First Things Second
Who I am informs the following, but the following is more important than who I am. Hence we start here:
The purpose of this site is dubious. On the one hand, it serves as an amateur’s foray into record reviews and generally unfocused comments on literature, film, and anything else of moderate interest. On the other, it’s a misguided attempt to assert some sort of legitimate criticism in regards to traditional record reviews and unfocused comments on literature. The first purpose is innocuous enough; it’s the second one that holds cringe-worthy pretensions. So let me explain before you grind your molars to dust:
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Anyone who listens to a decent amount of music (i.e. someone regularly spinning new albums and spends multiple hours a day–let’s say five or more–visiting and re-visiting various works) must often feel exhausted; this exhaustion is not a product of a wariness regarding the perpetual bog of mediocre albums, but rather the vertigo-inducing reminder that there are far too many albums to afford listening time, much less absorption and/or appreciation. For instance, take a look at the number of albums Rolling Stone has awarded three-and-a-half-stars or more just this year. As of May 2, they’ve spilled over into the 80’s–and bear in mind this doesn’t include three-star albums, the grade designating a ‘good’ album. What’s more, this is only one magazine. Anyone attempting to keep regular tabs on music recommended by RS, Spin, Pitchfork, NME, or any other notable publication (or favorite blogger!) is going to lose their mind. This is especially true if you’re a layman. There just aren’t enough hours in a day, not enough days in a year to adequately process the constant barrage of new releases or even attempt to catch up on classic artists of yore.
I assume you, like me, are a layman. My music knowledge is sketchy at best (as compared with music enthusiasts much older than me), my tastes roughly sketched, and my beliefs on what make a good album have no firm foundation. But I know what I like and usually what I like about it, and, despite anything negative I might say, I get enjoyment–even if only temporarily–out of albums I have no intention of ever hearing again. The real joy, though, is discovering albums I intend to (and do) play over and over, albums that may get lost for a period of months or maybe even years but are then rediscovered, re-spun, and re-loved. And because I, like you, am still learning how to navigate the wide world of popular music, this modest blog-of-sorts does not aspire to comprehensiveness. It doesn’t even attempt to enforce a canon on any scale, whether broad-reaching like ‘rock’ or my own idiosyncratic tastes. But before I get ahead of myself and inform you of what this listener has observed about rock criticism (and music, too) over the past few years, let me drop a few personal facts.
My name’s Stephen. I just graduated with an M.A. in English and will soon be moving to Istanbul in pursuit of work. I’d like to go to an MFA program in the next few years, and I’m deluded enough to believe that one day I’ll get to teach creative writing at a university. I write short stories and am both confused and saddened by the reading world’s apparent disinterest in the form. Right. But what about music? Without going into too much detail, here are some of my favorite albums: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks; Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs; Radiohead’s In Rainbows; Delaney & Bonnie & Friends’ Motel Shot; Bill Withers’ Still Bill; Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. I was raised on a diet of Stax and Motown with a little bit of Stones and CCR thrown in for good measure. I love anything Jenny Lewis. I prefer Malkmus to Cobain. The Clash aside (and maybe Pink Flag), American punk was (is?) superior–and punk includes Talking Heads and Blondie, in case you didn’t know. Albert King’s ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ might be my favorite song. Jimmy Buffett is the Antichrist of music. And maybe you should toss in Nickelback and Insane Clown Posse, too. Metal leaves me cold, commercial country is unbearable because of that contagious ‘Southern’ twang, and unoriginal indie is a swamp of jangly guitars topped with whispered vocals. I don’t think Yoko broke up the Beatles. Those are personal opinions, not observations. My observations are pronounced tepidly, for if I’ve learned anything from Noam Chomsky, it’s to question dicta delivered with confidence. That includes my own.
Well, How Did We Get Here?
Which is part of the problem of current criticism. To be clear, I mean the questionable endorsements proffered by the two towering music authorities in the U.S.: Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. These institutions cater to specific factions of the large music-listening audience; their similarities are greater than their differences, which usually amount to what kind of canon they’re attempting to enforce. In this respect, RS is more predictable, exalting the likes of resurrected rock stars, young axmen, and any trend or band that becomes too big or garners too much critical acclaim to be ignored. Pitchfork, on the other hand, is predictable in a different way. I never know half the bands they review (something I’m sure they take pride in), and it’s almost guaranteed that anything that charts in the Billboard 200 won’t get an 8.0 or above–assuming it even gets reviewed. Adele’s 21 is a perfect example: a year and a half after its release, it’s sold over 9 million copies, yet Pitchfork hasn’t said a word about it, a decision that speaks volumes about the publication’s conscious detachment from the real world.
The way each handles its grading is necessarily faulty. Rolling Stone, as stated earlier, is unafraid to dole out an insane number of three-star ratings, and numerous three-and-a-half-stars creep into their fifty-album year-end list. Again, take Adele’s 21–if it was RS‘s best album of 2011 and it got a three-and-a-half, just how many albums are they really recommending? Are they throwing in their chips with, say, the Low Anthem? Or is it a ploy of sorts, an attempt to plunge territorial stakes around a specific group of artists? Pitchfork‘s grading scale is absurd, too: a 0.0 to 10.0 range where it’s not uncommon to run into a review of a 7.3 bumping shoulders with a 7.4, though neither of these grades would be high enough to achieve ‘Best New Music’ status, an honor reserved for albums meted 8.2+ and normally by groups no one else is reviewing. Their year-end list is almost always filled to the brim with the utterly obscure even for the hippest hipster, and on average the choices are pretty terrible, especially if you’re the kind of person who likes to have fun–their reviewers are seemingly magnetically drawn to slow, dull albums by white guys (and sometimes girls) who appear to be bored by their own music with the occasional hip-hop record thrown in for good measure. Between these two forces the general listener is left with a couple hundred albums labelled A-OK. The good small-d democrat will praise this plethora of choices, and though I wouldn’t deny this, innumerable choices inevitably leads to grade inflation. Looking at 2011 (and even thus far in 2012), I personally had about a .500 batting average with the Rolling Stone recommendations I was able to hear–that .500 being split between albums I didn’t immediately reject and those I did. With Pitchfork it’s even less; if I can stomach more than 30% of their recommendations in a given year it’s a miracle. Blame it on whatever you want–audience fragmentation disrupting RS‘s attempt at rock canonization; Pitchfork‘s fatal attraction to the unheard-of and fashionably drab. My own thoughts are that institutions such as these can’t logically sustain their grading philosophies; music criticism in 2012 is so across the board and dipping into so many eras and genres it’s damn near impossible to not be contradictory when individual writers collectively create a product rather than consistently issue personal opinions.
