Late last month, media scholar Jason Mittell posted a piece on why he dislikes Mad Men. I was intrigued by his argument, especially his claim that objects of analysis in academic scholarship are primarily determined by taste. In other words, we tend to research and write about what we like and eschew applying similar critical rigor toward what we don’t. He references Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which attempts to explore the music critic’s disdain for Céline Dion by examining the album that boasts Titantic‘s “My Heart Will Go On.” However, Mittell notes a difference in attitude between him and Wilson. Wilson comes to Dion’s oeuvre as a hip outsider. Mittell, lauded for his ground-breaking work in television studies, approaches one of the two jewels in AMC’s original programming schedule from within his own habitus of quality televisual aca-fandom.
Though I found Mittell’s commentary trenchant, I had a few problems with “On Disliking Mad Men“. He paid peripheral attention to the show’s deliberate peripheral attention to race and gender, the former of which continues to bother me and folks like Michael E. Ross believe needs immediate intervention. As Ian Bogost argued, Mittell also failed to capture a singular argument against Mad Men that couldn’t be applied to other like-minded quality programs.
But my primary quibble is with methodology. As Mittell reports in the essay, he only watched the first season of Mad Men and a few of season two’s episodes for the purposes of constructing his argument. Several commenters addressed this as an issue, though many were fans who seemed at least partially propelled by motives of conversion. Though a fan of the series, I’m not interested in whether Mittell would come to like or appreciate Mad Men. Most of my interest in his criticism actually stemmed from his anti-fandom, a position that tends to get overlooked. My complaint has a completionist bent: how can you write about something you haven’t submerged yourself in?
Mittell makes the valid argument that a season should provide a viewer with enough of an arc to motivate continued investment for a show’s duration. However, for the purposes of criticism this still feels too arbitrary. This may be a tenuous position for a person who values deliberate misreadings and appropriation, as it suggests that texts can only be consumed and interpreted in a limited set of ways. But a television series is a medium of progression and process. A movie ends conclusively, unless it’s spun off into a multiple-installment franchise. Serial television does not. Cliffhangers bridge seasons together. Characters develop, sometimes in profound and unexpected ways. To acknowledge this evolution it seems one has to watch the entire series, even if the person’s opinions don’t change.
Music fandom informs my criticism. Completionism is a fan practice that exists across mediums. Often this is exploited through the commodity fetish, which again straddles mediums. The same person who has the Six Feet Under funeral plot DVD collection probably owns Rhino’s One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found, which is packaged in a hat box (I know him — he’s my friend Erik). But I came to understand completionism through music. I’ve followed several artists across albums, in an effort to plot out their artistic trajectories. Sometimes, I continued to keep up long after I lost interest in their musical developments. Other times, I defended them long after they lost cultural relevance. occasionally, I’m surprised when they’re as vital as ever.
But again, we’re talking about taste. To the ire of Animal Collective’s Bordieuvian contrarianism, taste is nigh impossible to escape, much less transcend.
Mittell’s essay presented me with an interesting opportunity. During our workshops for Girls Rock Camp this summer, Kristen at Act Your Age and I noticed two pop stars who consistently showed up when we asked our girls to name the female artists they liked: Katy Perry and Ke$ha. I dislike both artists’ music, which some astute mash-up artists note shares producer credits to the point of becoming compositionally interchangeable.
Initially, I had a hard time understanding either pop star’s musical value. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll enumerate my biases going into the project. Below is my criteria for the music I like. Three of these items were stolen from conversations Björk and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy had on musical preference. Unsurprisingly, I like both artists. If an act hits on at least two of these, there’s an excellent chance that I’ll like the music.
1. Emphasis on strange and/or unexpected vocal harmonies. Throw in a 7th or a 5th when you think the triad will satisfy. Better yet, lean into a 2nd. Harmonies should facilitate discord.
2. Preference toward superficial or actual repetition. Song length is usually not a concern, nor is an overt attempt at progression. What is important is hypnosis, transportation, and the space to parse out subtle variation and compositional synthesis (swiped from Murphy).
3. Eschew conventional rock outfit line-ups. Don’t clamor for a bassist or two guitarists if the music doesn’t call for it or if you can’t find instrumentalists willing to commit or with whom you gel. If your instrument is the accordion or you and a friend both want to play drums, let it happen.
4. Women picking up guitars and playing together will always excite me, especially if they’re interested in odd tunings and/or angular melodies.
