Sunday, December 18, 2011

John Maus, Art as Politics, and The Predicament of Change

I mentioned some criticisms of John Maus' recent album in my year end post, and I would like to clarify and elaborate on them, so as not to be misunderstood. As a preface I would like to say something I mentioned on the mausspace forums, that he who writes, or paints, or composes may be considered as a kind of general challenger, whom everyone has the right to attack; since he quits the common rank of life, steps forward beyond the lists, and offers his merit to the public judgment. In essence, no man can justly aspire to honor, but at the hazard of disgrace. Without criticism there would be no progress, nor standards for quality. We must critique those who critique, even (and especially) our idols. This is my attempt at doing that, as I consider John to be one of the most influential people in my life.

The nature of the artist has always been ubiquitously narcissistic. John is obviously a very self- and world- conscious man and also arguably at the same time one of the most ‘selfless’ men I’ve ever met. I am guessing that he realizes this and wants his work to be more than just expression or some form of deification/immortalization vessel for himself, more than just a feeble attempt to say, "admire me, give me recognition, validate my wretched petty existence; tell me I am of value to the earth for my valliant contributions to culture," and I feel this is just one of the reasons for his changes in style we’ve seen take place over his last two albums. I am extrapolating here, so John, forgive me if I’m mistaken.

Although Songs (2006) was technically his first official release, it was actually a compilation of sorts composed of songs from his first two albums, I Want to Live (2003?) and Love Letters from Hell (2004?). In my opinion, these two albums are some of the most genuine and transcendental pieces of art I have ever come across in my 26 years on this planet. They are works of pure unadulterated genius, whose plethoric virtuosity and brilliance are rivaled only by how humble and human they are. They are devoid of the pretentions that generally surround music of such an epical nature, making them very, very unique. In terms of musical composition, they could be compared with and sit along side Mozart, Bach, Wagner, Beethoven, Schubert, and the rest. Moreover, these albums are humorous, the kind of raw humor that arises from the absurdity of the horror of existence. They encompass everything vital about art.

In an age where nearly everything feels contrived and is a revival or throw-back to something that preceded it, John’s first two albums sound bizarrely original. Of course there are influences, as with all art, particularly minimal wave acts such as Section 25, and classical structuring, but they are not directly borrowed from, rather only parts and ideas are borrowed to create true, 'unique' art. All art is intrinsically contriving to some degree, but it’s within the variations of that contrivance which we can discern its ‘originality.’

I feel that John’s live performances could best be compared to a ritual, a séance, or a church sermon. It is a means for both John and his audience to expunge something. Nothing pains me more than to see these drunken idiots dancing around like children, dressed up like fools, making a mockery of John’s true intentions all because they feel they are subscribing to what they feel fits some popular trend. These people should be exiled to some distant island where they can continue with their vapid, sexless orgies. Again, John, if you’re reading this and your intention is to make dance music and I am gravely misinformed, please let me know.

When I first heard Love is Real, I remember downloading a leaked copy on soulseek (I later bought it on vinyl, of course, along with a few more copies as gifts for friends) and being huddled close to my monitor as each individual song finished downloading, and listening – no, devouring, imbibing - eagerly. I was going to like it regardless, but I noticed immediately that something was missing. I was a pizza delivery driver at the time and I listened to it over and over in my car during the weeks (and months) to come. As I mentioned before, the macabre has been substituted for the panglossian. This much was obvious, but there was something else missing and I could not figure out just what it was. But I finally realized what the missing piece was: the realness of genuine suffering, longing, the pain and burden of love. The ‘love’ John seems to have found in Love is Real is an illusory love, an ideal love - not the kind of love found on his first two records – the kind that plagues you, that consumes you, not real love. Beyond that is the departure from poetry towards rhetoric that seemed to have taken place, rhetoric whose purpose seems to be that of sparking social and political awareness. Because rhetoric is a device that is arrived at willingly and consciously, and not a mechanism that is a product of its own accord, a certain element of sincerity is bound to be lost, and that is what is missing in Love in Real and We Must Become.... John's richest, 'realest' work has always been his love and existential songs, because these are the most guileless subjects for any human being, even the most altruistic of us.

Furthermore, the problem with attempting to merge art and politics is that it is useless, futile, ineffectual. John’s music is not going to change anyone’s mind or open anyone’s mind because of the very inaccessibility of his music. If the fucking Beatles couldn’t do it, If U2 couldn’t do it, two of the most colossal music forces the world has ever seen, it surely cannot be done. Educating others is a good thing, a noble thing even, but in John’s case with a fringe audience, it brings to mind the expression ‘preaching to the choir.’

