wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: academia

Dad rock.

Trey Anastasio of Phish writes and plays dad rock, I’m reliably informed, which is (They say) bad. The phrase means ‘midtempo rock with wishy-washy lyrics,’ broadly — music with no ‘edge.’

If the term were reasonable, I suppose it would apply. I’ll be honest, I don’t love Trey’s new singer-songwriter stuff; he’s at his best with the band, has never been a standout lyricist, and tends toward soupy New Age stuff (lots of ‘ocean of love’ metaphors).

But ‘dad rock’ is a contemptible term. It’s not fundamentally about the music, but is rather an indictment of the musician, charging him with being demographically unacceptable — an unforgivably middle-aged man. Anastasio doesn’t pretend to be young, but he maintains a playful open spirit that his musical colleagues pick up on immediately. (People love playing with Trey.) That spirit isn’t interesting but it’s real, which critics hate.

He’s through showing off, is through making art for any reason other than to testify to his actual place in the actual universe in language that resonates with him.

Which is, of course, disgusting — like an old lady still feeling sexual desire, or a fat person undressing, or a child sharing an opinion. Know your place, Trey, and get out of the way (out of sight) of the angry ignorant anxious tastemakers who want The Next ‘Interesting’ Thing rather than whatever ‘love’ shit you’re peddling.

Anastasio’s music is lovely and welcoming, and for nearly 40 years has glued together a uniquely American vagabond community that hears something rare and authentic in Trey’s voice. He’s a dad, and rocks, and plays with a grateful smile on his face. ‘Dad rock’ is a term of dismissal and is beneath us.



I once declared to a friend — in my twenties I ‘declared’ a lot — that terrible art was better value-for-money than a good one. The casuistry went like this:

  • With good art, your level of pleasure is determined by how good it is. You come out of the movie theater and if you saw a great movie you feel great, and have a great time talking about it. But you can only say ‘It was great’ in so many ways
  • With bad art, your level of pleasure depends on your own expressions of distaste. If you can go on for several days about the shittiness of a movie or the banality of a gallery installation or how insipid all of XYZ’s music is, if you can find novel ways to run down your own experiences (and the work of others), then you win, baby! Bad art is the gift that takes a little then keeps on giving

Everything about this is stupid. Twenty years on, though, I note that this really is how a shockingly large people feel about life — but instead of depending on ‘good/bad art’ they build an entire (un)imaginative life on ever more elaborate evasions of direct experience in general.

This is ‘sophistication.’

The scare quotes are there because actual sophistication is something like reserve of judgment, complex reasoning, subtlety of understanding, passionate learning serving dispassionate analysis — grownup thinking. The cultural pose known as ‘sophistication’ is a refusal to invest, risk, immerse; sophists dissociate themselves from ‘common’ experience, and the fact that this wish is doomed to be thwarted doesn’t make it less cowardly or contemptible.

Last night I tweeted this:

the people who deride stories like THE MATRIX as ‘freshman dorm room’ stuff are just wankers who peaked in their freshman dorm rooms

pick a challenging text. enjoy confronting it. think through its implications. if you think it’s shallow, dig deeper. you’re probably wrong.

Someone once wrote this:

Fascination Creates Content

Finding meaning in any art is like finding geology in any ground–you dig, you’ll get it. Fictions don’t explore issues–people explore fictions and then find issues there. When you invest hard enough you get an inevitability: the evidence left when complete, complicated humans contrive to find new ways to speak to as-yet-untapped parts of other complete, complicated humans.

‘Sophistication,’ so called, is anxious avoidance. It’s standing with a shovel in hand, looking at the ground, desperately envying those who dig, convinced that you can’t and so insisting — pretending — that you mustn’t.

Not in my Battle of Yavin (NIMBY).

(Wrote this a few months ago, was too embarrassed to post it. Should’ve stayed that way. –wa.)

