I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.
Lindsay Zoladz is a writer for Pitchfork and other folks. She also has a blog/tumblr, from which the excerpts below are taken. It’s a one-sided “debate,” so take my observations with a grain of salt.
Zoladz’ original piece: We Can’t Stop [excerpted below in italics]
The next day [after the Miley Cyrus show]… everybody on Twitter was up in arms about some op-ed the New York Times Magazine had run decrying the rise of “poptimism”. Now, I agree with the general concept of poptimism, but that word never fails to make me want to barf, because 99+% of people who listen to pop music do not have to come up with some kind of factionalized team name in order to enjoy it—they just fucking like what they like.
It strikes me that both the word and the concept behind “poptimism” were invented the same way “rockism” was—by the same people, with an axe to grind. Whether on offense or defense, these teams relate pretty closely to one another. In fact, and unfortunately, they seem to relate pretty much exclusively to one another. Which doesn’t say much for the potential breadth of discourse on the subject.
And it seems as though the only way to really escape the clutches of these terms/premises is—brace yourself—to think about music more broadly. Maybe we don’t have to create straw men to knock down in efforts to justify the music we like, or criticize people for liking the wrong kind(s) of music.
(Incidentally, as a side note, I think most alleged “rockists” might feel the same way you describe about their own listening habits—i.e., liking music without needing to pledge allegiance to a particular camp based on specific enjoyment criteria. See how that works? Rock-likers are people, just like pop-likers! Neat, right? If this concept is too tricky to absorb, check out the entry-level version.)
And maybe that was part of the reason why going to the Bangerz Tour was so refreshing and yes I will even say life-affirming: Nobody there was trying to debate, like, Ted Gioia’s Daily Beast article between sets. 99+% of the girls (yes, they were mostly girls) there would not know/care about what “rockism” meant, or whatever insider-baseball circle jerk the “music writing community” was engaged in that day. They were just there to freak out over the music they loved.
Breaking news: Pop music is fun as hell and teenagers love pop music and fun and not boring things that are dumb.
And I looked around at them… and I remembered being like them and feeling like nobody took seriously the things I liked, all I wanted to do was write things for them. Not above them, or below them, but to them. I am so profoundly bored with writing for the 1%.
Stop the (word)presses: Critic wants validation/appreciation from a specific audience.
I would challenge you, Lindsay Zoladz (who I’ve never met, and I’m sure are a nice person), to admit that you wouldn’t be writing about non-Miley music if you didn’t want to. What you seem to want, though, by implication, is the appreciation/adulation of teenyboppers for your 1%y think-pieces about Cat Power (or whoever).
Maybe the prospect of throwing in the towel on the 1% crap is daunting because you know, in the back of your mind, that the alternative is terrifying: mind-numbing, broadly and deeply commercial/profit-oriented, substance-free and image-indebted; that writing for Teen Vogue, Teen Cosmo and Teen Seventeen will require you to play the pop music money game and whoosh, there goes your critical integrity, your street cred—and your genuine enjoyment of what you’re doing.
A Pitchfork writer complaining that pop music is trivialized except by teenage girls is like the right-wing bellyachers whining about bringing prayer back into schools. In the same way that the Christian God’s name is on every piece of American currency and is invoked at every formal address by every President, pop music is getting plenty of time, space and attention from the masses, old, young and in between. Yes, they’re all (statistically speaking) missing Lindsay Zoladz’ voice among all the hubbub, but by and large, they (and pop) manage to get along.
The difference is how deep you’re willing to go for your cause. The PTA dad demanding that his child be allowed to pray in school isn’t demanding to preach a sermon in class; that’s farther than he’s willing to go, and he knows it’s a little unrealistic. Likewise, the pop critic who wants to bring thoughtful pop-centric insights to mainstream/mass media doesn’t really want to have a column in Entertainment Weekly or People, because it’s unrealistic to expect those masses to be interested in think pieces about the internal motivations behind Katy Perry’s aesthetic pivots. The critic knows that she won’t have the editorial leeway or liberty (or word count, or autonomy, or freedom from commercial interests/influences, etc.) that she enjoys outside the mainstream. You don’t get to write about Cat Power for Maxim—at least, not the way you want to—and you don’t get to criticize Justin Timberlake in Vogue.
You do, of course, get to gush about Ariana Grande or, you know, Miley Cyrus. But wanting to have it both ways is a little disingenuous, don’t you think? If you gaze too longingly into the pop abyss, you’ll feel its gaze on your soul, and it’ll be a lot colder than you would wish.
Pop is commerce. Having fun on its surface is great, but to willfully blind oneself to the fact that it’s all built on an ever-burning pile of money, the blazing heart of which needs stoking all day, every day, is to deny reality. Fairies aren’t real, wishes don’t come true, and Miley didn’t write that song. Katy didn’t build that. And no matter how much you want him to, or think, wish, hope and beliebe that he will (or know in your heart that he should), Justin doesn’t give a fuck about your little problem with his lyrics, dear.*
A little while after we posted our write-up, a few Miley fan accounts started tweeting it. One of them called it, “a thoughtful and in-depth review” of the tour; a girl whose Twitter name was Katniss Everdeen called it “one of the best reviews I’ve read in a while.” Maybe it was the lack of sleep of the #BangerzHangover or most likely the tragic death of Floyd Cyrus, but I was already feeling kind of emosh on Friday and seeing those tweets almost made me cry. For some reason, this immediately felt like the highest praise I’ve received in a long time.
…For music writers, it’s easy to write something that will rile up that 1%; it’s harder (but in my mind, a much more noble challenge) to write something that resonates outside the bubble. So I don’t know, maybe next time you’re wasting time and energy on some shirts-vs.-blouses/poptimists-vs.-rockists/us.-vs.-them debate, remember the girl sitting behind you on the Bangerz Express, the one for whom the whole idea of being “an interviewer” is refreshingly foreign and novel. She’s listening, if you’re willing to treat her like a potential reader.
This is kind of like the republican trope about how liberals “condescend” to the lower classes, or whatever; in all honesty, I feel like anything I write “remembers” the teenybopper; why wouldn’t it? I may not think of her/him as a fully-grown adult with mature perspectives and a broad palette of musical familiarity, but… Why should I?
