Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Tie his hair in bunches, fuck him, call him Rita if you want

Emmy Hennings, brilliant, on The Holy Bible. While I'm loath to be drawn into the murky area of Manics fandom - the I was a teenage Manics fan post will remain infinitely postponed - this piece rings very true, not least in the emphasis on the group's appeal to teenage girls being both a source of their power and of the persistent patronisation they've been subject to; on the inevitable failure of their project from the start; and on the extremely strident, disciplinarian elements of their aesthetic when at its most interesting, ie on this pitiless, absurd record.

Although I couldn't in all honesty make a case for practically anything else they've recorded, here it all works: the tensile bark, the tremendous lyrical density, the glacial, scraping Empires and Dance guitars, and their inability to sound anything other than anthemic making something like 'Of Walking Abortion' into thrilling, preposterous stadium-postpunk Foucault. The last time I listened to it, rather than being intensely embarassed (which is what I had expected, and certainly I'll gladly never hear the Clash farrago of 'PCP' again), much of it sounded like Big Black with Albini's cod-redneck pose replaced with terrifying erudition, the flip misogyny with a vision of the world pervaded by Stalinism, porn, prostitution, voracious capitalism and depression - much resembling the concerns of particular collectives of the blogosphere in fact. If only they'd stopped there...


Blogger ejh said...

much resembling like the concerns these particular collectives of the blogosphere in fact


6:44 pm  
Blogger ejh said...

Help is at hand

6:56 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Pointing out typos doesn't make you Orwell.

8:31 pm  
Blogger ejh said...

A typo? I thought it was cut-up technique.

Did you know the piece averages more than seventy words to the full stop?

9:57 pm  
Blogger it said...

ejh, your campaign is potentially infinite! Think of all the blog posts in the world that could use your sturdy empiricist hand and impeccable grammatical expertise. Perhaps you should start some sort of linguistic rationing.

12:04 am  
Blogger Dominic said...

Did you know the piece averages more than seventy words to the full stop?

Seventy? Lightweight...

7:05 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

balls! tried to leave a comment here yesterday and it's gone astray..anyhoo..uncannily, were on the same page re albini at the mo....


3:05 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

oh no! you can't remember what it was...? and aren't you in spain?

3:18 pm  
Blogger johneffay said...

Did you know the piece averages more than seventy words to the full stop?

If we ignore the three on the end, I make it fifty-eight. If we include the three on the end it's even less. See if you can work it out correctly...

6:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, I was, but now I am comfortably ensconsed in impostume heights not five minutes away! meet you in help the aged Saturday morning about eleven!


7:04 pm  
Blogger ejh said...

I stand corrected John: there's four proper full stops, not three, bringing down the average sentence length to the proportions you describe. Still unwieldy beyond the point of readability though. But is readability the point?

11:22 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

My, your pettiness knows no bounds, does it?

11:48 am  
Blogger ejh said...

What I'm trying to observe Owen is that if you want to try and get your point across it can help to write more clearly. The habit of writing at 100mph, in overlong sentences with cultural and political references standing in for punctuation, often gives the writer the impression that they are displaying insight and knowledge. But it holds no such advantages for the reader.

Mind you it works for Paul Morley.

4:27 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Curiously, when people like Ian Penman and Paul Morley were writing in this manner in the NME, it had an extremely wide circulation; now that its writers use short sentences, don't make any political or cultural references that one would have to use google to check up, and generally patronise their readers, it has roughly the same circulation as Angling Times - however, I applaud your campaign for clarity in short blog posts about mostly forgotten 1990s rock acts, and am impressed by your dedication to something which is clearly a useful way to be spending one's time, and the general air of recititude your carry around: in general, bravo!

4:42 pm  
Blogger ejh said...

it had an extremely wide circulation

So it did: but whether one should judge the quality of writing by the circulation of a periodical is perhaps another matter.

There's a view that "writers" like Penman and Morley (or Savage, for that matter) were popular because the readers thought they were reading somebody extremely clever precisely because they didn't understand what they were reading. What they also didn't understand is that neither did the writers.

It's what pseudo-intellectualism is all about.

4:52 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Oh this is such bollocks. I can think of loads of people in academia or in socialist politics (frequently from - shock-horror - working class backgrounds) who started off by chasing up the references used by Burchill, or Morley, or Savage, or Simon Reynolds in the music press. In mentioning things outside of 'so the gig was rocking, man' people who wouldn't otherwise have done so developed an interest in all sorts of extra-musical matters.

