Out of the Jar: The Dialectic of Jam
Ive been struggling for weeks to gather the pieces for this next column, but theres just too much going on this time of year: parties, holidays, shopping, relaxing, housework, projectsall the things we try to squeeze in at the end of every year. Every December, we wrap it all up to make room for all of the gifts and blessings that January and the ensuing months are sure to bring. We purge it all: Sins, iniquities, indulgences and bad habits will all magically fly out the window at midnight when we ring in a new year that always promises to be better than the last. But what if I dont believe that promise anymore?
Its not that the end of the year doesnt hold any hope for positive change, or that the ancient, arbitrary choice of December 31st as the years last day holds no true significance in terms of the passage of time (which is in itself a human construct). I just know that promises, especially the ones we make to ourselves, are often not kept. So go ahead and make your lists. Make your resolutions, full of promises to yourself and your loved ones. Myself, Im staying away from anything that smacks of a guarantee. Rather than fooling myself, Im going to be completely honest this time around. And the complete, honest truth is that while I love a lot of bands that are associated with the term, I get pretty damned frustrated with jambands.
Whether my few readers are aware of it or not, I have, in fact, attempted to carry a common theme through the two and a half columns Ive produced under the Out of the Jar moniker. The title is supposed to be a semantic production of wita pun, if you will. But since its really not all that clever, perhaps I need to explain. Business executives and teachers are especially fond of using a particular idiom when trying to push their subordinates to be original and ignore the existing paradigms that dominate their thinking. The phrase out of the box has been so overused that it borders on clichne of those not dead but dying metaphors that George Orwell so stridently warns about. My pathetically confined creative brain simply took the phrase and changed one word, hoping that my readership might pick up on the genius. See, among many other trinkets, knick-knacks, concoctions and preservatives that people like to put in jars, our favorite is jam. Get it? So take it however you will, but the whole idea of this column is, in theory at least, Not Jam.
There has been a lot of debate over the use of the word, which, I think Orwell would agree, is dying, at least as he defined it. Despite its slow but sure passing, however, writers and journalists still toss it around like confetti while the artists in the proverbial hotseat cringe at every whisper of it. This penchant for categorization and genrification tends to be the main point of contention between artists and the writers who write about them. Artists would prefer that their work be judged on its own merits, in isolation, not as some smaller part of a movement that, in their eyes, threatens to swallow the unique value of their work. Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein would have likely squirmed in their seats as well had they been grilled on the ins and outs of the Lost Generation scene at a press conference in a Paris cafSo should I be afraid to use the word? Are we going to be politically correct in our music writing, too? Are we going to attempt to keep from offending fans and artists now? Theres another idiom of questionable origins, but in fact the phrase actually dates back thousands of years and has no roots whatsoever in ethnic slur, so since Ive already thrown political correctness out the door anyway, I dont have to throw the artistic license card to call a spade a spade.
The fact is, no one in his right mind would attempt to define the term jamband, but most people would say they know one when they see it. The word itself is a semantic construct of convenience, without any real meaning of its own aside from the connections it creates between the wholly dissimilar artists and fans to which it is assigned. Ten years ago, a writer who stuffed Galactic into the same round hole as Umphreys McGee never would have been given the opportunity to be a writer at all: he would have been laughed out of a job.
And perhaps those of us who use the term should be laughed at. Its a lazy mans tool, used as a matter of convenience when we cant create a better descriptor. There are othersindie, lo-fi, electronica, rap, hard rock, contemporary jazzand some critic somewhere attempts to create a new one everyday, but none of them has quite the impact of the one in question. Some of them catch on and some of them dont, but it appears that, dying or not, the j-word isnt going anywhere any time soon.
So is this a column about unjam? It sure would be a convenient term to toss around; but it probably wont be falling into the dictionary of critical jargon anytime soon. Besides, I dont have the artistic cajones to pretend to dictate the difference between a jamband and a band that jams. That being said, sometimes its just not worth the effort not to use the term.
In fact, the term itself, like all words when freed from their understood meaning, is harmless. It only becomes subversive when its meaning begins to coalesce into an image of tie-dyed, long-haired, suburban-raised, middle-class, white twenty-somethings, stoned out of their gourds, indulgently carrying an improvised musical theme well beyond the point of vitality. In The Republic, Plato frames the wisdom of his own teacher, Socrates, in a series of dialogues, the most well-known of which lays out the foundations of a philosophical construct known as the dialectic, a brief explanation of which is necessary before an analysis of jam can be undertaken.
Stick with me for a minute. Despite the seemingly academic snobbery of such a highbrow discussion, theres a real point coming somewhere along the line. According to the dialectic, every word or phrase represents an idea, but depending on the limits (or lack thereof) on the meaning of the word, the idea it represents can rest within one of two levels of thought, the visible, which consists of physical objects or sensations, and the intelligible, which exists only in the mind, in the form of ideas and opinions.
A breakdown of the word jam would start with the simplest and most limited level of the dialectic, the visible, which can be further subdivided: At the bottom is illusion, which generally consists of specific representations of the term in question. At this level, our beloved catchphrase might be represented by a photograph of those tie-dyed, long-haired, suburban-raised, middle-class, white twenty-somethings that I mentioned earlier. This level is the simplest representation of the term, because though there is some impression of what it is intended to mean, we have absolutely no information beyond what is represented in the image in front of us. Our conception of jam is limited to the unidentified shapes and colors on the paper.
