Friday, January 23, 2009

Ron Rosenbaum on Billy Joel

I read this today. Ron Rosenbaum excoriating Billy Joel for two pages on Slate. I'm not intending to turn this blog into a running commentary on what other people say about art; I'd rather just concentrate on art itself. But Mr. Rosenbaum did catch me with his lead paragraph:
This may seem an odd moment to bring up the subject of Billy Joel. But the recent death of the painter Andrew Wyeth revived a long-standing debate over whether his art is respectable or merely sentimental schlock. (Say it: good or bad?) It got me to thinking about the question of value in art and whether there are any absolute standards for judging it. It indicates the question is still alive, not relegated to irrelevance by relativism.
Interesting questions, and he's right that Mr. Wyeth's death is a good occasion to think about them. For the record, I like Mr. Wyeth well enough; not enough to leap to his defense here, but well enough.

Which is, funnily enough, how I feel about Billy Joel. Mr. Rosenbaum spends the rest of his article trashing Mr. Joel to prove that there are, or at least can be, absolute standards for judging art. It's an interesting exercise, and at least Mr. Rosenbaum is game enough to define his standards. His objections to Mr. Joel's work boil down, he says, to this:
It exhibits unearned contempt. Both a self-righteous contempt for others and the self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt's backside, so to speak. Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J.
Fair enough. And I'll resist the temptation to write that Mr. Rosenbaum is himself indulging in unearned contempt; I like his work on Shakespeare, so I'll allow he's earned the right to show some contempt, if that's what he feels like doing.

On the other hand, I think he's being a little disingenuous when he tries to locate the problem entirely within Mr. Joel. He as much as admits it later when he writes that
Billy's from my 'hood, mid-Long Island—Hicksville, to be precise (I'm from Bay Shore)—so I'm sensitive to his abuse of our common roots. Once I wrote something about the curse of being from the Guyland. In it I said something heartfelt: New Jersey may have a rep as a toxic dump for mob victims to fester in, but at least it brought forth Bruce Springsteen. The ultimate Guyland humiliation is to be repped to the world by Billy Joel. So I feel entitled to be cruel—
Follow Mr. Rosenbaum's link to his article about Long Island. You'll find this juicy paragraph:
I say "we" because, while I was born in Manhattan and have lived most of the latter half of my life here, I grew up on Long Island, and I'm resigned to the fact that in some essential, irrevocable way I'll always be a Long Islander. Resigned to the fact that, whenever I tell someone my hometown was Bay Shore, I feel compelled to add, pre-emptively, "Yes, that's right, that's the home of Katie Beers's dungeon." Resigned to the fact that every mush-mouthed hayseed in America feels he has the right to say, condescendingly, "Oh, you're from Long Island, you mean Lawn Guyland" -- as if everyone there spoke that way and he was establishing a Henry Higgins-like sophistication by comparison.
Now I think we're getting to the point. Mr. Rosenbaum's contempt for Mr. Joel is that of the the native son ashamed of his hometown, combined with the Manhattanite's contempt for every place that's not Manhattan. (If you call everybody from elsewhere a "mush-mouthed hayseed," how can you criticize them for calling you a "Lawn Guylander"?)

All of this is perhaps a roundabout, although hopefully not unduly ad hominem, way of saying that, like Mr. Rosenbaum, I've often wondered if we can't find some sort of absolute standard for judging art. I've annoyed many a professor and not a few students in my time by insisting we talk about this very question.

Lately, though, I've become an agnostic about the question, because I haven't encountered any absolute standards that aren't pretty easily exposed as motivated by something else. Like Mr. Rosenbaum's Manhattanitis.

I've learned to settle for simply trying to articulate why I like what I like, rather than trying to prove that it is, objectively, good. All I ask (I think; I may prove myself a hypocrite on this) of any other critic is an honest articulation of taste.

Like: everything Mr. Rosenbaum says about Mr. Joel may be true. But I still think Mr. Joel was a pretty gifted or canny crafter of pop/rock records. Songs like "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" or "Don't Ask Me Why," or a dozen other records I could name off the top of my head, boast nicely worked-out melodies, well-constructed verse/chorus/bridge sequences, effective arrangements that usually opt for solid musicianship rather than production tricks, lyrics that if they lack Dylanesque profundity manage to evoke something beyond simple lust. In addition to which, Mr. Joel could be a compelling performer: I've always found Songs From The Attic to be an exemplary live album, making the case that some artists should record everything live, as energy usually trumps precision.

Do I love Mr. Joel as much as I do Dylan? Not on your life. But I don't hate him, and I think I have pretty sound reasons for not hating him. I also think Mr. Rosenbaum has sound, well-articulated reasons for hating him: but I don't think they constitute an aesthetic absolute.

EDIT: One of the commenters on Mr. Rosenbaum's essay reminds us that Slate's own Jody Rosen wrote about Billy Joel a few years ago. Mr. Rosen's take doesn't have the philosophical hook of wondering if we can find aesthetic absolutes, but it is a lot fairer and (this is the important part) more perceptive in its treatment of Mr. Joel's strengths and weaknesses as an artist.

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