Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Gene Santoro and Tangled Roots

Gene Santoro, the music critic for the Nation and several other publications, looks at music as a folk art. He loves the way musical genres grow by overlapping with others, how artists build on what has occurred before to create something new, something which speaks to the cultural moment of its creation, something which reveals truths about the culture before, during, and after. For Santoro, music is best when it is authentic, and it is most authentic when it rejects old rules and seeks the new.

I come at music from pretty much the opposite perspective of Santoro. I’ve always looked at music as a high art, as creativity functioning to express individual concerns, as a way of telling us what one person (or a group of persons) sees in the world. I tend to disregard genres, and have been known to overlook combinations of different backgrounds until I’ve read about them in the work of other critics. I don’t care one whit about authenticity, I don’t require music to be new, though I do expect it to be fresh.

And yet, Santoro and I meet in the middle on so many things. “Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock & Country Music” collects (and revises) columns and features Santoro has written over the last dozen or so years. Despite the expected differences of emphasis, I do enjoy almost all of the music Santoro covers in this book. And, I cannot argue with Santoro’s attention to details I have overlooked for years. He points out subtle nuances, combinations of techniques, emotions, key lyrics, which make me want to hear songs I had long ago enjoyed and almost forgotten.

Our differences, at least in the context of this book, are most apparent in chapters on the Grateful Dead and Ani DiFranco. I mean, I love Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Rollins, the Band, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Cassandra Wilson and dozens of others over whom Santoro rhapsodizes. (I disagree frequently with his choices of high points and low points, though – Santoro cannot forgive talented musicians who fall into what he feels are formulaic traps, but I have no problem recognizing the beauty, say, in the 80s and 90s work of Harris, or, for that matter, the exceptional professionalism and artistic strengths of Motown classics.) But, the Dead and DiFranco, I think, can only be admired for their ideas of merging musical forms. When it comes to execution, they fail far more often than they succeed.

Any damn fool can tell that the Dead are trying to mix Coltrane-styled improvisation with folk and rock idioms in “Dark Star,” but that doesn’t make Jerry Garcia’s sputtery tone or rhythmic irregularity any more listenable. And DiFranco can make for a great story – rugged independence, strong feminist conceptions, mixing of hip hop, folk, and rock traditions – until you actually remember that her songs lay flat when they come out of the speakers.

It’s interesting that in a book which starts with Armstrong, as the inventor of 20th century popular music because of his proof that the folk traditions of jazz group improvisation can be converted to individual expressions of high artistic value, and Guthrie, the man who re-invented folk music in America as a rebellious union of man and subversive guitar (his machine killed fascists, remember) should end with DiFranco. Santoro wants her to be his hope for the future, though he acknowledges repeatedly that 21st century America is a land of cultural subdivisions sprawling all over the place and only occasionally butting into a receptive listener of different background and interests. This land is my land, that land is your land, and yours was made for you, and mine was made for me.

DiFranco has done plenty to energize a political base, but she is never going to speak to those who don’t already agree with her. That’s fine. It’s what we’ve got to work with, and Lord knows I’d rather hang with an army of DiFranco fans than anyone who loves Toby Keith. But, she’s not making a difference in the world, she’s no more a sign of the future than the series of jazz artists collected in the second to last chapter, “New Jazz Fusions.” Here, with quick studies of Jason Moran, Bill Frisell, Greg Osby, Matthew Shipp and others, Santoro is at least on more solid conceptual ground. He has correctly noted that the most interesting jazz artists of the last decade and a half are reaching out across the dividing line between contemporary pop cultures and jazz. Mainstream jazz, as typified by even as talented a creator as Wynton Marsalis, is trying to calcify, to restrict itself from connecting to the current world in which we live, and yet there are many younger musicians finding ways to make improvised music new while remaining true to its traditions.

I’m down with all that, though the reasons I love these players has little to do with their attempts and everything to do with their success. Find me a more soulful guitarist than Frisell, a more muscular yet lithe saxophonist than Osby, and I’ll love that music, too, whether it’s strictly traditional or ultra-modern.

Santoro deserves credit for making a name for himself in the world of pop criticism while remaining staunchly outside the mainstream tendencies of so many others. It’s rare enough to find contemporary critics equally insightful in jazz and pop forms, and rarer still to find one so completely immune to the contemporary flavors of the month. He will infuriate and he will illuminate because his passions and his knowledge run so deep.

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