Is your implication that we, as Music Writers, should tailor our content toward the Miley fan demographic? Because if we don’t critically evaluate their current chart faves, we’re somehow leaving them stranded without any serious consideration or attention? That seems odd—and, honestly, condescending. I think they can take care of themselves. Tavi Gevinson is doing pretty well, as are the thousands of girls and boys like her, who have blogs, opinions and, more than likely, readers.
Maybe we should just let the kids have their say and meet them where they hang out, rather than willingly uproot our own perspectives to make sure they get the opportunity to experience our gleamingly brilliant insights. Treat them as adults and make it clear that if and when they want to think and talk seriously about music, we’ll be, you know, ready to hang out?
I’d like to close this by contending that “the kids are alright,” which would kind of tie it all up “cleverly.” But given my lifelong profound ambivalence toward the Who, I’d hate to have that reference used to indict me as a rockist. So I guess I’ll just say that, “we’re the kids in America, whoa-oh—everybody live for the music-go-round.” Which is pretty much in the ballpark (or, you know, the civic arena).
* This is a sadly ideal example of the way that this music who its listeners care about so much clearly does not care about them. See also: Coke drinkers love Coke; Coke doesn’t love them (or their bodies).
It’s product. When our goals are aligned—entertain me, make me feel good, support my fun in exchange for fandom and money vs. I’ll entertain you as long as you follow my antics and my twitter and buy my shit—then we’re all okay; when our goals differ (make me happy vs. I’ll make you unhappy but still pay me, kid) then suddenly we got problems. But these problems could have been seen coming from miles away by anyone looking up from his or her iPod every so often.
There’s more to it than that, but the quick version is that a big chunk of the book (at least half, and then some) is up for the download; interested parties should proceed to the online Web site at the following URL:
(Scroll down to the link in hott pink. Oh, and ignore the part about posting a chapter a day; I put that site together last year. If/when that whole plan gets underway, I’ll let you know…)
Anyhow, at some point I’ll either post the whole book, or put it in some online bookstore or something. Which will involve getting my act together to a degree that’s not likely in the immediate future, so I thought I’d just let this cat out of its bag before it’s old enough to join AARP. (It’s been finished for well over a year now.)
To sum up: If you like books about white, twenty-something guys in bands in Boston around the turn of the (most recent) century, you’re in luck. And if you like those books to have clever and witty dialogue, insightful perspectives on male relationships and a boy-meets-girl love story? Friend, this is the book for you.
So, yes—tell your friends! Don’t miss out. And thanks for any and all interest you might take in this. I hope you like the book, or any portions you end up flipping through. I’m pretty happy with it.
The Top 40 Pop/Dance Starlet Stats: Pitchfork edition
Young, attractive R&B/dance-pop singer with savvy choices in production talent [Neptunes, Timbaland, etc.]
Number of Rihanna albums reviewed by Pitchfork: 5
Average rating: 6.3
Young, attractive dance-pop/R&B singer with savvy choices in production talent [Neptunes, Timbaland, etc.]
Number of Britney Spears albums reviewed by Pitchfork: 0
Former children’s sitcom actress turned dance-pop music and video starlet
Number of Ariana Grande albums reviewed by Pitchfork: 2
The first one, in which we establish a Nickelodeon alumnus as a viable commercial/critical presence: 6.5
The new one, which features a host of Pitchfork-friendly collaborators: 7.7
Former children’s sitcom actress turned dance-pop music and video starlet
Number of Miley Cyrus albums reviewed by Pitchfork: 0
Final Tally: Pitchfork
In which the numbers all add up to something
Selective application of vaguely-defined “poptimism”: check
Aesthetic integrity and/or clarity of mission or critical perspective: n/a
Ah there, Pitchfork! Now You’re Talking Sense.
I had an unfamiliar experience, a little while ago: I read a piece about pop music on Pitchfork that I not only agreed with, but found stimulating and mature. Which sounds ugly and snobbish to say, but there you are. Nevertheless, I recommend reading it in full. It’s by Mike Powell, whose contributions I’ve started checking since then and, despite his avowed affection for Vampire Weekend, have overall been worth it. A relevant (to this blog’s haphazard but ongoing examination of the baffling push to create and attach profundity to pop music, the people who develop it—and its criticism) excerpt:
The boundaries between pop and rock are—and always have been—imaginary.
One of the difficulties of fully embracing pop is that when you do, you can no longer emphasize its significance. It becomes something light, a loose ribbon dazzling in the breeze about which nothing sticky can be said. You hear it, you like it, and it’s over—no mess and no remainder. Analyze it like an epic poem and it risks losing the shine that brought you to it in the first place.
Not to hamstring myself—because this album will soon be the subject of its own post here—but take Janet Jackson’s second album, Dream Street, as an example: If you analyze it and assess and review it, all of the things that detract from it—its derivative nature, its dated palette, its totally clichéd lyrics and self-referential/era-entrenched production flourishes, etc—are also all the things that make it really fun to listen to. (Like, over and over again…! For reals, I haven’t had such a blatantly superficial album exert such a perplexing but pleasurable fascination over me since rediscovering 90125 by Yes, ten years ago.)
So, by using the grown-up standards that we all agree are the best ones to apply to music we want to take seriously, you get a lousy review of record that’s actually really fun. And that’s where a great example of a piece of superficial but totally enjoyable pop fluff loses its fun and magic, as Mike Powell points out in his piece.
What some critics clearly want—and, sure, I’ll name Sasha Frere-Jones, Julianne Shepard, NPR’s Ann Powers and/or Frannie Kelly and Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz and/or Ryan Dombal by name—is to be able to discuss pop music in the same intellectual, academic and serious tones, contexts and with the same thoughtful, head-scratching, chin-in-hand, “I beg your pardon, but if I might interject—” musings that are applied to boring old classical music, jazz or, you know, politics; i.e., the serious, grown-up way of talking about things that are Very Important. They want the best of both worlds; a fun, disposable party-time anthem and then an in-depth conversation about why they’re smart for liking it, as opposed to just being party enjoyers.
