Pleasant surprises

American Idol didn’t totally suck last night. AI commentary this year (Slate’s American Idol blog, for example) is suddenly noticing that the first month of AI is a sadistic freakshow, and maybe the producers are listening. Or not. In any event, the show last night had more actual talent and less of the geek show than before. That big guy with a chinbeard, Sundance Head (hee!) whose Dad was an old-time rock’n’roll singer (where did they get that clip? nice clip!) — he was awesome. So there’s hope for the future.

But I’m not going to talk about AI much. Mostly I want to think a bit more about pop. A couple of commenters — ECG and Tim Rutherford Johnson, tha notorious T.R.J. from The Rambler — have probed my definition of the aesthetic ideal of pop, which I described as “the perfect realization of the expected pattern.” One thing worth dilating on is what I mean by “perfect.” This is probably not the exact word I want, but I can’t think of another. “Perfect” implies that there’s one way something can be, and we won’t be satisfied until we get it. So there’s exactly one way to sing, say, “A Hard Day’s Night,” and that is the exact way the Beatles sing it on their record. But this isn’t what I mean. “Perfect realization” is the making-real (making-audible) of an expected pattern (the song) in a way that perfectly satisfies our craving for the emotion that song conveys. And this allows for a great deal of variety — many possible “perfect” fulfillments. Chet Baker’s Chet Baker Sings is, I think, a perfect pop album. (It is also a jazz album, but the one doesn’t preclude the other, any more than the fact that “A Hard Day’s Night” is a rock song precludes its being a pop song too.) Baker’s performance of “I Fall in Love Too Easily” is a perfect realization of that song. But it does not displace Frank Sinatra’s recording of it, or even compete with it, really; as performances, they’re about different things. Baker’s singing is breathy and uncontrolled next to Sinatra’s, and Sinatra doesn’t play jazz trumpet. But each performance is perfect, because each serves the song loyally, albeit in different ways.*

My definition, then, is skewed towards thinking of pop as a kind of performance and a dynamic of listening to performance than a kind of musical composition. Tha Notorious T.R.J. mentions mid-1960s Beatles as an example of a kind of pop that doesn’t just fulfill expectations, and he’s right, of course. The aforementioned “A Hard Day’s Night,” with its famous jangling Rickenbacker opening chord, hits us with a surprise right away. And in a sense all beauty, everything we find pleasurable, is a surprise. Dave Hickey has made this point in his magnificent essay “Buying the World”:

John Ashbery once remarked that, after we discover that life cannot possibly be one long orgasm, the best we can expect is a pleasant surprise. I like to think of encounters with beauty in just this sense, as pleasant surprises. These are far from daily occurences in any society, but they do happen. We encounter the embodiment of what we like and what we want in the external world and we are delighted. Something connecting our bodies to our minds vibrates like a tuning fork, and the sudden, unexpected harmony of body, mind, and world  becomes the occasion for both consolation and anxiety.

What the best pop performances do — indeed, what musical performance itself can do, when it’s doing its job — is to give us the pleasant surprise in the such a way that feels inevitable, a return to what we’ve always known and felt. Of course this is something art in general tries to do too, but pop, it seems to me, raises it to the point of an aesthetic principle. This is why I called it a classicizing aesthetic. And although I’ve written mostly about pop as a performance phenomenon, it does make sense also to talk about pop aesthetics in composition, as Matthew Guerrieri does in his thoughtlful post from a few days ago.

*Of course there is a school of thought that there is always a single right way to play anything, but I have always thought that this idea, however defensible or even necessary from a certain philosophical point of view,** is so blind to the realities of performance — indeed, what performance really is — that I can’t even bother to waste more than a dismissive footnote on it.

** That point of view usually involves an overly fetishistic attachement to the work-concept. OK, two dismissive footnotes.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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