The only way drastic, -significant- change has ever come about is from one of three ways: 01) the separation of those desiring change and exodus into a new land where a new country can be formed, 02) a violent overthrow/rebellion by the people, or 03) a rebuilding after a complete collapse. The first is irrelevant because there is no unclaimed, unoccupied, ‘free’ soil left. The second would be very difficult given the paradigm of the modern world, especially in America where everything is so spread out, and even then what is to say that the new rule and order would not be even more oppressive than than the previous? Throughout history, power and ignorance have almost always been parallel to one another. If you can name me one kind, wise leader of a prominent, prospering civilization, I will gladly paypal you $20. The third method seems to be the only viable option, and that leaves us with no other choice but to sit back and wait and watch the figurative train crash in slow motion.

Getting back to art as kindling for political revolution, not even literature (which I feel is a much better medium for actuating change) has been able to do this, George Orwell’s 1984 being the best example. This is a book that is –mandatory- reading in just about every high school in America. Yet despite being read by nearly every person in our country with a high school diploma, the once cautionary tale is no longer prophecy, but is becoming eerily true as we find ourselves in a vivid dystopian world of our own. Despite being warned, we have been duped, fallen into a cleverly conceived trap, and wonder why things have gone to shit, scratching our heads and being unable to do anything because it is much too late.

Perhaps you could accuse me of being overly pessimistic here, but the fact remains - no artist or group of artists have ever brought an end to tyranny. Art has always served best as a nexus between individuals, a way for us as isolated and simultaneously social creatures to relate to one another and communicate on a deeper level than symbolic language allows, and lastly a way to cling together and share the weight of our burden, the burden of conscious existence and finitude that can be so hard to bear at times.

John, if you are reading this (and I truly hope you are), please take what I've said to heart and feel free to respond to this and I will happily discuss my views further. I consider myself to be one of your biggest fans, and I will support whatever direction you choose to go in, but you at least know where I stand. I consider "Just Wait til Next Year" to be the greatest song ever written. I've had "That Night" haunt me because I could relate to it so, the music and lyrics perfectly encapsulating the heartbreak I was feeling at the time. I would be grateful if you even produced only one more song with such intense passion and sincerity as contained in either of those two songs. If there were more musicians like yourself I wouldn't be having to write this, but sadly you are one of a kind.


  1. Beautifully written Matt, thank you. Not sure if I agree though with everything. Here's the thing.

    John has said that he still awaits "pop" to introduce us to some new, radical thought. I agree with you that a piece of music can't change the world, and that politics and art should stay apart. However, music can influence our world. Even Marx's or Smith's or Kant's books didn't change the world overnight, but they did influence things down the line. Maybe we won't even be here when this radical change takes place because of some obscure pop song, or maybe we would be too old to realize it happened. But that change could have come, because of a piece of music, a music video, a movie, or again, a book.

    As John said in a more recent interview, our society changes "just about", little by little at a time, taking a different direction each time. It takes a French Revolution to change things overnight (and even then it took the French 30 years to get it right after that revolution), and such a thing was only done once in our history. All other changes happen gradually.

    So overall, our pop culture will and has influenced our society, and it will continue to do so. Let me give you a personal example. While I like to think, over-think, and philosophize about stuff in the shower, my parents are not exactly of that lot of people. When I was growing up I had that need to talk about complex issues with my (few) friends, or my parents. But none could understand what the heck I was talking about, neither they were interesting about these issues in the first place ("shopping" was the only thing in my friends' minds). As a young geek teenage girl, in rural Greece surrounded by goats, I needed to be molded, to have a mentor, but I had none.

    And then, Star Trek: The Next Generation happened.

    A lot of very interesting concepts were flourished in my head, or introduced to me, after watching some of these episodes. There were some social commentary episodes where they were teaching something very valuable. Some of my opinions changed about stuff, while others were re-enforced. But the bottomline is, ST:TNG *changed me*, and it became my father & mother, in a way that my real parents never could.

  2. In the world of music, I think Nirvana had a lot of similar "mind gripping" on a lot of people. The grunge attitude still lives among 30-40 year olds today, who are the people who are currently running our next-gen companies. So saying that Nirvana was not influential is not true, even if Nirvana did not introduce any new political thought.