Ricky Gervais (UK Office, Extras, PETA supporter, funny person) and his longtime partner Stephen Merchant had a podcast going for a while, which centered around their producer, Karl Pilkington, and his amusing (generally insipid, ill-informed and/or contrarian) views on life in general and various topics in particular. One episode has Pilkington complaining that people who are experts in some scientific field are given undue credit and acclaim, as opposed to people who might be experts on, say, Eastenders (a long-running UK soap opera). He contends that expertise and mastery of this subject is just as valid an endeavor and merits as much regard as their more hoity-toity academic counterparts.
It’s just not the case. There is substance and there is ephemera. Pop music is intrinsically ephemera. It can influence or shape substance, but by its definition/nature, it’s product for consumption. By and large (but, of course, with exceptions; we’ll come to that), what we’re talking about when we talk about pop music is: commerce. Business. Highly crafted, precisely honed metrics for deriving the greatest possible result from targeted demographics with the use of proven tools.
Which is not to denigrate pop music in the slightest. I love “Waterfalls” by TLC as much as I love, I dunno, the song “Blatant Statement” by Miles (the guy from Demdike Stare) or, say, anything from Time Fades Away by Neil Young.
Those latter two examples are intrinsically “anti-pop”; i.e., niche fare, commercially unmarketable and with no hope of coming within a mile of any pop charts, never mind the top of them. The TLC song is a catchy little number performed by one of innumerable hip-hop inflected R&B girl groups that were kicking around in the mid-90s.
The talent TLC possessed did not make them unique; the pop world is not a meritocracy.* But through good luck, good connections and good performance, they got themselves to a position where they were deemed marketable enough by someone with dough to release an album.
But here’s the thing: they’re still Eastenders; they’re not The Wire. Hanging out and singing along with “Waterfalls” just isn’t the same as actively trying to figure out where Stevie Wonder is coming from, when he releases his first “auteur,” non-Motown-machine-manufactured album.
So, where it gets interesting is in the awkward middle ground—which, I admit, is broad. Grace Jones, Chic, Stevie Wonder/Motown, Peter Gabriel, Grimes, Purity Ring, Chromeo, Scissor Sisters; i.e., artists using pop tools to make more lasting/inventive music. But I think it’s totally uninteresting to try to shoehorn grown-up concepts of art and good music into pop product like Miley Cyrus and/or Ariana Grande. What’s the point? To what end is this effort made?
Anyhow, exploring the, um, blurred lines of that middle ground is too big a task even to outline here, much less attempt. But it’s a crucial element of the discussion and it would be disingenuous (or, to be honest, asinine and/or willfully ignorant) not to admit it’s on the curriculum.
Okay, I think that’s enough for the moment. Trying to “finish” this essay/post will only result in its further delay; it’s already (at least!) four months old. But there’s obviously more ground to cover here. Hope to get back to it before another season passes. Thanks for reading this far (oh, like you have).
* I almost went with “Merrittocracy” there, just to be coy, but that’s another little can of blog-sniping worms that I’m staying the hell away from.
In this little item over at Pitchforkia, author Lindsay Zoladz notes that David Letterman had a performer from a Pitchfork-accredited act on his show and apparently thought the lead guy’s dance moves were fun and/or funny:
On Monday night, Baltimore synth-poppers Future Islands treated viewers of “The Late Show With David Letterman” to a spectacular performance of “Seasons (Waiting on You)”… Frontman Samuel T. Herring’s signature rubber-legged dance moves left Letterman very impressed.
In fact, he was so impressed that he is now trying to make Herring’s dance moves A Thing. During last night’s episode… Letterman repeatedly exclaimed “Let’s dance!” and cut to a clip of the performance (sometimes in a three-part split screen).
What I think is fun and/or funny is the snide tone that’s used in this piece—starting with the title: “David Letterman Trying to Turn Future Islands Dance Moves Into a Meme,” and Zoladz’ repetition of the “trying” angle in the piece itself, painting Letterman as some faintly desperate hack; “Hey, get a load of granddad trying to be all up in our scene—what a maroon! He’s trying to make a thing out of the thing we already made a thing out of. Late to the party much, Dr. Squaresville?”
The fact that David Letterman was making things “A Thing” before Pitchfork’s dismissive slackers were an idle twinkle in the milkmeme’s eye has apparently been overlooked in favor of the giddy thrill Zoladz seems to relish as she implicitly indicts Letterman for his lame attempt to latch onto her cool kids’ crowd, with their memes and Things.
Or something? To be frank, it’s not quite clear where Zoladz or her piece really lands, beyond a vaguely condescending message of “Nice try, TV guy.”
David Letterman may not be primarily responsible for the introduction of the “meme” into American popular culture, but he is responsible for some of the more deeply-implanted memes of the last thirty years. His Stupid Pet Tricks and Stupid Human Tricks bits were stupidly brilliant ideas that others turned into full-on TV shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos, Jackass and more. And his pre-post-ironic standing-outside-his-own-joke-and-smirking delivery has become ingrained in popular culture to the point where it’s simply status quo. Taking potshots at your network bosses? Another Letterman trope that’s become entrenched in the contemporary zeitgeist of jaded, post-ironic ironic sincerity; you might have caught some of it when 30 Rock was trying to make that a thing.
The title and tone of Zoladz’ Pitchfork piece indicates that she’s never seen the David Letterman show before. Which is certainly fair; I would imagine that Pitchfork staff writers have far more awesome and world-beating things to do during his time slot, in hep spots where squares aren’t invited and doing your homework is for later, man. But ignorance of the Letterman is no excuse; just because you don’t know anything about him doesn’t mean you get to decide he’s a phony, trying to ride the coattails of a trendingly buzzy indie-pop band.
Or—and, honestly, this didn’t occur to me until all the way at the end here—does this snide Pitchforkian tone arise from the awkwardness inherent in realizing that the same wacky dance moves that a cool, in-the-know and on-the-ball Pitchfork writer thinks are cute and funny are somehow also enjoyed for their funny cuteness by—OMFG—an old late night talk show guy? Who, like, my parents watch? NOT COOL, MAN! That totally undermines my appreciation of it! Now, when I watch Future Islands guy, I keep thinking about old late night guy and it’s just ruined!
David Letterman doesn’t need me to defend him, nor will this blog post do much for the world beyond making it evident that I’m impatient with smug bullshit. But if Pitchfork (and, you know, the internet) isn’t going to operate with a quality filter, why should I?