Naturally in a review in Melody Maker or a 300-sodding-word blog post one doesn't meticulously explain every single reference. This doesn't make it 'psuedo-intellectual', although for the likes of you the word automatically has that prefix.

5:04 pm  
Blogger ejh said...

Oh, stop posing about Owen. When people who overwrite start invoking the working-class it just makes me laugh. Particularly when they start suggesting that the odious Julie Burchill (thirty years a pundit and yet to express a coherent idea) is a good thing.

Now of course nobody has asked for the explanation of references, meticulously or otherwise: it can occasionally, Owen, be helpful to try and respond to a real argument rather than one you would like somebody to be making (though I accept that's not really the rock-n-roll way). The point is of course that shovelling in references like they were currants for a bun isn't actually useful. It doesn't illuminate, it just says "I am very impressive because I have heard of these things".

Now it may be true that when the aforementioned poseurs engaged in this activity, this did indeed lead people to take an interest in the subjects referenced. Good: roses may grow with the help of horseshit. However, if they developed any understanding of these same subjects, as opposed to copying the Penman/Morley habit of employing them as calling cards, they will have noticed that Penman, Morley and Savage did not know what they were talking about and that the apparent incoherence of their sentences and opinions was actually real. (Reynolds, by the way, is a bit better than the others.)

Coherence is good and so is clarity. Showing off is not - if only because it is when one most loudly proclaims one's credentials that they are most likely to come under scrutiny. Mind you, I say that, but Morley's still getting away with it after all these years.

5:29 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Look, I could in one of my oh-so-impenetrable sentences (which no-one else seems to have had a problem with understanding) have said something like: the lyrical concerns of the Manic Street Preachers on this LP were in many ways similar to those of the French philosopher Michel Foucault.

I could then have written about why this was so. After explaining who exactly he was. This would have been cumbersome, dull, and patronising to a (really very small) readership, who more than likely already know this. So I didn't. I dropped the name as a reference.

And by the way, when you provide evidence that the people you list don't know what they're talking about I'll stop thinking you're a small-time Alan Sokal with even less point.

5:42 pm  
Blogger ejh said...

I dropped the name as a reference.

So you did, Owen: but as a rather unconvincing one. On reading a claim like this:

the lyrical concerns of the Manic Street Preachers on this LP were in many ways similar to those of the French philosopher Michel Foucault.

the likely reaction from anyone who has any knowledge of Foucault - or indeed anyone with any experience of people making large claims about pop music lyrics - will be to the effect of "oh, really?" I suppose they might be, but it does tend to set the old bullshit detector whirring. (You know, the Manics might be claimed to be latterday Dylans, but you'd want to see that demonstrated rather than claimed, would you not?)

I mean, "terrifying erudition"? Come on, Owen, give us a break eh?

6:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dear god, how have you had the misfortune to end up with this sanctimonious bore in your comments box. Isn't there some kind of self-righteousness filter available? "Unreadable," is hyperbolic nonsense, he's peeved that you didn't curtsey when he "corrected" you, so now he's childishly fishing for insults and one-upmanship, and behind all this eminent rationality there's a fragile, petty little ego, isn't there ejh? Ignore this dullard, Owen.

7:15 pm  
Blogger johneffay said...

I must say that I know bugger-all about the Manic Street Preachers apart from the fact that they are Welsh. However, the phrase 'preposterous stadium-postpunk Foucault' actually conveys quite a lot to me. Perhaps Owen simply knows how to cater for his audience?

8:05 pm  
Blogger it said...

it does tend to set the old bullshit detector whirring.

What a horrid, wretched, pompous old windbag this ejh fellow is, padding around the internet in his manky old slippers telling people to be less interesting, dammit. His heart just can't take it, you know! Words are the preserve of upper middle-class men! Get away from them you non-empiricist, queer proley bastard!

9:29 am  
Blogger ejh said...

Words are the preserve of upper middle-class men! Get away from them you non-empiricist, queer proley bastard!

Don't be silly.

the phrase 'preposterous stadium-postpunk Foucault' actually conveys quite a lot to me

What it mostly conveys to me is that the invocation of difficult philosophers in dramatic-sounding compound phrases usually stands in for an understanding of the material rather than demonstrating it. Nothing wrong with invoking Foucault as such, for instance: everything wrong in using him as a label, a look-at-me card.

As I have observed to Owen before, if you make dramatic claims in convoluted language, there is always the risk that people will say "all right - you've made this dramatic claim, I'd like you to back it up" which of course is the one thing the writer doesn't want to do (largely because they can't).

