clap clap blog: we have moved

Tuesday, February 08, 2005
I have far too much work to do to deal with Pazz & Jop right now, but, you know, it's up.

I've already posted my ballot, but here it is all official-like. Mine is the only vote Strong Bad Sings! got. I think they owe me a shirt.

You know what this means, though, don't you? Now I can post my comments. So here they are, all 3,000 words of them. Some are recycled from the blog, but mainly it's all-new. I talk about Courtney a lot. Enjoy. I have to squeeze in lunch now.


I've been reading year-end round-ups calling 2004 a dismal year for music. Now, admittedly, this is really only the second year I've been taking year-end round-ups seriously, so maybe every year half the people say "best year ever" and the other half say "even the sound of birdsong brought naught but revulsion to my ears," but man, drive the naysayers from the temple, 2004 was awesome! Maybe not the same feeling of promise as a 2001, but in terms of pure enjoyment, this was it, mon frere.

Maybe it was the fact that the two musical highpoints of the 80s, the Pixies and Prince (and they're alliterative too!), embarked on grand return-to-form tours. It's easy to carp about tired nostalgia when your parents are going googly-eyed for the Stones, but when the lights go down and that opening beat from "Wave of Mutilation" hits you, well, you start to see the point.

Maybe it was the advent of the MP3 and the iPod and blah de bleedly blah de bloo. Jesus, I mean c'mon. It's like saying music was influenced by the Atkins Diet because there was an article about it in Newsweek. Besides the fact that I've been downloading MP3s for the last 9 friggin' years, did people not, like, listen to individual songs before? Weren't there these things called "singles"? Weren't there these things called "mixtapes"? Someone putting an MP3 up online and saying "listen to this" is only a different from slamming it onto side B of a TDK D-90 in terms of scale, and I don't know how different that really is, given the actual size of the audience for MP3 blogs. If there's anything good about the newfound prevalence of MP3s it's that it might make audiophile dicks even less credible. "Ooh, this remaster has an extra 3 dB of headroom on it..." Shut the fuck up dude, no one cares.

Or maybe it was the very thing people are pointing to as evidence that 2004 sucked ass, the lack of a beakthrough sound a la "grime" or "garage-rock" or "yelling at birds" (lookout, 2008!), that made the year so kickass. Look guys, I know that as critics it's easier to talk about one thing than a lot of things, but fuckin deal. This year was an embarrassment of riches, music-wise, as long as you're looking at songs rather than albums. Hip-hop had kind of a weak year, but dance-pop killed it. Trad-rock sputtered but innovative indie hit a few out of the park. I can stand here throwing out meaningless genre names all day, but ask yourself this, anti-dilletantites: can you fill up a CDR with music from 2004 that makes you happy? If so, then 2004 was the best year ever, just like every other year.

Plus, U2 apparently put out a good album, if you're one of those people who enjoys the feeling of Bono slowly drilling a hole through your own individual place in the fabric of reality. (The rapture of U2 fans will be upon us soon!) If I bothered to look these things up, I could rattle off the list of old standbys who made disappointing albums, I'm sure, and I guess that would be a trend. I didn't like PJ's new one too much, and then there was...oh, hell, I dunno. But yes, it was a year we were forced to seek out new things. Or maybe we weren't. Whatever.

Look, I've never been much good at figuring out these sort of trends, or, if you're being unkind, assigning random meanings to phenomena rooted not in large-scale social behaviors but in very individualized circumstances. I liked that we couldn't agree whether there was a lot of musical political activism or very little musical political activism in the face of THE BUSHINATOR, and that regardless, it didn't make a whit of difference election-wise, because maybe now we'll get closer to a true understanding of the function of political music, although I'm not holding my breath.

Here's the thing. I'm 25 and I play a lot of video games: I have a short attention span. What happened back in February that influenced music? Uh, Valentine's Day? Maybe President's Day? Franz Ferdinand went to a whites sale or something? Shit, I don't know. So instead, I'm going to spend 1000 words talking about Courtney Love.

Let's make this clear up front: Courtney Love is crazy as a fucking loon, and I say this as someone who knows a lot of people who are crazy as fucking loons but don't have the money or sycophants to prevent them from dealing with the fact that they're crazy as a fucking loon. And even the sycophant thing isn't really fair--I know three people who worked for Courtney (note past tense) and they were hardly enablers; they may even have been trying to help, although I think less "help" and more "survive" given the quote from one such ex-employee: "I liked going home at night because that meant the screaming stopped."