In this discussion, Mr. Auerbach’s comments are taken verbatim from his recent piece, “Gift Ideas For The Hip-Hop Fans In Your Life,” which appears at npr.org. Mr. Twocargarage’s comments were made in his car, to no-one, while listening to NPR on his commute.
Evan Auerbach of NPR and the blog, Up North Trips.
Carl Twocargarage of suburban listenership.
…You could go the traditional route when hunting for the hip-hop head in your life—vinyl reissues of Public Enemy and DMX albums, the “Halftime” 12-inch, to name just a few examples. But here we’ll suggest some less obvious ideas for everyone from the indie-label-budget baller all the way up to that I-woke-up-in-a-new-Bugatti paper spender.
That last part was just gibberish. I do remember Public Enemy from back in the 1980s when hip-hop was called rap, though. But who performed “Halftime”? Should I… know that, somehow?
2013 was a comeback year for Cam: He dropped a mixtape and a movie, and reunited with Dame Dash—even if it was only for a commercial. Killa managed all of this while reintroducing the world to his new-look Dipset clothing line.
Okay, I asked my middle-school-aged grandson who “Cam” is and he had no idea. So I asked my son, who said that “Cam” is short for “Cam’ron” and told me I should look it up on “Pitchfork,” before making an excuse and hanging up. Guess the cat’s still in the cradle on that one.
But I didn’t catch who “Killa” is. And is Dame Dash anything like Dame Edna? Because if so, you’ve got my attention—that “lady” is hilarious (and she’s no lady, if you know what I mean)!
For people who think 808s were invented by Kanye West, this book is an education.
Is an 808 like an LOL? Because I know that one. I’m not totally lost, here.
Isn’t there a rule that once you hit your 30s you can no longer refer to yourself as a Ciroc Boy? If there isn’t there should be.
“Ciroc Boy?” Okay, look—how much homework am I supposed to be doing to keep up with you people? This feels like the time I had to go to that downtown record store to buy the new Phil Collins album because Suzy had the car and I couldn’t get to Target. I mean, they had the CD in the store, but the guy at the counter acted like he didn’t even want to touch it, much less ring it up. Made me feel like I was already a grandfather. To be honest, he was a real prick.
DJ Paul, of Three Six Mafia, is an Oscar winner, a multiplatinum recording artist and the creator of a line of BBQ products. Perusing his site is really a gift to yourself, especially since, in true Memphis fashion, he’s put up 10 (downloadable) free recipes, too.
“In true Memphis fashion”? Seriously: I know what recipes are, I know what downloading is and I know what “free” means. And I’ve never been anywhere near Memphis. Do you people not have editors over there because it’s radio, or something?
Evan [subliminal between-the-lines observation]:
Look, if you’re so out of touch that you don’t get my references, maybe NPR just isn’t your jam, grandpa. We have our finger on the pulse up in this m.f.—if it’s too hip, you’re too old. We’re rocking Cam’ron, yo! NPR is where youth culture lives.
It has nothing to do with being young or old. It’s about basic journalistic practices and common goddamn courtesy. Flip your ego over and play the B-side, son.
I’ll get down with AARP and dance on your grave. Dipset! G-g-g-g-Unit! Kendrick Lamar! Pusha T!
Fine, fine; twerk your socks off, junior. I’ll bring your grandparents over to watch. It’ll be a time.
Okay, guys, I hope you are sitting down. Ready? Thee Oh Sees are not breaking up, but are going on hiatus. Wait wait wait! It’s okay, guys—they are not breaking up! They are just going on hiatus.
Look, Pitchfork has run it all down for you guys, guys. So, look: Thee Oh Sees are going on hiatus. But they are not breaking up. They will have a new album out in Q1 2014, gang. But the main dude and the singer chick are moving out of San Francisco!! So that’s a factor. And to different places!! But to other Californian locales. So that’s a factor, too.
But seriously, gang, let’s keep this all in perspective. It’s not the end of the world. The Oh Sees are not breaking up. They are just going on hiatus.
To be clear, let me quote the main Dwyer guy, who writes in all capital letters, which must mean something: “THIS IS JUST A WELL DESERVED BREAK,” he said to the internet, “AND A TRANSITIONAL PERIOD.”
I WAS VERY RELIEVED TO READ THAT, I MUST SAY!!
Annie Southworth, who is the booking agent for The Oh Sees, is quoted in a newspaper as saying the following words in a row: “They need a break after five years straight, so yes… hiatus time. Will be a little hard to continue with all the different locales so who knows what is going to happen… Cross fingers, we all are that it’s not completely over.”
CROSS FINGERS, WE ALL ARE!!
And Stereogum continues her quote, informing us that other factors are germane to the membrane, as regards the main Dwyer guy: “He’s been living in the Mission on 17th and Valencia, and watching that neighborhood as well as the city transform has been enough for him. He’s over it.”
OH GOD THEE OH CEES
SAY IT’S NOT COMPLETELY OVER
SAY YOU WILL CONTINUE GARAGE ROCKING FOR OUR PITCHFORKS
THE WORLD NEEDS MORE WHITE DUDE ROCKERS IN THE WORLD
FOR OUR STEREOGUMBALLS AND OUR DUDES
FIND A NEW NEIGHBORHOOD THAT YOU ARE NOT OVER
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD
Thee Oh Sees are going on hiatus. But they are not breaking up.
Goodnight, sweet prince Dwyer guy.
May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest; until, like, whenever.
Note: There’s no story here. For the record, I acknowledge that making fun of music coverage on NPR is like shooting fish in a barrel, where the barrel is filled with fish and made of fish.
But still, it was objectively hilarious to hear Marc Myers, of the Wall Street Journal’s music appreciation division, run through a fistful of utterly forgettable and Starbucks-primed Christmas tunes on Morning Edition today.
A Nick Lowe novelty tune—that’s not only funny but “hip”? Sold!
A “bluegrass” gal who’s—get this—in her twenties? Stop the (coffee) presses!
A sultry-voiced chanteuse singing over a cool jazz combo, sounding like Norah Jones fronting the Vince Guaraldi Trio? Oh, get out of my dreams and get into my Saab—wait, and she’s hip, too? Shut the front door!
