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Wednesday, November 17, 2004
Oh, he's trying so hard. And in City Pages no less! Let's see if we can demonstrate why it's wrong between our day job as a celebrity artist/filmmaker and our fabulous night out at the Delancy or wherever the hell I'm supposed to be. (Context on the author from this peek here, and be sure to check this.)

First off, just to mention, I was more confused than pleased by Kelefa's rockism piece, although it was a fine piece of writing; if I had to identify a manifesto for popism it would probably be Sasha's JT review in Slate. But the nice thing about this whole business, you know, is that it doesn't really seem to demand manifestos--we're kinda winning, ultimately. It's not reactionary, as people who criticize it often assume (the summation here is that it's 'like those blogs I encounter every now and then that begin, "I don't care what people think--I'm starting to think Dick Cheney is hot!"'), an assumption that I can only assume comes precisely from the stance being attacked: the idea that critical legitimacy only comes from standing in opposition to something. Meh. Sanneh's piece sorta does, but that was part of the reason I disliked it, although I also realize that it pretty much had to be that way to land in the Times. We just like the music, dude. We're not doing it because we want to piss other people off, although we've discovered that the simple fact that we do like this music does piss people off, which I think we (I, at least) find really funny. But it's just more pleasure-seeking.

...and "The last multi-megaton ordnance...was Renata Adler's notorious 1980 attack on Pauline Kael's When the Lights Go Down"--really? I mean, granted I'm a young pup, but just off the top of my head there's the whole Dale Peck "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation" thing. You'd think that qualifies, and that's, what, 2 years ago? 3 years ago? Sanneh's was a nice piece, but in terms of its importance, this is the first argumentative response I've seen, and from someone who looks to be primarily a movie critic no less, so I don't know how true that is.

Oh, and just before we get to the meat of this: cool kids? Seriously, dude? I mean: "Sanneh is a mall-ratty kitsch queen in love with what the cute, popular kids are liking. He so wants to fit in, it could give you a toothache." Wow. I mean--and I'm just putting this out there, I know it sounds crazy--we could actually like the music and it could have nothing to do with social status which has never been much of a concern for rock critics anyway, let's be honest here.[1]

The real key error in the critique lies in the charge that Sanneh's solution isn't sufficiently old-guard leftist enough. Hahaha. Behold!

What he's saying--though he lacks the sand to come out and say it in so many words--is that the "rock establishment" that enshrines the Lone Wolf is, by dint of its Lone Wolf worship, racist, sexist, and homophobic. Okay...accepting that thesis, you'd expect that next Sanneh is going to come out in defense of subversive, openly politicized, rigorously critical queer artists and/or artists of color. A ringing endorsement of Stephin Merritt and Me'Shell NdegéOcello will now follow--right? Hardly. Instead, it's time for a late-night trip to Wal-Mart, for a jumbo bag of Skittles and all the CDs your poor arms can carry!


Uh, anyway...look, he didn't explictly say the "establishment" is un-P.C. because he wasn't friggin' implictly saying that. I don't think people are really concerned that Mojo is sexist--they're concerned that they're dumbasses. It's pretty simple. Race/sex/gender prejudice matters a lot in many areas of the music and entertainment industry, but not, fundamentally, in consumption or criticism. The problem with criticism is, like I say, Being A Dumbass. (BAD!) The fact that 70s anti-discoism was rooted in homophobia and racism isn't the main argument against it, then or now, it's just a big red flag that should pop up for intelligent people who want to adopt the same stance. You know, do you dislike this because it's bad or because it's new? Because it's stupid or because it's widely accepted?

The problem here is the same one we've seen before: confusing politics and culture. The most straightforward illustration of this is probably the following line, and, for those of you who are reading this post before the article itself, let me assure you that he actually says this: "Sanneh is like a Vichy girl who can't believe how fast her heart is beating as she kisses a Luftwaffe colonel...."

Yes, that's right. Indicating affection for Mariah Carey is like kissing a Nazi. Jackass.

Look, the solution to the problems being outlined here is not "com[ing] out in defense of subversive, openly politicized, rigorously critical queer artists and/or artists of color" because, well, a) like I said before, BAD's the problem, not the magic prejudice dance, plus b) that, um, hasn't worked very well before--minorities have made a lot more cultural headway by making pleasing art than by being championed by marginalized rock critics (plus (c) those who know me know reading the word "subversive" made small blisters start breaking out on the back of my neck, but I'll let it sit). Jesus Christ, I mean, why in God's name would the solution to people being close-minded about hot R&B be to big up Tom fucking Morello?[2]

This isn't politics. This isn't a massive injustice or a life-threatening issue. It's just people being dumbasses and we would like them to stop, please, because it's really annoying. Not every goddamn argument has to take place on political terms. There are other ones, like aesthetics, where one person can say, "I find this pleasing," and the other person can't rationally respond with "that's impossible!" as the author seems to be doing here. It is not impossible that people like pop. Apparently several million of them like Usher, and really, I mean, holy God, I don't even like Usher. So clearly it's not impossible. We're, what, 15 years past P.E. saying "Elvis never meant shit to me" and we're honestly questioning the idea that Nirvana might not be the Alpha and the Omega to someone?

