Music has always been a passion of mine. How music and culture intersect is fascinating. How mainstream culture deals with serious innovation and creativity is even more fascinating. To wit: it amazes me that after a hundred years or so Modernism is still reviled; this, of course, spans the arts, but for our purposes, let’s focus on music.

Before I delved into the complex world of classical music, I was vaguely aware of the Modernists (or 20th century music). Sure, everyone’s heard of Stravinsky–but what of Bartok or Messiaen? One may compile a list of these giants of atonality. The names get even more obscure post-1950s. The argument will be that these names haven’t been time-tested, and perhaps that’s true. It took a very long time before Bach was recognized as a genius. Yet, with the Modernists I think we are dealing with an entirely different animal.

I’ll give you an example (I like examples, as you know). Turn on any NPR affiliated classical music station or any mainstream classical music station for that matter and you will likely hear little of the Modernists. The test? On your commute (if you commute, that is), check out your local classical music station and see what’s playing. More than likely, you’ll hear piano music from Mozart or Haydn. They are absolutely obsessed with Haydn. Of course, Mozart is a very close second. Now, I dig both of these guys a lot. But, you know, there’s more to classical music than this–a lot more. As an uninitiated classical music listener, this is what I thought was the totality of classical music. Sadly, so do many, many people. This is why people view classical music not as a rebel music, which it is, but as background music for rich plutocrats in monkey suits swilling down expensive wine.

Okay, so why isn’t Messiaen a featured composer at drive time? Program directors hate innovative sounds. Granted, Messiaen isn’t exactly new–but apparently he’s just too jolting for listeners. At least that’s what the program directors think. People, in a sense, have been programed to hate Modern music. I agree it takes more effort to enjoy and understand it. But these ossified program directors don’t even allow people to be exposed to it on a regular basis. Yes, I know, they play it–but very rarely. And never when they have a large, captive audience.

Which brings me to my final point. Even after Modernism has come and gone, the arbiters of good taste continue to give short shrift to these reviled atononalists (my word). People are mortified of change–even if said change is a hundred years old. That’s why Modernism in the arts itself has been experiencing a backlash since the Fifties. I’ll expand upon that in later posts. As a culture, we are more and more averse to innovation and anything that’s truly weird and out of the mainstream. When that happens, culture and cultures die.


This is old news. I think I missed it the first time around. I did. But it is relevant to me because it reflects the essentially anti-Art inclinations of our regressive zeitgeist. I’m sure many of you are aware of the Facebook-Courbet controversy of last year. If not, have at it.

I don’t know why I think we’ve progressed in the last hundred years or so. In fact, I think computer geekery has, in some substantial ways, retarded our growth. What I find amazing is that sex to sell products is fine by our Digital Billionaires. You can have as many Go Daddy ads with big-titted women as possible, but if you display a painting, no less, of a hairy vagina well that’s beyond the pale! Remember: this is Courbet in 1866. I shake my head.

Why is there such push-back here? Celebration of a woman’s vagina (which this is) and of women themselves is verboten, in a world soaked with ads trying to arouse you to buy crap you don’t need. The intent is the real issue here, not the naked picture, per se. Healthy depictions of the female body are considered dirty and pornographic. Real porn is okay, but art is not. I don’t understand it. You probably are waiting for me to have a reasoned explanation for this strange dichotomy, but I really don’t. I’ll speculate, just because it would leave y’all hanging if I didn’t.

Our Digital Billionaires only care about the bottom line–and money. No shit, Dave. But, thing is, it manifests itself in peculiar ways. Their ignorance about Art feeds an approach that’s essentially anti-Art. If anything is bad for business–especially a hairy vagina from the 1860s–well then, fuck, we better censor the hell out of it. Don’t for a minute think that Facebook or any of these “cutting edge” companies gives a shit about Art or anything that ain’t black and white in their black and white world. It’s all about the Benjamins, and don’t ever forget it. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t give two shits about Art, or what Art tries to do. He’s a vapid man, with vapid tastes. And it shows. Actually, he’s a vapid man in a vapid culture that celebrates vapid things.

And it shows.

