Friday, June 24, 2011

Pretentious Music is Pretentious

by Kurt Gottschalk

I recently had someone comment on the playlist for my radio show that something I was playing was so pretentious he was going to turn it off. In fact, he made a point of saying that he did not pledge to my show during the WFMU marathon because I play this sort of thing. And in general, this is totally fine by me. Nobody should like everything, and I realize that much of what I play will appeal to a small minority of people. I do, however, find it odd when someone feels their objections must be heard publicly. We revel together but object to separate ourselves from the pack. But I’m not sure why people need to announce that they’re leaving the pack. Perhaps to make it clear that they are superior to the rest, and not the other way around.

All of that is par for the course for freeform radio, for non-mainstream media or unusual artistic expression. But reading the listener’s comment I got hung up (as I often do) on a word. “Pretentious.” It’s a word I used a lot in high school. It was what we punks stood against in the battle of the “P” factions: punk vs pretension, punk vs pomposity, punks vs posers. It was clear. It was wrong. It was, it meant — I found myself at a loss. It meant being something other than genuine. Didn’t it? And punk was all about dying your hair and being yourself. It was, I reasoned, the same word root as “pretend.” The implication is usually “putting on airs of intellectualism,” or more simply “acting smarter than you are.”

If my assumptive leaps aren’t too huge, the argument then is that the music I played on the radio that afternoon was the direct result of someone acting as if they were smarter that they really are. There may be other syntactical paths to take, but it seems clear in any event that art itself can’t really be pretentious and that the accusation is actually lobbed at the artist. At which point, it seems pretty untenable. We can’t know that an artist is being true to himself or herself without knowing them personally, and if we knew them personally surely we would make the claim about them, not their work. “I can’t stand listening to Paul Simon,” for example. “I met him at a cinematographer’s party and he was so pretentious!” Is Paul Simon’s music pretentious because he’s not actually South African or Brazillian? Is it less so (or for that matter all the more so) because he often hires musicians native to the land he’s emulating? Or is it he who is pretentious for making the records? I don’t find Paul Simon to be pretentious. He strikes me as refreshingly genuine, although I’ve never met him. But clearly one could find him pretentious. Taken apart, though, the claim that his music — any music — is pretentious is, at least to me, befuddling.

So let’s assume my playlist commenter meant to say that the artists were pretentious for making a work that, well, that sounded as if it were made by someone smarter than they really were. What does that sound like? My intention here isn’t to ridicule the commenter into a corner. I got stuck on it for precisely the reason that it was something I had said many times in the past myself. We punks hated bands like Genesis and Yes because they were so “pretentious.” And I find now that I didn’t know what I meant when I said it.

The word itself comes from the Latin “praetendere,” literally “to stretch in front of,” like a curtain. So pretentious music, perhaps, is stretched in front of the artist, hiding their true identity as a regular person. In that regard, it would seem that masked performers such as Kiss, The Residents, MF Doom or Slipknot are really the pretentious ones, and that may be right. But the semantics now are clouding the issue. For what someone really means when they call an artist or their work “pretentious” is, simply, that they don’t like it and, more importantly, that they don’t approve.

Essentially what the accusation does is set up a dichotomy — “pretentious” music as opposed to “nonpretentious” music — and uses the language to make it clear which of the two classes we should prefer. This is a common and cowardly approach in discussing art. It’s not a statement of quality, it’s a simple matter of categorization. Another example will help to illustrate.
Last fall, I was asked to speak on a panel held by the Jazz Journalists Association. In the endless endeavor of critic list-making, the panel was to consider the best records of the year so far. As I’ve written elsewhere, I object to the notion of besties lists, but I’m certainly able to talk about records I like and why I like them. Since I didn’t have personal bests to select from, I brought records that I loved and which I thought might not be as well known and might spur interesting discussion. One of my favorite records from 2010 was the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra’s Stems and Cages, a project of the Norwegian city of Trondheim, which commissions different artists to assemble and lead versions of the band. Since the town is hiring someone to assemble a jazz orchestra, and the artist hired is presumably doing so in good faith, it seemed to me fair game to consider the music as “jazz” and to take it as a legitimate starting point.