Maybe it’s just me; I don’t know if I can explain this, if you’re not giggling already. He’s from the Wall Street Journal. He’s providing an overview of this year’s crop of holiday music. He’s using the word “hip.” Okay, hang on—he’s the author of the following books (per Wikipedia):
How to Make Luck: 7 Secrets Lucky People Use to Succeed
Affluent for Life (ghost written for Ted Ridlehuber) [Yes, the Ted Ridlehuber]
Ernst & Young’s Profit from the New Tax Law
So, you know—clearly, “hip” is his beat. (Man.)
It’s almost as goofy as mashing up* Raymond Carver and Jay-Z—where we’re all like whaaa? Oh, no, they didn’t… But they did, yo! NPR, you so cray-cray! Can you dig it? Trés clever, beaucoups pithy—implicitly challenging notions of the entrenched and the innovative! Like, the conventional/established short story form of Carver and the, um, hang on—the, uh, way edgy, super-innovative and totally not conventional musical expressions of people like Jay-Z and Drake, who are, like, definitely pushing the envelope.
(Note: The envelope is filled with money and is made of money.)
The calls are coming from inside the house.
* Never mind; it’s something the kids used to do when NPR was discussing the Beatles and listening to their grandchildren debate which was “the best Tribe album”?! (or whatever!).
To the Woman in the Produce Section Who is Slowly, Carefully Picking Out Her String Beans One by One:
Oh, dear heart—if I had your capacity to focus so precisely on so mundane a task, without finding myself bored to the point of fury within the first fifteen seconds, I could gather all the pills I take for my ADDs and pitch them to the four winds.
If I had that—you fantastic creature—along with your ability to apply such clearly heartfelt dedication to the profoundly trivial, this blog would soon overflow the internet.
And if I had those things—my treasure—and, too, the free time it takes to do what you are doing—oh, sweet mercy! I would be utterly, literally and so, so joyously unmotherfuckingstoppable!
Thank you, apparition of pasts and futures unspeakable, for giving me a glimpse of the man I could have been; and may, one day, yet still be. I will carry your memory with me until my ultimate breath—and speak of you to the angels.
Christ, Noisey. You really are coming off like the jocks who have “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blaring from their SUVs while they slap around that queer emo kid in the parking lot behind the Dairy Queen before letting him loose and throwing your Bud Lite bottles at him as he runs away.
I mean, for real: “Miley Cyrus is punk as fuck”—seriously? And I’m fully aware that your post was conceived, written and titled to engender exactly this response, but trust me—I don’t mean it like, “Seriously, dude? You really think Miley Cyrus is punk rock?” No; what I mean is, “Seriously? That’s how punk as fuck you seriously think you are, that you seriously believe you can say that and seriously make a case to back it up, and seriously look at yourself in the mirror and take yourself seriously?”
To start with, let’s skip the whole, “Dude, punk rock is all about being in opposition to the corporate machine and she’s just pop and dude, MTV! Teenybopper! Hannah Montana!” spiel; not because it’s beneath the author of the Noisey piece, but because it’s beneath me (and pretty much anyone else who might be reading this). Those points aren’t even relevant to this discussion. I’ll just start with a quote that articulates the point around which the Noisey argument seems to center:
[Ms. Cyrus is] more punk rock than all the mascara-wearing dorks playing the Warped Tour, more punk rock than old-ass bands on their third reunion tours, more punk rock than you or me.
Look. Come on. Just because punk* sucks now doesn’t mean we just turn on the TV and redefine the word to fit whoever’s currently freakin’ out the squares. There have been spotlight-seeking quasi-iconoclasts for a long-ass time. That doesn’t mean they have anything to do with “punk.”
And you can call this a reactionary or “rockist” response, or whatever, but that’s just avoiding the truth: You might as well have said, “Miley Cyrus is jazz as fuck,” or “Miley Cyrus is rock ‘n’ roll as fuck,” or “Miley Cyrus is James Joyce as fuck”—it would have been just as wrong and just as right: She is causing a commotion and getting parents and other authority figures all up in a tizzy in the same way those things used to, back in the day. It doesn’t mean she has anything to do with anything beyond pop music and kids’ TV shows; trying to squeeze her into some kind of punk paradigm is just… well, it’s as goofy as thinking twerking is some kind of fresh, new thing.
Without even trying, Miley is straight up spinning circles around every single pop star who is trying to be edgy right now. Kanye West? Please. She makes Yeezus look like Kidz Bop 24. Kanye West is a giant narcissist who spends every waking minute thinking of how to cement his place as The Greatest Artist Of All Time™.
Okay, now you’re just being silly. Sure, Kanye is a giant narcissist, but comparing his new album with hers is asinine. While Yeezus doesn’t have a lot to startle anyone who’s had an ear toward underground rap music since the mid-nineties or so, it’s still a pretty oddball record for a chart-topping, multi-platinum artist to release.
Miley Cyrus’ album is by-the-numbers contemporary dance-pop; safe, “risqué” by Mom Standards and as edgy as the last Ke$ha product. Unlike Yeezus, it’s product for profit, not product in spite of its creators’ better judgment. With his album, Kanye West is potentially jeopardizing his stature as a profitable hitmaker and gaining a rep as an iconoclastic hypocrite (e.g., if anyone asks him to reconcile his ambiguous lyrics about oppressively expensive fashion with his $120 t-shirt, etc.).
Either way, you have to try just as hard to dodge that ballsy (even… punk?) element of Yeezus as you do to identify anything transgressive or meaningfully boundary-pushing about a teenage girl wearing tight clothes and dirty dancing in the almost-nude. Or wait, is this 1982? Stop the presses—a hot young pop starlet is showing off her body and being rebellious—the punks are taking over!
I’d say I’ve watched the video five dozen times and I can’t even tell you how the song goes. Most times, I’ll just watch it on mute and drop my jaw at how mind-bogglingly ridiculous it is…
Oh, right—I almost forgot the implicit “I don’t actually listen to the music part” part. It’s an amusing little escape hatch, but come on; either step up and own this shit or step off, Tiger Beat.
Anyhow, in closing, sure; Miley Cyrus as “punk” does make sense from a site littered with ads for Doc Martens, Ray-Bans and The Gap—now that’s punk fucking rock, kid. Garnier Fructis is punk as fuck. You read it here first.
