The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'music criticism'
Veteran music critic Everett True has a column in Something Awful (that was one of those troll/griefer forums before /b/ took over that market, leaving only the respectable trade in content), in which he plays the Grumpy Old Man and calls bullshit on the more-special-than-thou stylistic posturing of privileged white college kids, from the point of view that only a cranky old guy can have. In the first one, he demolishes Animal Collective:
None of us like to be associated with those chicks with their tits hanging halfway out of their bra-straps, teetering down the Valley on four-inch white high heels. So we can't be caught liking what they listen to (probably Lady Gaga or Britney). None of us want to be seen hanging with the lads who think it's a laugh-riot to see how far a wall can splatter blood. So fuck their taste (probably Chili Peppers or Nirvana). Your parents, they're old. They like songs that have melodies and structures and stuff (probably Weezer or Blondie or Beck). Crap, how '90s. Secretly, in your heart of hearts, you want to keep listening to Radiohead's OK Computer but you know that your beard-growing college chums would despise you if they knew, even though they all feel exactly the same. Really, all you want to do is have a few brews and chill out, and not have anybody freak you out with loud noises.
Someone once wrote to me that "A fellow I know once stated that the Animal Collective are at the apex of what he termed the 'skipping-CD Beach Boys meets the Lion King soundtrack' age. Recently he informed me that era was finished, and the 'record your girl-group songs in Pro-Tools then add distortion to make them lo-fi' epoch was now upon us."And here, he tears apart the entire NPR Top 20 of 2010 for its lily-white beards-and-sweaters indie homogeneity:
1. Gorillaz: Plastic Beach. My son listens to Gorillaz. He has a good time listening to Gorillaz. He likes to shoot a few dance moves, talk about what the cartoon characters get up to, and make the scary chuckling noise when we least expect it. My son is five years old. I'm not saying you should be embarrassed of sharing your taste with him - he also loves The Specials, Mary Poppins and Ben 10 - and I'm not saying that Gorillaz haven't uncovered a brand-new 'mature' (i.e. downbeat) sound on their new album, but just when were you thinking of growing up?
14. Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma: Ah, the obligatory non-indie record in the Top 20 - so NPR's listeners are open-minded after all. Oh, no, wait, that's not Thom Yorke I see lolloping over the horizon, eager to add his unshaven whine to the squiggly electro beats? Oh fucking fuck, it is.The exact proportions in the abovementioned writings of righteous, insightful debunking of stale bourgeois convention, cheap shots at straw men, and grumpy-old-man kvetching about how music these days is all shit, unlike back in the good old days, is left as an exercise to the reader.
Tom Ewing's Poptimist column in Pitchfork has an A to Z of discourse in music criticism, which illuminates the current state of flux in the production and consumption of music quite tellingly:
E is for Excess: Not the rock'n'roll lifestyle, alas, but the sense we live in a time of musical glut-- reissues of old LPs now stretched across three CDs, legal download dumps of hundreds of tracks, even musicians getting in on the act (Wiley just gave 11 CD-Rs worth of tunes away). What's interesting to me isn't the decadence so much as how social listening strategies are evolving to cope-- the task of processing all this stuff is devolved to fans as a group, a sharp break from the single artwork meets single pair of ears model we've been used to for so long.
N is for Novelty: Novelty records-- gimmick dances, comedy songs, et al.-- regularly turn up in "worst song ever"-type polls. Their decline should have been a canary in the record industry coalmine, though: A track like "Macarena" got big by appealing to people who didn't usually buy records, which made them an index of the extent to which buying a record was seen as a normal thing to do. The market for novelties hasn't gone away, of course-- it simply relocated to YouTube.
P is for Pleasure: The "no such thing as a guilty pleasure" line ends up at a kind of naturism of pop, where the happiest state of being is to display one's tastes unaltered to the world. But the barriers to naturism aren't just shame and poor body image, it's also that clothes are awesome and look great. Performing taste-- played-up guilt and all-- is as delightful and meaningful as dressing well and makes the world a more colorful place. (This still isn't the full story, though-- see V for Virtue).
Y is for Year Zero: Grunge killed hair metal. Acid house changed everything. Punk saw off progressive rock. These dividing-line stories are always attractive, always useful for a while-- and then always revised. The grandfather of them all, though, has proved harder to shift-- the idea that something happened in the early-to-mid-fifties to mark a change of era and fix a boundary of relevance. The next 10 or 20 years, as the 60s slip deeper into unlived collective memory, will be crucial and fascinating (for historians, anyway!).
The Guardian reviews the new album by The Drums (the NYC86 band everybody's comparing to The Field Mice), isn't that impressed:
Of course, to spurn the big, bad adult world in 1986 was implicitly political, hence C86's spiritual influence on riot grrrl and the Manic Street Preachers. It came with manifestos and passionate values. The Drums, however, echo only the sound and the wilful naivety. In interviews they champion "melody, sincerity and truthfulness" – a formulation so bland that you might hear from anyone from Noel Gallagher to Nick Clegg – and grumble about bands who are "overly clever", as if music's biggest handicap in 2010 were a surfeit of intellect.