    In my case, about music, I listened to mainstream pop/rock until 2009. I spent 35 years of my life listening to that cr*p. But if it wasn't for the RIAA lawsuits, who made me revolt against the big-4 labels (even if I never pirate myself), I would have never turned into indie music. It took me a year to get used to these "Pitchfork sounds" as I call them. In the beginning, I didn't find anything easy to listen to. But eventually, it worked (starting with Washed Out). And when this change happened, I could never go back to "easy", nothing-to-imagine-or-explore tunes. The fact that my mind had to "work" more to get pleasure out of more difficult music, is in itself progress. Because around the same time I started thinking more about more stuff. So while a no specific band or album "changed me", truly contemporary music *overall* did. The trends themselves is so "now", that they describe our world. Not what happens in our world (that's why John said "lyrics don't matter"), but rather the sound of modern indie music is how our world feels if you had to express it with music. If you were taking vacations in the planet Risa, and an alien asked you "how does it *feel* to be living on Earth", it'd be probably a piece of music you would play for him, not show him a picture of NY. A plain city picture only shows how a part of our planet looks like, not how it feels though.

    Being part of such music trends is enough to make you ENGAGE with the world more, because you understand the world more, because it's "described" to you. You understand its essence.

    As for "Just wait til next year", it's both the most "mainstream pop" song John ever wrote, and the most personal one possibly. I absolutely feel his angst when he recorded it. In fact, I even tweeted about that fact when I first heard the song. It was one of the very few songs that I had heard in my life where what I was listening to, was exactly how the artist felt at the time. Extremely expressive, piercing through my heart with his semi-crying voice. I got shivers.

    However, that song was very personal. It wasn't as much a sum-up of our "situation today" as some of his songs later would be about. At the end of the day, it's a matter of preference if someone prefers "introverted" songs, or "extroverted" ones. If someone wants to listen to the artist-person express his very personal life, or listen to the artist express his world around him/her. That's a matter of aesthetics, which whole books have been written about but I haven't read (but I'm vaguely familiar with). ;-)

  3. As a technologist myself, I'd have to contradict John and say that technology is a more direct vernacular of today than pop. Look at the iPhone. As much as the iPhone has a lot of political baggage behind it (from capitalism to security, cloud etc), it HAS changed the USA faster than any pop album or movie, or politician has. The way people do stuff today is different than pre-2007. The very fact that we do things a bit differently now because of iOS/Android, does lead to new schools of thought for the individual, even if these changes happen subconsciously.

    So as a conclusion, I don't believe society can change fast because of pop culture, but pop culture DOES change it -- just very slowly. Personally, I see our society as a "living mass", which matures and changes overtime. Nobody matures or changes overnight. If that happens, it would be because a *tragic* event took place (World War I/II anyone?). So capitalism today, or any other thing we're subjected to, it's just our current test. Eventually -- should this planet won't explode on us by our own stupidity -- we will get over and around it, and move on to the next challenge. And when that happens, DIFFERENT kind of music and pop culture will be needed to express and describe that kind of new world.

    The fact that John's music moved from "personal" to "rhetoric" as you called it, it's because John himself matured. He's not 20 anymore, chasing girls every chance he gets. He's a grown man, truly troubled "about all the bad things in the world" as he put it. And this is reflected in his music. Personally, I prefer his latest album to his older ones exactly because of all that.

    I think that the only way to really change the world overnight and challenge people's ethics and opinions in a snap, would be to have aliens landed in Manhattan. And even then, most Americans would probably prefer to watch the "show" via their TV sets, even if they live two blocks down the road. Sign o' the times my friend.

    Sorry for the 3-part comment btw, Blogspot wouldn't let me publish it in one-go.

  4. Eugenia, thank you for taking the time to give such a good reply. I'll try to respond in parts as well, because there's a lot to tackle.

    First, I should have been more clear. A lot of John's work is aimed more at causing social, individual and cultural revolution, but I feel these are inextricably intertwined with politics in the grand scheme. You mention Marx, Smith, and Kant - I feel if someone really wanted to better themselves and they would read the source 'text' where John obviously gets a lot of his inspiration from. People do not generally listen to a record to expand their worldview, and I feel these types of people are the one who most in need of 'enlightenment,' and also the ones least likely to experience any significant change from listening to a pop song.

    The punk movement came as close as I think we're ever going to get to bringing about cultural revolution, yet even so, it's true 'members' make up a very, very small minority of the world. There is also the fact that a lot of people who listen to punk, do so out of vain or shallow purposes (ie. fashion, or perhaps they are already pariahs and do so out of spite for conformity but don't necessarily 'get' it, or truly embody it)

    It's a classic biblical David and Goliath scenario, only there is no metaphorical rock to be thrown. So although minor victories may be won, I don't think that any amount of art or truth or whatever can topple such massive and complex machinery controlling the world at present. The corporations in power make the British or Romans governments of the past look tiny in comparison, and it's going to take more than a handful (or a thousand or even a million) of people optimistically saying 'Yeah! We can transcend! We can overcome!'

