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Saturday, December 06, 2003
Huh. Well, I guess Christgau kinda gets it.

Rob of QV sent me this, and helpfully does the legwork: Christgau's referencing Popmatters reviews of Manitoba and the Shins, both by Adrian Begrand, and Pitchfork reviews of Broken Social Scene and the Wrens, both by Schreiber.

While I do admire the piece's ambiguity--it's not just a rip on these mags/indie culture, it's an appreciation of their strengths as well--at the same time it's kind of annoying that Christgau's piece meanders off (albeit an artful meandering) to talking about how now he's heard about the Wrens and they're very good. This is annoying partially because there are so many points he glancingly brings up that could be productively expanded, but also because it's like, well of course Christgau's going to like the Wrens. They're folky and depressy and melodic but they don't try and rip off Dylan. They're a pretty Christgau-y band.

The article is discussed, with a large amount of the typical message-board white noise, on SoundOpinions. The PopMatters writer responds thusly:

That article is torture to read. What's he going on about?

I do take issue with what he said about my Manitoba piece...I think it's one of the best things I've written this year, and I meant every word of that review. As for that line in my Shins review, I totally agree with what he says...honestly, as soon as I wrote it, I thought it was awful, but I was inundated at the time, and completely exhausted, and just got lazy when I was desperate for a last sentence. This'll only remind me to stay on my toes.

Funny that he assumes I'm indie. I couln't be further from indie if I tried. I'm nowhere near as cool!

And, oh boy, where to start with this?

1) "That article is torture to read." *cough* Yes, well...

2) "I meant every word of that review." Sincerity does not equal quality. This reminds me of the bit in that language poetry essay in which it was said: "the 'intentional fallacy,' the main effect of which is sophomores claiming that The Odyssey is about holding on to your dreams, because 'that's what I got out of it.'" Christgau wasn't saying that you don't mean it: he was saying that you are stupid for meaning it, and a bad writer to boot.

3) "I couln't be further from indie if I tried. I'm nowhere near as cool!" Hahaha! Oh wait, that's not funny, you actually think this is true. Look, you write for Popmatters and like the Shins. You're indie. It's OK, dude! But if you're going to try and pass as non-indie, probably claiming to be a dork isn't the best defense. In case you haven't noticed, there is, mmm, a wee smattering of dorks in indie rock. By which I mean: IT'S ONE OF THE DORKIEST THINGS EVER. This is OK. Sure, there are some cool indie rockers, but mostly it's just dorks trying to be cool, which is hilarious, or dorks making up new rules of what's cool and then enforcing them, which is just...just horrible. And if you tried, I betcha you could be more indie. For instance, you could move to Nepal and never listen to any recorded music ever again. Hell, you could just buy khakis and listen to Norah Jones--that would still make you less indie.

Later in the thread, the claim is made: "From where he sits, he could still coast off of the past and act the sage, but no, much better to sabotage the only people who give a shit about actual music." Oh yeah, the only people. Except, I dunno...wait, wait, I don't even need to get into that yet. Let's just start with "actual music." Actual music?!?! Are you fucking kidding me? What the fuck does that mean? Pitchfork and PopMatters are the only places out there covering sound recordings of organized series of tones? What's everybody else covering, something that appears to be music but is secretly fudge? But look, even if you think that--unless by "actual music" you mean "indie rock," and if you do, you're a moron--you have to admit that there are a lot of other places out there covering good music. No Depression, Maximum Rocknroll, the Wire, Mojo, bluegrass magazines, country magazines...etc. It's just a retarded thing to say. Granted, there's a whiff of Christgau's desperation in this piece, but I think that's really just the smell of grumpy old man. Sure, he could be a bit more open to webzines, but the problem is that everything he said in here is right.

The biggest nod-nod moment I had was when reading Really, what level of understanding can we expect of a review that climaxes: "The album's a real winner, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that these guys are definitely the genuine article"?, but that's probably just me--I interpreted it as a knock against authenticity as the highest standard, but Christgau, being Christgau, probably didn't mean it that way.

