Monday, April 8, 2013

The Musical Debate at the Heart of 'This is 40'

…(Music) is metaphysical; but the means of expression is purely and exclusiviely physical: sound. I believe it is precisely this permanent coexistence of metaphysical message through physical means that is the strength of music.

While the movie, This is 40, is amusing enough (and just out on DVD), it is the argument about music that flits in and out of the storyline that principally held my interest. As a bonus, there’s a handful of my favorite musicians featured: Graham Parker is a relatively major character, and Ryan Adams closes the final reel.

The movie tells the story of a couple hitting that milestone alluded to in the title and simultaneously coming to grips with some bad financial breaks. The film is less concerned with the real culprit in such midlife crises – mortality, and instead invests much time trying to pin the couple’s problems on their fucked-up fathers. Makes sense: It’s easier to get the great Albert Brooks to play a deadbeat of a dad than hauling in the Grim Reaper for a few climactic scenes. I think we know how Bergman would have handled things. But this ain’t Bergman. And now I’m straying from my topic.

The movie’s salvation is the wonderful music at its center. Parker represents the patron saint of the “meaningful,” that is, a writer of songs that somehow manage that ineffable mix of the all-too-human and the damn-near spiritual all wrapped in memorable melodies. It is closely aligned to the metaphysical mentioned above in the Daniel Barenboim quotation (taken from a recent The New York Review of Books in a short piece about Beethoven). This music is the husband’s métier – he even owns a small record label.

Meanwhile, the wife dances to generic club music and prefers Lady Gaga, portrayed as the evil personification of empty, commercialized corporate pop. It’s fun, she says, by way of mounting a defense of her taste.

Thus the lines are drawn. Who wins? (Spoiler alert.) They end up in a small club watching Adams play a lovely ballad off his latest CD.

Taste is tough to argue. What yardstick tells me Wilco is better than Journey? Or that the Beatles are the best band of all time? Some faced with this predicament reflexively fall back on the cheap and false out of popularity and sales figures. That is certainly a measure, and something that’s easier to get our minds around that abstract notions of quality. As Barenboim points out in his piece, we can’t really write about music, we can only document our reaction to it – and that’s different for each person.

My guess is that the younger demographic that This is 40 had in its sights prefers Lady Gaga. While my friends and I, a handful of whom just saw Graham Parker and the Rumour here in Boston, would take the other side of the debate. Though we like our face-offs to be tidily settled, this debate will rage on. There is no answer, just so much music and so little time.

If today’s Top 40 is your thing, perhaps I can convince you to check out Parker’s “Watch the Moon Come Down,” a song featured at a key moment in the film. It’s beautiful, evocative and desperate all at the same time.

And I’ll go jam some Lady Gaga in the name of equal time.

It’s all good. Isn’t that what the young people say today? - JW

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