This Week in Advancement: Neil Diamond
Is the Jewish Elvis also the Jewish Morrissey?
Recently it was announced that Neil Diamond, along with Tom Waits and Alice Cooper, will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I could easily make the case that Waits and Cooper deserve the honor, but Neil Diamond is a trickier case, even though I love just about one of his impressively long list of hits. It’s tricky because I’m not really sure why I love those songs. My complicated relationship with Neil Diamond is this week’s topic.
Most people agree that there is a certain amount of subjectivity in judging the quality of music. It is also safe to say that one’s musical preferences are shaped not only by the quality of the music but also by other factors that have to do with the listener. For instance, I grew up listening to my dad’s classic rock music on a reel-to-reel he brought home from Vietnam. This left me with a powerful relationship to that style of music and explains why I listen to the Doors more often than to Lady Gaga. She’s fine, her style of music just doesn’t move me.
My appreciation for Neil Diamond comes from a completely different place. For starters, my mom hates the Doors but loves Neil Diamond. As a boy, it seemed much cooler to listen to my dad’s music, so I didn’t give Neil Diamond (or Anne Murray, his female, Canadian equivalent) a chance. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I really started to pay attention to—and make fun of—his music. Specifically, the live album Hot August Night.
My friends and I played that CD repeatedly during parties at my mom’s house looking for every bit of corniness– and there was no shortage. One of our favorite moments was the spoken introduction to “I Am I Said,” where Diamond says, very dramatically: “I need, I want, I weep, I ache, I am, I said, I am…” To us the song was completely inane, so this heart-felt introduction was just ludicrous. And hilarious. (Running a close second was his assertion that one of his songs is so easy to sing that even a frog can sing it, which often reduced us to tears.)
We also spent a lot of time dissecting the lyrics, and this is where my pre-Advancement confusion set in. While his music is (deceptively) simple and melodic, his lyrics are exceptionally interesting and strange. Let’s stick with “I Am I Said”: A line I used to think was pretty cheesy, “And no one heard at all, not even the chair,” is actually a pretty unusual way to describe loneliness. You are in a bad place if you are looking to furniture to affirm your existence, and it’s even worse when the furniture doesn’t comply. Was it possible that Neil Diamond was sadder than Morrissey?
The Neil Diamond parties went out of favor, but I found myself listening to Hot August Night on my own. One day I realized that I was frequently choosing to listen to Neil Diamond over the Smiths, Sonic Youth, and David Bowie because I sincerely preferred it. I hadn’t abandoned the others, I had just added “Neil Diamond” to my list of music moods. He wasn’t a novelty anymore. Still, I wasn’t ready to admit this to anyone, but then along came the Advanced Genius Theory.
The Advanced Genius Theory helped me realize that if you like something, it’s good no matter what and you shouldn’t be embarrassed. If I enjoy listening to “Kentucky Woman” more than, say, Arcade Fire’s “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” then to me it is a better song. Obviously the songwriters had different aspirations, but ultimately I think Neil Diamond achieved his objective more successfully.
You might be thinking that Arcade Fire’s goal was nobler or higher, that they were trying to make transcendent art while Neil Diamond was just writing a pop song. I admit that reaching for transcendence takes courage because if you fail, you look pretentious and foolish. But you have to admit that Neil Diamond has never been afraid of looking foolish. Plus, writing a pop song about an unconventionally attractive woman from Kentucky or a frog dreaming of being a king is pretty hard.
Even with the help of Advancement, I have moments where I wonder if I truly love Neil Diamond. Is he just a guilty pleasure that has been with me so long that the guilt disappeared? Or could it be that I don’t like Neil Diamond’s music, I just like the memories I have of making fun of his music, and his songs trigger some kind of nostalgia for those days? Then again, maybe people like the Arcade Fire because they are the type of person who is supposed to like them or some other reason besides the music itself. There probably is no way to answer these questions, so I think it’s best just not to ask them. The path you take to find music you love is not important, only that you have found it.
Congratulations, Neil Diamond.