How are beer and music boring, or rather, “boring?” There’s been a discussion online over what makes something both artistically significant and boring. Now, months too late, I’m joining the fray.
Instead of rehashing the entire saga, I’ll point to the two pieces that inspired this post. First, there was Dan Kois’ “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables” where the author had the gull to suggest that the critical darlings of film are actually rather slow, boring even. Other film critics did not agree. Then, his good buddy, Steven Hyden, over at AV Club said basically the same thing about music. I suspect the AV Club piece will garner less vitriol than the film piece. Still, both critiques are spot-on. The most critically-acclaimed film and music can be a bit tedious.
Hyden differentiates the boringness of film and music. In music criticism, he writes, “…we have no problem classifying art as boring.” Eventually, he differentiates the boring from the “boring.” Hyden writes:
Any kind of music can be boring depending on the listener. No song is inherently not-boring—not even CCR’s “Ramble Tamble”—because boring is obviously based on subjective perception. This makes boring music hard to pin down. In a sense, all music is boring. The same, however, can’t be said about “boring” music. “Boring” is its own genre. It is a code word that instantly conjures artists with clearly definable attributes. “Boring” music is slow to mid-tempo, mellow, melodic, pretty in a melancholy way, catchy, poppy, and rooted in traditional forms. It is popular (or popular-ish). It is tasteful, well-played, and meticulously produced. (Or it might sound like it was recorded in somebody’s bedroom under the influence of weed and Sega Genesis.) It is “easy to like”—or more specifically, “easy for white people to like” (“white people” being a sub-group of white people singled out by other white people). It is critically acclaimed (perhaps the most critically acclaimed music there is), and yet music critics relish taking “boring” musical artists down a peg more than any other kind of artist.
He continues by naming BICTBAP favorites Fleet Foxes, The National, ST. Vincent, among others whom he considers to be “boring.” I can’t really argue with that assessment. I’m white people. I like that music.
Then, I consider whether or not I still like that music. Sure, it’s fine, but I haven’t listened to the last National album since well over a year ago and that’s because I rode in a car playing it on the way to seeing them in St. Louis. Hyden argues that “boring” is not necessarily bad. I’d argue that it’s not necessarily good either. “Boring” has the same effect as boring. The only difference is that we can’t figure out how to dislike some art when it’s “boring” until one day, it just occurs to us. With boring art or music, we know right away.
So, I considered what the effects of “boring” music on my musical tastes are. Well, I think not too long ago, I proclaimed (more like hinted) that the Fleet Foxes album, Helplessness Blues was the album of the year. I did the same for Bon Iver. While I still think these are very good records (I am still a white guy), they have long since been passed by more-immediate-but-just-as-deftly-performed albums by Wild Flag and Stephen Malkmus. Those last two records contain so much more urgency and soul (more on this tomorrow).
“Boring” music may impress me at first, but it doesn’t stay with me for long. I get, well, bored after a while and need something to properly get me to move my feet. Records by Cults, Tune-Yards, and Eleanor Friedberger are not boring. I get up and dance with my three-year-old when these records play. Bon Iver? not so much.
And since this is a music and beer blog, I considered the “boring”-ness of craft beer, because it’s out there. I’ll refrain from naming breweries as I want to support all craft breweries and recognize that they have a certain clientele that enjoy “boring” beer. I will also brace myself for the inevitable backlash from beer critics who, like their counterparts in film and music criticism, will be outraged* at the thought that traditional styles such as British pale ales, ESB’s, American wheat ales, or amber ales could possibly be “boring.” Well, they kinda are. I recognize that a well-made beer in any style can be enjoyable, but “boring” beer just doesn’t do it for me.
To be clear, a “boring” beer isn’t necessarily bad. The run of the mill pale ale at your local brewery is probably a fine brew, but sometimes we want more than fine. Typically, but not always, “boring” beers are your basic styles with little variation in traditional ingredients. They are true to customary recipes and are often executed well. However, they’re just “boring.” I don’t often reach for “boring.” I’ve had it and now I want something else.
Beers that push the limits are beers that won’t qualify as “boring.” Now, that doesn’t mean all these beers have to be imperial or extreme to be considered not “boring.” Non-“boring” beers challenge the palate and wow the drinker with each sip. These beers will make you excited to be a craft beer convert. These beers inspire blog posts and cause one to try their hand at homebrewing. No “boring” beer for me, thankyouverymuch.
What’s interesting to me, is that in both the case of “boring” music and “boring” beer, they both appeal to middle-aged, white guy (says the middle-aged white guy). We like our Boulevard Wheat and our Wilco. We watch baseball and may even be caught with a baseball cap on now and again. We too are “boring.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. However, sometimes (more often for some than others), we need to break free of “boring.” Let’s have a La Folie, listen to some Japandroids, and squeeze into a pair of jeans that fit you for christ’s sake.
