Between the Rock of Snark and the Hard Place of Crap: Two Meditations On Negativity In Music



Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.

1. I saw The Wall this weekend for the first time, at the Wildey Theater in Edwardsville. I've always been a fairweather Pink Floyd fan, but I know enough to not expect The Wall to be an overly happy flick. Still, I did not anticipate how dark it would be, or how uncomfortable I'd feel by the cartoon character with balls for a chin, or how everybody in the audience walked out of the theater like they'd just seen a version of Schindler's List without Kevin Costner's character.

I tend to think often about the inherent motivations of music, and The Wall bummed me out both viscerally and conceptually. Some of my favorite music deals with dysphoric themes. Radiohead gets pretty glib, but the band rarely settles on an "everything sucks" conclusion like Floyd sometimes does. Other music which seems negative on its surface - metal, hardcore, noise - is frequently a positive channeling of aggression or frustration.

See also: Taylor Swift Is Saving America Taylor Swift Is Destroying America

2. Every week, RFT has a section titled "Critic's Picks" where the writers recommend shows happening in St. Louis this week. I often contribute to this section, which by default makes me critical. Granted, the whole point of the picks is to spotlight the best of the week, so it is very rare that it is a platform for anything other than praise - although I did bash on Stone Temple Pilots in the section about a year before I realized that "Interstate Love Song" is awesome.

I struggle with my own negativity as a fan and critic of music. The first writing about music that I really dug was in the Internet's infancy, when Buddyhead and pre-branding-mechanism Pitchfork made snark seem revolutionary - at least to high school-era me. I worry about how this infiltrates my own attitudes, as I tend to default to pessimism if I don't watch myself. The column title Better Living Through Music is intended as a way to keep myself in check.

1. (continued) Surprisingly enough, RFT is not exactly a cash cow. My most consistent source of employment is through teaching guitar lessons. I find it uplifting, getting people excited about music at the ground level. As an interesting subplot, I hear a lot of songs I would otherwise never have listened to or, at best, would have tuned out. Many of my students are young girls, and about half of them were inspired to play by Taylor Swift.

Anything that gets kids wanting to play music (Guitar Hero, School Of Rock, the "Zack Attack" episode of Saved By The Bell) is a good thing, and Taylor Swift is no exception. But I am sometimes disturbed by her lyrics, as sparkly and Walmart approved as they are. She often writes from the perspective of poor-old-me, the one who interrupts weddings because she knows she's better for the guy and would forever hold her peace otherwise. A few months ago, two different RFT Music writers wrote contrasting articles, one entitled "Taylor Swift Is Saving America" and another called "Taylor Swift Is Destroying America." The truth is, she's doing both. For now, in my life, she's mostly saving. Guitar has so often been a boy's game, and her direct influence has helped stir that up in my little corner of Earth. But I could see the opposite happening in the future if these impressionable girls are embedded with Swift's homewrecking attitude.

To me, Taylor Swift is a reminder that negativity can hide where you least expect it. Pink Floyd may inspire people to get high and mope, but I think that's superior to breaking the bonds of holy matrimony because of a deep set disrespect of other people's relationships. Don't get me started on Katy Perry.

2. (continued) Negativity is an intellectual reaction. If you think about a song/album/band hard enough, you can find something to complain about. I could easily pick apart even my favorite songs. What's up with the lame beer references in "Say It Ain't So" by Weezer, why does Rivers say "flip on the tele" like a Brit, and how come that background guitar in the verses sounds like reggae? Yet, if I have the option of hearing "Say It Ain't So" over pretty much doing anything else, I usually will leap at the opportunity.

It can be difficult sometimes to not listen with a fine-toothed comb. Anybody who loves music has to listen critically if only to find the jewels among the muck. Too often, I have my guard up when hearing a song, and I know I am not alone in this practice. I'm surprised what I end up liking when I open myself. One such band is the Hold Steady, whose songs are made by stacking musical elements that I usually see as deal-breakers (big dumb rock guitars, spoken word lyrics, gospel piano). But it just takes one lyric, one riff, to hit you right, and no amount of ink on the nitpicking checklist can change the feeling.

It's fitting that, among the many life-affirming hooks in the Hold Steady's catalog is this nugget: "We gotta stay positive."

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