The audience, and one gentleman in particular, objected vehemently. It was not jazz, they said. I asked why not, and the gentleman most vehement responded sternly that “it wasn’t based in the blues.” Really? Are we still hung up on that? I asked if all of Eric Dolphy’s music was based in the blues and he insisted that it was.

What he was doing, just like my playlist commenter, was creating a linguistic foil in order to exclude a piece of work from the class that is considered acceptable.

A third example: A friend once objected, after seeing a performance piece where a man dressed as a chef simulated sexual intercourse with a side of beef, that it “wasn’t art.” Sure it was art. If it wasn’t art, it was real, in which case we should really be worried.

What she meant to say was that it was bad art. What the vehement gentleman meant to say was that it was bad jazz. What the playlist commenter meant to say was that it was bad music. But saying that would mean making a claim that would have to be defended. If you say something is bad, you have to be prepared to defend it. If you say something is simply not what it’s presented as, then the discussion’s over. It’s not in the club. Case closed. There’s nothing to defend.

Which, really, is a pretty pretentious argument to make.


  1. My friend and fellow DJ Acapulco Rodriguez posted the following message to the WFMU chat list. It seemed somehow not just relevant but prescient. Feel free to post post your suggestions of bad or pretentious music in the comments.

    "I honestly don't know what anyone means by 'the worst.' Is it the stupidest? The safest? The most pretentious? The most derivative? The most inept? The most irritating? The most boring? The most exploitative? The record with the most reprehensible social agenda? The one with the highest ambition to achievement ratio? The most overrated? The one with the worst mastering? The one that comes packaged in a bag of human shit? The 'dematerialized' record that isn't actually inscribed in a physical medium? The one with 5000 locked grooves? Private press or multi-platinum? Is it the one by the piece of shit who played Joey on the NBC sitcom Blossom? Is it Sinatra? Otto Muehl? Is it Canadian rap? Japanese bluegrass? 'American Pie'?

    "Kim Fowley's 'Worst Record Ever Made' is quite a lot of fun. Komar and Melamid's 'The Least Wanted Music' is more interesting than Brian Eno's last decade. The Metallica / Lou Reed collaboration is at least as interesting as Metal Machine Music or the first Body Count LP. Roger Daltrey's solo career is only as "bad" as one considers The Who to be 'good.' I find them to be insufferable, but that's neither here nor there. Some people love Keiji Haino and hate The Beatles -- now that's contrarianism! I happen to love Must Be Santa -- I admire its chutzpah, its anarchic spirit, its righteous defiance of decorum, of good taste -- of the very idea of taste! -- its celebration of Yuletide's bittersweet commingling of the sacred and the stupid; but, again, that's neither here nor there."

  2. That Roger Daltrey/Who comparison is brilliant. I've always assumed "pretentious" meant "representing oneself as possessing superior sophistication and/or discernment, while displaying no evidence of same." To put it another way, to act like you're in the know when it's evident that you are not. That would be why, for example, you might consider Metallica teaming with Lou Reed as pretentious: My mental picture is of Lars thinking "I have no idea why Lou thinks it's a good idea to hold these violin notes forever, but I'm not going to tell him no so I'll act like anyone who doesn't 'get it' is a braindead rube." Or Yes thinking "Pop songs don't last for eighteen minutes, but 'serious' classical music does, so if we keep playing 'Roundabout' for eighteen minutes we are clearly serious musicians and not unambitious merchants of pop." The problem is, the listener's own lack of knowledge or comprehension may lead them to believe a piece of art is pretentious when actually the artist isn't overreaching, but the listener just doesn't understand what the artist is doing. So I believe the word "pretentious" can be meaningful when used properly, but is more frequently used improperly.