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Bad Music, and a "Big Nothing" Elliot Smith bio

Long before Ashlee Simpson stormed off the Saturday Night Live stage in a fit of (lip-out-of-synch) pique, many viewers had pre-determined that Ms. Simpson's music was crass, low-brow, least-common-denominator assembly line bullshit worthy only of their scorn -- which is why they watched with such glee as the last remaining veneer was stripped from "that" music.

But in the new book, Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate (Routledge Press, 379 pgs., $24.95), a series of 17 provocative essays asks the question of various different genres, Who Says It Sucks and Why?

"Bad music is first and foremost a social construct," write editors Christopher Washburne and Maiken Derno in the introduction, making the distinction between music poorly executed and "the passing of aesthetic judgments as strategic acts of positioning oneself within a given discursive landscape."

Virtually all of the essays point to the conclusion that "bad music" is essential to the music lover's sense of self, and that passing judgment assumes and bestows authority upon the judge. (Hence that one person we all know whose rabid animosity defines them far more than anything they like does.) "By explicitly disaffiliating ourselves with certain forms of musical expression, we make a claim for being "in the know' about things (and) we demonstrate an educated perspective and activate a wide range of underlying assumptions about what is "good.' "

The essays themselves concentrate on music styles that "invite disdain and disapprobation," even though they may be wildly popular. Country music goes under the microscope when Aaron A. Fox looks at, for instance, Garth Brooks vs. Alison Krauss, and why the assumptions about "real country" -- i.e., Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, etc. -- suggest that it's Ms. Krauss' music that is "inauthentic," and not the other way around. Deana Weinstein looks at heavy metal and takes critics to task for their "opposition to commercially successful music...(which) preserves the critic's position as uncorrupted and as a member of a select, hip group still linked to the counter-cultural past." Angela Rodel examines the punk offshoot extreme hardcore and sees its "badness" as a conscious choice to use ""bad aesthetics' to set itself apart from mainstream music production and to challenge the musical status quo." Washburne dissects smooth jazz (rehashing a hilarious interview in which Kenny G cites his influences, including Charlie Parker, though he clearly knows little if anything about "the Bird") but concludes that studying the phenomenon is as vital, if not more so, to jazz history than studying the accepted canonical hierarchy.

Other essays look at the American Idol phenomenon ("our recent obsession with the more-than-mundane musical talents of mundane people"), classical music ossification, folk, film music, electronic glitch and the intentionally awful music known as "loser's lounge."

The majority of essays are well written and easy enough to digest, though the post-modern post-structuralist jargon is like a narcotic at times. But overall this is an amusing and provocative look at the role bad music -- whatever that is -- plays in our lives.

Small Book About the Big Nothing
This thin biography sees its release date coincide with the one-year anniversary of Elliot Smith's apparent suicide, and that "coincidence" should frame any discussion of this book's merit.

A biography that hits the streets one year after the demise of its subject can't possibly claim to be comprehensive, and Ben Nugent's Elliot Smith & the Big Nothing (Da Capo, 230 pgs, $23.95) doesn't pretend to be. Not surprisingly, Smith's immediate family refused to take part, so most of the anecdotal evidence is merely third-party hearsay and rehashed journalism.

Nugent's obviously a big fan, which, combined with a lack of first-person interviews, means he spends a lot of time dissecting Smith's lyrics. Nothing wrong with that, per se, unless you try to pass off your theories as analysis -- life ain't no literature course.

Smith was a reclusive artist, even after the film Good Will Hunting and his subsequent Grammy nomination threatened to make him a star. And anyone who heard the stories of fumbled performances, no-shows and self-destructive behavior in recent years knows that Smith's drug addiction had spiraled out of control after 2000's Figure 8. But there is remarkably little beyond speculation on the period that turned Smith from the sharp, observant chronicler of the inconsistencies of human relationships to the self-referential suicidal artist that made his final work, From A Basement on the Hill.

Nugent's book isn't awful, but were he less concerned with cashing in on Smith's death, he could have waited a few years, collected more of his own interviews and, hopefully, eventually gained access to Smith's closest friends and family. No doubt Nugent's rush to press played a role in their declining to talk to him, and Elliot Smith & the Big Nothing takes on an unwelcome meaning because of it.

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