But the Drums' charm is spread rather too thinly. Too many songs kick in with the same brisk, toytown beat and thin, high guitars. Like one C86 influence, the Groove Farm, who knew roughly as much about grooving as they did about farming, the Drums belie their name with a prosaic rhythm section that does little more than keep time. Pierce's little-boy-lost vocals begin to grate as well: just the way he sings "li-i-i-i-i-i-ife" on I Need Fun in My Life is enough to make you fantasise about bringing back conscription. Real teenagers tend to be turbulent, questing, contradictory, but the Drums' prelapsarian ideal seems to be a lovesick simpleton.
St. Et's Bob Stanley writes in The Times about music critic Sasha Frere-Jones (the one who denounced Stephin Merritt as a racist for not putting any black artists on a playlist he picked for the New York Times) and his one-man crusade against the white-supremacist tendency in indie music:
In a feature published last month entitled A Paler Shade of White, Frere-Jones recalled an Arcade Fire show, which he said was enjoyable, but not exactly funky. “Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voice-like guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat . . . that characterised black music of the mid-20th century?” he asked.
The question seems anachronistic, and oddly myopic, and, like an inverted Alf Garnett, he has unsurprisingly caused instant offence. Playboy wrote: “Frere-Jones has demonstrated himself every bit the racist for buying into this pathetically regressive set of ideas.” The more gracious Arcade Fire sent the writer an MP3 of chunks of their music to prove that they “steal quite blatantly from black people”.
Frere-Jones’s New Yorker article harks back with fondness to the blues-wailing Seventies rock of Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad, with Mick Jagger lauded as “an original” and “a product of miscegenation” with apparently no equivalent today. He believes that the intermingled blood began to separate in the Nineties, an argument that would put him at loggerheads with almost any British writer.
“It’s complicated even there,” Tyondai Braxton [of Battles] says. “White America, white Europe, has had no problem assimilating. This is great, but it can be dangerous. You have to remember that this is still a sensitive issue. We are talking about one of the most displaced cultures in the world, trying to create its own foundation. It created blues, funk, hip-hop, and, with hip-hop especially, it’s saying: ‘You can’t copy this ghetto life, this is real truth.’ It’s a flag. Right now I think black culture is going through a preservational state.”
Slate's John Cook looks at the issue of whether disliking hip-hop makes one a racist, and specifically, whether allegations of racism against Stephin Merritt, who has made statements about his dislike of hip-hop, are justified:
[N]o less an influential music critic than The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones has used that word —"cracker"—to describe him. Frere-Jones has also called him "Stephin 'Southern Strategy' Merritt," presumably in reference to Richard Nixon's race-baiting attempt to crush the Democratic Party. These are heady words, part of a two-year online campaign of sorts by Frere-Jones (also a former Slate music critic) and the Chicago Reader music contributor Jessica Hopper to brand Merritt a racist. The charge: He doesn't like hip-hop, and on those occasions when he's publicly discussed his personal music tastes, he has criticized black artists.The Slate article concludes that the charges are, if you'll excuse the pun, without merit:
If black artists are underrepresented in my CD collection relative to the frequency with which black people are found in the general population, does that make me a racist? To even begin to believe that it does, you have to first maintain that racial preferences somehow logically relate to music preferences; that racists avoid music made by black people, and that people who aren't racist don't pay attention to the race of the artist when evaluating music. Both propositions are ludicrous. Anybody who has been to a frat party knows that people can simultaneously a) entertain racist attitudes and b) enjoy listening to hip-hop music created by black people. (In fact, Merritt's argument is that the latter tends to reinforce the former.)
The closest thing to a coherent argument that can be gleaned from what Frere-Jones and Hopper are saying is that a genuine respect for our common dignity and humanity requires that we enjoy listening to hip-hop, and that we bend our intuitive aesthetic judgments about music to a political will—like eating our vegetables and avoiding dessert. "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah" may be catchy and delightfully mindless, but an understanding of its context requires you to reject its charms. And Beyoncé may be trite and boring, but your subtle racist ideology provokes that reaction, so you must find a way to appreciate her music.
And if you can't? Try harder, cracker.Of course, it depends whether on one's definition of "racist". If one defines racism as any deviation (outside a margin of sampling error) from the ratios in which racial/ethnic/cultural groups are represented in the cultural marketplace, then disproportionately liking "white" or "black" music would be racist; as would, for example, being more attracted to members of one ethnic group than another. However, such a definition of racism would damn almost the entire human race, and do little towards defining more meaningful definitions. And then there's the question (which Merritt himself raised) of whether some present hip-hop, which presents stereotypical images of black criminality for the consumption of predominantly suburban white teenagers, is problematic. Which suggests that this issue is not entirely cut and dried.