But C-Lo is ultimately the story of the year because, batshit insane as she is, she managed to both continue being the most interesting walking force of destruction and deconstruction out there, punk rocking for our sins, and make one of the best albums of the year. For those of us on the outside, unable to help and thus able to view the events with the necessary distance, Courtney's year was ostensibly in the same category as fellow-traveler trainwrecks Tara or Paris, but whereas everything the younger disaster zones did seemed to communicate either self-promotion or a sort of pathetic bathos, Courtney's actions all came laced with potent social commentary. Exposing her ravaged body endlessly and for no apparent reason including at a Very Important Photo Shoot or two, just breaking the fuck into a guy's house in Beverly Hills, missing court dates, fighting for custody of her kid (who seems much more well-adjusted than she has any right to be), braining a fan, and--picture of the year, no question--inviting a very nice black man named Kofi to suckle on her exposed breast outside the Union Square Wendy's, she was the realest thing going this year, utterly unmediated, and yet we all seemed to regard her with mere revulsion when it demanded a higher form of attention.

This is not to lionize her for her insanity--it is, in fact, to do the exact opposite--but simply to state the facts: Courtney Love is an astoundingly smart human being. She is showing us exactly what it means to be a "woman in rock" without being exploited, shoving it in our faces, subverting every expectation and avoiding all ostensible requirements. Courtney's career, Courtney's life, is a demonstration of what being pure and having your voice heard entails, and the fact that it looks horrible is no accident. What she represents is not an anomaly but simply the logical endpoint, the true behavior so many before her should have been exhibiting were they true to their ideals but simply did not have the courage or intelligence to. As Joe Macare has pointed out, she's living the male rock star ideal and being demonized for it, but she's more than lucid enough to point this inconsistency out on her own. That she still then doesn't shy away from the behavior is a testament to her level of dedication and realization of what intellectual commitment means.

She is a walking maker of meaning, and it’s hard to talk about Courtney without tending into the language of the mythical. If she can provide so multi-layered a pop culture allegory with the Wendy’s “I just wanted some chicken nuggets” incident in the same year she gave us the even more complex “But Julian, I’m a Little Bit Older Than You” then think of what she could do if she was sane. Courtney’s status as godhead shines through in the simple reason that personal contact with deities can be damaging to mere mortals, but their actions viewed at a remove provide free-floating signifiers. Their most committed followers are frightening in their devotion, but as a humanist trope, it is undeniably useful.

If pop music, as a genre, has a tragic flaw, it is that despite its placement across time, it does not provide any substantive narrative, replacing it instead with repetition. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re in a certain mood, it’s easy to listen to the first 30 seconds of almost any pop song, note the lack of any progression aside from the chordal ones that cycle endlessly back on themselves, and get so bored that you skip to the next song, and then repeat this process again and again for every successive repetitive nugget, with even the most novelty-packed confection inevitably falling back onto repetition and, thus, boredom.

But pop as a living, breathing thing has worked around this problem by making the music simply a focal element (which is sometimes a McGuffin, a vacant but nonetheless interesting and meaningful plot motor) into a whole narrative of the pop star as a character. That Britney’s “Toxic” fires in its particular context is what elevates it, for now, above something like Gene Serene’s “Electric Dreams.” Courtney has created a narrative wholesale, and, as I say above, an interesting one, not just about degradation or fame, but about music itself and its human consequences. But we resent this: it is our jobs, as critics, to craft the narrative of pop, and that is why we regard PR and marketing, as well as naked (i.e. clumsily executed) ploys of this nature with such distaste. They write bad stories. That Courtney has written a good one without tipping her hand as the creator is what drives us to both critique her morally and misinterpret her critically. Ultimately, neither should be done. While we reserve the right to rewrite stories as we see fit (something that should be always kept in mind when kvetching about “bad marketing”), sometimes it is more useful to let it play out as the creator desires. This is one of those cases. What’s important here is less to try and stop the story—because, after all, circumventing all obstacles is a key element of the narrative—and more to try and drive it along, to see where it will go, to ride it into the New Year, full of hope, or something like it.

Random hits:

The "controversy" about the new Modest Mouse was so ridiculous that it wasn't even worth getting into. Look, if you think "Float On" is a bad song because it has a drunken sing-along, let me ask you this: do you like any Guided By Voices song? Then you like drunken sing-alongs. Deal with it.

Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" is the best song this year, but at this point I'll be very surprised if it even makes it onto the final P&J list, because, n'est pas, American Idol winners cannot make good music. Why even listen to it in the first place? For all the apparent progress we made this year in terms of opening up critical ears to Top 40 and pop-country and various other neglected mainstream genres, the fact remains that the problem is the existence of a critical consensus, not any particular application of it. As long as we all hate trance or jambands or, maybe five years later, sad indie songs, something's wrong and we cannot and should not be trusted. (Unless it makes the list, in which case--whoops!--my bad.)

I keep wanting to put Pretty Toney on my list, but then every time I slide it into the player to reassess, I try to listen to “Biscuits” and “Kunta Fly Shit” and just cringe cringe cringe. Sequencing, kids! It matters! I can’t shake the feeling that if this album started at track 7 I’d love it immensely more, but it doesn’t, so I’m left to ponder my own bias towards early track positioning and reluctantly pimp The Streets instead (which is sequenced really well).

This was the year I made peace with the fact that I genuinely love some very embarrassing entry-level indie, the kind of stuff that state college sophomores write message-board posts about how they’re so much realer than Britney a few months before they discover that the more hardcore music geeks don’t like anything they play on The OC and start listening to middlebrow indie stuff like The Arcade Fire, who thankfully I do still hate. But so like: The Killers! Listening to “All These Things That I’ve Done” is the Killers experience in microcosm. The opening keys bit is confusing but intriguing, then that wash comes in and it’s so lovely, and then the rockin’ chorus and you’re liking it a lot. But then all of a sudden they’re saying, “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” and it’s just painfully embarrassing and you recoil in horror, but you can’t stop listening, and then all of a sudden there’s a fucking gospel choir, and motherfucker they just went for it, and you can’t help but love it. Afterwards you’re kind of embarrassed about it, but nevertheless. Plus there’s nothing even remotely indie about them but they’ve got a song called “Indie Rock And Roll” that calls it out as a lifestyle choice, and it’s both so good and so sure to rile up the partisans that I can only nod my head slowly in admiration.

Speaking of going for it: Busted make martyr-pop for the rock ‘n’ roll masses, gleefully invoking every top 40 cliché over the course of their razor-sharp songs, sounding, sure, like the soundtrack for a montage in a Disney romantic comedy, but also like being 14 again. In a good way. The hate is part of the love.

Speaking of hating middlebrow indie: Rilo Kiley. That I can’t remember any of their songs (save one) well enough even to insult them should be insult enough. But then there’s “Portions For Foxes,” their attempt at a Busted track. Well, you know what I mean: everything’s in there! Everything you’d expect! And it’s great, I can’t deny it. But the sex breathing in the quiet verse makes me feel dirty, and it takes a lot.

Last year we was all talking about “weird” sounds in the mainstream (I went back and checked!) but this year top 40 was like a contest between dancehall and crunk to see who could take the most annoying sound possible and make an appealing tune out of it. Commercially the winner was crunk, but aesthetically, I’ll grant you “Yeah”’s awesome little hook, but “Goodies” seemed custom-designed to drive me insane, so dancehall kinda wins by default, seeing as how it had some truly maniac tunes this year.

But oh, dudes, I forgot to tell you about my year in music! I wrote 50 songs, played 20 gigs, experienced some trad rock shit, didn’t score with any groupies, didn’t have any groupies really, didn’t get signed, did an EP with a skinny Italian producer dude who kept missing our sarcasm, sat down for a few hours and emerged with a fully-produced song (a few times), all of which was fine with me, really, but I like sitting at home with my girlfriend and watching TV, so maybe I should be more ambitious or something. I also negotiated songwriter splits, wrote liner notes, called Zakk Wylde at Dimebag’s house after he died to check on lyrics, input invoices, cut checks, lied to people about when they’d get their money, shook an old blues guy’s hand and enjoyed his scent, ate lunch at my desk; the usual, although better than it had been before. Music is a lot more than what we admit of it, I think, but also if these aspects of it were interesting, I’d be writing about them, right?

Well, time to finish up. I had a whole rant about how much criticism sucked in 2004, but it got too long, so I’ll reduce it to the aphorisms, P&J style.

[redacted acause it came from here]