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Wednesday, June 23, 2004
ABSTRACTIONS #1: MYSTERIOUSNESS
Goddamn but I hate mysteriousness.
Well, I guess I mean that I hate mysteriousness as a behavior creative types engage in. (I kind of like the mysteriousness of the universe, but that's probably not a positive trait.) For one thing, it allows said types--especially musicians, who are not that bright--to get away with shit they couldn't in a million years if you actually called them on it. The whole technique of representation-v.-statement is riddled with opportunities for deception, but as long as there's not a point of view (just, rather, some free-floating imagery that seems meaningful or straight realism that merely depicts instead of setting in context), what can you get mad at? Well, a lot. And this isn't even getting into the musical issues involved. But as long as they're allowed to get away with being "eccentric" (see below post on romantic images of mental illness) then, hey, they're just kooky artists! Judge the output, man!
Which would be valid if, you know, the particular extra-musical qualities involved didn't constitute a large part of many artists' appeal. So what you have is a) shit that's indefensible being b) a big ol' draw. That's sort of fine--I don't care if that's why you like something--but it also has broader effects. Namely, as again detailed below, it tends to encourage others to pursue said behavior. You see someone getting a lot of love and, paradoxically, success for being obscurist and "difficult," and hey, that's a lot easier than having a broad musical appeal and an interesting personality, eh?
There's a flip side to this, too, of course--the reason that certain folk wouldn't be well-loved if their barriers were dropped is precisely because we get uncomfortable with the actual particulars of a musical (or, hell, human) life, a discomfort which wouldn't be as valid, I think, if these things were stated rather than revealed. It's their status as valuable secrets, and it's the expectations built up by their hiddenness, that makes them such a letdown. In my ideal critical context (ICC), these things would be admitted up-front and then discarded, or not, as preferred. But if you're above the age of 14, clinging to these sorts of things (especially but not limited to the concept of genius) is the equivalent of not wanting to be talked out of the delusion that David Bowie lives in a spaceship and the Beatles all live together. It's a charming construction, but nothing more--simply one piece of what's being presented.
But hold on--am I really saying that artists cultivating an air of mystery, or creating a myth, is a bad thing? Hell no. I'm too All About Pop for that. But there's a differentiation to be made, which may not be philosophically valid, but which sure is valid in terms of its effect on the Annoying Coefficient. Because, well, there's Mysterious & Constructed, and there's Mysterious & Authentic.
M&C bands have a mythos and a persona, but it's pretty obvious they don't actually live like that. Ideally there will be lyrics about their ratty bathrobes at some point, but I'm not picky, cause hey, I'm all about the glitz. They're so over-the-top that there's no suggestion that it's indicative of their actual lives. You may have the misapprehension that they go to a lot of parties and/or get laid more than they actually do, but we mistakenly have that impression of a lot of people, I feel, so that's cool.
M&A bands/artists (lotsa solo folks in this category) refuse to divulge information about themselves, in part, because it's inauthentic--you don't need to care about the people, man, just care about the music. But, of course, we do care about the people, so this just ends up creating a different kind of persona, one of "being authentic," and the more cynical ones quite consciously exploit this tendency. I know, I know, railing against authenticity is old hat, but listen: I'm all for authenticity! But wouldn't it be more authentic for a collective to reveal its work habits? Wouldn't it be more realistic to see the process laid bare? Are you all just normal folks or are you not?
So really, I like both of these approaches--the authentic and the glamorous. But I think there's a tendency to choose the latter for moral reasons and, ugh, a morality of pop music persona is like a metaphysics of pudding.
There are, of course, issues of privacy, too--if Radiohead's artwork was a little less obtuse, for example, it'd be hard to get mad at Thom for his desire for a protected personal life, and I can certainly understand the need of public figures to have a realm to themselves. But what I hope I've communicated here is that this realm can be just as invented as the mythos; it can just be a different aspect.
I think this distrust of mysteriosity is one reason the McSweeney's ideology appealed to me so strongly. (Although it has apparently not helped me with my transitions.) For all their constructedness, they are nothing if not open about their construction, and this is enormously appealing and, maybe somewhat surprisingly, workable. But maybe it's more useful to describe what I like about it by answering the kind of criticisms I usually see.