The second best, though. is probably this:

A typical admirer describes the mildly pretty laptop eclectica of Up in Flames as "some of the most euphoric, mind-blowingly beautiful music we have heard in years"; even more absurdly, You Forgot It in People, a comfortable melange of well-loved feedback and occasional tune by a coterie of Toronto alt luminaries who'd better be nice to their bass player, is invariably categorized as "pop," as in "song after song of endlessly replayable, perfect pop." What do we learn from such raves about albums content to explore indie's romance of the enigmatic? That what was once alternative rock is now an alternate universe—a universe where no one listens to Mozart or Miles and any aesthete who dabbles in song form challenges Lennon-McCartney.

Now, I've got a bit coming up on the debasement of pop as a classification later, but I will briefly point out the odd parallels between that last bit and my whole discussion about the Unicorns, although I have no idea if Christgau had that particular Pitchfork review in mind when making this point.

But regardless, it's a good one. When you look back at older "indie" scenes you see music greatly influenced by things outside itself--avant-garde classical for No Wave, 50's rockabilly for early punk, 60's bands for early indie stuff, etc. But now you can make entirely self-referential indie records, ones with few or no influences outside the indie scene and the few selected mainstream objets that have been accepted into the canon. (Generally old/retro artists: Beach Boys, Beatles, etc.) And, well, and people are making these sorts of circular indie records, and people are praising these efforts to the hills. Now, I'm not necessarily saying they shouldn't, as I'm certainly no big fan of innovation being the paramount critical value. But at the same time, Christgau's right to imply that most of these things that are being presented as innovative really aren't in the slightest if you do the smallest bit of looking outside indie. So the problem isn't that these things are unoriginal: it's that they're perceived as being original when they're not, and that lack of perspective is both hampering the music, by making "slightly new" good enough, and hampering readers' listening options--if you like formlessness in the Unicorns, why wouldn't you also like Schoenberg? "Schoenberg who?" Well, maybe I'm being inaccurately snobby here, but the fact is that this weird lack of eclecticism--this Puritanism in an inherently dilletantish genre, to borrow Simon's terms--is fucking things up. As is the self-referntiality--note what I was saying about the Strokes going "back to the source" and gaining a lot from such exposure.

Christgau's also right to point out that these critical standards represent less a valuation of things like pleasure, technical skill, forward thinking, etc. and more the "romance of the enigmatic." I've noted before the disproportionate effect being mysterious and impenetrable can have on an artist's critical reception, but it's worth mentioning again. Indie kids like it when things pretend to have hidden knowledge or arrange things in such a way as to make the method, intentions, and even actual results unclear. See: spazzcore, dream-pop, post-rock, undie hip-hop, etc., etc., etc. All of these genres have produced great albums, but by and large the great albums, as far as I can see, are ones that overcome that impenetrability to make something more broadly relatable or figure out a way to include more up-front elements in their sound. Think the great pop songs at the heart of MBV, the great melody lines lurking in the last two Deerhoof albums, the glorious riffage of Mogwai. But it's also necessary to point out that this love of mystery extends to persona, too: the up-front allows no room for critical interpretation, or else doesn't allow the inevitable conclusion critics reach to seem clever. Thus Jack White, Jeff Magnum...christ, do I need to go on? And is this (gulp) authenticity? Is this innovation? Hardly. This is playin' y'all like a violin, friends, and it's sad that you sit there and feel good about yourself for "seeing through the facades" of mainstream poppers--when the whole point of mainstream pop is to have transparent facades--while remaining unable to see through the various artificialities of BSS, the Shins, etc., etc. And, even worse, when you do start seeing through these facades, you get bitter and cynical, responding to any praise with a furrowed-brow debunking of the obvious "rip-offs" of any new band, and yeah, people like this are fucking everywhere in the indie scene, the goddamn boomers reminding us that we'll never be as good as the early 80's downtown NYC scene; you do this instead of thinking about it, instead of thinking, huh, well, if it's all facades, then maybe the pop stuff isn't all that evil after all, huh? It doesn't get you to change your standards, doesn't open you up, only closes you down more and more in a search for the perfect unsullied music object.

