Saturday, July 18, 2015

like jazz, but boring (Slate on the Dead)

I have a few friends obsessed with Slate magazine's Culture Gabfest podcast, which I've enjoyed on occasion in the past.  One directed me to the latest, which covers the Grateful Dead in one segment.  I'm not much of a podcast guy in general, but I figured it was worth tuning in to see what the educated post-hipster literati had to say about the Dead's legacy and farewell shows.  The GD segment starts @16 minutes in:

Turns out, they've got almost nothing.  Ostensibly the topic is the Dead as a "tribal" music (ie, you're in the tribe or not in the tribe, with no one on the fence) and what about the music makes it so appealing/important for the tribe members.  Not a bad premise, I guess (though not one that I fully agree with), but they quickly slide into a very well-plowed rut of Dead criticism: every song is endlessly long, their albums are all worthless, they were well past their prime in the 80's, they were occasionally great and usually bad, their cult of fans were either fratboys or hopeless 60's burnouts.  Slate's in-house Deadhead is brought out to speak on the Dead's behalf and eagerly talks about tapestries of sound, dreamscapes, and psychedelic wallpaper, is apologetic for the bands' faults (my god, he even cracks the joke about what deadheads say when they run out of pot), and continuously refers to their music as noodling.  The hosts talk about shibboleths and rib on the in-house Deadhead for creating a three hour playlist of Dead jams for them to suffer through.  You can imagine the rest.

I'm always intrigued about the responses to the band in 21st century forums of popular culture where the band and/or its following have relatively little (or none) of a foothold.  20-30 years ago, you knew exactly what the response was going to be.  My own unresearched impression is that in the past decade, the contemporary music press has at least come around to the idea that there was a lot more to the Dead than what met the eye in the 80's-90's.  I'm talking about contemporary publications like The Wire, Pitchfork, that kind of thing, not older ones like Rolling Stone or even the New York Times.  I don't want to wander too far into vague generalities about how the Dead are viewed/received by critics of pop culture today, but I was disappointed and honestly a little surprised that a publication like Slate would be so lazily stuck in the past with their treatment of a band that, in Slate's own words, is a great American institution.

I'm going to listen to 7/18/72 right now to get the fuzz out of my ears.  Endless tapestries of sound!

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