I am a brown person and a rapper and I like John Maus’ music. In an effort to express how much I like John Maus’ music I’m going to lazily break the Dead Poets Society rule and say I really like John Maus’ music. Like all Maus-heads, I could be found on Maus Space having embarrassing conversations about this awkward, aloof, messy messianic figure. In fact, part of that life is what inspired a song on my first mixtape called, “For the Unhead ProBoard Warriors!” but that’s another matter entirely.
When Ric Leichtung of Ad Hoc posted a letter to John Maus, I was envious. But when Maus responded I was jealous-hearted and snide. I wanted to write Maus a letter but instead of hurling great globs of condescension I wanted to ask about things that seemed of the utmost importance to me when I was 19. Impose Magazine offered to give me that opportunity. Here I am taking it.
Dear John Maus,
I know you don’t actually believe you should have taken a path in natural sciences vs. a path in music and the humanities in terms of producing truth. Why you insist on undermining the impact your music has on people is a mystery, we find a genuine refuge in what you create.
Why discuss the American Experimental Tradition (your capitals, not mine) and purposely omit hip hop? I can understand why you would omit jazz, as it lacks an electronic component (traditionally), but I cannot grasp why you would applaud Cage and not Busdriver. The implication here is that what brown folks make does not qualify as American or perhaps Experimental or maybe is not worth the distinction of a tradition. Did you know Philip Glass collaborated with Das Racist? It is generally considered a *real* form of music now.
It actually comes across sort of weird when I really think about it. Have you read Signifying Rappers? Maybe you should. Anyway—a lot of what you discuss about pop music seems like a really overly complicated break down of the role of melody. That’s neat. Rap can be melodic too, maybe you could listen to some Mykah 9 or Open Mike Eagle to see what I mean. Insofar as we discuss pop music from a political standpoint, like you said, as mass music. It is undeniable that rap occupies this space in contemporary society. It creeps me out, too, when you say “in terms as useless as genre” and omit anything made by anyone who is not-white as pop. As we say on the internet, why you do that?
You put such an over-the-top emphasis on modality and a lot of things that anyone with a mere bachelor’s degree and under in anything other than music could not possibly understand. For example, “I have suggested before, and perhaps it is an ignorant suggestion, that I find pop music strangely reminiscent of the birth of pre-tonal triadic harmony, before the modes were codified strictly into major/minor, before modulations, explicit functional relationships, equal temperament” means very nearly nothing to anyone aside from grandmasters. When I listen to your songs I note driving drums, booming synth sounds, a voice carrying much weight—is it even possible for me to appreciate what you make without this background knowledge?
And finally, that’s the paradox of you and your music John Maus. You make pop music, what is supposedly the most accessible of sounds, in such a way that only the elite can understand or enjoy it. I agree that good art is guided by strong theory but where does the line have to be drawn? And what is the cost of not drawing that line because, as of now, it looks like your understanding of the American Experimental tradition is notably bland (see: white guys)?