It’s sad that poetry is, mostly, a minority taste for lots of people today. Of course, I realize I’m generalizing a bit–but does poetry really matter to our culture in a significant way? Ditto for “serious” literature. It’s up to us monks to keep it alive. Look at all the serious Arts with a capital A, as well. You know, painting, sculpture, classical music, etc. Do they predominate our cultural discourse? Does anyone give a shit if they exist or not?

Better, maybe, that it all dies. So, it may flourish again. Creative destruction.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Once art (not with a capital A) was truly dangerous. Dada, cubism, German expressionism. Hitler and the Nazis called it “degenerate art.” If you were an avant-gardist back in the day, you were in major shit, an enemy of the state. Can anyone imagine art (not with a capital A) and Art (with a capital A) angering the Elite that much anymore? I can’t. I mean, yeah, there’s that Piss Christ imbroglio about twenty years ago with Jesse Helms, et al.–but that was small potatoes compared to how art and Art used to piss off the Establishment (pun intended). Yeah, the politicians were going to cut off funding for the Arts. Big deal. That’s a whole lot different than getting yourself thrown in jail or killed. And we’re talking about an Art movement, not an isolated incident like the Salman Rushdie affair.

Of course, this is the negative side–how art and Art can arouse people to do fucked up stuff. When have you heard CNN or some other mainstream media outlet doing a lead story on how a work of art or a piece of music (not pop music, mind you) has influenced our culture or our daily lives? Never.

There’s just nothing comparable today to what Art provoked a century ago. Art has been neutered. Now, we can speculate why. But that’s for another post.

It’s time. Yes, it is. I know you’ve been waiting for it. So have I. I’ve kept my vitriol in check for the most part; better for body and soul. But I feel I need to get this out, if only for catharsis.

You probably can read this selfsame rant on a number of writers’ websites and the like, so I don’t claim to have a monopoly on the sentiment. But I think it bears repeating: “literary” agents annoy me. Instead of one gatekeeper (big publishing house), you have two. Back when Hemingway was scribbling, there were no agents. At least, I don’t think there were; but if I’m wrong email me. Sure, Hemingway had to get in good with the right crowd–but he didn’t have to sell his soul to what amounts to a headhunter for desperate novelists. But, you see, this headhunter is worse than your garden variety genus of headhunter. I don’t recommend this–but troll around one of their blogs, and you’ll get the full picture. If you have a weak stomach, skip it. I’m an inveterate rubbernecker, so it doesn’t bother me.

What of these cynical blogs dedicated to ripping apart the dreams of writers? Good and proper question. I was stunned they existed. But then, I’m never stunned by the lengths people go to humiliate other people. That’s what the aforementioned blog is all about: humiliation. Getting kicks from your power over a defenseless target. Kind of sick, isn’t it? Actually, it’s de rigueur for folks in this “industry.” The bit I fancy the most is the dissection of query letters. Now…are there rules for query letters? Apparently so. But there are many rules, depending on the agent. So, if I get this right, each agent has his/her own specific rules on how he/she wants a query to look and sound, etc. Again, troll the Net a bit and check out the myriad permutations. It’s mind-boggling diverse. But they like it that way. You make your bones by being a ball buster. I mean, that’s true of any “business.”

Now…the aforementioned blog (and others) take a sadistic delight in pointing out query letter errata. Again, the picking apart process is done painstakingly slow and deliberate, with egregious excerpts paraded about for an audience of aspiring scribblers. It’s, you know, a means for the agent to horsewhip potential clientele. And they enjoy it. You see, once you get ’em sedated and eating our of your hands, you can pretty much mold and manipulate your “art” as you see fit. Again, they really, really enjoy it. Of course, an aspiring scribbler has no other choice but to obey; the ground rules are quite specific. You either play or remain in obscurity. It’s a lose lose thing. And…they really enjoy it.

The retort will be: you’re bitter because they didn’t accept your novel. Okay, maybe that’s true to an extent. But sadism for sadism sake, to me, is sort of fucked up. My guess is that a large number of agents are failed writers themselves, and now want to exact revenge on people just like themselves. Even more sadistic, right? Self-hatred, perhaps? You decide. End of rant.

