort? Moreover, this invasion of your privacy is compounded in its resale to a third party. It is as though a Peeping Tom, on finding a nice window, were to sell peeps at two bits a head.

Thus we see that what the industry has to sell doesn’t really belong to it. It belongs to you.

Filed under: advertising

On “authenticity”: Bob Dylan vs. Joni Mitchell


In a 2010 LA Times interview, Joni Mitchell said this about Bob Dylan:

Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.

There were a slew of “oh snap!” type articles posted after that (I only found one that questioned whether it was really an insult at all) and I quickly forgot about it, as Mitchell’s claim was completely true—Dylan has always been an actor and a thief:

Steal a little, they throw you in jail
steal a lot they make you king

The question, of course, posed by the book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, is: Who cares? He’s also made some of the greatest pop music of all time. 1

Then I started thinking: maybe Mitchell gave us something else in that quote (“we are like night and day, he and I”)—maybe Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, two friends and peer songwriters, give us two models of the artist, or at least two ends of a spectrum: the artist who gleefully thieves and borrows influence and the artist who tries to avoid thievery at all all costs in the quest for personal authenticity.

Now, I really don’t know that much about Joni Mitchell (I love some of the tracks off Blue, and I’m not all that knowledgeable about her output. (As opposed to Dylan, whose work I’ve studied and listened to endlessly…) But in Mitchell’s 1979 interview w/ Cameron Crowe, I kept noticing how much she talked about her aversion to imitation and copying:

There’s only a certain amount of fine work in any idiom. The rest of it is just copyists. Regurgitation. Obvious rip-offs. Mingus has a song, “If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.” Sometimes I find myself sharing this point of view. He figured you don’t settle for anything else but uniqueness. The name of the game to him—and to me is to become a full individual. I remember a time when I was very flattered if somebody told me that I was as good as Peter, Paul and Mary. Or that I sounded like Judy Collins. Then one day I discovered I didn’t want to be a second-rate anything.

She then mentions that the previous work that she doesn’t care for is the work in which she doesn’t feel that she was being herself. (Supposedly, David Crosby once said, “Joni Mitchell is about as modest as Mussolini.”)

The things that I look back on and sort of shrug off, maybe in a weak moment grimace over {smiles}, are the parts when I see myself imitating something else. Affectations as opposed to style. It’s very hard to be true to yourself….I find it now kind of irritating to listen to, in the same way that I find a lot of black affectations irritating. White singers sounding like they come from deep Georgia, you know? It always seems ridiculous to me. It always seemed to me that a great singer—now we’re talking about excellence, not popularity—but a great singer would sing closer to his or her own speaking voice.

And yet, when Crowe asks about her reputation as a “confessional” songwriter (what Ry Cooder slagged off as “this white, middle-class introspective stuff—people elevating their neuroses to mythic heights”) she responded:

I usually use “I” as the narrator in my songs, but not all the “I’s” are me; they’re characters. It’s theater.

I don’t have all that much in way of a conclusion here—I’m just riffing, collecting ideas. I guess I’ll leave off with this quote by Bill Collins, that somehow didn’t make its way into Steal Like An Artist, and yet nicely summarizes the first chapter:

…gradually you come under the right influences, picking and choosing, and being selective, and then maybe your voice is the combination of 6 or 8 other voices that you have managed to blend in such a way that nobody can recognize your sources. You can learn intimacy from Whitman, you can learn the dash from Emily Dickinson…you can pick a little bit from every writer and you combine them. This allows you to be authentic. That’s one of the paradoxes of the writing life: that the way to originality is through imitation.

(Emphasis mine.)

UPDATE: wanted to include a paragraph on authenticity from this piece on Bob Dylan by John Roderick:

the idea of “authenticity” having anything to do with pop music is one of the bloodiest lies in modern history. Authenticity has NOTHING to do with pop music. That’s a belief system propagated by German music writers and humorless teenage assholes. I’ve known a lot of musicians, and after a while you realize they’re all authentic, all equally authentic. It’s hard enough to write enjoyable songs without also trying to put over some scam on people. I guarantee that if you put Katy Perry and Leonard Cohen in the same room, they’d feel like members of the same tribe. It’s only music fans who need to call one thing “real” and another “fake.” What the fans treasure as honest and real is almost always just a question of taste. Either you like it or you don’t—trite, but true.

Filed under: authenticity.

  1. From a blog post by Scott Warmuth on the subject: “Joni Mitchell’s comments regarding Dylan’s authenticity brought to mind a 1939 Billboard article that Nick Tosches included in his book Country. It points out that, “synthetic hillbillies are as a rule more desirable in a night club than the real ones.” The article begins with this wonderful passage: “Real hillbillies rarely have good night club acts, says Meyer Horowitz, who ought to know. Jewish and Italian hillbillies usually outshine all others on showmanship.”