By Beppe Colli
Feb. 18, 2010

From time to time, once a month or so, I like to pay a visit to what is by now the only record shop left standing in my town where one can still buy music that's "beyond the charts", the shop being the last bastion of an era that one could quite optimistically define as being "in serious danger of disappearing".

It goes without saying that in this shop many surprises can be found, though not necessarily of the kind I like the most. This happened to me about a month ago: I was having a look at the most recent issues of some music magazines when I noticed that one of them featured a long, richly-illustrated piece about a smiling young lady whom I'd never seen, or heard, before. Kind as per his usual, the shop owner asked me if I'd like to listen to her most recent CD, which had been released just the previous month. I was stunned to hear music that was unadorned, decidedly amateurish in both concept and execution: her voice was shaky, and often out-of-tune, her vocal harmonies quite unsure of themselves, while the guitar was played with a "scratchy" touch with almost no skill or expression, steady tempos often going into rubato; one could almost see her tiny hand hesitate when the next chord change got a bit "risky".

I was reminded of some embarrassing moments when - it was the early 70s - a friend of mine or just somebody I happened to know said something like "I'll introduce you to my sister, she plays the guitar and sings, she's quite good". It was at this point that a girl came in, sat on the bed, and performed La canzone di Marinella (a friend and colleague recently told me that though he experienced similar things, the song that was performed was always La canzone del sole; I wonder who suffered the most).

There's a picture I saw recently that portraits a somewhat similar situation: it's really impossible to describe the astounded look on Eric Clapton's face when unexpectedly confronted with a still-unknown Joni Mitchell (whom I imagine to be already quite mature when it came to her pieces, vocals, and performing technique) while a smiling David Crosby ('cause it was him who had prepared this "surprise event") looks toward the camera.

But the surprise and wonder I felt while listening to this unknown lady were quite different indeed, since I would never have imagined that somebody who was not really so different from my friend's sister could be featured in a multi-page article in a colour magazine. (The fact of a client who was there telling me that the magazine called The Wire had recently run a favourable review of said CD only confirmed to me that my decision to let my subscription to said magazine expire, about three or four years earlier, had been the right thing to do.)

At this point, I really had to ask of what "genre" this young lady was considered to be part, at least according to such generous media: "freak-folk and psych-folk", was the answer. It's not that it came to me as totally unexpected, this type of "fake folk" label.

(But it was not over. There was another CD to listen to, featuring a singer that was said to resemble Kate Bush. While the music played I heard my lips muttering the word "Quarterflash!", so we all had a laugh.)

I have to admit that this (so-called) re-discovery of (so-called) folk music that took place in the last decade or so totally took me by surprise (even though it's obvious we're talking about a niche phenomenon where hype has a large part). It's not that it doesn't have its peculiar kind of logic, when considered as a piece of merchandise: when even (so-called) Grunge is by now part of a mythological past; when the omni-pervasiveness of "high technology" music (from the layered ProTools approach one encounters practically everywhere in rap, r&b, rock, pop, dance, and country to the pervasiveness of AutoTune) makes it easy for one to imagine a past that was as "innocent" as it was practically devoid of any "high technology" (here "natural" stands for "sincere") here it comes "the girl (or boy) with guitar". One has to notice that the element that's regarded as the most important here is not the type of (music) language one uses, but the (perceived) absence of overt technological elements. Hence, poor vocal intonation can be regarded as an item standing for "authenticity", the myth of the "idiot savant" being just one step away.

At first, my skepticism was due to my lack of faith in the possibility that nowadays an appreciation could be developed that's based on silence and introspection. 'Cause while it's obvious that silence can still be recreated by a conscious act of the will (though it's an increasingly difficult thing to do: just think for a minute of the sheer number of appliances one has to turn off), introspection is something that a (wo)man who's always connected will fatally loose, and which, once lost, will be (almost) impossible to get back. I have to admit that observing real life as it is gave me the right answer, for instance seeing an album like Pink Moon being used as a "poetry in motion" kind of background to various activities (the fact of this album's "monotony" being today vastly preferred to Bryter Layter's multi-style polychromy should be an alert sign about today's problems when it comes to current perception of music languages).

Those two base items of my argument - simplicity, and the girl (boy) with guitar - have a curious consequence: that the current definition of "folk" increasingly coincides with "white-western of some kind". In fact, it has seldom happened to me in the course of the last decade to see the word "folk" being associated with, say, popular music from Mali (maybe this is filed under "ethnic"?); or gamelan (maybe filed under "Far Eastern"?); or funk (for this writer, a good example of "traditional folk" today are the rhythm guitar parts played by Carlos Alomar on many albums by David Bowie, songs such as Fame, Stay and Fashion being just three instances coming to my mind). There's nothing wrong with that, of course, all definitions being (in a precise sense) "artificial", i.e., born out of convention. Let's not forget it, though.