And then it gets better.

Ahhh, so that's it! At the end of the day, the you-go-girl defense of otherness in combat with smothering white-boyness is a red herring. It's all about how to stop worrying and love...the marketplace...This generational screed pretends to "oppose and resist," but is really all about bending over for the "marketplace." Sanneh sees the displacedness and cultural impotence of the rockists and wants no part of that. He'll hang his hat with the red states, thank you very much. He knows la musique de Juicy Couture is here to stay.
Well, ignoring the charming gay joke[3]: are you fucking serious? I mean that. You're kidding, right? You're questioning the sincerity of someone liking Ashlee Simpson but at the same time you're honestly suggesting that doing so is a vote for Bush? C'mon. This is a put-on, right?

The idea that popism equals chartism has been thoroughly discredited. We're not only interested in what's number one; we're interested in whatever's engaging in the conversation of pop, which can include things at #87 as much as things at #2. Just on a very basic level, this stuff is interesting--the way the machines whirrs and twirls is a lovely thing to watch, and to know about. But beyond that, who cares? Why is a song that's produced with making money in mind (the best way to do this being, of course, to make something pleasing) any different than one that's produced with getting attention, or getting laid, or looking smart, or pleasing yourself in mind? How is the listening experience actually any different? It's not! In politics, the ends don't justify the means, but in art, the vast majority of the time they do. Most artists, especially the "lone wolves," were total assholes; they used and abused and ignored and generally tormented lots of people they knew, and along they way (and arguably, because of that) they made some good art. How is this better than the means of getting a bigass paycheck to make good art? It's not. We're coming at it from the opposite angle: having been interested in the music, we then become fans of the process, of the context, because pop music is all about context; pop is engaged in a conversation with itself. And that's at least as interesting as anything else. Recognizing the market is different from unreservedly endorsing the market--we'd like to see our favorite artists do better, too, we just tend to blame this on them or their labels being dumbasses rather than complaining about the cruel market.

So that's absolutely without merit. Now let me summarize the argument he's making here re: Bush states. Since Republicans are now very solidly the party in power, it would make a certain amount of sense to ally yourself with them, but this would be a fundamental betrayal of your values, so it would be evil. Similarly, since pop is now the primary cultural force, it would make a certain amount of sense to abandon rock totally, despite your love of it, but this, too, would be wrong and evil.

Oh, where to start? Let's just run it down.

1) The author tries to steamroll over this point, but you can like rock and pop. Sanneh states this quite clearly. And this is different from what most rock critics say. You can't be a Republican and a Democrat. (Unless you're Joe Lieberman.)

2) Since when was pop not the dominant cultural force? It is, by fucking definition. This is not a new development. Despite the gauzy histories of the boomers, rock was in no way the sole cultural force at any point in our history. And this isn't even getting into the rock-as-pop point.

3) What tangible benefits are there to endorsing pop over rock? None that I've seen. The rock critics still hold all the power. Liking pop just makes you weird.

4) What consequence is there to liking pop over rock? When you cynically throw your hand in with the right, you're helping gut environmental regulations, kill people in other countries, abrogate civil rights, etc., etc., the whole boring long list which is nonetheless pretty bad. When you throw your hand in with pop (let's just ignore whether or not this is cynical or not) you're...uh...putting bad music on the radio, man! Yeah, that analogy stands up.

This drives me nuts. I've been called a conservative before under similar circumstances, and it's just stupid. If you think that people voted for George Bush because they have, essentially, bad taste, you need to get out more. The idea that liberals view "the red states" (iee!) basically like they view pop fans--as misguided teenyboppers who will eventually grow out of it--scares the crap out of me. We're going nowhere with this, guys.

Why am I getting so worked up about this? Didn't I say it doesn't really matter? Well, it does, at least to the degree that if you think someone's position on Justin Timberlake or the new Modest Mouse song is an important piece of political speech, your citizenship should be revoked and thrown into a deep pit and you should be forced to listen to Top 40 radio until you goddamn like it. If you think there's any necessary correlation between musical taste and public policy, you are killing America. And if you think recognizing the market makes you a Republican, ask yourself: did Bill Clinton work with the market? Was he a Republican?

I have no need to apologize for being interested in what lots of people like. It might win what last I checked were called "popular election." Popular--pop. Get it, ya dumbass?

[1] Plus: "But you've got to be pretty dedicated to living in the moment to believe that we're living in a golden age of popular music." Yes, we're being inauthentic. You shit-licking fucknugget.
[2] Were I to take the author's tack, I might say something here along the lines of "That's like the Bush administration's reacting to 9/11 by invading Iraq!" but that's goddamn stupid.
[3] Not to mention the equally charming trend throughout the article of making snide feminization comments that were intended to be bitingly critical, apparently, all explained by the "well I thought he was a lay-dee" line near the beginning. Aha! So that's why we've got the gawky girl with the popular kids, naughty lady kissing Hitler, "edible body glitter," "Juicy Couture" stuff. Girls just don't get real music, man. They're too occupied with status and clothes and flirting...with, um, Nazis...