Now usually they can get away with it because all the fellow-poseurs will pile in saying "I understand it perfectly all right, you're an anti-working class elitist" (not wholly compatible claims, but one would not expect them to be). Duck's back, on the whole: I was reading Morley and Penman when they started out, and watching all the wannabees writing incomprehensible letters to the NME in their support. I've seen and heard it all before and I'm not really impressed by that sort of thing - I've spent twenty years laughing at it.

I have a more rational approach - not "empiricist" but simply one that asks that if claims be made, they need in some way to be defensible. Additionally, if they are not, or if the request to back them up is met with posing and epithets rather than argument, then this rather goes to show the essential hollowness of the original claims.

So, let us isolate just one claim which strikes me as potentially unsustainable and see if we can justify it. It is claimed that the Manic Street Preachers possessed "terrifying erudition" and that this is demonstrated on the record discussed above. All right. Now I think they may have been (and remain) intelligent individuals who had done rather more reading than most people, but more than that can not be reasonably claimed. So:

1. In what way can the Manic Street Preachers be reasonably described as possessing "erudition"?

2. In what way was that erudition "terriying"?

10:23 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

absolutely no-one agrees with you Owen....

"Around 70 per cent of its words are the work of Richey Edwards, the member of the group whose unexplained disappearance in February 1995 left them as a reluctant trio. A political history graduate and voracious reader, he was outwardly in thrall to the standard rock archetypes - androgyny, excess, a solipsistic kind of angst - but his sense of what the group's music could convey (shared, it has to be said, by his co-lyricist Nicky Wire) was pretty much unprecedented. The Holy Bible 's cast speaks volumes: within its songs lurk references to Lenin, Pol Pot, Myra Hindley, Winston Churchill, Shakespeare, Slobodan Milosevic and Michel Foucault.

Via such songs as 'Die in the Summertime' and '4st 7lbs', Edwards also sought to suffuse the album with a clear sense of his trials. That said, though his dysfunction is streaked through whole swaths of The Holy Bible , so, too, is a palpable sense of pride in his leading of the group into such singular territory. 'I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer,' goes the album's most successful single, 'Faster'. 'I spat out Plath and Pinter.'

Among its other qualities, The Holy Bible was a brave work, unafraid to break with one longstanding rule in the rock manual. In the past, music had tended to deal with humanity's woes via what Bob Dylan called 'finger-pointing songs', angrily taking issue with the adult world and/or the establishment. This album, by contrast, bluntly contended that the Manics and their audience were complicit in just about all the horrors it described. At the end of a song titled 'Of Walking Abortion', singer James Dean Bradfield repeatedly delivered one of the album's key lines, finally rising to an outraged shriek: 'Who's responsible? You fucking are.'

can erudition actually be "terrifying", is this the crux of your pomposity, ejh? perhaps not, but pedantry can..

and as opposed to isolating one claim, why not come up with several more among the piece that make it "unreadable" .. wait it's not actually literally unreadable is it, i mean you could actually see the words on the page, couldn't you, and move your eyes from left to right along the lines? So i wonder what you mean by "readability".. does it have some non-literal use i can't grasp in the same way that "terrifying" might mean "very great" or "impressive"...

11:05 am  
Blogger ejh said...

It means "makes itself difficult to follow". Sometimes this is necessary (if you've ever tried to read an academic journal article in a subject with which one is unfamiliar, you'll know what I mean) but generally it is not. It is quite possible to be erudite, intelligent and comprehensible at the same time but to do so one must pay more attention to getting one's point across than to trying to impress people. This is rare, to be honest, in pop music writing (see for instance Marquesee on Marcus.) It's a field in which hyperbole and shouting is the norm.

I'm not sure what the Harris review is supposed to demonstrate. So there were lots of references in The Holy Bible - well, that we knew, but that's not "erudition", is it? Let alone erudition to a terrifying degree.

as opposed to isolating one claim, why not come up with several more among the piece that make it "unreadable"

Well, I isolated one claim because it seemed fair to me to do one at a time and because that claim in particular seemed to me especially tendentious. I could have gone through the piece claim-by-claim, which I've done before, but I thought I'd take a different approach this time (and besides, I'm going for a weekend in the mountains very shortly and time is limited). As for what makes it unreadable - well, I think I have laid out the case on that charge, have I not? Too many overlong sentences, too many compound phrases, too many show-offy references. It doesn't help the cause of coherence which is necessary to the project of making one's case. It does help the cause of "trying to impress the easily impressed" which perhaps goes to show why there is so much bad pop music writing and so little in that field which is good.