I'll leave the money stuff in the background. Sure it's strange to see "forgotten giants" such as Karen Dalton and Vashti Bunyan come to the foreground. It goes without saying that some listeners take great joy when discovering "the true value" of a name that for a long time went underappreciated (by our fathers, it was once said; now by our grandfathers, maybe?). I also understand that making a forgotten name popular can work wonders for a magazine that prizes being considered as a trendsetter, and which would not benefit at all from talking in depth about a "living legend" such as Bob Dylan. I also know that the rights to re-release albums by forgotten names are not as expensive as those released by famous names. What I regard as absurd is this: Since most young people, by necessity, know practically nothing about the past, the "new canon" will see people like Karen Dalton and Vashti Bunyan placed above Donovan, Tim Buckley, John Martyn, Bert Jansch, Richard Thompson, and Joni Mitchell, not to mention Bob Dylan's whole catalogue. While just listening to John Wesley Harding, maybe starting with the apologue titled The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest ("My loss will be your gain" - I'm quoting from memory) will be enough for one to reacquaint the proper sense of proportions. (This has already happened in the past, a good example being the lack of understanding of the roots of 60s American garage.)

A little anecdote that will help our little story go forward. It's the early 70s, and the music a guy I knew really liked (we were about the same age) was music played by "big impact guitar groups" such as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Ten Years After, and Grand Funk Railroad. Every time he saw new LPs in the racks by artists and groups such as Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Neil Young, David Crosby, Cat Stevens, and Joni Mitchell, he asked what kind of music these people played. The answer he always got was that these people all played "folk". (There was also semi-folk, for instance, Jethro Tull.) It goes without saying that the above definition, which was always really considered as just half-serious, didn't possess any real defining properties. It was just useful from a pragmatic point of view: it told him that, his preferences about music being well-known to us, that it was highly unlikely that he'd like those artists and groups. In fact, they were... "folk".

It's quite interesting to note that, in parallel with those very important social changes we all know about, the role played by critics has moved from "describing something" to "helping consumers" (which is not the same as the theory that's at the basis of Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide). It has to be stressed that the question number one for today's "consumer" is no longer "what is this?", but "will I like it?". To simplify a bit, the question now doesn't deal at all with any issues about truth. Should readers be uncomfortable with the word "truth" we can substitute the expression "adequate description" of an object, which for our present discussion will do.

The thing that looks weird to me is that nowadays those who write (in our present discussion, about music) appear as having adopted consumer's questions as their own. Like, say, a consumer plus a pen. This is usually considered as being the outcome from commercial requirements and pressures, which has always looked as a bit too simple to me (the logical consequence being that, should these "external" pressure cease, things would change - a lot). The concept of an "adequate description" of an object doesn't imply, of course, that all judgments about something - for instance, Never Mind The Bollocks... by Sex Pistols - have by necessity be the same. Just that those who regard the actual method of recording and producing that's embedded in that record as a luminous example of (so-called) " punk aesthetic" don't appear as being able to properly understand what's inside that record. Hence, they should abandon this line of work.

The issue, it's easy to see, is a serious one. It has been totally evaded by substituting the description of one's reactions to an object to the description of said object. And since it goes without saying that there are as many opinions as there are subjects... It has to be noticed, though, that those who act like this, even in good faith, are just damaging the ground on where they stand.

There's more: That the changing of critical judgment into the raw terms of "I like it/I don't like it" that's so typical of all "personal opinions" implies a lack of understanding of the way critical criteria really work. We never arrived "naked" at the moment of judgment. Instead, we have a theoretical framework that makes it possible for us to understand the way artists work. Which is a fallible procedure, of course, but where a mistake is due to our insufficient information, which is quite different from saying "I changed my mind". It has to be stressed that the quality of interpretation is based on the quality of the critical framework, not on the sheer number of tracks one has listened to. Were the opposite being true, in the present age of the iPod in shuffle mode, we could simply decide about competence issues by counting the number of tracks one "owns".

In truth, every time we talk about "folk" (in the precise, limited sense we are referring to here) we talk about a work by a "(song)writer". And I think that no definition is as useful as the one (by somebody whose name unfortunately totally escapes me) used to describe the music of Neil Young: "studied primitivism". And it goes without saying that when we deal with this kind of music - the work of a "(song)writer" - we have to formulate an "adequate description".

Richard Thompson is an artist whose name is quite well-known, thanks to the albums he recorded as a member of the group Fairport Convention, and to those he shared with his then-wife Linda, and also as a solo artists. Thompson's music, the topics of his songs, his vocal style, his approach on the guitar, his relationship with music of other places and times, be it classical or non-western, especially from North Africa, his right-hand fingering approach, his (non) use of vibrato which has its antecedents in popular instruments such as the fiddle and the bagpipes, his being aware of rock and blues while at the same time deciding to avoid them as a model... All this, and more, has already been said, studied, analyzed. Also the barely-there presence of the flavour Hank Marvin's Stratocaster (does anybody remember The Shadows?), an antecedent that is decidedly quite distant from... "folk"!