So there. I don’t blame ‘rockism’ for the current crises in pop music criticism (whatever exactly ‘rockism’ is), because it seems like something that can’t last (again, whatever exactly it is): If rockism is, as Kalefa Sanneh put it, a continual process of determining what rock music isn’t, the proliferation of artists mixing genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres and making really really great music would seemingly make it impossible for any critic to attempt to demarcate where rock begins and ends, particularly if he at least believes he’s above pandering to a particular niche. Rolling Stone has made concessions and expanded its borders to include hip-hop and electronica, and whether they did it out of mounting pressure of looking like fools if they continued to ignore it is irrelevant. Pitchfork will continue to plum the depths of obscurantist indie rock so long as that culture thrives–the culture of exclusivity whose aesthetic disposition begs the question (namely, that no one knows such and such band evinces its artistic merit)–but anyone with ears will know they kid themselves by eschewing almost everything from major labels. As for others (Spin, NME, what have you), brilliant writing occasionally surfaces, though by and large most of it strikes me as leisure guidance, promoting certain bands and attempting to communicate their sound and make them look cool rather than saying anything particularly intelligent about them. But then again, the intellectualizing of popular music clearly contributes to somewhat fabricated issues–like rockism, say.
The point in all this being I’m still too much of an observer to diagnose criticism’s ailments, though certain maladies are more obvious than others. Putting aside publications’ business matters (because I know jack shit about them), the sheer number of new releases every year, the dwindling number of writers whose knowledge of popular music’s evolution is extensive, and the diversity of reading audiences strike me as the more pressing issues. If Pitchfork reviews about 1,000 albums a year, I can only get to 200 of those if I’m lucky; Robert Christgau was there at the beginning and won’t be around forever; anyone who glances at any publication’s year-end best-of list finds myriad complaints from readers with individual listening histories and idiosyncratic tastes bemoaning the absence of their personal picks. If any of that made sense to you, you might dig this blog. If it sounds like gibberish, it’s probably because it is.
What Work Is
Here’s how I’ll be running things: I’ll issue two posts a week, one concerning music, the other literature, art, politics, or whatever strikes my fancy. The music post will contain two album reviews based on a grading scale from A to F, though 99% of what I review will be A-level. I’d rather write about music I enjoy and think others should investigate than waste time eviscerating what I dislike. Some posts will have a smattering of honorable mentions, choice cuts, and duds. Others might be throwbacks–2011 albums I’ve written about elsewhere or classics on which I’d like to comment. There are still plenty of albums from 2011 I’m still finding out about or finally getting around to, so don’t be surprised if a regular post mentions stuff as far back as, oh I don’t know, 2005? Anything new to me is fair game. I’ve never had a blog that was designed to follow self-imposed deadlines and feature specific content, so writing it is one of those things I’ll figure out as I go along. Know that I’m working within an incredibly small pool of releases–I’ll only listen to maybe 300 or so albums this year with any real dedication–so don’t be surprised to never see that album you love that everyone’s talking about. It’d be better if you made a suggestion. I’ll certainly take you up on it.
Just so we know, an A-grade album is one I recommend enough that I plan to add it to my collection if I haven’t already. I wouldn’t hand out an A MINUS unless I was willing to spend money on it. To me, this seems fair–if Rolling Stone recommends purchasing all three-and-a-half-star albums (the way Weisbard suggests all albums rated 7-10 in the Alternative Record Guide should be part of your collection), they’re out of their minds. Unless you’re ultra-rich or have an extensive network of hip friends, you’ll never be able to compile physical copies of everything. When I dole out an A MINUS, or an A, or an A PLUS, it’s an album I’ve heard at least five times (usually more) and has a quality about it that moves me enough that going back and revisiting the album is a joyful act, not an obligatory one. The honorable mentions are B PLUSES and will usually be rated on a star system of one to three in the same way as Robert Christgau. In case you haven’t noticed, I like Christgau. I don’t agree with him all the time (I don’t even know if I could say most of the time), but he has an articulateness about him other critics lack; even when I think he’s wrong I almost always understand where he’s coming from. He’s not like, say, Christian Hoard at RS, a guy so not pithy it’s remarkable he ever got to write for them. I’m using Christgau’s grading system because he’s one guy going after a lot of albums. I’m also one guy, and I’m going after less, but Christgau’s brief style seems apropos. A terse paragraph or two for an A-album or a single line for an honorable mention strikes me as far more efficient for me as a writer and you as a reader/listener. Long, essay-like reviews of the Pitchfork variety often have too many wasted words and sometimes border on the incomprehensible. Just take a look at what Weiss said about El-P’s Cancer for Cure. I dare you.
Well, I think that about covers the bases. If I feel further clarification is needed as to how this whole shindig will operate, I’ll provide commentary in forthcoming posts. For now, try to enjoy. I know I’m trying.