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Thursday, December 04, 2003

Now that the initial shock of Liz Phair's descent into anonymous teen-pop has worn off, I think I'm finally able to separate the music from my disgust and view this track as the radio-ready abomination it is. Okay, I'm not...


So, if nothing else, it's time to admit that Phair was right, and I was wrong: the record has not been a complete commercial flop. Unfortunately, there's not much else to say about this tinny, overdigital, pitch-corrected hellsong, except that it's shocking just how much power TRL is comfortable handing over to twelve-year-old girls, the only American force with the time and energy to actually put in votes for their favorite video every single afternoon. --Ryan Schreiber

First off, allow me to just gloat for a moment. Aaaaaahh. It's good to be right. That said:

This is a definition of power that could only be suggested with a straight face in Pitchfork's world. TRL is "handing over" this power because it's the power to pick videos, instead of, I dunno, the power of life and death, or the power of the atom, or the power to eat entire worlds. Plus, the power to pick videos was previously held by, well, MTV itself, and we don't like them either, do we? (Of course, they still do a lot of filtering by picking which videos can be voted for, but that's beside the point now.) Oh yeah, and the videos being picked are the videos that are going to be watched on TRL, which is watched by 12-year-old girls. So it's teenage girls picking videos for themselves to watch. What's the problem, exactly?

Oh, the problem--silly me--is that these choices then reverberate across the culture, and so the pseudo-random choices of hormone- and angst-crazed teenyboppers have a direct result on the buying decisions of Wal-Mart and the Billboard chart and as a result Colin Meloy is eating a turkey sandwich tonight instead of finest caviar. Except that, as I say above, if TRL's viewers weren't making these decisions, it'd be the people who had been making them for the forty years previous, i.e. program managers and radio and TV directors. But there's only the smallest degree of difference, since, well, since teenagers are the ones who buy pop, and said programmers were simply trying to cater to these tastes previously, not push them. It's not like back in 1962 some CBS DJ said to himself, "Ooh, the Beatles, let's play that, they're an intelligent and advanced form of pop music that will in turn lead today's repressed and culturally ignorant teenagers down the road toward folk music, delta blues, and legitimate sociopolitical protest which will in turn change the fortunes of an entire nation." No. He was thinking, "Hey, this is catchy." See how these things work sometimes? Of course, here's what we're missing: lots of teenage girls are listening to Liz Phair. And ain't that a good thing?

But the last line there made me think. Who else has "the time and energy to actually put in votes for their favorite video every single afternoon"? Er, how about college students? Laying around, irregular class schedule, amazing access to modern media, passionate about music, why shouldn't they? Couldn't they all vote in a bloc and get, I dunno, "Hey Ya" played over "Right Thurr," "Pass the Dutch" over "Where Is The Love," or maybe even start doing write-ins and getting Interpol videos played and so forth? Geez, it seems like it wouldn't be that hard, and yet it still isn't happening. Why is that? Could it maybe be because they don't give a shit? And that they see TRL's hegemony as about as important to their lives as what's on the menu at a diner in Topeka that day? (Unless they go to college in Topeka, of course.)

It's like that lazy leftist political argument--the one that complains about the state of the world and the conservative dominance of politics but, when asked if they themselves are doing anything, simply replies that the system is set up so, like, I don't have any power, man, that because the world sucks and conservatives dominate everything, I can't possible change anthing--except, somehow, even more pathetic. Which is impressive! Look, in politics, I think it's usually an artful dodge, but the argument has some merit: there are a lot of structural obstacles put up to stop people from participating meaningfully in politics, and yes, you might not get what you want right away, you might have to keep at it with little reward for as many as five years before you see any results. But in terms of TRL, it's just stupid. You don't like what's on there? Sweet Christ, then go get some people together and vote for something different! This is Pitchfork we're talking about here, with a not insubstantial daily readership. Granted, they're not exactly the loyalist shock troops you'd expect to see following, say, Rush Limbaugh (or, but if they actually cared enough about TRL and the sorry state of mainstream music etc. etc., it wouldn't be so hard for a central meeting point like Pitchfork to organize a regular resistance, eh? If it bothers you that much, sweet baby carrots, go for it, but stop whining about it.

Look, at some point you're going to have to accept that people listen to what they like, and while there's some filtering going on, it's not like there's a worldwide conspiracy of tweens oppressing the rest of us with their lack of musical diversity. The music of teenagers is over here, and the music of private college indie kids is here, and the music of baby boomers is here, and the music of public college kids is here, etc., etc. They're all separate, and, honest to Pete, top 40 music is doing nothing to bother you if you're on Matador's mailing list. You can blissfully leave it alone, and indeed, most indie kids do. But if you are going to engage with it, try to avoid the oh-so-clich├ęd, "This is crap!" reaction. Yeah, some of it's crap, and so is 99% of indie rock. But if you make no effort to understand these different little areas of culture, their different tastes and standards and expectations, then you'll never enjoy it, and that seems a shame. And it's definitely a shame that you still can't appreciate what Ms. Phair is doing.