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Sunday, June 13, 2004
Look, Joe Klein, we need to talk.

I know the kind of guy you are. You've actually got pretty good taste in one or two older musical genres--classical, say, or jazz, or folk. And you may even feel like you're on top of that genre, keeping-up-with-modern-artists-wise; dandy. But here's the thing. When it comes to pop/rock, have shitty taste. There, I said it. Shitty, shitty taste. You give middle-brow a bad name, and that's really too bad.

But look, I don't have a problem with shitty taste. I have shitty taste in not a few genres myself. I don't think anyone can be expected to have an encyclopedic knowledge of multiple styles, and all I ask for is a simple enthusiasm and an acknowledgement of your limitations.

But did you do that? No, you did not. You wrote a goddamn article in the Times trying to justify your shitty taste. Let's examine, shall we?

I am an American aquarium drinker
I assassin down the avenue.

These are the opening lines of ''Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,'' the brilliantly annoying album by Wilco, the band led by Jeff Tweedy. The first line slouches toward surrealistic claptrap, but the use of ''assassin'' as a verb is, I think, as pure an expression of rock 'n' roll's outlaw sensibility as you are likely to find.

Wow! Why didn't anyone tell me that you can get away with this kind of thing in the New York Times nowadays? Here, let me try:

"Elena's crumcake, bathed in a golden sheen, was the purest expression of Nietzsche's concept of the ubermenschen that you're likely to find in a modern bakery."

See? Isn't true, doesn't even make any sense. But it gets across the point, i.e., "I like Elena's crumbcake." The fact that my explanation for this is basically a load of pretentious horseshit doesn't matter, right?

Look, Joe: verbing a noun isn't reflective of an "outlaw sensibility." For one thing, there's no law against it, only grammatical rules that poets have been breaking in far more inventive ways for hundreds of years, plus those silly folk who say, "Hey, that doesn't make any sense, and it's isn't particularly aesthetically pleasing either." Are you breaking their laws of "being good" or "not being stupid"? Well, maybe, but that seems a stretch. For another thing, what? Writing shitty lyrics is more outlaw than, I dunno, Jim Morrison inciting a riot and getting arrested? James Brown running from the cops? A single word from "Folsom Prison Blues"? Really? Outlaw? Outlawed how, and by whom, and what's the penalty?

Tweedy sings the words tentatively, from a distance -- from a psychological rut, perhaps -- backed by free-range clanging and scraping, the melody overwhelmed by electronic anarchy. Totally annoying, but stuck in my brain for more than two years now.

Now, I hate to say this, but it's interesting that he said "stuck in my brain" rather than "catchy." If something is catchy, that's usually good, by my way of thinking--it means it's genuinely ingratiating, makes you notice it, stands out from the crowd. But "stuck in your brain," well, you know, I have toy commercials from 1986 still stuck in my brain, and I doubt that's the level of quality Klein wants to put YHF at. "Stacy's Mom" is catchy; the Fanta jingle gets stuck in your brain. Something getting stuck in your brain isn't necessarily a sign that something's bad, but it's definitely not necessarily a sign that something's good. It's just a thing, and pretty much the only substantive justification he gives for Wilco's place in the canon in the whole article. But hey, we're long past the point where we need to explain why Wilco are geniuses, right?

His theme is a familiar one, the constant tension between the virtuosity of musicians like Tweedy and the ephemeral lure of big bucks, arena crowds and hit singles. From the start, Tweedy and Farrar made it clear that if they succeeded, it would be on their own terms. Actually, for Tweedy, it was more vehement than that: he actively worked to confound the commercial expectations of the music executives -- fairly adventurous sorts, by definition -- who backed his work...Wilco made a couple of attempts to produce a hit single and migrate to the middle of the dial, but the deck was stacked against them: ''Record companies were funneling as much as $300 million annually to radio stations through independent promoters to gain access to programming decisions,'' Kot writes. ''Most labels say it takes at least $100,000 just to get a song on radio, with no assurance that it will be added to a station's regular rotation.'' For a band, like Wilco, that ''had never sold more than 300,000 albums domestically, such spending would have been absurd.''

The bullshit in this selection is so thick, I have to cut it with bullet points.

  • The idea that a band that's sold 300k can't get a $100k commitment from a record company is just not true. I can name at least 5 artists that I personally know (i.e. have processed the bills for and seen the balance sheets of) who have less than 300k in sales for their best album and have justified $100k in indie promo spending. If we're just going by numbers alone, that level of sales indicates that the next album could go gold. But, as much as we might like to believe otherwise, the record business is way, way far away from operating purely on numbers.

