I miss big ideas. I lament their loss, in fact. I miss the sweeping gestures once made that attempted to understand oneself, a body of people, humanity as a whole, the very world entire. I was not around for these grand ideas (or, at least not in the intellectual capacity I possess now), yet I feel moved to write in elegiac prose as if I mourn the loss of something very dear. Before falling into a vast pit of hyperbole, I will make clear exactly what I mean by a ‘big idea’ through examples. Hegel’s dialectic is a big idea; Marx’s proletariat is a big idea; Freud’s archive is a big idea; Spivak’s postcolonial readings of Victorian texts are a big idea; these are attempts to explain the metanarrative of the human condition, the human struggle, the way in which the human acts and thinks and why. I do not necessarily lament the passing of the ideas themselves—any good close reading of these ideas reveals there many contradictions and faults—but rather I miss the attempt implied by these ideas. It seems to me that in our great postmodern idiom we have narrowed ourselves into a tautological spiral of refining and redefining and infinitely categorizing these ideas into sub-ideas and sub-sub-ideas. It is a phenomenon that is plaguing the music community as well, and this is what I lament the most.
I am not, nor am I attempting to, bringing anything new to the discussion at this point. Anyone who has perused our very own forum community will identify with what I am about to say. We nitpick. We squabble over whether something is hardcore or post-hardcore, dubstep or garage, etcetera, etcetera. This in and of itself is not an issue; people argue because it is in our nature, as J.M. Coetzee is so keen to point out in his novels, particularly the haunting Waiting For the Barbarians (if you haven’t read it, you should), human relations are built on struggle of power. A “Test Your Might” of my knowledge against the Other’s (there’s a big idea). The problem occurs when the music industry, the artists themselves, mimic the nitpicking their fan base is so eager to perform. The loss of ‘big ideas’ in music is the result.
I do not wish to come off as a doomsayer with no knowledge of the past, ringing the death knell of music. That is a tired and, frankly, stupid argument. Anyone with a mild interest in history will realize that one set of thinkers in any culture medium will ultimately scoff at something “newer” as the “death of this or that.” I recently completed a history paper on the early history of jazz as a function of American cultural ideology. The Classicists, particularly those in the magazine Etude circa 1934-5, dismissed jazz as an inferior musical style because, well, it was not classical. Jazz, as most of you should know, became one of the most intellectually stimulating theaters of music ever created—in fact this is where I wish to start with my ‘big ideas’ dialogue. The year 1959: the most important year for jazz.
Important because it had something to say, it had those ‘big ideas’ spouting from every pore. Charles Mingus’ seminal hard bop record Mingus Ah Um? Check. Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking free jazz album The Shape of Jazz to Come? Check. There was also a little album by the name of Kind of Blue by a young upstart named Miles Davis. Check and check. The point of this grocery list is not to argue that 1959 was the greatest year in music and ‘why oh why are we not replicating these guys?’ The point is to show that there was a time when big ideas were a more common place in music. Of course there was no time in history that was nothing but pure genius flowing left and right, and 1959 was no exception. But I look at our current music and I see a lack of desire to break out from anything other then this masturbatory, tautological encircling of genre tags that threatens to crush originality into oblivion.
Part of the problem is that term ‘originality’ and I think the root of that problem has more to do with the word ‘value.’ Without going too greatly into my own personal feelings, Andy Warhol screwed art with those damn cans. We are no longer allowed to say one piece of art has value over another. This is, for the lack of a better word, utter shit. Listening to the Berlin Philharmonic playing Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations has more value than “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black Eyed Peas. That may seem like a ridiculous extreme but some people would argue that there is no dichotomy of value between this two pieces; that it is all about experience. Which I go along with to an extent—and this is not an elitist diatribe against “pop” music, for some pop music itself has varying levels of ‘value’. It is subjective, yes, and I would argue that Robyn has more value than Lady Gaga who has more value than the Black Eyed Peas, and so on and so forth. This is ultimately where discussion of music should go, not to petty squabbling over genre tags, but defending your opinion of worth of an artist.
But to return to ‘originality’, which I feel comfortable now in suggesting it to be synonymous, for my purposes, with ‘big ideas’. For originality, I think, is aptly defined by T.S. Eliot in Tradition and the Individual Talent when he argues that an artist is only original when he ([sic] or she) is aware of what has come before them, absorbs it, and is able to portray it with a fresh voice. Recent music trends have led people to either dismiss originality as “unnecessary” in this day and age, or to cue that ever hovering “death knell” (which is always conveniently close by my arguments). I believe both to be misguided, and I point (I suppose narcissistically) to my own review of Destroyer’s recent release Kaputt. Whether you (yes you!) actually like the record is not my concern, but rather it is my argument that Destroyer has a singular voice that I wish to extract for the purposes of this little rant. Essentially I see Kaputt as a singular record, that is to say, I would not mistake it for anybody else, nor could I see anybody else putting it out. Yes, there are heavy cues from the past, especially the 80s, but the voice of the album (not the physical voice, though that is surely apart of it) gives it the singularity, the ‘big idea’ the originality.
This is the same ‘big idea’ that I encountered with Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz last year. These are albums that are trying to understand something. In the face of the Rebecca Black’s in this world, that means a lot. Whether you actually like these albums or not, once again, is not the most important aspect. It is identifying that these ideas hark back to the days of ‘big ideas,’ where artists attempted to take what came before them and mold it into something expressively new. Something that tried to capture an idea beyond simply whether or not people will ‘like my album.’
But Keelan, did you not start by lamenting the loss of the ‘big idea’? And are you not ending by praising the existence of albums that rectify the concept of the ‘big idea’? Yes; but I am only halfway there. For these things and more, are still to come.