No thing’s any good

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet)

A bad book is as much of a labor to write as a good one, it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.” (Aldous Huxley)

With those words in mind, consider the music of Shooby Taylor, “the Human Horn

Stout Hearted Men

Lift Every Voice

Folsom Prison Blues

Taylor was an African American, raised in Harlem, who spent most of his life trying to break into the music business. An Army veteran, he took some music and voice lessons and went to jazz jam sessions and nightclubs hoping to sit in. He recorded these tunes either at home or at a Times Square studio that let walk-in customers record whatever they liked. He recorded more than 50 of them. There’s a YouTube video of Shooby being booed off the stage at “Amateur Night the Apollo Theater.”

Most people would say that Shooby’s music is bad–spectacularly, weirdly, fascinatingly bad, bad to the point of a kind of grandeur.1 But bad. It’s exuberant in its badness, relentless; unabashed. Why is it bad?

The quote from Hamlet above suggests it’s only bad if you think it’s bad.  Its goodness or badness depends on the criteria you bring to bear on it. When I was an undergrad it was still common to divide art into good and bad, high and low, serious and popular, and to maintain distinctions, in which, say, Melville was a great writer and Barbara Cartland  was not. That kind of thinking mostly vanished in the 1980s, under the influence of “postmodernism,” which argued more or less that art is neither good nor bad; rather it’s rendered interesting/meaningful/beautiful by the system of thought you bring to bear on it, as Hamlet says.

So Bach is not better or worse than Lady Gaga; rather, their work needs to be seen in different “frames.” This is the apparatus I generally use myself–I assume that there is no “better,” there’s difference. It’s sometimes dismissed as “cultural relativism,” a sloppy way of saying “it’s all opinion.” But that’s too dismissive–postmodernism insisted on a lot of information, on informed opinion, and nobody who struggled with postmodern theory remembers it as easy or as a fun diversion for the lazy. Having a coherent “frame,” or set of frames for viewing art takes work.

Shooby Taylor was sincere, and worked hard at trying to be heard. But his “art” was terrible. In the passage quoted above Aldous Huxley goes on to say: “But the bad author’s soul being, artistically at least, of inferior quality, its sincerities will be, if not intrinsically uniteresting, at any rate uninterestingly expressed, and the labor expended on the expression will be wasted.”

Cartoon of Shooby from Outsider Music

I’m not willing to say that Shooby Taylor had a “bad soul” or an inferior soul: that kind of judgement seems at best “above my pay grade” and at worst simply impossible. Miles Davis was a great artist and by all accounts a mean, wife-beating, drug addicted and mostly contemptible person. What good does talk about such a person’s “soul” do? There’s a self fulfilling quality to the argument–if the art is good, it’s because the “soul” is good. That argument’s not good enough.

The argument that all art springs from the same fundamental impulse appears in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, a loving tribute to the absurdity of creative endeavor. The movie imagines a charming kind of bonhommie of the creative, but Ed Wood’s films were still terrible–astonishingly, inexplicably Shooby-Taylor-or-the-Shaggs bad.

There are any number of instances of work once considered crazy-bad later acclaimed as masterwork. Melville’s Moby Dick is an example beloved by novelists who get bad reviews: people hated it and speculated that Melville was insane. So the simple fact that the work seems crazy isn’t enough: times and tastes change.

All my academic training and intellectual work leads me to conclude that “good” is a situational, contingent thing, and that given the right frame, Shooby Taylor could be considered great.

But still, within a given aesthetic “frame,” some things are better than others. A colleague and I were playing a CD of “blues mambos” for a course we were teaching on Afro-Cuban music. They were all kind of interesting, and then we heard one from Ray Charles, and it was right away, instantly,  just… better than all the others. Similarly, we were listening to various of the many versions of The Peanut Vendor, and we came across Louis Armstrong’s. It was better, just much better.

It’s hard to say what made them better. It wasn’t because either one of them studied the original Cuban source more intently, or played with more fidelity or sense of tradition; quite the opposite. Armstrong didn’t even bother to learn the Spanish lyrics, and just made up some vaguely spanish-sounding gibberish. What they both had was a quality of recklessness and bravado, of  “don’t-give a-damn.” Both of them had a confidence in what they were doing and their ability to do it. Both of them were also indifferent to “fidelity” or authenticity or respect for boundaries.

These are both qualities Shooby Taylor had in abundance. But Shooby “goes too far.” It’s good to be a little bit different; it seems like a delightful  revision of the familiar. Being too original or different is a mistake; it just seems weird and uncanny.

As far as I can tell, what’s “good” is always a tension between speaking directly to people, in familiar language, and saying something new. It’s a sign of how well someone navigates the contrary pulls of human empathy and individual will.

Is there any good recent work on aesthetics I should be reading?

  1. Everybody knows H.L. Mencken’s famous account of the badness of Warren Harding’s speeches:  “It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

One Comment

  • At the risk of being self-aggrandizing, there’s my dissertation, which I am still in the process of writing. (My dissertation proposal is available on my website.)

    I’m using the work of the Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsurō to try to argue that people in general live by a kind of dialectic between moments of individualism and moments of collectivism. Aesthetic communities crop up in specific places and times around particular styles but progress requires individuals to break from the style. If the breaking away is good, then the group will eventually come around and incorporate the rebel. If not, the rebel will remain isolated indefinitely.

    That’s why you see things like the movement to “sell out” in rock and roll and punk music. To the extent that the new style is successful, it is inevitably co-opted by the group it attempted to break away from.

    It’s interesting to contrast Shooby with someone like Ella Fitzgerald. Certainly, Ella’s scat singing was “controversial” in certain circles when it came out, but overall, I think people accepted it because it was obvious that she wasn’t just forgetting the words or something but she was really expressing something beautiful. The work itself revealed to the audience a new kind of beauty that was previously unsuspected: the beauty of improvised vocals using nonsense syllables. Shooby, for all his heart, doesn’t manage to uncover the beauty in what he’s doing unless one is really going out on a limb to search for it.

    Anyhow, thanks for this blog post, it will give me more think about as I try to write up my thoughts.

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