The next step up the dialectic ladder, still in the visible world, is belief, which generally constitutes a specific object that is an example of the term. For the sake of argument, lets adopt an object that everyone can agree is, in fact, a jamband. moe. would be an example of jam at the belief level: they are a specific group of people, they look a specific way, and most importantly for this argument, they have a specific sound.
As we move from the visible to the intelligible, the representation of jam at the belief level is given a linguistic description so that all bands that fit that description can then be described by the word in question. In other words, jam now has a definition, which rests at the dialectical level of reason. I said before that no one in his right mind would attempt to define the term, and though sometimes barely, I am in my right mind. But the important idea here is that the concept of jam is significantly more inclusive in the intelligible world than in the visible world.
The highest level of the dialecticthe one for which Socrates and Plato encouraged their students to strive in all their thinkingis intelligence. At this level, the term in question represents all of the former levelsthe picture, the object, the dictionary definitionas well as any and all possible revisions or expansions of that definition. In the realm of intelligence, a jamband can potentially be anything at all.
Platos objective in The Republic was to produce a conscious and intelligent citizenry, but the same principles can be applied to contemporary musical audiences, critics and artists. While audiences and artists tend to operate between the belief and reason realm, associating jambands with their own definitions of the term as well as those artists with whom the term has already been associated, critics, more specifically those who appreciate jambands, would prefer to use the term as loosely as possible, for two reasons: First of all, the more flexible the idea is, the more widely it can be applied, adding to its convenience when the critic in question is feeling less than creative. Secondly, and most importantly, those who appreciate jambands for any reason would like to see the term, and all those examples that rest in the belief realm of its application, gain wider acceptance among the critical community.
In other words, wed like to see the term become a truly dying metaphor, which is, according to George Orwell in his essay, Politics and the English Language, a worn-out metaphor which has lost all evocative power and is merely used because it saves people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. I use Orwells term loosely here, but the point is that jamband, as it moves further and further into the outermost reaches of the intelligible realm of the dialectic and comes to absorb more and more different bands which themselves represent more and more different genres and styles, will eventually become completely meaningless, at which point we can finally stop using it.
Its no secret that jambands get a bad rap outside of their sphere. For whatever reason, many music critics have a deep-seated loathing for them, so that the moment the term rears its ugly head, the artist in question is forever doomed to remain inside the jar. The death of the word is, therefore, in the best interests of all jambands and their fans, but in the meantime, if critics are to be good and fair thinkers, it is paramount that they make every effort to operate in the intelligence realm of the dialectic at all times, letting the ideas define the term, rather than letting the term define the idea.
So what in the hell does all this have to do with New Years resolutions and my loss of faith in the promise of the turning of the calendar page? Well, because critics on both sides of the jamband fence still stubbornly refuse to expand their perspective of the jamband dialectic, musicdom has lost an opportunity to recognize an album that could bridge the chasm that has heretofore divided jamnation from the indie haters. One of the best albums of the year, Brothers Pasts This Feelings Called Goodbye could have closed the gap, but the stubborn refusal of critics to think out of the jar, beyond their existing mental constructs and definitions, has once again prevented a resolution to the war of words between obscurist record store clerks and mud-footed hippies.
This Feelings Called Goodbye, according to the accepted definition of a jamband, is in no way, shape or form, a jam record, but because Brothers Past themselves have been labeled a jamband, the indie world will never know just how close they were to a lasting truce. One of the main complaints from jam-haters has always been that jambands make lousy studio records. Until this year, they were largely correct. Brothers Past could have changed all that. But because they are a jambandand in all fairness to the haters, Brothers Past do jam, sometimes ad nausam_This Feeling_ has been largely shunned by the jam-haters who dont want to get their hands sticky for fear of appearing to be sympathetic to what they know theyre supposed to despise.
Meanwhile, Brothers Past continues to get a lukewarm reception from many who should be hailing TFCG as the only album of its kind to come from the jam scene, simply because it doesnt fit their definition of music that I like. Many of those jamfans who do appreciate TFCG probably missed some of 2005s best unjam albums as well because theyre oblivious to anything that doesnt penetrate their jam bubble. Mobius Bands The Loving Sounds of Static and Bright Eyes Digital Ash in a Digital Urn both share a similar electronic aesthetic, but neither received much credit from the citizens of jamnation, so why should I believe 2006 is going to bring any change when 2005 didnt either?
So do I really hate jambands? Is this column doomed to become a hotbed of anti-jam sentiment? Of course not. As an admitted Dead and Phishhead, a former Bonnaroo attendee and a lover of all things festy, I couldnt hate jambands if I tried. What I really despise is the tendency of fans in the jamband community to wait until Bonnaroo puts its stamp of approval on an unjam band before theyll consider giving them a shot, all while pissing in the wind about the arrogance of music connoisseurs outside their drum circle. At times, this community that hails itself as being open and accepting to anything and everyone, is just as guilty of elitism as any Pitchfork-reading indie snob.
So maybe I will make one New Years resolution: let it die. Call this column my New Years Eve jamband binge before swearing the term off forever. Chances are, though, just like every other bad habit everyone else will try to drop this year, Ill eventually have just one more.