As a big reader and a complete fanatic about music, I’ve wondered why I don’t really like Top Ten lists, or statements of “essential works.” Canons aren’t something I’ve given up: I spent college telling people how I’d read Ulysses (not a lie); at the end of every year, I work my way through year’s-best lists of indie rock, African pop reissues, and basement noise squalls; I read or at least tried every book on my professor Mary Jo Bang’s recommended-in-2009 poetry and avant-garde theatre list. But I don’t enjoy consuming canons, I don’t like the trying-to-get-it feeling I get in the presence of art I’m told is great or important, and I don’t like trading my appetites for tastes.
So—what does a canon suppose? What’s the difference between, say, a mixtape and Harold Bloom’s Western Canon?
Canons are a stance, an intellectual flex and assertion in a world just as status-conscious as, say, the halls of Congress or a boy’s locker room. A cultural institution names what’s important to make itself important; it creates a synthesis to imply extremes (“we consider art from here to here”) then establish itself as a mediating center. The larger part of canonizing consists of nods toward tokens or toward those-too-important-to-ignore; the rest consists of conveying impressiveness, seriousness, breadth.
It seems lists are more trustworthy when they’re for and from someone. If my student asks me what to read next, I tell her eight things and encourage her to eat them, spit them out, demand answers of them, and marry them. Instead of placing you at a center, a good list (anything—a mixtape, the top-rated things on your Goodreads, a photocopied course packet) can show how lost and enamored you feel. It also exposes your limits, putting less vertical distance between yourself and the folks you’re sharing with.
The thing is, even simple eclecticism (like: today at my desk I’ve played Mbilia Bel, Thank You, and Nicki Minaj, but I’m not telling anybody about it, except you!) isn’t a virtue on its own. Part of a “comprehensive” canon is to demonstrate the cultural capital you’ve accrued: look how cosmopolitan I am. It also fosters the polite liberal-politics notion that the “answer’s in the middle,” between two strong positions. If a later Bloom includes both Billy and Girl and Washington Square in his temple of texts, he’s charting your middle path, teaching moderation-by-example. Too, in local culture, list-making is political, a curated set of mutually beneficial relationships: I gain status by calling attention to you, you gain influence by my calling-attention. (And I’ll maybe curate a festival for you, and my forty other best friends, making you famous or dead-to-the-world in the guise of reviewing you.)
The question is, how can an outlet for opinion make itself part of a community rather than a gatekeeper for one?
…And, well, shit, at the end of all this high-toned talk of mine, I still do like a few lists. The website Tiny Mixtapes is musically narrow and can be prickly in their approach to more “pop”-leaning art, but they feel like lovers, gourmands at the table instead of gourmets. You can see the thread—emotion, sprawl, extremity—connecting their love of the Dardenne Brothers, Big Boi, Zs. (They’re on the edge of being crate-diggers, offerers rather than critics.)
Annnnnd Robert Christgau, the rock critic, is cheerful, prejudiced, and unserene (compare the difference in tone between his Consumer Guide reviews of Randy Newman and of, say, XTC). And eclectic: His favorite album of 2009 was Brad Paisley’s, of 2008 was Franco’s, his favorite album of the decade was M.I.A.’s, his favorite single of the decade was James McMurtry’s. “I’ve been resisting the hipper-than-thou for four decades. But still it beckons.”
How about for you? How do you share something like taste?