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What Is It?

So, having lambasted the entirety of modern music, it seems like the perfect time (despite it being four years old) to ask:

Is there a more flawless example of songwriting in recent years than Mark Knopfler's "What It Is"?

The drinking dens are spilling out
There's staggering in the square
There's lads and lasses falling about
And a crackling in the air
Down around the dungeon doors
The shelters and the queues
Everybody's looking for
Somebody’s arms to fall into
And it's what it is
It's what it is now

There's frost on the graves and the monuments
But the taverns are warm in town
People curse the government
And shovel hot food down
The lights are out in city hall
The castle and the keep
The moon shines down upon it all
The legless and asleep

And it's cold on the tollgate
With the wagons creeping through
Cold on the tollgate
God knows what I could do with you
And it's what it is
It’s what it is now

The garrison sleeps in the citadel
With the ghosts and the ancient stones
High up on the parapet
A Scottish piper stands alone
And high on the wind
The highland drums begin to roll
And something from the past just comes
And stares into my soul

And it's cold on the tollgate
With the Caledonian Blues
Cold on the tollgate
God knows what I could do with you
And it's what it is
It's what it is now
What it is
It's what it is now

There's a chink of light, there's a burning wick
There's a lantern in the tower
Wee Willie Winkie with a candlestick
Still writing songs in the wee wee hours
On Charlotte Street I take
A walking stick from my hotel
The ghost of Dirty Dick
Is still in search of Little Nell
And it's what it is
It's what it is now
Oh it’s what it is
What it is now

The lyrics are great, with remarkable tonal diction, but it's the cadence of them in the song that really makes them explode. Knopfler isn't the world's greatest singer, but he knows what he's doing, not afraid, for instance, to mumble his simplistic refrain. The literary references--Wee Willie Winkie is a nursery rhyme and Little Nell is the ill-fated heroine of Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop--are powerful by name, without you even needing to identify them.

Knopfler is, I think it's safe to say, one of the great riff-writers of rock guitar (Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" riff being the famous example, though far better is "Sultans of Swing"). I don't tend to like riff-heavy songs, but the "What It Is" riff is beautifully baroque and goes through numerous fruitful transformations as the song progresses.

It's possible the song's white bread style, the market it was released into, or the fact that many music cognoscenti probably consider Knopfler's golden age to be behind him will keep the song from finding a place in our cultural memory. But in a day when an unprecedented number of blockbuster songs become instantly forgettable, I think it probably deserves to be remembered.

So as an experiment, since I made some assertions about how we modern creatures consume music: Does anyone out there have either similar or dissimilar impressions of "What It Is"? (I assume just about everyone has heard it on the radio.) Does it leave you nonplussed? Bored? Or energized? Awed?

Obviously, not everyone is going to enjoy music identically, but what does it mean when there's probably not a single pop song you can get, say, 8 out of 10 people to agree is truly great? I attribute the problem as much to the enervated work being produced as to the inability of most of us to recognize serious musical craftsmanship. I said pop music is fashion, and maybe Neal's right that art has always been at some level about expression of status. But if we can only objectively describe a song's appeal from within its fashion context--"If you like metal-rap like Limp Bizkit, you'll love it!"--isn't it fair to say we seem to be approaching some kind of dead end, from a cultural standpoint? What it seems to suggest is that, as far as music is concerned, we are fractured into a hundred cultures.


I think that what it means is that music is more like food than it is like a book when it comes to enjoyment. Whether or not somebody likes it has a lot less to do with whether it is the product of skill, knowledge, and sophistication than it does with whether or not the particular elements in it are things that person enjoys.

One could say that caviar on toast points is classier than mac and cheese, or that it's more cultured, or more nuanced, but it's kind of silly to say that it's just plain 'better', because that's really a matter of (literal) taste. De gustibus, as they say.

And, to a lesser degree, the same applies to music. Music and food are more about the immediate and visceral response (is that "noumena"?), and books/movies/visual arts are more about the reflective and intellectual response. Because the experience of food or music is so personal, so sensual, you can't say very much about it to someone whose experience isn't at least similar to your own.

I haven't heard the Knopfler song, or I would give you an impression. I'll keep an ear open for it.
Very insightful. You've cast things in a way I hadn't spent enough time thinking in.

