I Have No More Patience For Bullshit In Music Southern writer Harry Crews said it best when he said, "I think we are all looking for that which does not reek of bullshit." As I grow older, this applies more and more to everything: politics, marketing, journalism, etc. In most of areas of our life, bullshit is quantifiable. There are equations for, and methods of, detecting bullshit. This is hardly ever the case with art, and that fact is something that I struggle with on a regular basis.
I have always been a fan of different styles and eras of music, and my number one criteria for identifying good music was whether or not it reeked of bullshit. Usually it doesn't take much effort to detect bullshit in music. Anyone who has ever heard Vanilla Ice or Jefferson Starship understands this.
There are several ways of detecting bullshit in music. I have a set of rules that I usually adhere to in testing the bullshittiness of a particular piece of music. This seems simple enough. But these rules are a lot like the rules in English grammar. There are always exceptions. And, for the most part, when you ask yourself why the exception exists, you will get the same answer you got from your grade school grammar teacher: It just does.
Rule 1: Is That Your Church Voice? An old friend of mine, upon hearing some vocalist with an incredibly affected vocal style (say, Scott Stapp from Creed), would often say, "That's not his church voice." As I grow older, I have no patience for these bullshit voices, whether it's Conor Oberst's emotional, quivering, puberty voice, or Morrisey's strained gay Muppet opera recital, I just don't buy it for a minute. Disqualified. Next. The following exceptions apply: For Reasons of Insanity -- Nick Bullens (Napalm Death), Yamatsuka Eye (Naked City, Boredoms), Bjork, Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo), David Lee Roth, Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening), Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers), Tom Araya (Slayer) Just Because -- Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney)
Rule 2: No You Did Not This rule comes into play when lyrics just plain don't ring true. This rule is perfect for The Decemberists.
Let's have a look at the lyrics from The Decemberists' "The Bagman's Gambit":
It was late one night I was awoken by the telephone I heard a strangled cry on the end of the line purloined in Petrograd they were suspicious of where your loyalties lay so I paid off a bureaucrat to convince your captors they're to secret you away
No you did not.
OK, how about the lyrics to their song, "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist":
My mother was a Chinese trapeze artist In pre-war Paris Smuggling bombs for the underground. And she met my father At a fete in Aix-en-Provence. He was disguised as a Russian cadet in the employ of the Axis. And there in the half-light Of the provincial midnight To a lone concertina They drank in cantinas And toasted to Edith Piaf And the fall of the Reich.
Stop fucking lying.
Anyone who sings about pantaloons, parapets, and palanquins in the year 2006, and uses words like "betrothed" and "a-waving" can take the next bus to the historical reenactment festival.
However, when Tom Waits says he was "stirring my brandy with a nail", then he was. End of story.
And don't ask me to explain how Gillian Welch can be born in Manhattan, grow up in Los Angeles, attend UC-Santa Cruz, then Berklee School of Music, and be allowed to sing about orphans, stillhouses, Tennessee mines, because I don't know. She just can. But that Decemberist guy? He played a little too much Axis & Allies in scout camp.
This rule is quite simple. Sing about what you know. If I want to hear lyrics about what it's like to be a soldier World War II or what it's like to live in medieval times, I've got Iron Maiden, who are exempt from this rule for simply kicking ass.
Rule 3: Look at You, You Look Like a Fucking Idiot If you need an explanation for this, just do a Google Image search for "Carlos D". Exclusions: Prince, Bjork
These rules are not absolutes, as I have clearly stated above. Music is a balancing act. There's lyrical content, there's musical aesthetics and execution, and there's how an artist chooses to present themselves (visually, sonically, and in public). I can forgive you for being a little full of shit in one area, as long as you make up for it with excellence in the others.
Bullshit in music is difficult to define. I hope that upon my deathbed I can scribble out an algorhythm that explains just why Beck can get away with rapping when Madonna can't get away with having a British accent. Or why it's ok for the guy in Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to imitate David Byrne, but the guy in Wolf Parade is an ass-hat for imitating the dude from Modest Mouse.
Then again, who needs an algorhythm. I know bullshit when I smell it.