But what about the point I think Christgau is trying to get at in his introductory remarks: "Structurally, the scene should be poised for takeover. But it isn't, and it doesn't want to be...Poised for takeover? What's to take over? Indie stars are already masters of all they survey." In other words: indie insularity and critical standards and pop allergies are preventing the music from reaching a wider audience. At this point it might be a good idea to throw in a quote from the Shins' James Mercer interview with PopMatters:

PM: So, how would you feel if you were more visible? I know a lot of indie bands have a particular hang-up about that.
JM: I think it would be pretty hard on me if there was [attention] like that.
PM: I know there's this backlash thing in the indie world-
JM: How do you mean?
PM: Whenever they perceive a band to go beyond its initial fanbase, there's this traitor sort of mentality.
JM: Yeah, sure. I remember after Modest Mouse signed to Epic and they were on tour for that record, there were a couple of places where the fans made it known that they were pissed. Somebody actually wrote "Sellout" in dirt on their van.
PM: Childish.
JM: It's just so strange.
PM: So you think a lot of attention would be hard on you personally?
JM: I guess. I think I'm just too lazy to cope.

So maybe it's that the artists themselves genuinely don't want mainstream success. The question remains as to why--have they been scared off by entertainment media representations of success, or by horror stories of past indie crossover successes/failures, or by fear of losing their cred/fanbase/popularity? In a way, Mercer is totally right: being a pop star is a hell of a lot of work in term of appearances, getting ready for appearances, dealing with fans, publicity, etc., etc., etc., and certainly a lot more headaches, biz-wise, than you'd get from dealing only with Sub Pop. But at the same time, it's certainly achievable, and given the general respect both for hard work and for sublimating the individual to the group good in these sorts of circles, it would seem to be an honorable move to do a lot of work by one's self to get a certain kind of music a lot more visibility; yes, true, you yourself would have to work pretty hard, but wouldn't it be worth it?

The answer for most in the indie world is, of course, no. I remember talking with some friends here about Liz Phair's new album and advanced my whole shtick about how I think it's great and how I wish more good indie songwriters would go for it because pop is so cool and you could get some really awesome songs out of it. In response, someone pointed out to me that, well, most people don't have the same open-minded view of and love for pop that I do; for most people, especially indie musicians, it really didn't matter what the Liz Phair album sounded like--it only mattered that she hired Avril's producers and was trying to get songs on the radio. That's it.

Which, boy, sure does suck, doesn't it?

So who's responsible for this? I think that's what Christgau's asking, and I think his answer is that it's not only this long-entrenched "sellout" attitude among indie fans that makes them get down on Modest Mouse (for only, uh, making the best goddamn album of their career), it's the actual positive positions taken by critics. It's not just the complaints they levy, but the albums they choose to champion. What critics view as a good work comes to be regarded as the standard of quality for this type of music, and so when a band is sitting there writing a song, if they share these values, given the opportunity to, say, drop in something that runs counter to that code, they're likely to avoid it. And this is a worse problem in the indie scene than in most others, because there's very little radio and no established festival circuit to expose people to stuff. It's mainly word-of-mouth fed by reviews and blogs and so forth. Pitchfork champions Broken Social Scene and all of the sudden it's in Virgin listening stations. This is a clear correlation, no matter what they say about the Junos. (Don't see a lot of Simple Minds or Our Lady Peace in Virgin, for instance.) And so they have a responsibility, and they're dropping the ball from where I'm sitting.

What Christgau's saying, I think, is that it's kind of problematic that indie has become such a community, because a good indie band can become the equivalent of a well-loved local band, rising to a certain level of satisfying success, but the standards that shape such rise actually make them unable to succeed in the larger world. And they might want to, and other listeners who don't get to hear them might want them to, but as everything's currently set up they're not going to. Sure, these are good albums, but as long as innocuous, unpleasurable unmentionables remain the pinnacle of indie achievement, most people aren't going to be interested, and as long as the mainstream remains anathema, there's going to be no engagement beyond the ironic. And that's really sad--it's really sad that this whole group of really talented musicians are limiting themselves in such a way, especially when what they're cutting themselves off from is actually quite vital and exciting and interesting.

But what Christgau's saying, again, is that it's not just a matter of cutting out the "sellout" bullshit, and it's not just a matter of giving Missy positive reviews. It's a matter of actually finding indie bands that could appeal to a wider audience and championing them alongside all the other bands we all legitimately like. We've done that well with the White Stripes and New Pornographers, but there's lots more to do. We shall see.

At any rate, great article from Christgau, and I'm glad he wrote it.