Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sasha on Sasha

Nick Hornby's music criticism for The New Yorker never really cut it with the self-styled smart kids, because Hornby was too conventional in his taste and arguments. Yeah, his take on Radiohead's Kid A was much too stodgy, but it wasn't void of truth, and even the band has slowed the rate of its sonic experimentation. Besides, I'll take someone whose stodginess I have to correct for over someone like Curtis White, the life of the party who believes that Kid A can only be properly understood and appreciated alongside Theodor Adorno's philosophy.

I would also take Hornby, please, over current New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones, because Hornby eschews the common pop-crit practice of writing incomprehensible sentences, like this one:
The Knowles empire is delicately balanced on one of the thinnest-known edges in pop feminism: as unbiddable as Beyoncé gets, she never risks arrant aggression; and as much of hip-hop's confidence and sound as she borrows, she never drifts to the back of the classroom.
That comes from Frere-Jones' most recent, a mystifying essay about Beyoncé. He writes that, "To underestimate Knowles and her rotating cast of backup singers is to find yourself on the business end of a No. 1 song." Who is this doing the underestimating? And in the current world of No. 1 songs, what does that accomplishment say about an artist's real worth? And how is focusing on chart position any different than White's critique of Hornby's "commodity fetishism"?

Frere-Jones goes on to call Beyoncé a "strange and brilliant musician," with no back-up in sight for either adjective. In fact, Frere-Jones himself seems mostly underwhelmed by the singer's work. He writes that her success must testify to something "deeply appealing about her," because:
. . . her first album, "Dangerously in Love" (2003), has three good songs, at best; her second, "B'Day" (2006), is completely enjoyable; and her new one, "I Am . . . Sasha Fierce" (featuring a supposedly new, wilder alter ego), is something of a mess.
After more lukewarm response, he writes, "For all that, liking Beyoncé is still a wise bet."

What does that mean? A wise bet financially? (Who in their right mind would think otherwise?) A wise bet to like her at cocktail parties? Who cares? Near the end, there's this:
What Knowles fails to convey with Sasha Fierce she accomplishes in the movie "Cadillac Records," with her portrayal of someone who headlines in the Genius Lounge—Etta James. When Beyoncé rolls her body and her voice into James's music, the results are not safe. Her version of James is a worthy tribute to the sexuality and craft of the woman we know from her Chess recordings. Why Knowles could not make her own record as spontaneous and magnetic probably has something to do with the Knowles vision of Beyoncé's fans and how much actual fierceness they can take.
Forget that the brief clips I saw of Beyoncé as James seem like Hollywood's usual over-emoting. The reason she doesn't make records like Etta James might have something to do with the fact that she's not that great, a notion that Frere-Jones never floats.

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Blogger TK said...

God, that article reads like a cautionary tale of how not to write. The language is damn-near impenetrable.

12:42 PM  
Blogger ANCIANT said...

Totally agree. Always thought that SFJ, along with Denby and Lahr, were the very worst the New Yorker had to offer (I'm keeping to the critics). His blog is also pretty terrible.

To give credit where it's due: his essay about seeing the reunited Zeppelin was pretty great.

6:34 PM  

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