What I wonder is if the way we consume music, like food (which seems mostly right to me), is purely due to the nature of music. Do we know that people of the past took this approach? Probably they did to some extent, since as you point out, music is a sensual experience; but did they to the same extent as today? I have to wonder whether the great volume of popluar music out there for us to consume--like the great volume of foods we have to eat--has as much to do with it. (Think of how differently a savvy New Yorker thinks about food compared to a 19th Century Irish farmer who knew forty ways to cook potatoes.) And then are we trained to think of music as a personal, sensual experience because we have so many options that the minutely personal criteria are the ones that help us narrow the field?

It's fair to ask: what's the alternative way to experience music, if not as personal and sensual? Well, sensual it will always be, it's true. But I tend to think that the music of the past was a facilitator of community--I think of folk dancing music like flamenco or whatever Germans dance to in their leiderhosen. And I think music was used to project an atmosphere of the sacred or elevated importance, again for a group usually. In a certain sense, we use our music in both these ways, but the communities in question are small, cliquish, and ultimately divisive and the sacredness is a kind so personal as to be semi-useless. It is a rare piece of popular music that I could put on and make everyone instantly silent, meditative, or reverent.

Two ways of appreciating

There are two ways to look at just about any art form. One is as a consumer, the other is as a craftsperson.

(Oh, and by the way, the numena are things as they are, the phenomena are things as we perceive them. While what Dr. T is talking about is phenomena, I don't think the other mode I'll discuss is really dealing with noumenon, as much as that would make a nice symmetry.)

This was the difference between my English classes and my literature classes in my writing program. In English class, the point of analysis seemed to be, "What is this person saying, and why is it Great Literature?" In writing classes, the point was more, "Hey, look at this. Now why on earth would someone choose to do this in this way? Was that a good idea here? How would you have done it?"

That kind of analysis was very different. I think regarding books, fine food, graphic arts, music, etc. you can appreciate the work purely on a sensational level--what is my gut reaction to it? However, what I've found to be a more interesting level of appreciation is looking at the piece as a craftsperson--understanding the piece as an intentional expression of craft and analyzing it that way. How did they do that? Why did they make those choices? How does it relate to other, similar work?

When I do that, I can say, "I don't like green peppers, but this stuffed green pepper is an example of good cooking." Or I can say, "I don't like rap metal, but Linkin Park clearly spent a lot of time and energy arranging this particular piece."

In a nutshell, we can overcome personal preferences and judge things based on the craft behind it. That may not be how we view all work, but it can create a platform through which we can all agree on something's quality independent of our sensational preferences.

Re: Two ways of appreciating

Stray thought:

There are other ways of viewing a creation than by sensational stimulation or craftsmanship. Examples include, by the thing's purpose ("These stuffed green peppers are nutritious and filling.") and by the thing's meaning ("Those stuffed green peppers are a perfect expression of his mother's love for him and his family."). Perhaps you could even say beyond consumer/craftsperson, there's "user" (for purposes, although how this is different from "consumer," I'm not sure) and "participant." Or something.

Another stray thought: There's something weird in saying that all those craftsmanly aspects of, say, a novel are basically only there to be appreciated by other novelists (or readers who think like novelists more than like novel readers).

Re: Two ways of appreciating

While there are certainly authors who write for others to purely appreciate the craft involved (James Joyce is the primary example, although many post-modernists can probably be lumped in as well) I think in my idealized world the idea would be that the craft involved would cause people who like that kind of thing to really like it. For example, if you liked green peppers, you would find the stuffed green pepper really good, regardless of whether or not you know how it was made and the relative quality of the craft.

I'm simply saying that if you want to rise above personal preference, you can do so by learning the craft behind the art. I agree with the others--you could also begin to assess the meaning of the art or how well it achieves its purpose (although I think that kind of moves back toward craftsmanship).
Is there somewhere besides the radio I might find it? As I gave up on radio a medium for music the same time as they pulled the plug on the eighties show at KAGU.
Josh, god bless your soul. Tapes of those show still available at good prices. Inquire within.

as to the knopfler tune, I have not heard it either. I wasn't under the impression that MK was getting much airplay in his solo career. On the other hand, I have met several rather passionate supporters. It's never really been my gig, however-- I still love listening to bad singers scream over transcendent guitar riffs too much (see Grohl, Dave; Vedder, Eddie; Martsch, Doug, et al).