* Note: “Punk” in this sentence refers to “punk” found on iTunes and at the mall. I’m not actually claiming or conceding that punk sucks right now; I’m just keeping the discussion within its stated parameters—Warped Tour and old bands. Personally, I think there’s more to punk than that, but I don’t expect to find it at the mall.
Hey, guys! So, can we all agree that the whole zombie thing has run its course and file it away in the attic next to the pirate stuff?* Solid.
I mean, I know Halloween is coming and I’m not trying to be all Captain Bringdown, but for reals, yo: Superhero zombies? Meh, fine; whatever. Kinda lame and blandly opportunistic, but par for the course.
* Being sure to leave a space for the box of beard combs, mustache wax and vests.
Okay. This will be a mess, but at least it’ll be a mess with integrity; which is more than I can say for M.I.A. (at least, in this particular context) or for Noisey, the music blog/site arm of the ever-widening Vice mag firehose. Here are a few of the angles Noisey is taking on this tempest(t) in a teapot (note: bolding mine):
MIA’s importance as a cultural figure cannot be denied or argued. Unlike other self-proclaimed political artists, who claim to have an agenda beyond releasing tracks with a message that’s forgotten as soon as they’ve cashed their cheque, MIA is actively involved in humanitarian issues.
I beg to differ. I contend that her importance can be both argued—she’s not intrinsically any more important than Ke$ha (which, yes, is actually an argument, although both of these pop stars do seem to like to feel that they’re making an impact); and, since you mention it—yes, even denied. To wit: Since when have we all agreed that pop music as a commercial genre is the same thing as “culture”?
Seriously; put down the Justin Timberlake and that record by Alan Thicke’s kid and try to remember a time back when you knew how to differentiate hip from hype. Sure, M.I.A. can be a notable pop-cultural figure; why not?—but, well, you know what they say about taking the gold in the Special Olympics.
There are plenty of people out there making more interesting (and less conventional) pop music, not to mention music that’s less overtly constructed out of hit pop single tools, tropes and tricks. There are also plenty of people who less sensationally back up their political philosophies with their actions, rather than shouting from soapboxes made of Sony/Roc-A-Fella/Interscope dough before stepping behind the curtain for the part where the suits swing through to drop off the checks. [Note: Somebody call Chumbawamba and see if they still get Christmas cards from the folks in Crass.]
It’s possible that the NFL didn’t do their research. Fine; they brought in Madonna, whose long-expired edge is so blunted that it knows everyone can tell it’s SO HIGH right now DUDE JUST BE COOL OK!!! Safe as houses, right? But to be fair, there’s a chance that the intern whose bro showed him that YouTube clip with the hot Indian (or w/e!) chick didn’t dig a little deeper into the dark, iconoclastic, insurrectionista underworld in which M.I.A. resides, before shooting her name up the pipeline to the half-time show decider committee (who, everyone knows, never leave their houses and only have the Internet on their computers LOL). So, yeah; culpable? Definitely. When you hire M.I.A., you get M.I.A., even if you should have known better and done your (simple-ass) homework. Ignorance of the ignorance of the law is no excuse.
But is M.I.A. a victim here? Similarly, not at all. Maya chose to step up and play with the big kids. She signed on the line, took the check and then willingly opted to use her high-profile moment to be far-out and edgy and freak out the squares, man! And fair enough—I mean, seriously, why not take a moment in the midst of all the glitz and decadence of the Super Bowl half-time show to make a heartfelt, articulate plea on behalf of your suffering siblings—or, you know, just pull an f.u.? But to expect to walk off that Super Bowl field without an invoice clinging to your spiky heel is either profoundly delusional or absurdly naïve. M.I.A. may be the former; she’s certainly not the latter.
But it’s been a little while; let’s get back to the Noisey perspective (and yes, I fixed your dipshit punctuation, son):
And while Maya didn’t hijack the performance to promote a political agenda [OH FUCKING COME ON NOW, REALLY? THANKS FOR THAT CLARIFICATION YO BECAUSE I THOUGHT THIS WAS SINEAD O’CONNOR ON SNL ALL OVER AGAIN], it would be safe to assume that her opting to stick her finger up at the camera wasn’t a immature grasp for attention—as the NFL suggests—but rather, when caught up in the moment, a way of conveying to the largest audience possible, that yes, she “[doesn’t] give a shit.” At least not about a sporting event that grosses over $150 million while her own people are suffering as the rest of the world turns a blind eye.
Look, homes: You can’t have it both ways; either she’s innocent or she’s guilty. If you’re defending her, saying she was “caught up in the moment” diminishes her statement by defining it as a spontaneous whim. If you’re not sympathetic to her, it supports the perspective of her as an opportunistic headline-chaser. But you’re trying to work both angles—saying it was a spur-of-the-moment impulse (hey, take it easy on a gal, lawyers—we’re just playin’!) and a meaningful political statement about her suffering people (hey, can we get some of those Occupy kids to Instagram this moment or something?).
It’s Rage Against The Machine 2.0; wanting to be the spokesperson for the downtrodden via the corporate assembly line. But whether you’re a wannabe agit-pop star or a blog hack for a diluted franchise, you can’t get upset when the multinational conglomerates you’re in bed with don’t play fair. You knew who you were getting jiggy with when you took the money, honey.
(And not to “go there” and all, but yes, it’s great to procreate with a right-on, green-minded, forward-thinking hero of the people; and hey, if he’s the multimillionaire heir to a liquor and record label fortune, that doesn’t hurt either, does it? Come on, you guys—some of these suits have names and faces, okay? They’re people just like you or me! Point taken: Playing for both sides can be fun, as long as everyone sticks with your playbook.)
So, to edge toward wrapping this up: Look—if M.I.A.’s defense is that the NFL isn’t actually as family-friendly as it claims to be, or whatever, then what does that make her (rebellious, spontaneous, iconoclastic, calculated, meaningless, meaningful, on-purpose, on-the-fly) gesture? Was it a statement, somehow, about how the NFL is hypocritical in its messaging? Because if it was, then, dude: We are on—glove thrown, challenge accepted, pistols at dawn, yo. Because the NFL is some bullshit, no argument here. But if that wasn’t the point of her bold-ass middle finger, then… well, her defense is kind of more or less basically a little bit of a sorta cheap copout, right? Like, “OK, maybe I was kinda rude—but you guys were totally rude first! I’m calling it!”
