March 16, 2012

Wrong but Accurate

There's this saying that you used to hear people say a lot:

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

It's attributed to various people who seem like they might have said something like that, David Byrne, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Brian Eno, none of whom, I'm sure, ever actually said it. I've seen it on T-shirts, I've heard it in conversation, and people have said it to me, with a wry expression, when someone has written something dumb about music, especially if that writer is me.

The message is that writing about music is a pointless exercise, an absurd thing to try to do. What do you do with music? Certainly you don't write about it. That would be as stupid as… dancing about architecture. When confronted with a bit of music, here's what's you do: dance, sway jerkily from side to side, crumple into a ball in the corner weeping, smash something with a hammer, drunkenly yell a slobbery approximation of the lyrics in the ear of the pretty young girl seated next to you at the bar. But for God's sake, don't write about it. You're young and free. Stop the writing. Get out there and LIVE, damn it!

So, I get it. And I suppose my own song "I Wrote a Book about Rock and Roll" grazes against the same broad message. It's kind of funny to write about rock and roll, especially when you do it with a lot of attitude and self-importance, when rock and roll itself is chiefly concerned rocking and rolling, not typing. But the saying has nevertheless always bugged me (yes these are the kinds of things my aspergery mind retains and obsesses about) because, well, it doesn't quite work, logically or grammatically, does it?

Because you don't dance "about" something, as the word "about" is obviously meant here. I mean, in the archaic sense of "around" you could say "say fellows, here's an idea: let us dance about the Empire State Building. With gay abandon, if possible." Or I suppose, at a stretch, you could construe it as referring to an "interpretative dance": this is my dance about the Albany Post Office at Three in the Afternoon in the Middle of a Downpour with Homeless Woman Crying about South Africa. If you ever attended a liberal arts college, you probably wound up dating a couple of girls who would say stuff like that, but I doubt that's what "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" is getting at.

Obviously, to me, what is meant is this:

Writing about music is like dancing to architecture

But no one ever, ever says it like that. Whoever first cast it as a grammatically nonsensical construction cast it pretty permanently. When people are quoting it, they are quoting it accurately, even though it's wrong. Wrong but accurate. And my asperger-y brain finds that pretty interesting in and of itself.

Anyway, even when formulated correctly, and even though it sounds like the kind of thing a guy like me might think, I'd have to say I still disagree with it, mostly. Writing about music may not be the best use of your time (depends on how much they're paying you, and these days it's probably not much.) But dancing to architecture? That's just fucked up.

Posted by Dr. Frank at March 16, 2012 04:03 PM

While we're being asperger-y, a few things:

1. If the first clause means, "writing about (a specific piece of) music" then I think a better rewrite is "writing about music is like dancing to a building."

2. "Dancing to architecture" isn't as absurd if you see it as a form of communication. It's probably a pretty crappy form of communication, information-density-wise, but still...

3. What about "writing about architecture is like dancing to music"? Or "singing about novels is like dancing about architecture"?

I think the issue here is a distrust by practitioners of one art form of practitioners of another. And a general sense that dancing isn't real art.

Posted by: Mike at March 16, 2012 04:58 PM

i was just thinking this like two days ago...

Posted by: aaron at March 16, 2012 05:37 PM

I have always had a slightly different take on the quote. It's not that "dancing about architecture is an absurd thing to do, and so is writing about music" but more about the reason why it is absurd. Using one artistic medium subject to interpretation to pretend to evaluate, rank, or otherwise comment, with some pretense of objectivity, on another interpretive work is a fruitless exercise. Rock journalism tends towards an objective tone (4/5 stars, pitchfork's ranking system, thumbs up thumbs down, top 10 albums of the year, etc) and so is (rightly) called out on their similarly subject-to-interpretation opinions on rock by the apocryphal quotee (who I've always thought truly was Elvis Costello, incidentally.)

If rock journalism was self-aware and acknowledged that it was creating new art rather than attempting to objectively evaluate or categorize old art, it could be as beautiful as a dance about architecture. And some music documentaries approach this, probably because documentary makers are generally more comfortable in their lot as artists rather than journalists.