12:03 pm  
Blogger ejh said...

For reference (and after that I really must be going) here is the Marqusee piece on Marcus. Note especially:

Though this is the worst book that Marcus has written, even his best writings lean too heavily on the notion that in any historical moment there’s an all-embracing Zeitgeist and that it is the job of the journalist or cultural historian to nail it down in a phrase. As a pioneering rock critic on Rolling Stone and in Mystery Train, his 1975 meditation on “images of America in rock’n'roll music", Marcus undertook the ambitious but necessary task of establishing a canon for the new art-form, and did so with a suitable mix of gravitas and informality. But while his penchant for sweeping generalisations made for provocative journalism, it’s always been a poor substitute for precise analysis.

To abandon rigour and discipline in the critique of popular culture is to condescend to it. If that statement makes me sound like Dylan’s “self-ordained professor … too serious to fool", let me add that neither rigour nor discipline need stand in the way of celebration and ecstasy, as “Like a Rolling Stone” itself proves.

Not of all that applies here, but I think it's a very good point from which to discuss the persistent, deliberate over-writing which is rife in the field of pop music. For some reason it is nearly always considered necessary to make the most dramatic claim - or to use the most extreme adjective. Which in the context of Owen's piece might involve my seeing


and thinking "these terms only mean anything if they are sparsely used, rather than being standard".

Which takes us back to Orwell's essay. It's often hated by pop music writers - for reasons, I think, which are to the piece's credit.

12:24 pm  
Blogger emmy hennings said...

Anyway, Owen, sorry to have inadvertently landed you with a comments box full of grumps.

I'd offer for you to send them my way, but I'm scared. (Was that sentence grammatically correct?)

1:00 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

For some reason it is nearly always considered necessary to make the most dramatic claim - or to use the most extreme adjective.

So, essentially, what you're saying is that hyperbole is always unecessary when writing about music. That something which is dramatic and extreme (and The Holy Bible is both of these things) cannot/should not be written about using extreme language. Fine - you're welcome to this preference, and I'm within my rights to find it utterly tedious.

4:26 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Also. Orwell was writing about how political language obfuscated evil. Making an analogy between this and writing about pop music is staggeringly out of proportion. (May I say 'obfuscate' and 'staggeringly' by the way?)

4:30 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Not of all that applies here"


nevermind, as you pointed out, Help is at hand.

4:49 pm  
Blogger emmy hennings said...

In my humble opinion Orwell was a brilliant essayist and a pretty rubbish novelist, precisely because his prose style lacked imaginative zing, poetic compression or rhythmic verve. This is not to disparage the potency of his images, rather that the writing itself has a certain plodding weariness to it. Workmanlike. And no novel should strive for such praise, surely?

And yes, to echo Owen, writing about pop music is very different to writing about matters of state - you want the former to try and capture in words an energy that's always on the point of disappearing: transient, temporary, over in a matter of minutes. And maybe to explore this kind of energy (sonic, lyrical, social, political) is to try and shed light on why the state and its time (and the way this time regulates our bodies, our daily lives) is, by contrast, so thuddingly boring? (And, as a shit-stirring anarchist I can't resist adding here that the notion of revolutionary "discipline" so beloved of many old-school socialist types seems to spill over into their blinkered attitude to pop music, ie, they prefer Billy Bragg because he is like porridge in the mornings: undeniably healthy, reliably dull.)

And, finally, I don't think that the Manics would have ever claimed to be latter-day Dylans. I can hear them, particular circa Holy Bible, cackling contemptuously at such a comparison. It's interesting that the criticisms you're levelling at Owen, ejh, are precisely the kind of criticisms that were once levelled at Wire/Edwards and their lyrical style: that it was bad cutup, that it was incomprehensible, that their politics were under-digested and over-written. That it was all excess (and there was always more than a hint of patronising, pat-on-the-head class snobbery involved here, a sense that the Manics were speaking out of turn). And yet, when they started writing "sensibly", post-Edwards, they turned into tedious sentimentalists.

3:14 am  
Blogger love and terrorism said...

EJH, are you still there? Could you please look at my blog in terms of your various normal criteria, and report back to me? There's an email address attached to my profile.

6:00 am  
Blogger Dan Barrow said...

Um... couple of things:

1. I don't see what the complaints are against this post (having gotten bored halfway through reading a few) or who these gentlemen are who clearly have too much time on their hands to complain about grammar.

2. Odd coincidence:

9:37 am  
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