  • The idea that the only thing keeping Wilco from getting a hit single was a lack of spending: again, just not true. We can all rattle off our lists of bands that, by all logic, should have had a number of hit singles (New Pornographers might be the most prominent example), but didn't, for one reason or another, and in some cases, yes, the reason is a lack of promo spend. But I've never really heard anyone speak that way of the Wilco catalogue, to say that one or another of their songs coulda woulda shoulda been a hit. They just don't write those kinds of songs. Which leads me to the third point...

  • The idea that a good band must necessarily be able to write a hit song: really, really, really not true. A good band can write a great album, but albums don't get played on the radio; songs do. And writing a hit song is hard, because you need a lot of people to like it. This is far from easy. It can, of course, be done, if you're actually interested in doing it: witness "Float Away," for instance. But I'm inclined to think, from my Wilco listenage, that Tweedy's just not capable of making those kind of moves. Bring in Rik Ocasek and a peppy drummer and he still couldn't come up with a decent pop song. Mope-rock, sure, he's got the market friggin' cornered. But writing pop is quite simply not as easy as it looks, and to claim that someone's avoidance of a hit single is somehow a noble act is ludicrous. There's no way Steps are going to go to #5 by doing a Wilco cover.

    Tweedy became something of a basket case trying to outwit the system and create music he could live with. He suffered from severe migraines, took to berating his audiences, self-medicated with a pharmacopeia consisting mainly of booze and painkillers, and he pitched some world-class anxiety attacks.

    Yeah, because his drug addiction stems from his heroic fight with the record labels. It couldn't stem from the fact that he's mentally unstable. No, definitely not. Must be because of his struggle to be unique in an increasingly homogenized world, right? Yeah, I sure think so.

    Tweedy has a scratchy, nasal, good-bad voice, which depends on his emotional intelligence and phrasing, rather than timbre, for its effectiveness. His delivery is purposefully nervous, artfully irresolute. He will bend or slur a phrase, pause uncomfortably, allow a note to shatter in mid-attack; at times, it sounds as if he's very close to a nervous breakdown. There is a terrible sadness to it. (As affecting as Tweedy's postmodern angst can be, I sometimes miss the occasional lacerating jolt of angry energy Jay Farrar brought to their collaborations.)

    Really? Jeez, why would you miss that? Are you saying there's no energy in Jeff Tweedy's voice or something? Pshaw.

    Look, people may like Tweedy's voice (although I'm more inclined to think they like the lyrics and music and come to tolerate the voice, as with Dylan or Paul Simon), but to call what he does "purposefully nervous, artfully irresolute" is giving him waaaaaay too much credit. He's not a great singer, and he's trying to sing his songs, and that's fine. Good for him! But you're not really selling me on this, Joe, and throwing in a phrase like "postmodern angst," wow, it really doesn't help, you know?

    ''Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'' is Tweedy's apogee, an album that was notorious even before it was released; it skates the border of brilliance and pretense, filled with memorable songs that are constantly subverted, or perhaps augmented, by electronic mayhem. It takes some listening, which, apparently, was more than Reprise Records was willing to give it. The label refused to release the album and dropped Tweedy...

    Can we please stop propagating this myth? Let's compare what happened with Wilco with what happens when a band really gets dropped. With Wilco, their A&R rep had left, the label decided it wasn't best-equipped to work the record, and sold it--lock, stock, and barrel, which let me tell you is friggin' rare--for a bargain price, much less than the actual recording costs. There was no override provision requiring any label that picked up the album in the future to pay royalty points on sales back to Reprise, regardless of whether or not the band was recouped, often a huge impediment to getting re-signed. What normally happens is that a band gets dropped without any consultation and for, sometimes, no reason whatsoever; the label either just holds onto the record and never releases it, or gives it up but retains the copyright and/or demands override points; and the band gets diddly. Reprise dropping Wilco was the best thing that could happen to them at that point, and the label damn well knew it. What they did was done very much out of respect for the band--out of a human impulse, not based on numbers. Reprise ain't the devil in this whole story, and indeed the lesson for labels from this whole affair isn't "don't drop your artists" but either "drop your artists with one hand and pick them back up with the other" (Warner, of course, owns both Reprise and Nonesuch and so got the profits regardless) or "be sure to get an override."

    So Joe, I hope this has been illuminating for you. You know there are more adventurous, anti-commercial things out there, if that's what you're looking for; Wilco is still signed to a major label. You know that there's better experimental pop out there, made by people who manage to make it without getting addicted to painkillers. Why don't you go write about them, eh?