Aesthetes Versus Fans


(Kenny writing)

One tension that crops up periodically between David and me is that David listens to music as an aesthete, whereas I listen to music as a fan.  We have discussed this off-blog, but it’s time to take it on line.  The main comment David has made about this on this site — in different terms — is at the beginning of his “David’s lists” post in the “About” section.

Broadly speaking, what this means is that David approaches each album, and indeed each song, more or less individually, starting from the question of what this particular aesthetic object sounds like.  This allows him to say, song by song, I like this one, this one’s boring.  From some points of view this makes him a better, more serious listener then me.  He is more celebratory of small accomplishments and details, and less forgiving of mediocre music in styles we like or writer-performers who actually only had a few distinct songs in them this time out.

I approach a new Bruce Springsteen album (as a not so random example) as a fan of Bruce Springsteen.  I see the record as part of the ongoing story of an individual I have had a pretty intense relationship with over a long period of time.  This obviously doesn’t mean that I like everything the man has ever recorded, but it does mean that I listen through stuff I might, in another context, consider boring, and I make extra effort to figure out what the guy is saying at the moment.  I stop only when I determine that this extra effort hasn’t paid off.

Bruce is an important example because of how we are likely to address the earliest records, prior to Born In the USA (which is pretty much where we both tuned in — I bought The River, probably in ’81 or ’82 (not when it came out) but at age 14 I didn’t really get it).  We both agree that the early records are full of overextended songs and overwrought melodrama that doesn’t fit our punkier aeshetic mode; we both agree that the man is capable of clunkers; we both agree that overall, he’s pretty amazing.  The difference in evaluation will come from the fact that when I want to hear Darkness At the Edge of Town, I want to hear all of it, because I actively enjoy and learn from the songs I’m supposed to find melodramatic and overwrought:  I’ve given Springsteen the space to draw me in, the way a fan does, and consciously chosen to inhabit his aesthetics for the length of the record.  I’m happy to let him push me around, rather then to stand my ground and say “I don’t like this song.”

What I am seeking to do, all too much perhaps (because it may be all too “imaginary”), is create an imaginary community with other human beings, a community in which my interest in a set of sounds, concepts, and ideas, expands and become a matter of social importance. “Fanhood” permits me to do this in two ways — by imagining a personal relationship to an artist, and by imagining a field of social commonality (a common “structure of feeling”) with others who are also fans.

(Note that fanhood is entirely distinct from idolatry, which is an unfortunate outgrowth of fanhood in some contexts.  If you imagine yourself as a flawed and imperfect human being, you will imagine the artist you are a fan of that way as well, rather then as an idol.)

The implications of this difference turn out, over decades of listening to music together, to be huge, and can be seen in a variety of places on this blog.  The most fundamental place, I think, is going to be on the question of pleasure, which David and I have had numerous exchanges about over the years.  David really wants to know what gives him pleasure, an absolutely valid question.  I figured out a long time ago that huge numbers of things (musical and nonmusical) can give me pleasure, and I was going to have to have some kind of way of determining which ones were worth following up.


2 Responses to “Aesthetes Versus Fans”

  1. 1 schweitzito

    There’s something tautological about the statement: “when I want to hear Darkness At the Edge of Town, I want to hear all of it, because I actively enjoy and learn from the songs I’m supposed to find melodramatic and overwrought” Something selective, too, but that I grant is the privilege of fandom. I mean, when I want to hear the albums I want to hear I want to hear the whole thing, too. If I don’t want to hear the whole thing, that usually means I don’t want to hear that album — rather hear the songs in shuffle, or a mix I made, though there are exceptions. If you trust an artist enough to hear past the stuff that offends your sensibility to find out why an artist did that, that’s great. Sometimes I do that, too. But while sometimes I learn something about the artist that makes me better understand and even enjoy the stuff that initially rubbed me the wrong way, it may be just as likely (I’ve made absolutely no attempt to figure out the math on this. Please.) that not only was I right in the first place, but the bad stuff tells me something I didn’t want to know about the artist’s better stuff. Something aesthetic rather than something having to do with their social vision, although there’s something to be said for a world where no one finds it necessary to sit through “Streets of Fire.” (I love “Racing in the Street,” myself, and in the mid ’90s I lived a block away from a street (in Manhattan!) where actual drag racing regularly woke me up. On balance I was certainly happy when the cops started sending them away rather than taking a cut of the gambling to let them stay, though I wish there was a way they could have done their racing without waking people up.) So maybe this is about fans trumping the social aspect (be it artist-to-fans, or fans-to-fans, or artist-to-world, or even artist’s fanbase to world) over aesthetic concerns, which I admit can seem trivial. This sort of thing actually can seem most vital in artists I’m a lot more equivocal about and spend a lot less time listening to. Right now I probably admire Bono more for giving a shout out to the Palestinians’ cause at the pre-inaugural National Mall concert than for even U2’s very best music (which is always individual songs, never anything close to a whole album). But Kanye West’s is at least on par with “George Bush doesn’t like black people”). And of course , currently leading my sweepstakes for best-of-the-decade, is one of those records that make distinctions like aesthetic and social and fan feel like they have a lot to do with each other, may even be inextricable from each other. They probably aren’t. But part of my aesthetic involves being able to create illusions such as that. I don’t believe that all illusions are harmful. Or always antithetical to social realism, either.