But if we accept that the abovementioned features (which I've learned about thanks to many articles from music magazines, the most important for me being those written by Bill Flanagan for Musician and Joe Gore for Guitar Player) "adequately describe" the object "Richard Thompson" we accept that it's quite absurd to have him placed alongside, say, Nick Drake or John Martyn. While we could decide to have an artist such as Nico, currently filed under "maladjusted and weirdos of all sorts", placed in the "folk" drawer.

It's now time for a brief chat. I strongly believe that there's a large, demonstrable, difference between "an adequate description of an object" and an enunciation about somebody's opinion about an object. And I strongly belief this to be true. And I think a lot of damage came from those who, quite often due to their bad understanding of the whole matter, joined the ranks of those for whom "every knowledge is just opinion".

But, even accepting the proposition that there's no difference between "knowledge" and "opinion" (something I don't believe at all), I invite readers to notice that, far from being the end of the argument, this point signals the start of a different issue: what are the real, foreseeable, consequence descending from these two beliefs? Which doesn't mean that I'm arguing that we should decide to believe something that we know is false for fear of the consequences. It's just that those who argue in favour of "relativism" by accusing those who state there's a big difference between "knowledge" and "opinion" of wanting to introduce a totalitarian regime don't see that's it's exactly their failure to take the foreseeable consequences of a given behaviour into account that makes an "absolute" of what they see as only being "relative".

This should become a bit more clear if we look at an assertion of the "if... then..." kind. Let's start by saying that, if we don't have a criterion of truth, and so any assertion is considered as being just an opinion beyond any possibility of ever determining its degree of truth content, it's quite possible that should somebody who possesses the material means to create and spread information get in a position of power, he will be able to place him/herself beyond any criticism, since quality independent information is a resource which costs money and which the majority of people don't appear to be willing to spend their time and money to get, especially if one considers all "information" as "opinion", and some "opinions" are easily at their disposal, for free.

So we could say this: IF you want to avoid a situation where those in power will find it easy to silence "different opinions" by spreading opinions that are not afraid of "facts" (because "facts" as quoted by others are just "their opinions"), THEN be careful about being in favour of beliefs that state that there is nothing as facts, all facts being no more than subjective opinions. You could find yourself in a cul-de-sac!

Readers are invited to think about this - quite paradoxical - sense of the expression called "par condicio": Anybody can say what s/he likes.

And so this is the (sad) closing to this piece.

As I've already said above in my for instance, most of what I know about Richard Thompson I've read in some (quality) magazine. Namely, US magazines Musician and Guitar Player, of which I was a subscriber for a very long time, spending a considerable amount of money (US being quite far from where I live) in advance ('cause that's the way subscriptions work). It goes without saying that had Flanagan and Gore been the kind of people who write things such as "a flaming, desperate-sounding guitar" I world never have spent any money to buy those opinions. What I wanted in exchange for my money was "an adequate description" of an object. Obviously, in so differently from "personal opinions", descriptions are measurable and so, computable. This, I believe, is the way one decides what magazine one will read: from the amount of truth it prints. (I've never understood those who buy magazines that "talk about those names I find to be interesting to me": what if they print bullshit?).

This is not a good moment for the press. Between decreasing advertising and the diminishing disposition on the part of readers to pay a sum of money, however minimal, in order to read what they think the can have for free elsewhere, newspapers and magazines from all over the world are staring into the abyss. Today the most important question appears to be whether introducing a pay-wall to the Web content is really feasible.

I know where I stand: I've been a subscriber to Web weekly Rock's Backpages starting from day one (a long time ago); for many years I was a subscriber to US Web-only daily newspaper Salon; I currently read dailies such as The Guardian and The New York Times, and I'm ready to pay to read them online.

In a nutshell, this looks like the main point today: if the newspapers that will lose more money and prestige will be the ones that will put most of their content behind a pay-wall (this appears to be exactly what the Editor of The Guardian thinks; here's a link to the text of a recent conference about this issue: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/jan/25/cudlipp-lecture-alan-rusbridger); or if the newspapers which will implement a (flexible) pay-wall will have "the best of both worlds" (which is what the bosses at The New York Times think; this link leads to an instructive read, readers' opinions included: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/26/how-to-make-readers-pay-happily/?hp).

The problem is that many readers, including those from the readership of quality press, increasingly appear to be indifferent about the difference between "facts" and "opinions". They are also becoming increasingly unable to see that when media talk about facts they are not equipped to talk about, be it for lack of competence or lack of proper workforce and financial means, these facts become just... opinions, even if presented (and perceived) as facts. They also appear to be blind to the fact that lack of readers' financial support will make it possible to those who have financial means to "create" information.

This is the big question mark that's in front of us. Our present task being choosing the right solution with every micro-decision (and micro-payment) we take.

Beppe Colli 2010

CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 18, 2010