Here is where it all began over on Carrie Brownstein’s NPR blog


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Phish fans rejoiced when Carrie Brownstein announced she would listen to nothing but Phish for a week as part of her Monitor Mix blog for NPR. Brownstein is more sacrosanct than the Pope in hipster music circles, and her writing is sharp and clear. (Four of her pieces appear in this year’s Best Music Writing released by Da Capo press.) As many commented, “She could single-handedly make Phish hip.” What became evident during her week-long experiment was no matter what, some folks will never lose their Phish bias. They will always be flippant, glib, and ignorant when they comment on the band. What also became apparent was no musician can deny Phish’s talent and skill. Carrie Brownstein admires Phish.

In her own words: “At first listen, Phish comes across as a jazzy, jam-based band with leanings toward folk, funk, freak and frivolity (oh, and prog, but that throws off the alliteration). For non-Phish aficionados, here are some base references: Zappa, Beefheart, ELO, Flying Burrito Brothers and Soft Machine. But it’s just as easy to be surprised by a Phish song and have it sound like none of the aforementioned; to hear hints of classical music, the grandiosity of a Who rock opera, or the melodic prowess of Lennon/McCartney (or maybe Garcia/Lesh). If jamming scares you, then Phish’s music will be harder to take. But I like the jam, particularly in the live setting. And many of the great live bands playing today incorporate some element of jamming, sometimes to the chagrin of their fans. Stephen Malkmus (whether with Pavement or The Jicks), Yo La Tengo, Arcade Fire and Wilco are but a few of the bands that like to change up their songs on stage. And if you love Television and its wiry, taut albums but never saw the group live, then you wouldn’t know that those terse songs were jammed out Dead-style in concert, sometimes stretching well beyond the 10-minute mark.”

Bias is a funny, persnickety bitch. I spend my sunlight hours chasing it from my students’ minds. It will never be completely avoidable, but it can be deprecated down to next-to-nothing through reading, writing, and mental attentiveness. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explores all types of bias. He takes an Implicit Association Test that proves he is a racist, even though his mother is Jamaican. Gladwell knows it is wrong and ludicrous to associate black people with guns and crime, especially for a man who is half black, but deep-seeded bigotries flash in his brain before he has time to reason them away. Our minds have an impish quality we embrace or ignore, rarely acknowledge and fix. So what if our minds make narrow, snap judgments that alter the way we view reality? It doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to be biased. For this essay, “bias” is defined as the refusal to reason with evidence. I will adhere to René Descartes’ description of objective reality. To simplify with a cliché: if a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear it, it does make a sound. Or in better terms: objective reality exists independent of our experience and judgment of it.

While her experiment was going on, I began the final days of a slow but short Bataan Death March of a relationship with a girl who was dismissive of Phish without ever hearing a single note; but who also worships Carrie Brownstein. Now that the relationship is done and over, I have decided to listen to nothing but Carrie Brownstein’s music for a week. Because I am a Liberal, I greeted my ex’s music and movies and food and activities with an open mind, but I cannot say I was listening too carefully when Sleater-Kinney (Brownstein’s band) was on the car stereo. Nor was I paying attention when So You Think You Can Dance? was on the television. (Yes, I tolerated that pigeon stool of a show without comment because that’s what nice boyfriends do.)

So this morning at 9:00 I turned off Jerry Garcia’s Cats Under the Stars and put on “Modern Girl” from the Sleater-Kinney album The Woods. (All my listenings will come from GrooveShark, a legal site.) Great tune with cool lyrics: “My whole life is like a picutre of a sunny day.” Clean guitar with a sincere yet swaggering voice; breaks into Bonhamesque drums and Neutral Milk Hotel orchestration. I am already appreciating Sleater-Kinney, but let me list some factors that could lead to bias on my part:

1. I know from my scant listenings there will be loud, acidic guitar, and my tolerance for that is not the highest. It does not bother me if such things give you pleasure, and I can hear the art in some of it, but it just doesn’t do it for me.

2. My ex listened to Sleater-Kinney and some very angry heavy metal in order to deal with and not deal with her emotional problems. I think she was in a physically abusive relationship in the past, and she used loud, angry music as well as harming herself to deal with it.

3. While I like all kinds of music, there was a time when the dismissal of Phish created a backlash. I spent a lot of time dumping on Radiohead just to get back at those tight-pants-wearing, posturing, hair-carefully-disheveled, sniveling twits who roamed the streets of Chicago with snide talking points ready to belittle Phish at any time.

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