clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, June 30, 2003
rocking me
So today's gonna be Liz Phair day here at claps blog, with a bunch of stuff brewing.

First off is the letter Liz wrote to the Times in response to their scathing review. The general consensus has been that the letter is "crazy" (c.f. Gawker and the Velvet Rope) and I'll grant that halfway--certainly the letter starts out kind of crazy, and her refusal to telegraph the meaning behind the "Chicken Little" metaphor I'm sure confused some people. I mean, hell, I was pretty confused at first. But then I hit the end, and it, quite honestly, is one of the most moving and quietly beautiful love-letters to pop music I've ever read:

"The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" Chicken Little screeched, terrified they would not heed her and would be found the next morning, buried among the intellectual debris. She pecked and pecked at them with her sharp little beak until they finally agreed to be awakened. The three readers rose up and shuffled outside to be greeted by a warm, summer rain falling steady as a heartbeat, wondrous and quiet as unexpected relief from pain. "Why, Chicken Little," said one reader, "it's only a summer shower come to feed the land. It feels great!" Chicken Little cowered in the corner as a fork of lightning licked the trees. "It's dangerous!" she cried, "you could slip on the wetness! You could catch a nasty cold! You could get electrocuted!" The three readers laughed, and went back out to experience the mystery of the storm, without thinking, without deconstructing, without checking what the other would do first. "Listen to me! Listen to me!" cried Chicken Little, as she watched their backs turn. The three readers stopped at the door and called out before leaving: "C'mon, Chicken Little. Hurry up, you're gonna miss it!"
Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Now honestly, how nice is that? And true, too, I think. "Warm summer rain falling steady as a heartbeat." That's great writing, and a perfect summation of what I've been trying to show folks about this particular move on Liz's part. So let me try to, as the lit teachers say, "unpack" it a bit.

First off is the attempt to separate the critic from the listeners (and the annoying jab of "three listeners") and thereby imply that the critic doesn't get it but the "people" do. This is a technique too often used by artists who have (usually deservedly) had their work panned, and not really that valid or revelatory, so a D on that one, Liz.

Then there's the stuff about critics traveling in packs and waiting to see what the general reaction will be before jumping on the bandwagon. This is an undeniably true fact about critics, I think, but it's not really a valid argument unless you can demonstrate that they actually do like the music and are just ripping it in public to maintain their cred, whereas in this case I think both the level of hatred in the reviews and the fact that Liz admits she was making a record she knew the critics wouldn't like belie the sincerity of their reaction. So points for asessing a truism, but demerits for picking the wrong case to apply it to, and a C+ here.

But she gets the full A+ for the positive stuff, the description of the simple pleasures of pop music and of the difficulties faced by people like us--what I'll call, for lack of a better reference, Liz Phair's audience (or LPA for short)--in suddenly finding that we really like, say, the new Justin Timberlake song, or the American Idol single, because so much of our identity is tied up in music and so much of our taste tells us that the mainstream is evil and wrong and we must avoid it at all costs because it is shallow and it crushes the true innovators in the underground, etc. etc. This is about, as far as I can see, the process by which LPAs (including in this case, I think, LP herself) get over that hump and start to learn to love the bomb.

Here's the argument I think she's making. First off, I think you have to realize that the view of "listeners" here, while a bit idealized, is essentially a parody of what they seem to look like from the critic's perspective: "They played outdoors, mostly, and had very open minds." Listeners don't, of course--most people's tastes are pretty fixed--but critics need to believe this in order for their criticism to be meaningful (since very few critics are happy simply writing Papa Roach reviews for Rolling Stone and like to think of themselves as connoisseurs and dilettantes and exposers of new good things), and as a consequence, most have a strangely paternalistic attitude towards "listeners" wherein they think they're very easily influenced, mainly in a negative way, and need to be shielded from the bad shallow crushing mainstream what I mentioned earlier. And so--as, for instance, a few Pitchfork writers have admitted to me at different points--they overcompensate, making a work seem much worse than it is ("The sky is falling!") in order to scare their "stupid listeners" into not buying and thus stopping the evil, etc.

But what the metaphor is trying to point out is that listeners are a bit more adventurous in their tastes than critics give them credit for. This doesn't mean that they're open-minded, but it does mean that we seem to be able to find pleasure in music where critics cannot, or, worse, assume we shouldn't. We appreciate humor more ("it's only two squirrels chasing each other in amorous conquest, skittering over the eave of our house." "It's quite funny, actually...") and we don't expect every album to be Revolver; we are often happy with, as Phair so nicely puts it, something "wondrous and quiet as unexpected relief from pain." If that makes us shallow, so be it, but it does seem to make us more happy. The process of a LPAer becoming a pop fan is the process of maturation, I think, the process of getting tired of being so much "smarter" than everyone else that we sit alone in our room and becoming, instead, the kind of person who can look goofy and dance in the rain and listen to "Crazy in Love" and sing along, now, not when the LPAers appreciate it twenty years down the line. It's the process, in other words, of appreciating how rare and beautiful a thing happiness is, no matter how much of it you have, and seeking it out wherever you can.

It's nice that the letter doesn't close with the critic alone and rejected, but, instead, with an offer to come outside and play, because this is the eternal promise of pop music: that of inclusion. But there's a warning there too, one that I wish more critics would heed. If you keep yelling that the sky is falling when it is, in fact, only sort of rumbling, you lose your authority with the readers, and you become another instrument of what you're trying to avoid. We don't want that, because (as the last bit demonstrates) the listeners like you and value you. But we also need to know when to trust you, and to be able to go to you without you attempting to take away our simple pleasures.

So there's your crazy letter, kids. Kind of funny that it may actually have been too intelligent for most people...