Hey, speaking of: I have a bunch of those LPs that I "rescued" from where they languished in "storage." They are in storage somewhere here in Spokane...
Well, KBCO, the local "adult contemporary" station played "What It Is" probably every three hours for three years straight. I doubt they're very trailblazing in this way.
I don't know. If you worked with me, you could find it in the godawfully huge and illegal as all hell shared drive. (Along with every episode of South Park and, well, about any other show you'd like to see.) Are you reading this, FBI?

I can't believe I'm totally striking out on people recognizing the song.
I would love to offer up some lovely examples - I fear much of what I listen to any more is so far outside what anyone else would hear - I suspect I would just be annoying.

So check my journal for one of my favorite songs - "Stranger in your Soul" by Transatlantic.

And if so requested - I will play on my next On The Outside so it will be available through the magic of the intarwebs and Canadian Copyright Law.
while I haven't heard the song, I do have a photo of a Knopfler promotional poster that I took in Rome about 4 years ago--May of 2001 if memory serves. I'll ahve to see if I can dig that up, or if it got lost in the divorce.

or, as I know it, buhdoodahDEEdahduh, buhdooDahDEEEEEDaaaa! etc.

I've heard the song over and over again: first on KBCO, which I suspect is Chris's medium, and in the old dead coffeehouse of my recent past. And despite hearing it all the time it stayed good, mostly b/c it's a good song and I like Knopfler. I appreciate the song mostly on its muscial merits, tho I got the gist of a cold past coexisting with a warm present.

I wish songs like this were more a part of cultural consciousness... those days are gone for now b/c of a partial fragmentation. The musical ties that bind culturally are increasingly the bad ones that are celebrity-driven, or more than that, money-driven. What we're really talking about here is the degree of overlap of popular music and Art... (ducking)

Re: or, as I know it, buhdoodahDEEdahduh, buhdooDahDEEEEEDaaaa! etc.

I wish songs like this were more a part of cultural consciousness... those days are gone for now b/c of a partial fragmentation. The musical ties that bind culturally are increasingly the bad ones that are celebrity-driven, or more than that, money-driven.

See, you're basically of the same opinion as me, I think. I don't know if you see this development as inevitable, given the way the music market has developed, or whether the trade-offs in musical options is worth it, but I'm with you: Our musical culture, to put it simply, seems deficient, and in a systemic way.

Re: or, as I know it, buhdoodahDEEdahduh, buhdooDahDEEEEEDaaaa! etc.

You guys got me thinking about this, and the conclusion I came to is that this isn't just some cultural/historical phenomenon.

I think what's happening here is the natural/inevitable effect of music ceasing to be a scarce resource. Back before any kind of recording or transmitting technology, music was rare. The average person would only hear music with depth and complexity (because there's only so much you that can do singing to yourself while plowing the fields) on special occasions and in special circumstances -- church, maybe a rare trip to the opera, etc. So all music had lots of powerful cultural associations.

But human beings LOVE music. It's probably built-in. So as music ceases to be scarce, we listen to it all the time. Which means you want more variety (since songs start to get old), which drives the proliferation of musical genres and styles, which makes more music available, which dilutes the shared musical experience, and so on. So music becomes more and more personal and less communal as it becomes less scarce.

I don't think that musical culture is lacking; I think that you're nostalgic for the simplicity of a musical monoculture. It's like television: in the early days, there were only three channels, and there was a sense of community that grew out of the universally shared experience of television, because everyone watched the same thing. But it was only a temporary state; cable and tivo and dish-on-demand were bound to develop, and with choice comes diversity. There will never be another Beatles or Elvis; we're past the point where everyone listens to the same thing and a wave of communal infatuation can grow that big.

But this is a good thing. The world is bigger than that. Now we have choice from abundance. It happened with books, then with periodicals, and now it's happening with music and television.

That's my current idea. What do you guys think?

Re: or, as I know it, buhdoodahDEEdahduh, buhdooDahDEEEEEDaaaa! etc.

Chris, consider this a reply to you as well, as I was gonna expand there but Beemer's already started it.

