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Musical Pretentiousness: The Ultimate All-Too-Easy-To-Use Term

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Jesse Johnson

                           As much as I dislike perpetuating ignorance,the man you see about you is not Prince. He is associated with him,and they share the same birthday month and astrological sign. But this man is guitarist/producer Jesse Johnson who was a member of the band once known as The Time.  Hailing from Rock Island,Illinois and raised mostly in St.Louis Johnson migrated to Minneapolis and promptly joined Morris Day and The Time. Of course as with many Prince alumni, Johnson’s artistically independent talents conflicted with Prince’s own cravings for full creative control-with Johnson having played un-credited behind Prince protege’s Vanity 6. In later years he managed to get a nearly retired Sly Stone to appear on his 1986 single “Crazy” but also produced for megastars such as Paula Abdul as well. His solo albums,coming sporadically again challenged that perceived barrier between hard rock and funk/soul music Prince,Jimi Hendrix and P-Funk’s Eddie Hazel had before him. Yet with his literally lacy manner of attire and flamboyance Jesse Johnson,whose birthday is today as a matter of fact,is often written off in much the same manner as his boss: simply with the phrase pretentious. How could an artist as talented and innovative as Jesse Johnson end up in such a position?

                          In Johnson’s case,as cynical as this sounds,its very likely he’d just have to join the club. This months issue of Magnet magazine,which in this case mostly caters to stories about alternative rock bands by the way, concludes with an article by Phil Sheridan called “Let’s Get Pretentious”. The article itself is a jumbled melange of conversation relating a bad experience mixing a cucumber cocktail and making profane remarks about modern musicians being praised for “gimmickry” such as playing multiple instruments at once. Honestly? I find the article meandering and very poorly executed. But it does effectively proves its point on a level where I find nothing it says at all offensive. From Mr.Sheridan’s language and the artists he dismisses in his tirade, he is clearly someone who is an admirer of punk rock and its culture. Much of his opinions are very much out of the school of Malcolm McLaren,the man who bought us the Sex Pistols in late 1970’s UK and coined the word “pretentious” in terms of bringing talented singers and musicians such as Yes’s Rick Wakeman and Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry on a T-shirt of personal dislikes.

                            So again feeling like I’m advocating ignorance to point of baby talking to the reader, is it not the cat calling the kettle black for a punk/grunge/alternative rock music admirer to refer to other forms of music as pretentious? Perhaps such a person might forget about New York’s infamous punk club CBGB’s late 1970’s policy of “no more than three chords” played on their stage. Or later on the Nirvana phenomenon-a band who preached total independence from the corporate aspects of the music industry,yet had an enormously successful single and music video in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”,in all honesty played all over the radio and in heavy MTV rotation. These two factors would seem to be within the spectrum of the very definition of pretentious if you asked me. In the end referring to a certain music pretentious has itself become little more than a buzz word. Its much the same as people calling any creative or abstract music “trippy”,a term once used mainly to describe psychedelic music. Now its often used to demean a music,as if any music with an artful ethic to it either in song writing or instrumentally is somehow linked with the use of mind altering drugs. Again, have to wonder if those using these terms truly know what they are saying.

                           Not to repeat myself here,but its not easily possible right now for me to be too deeply affected by people who call music that isn’t based in three chords played loudly “pretentious”. After all it seems as though they are too deeply affected already,so why should I add to their apparent internal misery? Sometimes however laced in these comments is implied racism. Its coming to the point where racialism could be seen as something primal within the psyche. If that sounds extreme, one could note that almost every time a popular artist utilizes the sound and rhythms of African and/or Latin percussion or other instrumentation in their sound they are dismissed instantly as pretentious,as if such sounds are bound to some form of cultural exclusionism. Music has become such a hybridized force in the modern world, is there even a remote possibility of it being pretentious anymore? Personally I’d have to say no. But rather that that very hybridization is bringing out this primal and exclusionist fears of music and art in general that many people have. Just as talents such as Jesse Johnson did when he liberated himself from Prince and made his own musical stamp, it may be time for music critics to let go as much as the artists of their own internal hang ups.


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