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"I've Got a Dick for a Brain"

William Hogarth, Scholars at a Lecture, engraving, 1736/1737I am a member of the American Musicological Society, and this past Saturday I spent the morning and early afternoon at the fall meeting (.PDF file) of that organization's Capital Chapter. These meetings are always fun, mostly as an excuse to see one's colleagues in the area and find out what people are researching. However, occasionally there is research that is better left unheard, at least for me. The highlight of the meeting, in my opinion, was an excellent paper by Professor Richard Wexler of the University of Maryland, about an interesting parody Mass by minor Renaissance composer Antoine Bruhier. His theory was that this polyphonic Mass ordinary was composed in Ferrara in the wake of the competition between superstar composers Heinrich Isaac and Josquin des Prez for the post of maestro di capella. It was a well-documented, brilliantly argued work of musicological research, tracing the origins and associations of various motifs in the vocal parts of Bruhier's Mass, mostly in works by Josquin and Isaac.

Unfortunately, we were also subjected to a paper on a pop song, "My Curse" by the Afghan Whigs. I don't have any problem with people researching popular/vernacular music, but I do resent having to listen to boring scholarship passed off as something interesting simply because it's about popular music. Worst of all, the presenter spent about ten minutes making us listen to the complete song, without any commentary on it. The Afghan Whigs are just fine as these groups go, but using such a long example instead of a salient excerpt, whether it's Bach or Björk, is usually a sign of someone with a weak thesis filling time. We also had to listen to excerpts of a couple other Whigs' songs, purportedly as an example of the dark, cynical mood of the band's lyrics, including a long section of "Be Sweet," which features the line used as this post's subject line ("Ladies, let me introduce myself/I've got a dick for a brain/and my brain/is going to sell my ass to you"). Ugh, that's 15 minutes of my life I can never get back. Also, the picture of serious musicological minds actually listening to an argument (of exactly what I still cannot tell you) about "My Curse" and especially these gross lyrics just made me laugh. Don't get me wrong, because we are all adults, and we discuss some pretty racy stuff in all kinds of music. However, I cannot help but believe that these particular songs were chosen mostly for their shock value, which compounded my boredom.

As you'll be hearing more about later, the AMS National Meeting will be held here in Washington at the end of October, for which I have been working on the Local Arrangements Committee. Popular music, of course, is represented appropriately by a few papers in that program. I know Alex Ross may take issue with my inclinations, but I am not going to miss "Anonymous IV as an Informant on the Craft of Writing Music" to hear a paper on "U2's Compositional Process: Sketching Achtung Baby in Sound," which is scheduled in the same time slot. Call me old-fashioned.


Akimon Azuki said...

Ouch. I wonder if Greg Dulli, the lead singer and circus master of Afghan Whigs, knows about this sorry attempt. Greg didn’t sport a broken nose for nothing, and he was famous for getting into fights for a good cause- ladies honour etc- and if he wants to talk to the author, there may not be any more such papers forthcoming.
The Whigs were of my big favourites in the 90s (and a superb live act) and “Gentleman” was a great album, a minor masterpiece; Dulli didn’t pretend to be Leonard Cohen in his lyrics, but it was witty, cocky, cool music, and a greater sum of many great parts. It’s sad to see it dissected like a frog for the sake of – what, advancement of musicology as a science?
If someone really wanted to go for the shock value, he missed the boat anyway- I don’t think there’s any crowd adult and jaded enough not to react to the sight of the album cover for Whigs second CD, Congregation. But then you would miss the “academic” part of being forced to listen to music…

Anonymous said...

monika, you are not at all green so just dive right in and enjoy the waters of your blog...

Frank Pesci said...

I actually wrote those lyrics about fifteen years ago.

Anonymous said...

yeeesh... for a second i feared that this post was charles' attack on moi!


Charles T. Downey said...


Timothy M. Ballard said...

Hi Dr. Downey! Absolutely on target - the music was for shock value alone! It was stupid and made me ashamed to be a musicologist.... I believe the title of the paper was "From the Hall to the Classroom - My Predilection for the Afghan Whigs 'My Curse.'" (I don’t really care what the title was) It came across as a show and tell paper on "Why I like the Afghan Whigs"
I think it was a poorly chosen topic, and I agree that is time (actually the paper ran about 40 minutes) that I can't get back! The only saving grace for me was that others were laughing as hard as I was.
Please understand, I am the first to agree that studying vernacular music from a social viewpoint is of value, but this seemed to try and argue musical value – value that simply is NOT there in the music nor in the paper! What absolutely floored me as that after he played it the first time and THEN played the second song that said he had a dick for a brain and needed to sell his ass and ended with the word “fuck!” He said – now let me play it for you again! THAT was it for me – I couldn’t believe we were all going to sit through that “music” again.
One question, one of your bloggers said that the lead singer was a man, I thought it was a woman? I am confused!
I suppose hindsight is 20/20 but the next time there is a paper like that, I think I will have to be excused. If there is a next time…. I would rather have my ears bleed listening to Hanson, N’Sync and The Backstreet Boys!