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Amongst my most dangerous fidgets—what I do before working, instead of working, to “get in the mood to work” (shameful self-delusion), when I should be sleeping, etc.—is cruise youtube for live performances of favorite songs, most often from my youth.  True, the decadence is unspeakable, and I shouldn’t admit it publicly, but people put such wonderful stuff out there—songs you thought only you remembered, live versions where you can learn more about what Chuck Leavell is doing (yes, I’m still talking about “Jessica”), different classic performances.  We all know that this is a really bad aspect to the internet—the stuff fifty-something musicians yearned for in our youth is now available at the tap of a key because so many people are so generous about sharing stuff.  Here’s a classic Band performance, here’s Procol Harum, here’s someone showing you how to play something on guitar and mandolin, here are favorite hit singles, here’s Steeleye Span, I wonder how many different Richard Thompson versions there are of “Working for Pharaoh”?, a video that explains the lyrics of “Iko Iko”!, live performances of Randy Newman!, here’s the stratospherically wonderful voice of Linda Ronstadt (on whom be eternal peace and joy—we’ve just been hearing about what her Parkinson’s has done to her singing) and on and on.  And now it’s 1:30 A.M.  Goddammit, Bellman, you idiot.  AGAIN?!

I am frequently chastised for reading the comments that follow political articles, or any articles, really—comments so randomly hateful and moronic that they’ve spawned satirical memes (“An asteroid is approaching earth!  Thanks, Obama!”).  The pop-profile of such commenters is well known: embittered, low-information types hunkering in their contemptuous parents’ basements, all-powerful behind the keyboards of castoff laptops, taking a brief, restorative break from pornography to vent rage about All Those Who Ruin Everything, My America, whatever.  It is true that commenters can be a self-selecting group, indicative of no great trend other than the undercurrent of societal poison (which was always there, Brothers and Sisters; it’s not a recent thing), but it’s also undeniable that they exist, and that a certain kind of thought process is testified to in such comments.  (There are other patterns, too: well-meaning encouragers who post happiness to even the most incompetent musical performances, the attention-starved who link to their own sad cover versions, to name two.)  What is interesting, though, is that such comments often have little to do with the page on which they’re posted.  Obama-hating is only the most obvious example.

The intersection of these two worlds, the posted music link and the reactionary comment, is strange territory.  How is it that some killer performance of any genre generates such biliousness about other genres?  I recall a friend telling me, when I was in England in 1975–76, that when Jethro Tull released Stand Up (a superb album, to me) a few years earlier, you might get a “You c**t!” in London if you didn’t show sufficient admiration.  Does this make any sense?  I’ve mused about the weird, polarized tribalism of adolescent male musical taste before; if you like My Bands you’re a gentleman, scholar, and blood brother; if you like something else you’re beneath contempt.  Conventional wisdom: Zeppelin yes (admission: never liked them much, save the odd track); Bread no (one song only).  Yes yes (they bored the hell out of me, actually); ELO no (I worshiped them, up through half of Face the Music).  To visit Comments sections, though, the level of gratuitous hating is really weird.  Why, wherefore, and whence cometh?

“Who is the one mother f***er that dislikes this? Show yourself, coward.”—A comment following Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweety covering CCR’s “Wrote a Song for Everyone.”

Following a Marshall Tucker band track “The steel guitar gives this song its identity. If these guys were starting out today, rock radio would not play their stuff. I was steamed that neither of the Caldwell brothers were in Rolling Stone’s (Stoner) top 100 guitar players. Then again, what does a left wing hippie rag know about good music? They treat Southern Rock as an ugly stepchild.”  Or for a broader philosophical perspective, on a live recording of Cat Stevens’ “Lady d’Arbanville,” the simple “F**k religion.”

For a cover version of “Lake Shore Drive,” by Aliotta, Haynes, and Jeremiah, we get a twofer: “I’m torn. It’s such an awesome song and you sing great and all that but you turned it into a country song and as we all know—country music is almost as rotten as rap!.”

Hating is not even fun to read; the pointless flaccidity of the people and their point of view depresses the reader.  The hate kicks, I think, in before anyone actually hears the music.  To a comfortable, practicing country-hater, the very instant that one hears a pedal steel guitar, it’s over—that timbre instantly signifies worthless, backward, right-wing hicks.  For me as a Californian, thought, the sort of cosmic-cowboy, acid-country of the New Riders, and the earlier stuff by the Byrds and Eagles and so on it mother’s milk.  Some great songwriting, and virtuoso playing.  Hot pedal steel too, often.  No?  How about this, at 1:25.  Still just for hicks?

The concern here is actually deeper than just bigotry and steel-reinforced taste; it has to do with what we think we’re hearing.  It’s almost a reflexive deafness: a noise with previous negative associations makes us turn off—still happy to offer all kinds of self-justifications.  For you, it’s pedal steel.  For you over there, hip hop declamation.  For me, maybe, a wind instrument with vibrato: up we all clamber on our high horses, declaiming “Throw X to the dogs; I’ll none of it,” averting our aural gaze.  Uh, so to speak.

This morning my cousin posted this fun clip about octopus camouflage.  The conclusion, though, is arresting—the idea that camo isn’t all about perfect mimicry; rather, it’s about fooling the viewer’s eye to counterfeit perfect mimicry.  Given this, the researcher points out, we may think that what we see is what the world is, but it’s really something quite different.  Of course, Lucretius was there first, but that’s not the point: the point is what we think we’re hearing when we hear something that produces a particular response.

For those like me with strong opinions and reactions, this is a tad disconcerting.  Let’s forget I had this thought, shall we?

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to Comments

  1. Lyle Sanford says:

    I love that you guys are back!

    This post first got me to thinking about how so many classical critics assume everyone has their background and taste (or should) – and that they’ve GOT to find fault to prove their worth. Just as in the case of these comments you’re talking about, more is revealed about the commenter than the music at hand – and the critic/commenters don’t have a clue as to how they’re revealing their ego bound selves to the world.

    The deeper point about, “we may think that what we see is what the world is, but it’s really something quite different”, just reinforces the idea that every single audience member is having a private concert. I don’t see there’s anything wrong with your having strong reactions – as long as you don’t value judge me for not having the same ones 😉

  2. An additional comment on “Comments”—here’s the science behind it all.

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