This is a huge discussion about a giant behemoth and we've got to first realize we're the blind guys in its room. The behemoth is roughly a Music--Sex--Money shaped thing. No, that's not a Red Hot Chili Peppers album title, but it's close.

First, why music exists, why we make it, why it affects us physically/emotionally/mentally/spiritually is Discussion #1. Somewhere in there I think music splits into the Sexual Attractor Element (physical/emotional) and the Higher Brain (mental/spiritual) Element, speaking very very generally. When you have a grip on that, the celebrity and money drivers of popular culture of which music is a part can make more sense.
When we talk about crappy music that's nonetheless very popular, we're probly being more appreciative of Good Music as appreciated via the HBE, versus the perceived baseness of the SAE version of Good Music (there's certainly some overlap, but let's let it be for discussion purposes). here's a question: how much of the crappy music is very specifically SAE music? Aka, can you think of popular music you'd define as commercially driven, lacking in talent and craft, that doesn't somehow deal with sex/relationships? I think there's very very little of it. SAE music has to be new, flashy, bumpin', & presented by visually sexy "artists" whose effectiveness is enhanced by celebrity. And this is all enhanced by the relationship between sex and commercialism, so the cash flow is very tied to who's sexy *right now*. If you were sexy five minutes ago, well, agent on line 1, VH1 on Line 2, nobody of significance on Line 3. The kids have the money, the new libidoes, & short attention spans.

This is exactly the opposite of who we tend to call "real musicians" that don't have to look a certain way or be gossiped about or whatever; they put their craft forward as more important and are aiming for deeper responses to a wider variety of more complex human experience... aka Art. Knopfler etc. doesn't appeal to raging hormones, but to a more experienced mind that wants more out of music. Which is all good, but the industry wants hormone-driven dollars because they're reliable and there are more of them. So, that's really their focus: lowering the cost of SAE music while expanding its power, b/c that's the meal ticket.

Re; the market trends, they're gonna be changing for a while. Like Paul Simon sang, every generation throws a hero up the pop charts. Jury's still out on how increasingly free music & increasingly independent musicians become that hero that alters the landscape.

Typing too fast. Not sure I made relevant points. Must go to work. L8Rs

Re: or, as I know it, buhdoodahDEEdahduh, buhdooDahDEEEEEDaaaa! etc.

Beemer may have nailed this. I don't know if I'd call it "nostalgia" or that "simplicity" is what I sense is missing, but a "musical monoculture" is part of what I'm talking about.

I'm pretty convinced by how Beemer outlines the cause of modern music as well. His comparison with food holds up here: When food no longer is a scarce resource, we suddenly find it serving many other purposes, like status, style, and aesthetics. Music now does the same thing because there's so much of it.

I'm willing to agree that "choice in abundance" has many good results. I'm honestly torn on whether it's good on the whole, from a cultural perspective. When music is a personal preference instead of a cultural identifier, it seems to become frivilous, even purely self-indulgent.

(On that note, I think Joe's points about sex and art are an important part of the equation. If there's no other reason to choose music except what appeals to me--as opposed to what has meaning across generations or what connects me to my cultural environment--then it's no surprise that a majority of people choose to indulge in mindless fantasies of the crotchal region.)

Re: or, as I know it, buhdoodahDEEdahduh, buhdooDahDEEEEEDaaaa! etc.


I sort of think that we're in the middle of a vast cultural change, as we move from a homogeneous monoculture to a diverse and heterogeneous mixture of cultures on just about every front imaginable. So whether or not it's broadly good, this loss of unity is probably inevitable. I wonder if this shift (or rather, differing reactions to the shift, ranging from fear to delight) might be one of the driving forces behind the cultural conflicts like the red-blue gap?

But that said, there's no reason why we can't have our cake and eat it, too. If we find value in common musical experience, in being able to connect to distant others through that sharing, then we should cultivate that experience. Just because it doesn't happen automatically doesn't mean we can't make it happen for our benefit. In a small way, I think that's what we're doing when we all sing along to Dar Williams at Seekrit Satan every year. You just have to do it consciously, instead of by default. Maybe someone needs to start a "Common Music Society"?

"Crotchal": ha! Good word! And a good point.