  5. I hate to admit, but I'm not a Star Trek fan. Not out of dislike for the show, just never got around to watching it. That being said, I've heard that TNG is a wonderful show from many good friends, and your anecdote brings to mind one of my own regarding pop culture and social commentary. The Wire is one of the most well-written, smart examples of social commentary I can think of in the last 20 years. It is not heavy handled but its message is communicated clearly. However, a large portion of America (right now specifically) is in poverty, and may not even have a single television, nevertheless cable with HBO to watch it. Because of this, the message is not being communicated to the people who need it the most. If you'd like I could find statistics, but I'm sure you know the majority of our country isn't doing very well economically at the present, and this affects education and a vast number of different other things). So while you may have been greatly affected by TNG or I may have had my mind opened by The Wire....we are already educated, we already think critically and analyze the world around us. If John had a way to reach out and share his music to people living in the ghettos or even just lower/working class America, he might be able to achieve something. Unfortunately, his audience is mainly an anglo-oriented one, mainly young people from middle to upper class backgrounds.

    Do not get me wrong, social commentary through art is a great thing, and yes it does little by little achieve things, but it has never brought mass enlightenment or even mass change. John's earlier work had a good balance between social commentary and more personal stuff, and that was fine. But my point in writing this article was that I feel the music has suffered because he isn't as sincere about his his direction as his old one.

  6. "However, that song was very personal. It wasn't as much a sum-up of our "situation today" as some of his songs later would be about. At the end of the day, it's a matter of preference if someone prefers "introverted" songs, or "extroverted" ones. If someone wants to listen to the artist-person express his very personal life, or listen to the artist express his world around him/her."

    This is very true and I'm sure everyone takes their own subjective thing from his or anyone's work. I'm sure I came off pretty judgmental and arrogant with my bit about 'buffoons dancing around' to John's music, but it's only my opinion. I feel it would be similar to hearing Erik Satie's Trois Gymnopedies's played ironically over a scene in a teen comedy or something. It would be a travesty, you know? I'm sure a lot of people actually prefer John's recent work, I'm just saying "I feel it isn't as 'good' and here is why." All art can be considered subjective, but it works both ways with appreciation of art.

  7. "I don't believe society can change fast because of pop culture, but pop culture DOES change it -- just very slowly. Personally, I see our society as a "living mass", which matures and changes overtime. Nobody matures or changes overnight."

    An individual is much different than several million people from different backgrounds, statuses, cultures etc, all of whom are selfish and many of whom hate each other (note: America). It would require a very, very, very insane amount of harmony or blind luck or whatever to change everyone's or even the 'majority's' mind. That's why I feel that the end result is just not achievable, whereas an individual can transcend or become enlightened relatively easily.

  8. Your last point is a very valid one. He's has matured, and he is also seemingly much happier now than he was. If I had to choose between him being miserable and making better music, or the opposite, I'd definitely choose the latter.

  9. Really the only person who could "change the world" right now seems to be Justin Bieber. Our fate rests upon the shoulders of soulless idiot.

    But hey, at least his dubstep album will be interesting to see how it's ripples effect pop music (however something tells me this will not be a positive change)

  10. Thanks for the replies. I also posted that on mausspace btw.

    >"If John had a way to reach out and share his music to people living in the ghettos or even just lower/working class America"

    There is a way to do this: he must make a good album, with a major-label promotional push, and he must give it away for free (e.g. a Creative Commons license). Thing is, all that would have to come out of his own pocket, so it makes it impossible to realize.

    I've watched The Wire btw, it's the most perfectly-written show I ever watched. Except the social commentary, the actual script of it was perfect. I'm usually good at finding plot holes, but The Wire was bullet-proof.

  11. The problem with your theoretical solution is that no major label would ever release John's music because John's message, his very philosophy, is entirely antithetical to their own. Not only antithetical but threatening and dangerous. John says 'down with people who hoard wealth' and the big labels say 'We want to hoard wealth' So even if it was possible, it could never happen.

    The Wire is great, I'm actually watching it now and I'm blown away by how non-fictional it all seems

  12. You give them too much credit of thinking ahead, they don't. Labels would release anything if there was a way to make a buck. It was the majors who released Sex Pistols anyway. The problem with my solution is not John's message -- whatever that message might be, but the fact that they can't make a buck on John's message since the album would be free.

  13. I would say on the contrary, you give them too little credit. The guys they send out to find bands are often very sly and manipulative and take a number of things into consideration. When money is concerned any big corporation always covers their ass. Sex Pistols are definitely an exception, but they were tame compared to other acts, and I regard songs like "Anarchy in the UK" in way to be kind of 'safe anarchy' and I doubt anyone went and burned down a police station while listening to it.

    I'd be all for John getting a massive audience, but there are several factors keeping this from happening.