    Since it came up, I bought the day it came out — most music these days I don’t pay full price for, but I wanted it now. I eagerly played it a lot, immersing in it more than I might have another record of similar first-apprehension quality, simply because I do care a lot about Springsteen, and I hoped that it would give me more intrinsic reasons to keep listening. This is currently happening with the new Lily Allen right now (so far with more rewarding results).
    But if you don’t love the new Springsteen, and then Springsteen makes a few more unlovable records (I’m not predicting that, nor am I suggesting that Working on a Dream isn’t a pretty decent album), does your desire to immerse in the next one decline? Sure an artist can be more than the sum of his/her/their works, but there are degrees. Looking at yourbest artist list ( , I find you more or less equally divided among the dead (Coltrane, Lennon, Redding, Brown, Marley, Monk), the Retired or Irrelevantly Active (Mould, Mick Jones, Feelies, G. Parker, Costello, Stone) and the Productively Active (we hope, which of course is the crux) (Dylan, Langford, Wussy, De La), with three different kinds of questionmarks (Sleater-Kinney, Rollins, Lobos). You of course might categorize differently, or alter or dismiss the categories. My point is, you don’t expect anything more from that Irrelevantly Active category. And as it happens, I haven’t missed an Elvis Costello album, even the classical ones and have songs I like from almost all of them, whereas if I’m not mistaken you stopped in 1991 (certainly a reasonable place to do so). Sure, Elvis probably places slightly higher among my favorites. But that’s the point, right? You give up on your favorites, stop being a fan, too. But in the few great songs Costello’s made in the past two decades, I do some kind of affirmation of what he was about — however fruitlessly, he continues to question, to demand. It doesn’t exactly take away from their early best work, but that Mould and Parker and Strummer turned inward, narrowing their frames of reference until who could care, while Jones broadened his so indiscriminately that he stretched himself so thin he became inaudible, are the sadder stories for sure. Sure there are slumps, and almost everyone who likes Bob Dylan or Neil Young a lot agrees that they had slumps and that they recovered from them to at least some degree. Maybe being a fan in the face of years of disappoinment means holding out hope that they’ll recover, that it’s just a slump, not a permanent character-changing crisis. Even Elvis Costello spending an hour on his new talk show talking to James Taylor (mostly about George Jones) (someone could have gotten very rich taking bets on that in 1977, hmmm?) doesn’t change that for me. In fact, while it demonstrates once again that his quest has only been aesthetic for some time, and that artists who spend decades in the corporate biz eventually have more in common with each other than with anyone else, even for all the pomposity he’s taken on, I still like what Costello implies about continuing to listen as you grow older. He’s supposed to gross me out, but in fact I find something interesting and occasionally engaging about him — his Lou Reed episode was pretty good, and if that was all because of Reed, who else is giving Reed an hour on TV? And of course, Reed’s aged better than anyone I’ve mentioned here, and if I say that even though I know he hasn’t made an album as good as or since 1969, that’s some kind of fandom talking.

    And speaking of aging well, I’ve made a point of hearing all those Sonny Rollins albums that went into Silver City, the great 1996 compilation of his first 25 years on Milestone records. Looking for more goodies. I found very few, and I can’t say it improved my appreciation of the compilation — actually made its great moments seem too much like accidents rather than critic/compiler Gary Giddins collaborating with Rollins on something transcendent. This fandom stuff cuts both ways. Which I know is the statement of an aesthete, not a fan.

  2. 2 kmostern

    Since you obviously accept my basic terms here, the only thing I feel is relevant to respond to is the question of artists I’m a fan of only during a certain period of their careers, and the only real response is, yeah, that’s right. I have no problem with the idea that an individual’s vitality is focussed in a particular era or context, and out of that context the individual no longer means much. Rock is still young enough that we don’t know how common it will be for individuals to remain vibrant as artists for whole lives. But it doesn’t surprise me when they don’t: I’m very proud of the poetry and monologue I wrote at a particular point in my life, but I don’t see anything strange about the idea that my need to keep doing that thing has dried up. With professional recording artists, needs also dry up, and there’s nothing embarassing about that. In many cases those individuals keep recording because they have a professional stake in doing so, but their recordings stop mattering. I can respect them without changing my position, which is that I am a fan of ten Elvis Costello records.

    But of course, fanship can also be fickle, sometimes for no greater reason then because it’s searching for the next thing. So while I have less then no interest in searching through Costello’s dozens for a few more great songs, there was no good reason for the moment where II gave up on the fabulous Bob Mould and right about now I very much feel compelled to start listening to the records since The Last Dog And Pony Show. My timing is off sometimes. After all, I really just got to Maureen Tucker and Bo Diddley in the past year.

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