Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why Dinosaur Jr. still matters, or, talking to your children about distortion

 Every once in a while I go back and listen to classic Dinosaur Jr, and rightly so.  Today I was listening to Your Living All Over Me while taking Graham to JiuJitsu class, and at the end of "Tarpit", he asked me "what was that?"

So I tried to explain to him the concept of distortion and why it makes sense. As I think I've said before, Dinosaur Jr. is a landmark to me because, after many years where punk and post-punk really focused on the public, the political, the place of the young and the angry in the world, Jay Mascis all of a sudden turned it around and made it lyrical again. He sang about himself, and the pain of unrequited love, and loneliness, and he played guitar solos too, to make it sing.

And it hit home, it gave shape to the confusion and angst I was feeling at that point in time in my life, the what-the-fuck-am-I-up-to and why-doesn't-she-love-me of it all. And sometimes I think when I listen to it now that I'm just revisiting those times as an emotional tourist in my past.

In some course he taught about the European realist novel around 1995, Robert Belknap made a very profound point about the concept of the piece bien faite, or the "well-made play," a dramatic form in which everything gets wrapped up nice and tidily at the end, which tells the audience that there is order in the universe and that they can go home and sleep comfortably. I had never really thought about form like that. The same can actually be said of meter and rhyme in poetry, or harmony and melody in music. If it all sounds nice and neat, it's telling you that's how the world is.

And distortion is the opposite.  Dissonance too, and that's why Adorno riffed endlessly about how dissonance in Schoenberg exposed all the contradictions in capitalism.

But distortion and dissonance needn't necessarily be relentlessly negative. In the end, Dinosaur Jr. is a very hopeful band, it just reminds me that it ain't always easy, that shit is messy before it fertilizes.

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