Whew. Well, glad that’s ov—wait, what? Dude, 4 rlz, Chris Brown? Really? That’s the guy you bring in for a hott collabo when your NFL defense hinges on accusations of misogyny? Seriously, are you high (or just pre-emptively terrified of male hegemonic oppressions and stuff or whatever Rihanna call me OK because this guy seems totez nice but maybe he’s got a temper idk lolzzz)?
One night, some years ago, my bandmate and I spent a thoroughly enjoyable few hours at Kinko’s, working on a flyer for an upcoming show. I brought fifty or so copies of the final version home with me and peeled one off to show my roommate, whose comment was, “Nice flyer. So, when’s the show?”
Yes: I’d forgotten to include that information. I slapped my forehead and called my bandmate, who slapped his and called us both morons, and we agreed to meet back at Kinko’s the following evening to add that important detail (and run off another batch of copies).
As I lay in bed that night, I concocted the following mnoronic (you see what I’ve done there) device, which I include herewith:
These are all of the core, crucial, essential elements that any flyer should have, whether it’s a punk rock show or a lecture on the intrinsic hegemony of the modern workplace. (The only item left out is “Age,” which, in regards to all-ages shows, can be a crucial factor* in the punk scene; I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether or not to add a third “A” to this device.
The next day, when I met my bandmate at Kinko’s, I told him excitedly about my invention. His reaction wasn’t what I’d hoped for.
“Keep it to yourself,” he said. “No need to broadcast how dumb we are.” And, on thinking it over in the cold, hard and rapidly dimming light of the new day, I had to concur.
But I think enough time has passed since then—and I have no doubt whatsoever that there are still people in bands absent-minded, distracted, forgetful or just plain dumb enough to make these kinds of mistakes. It’s for that dopey but loveable crowd that I’m finally going public with the DATA system. Simple, memorable, effective. (Maybe jot it down somewhere so you don’t forget it.)
* Inexplicably, Crucial Factor is not the name of a straight-edge, hardcore, metal or any other band. xCRUCIALFACTORx WTF
Wow, Pitchfork; so, in the new world, do we really have to dig under Nickelodeon spinoff sitcom rocks to find the debuts of future pop starlet also-rans so that we can give them a 6 out of 10 next to music made by (and ostensibly for) grown-ups?
Apparently, we do.
Well, all right! Hell, let’s crack open the Night Train and get it over with! My friends; my good, good friends: Here’s to comparing Carly Rae Jepsen to—well, to anything in the world, out of haplessly ambitious ass-coverage and sheer desperation.
It’s okay, Pitchfork. The last ten years haven’t been a colossal waste of time—they’ve just been an exercise in discovering just how far down this thing can go.
…And here we are. See you on the other side!
P.S.: Just kidding; see you at “South By.” We’ll be the ones in the party tent rocking glow-in-the-dark label promo gear and doing shots!
Given her “It’s not me, it’s you” response to last year’s Super Bowl hullabaloo (check back soonish for some brilliant thoughts on that whole bushel of b.s.; spoiler alert: Both sides are culpaballs), one might have the impression that M.I.A. doesn’t give a lot of thought to her participation in broad-scope, PR-driven corporate promotions.
And one might have a point there. After all, M.I.A. didn’t really exercise free will or personal choice (or responsibility or actual thought) in regards to her participation in Beck’s “Let’s get some mid-level pop stars to design our beer bottle labels” program, apparently. In fact, the whole thing was pretty much out of her hands, to hear her tell it.
[Quotes from her Spin interview on the subject cut ‘n’ pasted verbatim (M.I.A. 4 RLZ); free ‘n’ easy translation (M.I.A. 4 LOLZ) provided by a confidential source. Tough-ass, hard-hitting interrogation administered by seasoned/accredited pop music thinker Julianne Escobedo Shepherd.]
M.I.A. 4 RLZ
So how did you wind up working with Beck’s?
Things have their way. I was in India at the time doing artwork anyway, and somebody sent it to me, and it kind of fit with the theme of what I was making. And so I said yes because I felt like it was perfect.
I didn’t really peg you for a beer drinker!
I’m not too much of a beer drinker, but when I was at art school, Beck’s always sponsored shows and stuff like that. I remember it being like a beer haze, not for me, but for most of my friends.
You developed the whole label design?
Yeah, I was making that as a painting, or with those elements anyway, and I put together a version for them out of what I was making for myself at the time.
M.I.A. 4 LOLZ
I was doing this artwork anyway. I’m not really much of a beer drinker. Back in ARTWORK SCHOOL, though, it was like beer-goggles central! I mean, not for me, mind you. Hey, anyone who remembers Beck’s in the nineties wasn’t really there, nahmean? But seriously, other people drank beer and I didn’t. I said “Beck’s,” back there, right? Not “beer”? Okay.
Anyway, when Beck’s called my agent, I just sent over some artwork I was making at the time and took the check. I mean, the check didn’t taste like beer. Beer’s just gross. Wait, I said “beer,” not “Beck’s,” right? Hey, is this being recorded?
M.I.A. 4 RLZ
What are you most looking forward to having —
I’m not going to say anything controversial in this interview.
I’m not trying to ask you anything controversial, I just wanted to ask you about your art reaching a larger audience through Beck’s. Have you thought about that?
Yeah, before artists would struggle with the art and commerce thing, but now I think you have to have a certain conviction about your work and I think the canvas is irrelevant, you can put it on anything these days. As long as you’re not like, you know there are certain things I won’t agree to, but sitting down and having a drink, and having a little chat is a good thing, and that’s what people tend to do, you know. They get drunk and get together, so.
Your style is so specific artistically, and recognizable as a generational thing so it’s sort of cool to see in a more mainstream context.
Also, it’s just like, it was like five dudes [doing the] labels and it was like getting that feminist perspective. I just wanted to make something that was like, an evolution of the design stuff but still part of what I did before kind of thing.