I’ve always been fascinated by age and writing. Actually, this topic obsesses me. I read that Amanda Hocking, our heroine of the indie publishing world, busted her ass to finish her first book before she was thirty because some of her favorite authors were published before thirty. That’s motivation. Good on her. And, hell, I think she’s the best for rattling the publishing cages of the New York gatekeepers. Amanda has balls. And, more importantly, she’s paving the way for the rest of us–the silent, obscure scribblers out there with 9 to 5 jobs, car payments and underwater mortgages. You rock, girl!

Full disclosure: I’m an old fart. But I think you knew that. I was Amanda Hocking in the early 1990s. I was the young, ambitious scribbler working three jobs in a futile attempt to finish my first novel. Well, I didn’t get much writing done, and mostly what I accomplished was making myself feel like I was a writer. I wasn’t a writer. I was a dabbler, a rank amateur (still am, but that’s another story!), a supercilious poseur with a college education and a lot of time on my hands to dicker around and get nothing done. Okay, I’ve beat myself up enough.

Point is (I like that introductory phraseology), it took me twenty years to realize that it doesn’t matter how old you are when the Muse finally hits you between the eyes–and you shouldn’t regret the fact that you “wasted” some years trying to find yourself. I wasn’t at a place in the early 1990s to write anything of substance. My skull was full of competing ideas–and mostly lots of bullshit. There are many folks out there who begin to write in their declining years (ha, sorry couldn’t help it!). And, it feels better now that it ever has. Point is (there it is again), the Muse visits you when you are ready. And–you never really know when that will happen, or if it ever will. That’s the weird and scary thing about writing. Nothing can be forced. I don’t care what the self-help books say. You are the master, and don’t ever forget it.

One thing I’ve noticed about writing my second book is that, because I’m not worrying about agents or publishers or the like, I can pretty much write how I want to write. I’ve sort of mentioned this before in a previous post, in a different context.

I’d like to expand a bit further, if that’s alright with you folks. When I look at my prose for the second book, it’s longer and more expansive than the first novel. I’m not second guessing myself as much this time around; there’s a carefree feeling when I write, as though I can actually enjoy the words as they are being produced on the page. I get a buzz from it, rather than a dread-feeling. The dread came, of course, from interminable self-critiques. This is a killer for a writer. You’ve heard it before probably, in some self-help writing books. I guess they got that one right.

When I look over my first book, I realize I was too reticent, too hesitant, too halting. Part of me wishes I could do the whole thing over again, but what’s done is done. You’ll notice that with many famous authors (and in no way am I comparing myself to them) their first books often seems hesitant, as if they are feeling their way around. And that’s probably true. A good analogue is a rock band’s or a composer’s first artistic effort. Most of the time it’s pretty raw because they haven’t mastered their craft yet. Probably the exception is Mozart, who was a boy-genius (though even his “childhood symphonies” are a little rough around the edges, one must admit).

But I guess that’s the point of the journey, as it were. You gotta take the ride, or you won’t get anywhere or learn anything new about the world.

Richard Strauss is all bombast. Most people know him by that apocalyptic (in my view, of course) intro to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But if you dig deeper and check out his other stuff, it’s even more intense. Try out the tone poems. Now, for most music fans, this is a no-brainer. The classical music poobahs always like to denigrate laymen like me who don’t have the requisite training to notice counterpoint when it’s being used (Bach was a master), or recognize Baroque from Romanticism. Initially, that’s what kept me from enjoying classical music: the insuperable snob factor. But Strauss, while complex, is sheer rock and roll, if you crank it up.

I hated classical music for a long, long time. Said it was boring. Said it put me to sleep. Partially, this is our culture’s obsessive need to denigrate anything that has deep emotional resonance. This isn’t to say I don’t dig pop music. I still listen to Husker Du and the Jam. I dig punk rock. I’m even a big bluegrass fanatic. I know: makes no sense. Point is, it’s what grabs you that matters. We tend to place so much importance on what other people think about the music we like. Fuck that. Dig what you wanna dig! Hey, even Lady Gaga, as transparently phony as she is, has some catchy tunes.

Literature/writing/poetry are analogous. You shouldn’t trust some critic who says something is utter shit; if it moves you, there’s nothing wrong with that. Again, it took me years to see the light. We, as a species, seem to defer to higher authorities, “experts” ensconced in some rigid, illegitimate hierarchy. That’s why the world, and this country, are circling the drain. Best to free your mind; trust your instincts.

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