As you may have noticed “boring” begins to take on a value for me, making it seem more like the other boring. I cannot lie. “Boring” music and beer… well… bores me. Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of it. I just find “boring” to be boring at some point. There may be moments when “boring” is fine, but I prefer to look for anything but “boring.”
What are your thoughts on “boring?” Am I right on or way off base? Are there good examples out there of “boring?” Is this blog becoming “boring?” As usual, leave your thoughts and/or self-righteous indignation in the comments below.
*Outraged might be a bit too strong. Mildly annoyed? LOL? This blog’s title is too long.
Being a critic is a hard gig. People have a hard time with a little criticism. When you don’t see things through rose-colored lenses, you’re a Debby Downer or a glass-half-empty or whatever. The trouble is that we don’t live in a black and white world where things are simply good or bad. There’s a ton of gray in between that needs to be acknowledged. Of course, if you’re the one who does the acknowledging, you’re a wet blanket, stick in the mud…You get the picture.
Life and art are not all puppies, unicorns, and rainbows. Critique is a part of experience. Just because we try to ignore the blemishes doesn’t mean they’re not there. Ignoring the imperfect makes it tough on those of us who can’t ignore it. We are ostracized for not seeing double rainbows and made to feel guilty for ruining everyone else’s buzz. However, what critics are doing is trying to make sense of an insane world and hopefully connect with those who feel the same.
I’m not here to piss on your parade. I just like to discuss the pros and cons of food, drink, locations, people, art, etc. It’s all beautiful in its imperfections. I thrive on this. Imperfection is real, concrete, authentic. Let me have my reality.
From where is this coming?
I used to write a blog called living in misery. You may have heard of it. The name came from a pun I created in fifth grade to remember my states and capitals. It has little to do with my feelings for Missouri and, specifically Columbia, but there are connections. I won’t lie. It was difficult moving here and when I complained, no one would allow me to express my…well…misery. All I wanted to do was work through these experiences in order to make some sense of it. Could it have hurt my friends and acquaintances to wallow a bit with me, to not make me feel like such an outsider? The answer you’re looking for is “no.” Join me in my sorrow and I’ll have your back when it’s your turn.
The crazy part is that I often try balance the positive with the negative. A brewer might drive me crazy when he plasters Comic Sans all over his labels, but I will still proclaim his beers to be among the best in all of craft beer. An album may have a terrible closing track, but the rest of it could still be stellar. Our town has this great documentary film festival, but sometimes it’s a little overcrowded or it tries too hard to come off as apolitical. I love all of these things and just want parts of them to be better. Unfortunately, my detractors only see the negatives. They wonder why I hate that beer, won’t listen to the album, and refuse to attend the film festival. It’s as if they can’t imagine someone liking something without thinking that it’s perfect.
What’s really difficult to deal with is when I am in agreement that something is great or good, but when I mention that one chink in the armor, I’m suddenly seen as a traitor. Take the town in which I live. Columbia is your typical midwestern college town, a bastion of liberalism tucked away amongst a sea of conservatism. However, it’s got issues. There’s uncontrolled suburban sprawl; city government just made a turn for the conservative; it’s rather segregated, etc. These things are not unique to Columbia, but whenever I acknowledge COMO’s shortcomings, people are all over me. I get the “It’s a great place to raise kids” when the schools are broke and lack of diversity is stifling. Upon pointing this out, I am automatically thrown in the same pot as Nazis, pedophiles, and Jayhawks. It’s not like I don’t like some things about COMO; it’s just that I don’t think it’s Nirvana and actually prefer larger, more diverse cities. The fact that I disagree doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It just means that we have different opinions and values. It’s OK.
The point is that just because I see more than puppies, unicorns, and rainbows (if I see them at all), doesn’t mean that your [favorite thing] is bad or has no value. Conversely, just because I don’t agree 100% with your assessment doesn’t mean that my critique has no value either.
The reason I blog is to be a part of a conversation. You can join or not, but realize that I won’t always love the same things you do. And just because I critique doesn’t mean I think it’s all bad.
Now that that’s out in the open, it’s time to get back to some bloggin’. There is a record review in my near future (among many that I’ve somehow skipped), but I’ll conclude with some thoughts on two shows about which I have mixed feelings.