M.I.A. 4 LOLZ
In the past, artwork vs. commerce was an issue artworkists struggled with. But now, you have to have a certain conviction about your work. Sure, you can quote me on that. What?
Anyhow, yeah, there are certain checks I wouldn’t take, of course, but Anheuser-Busch? Sure, why not? See if I can blag some of that Spuds McKenzie paper, girl. I mean, it’s not like Bud did those Swedish Bikini Team ads; the King of Beers would never pander to a male demographic with that kind of misogyny.
Oh, hey—“feminine” and “feminist” mean the same thing, right?
Plus, let’s be honest: When else am I gonna get mentioned in the same sentence as Jeff Koons, am I right? And… Lemme see that list. Hang on—Ladyhawke did one, too? And, wait; “Hard-Fi”? Who the fuck? Get my agent on the phone—this interview is over.
I mean, not to be a dick about it or anything, but just a note to Ms. I.A.: If you’re cool to partner with a giant corporation and take a check, but get uptight afterward about the aspects of their messaging that are sexist and disrespectful, especially toward women, you might want to consider using your Beck’s fee to pay your lawyer to stop you in advance when Hooters calls.
P.S. re: M.I.A.:
Missing In Activism
Making Income Accidentally
Missed Inebriation in Academia
Multinational Incorporated Artwork
¡Motherfuckin’ IconoKlass*tic AnarKKKista!
Maker of Inflammatory (beer label) Artwork
Molotovs, Insurrection and Accounts-receivable
Moderately Interesting Artist
* …warfare! Gotcha!
Every so often, when I think about the selfless charity and noble spirit of brotherhood that moved guitarist Jonny Greenwood to wrench the H from his first name and give it to his friend and bandmate, Thom Yorke, I am so overcome with emotion that I have to stop what I’m doing to take a few quiet breaths and dry my eyes.
Inevitably, the moment passes and I am myself again.
A multi-point agenda for a discussion of pop music.
Okay. I’ve been skirting the issue for long enough. In the coming days and weeks, I’m going to be digging into a lot of the things that initially inspired me to start this blog. It’s going to be a tough but enjoyable challenge to keep it light, concise, positive and entertaining—I definitely tend toward the verbose and cranky.
Among these will be posts, observations, deliberations and (ideally, even) discussions covering such topics as the following:
1. “Poptimism” vs. “rockism” and other false dichotomies.
Stipulating that music is often “product,” and that this is the case in the majority of popular/“pop” music, how do we navigate the blurred lines* between works of artistic worth and songs/albums/artists whose existence is predicated on calculated profitability? This is in or around, say, the Mountain Goats and Britney Spears (to use two examples of artists with whose work I’m only passingly familiar).
2. “If it’s popular, it can’t be good,” and other fallacies/straw men.
Get under the hood of the whole, “Listen, people wrote off the Beatles as fluff, at the time—but now we know they were geniuses,” thing and hunt around for valid and meaningful examples of this poptimist platform plank. See also: Motown…
Counterpoint: Consider, say, the Neptunes and Timbaland as examples of musical innovators whose work and influence may transcend their immediate context(s); see also: Phil Spector.
3. “Guilty pleasures” and other copouts.
Recognizing that some music we enjoy may not comfortably fit into the critical matrix we’ve cultivated—and identifying and evaluating various methods for coping with this; e.g., denial, secrecy, ironic flaunting, blatant hypocrisy, unabashed ownership, re-assessing objective/subjective critical/aesthetic standards, expansion of tolerance/perception, etc.
Establish the difference between A) reconciling a guilty pleasure to fit within (or hide behind) a set of musical preferences and B) figuring out ways to approach music we like that can accommodate a breadth of styles and sounds without requiring exceptions or explanations. This might involve taking a step back and considering the way(s) we enjoy music, first, before we get literal and bring the kinds of music we enjoy into the discussion. Whoa. (Surely this has been done before; I’ll look into it.)
4. Maintaining consistent standards of evaluation, and other challenges.
What do we expect from pop music? When we hold it up to the standards we apply to “real” music (or “authentic” music, if we apply the rockist perspective), is it acceptable/odd/irrational/unrealistic/poptimistic—even for its most ardent defenders—to be disappointed when it falls short?
Are poptimists just grasping to identify and adore the next Beatles, so as to short-circuit the period of critical disdain and get to the fun part where we all get to take it seriously while we’re dancing? Do people just want to be pre-emptively on the right side of this era’s “disco sucks” battle? If so, in whose service is this done; for whose benefit? The artists’? The labels’? The critics’? The (ugh) audience’s?
Side note: It’s always fun to feel like the opposition; like the persecuted minority. Rebellion is historically cool and intrinsically fun. Imagine if your pals on the battlefield were, like, totally hot red carpet celebs? That’s, like, win-win, right? (We’re all still fourteen, right?)
5. Do we need to talk about this?
I mean, apparently, we do. But I’d like to pose the question, just because it’s come up in conversations along the way. From my own perspective, the lines aren’t really all that blurry—it seems pretty clear to me what’s purely product (or so close as to make little difference) and what’s implicitly or inadvertently got “product” in it, but isn’t intrinsically created as or to be product.
But that’s an “I know it when I see it” viewpoint, which, as we know, is not a helpful or objective basis for judgment. So I’m curious as to why the conversation is necessary—and, I admit, I think I have to include this section to explain/justify my own pontifications on the subject. Because clearly it matters enough for me to get so worked up about it that I started this blog and wrote all this stuff. Why do I give this topic—so much of which I find to be superficial and uninteresting—so much thought?
* oh, like you wouldn’t have
Busy hitting “refresh” over and over at the Italians Do It Better site.
This is in or around being an obsessive record-collecting dope (with exceptional taste in music and design).
Seriously; you should look into this label. $5 for a CD? $10 for a record (on color vinyl, with free download, of course)? Free downloads of like half their catalog (or more) over at Soundcloud? Sweet DIY/glam analog/photocopy-style graphic design and really fun, sharply-crafted and overall awesome music?
How is the mainstream music industry collapsing when this model exists?
(Oh, wait; I forgot—greed, aggressive short-sightedness, suing the people they should have been figuring out how to appeal to, and giving today’s limos and lunches priority over staying in business tomorrow. Easy to overlook.)