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Wednesday, August 27, 2003
Not that I'm the biggest Sasha Frere-Jones fan, mind, but this article on Justin quite simply nails it.

The second single—produced by Timbaland, the only man challenging the Neptunes for critical and commercial consensus—was "Cry Me a River," a complete 180 from "Like I Love You"'s jackrabbit lust. "Cry" is puppy love directed by Douglas Sirk, a CinemaScope ballad full of generous detail and disjunctive leaps and Timberlake's second consecutive hit. The song got an obvious boost from gossip columnists reading it as Justin's kiss-off to his ex, Britney Spears, but less obvious was the response from New Yorker music critic Alex Ross: "In the past year, rock critics found themselves in the faintly embarrassing position of having to hail Justin Timberlake's Justified as one of the better records of the year." The embarrassment must be Ross', as the critics didn't exhibit much. Rolling Stone gave the album four stars, and Village Voice critic Robert Christgau gave it an A-. The daily newspaper reviews were uniformly positive. But The New Yorker has a track record of approaching pop music with one hand holding its nose, so calling Timberlake an embarrassment is simply par for the course. Eustace Tilley has never been down with the kids. In fact, there is a historical trend for critics to discount hugely popular artists who sell to kids, especially girls. Sometimes, critics, borrowing a little fantasy back from the kids, like to pretend that these artists don't really exist.

Ross likes "Cry Me a River," praising its multiple layers and name-checking Duke Ellington, but the whole thing makes him uncomfortable: "In any case," he writes, "the songs on Justified aren't really Timberlake's. A dozen names appear in the credits, and it's anyone's guess how much of a song like 'Cry Me a River,' the album's best track, actually came from Timberlake's pen, if he owns one." There's probably more evidence George Bush doesn't own a pen, but Ross is making a funny. We salute that. But still, the crack is pure ideology. The Beatles, whom he praises, were a big collaborative pileup, so why would Ross object to Timberlake collaborating with Timbaland? There are just three writing credits on "Cry Me a River," one more than most Beatle songs: Timberlake, Timbaland, and keyboardist Scott Storch. Storch isn't a singer, and Timbaland usually relies on partners for pop songwriting. The most likely source, then, for "River"'s gorgeous harmonies is Timberlake himself. Throw on his previous work and you can hear it. The nimble rhythms and long vocal phrases Timberlake wrote for three of 'N Sync's best songs—"Pop," "Girlfriend," and "Gone"—are very different from the fierce, clipped vocals Timbaland favors on Missy Elliott's Under Construction. What "Cry" sounds exactly like is half Timberlake, half Timbaland. Timberlake tells us as much in the press kit: "As soon as Timbaland made that beat, I started humming this crazy melody. I really wanted one section of the song to follow that staccato rhythm, but wanted the other parts to feel like something new."

I'm too lazy to paste in all the links and italics, so go to the article for the full effect--there's lots more good stuff there. (Incidentally, Sasha: "Quick—think of a single solo disc by a famous producer … that's any good. We'll wait." John Cale, my friend. To say nothing of Eno's solo work.)

The whole thing addresses the "rockist" bias in, well, rock criticism, which is not all that surprising given its roots in Bangs/Christgau/Meltzer/Marcus/Wenner, the writes of the round table that forged "serious" rock-crit from whole cloth back in the "golden age," which currently is the 60's and which will be the 80's in another twenty years. (Just you wait.) What happened then though--and no one seems too eager to admit this--was as much a function of the business of music as the art of it. If you were a record company, and you're used to having to negotiate with generally very business-savvy songwriters (the producers of yesteryear) for publishing rights, given the opportunity to deal only with naive artists who also happen to write their own songs, which would you prefer? Which one would be easier to take advantage of? Hell, which one has been easier to take advantage of? The sudden shift in the 60's to music primarily played by the songwriters (Elvis v. the Beatles) and the newfound sense of legitimacy this conveyed was partially because the songs were better, sure. But while the songwriter-as-songwriter function persisted, it had become debased. Even if a songwriter could produce better songs than most artists, he was still a hack, a talentless nobody churning out tunes for cash instead of the love of the music. And then in the 80's this started to become the producer's job, to help write the songs, and here, too, the image of debased gun-for-hire persisted. If you're such a good songwriter, the logic went, why not just play and sing the song yourself? Well, because it can be better sung by someone else, of course.

So respect the song, my rockist bretheren, and the writers who write 'em. Don't be fooled by transparency into thinking it's legitimacy, and don't assume you know so much about the biz that you can make informed assumptions about the songwriting process of pop. It's easier to analyze personalities, sure, but sometimes the song matters more.

Simon Reynolds semi-replies here, and ends up touching on one of Sasha's pet subjects, race. (Ah, those Brits.) But what I think is more interesting is his previous entry, which quotes Nietzsche and talks about pop-ism as close to rock-ism:

Adolescence without hang-ups--what's the point? This is why I believe Pop-ism is a lot closer to Hornbyism than it may realise. It's an oddly self-cornering ideology, progressively eliminating more and more of what actually is good and worth celebrating about pop (freak characters, innovator producers, sonic weirdness) as rockist criteria, residues of crypto-auteurism that must be purged.

...which is funny because, right after talking about pop-ism's assailing of indie-snobbery as a straw man argument, he gives us this: one of the biggest straw-man arguments I've encountered. Since when does popism (outside of Sasha, who as I say, I'm no great fan of) try to exclude things? My whole point about pop--and that of lots of other people too, near as I can tell, Tom Ewing included--is that the beauty of pop is in its inclusiveness. This, after all, is what Simon likes about rave culture (I think) and yet he comes out strongly against "dilettantism" and sees honor in sticking to one narrow area of the musical spectrum. And that's fine, I guess, but I think there's a pretty big contradiction there. I don't know which popists he's encountered who get all snobby about rockist criteria sneaking into pop music, but I think the point of the popists is that, as Simon says, they're ex-rockists, and so those particular set of values are assumed, are already there to be employed when useful; the diference is that instead of being the only standard, the exclusionary measure, they are simply one tool in the enjoyment arsenal. We judge Dylan by the rockist criteria; we judge Missy by the popist. And sometimes we switch 'em, just to see what happens, and if there's a useful take on the whole thing there.

So I'd be with Simon if he were to point out popists who were being snobby like this, but frankly, I don't entirely see it. Unless he wants to bring up Beat Happening again, in which case I'm with him all the way--but I most definitely think that the NYPLM crew of popists aren't anything like Calvin Johnson and his posse of the unholy undead. Beat Happening is a good example of popism gone to horrible extremes, to be sure.

Incidentally, the pop-as-inclusiveness theme nicely counters the main thrust of Simon's post, i.e. that popism is just another (fairly traditional) move in Da Discourse and "an option available to uber-hipsters who want to distance themselves from middlebrow peers." (Horrors!) Because--ha ha ha--we don't care if we're uber-hipsters. That's fine! We don't hate indie kids, we just want them to be happier. I don't want anyone to stop liking Godsmack (or whatever), I just want them to start liking Nelly and euro-pop. Call me a hipster all you want, man, I'm cool with that. Just dance to the damn music, OK?

UPDATE: If you've gotten this far, it's probably worth reading K-Punk's comments on the whole thing.

Oops, I really need to go to bed.