The /r/StarWars subreddit is a disaster, as you’d expect, as I’d foolishly hoped it wouldn’t be. The most vocal fans simply hated The Last Jedi, of course, always for the usual reasons: Luke ‘didn’t do anything,’ Finn’s arc was pointless, ‘Super Leia’ is silly, we never find out who Snoke is, etc.

In other words, ‘fans’ are complaining about Star Wars the same way they (their ilk) complained about Season Six of The Sopranos, and it’s just as embarrassing this time around. For example:

Gamespeak: You regularly see nerds talking about how Luke couldn’t be in Episode VII because he’s ‘OP’ (overpowered), would simply go ‘god-mode’ on the First Order. Guys who talk this way are often found moaning about Rey in clumsily sexist terms.

Bloodthirst: Why didn’t Leia die in Laura Dern’s place? Or Ackbar? Why didn’t we get a meaningful death or something? Why did Phasma go out like a bitch? While we’re at it, why didn’t Luke take on the First Order with his laser sword, that would’ve been awesome! These people are idiots.

Movies are plot/conspiracy: A lot of writer-wannabes talk this way who haven’t yet made the turn to understanding what art is actually for. ‘It feels like Leia’s “spacewalk” was put in as a tease,’ because the only reason to put in a gorgeous scene of personal apotheosis is to mock fan conspiracists, of course.

You write that way if, say, you’re an adolescent raised in a discourse-culture which has absorbed the moralizing identitarianism of Theory-ish academic criticism but nothing else about it, within a wider commercial-capitalist culture that has no use for aesthetics. Thinking the text has to meet you halfway and not the other way around.


Lectures (dated 1998) on Dewey and Whitman, America as secular ‘civic religion,’ economic vs cultural Leftism, the Left’s embrace of the concept of ‘sin,’ the mid-60s cultural shift from fighting selfishness to fighting sadism, and the compatibility of anti-Enlightenment philosophical critique with Left-liberalism.

What a joy to read a passionate, unabashed celebration of intellectualism and Americanism and justice (social and otherwise) and poetry and philosophy and civilization — and what a shock to read a full-throated defense of the 20C American Left tradition against the bourgeois-academic equation of leftism with pseudoradical anticapitalism. Brilliant and prescient: his Littwak-esque talk of the growing desire for a nativist strongman is spooky to read with Trump in the White House.

I nearly wrote, ‘…in Trump’s America.’ But it’s not. That’s the point: it’s not his, not at all. It’s ours.

Cultural studies.

Academic field — the mutant offspring of philosophy, literary studies, and political economy. Once the most interesting thing going in academic humanities, now unsurprisingly shallow in its philosophy, obtuse in its approach to texts, and dogmatic in its politics (and economics!). Online-leftish discourse is deeply indebted to cultural studies, as is identitarian pseudocriticism now standard in e.g. TV reviewing. The field’s dependency/hostility toward sci/tech is its greatest liability at present; or wait, no, I mean its political monoculture. Er, political dogmatism? Status-seeking? Hilariously bad writing across the board? ‘Fun’ research project: how many humanities academics have entirely given up reading for pleasure?

‘So Expressionist!’

One obvious mark of a poseur is that they declare art good or bad based on whether they can identify its style. This is a handy heuristic for dismissing ‘critics’: if their interest in a text scales with how neatly the text fits an existing pattern of judgment — genre markers, current narrative tropes, allegorical Significance — then they’re not really attending to the text.

One trouble with art criticism in general, then, is that once you’ve found the great critics, the ones who engage deeply with individual artworks on their (the artworks’) own terms, in their (the critics’) own voices, you no longer get the comfort of abstraction. Great critics don’t arm you for cocktail-party talk about Art, because that talk never gets past schema, category, dead-end recurrence to personal taste. How could it? People at cocktail parties hate each other and share nothing meaningful, since (and therefore) they only hang out at cocktail parties. Strong critics set their own terms; they change conversations rather than keeping them going for status reasons.

(This nitpick, like most of what’s left of American ‘intellectual culture,’ brought to you by a tweet that annoyed me and inspired our post title.)