5. Tenuous reconciliation between electronic and acoustic instruments (thanks, Björk). Emphasis on “tenuous.” I have no use for a twee indie rock outfit that shoehorns in cute synth burbling over conventional rock riffs.
6. Funneling intensely private emotions through the very public act of singing (Björk has few peers in this category).
This rubric may strike some as oppressively pretentious, but these are my comforts and points of interest. I think at its best, mainstream pop music is capable of touching upon at least the first three items on the list, so it’s not necessarily a matter of art versus commerce when mapping out preferences. But Ke$ha and Katy Perry don’t meet any of this criteria for me.
The protectionist feminist in me is also pretty horrified that girls like them. While I don’t think censorship is the answer, I do think figuring out what they like about them is necessary.
I admit to being amused by Ke$ha when Kristen at Dear Black Woman, posted an early performance of “Dinosaur.” Actually, some music geeks I know like her, deeming her funny, smart, ironic, and a forward-thinking pop star. Jamie Freedman at Always More to Hear talked about posting an entry called “In Defense of Ke$ha” during a lunch date, and I’m interested to seeing this piece materialize. But as much I wanted to like her talk-singing and deliberately shambolic performance on Saturday Night Live, I could not. Also, Ke$ha’s odes to partying and borderline alcoholism register differently in a gay club than they do when a pre-teen sings about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack. Plus, she has got to stop her sartorial appropriations of pan-Native American garb.
When Perry’s second single “I Kissed a Girl” became a smash in 2008, I was throbbing with righteous indignation. Some of it was full-on music snobbery. How dare some pop tart swipe Peaches and Goldfrapp’s glossy electropop? I bristled at Perry’s image as a preacher’s daughter turned servile kewpie doll seemed to spring from the id of Leisure Suit Larry. But the message behind “I Kissed a Girl” made me angrier. It positioned Sapphic flirting as harmless, temporary, superficially transgressive, and ultimately in need of heterosexual male validation. I want the exact opposite in a pop song. You can imagine how I felt when Out put her on their cover.
By the time Perry’s inane ”California Gurls” came out earlier this summer, her image as a superficially edgy pop star with a predictable sense of heterosexually palatable feminine camp did little to challenge what I already thought of her. Neither did employing venerate sell-out Snoop Dogg for guest services. Neither did playing dress-up with various markers of teenage identity as host of the Teen Choice Awards. Neither will marrying Russell Brand. Neither will providing the voice of Smurfette in the doomed film adaptation of The Smurfs. Casting my friend Chu in the “Teenage Dream” music video tested my subjectivity, but ultimately confirmed that Perry needs to associate herself with hip, fashion-foward, androgynous young people to bolster her image. Thankfully, my friend is not the one in the headdress.
So I had to put theory into practice. I listened to every track of their’s I could find for the past few weeks, anticipating Perry’s forthcoming Teenage Dream album. For fun, I tempered this experiment with Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs to test whether my reaction toward artists I don’t like changed in relation to Important Music. I also read Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love in preparation of my experiment. I recognize its contribution, though I can’t champion the effort I derisively referred to as Let’s Talk About Anything But the Album. Too often, Wilson sabotages insightful contextualization of Dion’s aspirational class positioning and ethnic identity in relation to her voice’s function as a luxury item or a continuation of hair metal’s power ballad against gross projections of his unbridled disdain or unnecessary explanations to oft-cited theories of taste circulating in Western philosophy and cultural studies. Furthermore, the chapter he devotes to Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love is a reprinted submission that reads like a conventional album review.
This potentially illustrates the limits of such critical inquiries. Though I found Wilson’s book frustrating, I couldn’t improve upon it here. I warmed a little toward Ke$ha’s Animal, which foregrounds her singular personality and features the pop metal barnburner “Party at a Rich Dude’s House.” Perry’s first two albums are joyless affairs, saddled with the burdens of putting up with bad boys and defining yourself as someone else’s vacuous sexual object instead of your own realized sexual subject. Both artists (and their songwriting teams) share the habit of putting down men through emasculation and viewing every girl as competition.
In short, neither pop star move me toward any notable form of appreciation regardless of how much I consumed. I’m curious to try this exercise on other artists, though am frustrated that taste will continue to warp the outcome. Am I really all the things that are outside of me? Probably. Can I transcend them? Maybe not, but I’ll keep listening.