Last week, I saw The National in STL. Despite proclaiming their album among the year’s best months ago, I sort of expected this show to be boring. While the material is strong, the images conjured of a live show were not promising. I was wrong about this as The National put on a solid show, playing all the songs we wanted to hear. While it was good, it was not great. I was probably in the minority on this opinion, but I stand by it. They’re not a really excitable band and they don’t play the most excitable music. In fact, The National are a bit brooding. They’re an excellent band, but they don’t put on a punk rock show. In fact, it seems the most excitement happened as frontman Matt Berninger walked out into the crowd. It was a bit premeditated, but it certainly did the trick for most in the audience. Still, it was a nice show.
Just last night, I decided to check out the Mountain Goats at the urging of friends. Let me just say that I get why people love the Mountain Goats. John Darnielle is an engaging, emotive singer/songwriter. People knew his songs by heart and he certainly enjoyed performing for his audience. That said, it was a little too earnest for my taste. There’s a reason I don’t attend singer/songwriter shows or play the shit out of the Indigo Girls. Maybe I missed something, but the Mountain Goats are not what I thought they would be.
OK. That felt better. Tear me up in the comments.
1I use this term lightly, but it seems to be the most accurate term to use when describing what I do with blogs.
2I use this term even more loosely as this blog is certainly not a “gig” in any way. It’s a hobby and should be treated as such. It has no influence or bearing on your experiences.
3I recognize that I too struggle with the criticism, but I look at this more as a way to stand up for myself. I catch a lot of shit for the blogs I write and most of it is never published in the comments. I typically get bombarded on Facebook or in-person. I don’t deny your right to criticize; I’m just refuting your claims.
4There are many interesting metaphors for being critical/negative.
5Although, I suppose art could be.
6This is similar to the idea that many of us prefer sad songs because they comfort us in letting us know that we’re not the only people who feel that way.
7I prefer using “piss” over “rain” in this analogy. It’s more potent. Rain feels passive.
8Most of you followed me from that old blog to this one. So, you don’t need to respond to this point.
9This is debatable in that it’s relative. COMO is as liberal as possible in middle Missouri. It’s not San Francisco liberal. Hell, it’s not Orange County liberal.
10This is an interesting point. Many COMO-lovers will admit this but claim rich diversity in the same breath. Sorry. If your community is segregated, diversity is not your strong-suit.
11There isn’t much difference between these three in COMO. In fact, the latter might be the least desirable.
12I will say that the show gave me a reason to revisit The National’s entire catalog, one I’ve admittedly neglected for the most part.
13I forgot to mention that Owen Pallett opened and did not disappoint. He’s like a good, stripped-down version of Andrew Bird.
I’m originally from Ohio. Whenever there’s a reference to the Buckeye State, I smile. So, when I heard The National’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio” (from the just released High Violet) I couldn’t keep the corners of my mouth from rising a bit.
I realize for most, Ohio is just another, depressing, fly-over, Midwestern state. While there’s truth to that, that’s not the whole story. The part of Ohio from which I come was pretty rural, pretty rundown. Then, Honda came and the industrial jobs popped up everywhere. There was steady growth. Folks built new homes and bought bigger cars. The second half of my childhood saw a boom in Ohio’s economy, standard of living. Superficial and consumptive? Sure, but it was the kind of wealth people from that part of Ohio rarely enjoyed.
And as the rest of the economy has gone, so has Ohio. In fact, Ohio may be worse off than most states. It’s in really bad shape and it doesn’t help that so many people racked up loads of debt to build those new homes and buy those bigger cars. It’s pretty depressing these days.
The most depressing part for me is that I don’t really have a piece of Ohio anymore. Yes, I have family and friends there, but that’s still just a Facebook connection or familial tie or both. Ohio’s not part of my being the way it used to be. Ohio’s tattooed on my arm, but she doesn’t remember me.
Anyway, Matt Berninger of The National gets that sentiment. There’s something to be said for the laments of white guys who are suddenly smacked in the face with the responsibility of a family and mortgage as the rest of the world crumbles around them. It’s a privileged life, but one is not allowed to feel sorry for one’s self when the American dream is being realized.
Then, I think about Ohio. These things go in cycles. Will things always be this hopeless/full? That kind of stress weighs on me. Apparently, it weighs on Berninger as well.
And this is why I appreciate The National. Everything they do is weighty. They feel the pressures I do. They drink to forget…or to remember. I can’t figure out which.
There’s the low grumble of a Cohen poetic. Strings carry; grooves ground. There’s space in their songs, but it fills arenas with its echoes. There’s the urgency of the moment. There’s experience. There’s something real going on here.
I won’t bore you with my white-guy-in-his-mid-thirties bullshit anymore. I won’t bother with footnotes. The potential for them in this post is eternal. I’ll just leave you with the fact that The National make good, heady music. Here’s a record you should buy. Let it marinade for moment. As it sinks in, remember or try to forget. High Violet is the kind of record in which one can get lost or find one’s own Ohio. I can’t figure out which.