Wednesday, October 1, 2014

In Defense of Pretense

Today, I'd like to tell you about my friend Mark (don't worry, he won't mind - he never reads my blod anyway). Mark is a big music fan, but he does have a frustrating tendency to dismiss bands for being pretentious. It's very much his go-to excuse; if he doesn't like a song, or an album, or an artist, he'll play the 'pretentious' card:

"What do you think of these guys, Mark? I bought their new album the other day, and-"
"Ugh, they're a bit pretentious..."

Quiet Marauder, who of course released a 111-song album about men last year, are a prime example of a great band whom Mark considers 'pretentious'.

Now, I can't point the finger too much. I overuse words like 'dull' and 'boring' in much the same way, usually when I can't be bothered to listen closely and work out why a song might actually be kinda good. But the use of 'pretentious' as a criticism has always bothered me, and even before I knew Mark, I was of the opinion that music ought to be a little pretentious. Without pretentiousness - or a particular kind of high-concept creativity that is often mistaken for pretentiousness - acts like Pink Floyd and David Bowie and The Flaming Lips would be a lot less interesting, I feel.

So, wait, this guy's name is David...but he's pretending to be an alien called 'Ziggy Stardust'? Dude, that's so pretentious.

But, okay, let's take the word at face value. According to Wiktionary, here's what 'pretentious' actually means:
  1. Marked by an unwarranted claim to importance or distinction.
    Their song titles are pretentious in the context of their basic lyrics.

  2. Ostentatious; intended to impress others.
    Her dress was obviously more pretentious than comfortable.
The first definition is kind enough to use a musical example; the second, I suppose, applies to bands who aim to dazzle (say, with histrionic solos and oblique literary references) rather than to endear (with strong melodies and moving lyrics).

So, should pretentiousness be punished? As far as definition #1 is concerned, I don't think there's anything wrong with using OTT titles to advertise average songs - heck, it's a tactic I've used myself on more than one occasion:

I don't just over-analyse music; I sometimes make it as well!

The second crime - prioritising style over substance, basically - is less forgiveable, and if you're only in a band to show off your knowledge of À la recherche du temps perdu while playing meticulously-choreographed guitar patterns, then yeah, screw you.

But it is possible to take this approach and still produce something of value. Exhibit A: Of Montreal.

The song in that video is called A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger, and it's taken from an album called Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? Here are some of the song's lyrics

I spent the winter with my nose buried in a book
While trying to restructure my character
Because it had become vile to its creator
And through many dreadful nights
I lay praying to a saint that nobody has heard of
And waiting for some high times to come again

Now, I have no problem with admitting that A Sentence of Sorts is extremely pretentious, from its title to the very last note. But I love that song (and its parent album), not in spite of but because of its pretentiousness.

Here's the whole point of Hissing Fauna, as I see it: Of Montreal go to great pains to make lots of obscure references to little-known authors and Nordic villlages and various myths and legends, the idea being to confuse the listener and make them feel very unintelligent indeed.

BUT! Beneath all the posturing and the long words, there are some seriously accessible pop songs, and some seriously relatable emotional content. If you didn't listen to A Sentence of Sorts before, scroll back up, click play, and tell me that's not the catchiest thing you've ever heard. And if you look past the stuff about that saint nobody has heard of, you'll realise that A Sentence of Sorts, at its core, is just a song about feeling depressed and being on the verge of a total breakdown (albeit while living in Norway).

And that's the beauty of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? Our narrator is feeling a very powerful sadness - something that many of his listeners will be able to identify with - and all the fancy trappings are only there to make him feel special in spite of his depression, and perhaps even to protect him from the visceral emotions that he's actually singing about. It's a neat trick.

Oh, and since this song is on that CD, any unnecessary pretense is forgiven anyway.

So that's why I feel that 'pretentious' doesn't always equal 'bad'. In fact, all of the best albums are a little pretentious - that's a big part of what makes them so much bigger and so much better than everybody else's albums.

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you on this. As I listen to more math rock stuff, it makes me realise that it errs a little close to prog. But for some reason I love This Town Needs Guns, but Yes is overblown, despite the focus on technique of both bands. But for me it kinda comes down to function. The TTNG is at times pretentious, but the style is an intrinsic part of the song, rather than an add on guitar /drum / bass / keyboard solo. To me it's punk rock for anally retentive people.