Thursday, July 15, 2010

What a take-down

If you're not a follower of and haven't already read the vicious scathing that Pat Metheny visited on Kenny G, go read it now.

Man, what a take-down! Kind of the verbal equivalent of that scene in Monty Python's Meaning of Life where a phalanx of topless, but inexplicably helmeted, women chase a man off the edge of a cliff into his literal grave.

For me, though, after the very enjoyable main-line dose of Schadenfreude, I had free-floating feelings of hypocrisy on my part.

Here's why:
For years I've tried to articulate a particular thought and have thus far failed, in my opinion, to state it well. So, here's try # 457 ½. Essentially, when someone like Kurt Cobian would rail about integrity (or someone like Neil Young who still does) it would just piss me off. "Integrity" for a lot of the punk generation was not "selling out" - meaning that if you became too successful, you'd done something wrong that was worthy of shame. That strikes me as patently ludicrous. Your level of success is not the determinant of whether or not you have integrity. How you react to or use that success may have something to do with it, but then that just goes back to the basic questions of integrity that all of us face, whether we're rocks stars or just humble members of a family somewhere.

Others, like Neil, feel that if you sell a song to a company who uses it for a commercial, that's selling out. I almost agree with Neil's viewpoint. Personally, I've hated some of my favorite songs becoming the soundtrack to a product, particularly one I hate. In the end, though, it's really up to me whether I allow that to supplant my better memories and associations with a favorite tune. But back to Neil, he's had a long successful career through which he's made a lot of money from a very young age. Many other successful and talented musicians only have a hit or two in their lives, and maybe even then can't really live off of the money they did make. How can I begrudge them selling their one hit to a company for a million bucks? How is that much different than famous paintings or other works of are appearing in the background of a movie? Or featured, like many were in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Now, most of Metheny's rant is about Kenny G's level of talent and abilities.

On one hand, yeah, a really good technician in any field can tell when another isn't as good a technician. And that matters in some cases.

On the other hand, technical proficiency is only part of the game. After a certain point of proficiency, the differences are apparent only to those in that stratosphere, and I'd argue there are often diminishing returns. So one guy can run scales just a bit faster and cleaner than another. How often is that going to matter? Just as important is feel for the audience or customer, expression, and intuition. In my experience, it's a rare Bird who has both the gift of top proficiency and beautiful expression.

For example, Joni Mitchell had polio as a child, so she uses a lot of custom tunings on her guitar to be able to hit the proper tones and notes. She makes up for lack of proficiency in dexterity with proficiency in bending the instrument to make the sound she wants. But can she play like Prince or Steve Miller? Hell to the no. They would blow circles around her on the guitar as a pure technician. But aren't her songs amazing? I know probably everyone reading this likes or loves at least one of her songs. (And, of course, Prince and Miller are amazing songsmiths, too.)

How many reading this would be able to claim the same about Metheny's songs? Can you name one? Do you even know the primary instrument he plays?

Here are the relevant quotes from the article:
"My impression was that he was someone who had spent a fair amount of time listening to the more pop oriented sax players of that time, like Grover Washington or David Sanborn, but was not really an advanced player, even in that style. He had major rhythmic problems and his harmonic and melodic vocabulary was extremely limited, mostly to pentatonic based and blues-lick derived patterns, and he basically exhibited only a rudimentary understanding of how to function as a professional soloist in an ensemble."

"But he did show a knack for connecting to the basest impulses of the large crowd by deploying his two or three most effective licks (holding long notes and playing fast runs - never mind that there were lots of harmonic clams in them) at the key moments to elicit a powerful crowd reaction (over and over again)."

In sum, here's what this smells like to me: an amazing technologist who has no real feel for what makes people respond. It's basically Spock complaining about Bones.

This also pushes some other buttons of mine. Buttons I've added in recent years.

When I was younger, I was a lot more willing to accept someone else's judgement of another's ability. I figured they really knew or they wouldn't be bringing it up. As I've aged, I increasingly feel that anyone snarking about someone else's competence or abilities (when there isn't clear-cut, non-disputable evidence that true incompetence is the case, such as Bush's jury-rigged FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina), is almost always a blustery show of insecurity that manifests as an attempt to distract you from their possible incompetence by calling someone else's into question. In short, if someone claims someone else is incompetent, most of the time the accuser is the one with the problem.