One charge is that they're a clique. (I know there's a specific link for this out there, but I can't seem to track it down.) This is sort of fair, but sort of not. In the beginning, Eggers seemed genuinely interested in breaking down the walls: making it a mainly freelanced operation, accepting an unusually large number of unsolicited submissions, running killed articles, talking a lot about the business of the magazine/publishing world in a forum that attracted a broader audience (sorta), etc. But I think they've found, not without reason, that this is a very inefficient way of putting something together that you don't produce yourself. Part of the recent charm of McSweeney's has been their championing of pet projects, and it's hard to deny this, just as it's hard to deny their skill at putting together compilations of well-known and semi-well-known authors. As nice as it would be to "expose" more people, certainly Eggers and co. mostly only exposed themselves, and this has certainly been the most enduring method of artistic rise over the last few decades. In a way, wishing that a well-established magazine like McSweeney's would publish your unknown work is a bit like wishing you'd win American Idol--it's a quick and, perhaps, too-easy path to exposure. The fact is (and this would be an interesting subject for a later post) it really seems like most great artistic products are the broadcasts of a cabal: the proceedings of a small group of confidents exposed to a wide audience.
That said, I think the resentment against not being part of this cabal is a direct result of the way they avoid mysteriousness. You really do feel like these are normal people; there's no going-to-bullfights romantic mystique for them, aside from the fact that they Meet Famous People, which we feel like, hey, we could do too. And so you feel like you could hang out with them, like they are hanging-out sort of people, like you'd all go to obscure bars and sit around discussing literary theory and snogging in the corner. Japes, capers, that sort of thing. But of course, they wouldn't have any more interest in hanging out with you than you would be in hanging out with some person you've never met. Those weird instances where somebody gets brought into a clique are a little too heartening for people lacking social connection, or feeling like their social connections are inadequate, and it's a reflection of the stuff I talked about above, about needing a private life. Just because you write about your experiences doesn't mean that your present-tense life is up for grabs.
Another criticism directed at McSweeney's would be that they engage in a sort of smug referentiality, an untoward knowingness. It may be an extension of the sort of resentment that people seem to develop toward McSweeney's (which I was not immune to), but it's an awfully silly criticism to make. Lots of things are referential: hip-hop lyrics, historical novels, medical textbooks. These all depend on an outside body of knowledge for full (note that "full") appreciation. But is this a bad thing? Lyric writers engage in an ongoing debate about whether it's better to write specific things or to try and make it as vague as possible in order to universalize the appeal, but I think we can all agree that having a work that's not entirely self-contained in its understanding isn't a bad thing.
The more particular criticism seems to be that the referentiality is something that panders to the intelligence of the audience, that falsely congratulates them on being so well-informed. But I've never gotten this, entirely, and I suspect that it's because I recognize a difference between pandering and acknowledging. I don't really know that many people (although maybe I just know the wrong people?) that see a referential joke and say, "Oh, it's so nice that I get this." I mean, honestly, who does this? Laughing is a more involuntary reaction than people are willing to admit sometimes, and to chuckle is a sign of recognition, not congratulation.
In other words, I think it's the wrong usage of "knowingness." It's not the being proud of the knowing, it's the simple fact of the knowing that's at issue. What McSweeney's and all its referential brethren do is not exploit this body of knowledge, but to acknowledge it and utilize it effectively. It's not some sort of Straussian thing where only the elect can see the true meaning of the text and they're speaking only to those what can comprehend: it's assumed, generally rightly, that their audience will understand what they're saying, and so they don't feel the need to shy away from that. (Although, admittedly, the reflexiveness of making sure nothing is misunderstood is one of their more annoying traits, an unfortunate aftereffect of the whole authenticity thing that drives them, I fear.) There's nothing wrong with knowing your audience, and (it should be said) there's nothing wrong with your audience being educated people. See above on morality.
So this is what appeals to me, I think: the willingness to play to an audience's body of knowledge (and, at their best, to drive it forward) rather than to appeal to their desire to not-know. This is, I think, the root impulse behind mysteriousness--distaste with being too informed, and having something being a mystery to be solved, which of course you don't really want solved, because once it is, the appeal is gone, too. The referentiality which gets dismissed as smug is not a barrier but an invitation, an appeal to learning rather than a barrier thereof. It's enthusiasm rather than coldness. This is what I like.
 What's your Ideal Critical Context?
 If not the McSweeney's products so much--I think my recent purchase of the (disappointing) all-comics issue was the first contact I'd had with Dave's Empire in the last year, although in the past I was quite pleased with a) issue #4, b) Samuel Johnson is Indignant and that Lethem novella.
 Here is a word that is not going to appear anywhere else in this post, because it's a lazy fucking summation of what's actually a much different concept: irony.