Rock v. Simpson 

Two Scene editors—one schooled, one not—exchange e-mails about Ashlee Simpson and her upcoming show at the Ryman

Two Scene editors—one schooled, one not—exchange e-mails about Ashlee Simpson and her upcoming show at the Ryman

Liz Garrigan (editor): We were all standing around Friday, and I was saying we need to do something on Ashlee Simpson's upcoming show at the Ryman when John suggested I write it as an editorial (outrage, that is). You have any thoughts on this? Good idea? Bad idea?

Bill Friskics-Warren (music editor): I definitely think we should do something, Liz, but I don't consider the Simpson thing an outrage at all, just as I don't care if producers cut-and-paste records in the studio without the "artist" being present (or ever showing up). The belief that the "authenticity" of a musical performance depends upon it being "real"—that is, "actually" performed by the person in the spotlight—is, I think, a case of rockism. That is, a privileging of the old model of the solitary, "for the ages" artist (usually a guy) with a guitar pouring out the "authentic" (that word again) stirrings in his heart over the "disposable, fabricated" pop star lip-synching on MTV (as if Springsteen and Dylan aren't social constructs in their own right). I'm not saying that I dig Britney more than Bob, yet at least since the disco and rap eras, there's been a shift in how pop music is created, and in how it can mean. Most heartland Luddites—"There'll never again be anybody like Dylan and the Stones, man"—have ignored this shift: hence the hegemony of oldies radio in its myriad forms. Even worse, those who cling to outdated canons of authenticity typically use them to bludgeon the likes of women (disposable pop stars, natch), gays (disposable party people) and rappers (who of course don't sing and therefore can't be artists). This doesn't mean, as Kelefa Sanneh wrote in the Oct. 31 issue of The New York Times Arts & Leisure Section, that "We should stop arguing about Ms. Simpson, or even that we should stop sharing the 60-second clip that may just be this year's best music video. But it does mean we should stop taking for granted that music isn't as good as it used to be, and it means we should stop being shocked that the rock rules of the '70s are no longer the law of the land. No doubt our current obsessions and comparisons will come to seem hopelessly blinkered as popular music mutates some more—listeners and critics alike can't do much more than struggle to keep up. But let's stop trying to hammer young stars into old categories. We have lots of new music to choose from—we deserve some new prejudices, too."

An alternative to rockism would be a perspective that looks at the social context in which a performance takes place and the meaning that is created through the public's reception of it (as opposed to privileging the "artist's" intensions and message). Thus Sanneh's comment about the clip of Simpson "messing up" on SNL being a candidate for music video of the year.

I'm sorry that the above is such a ramble, and I hope it doesn't sound like I'm jumping on you. (I've been plenty rockist before, and still consider myself in recovery where the attitudes it embraces are concerned), but I think we'd look hopelessly out of touch if we attacked a straw dog like Simpson.

Best, Bill

Garrigan: Thanks, Bill. I'll cop to not understanding much of this but will defer to your judgment nonetheless.

Friskics-Warren: Yeah, sorry for dumping so much stuff on you, Liz. If you get a chance, though, check out Sanneh's piece from the 10-31 issue of Arts & Leisure. He doesn't say anything new, but it's a strong encapsulation of what's at stake with rockism. It ran in the wake of Simpson's appearance on SNL and uses that as its lede. And perhaps the fact that it'll be three months old by the time Simpson comes to town suggests that we'd be a little late to the party as well.

Garrigan: Thinking more, and feel free to ignore this, as I know you're busy: it's not even the lip-synching or some relative view of her as an artist that makes me wanna puke to think about her onstage at the Ryman. She's just talentless and, worse, she's a marketing product who's only had this shot because she's someone's sister.

I don't know. I'm clearly a pedestrian mind on musical subjects, especially compared to you, but I just can't let go of my point of view on this. Going now to read the Sanneh piece....

Friskics-Warren: The Ryman question turns on the question of "worthiness," "talent" and "authenticity," Liz, which still falls within the sphere on rockism and how the old rules might involve a prejudice about how things are allowed to mean in some quarters. Loads of country stars that come out of the hit mill here are no different, right down to the nepotism/family motif. What's more, I'm playing Simpson's album right now, and while it doesn't thrill me, it's a solidly built modern pop album. Some of the singles sound little different from what's on country radio, (i.e., Shania, Faith and the other glamour gals).

I guess it's the moralism inherent in an argument that a singer wouldn't be worthy of performing on a particular stage that's the stumbling block for me. It's almost, well, un-American.

Garrigan: That sort of populist argument makes the most sense to me.

Friskics-Warren: Yeah, me too, and that impulse is sort of what drives rockist debate. Don't hit me, but now that I've listened again to most of Simpson's CD, I'd say there are three or four swell tracks on it. Fabricated as hell, but I'd likely dig them even more if they were synched to an episode of Gilmore Girls or Joan of Arcadia.

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