Some of you more clued-in to motivations behind bad behavior might be thinking "well, duh." I, too, am a bit disappointed in myself for taking so long to put this together. But then only in the past few years have I been in a environment where a few bad eggs do this regularly. I hadn't had cause to really think about it before.

So, if I may indulge in a little dime-store psychology, I think Metheny feels inferior to Kenny G because Kenny can reach a huge audience, and he can't. And he feels it's unfair because he thinks he's a better musician than Kenny. He more or less articulates this in the article.

But even if that's true, apparently Kenny is the better artist.


syaffolee said...

I think it's also a matter of viewpoint, of artist versus audience. When an artist of any sort experiences the work of another artist in the same field, of course he's going to focus on the details and the technique--because that's what he's been honing in on for all these years. As for the audience, they don't care so much for how things are done. Rather, it's the big picture that seizes (or not) the heartstrings.

This kind of reminds me of some common gripes that some writers have. I often hear (or read about) them complaining about how authors like Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer are hacks. But even if their prose, objectively, reads like a third grader's homework rather than Shakespeare, one must admit that they've done something right to have sold all those books. And I think that "something" is tapping into people's emotions and desires rather than any sort of intellectual appreciation. And when push comes to shove, all that primitive stuff trumps the cerebral.

I've seen the term "crack" referred to whenever someone finds a book they can't put down even though intellectually, they know that the book isn't technically well written. Perhaps Kenny G is just that for all of his fans--musical crack.

Whisky Prajer said...

I can testify to Metheny's ability to mesmerize an audience through a variety of means, including the two he mentions. In Montreal and Toronto the venues he plays are respectably large and usually sold out. Now, he probably doesn't get much response in Branson, and his album sales can't possibly match Kenny G's, so that's probably a bit maddening.

I think Syaffolee is probably closest to the mark. The Michael Ondaatjes of this world might acknowledge that Stephen King is a talent who deserves recognition, but even King gets crotchety about V.C. Andrews. When you work so scrupulously to get to that moment of pure expression, nothing bugs you more than someone shrugging and saying, "In the end it's all the same" -- except the artist who just took that guy's money.

Whisky Prajer said...

Joe Queenan's take on Kenny -- and John Tesh -- is pretty funny. Definitely a library book, but still pretty funny.

yahmdallah said...

Sya - that's one of the reasons I've never really delved in to learning how to play an instrument. After I graduated with my lit degree, I couldn't pull back for a long time and just be a casual reader. I analyzed the language, the style, etc. almost automatically. I've finally gotten to where I can mostly turn those off - though sometimes when I read a horrible sentence, they reassert themselves anyway. The most recent occurrence was reading Dan Brown's latest (...funny you should mention him...); his descriptions of his heroes almost always make me hate them immediately.

Whisky - I'm probably being too hard on Metheny, and I bet I've grooved to his stuff, I just don't recall having done so. I remember liking Bela Fleck enough to remember him, and David Sanborn.

Also, I had originally intended to recuse myself regarding jazz, but cut it prior to posting. Even though I like it to some extent, I do agree with Stewart Copeland's coinage of jazz (which I put in this post): "jazz, a music that elevates dexterity over spirit."

And I have the book in reserve at the library; very much looking forward to it.

Jim Janknegt said...

Go to the library and check out some Metheny CD's. Get several because he plays a wide range of jazz styles including free jazz. Listen to them. Then rewrite this post.

There is no way Metheney feels inferior to Kenny G.

ThisHereGiraffe said...

There is no such thing as, "The Essential Kenny Loggins"

yahmdallah said...

Jim, I will (and have, actually). I know that Metheney doesn't feel inferior to Kenny G., nor should he. But perhaps he should ponder why K sells so much, and he doesn't sell as much.

THGiraffe, sad to say, but there is:

And in case you meant Kenny G, he has one, too:

Or do you mean philosophically?

Anonymous said...

Re: artists selling their songs as commercial jingles. Bono talked about this in an interview some years ago. He said, essentially, that U2 is OK with selling *some* of their songs, they see no problem with that in most cases since they are, after all, a popular act and it would be hypocritical of them to act like their songs are sacred. Nonetheless, they keep a few of their songs reserved and will never sell them. He wouldn't give the list of reserved songs, but did say that "Where the Streets have no Names" is one of them. All the major auto companies have requested to use that song at one time or another, Bono says it will never happen no matter what.


yahmdallah said...

Awesome trivia. Thanks, Joel.

ThisHereGiraffe said...

It was one of Bill Maher's New Rules. He was absolutely correct.

yahmdallah said...