RE: Entertain This

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.
www.burntout.com/kurt/biography

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.

5 thoughts on “RE: Entertain This

  1. glennfreeman

    Crosswords in the Basement
    Great piece Molly. To “deconstruct” anything can be both enlightening and shocking. Do you (Molly Sheridan) prefer crosswords, basements, both or none? Sounds are sounds. Can we enjoy them together or not?

    Reply
  2. Garth Trinkl

    Glenn and Molly, young composer Alan Theisen, blogging over at Sequenza21, aspires to write a piece of music that blends the sounds of Elliott Carter’s Symphonia and Radiohead’s “OK Computer” — if not the sounds of James Tenney and Kurt Cobain. Sounds like an interesting aspiration to me, although I only know the one track of Radiohead that Christopher O’Riley played on some Sony freebie sampler I was given, and I have no idea what Kurt Cobain’s marriage of punk and heavy metal sounds like.

    my Renaissance Research blog

    Reply
  3. Chris Becker

    My first reaction to both Frank’s editorial and Molly’s response was a familiar frustration with the need of people to place artists in a hierarchy of “importance.” It is my view that individual composers contribute a variety of sometimes very specific but always “important” things to the world. When you place one person against another and try to weigh their relative “importance” to the world I think you end up ignoring some of their contributions that are often not easily quantified.

    Frank’s description of Tenny’s music at the end of his essay reminded me of Mike Patton’s recent music (with Fatomas) which includes contributions from a member of the Melvins who were a huge influence on Kurt Cobain. Molly I think is missing how far back Kurt’s music went – to me he was a contemporary bluesman as in Robert Johnson, Son House, or Skip James.

    In conservatories and in concert hall events, I’ve often heard rock and roll negated by instructors and composers. But it is a valid important language with a deep convoluted history that might fascinate those who haven’t bought a record pre-1984. On the other hand, how often have you sat in a classroom or in a concert hall and gritted your teeth while listening to a piece that sounds like absolute garbage but that the program and your teachers and fellow composers describe as an “important” piece of music?

    Hugs.

    Chris Becker

    Reply
  4. post_beat

    As for importance when it comes to music…I don’t think popularity has any bearing on the “importance” of music. An example of this might be the direction Schoenberg took music. Though I don’t know for sure, it seems pretty obvious that his work was not popular in the same way we call Smells Like Teen Spirit popular. The ratio of people who know of Kurt Cobain and have heard and liked his music is undoubtedly skewed in his favor, but I doubt that one could say that his music is more important than Schoenberg, what with all of the evolutions of Schoenberg’s initial stance into Webernism and beyond. With that said, how does something gain importance?

    Peter Schickele states frequently that his radio program, and assumingly his own philosophy, is predicated on the doctrine that “all music is created equal.” And while that may be true as to the initial creation of a piece, because no one has been affected by it until that point, once it has garnered an audience, equality is no longer possible.

    Until recently, Kurt Cobain’s influence on American music was felt much more than Mr. Tenney’s, but now that his music is being disseminated at a higher scale, his influence has and will continue to overshadow Kurt Cobain’s mostly because James Tenney’s work seems more likely to be listened to via academic circles and institutions and ergo influence more people through exposure. I foresee Cobain’s work, while remembered by many, will not stand the test of time since the core of this work was based on referential meaning (i.e. “Cobain’s lionization had more to do with his persona”). That sort of “you had to be there” thing, that as those who understand its referential meaning are no longer around, his audience will not grow as Tenney’s will in academia.

    Since everyone seems to be in agreement that Tenney has Cobain beat in the “intellectual brilliance” category, the only disagreement left is between the “range of influence” Cobain has versus Tenney. If Cobain’s work does not have as much intellectual value as Tenney’s work, how much can Cobain possibly contribute besides persona? While Cobain might contribute something to future generations of musicians, can the sum of his contributions measure the contributions Tenney has already made?

    Reply
  5. John Muniz

    Deconstructing pop songs…
    …might not be such a pathetic exercise. After all, if your friend is interested in pop music, isn’t that the best way to understand it?

    Reply

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