Let’s start this post with two (or three) marginally unrelated stories.
In 2014 Nick Paumgarten profiled Billy Joel in The New Yorker. It’s a great piece, whether or not you like Billy Joel. It’s a much better piece, if you like Joel however, because if you do not like Billy Joel, odds are you freaking HATE Billy Joel. The piece does a good job of explaining why you might hate him, I think, in that even now he seems so insecure, so aggressive in his insistence on laid back cool, if that makes sense, in projecting the louche old rock star ethos, all the while disputing the claims of alcoholism, the bad behavior. He seems like nothing so much as junior high poseur that tells you all about bagging chicks during spring break (spring break with his folks, of course, because it’s junior high…) but who refuses to take off his underwear when he has to shower in gym class. He’s the rebel who still worries what his mother thinks of him.
He wants to be Neil Young, but is more like Neil Sedaka. He is most of us, in other words.
But most of us do not have thirty-three number one songs. Songs that have led Bruce Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau to call him “one of the most musically astute composers of that era.” Songs Bruce Springsteen himself says are “built like the Rock of Gibraltar. Until you play them, you don’t realize how well they play.”
I don’t really know if Billy Joel wants to be Bruce Springsteen. I am sure, based on the comments’ inherent patronizing tone, that Bruce is happy being the Boss. Perhaps Billy Joel’s fans see them as equivocal. But they are not.
Yesterday I was in the car with my daughter. There was a slow-burn R&B ballad on our local Top 40 station. It sounded good. Good for Top 40. Hell, good for music. Had to be Bruno Mars. Maybe he wrote some bullshit cash-grab love groove for the new Insurgent movie or something. (I hate those movies. I’ve only seen 1/2 of the first. I hate them both. This information is relevant, I promise).
“This is pretty good,” I said.
My daughter was in the passenger seat. “It’s Ed Sheeran.”
We found something else to listen to.
This is a personal problem, I am aware. Billy Joel cannot not be Billy Joel. As much as he really, really wants to (Seriously, has any other major recording artist seemed so uncomfortable with being who he is? Maybe Garth Brooks. It almost feels like there is some sort of Quantum Leap thing going on and it’s actually Scott Bakula’s character inside Billy Joel’s body for most of the clips I’ve seen him in. He seems to always be asserting about how he’s a badass, but his hangdog expression…I can’t…I have to stop…this is another essay).
Ed Sheeran can’t not be Ed Sheeran.
Remember when you first heard “Blurred Lines”? Before the litigation? Before you got the creeps when you realized what it was about? Most importantly, before you realized it was by Robin Fucking Thicke? Don’t you wish you could have that back?
Of course, the enlightened thing to do would be to enjoy the song for what it is, give credit to the creator, and move on with my life. It’s three minutes, right? I often tell my students that life’s too short to feel guilty for what you read and watch. “Guilty Pleasure” is a bullshit dodge designed by hipper-than-thou’s to justify liking Train. It’s the musical equivalent of “hate-watching.” Own it, right?
“Guilty Pleasure” should be a term we apply to child pornography and dealing methamphetamine. It should not be something we apply to something as innocuous as a three-minute song on the radio.
But I am a hypocrite and I not only need to enjoy a song, I need to feel cool while I do it. And Billy Joel, Ed Sheeran, Train, Collective Soul, and James Blunt ( to name a few completely random examples I’ve totally never screamed along with in my car) do not make me feel cool. My wife justifiably accuses me of listening to essentially unlistenable shit as long as it’s by someone deemed artistically important, which is why I will subject myself to a full-length LP of Tom Waits throwing live chickens into a wood chipper before I’ll admit that I cranked “Jesse James” by Cher to full blast in my Kia minivan.
Novelist and Essayist Leslie Jamison wrote a piece on sentimentality: on spotting it, hating it, and avoiding it. Except, in her honest-to-a-fault fashion, she admitted that she could not really discern the manipulation. She did not understand how others, who apparently have a finer and more nuanced emotional instrument, were capable of dismissing some art as meritricious shit and lauding others as an honest emotional investment. Is it irony? Grit? Psychological complexity? What’s the fucking recipe?
And why are we (I) so invested in this idea of artistic authenticity, especially when most of the criticism is just short-sighted, self-deluding, goggled justifications for trying to feel cool? Why con’t I just listen and like?
Because I am pretentious and want to feel better than other people. I want to feel informed. And I’m insecure on how to do that so I swipe great big armloads of hip, critic-flavored rhetorical jabs (multi-influenced, emotionally searing, swagger, Big Star affiliated,etc.) and use them like ninja throwing stars.
And let’s not even get into the fact that the only artists I’ve mentioned (with the possible exception of Cher) are male. So Sad.
And so we return to music. I’m cutting out a lot of the reasons people dismiss musicians, of course: charges of selling out, over-popularity, media saturation, creative switchbacks and ox-bows, general R.-Kelly-Level-whackadoo extracurriculars. I want to focus on the fact that if a song sounds good to my ear holes, and makes me happy, why do I need to vet it like it’s running for office?
Who is this? Who? One Direction? Turn that shit off. (Except, of course, when I’m by myself. Story of my Life.)