Now that we’ve settled into our redesigned site and are no longer tripping over the furniture (who put that chair there?!), it’s time to heat up “Chatter.” Probably the coolest part of working on NewMusicBox (after the free concert tickets, of course) revolves around the heated yet friendly debates that Frank, Randy, and I fall into almost every day. Most of these conversations end up evolving into the stories and interviews you read here, but this week we’re taking the debate in a slightly different direction.
Perhaps before we go any further into this discussion, we should begin to define our terms. Principally, what is “importance” when it comes to music? How is it judged? Is it popularity, range of influence, intellectual brilliance? And who decides?
In the “Who Would Win: Tenney or Cobain?” game we’re playing at here, Cobain arguably wins by a landslide on the first two, and Rolling Stone and the Billboard charts decided. [I'll leave any discussion as to the intellectual merits of dada lyrics and droning "hello" sixteen times as a chorus for later, but I am seduced by it.] Following Cobain’s suicide, the jury came back and confirmed:
Two days after Kurt Cobain’s body was found about 5,000 people gathered in Seattle for a candlelight vigil. The distraught crowd filled the air with profane chants, burnt their flannel shirts and fought with police. They also listened to a tape made by Cobain’s wife in which she read from his suicide note. Several distressed teenagers in the U.S. and Australia killed themselves.
Clearly Cobain’s music was of great consequence to many ears. What most sticks out at me from Frank’s post, however, is his immediate move to look for this importance (or lack of) regarding “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in terms of its chord structure. I had a friend who would point ecstatically at the car radio when his favorite pop tunes came on and deconstruct them like a theory exercise. For me, it was a most disheartening scene to witness.
Cobain is not important because he achieved anything like a discernible tone row. But his “genius,” if you will, was in mesmerizing ears with intense lyrics and a tune that hooked deep. He is arguably an icon only because he was a suicide, but he was musically important because of his influence on an entire social strata and a line of influential bands that followed like Korn and Green Day. James Tenney is also an influence, but to a much more tightly defined demographic. It’s not all about the numbers, but if we’re speaking of “importance,” scope and depth must come into play at some point. In a way, it’s unfair. Cobain in many ways was just riding the tidal wave that picked him up, and Tenney has not placed himself in the way of one.
On a more micro level, musicians bring my ears different things. Tenney’s music brings me intellectual amusement on par with completing a crossword puzzle. Cobain’s takes me back to a high school friend’s basement and a whole world of memories. Which is more “important” on that level would be impossible for me to define—like trying to live with only your head or just your heart.