Posted by: Cody at March 16, 2012 07:29 PM

"The first mistake of art is to assume that it's serious."

Posted by: ben at March 16, 2012 09:18 PM

*Because comments on the Chuck Prophet post are disabled:

The "Temple Beautiful" record is great. Picked up a copy after hearing snippets and a positive review on NPR. Didn't realize you two were pals, though. "Put your hands together, now pull your hands apart" reminds me of a Dr. Frank lyric.

Posted by: Kevin at March 16, 2012 09:41 PM

I've always thought that the awkward & probably incorrect use of "about" contributes to the forcefulness of the quote. As in, of course it doesn't quite fit- that's the whole point!

(For what it's worth, I agree that it's an inaccurate statement)

Posted by: jesse luscious at March 16, 2012 09:47 PM

I personally blame the whole thing on music itself. If it weren't so goddamn inspiring, we wouldn't have this problem.

Posted by: Larry Barden at March 17, 2012 02:02 AM

I'm surprised by the defenses of "about" -- it seems so obviously wrong to me, though I could be wrong.

The idea that being wrong grammatically is part of the gag, kind of a deliberate, meta-awkwardness to underscore the point being made, did occur to me; and I suppose it's possible, though unlikely, that whoever first came up with it might have intended something that abstruse. I'm imagining something like a character in sketch comedy who is meant to sound absurd or dumb, like Mrs. Malaprop or, better, when Monty Python's Oscar Wilde says: "there is only one thing worse than playing squash together, and that is playing it by yourself." The problem is that "dancing about architecture" isn't really all that funny. Now, if it had been:

"Writing about music is like dancing about banana."

or possibly

"Writing about music is like" but instead of saying "architecture" you hit the guy with a dead fish;

or maybe even

"writing to architecture is like dancing about music"

well, then I could see the point. That would be absurdism at the level required, it seems to me. The present case still looks like a plain old grammatical error to me.

At any rate, the people who repeat and quote it, I think, are offering it straightforwardly, not consciously trying to get into my head and deliberately subvert my inner sense of grammar with a carefully-chosen malapropism, presenting me with a kind of anti-literary Zen koan. Speaking of which, though, "writing about architecture is like the sound of one hand clapping" works perfectly well.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at March 17, 2012 04:36 PM

I actually like the original saying better than the suggestions you gave (though those are funny, too.) I think it's a pretty subtle, clever saying. That said, I never really thought of the second use of the word "about" as being necessarily absurd in the way you say, though it definitely is, rather that it makes its own point, formally. You seem to be suggesting that this use of "about" is meant only to drive home the absurdity of the second clause, the point of which is to comment on the supposed absurdity of the first clause. But I always understood the second "about" as a statement concerning the ease with which the first clause is swallowed by people, in general.

The main point of the joke is that the meaning of the second absurd clause comments on that of the first, like you said. But the second "about" also formally demonstrates the easy acceptance of the phrase "writing about music," how people take it for granted. The second "about" seems to say: "Just as one 'about' follows another so does this common phrase reflecting the general thinking, that music criticism is fine because it's so pervasive, go unchecked." The formal symmetry of the saying, and how that symmetry actually yields an absurdly awkward meaning, reflects the supposedly false logic of the original belief -- that music criticism is a good thing, just because it happens a lot -- as it's embedded in the commonness of the phrase, "writing about music."

That repetition reminds me of another really common joke, that thing, where when someone corrects someone else, and the person being corrected responds by saying "You're a [whatever it is the person is being corrected about.]" So like, person 1 is trying to wrap a present and is doing a bad job, and person 2 comments "You're really messing up that wrapping paper," and person 1 responds, "You're wrapping paper!" In this case, there is no real joke except the repetition of a given set of words out of context. The funniness is that the repetition illustrates the truth of the criticism, that, generally-speaking, person 1 is an incapable slob who can't wrap presents and who also can't, apparently, use words in correct context, except now the statement is deflected back onto person 2 humorously.

Posted by: Nathan Pensky at March 18, 2012 09:13 AM

Dancing about architecture is like fencing around landscaping

Posted by: jeff at March 24, 2012 08:11 PM