Re: or, as I know it, buhdoodahDEEdahduh, buhdooDahDEEEEEDaaaa! etc.

There may also be an additional element to Joe's analysis that should be considered. I heard a piece on NPR earlier this week on the Freudian origins of marketing.

I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that effective marketing is based around bypassing higher rational thought and appealing to baser instinctual values (safety, sex, health, etc.). I'm sure there's nothing ground-breaking about the idea.

But I think that culturally we don't teach people how to listen to music. In other words, music consumers aren't taught how to interface with music on a higher brain level. Therefore, we don't generally understand music crafted in that way. As a result, popular music tends to be directed toward those instinctual values.

Were we to train the consumer's palate, we might see a better rational response to music, thereby improving the market for good music.


Re: or, as I know it, buhdoodahDEEdahduh, buhdooDahDEEEEEDaaaa! etc.

My prescription would be a little bit different: I think Beemer's right that music, by its nature appeals mainly to sub-rational modes of our minds. Efforts to move musical appreciation to the rational level will be difficult at best, maybe impossible. Or could result in a new market for enervated intellectual music.

I would say that--assuming we have some means of control over the music or its audience in the first place--emphasizing more constructive, interrelational, and spiritual passions than we currently do would be better than forsaking the passions for the intellect.

Re: or, as I know it, buhdoodahDEEdahduh, buhdooDahDEEEEEDaaaa! etc.

I was thinking a little further back, to crickets, birds, whales, etc. Sex invented Music. Music branched out from there, but I think we can't discount the mindles fantasy of the crotchal region because the performers aim for said region. It's accurate to call the labels pimps. They create a prostitute of either gender, who is in it for money, lifestyle, and being rated high on the Sex-o-meter (the essence of celebrity). Anyhoo, establishing profit motive as the primary force for dispensing music, that force rose to the top in terms of visibility, coverage, saturation... & a decline in the quality *of the most encountered music*. The music that's less dependent on pimpage still thrives, but you have to be paying attention to it. You can't learn about that music as easily as you once could. And this is indeed because of the overall abundance Beemer cites.

The thing about tech's influence on music is not only making more people's music available to more people, as well as creating new kinds of music. New music can be made by *1 person*. No bands, no community, just one visionary with instruments, a computer, and a solitary nature or outright aversion to bandmates. In commercial music of course more people are involved, but often they're never in the room at the same time, & the performers do not control the process very often. In this light, cultural musical fragmentation seems to proceed fractally from the source. Tech is as big a part if not the biggest part of the cultural adaptation to musical innovation and expansion.
Oh! That Mark Knopfler song. The really... Mark Knopfler-y one.

Just got a chance to listen to it, and I've heard it plenty of times before. It just never really stuck with me. It's fine. I don't dislike it, it just doesn't do a whole lot for me. It's better than a lot of stuff -- I likely wouldn't channel-surf past it -- but for me, it's just kinda... okay.

So I would say that my impression of this song is pretty much entirely dissimilar to yours. Mark me down as "neutral".
I expect that's a pretty common--and fair--response. I don't know many people who hew close to whatever genre you'd consider the song to be in (Brit-Bluesy Lite-Rock?).
I'd probably call the genre "KBCO". =)
Which has some stuff I like and some I don't, so it's a good exemplar of the genre in that sense.

For Chris & the other parents

Semi-topical. From the new Ben Folds CD--er, *Dual Disc* (! & much better packaging, hooray) "Songs for Silverman":


You can’t fool me I saw you when you came out
You've got your mamma’s taste but you got my mouth
And you will always have a part of me
Nobody else is ever gonna see
Gracie girl

With your cards to your chest
Walking on your toes
What you got in the box
Only Gracie knows
And I would never try to make you be
Anything you didn’t really want to be
Gracie girl

Time flies by in seconds
You’re not a baby
Gracie, you're my friend
You’ll be a lady soon
But until then
You gotta do what I say

Nodding off in my arms watching TV
I won’t move you an inch though my arm’s asleep
One day you’re gonna want to go
I hope we taught you everything you need to know
Gracie girl

And you will always have a part of me
Nobody else is ever going to see but you and me
A little girl
My Gracie girl


This song will never hit radio, so here it is. It's lullaby-y and nice.