(Note the quotes around "black" and "white" music. The definition is a slippery one. Is expensively produced, extensively market-researched R&B, which would not exist in its present form without major-record-label investment and a huge market not limited to any one ethnic group, authentic "black" music? What if you replace R. Kelly with Justin Timberlake? Is Jennifer Lopez (who once considered herself entitled to use the N-word in lyrics) an honorary black person for the purposes of musical consumption? Is rock'n'roll (which is based on the blues) "white" music. And then there's Elvis Presley, Al Jolson and so on. In some ways, what gets classified as "black" music is that whose sound hasn't yet melted into the lexicon of the mainstream. The Spice Girls' first single, "Wannabe" (which, at the time, sounded closer to Salt'n'Pepa than the white manufactured all-girl pop groups from PWL and their ilk), could be said to sound more "black" than much of Prince's 1980s output (which, today, sounds more "1980s" than anything racially or ethnically specific.) And rock'n'roll, once seen as dangerously swarthy by pillars of (white) communities everywhere, is now the very definition of "whitebread", almost as much so as country music.
And in this discussion thread, Steve Albini weighs in on the issue:
Having had a distaste for hip hop since its earliest days, I have run afoul of this mentality for twenty-odd years. If you are involved in contemporary music, it is presumed that you appreciate hip-hop, or are at least deferential toward it as an arm of black culture.
I have equivalent genre distaste for almost all heavy metal (hip hop's culture-mirror equivalent), pastiche production pop music like Brintey Spears, Beyonce, Avril Lavigne et al, the REM-U2-Radiohead axis of millionaire dabbling, trash auteurs like Outkast, Beck and the Beastie Boys, teenager fake punk, and melismatic divas like Celine Dion. This is less in service of elitism than in making it possible for me to walk directly to the part of the record store where the good records are. I know what kinds of music speak to me the least, so I don't spend my energy combing through them looking for exceptions.
Picking on a tiny Southern queer for his music tastes and calling him a "cracker" is about as stupid as criticism can get.
So, here's the deal: every record is rated on its Mix Tape Quotient, or MTQ. This is the number of songs worthy of repeated listenings on that album. For example, a great 3-song 7" would get 3/3 or a hit-and-miss 12-song cd would get 7/12.
An interesting approach, though I'm not sure of how useful it is; some discs worth it for just a handful of brilliant tracks. (One example I could think of could be Slowdive's Pygmalion; as a totality it works splendidly, though there are only 3 or 4 at most tracks I'd choose on their own from it*). And one brilliant track could beat 7 passably good tracks.
And there's the question of what threshold you set for something being on a mix tape; does it have to really stand out, or just be good? Is it bad form to put more than N tracks by one artist on a mix tape (or CD)? (A number of years ago, I was in the habit of putting way too much Paradise Motel on my mix tapes; one or two I made contained about half of Some Deaths Take Forever, interleaved with other stuff. I try to avoid this sort of thing these days, though the last one I made did have several Field Mice-related tracks on it.)
* in case you're wondering, Rutti, Crazy For You, Blue Skied An' Clear and possibly J's Heaven; though the others do a good job of filling out the whole.
A list of 100 albums you should get rid of; not counting obvious easy targets (except perhaps for the one Celine Dion release that somehow ended up there; why anybody with taste would own a Celine Dion CD in the first place is beyond me), but mostly a list of outdated and overrated works, some undoubtedly overlapping with glossy magazines' "most essential CDs" lists. Oddly enough, I've only got two or three of the titles here.
(For some reason, Mozilla doesn't show the entire lists, mistaking parts for HTML comments. If the list looks somewhat incomplete, try viewing the source.)
A piece on the decline of music journalism, and in particular papers like NME.
Q is now a glowing example of all that is wrong with the music press. It's the pop industry's answer to Hello!, a glorified fanzine that gains access to big-name musicians because of its bland non-critical approach. This is a magazine that is just as happy to have Robbie Williams on the cover as it is REM, where Sting is afforded the same levels of respect as Kurt Cobain. With Q dominating the monthly market, it's no wonder that readers are losing faith in music journalism.
I'm not surprised; looking at the NME website, full of tabloid celebrity gossip and adulation at the "brilliant" new releases from various cookie-cutter R&B/pop groups, it's hard to reconcile this new Smash Hits with the legendary paper that set out to challenge the status quo and instigated things like the C86 compilation. (via VM)
An interesting music-review site/webzine: Gravitygirl, written by Melbourne street-press journo Anthony Carew (who also hosts the International Pop Underground show on 3RRR). (Warning: the colour scheme can be a bit hard to read.)
Righteous rant about the greying of rock'n'roll: (The Age)
ROCK is about urgency, vibrancy, the passion of youth. Trying to give it gravitas by bringing in a few violins and a bunch of 50yearold rockers way past their prime is such a betrayal of everything it once stood for that it beggars belief.
Can you imagine how awful Jimi Hendrix would sound nowadays if he hadn't choked on his own vomit back in the '60s? He'd be getting up on stage at the Colonial right now, alongside Lenny Kravitz and Whitney Houston.