Thursday, November 16, 2006
Navelgazing on Lope de Vega and Nickelback
Short riff today. Look for John Zorn and Branford Marsalis in this space in the next coupla days.
Kelefa Sanneh has one of his typical socio-critical columns today in the Times. Sanneh, for the uninitiated, is the best critic working today (at least that I've read), a former Voice writer who now seems to cover mostly hip-hop and country--apparently these are the only two things Pareles, Chinen and Ratliff can't cover, so he got the very asymmetrical beat. He covers them both with cleverness and skill, although recently he's seemed kind of formulaic ... One of his formulae is this kind of piece.
This one is about a documentary about what's wrong with the pop music business. Kelefa focuses on the hypocrisy of the commentators, pointing out that there's no real examination of their own tastes.
Lots of people like to complain about how what's popular is only popular because record execs and Clear Channel (or choose your own bogeyman) feed it to us (sorry, too lazy to look for citations on this. Trust me!). I'm pretty convinced that if CBS and Warner decided they were only going to give us "good" music--as defined by, uh, me--and phased it in over a decade or so, there wouldn't be much difference in record sales. I also think they should do that, and realize they won't. But I have limited patience with this argument, 'cause I think people genuinely do like a lot of pop (and why shouldn't they? A lot of it is ridick pleasant).
We were discussing a work by the 16th century Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega in class today. Lope was unabashedly formulaic and populist; he wrote dozens, even hundreds, of works using a very few different plot lines, each adopted a little bit. In one text, he admits that he's happy to flout the classical rules of drama as long as people like it. Id est, he didn't give a shit about high art or any such rubbish. He pokes fun at himself in this regard (see La dama boba), but he sticks by it; he also takes some pot shots at the academias, organizations of petty nobility who sat around and talked about works like his--the effete, tight-shirt-wearing, hipster elitists of their day, if you will (Lope was one of them himself). Lope was incidentally a rival of Miguel de Cervantes, a failed dramatist who also wrote a little story that laid the foundations of the modern novel. The more high-brow Cervantes was not a fan of Lope--he envied his success (I see Doyle Bramhall II in K's column as the logical analogue).
We didn't really go into enough detail to know what kind of critical acclaim Lope got at the time. Now, though, he's considered one of the greats of Spanish drama, a writer on the order of that rival of his, and his works are taught at pretentious institutions such as my own. So as much as hipsters and pretentious jazzbos hate it, what are the chances that Medeski, Martin and Wood are going to outlast goddamn Futuresex/Lovesounds or "Promiscuous Girl"? Probably pretty low; even "worse," those are going to be canonical works, well-respected for their influence, craftmanship, and artistry. And the guys in that movie Kelefa writes about? They're going to look like some asses, man.