Welcome to the Jungle
A lot’s happened lately that’s made me rethink my approach to popular music and my writings about it. In mid-2013, Microsoft axed Robert Christgau’s Expert Witness blog, along with all other freelance work, presumably under the supposition that it’s pointless to pay people to write reviews about popular culture products when customers on Amazon are willing to do it for free. Earlier in the year, Tom Hull significantly cut back on his output, in large part a response to diminishing record arrivals and a now non-existent income flow from music writing. The Odyshape website, which features four writers—two of them great and the other two present—lost its best half, Michael Tatum and Jason Gubbels. And though Christgau came back last week with a new gig at Medium and Gubbels will keep plugging for Rhapsody and freelancing at SPIN, the point remains: I’ve pretty much lost all my favorite critics.
This is a big blow to my listening habits. Because these guys had the time and resources (well, maybe with the exception of Tatum), they were able to find releases I seriously would never have found out about otherwise, because I don’t know anyone else covering them. By the same token, they encouraged me to retry stuff I’d already dismissed, sometimes resulting in a new appreciation and sometimes not. Lastly, they helped me solidify positions I’d taken, the kind where I felt like a record no one else was giving much credence really did have the juice I’d attributed to it. The point being that I lack the time to scour the depths of the web to find stuff, have had a difficult go at finding people whose opinions I trust, and am straight up lacking any other resources both as in-the-know and skilled at wordsmithing as they are. So while I can still check in with Christgau every Friday at Medium (however long his employment lasts) and search for Gubbels’s insights over at SPIN (however long that mag lasts), it won’t be the same. Which means I’ve got a bit of gold hunting to do.
When I started this miserable blog in mid-2012, I opened with a long whining session about the problems of contemporary music criticism, about how Rolling Stone and Pitchfork enforce specified canons, how a lot of the writing read like leisure guidance, and how the insurmountable amount of records leads to grade inflation and the unfortunate recommendation of albums truly not worth it. I wanted to take my time with records and submit grades when I was good and ready, a practice I still employ, though it’s now more out of necessity than practicality or integrity. I mean, I have to be late to the party, because 1) I’m not a real music critic and can only begin to think about reviewing a new album according to how quickly I can find a download, and 2) because the job (and the life) I’ve had for the last year gives me far less leisure time than the one I had before (and that grad school also gave me a lot of leisure time). Shouldn’t surprise anyone that my listening time has plummeted. I’m keeping up with things better than I thought I would, but it’s still a challenge.
Lately, though, that notion of issuing grades when I’ve sat with a record long enough has been bugging me. Were I being paid for this service, I’d certainly give more ear time to anything that didn’t immediately bore or disgust me. But because I’m doing this pro bono, and because I play fewer albums now than I probably ever had, I’m of the mindset that I should really be playing the stuff I enjoy, or new stuff I feel I could potentially enjoy. To put you an example, I’ve been sitting on Freddie Gibbs & Madlib’s Piñata since its release, wavering back and forth on whether it’s a B PLUS (***) or an A MINUS. Why? It’s one album, I’ve heard it four or five times (maybe more), and every time I start I get interested and then space out about halfway through. Do I really need to justify myself any more than that? I know it’s good but ain’t convinced it’s good enough, and several spins haven’t moved me one way or the other. Sure, it’s hip-hop, so it’s more about word-slinging, but where Christgau has always insisted that “songs have words,” I’m far more of a mind that “songs have music.” We’re both right. I just like my answer better.
All this meaning I’ve got to rethink my approach and rejigger how I do things if this blog is going to have any sort of extended lifespan. The writing quality has slipped noticeably over the last year, and I know I don’t have the time to devote to it to bring it up to par—and even if I did, I’d probably spend that time on other writing projects far more pertinent than a music blog no one reads. Likewise, I don’t want to slap a few sloppy sentences together, stick a letter grade at the end and call it a review. Whereas putting in the effort for quality capsules would result in far, far less output because it would require increased ear time for each individual record (to the point where I’d be posting so sporadically I probably wouldn’t bother to update this thing), spreading that limited listening time over a larger number of records means diminished returns: the reviews are not as sharp or observant and the recommendations are more dubious.
I never intended for my reviews to be ‘objective’: no matter how much any music enthusiast waxes poetic over theory, I think your experience should be ecstatic—that is, physical. One reason I can’t get on with Tool or any of their cultish fans is because their work is pure composition. My opinions are always at the forefront, as I believe they should be. When I started, I was grading more or less individualistically—meaning that I was breaking records down into components. How many songs did I like? What percentage of the album was that? How long into a song before I want to hear something else? Is it likely I’ll want to listen to this in a year? Now, though, I’m a bit more holistic. While single songs are important, the most important question I ask myself now is: “How much do I mind hearing this right now?” The closer I move to “Not at all,” the more I know I enjoy something. Sounds simple, sure, but you go listen to a few hundred new albums and decide which ones you want to hear again, and from there figure out whether or not you ever really feel yourself waiting for it to end. Not as easy as you might expect.
And there’s no way to tell if any of it’s working. In actual fact, the evidence points the opposite way—of the 100-something albums that have landed on my two year-end best-ofs, there’s a good twenty to thirty I probably wouldn’t recommend anymore, at least not as an A MINUS. The lesson here is that even my own opinions are fickle and volatile, a conundrum when you’re narcissistic enough to think you can casually dish recommendations to anyone other than your lover.
Ultimately, though, in revisiting the very first post on this blog, I realized that I never really articulated just what I was trying to accomplish. I’m not sure what I thought at the time—if I felt I’d penned my manifesto or outlined the approach I was going to take—but in the time since I was sure I’d said something approximating my goals. And when I reread it recently to remind myself of the endgame, I found it lacking. Hence the lengthy, circular, and naval-gazing entry you might still be reading. So I’ll put in simple terms the very simple things I want to do while I continue to write.
If this space amounts to nothing more than a personal storage space of hopefully understandable diatribes concerning music, film, literature, and politics, I’ll be pleased. What I want to do is be able to go over the old content a few years from now and react to what I thought at the time, or at least be reminded of what I heard in some record I can’t quite recall, or how I came to the conclusions I did in an essay about an old Romero flick. While an audience isn’t something I need, it’d be nice to have a few regular commenters—not least because it’d be nice to have someone of a similar mind to bounce ideas off of. (Problem with this is that they would probably have their own blog which I might be less than interested in following, much less reading on a surface level.) I want to keep the grading system but with an extended disclaimer: I’d be kidding if I was able to say I planned to buy all the albums I recommended. The financial viability of that is slim to none. And while I wouldn’t turn down a reasonably-priced used copy, I have to face the reality that I’ve propped records I’ll probably never own.
And that’s it. Without patting myself on the back too much, I’m glad that I’ve continued for as long as I have. There’s no one pushing me to do this, it’s not easy to keep a semi-regular schedule, and there sure as hell ain’t a readership I feel obligated to supply. In light of that, I’ve posted over a hundred entries, have reviewed several hundred albums, and will keep on keeping on for the foreseeable future. Let me take a moment to pat you on the back, too. I’m sure at least a couple friends check in on this thing once in a while, and though I’m unaware if such a person exists, I’d like to think there’s someone out there in internetland who stumbled across this homegrown operation and enjoys it. At least more than they enjoy the casual Amazon review.