you are all still Boomers: sort of a modest proposal
This is a pretty long ramble — sorry.
So there’s this thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, but haven’t really found a way to cram into a Tumblr post. Let’s just make up a way, okay? Here is an article about music that someone else on Tumblr just linked: it’s called “Where is the Underground?” You don’t necessarily need to read it, or anything. I just want to point out the topic. It quotes Simon Reynolds saying “the web has extinguished the idea of a true underground; it’s too easy for anybody to find out anything now.” Then it argues that the underground is really a “guerrilla philosophy,” and that the internet has actually invigorated that.
Which is fine and interesting. If you read much about culture, especially music, you will see a lot of this type of thing — where’s the underground? what is avant-garde? what’s really bohemian now? what’s the real counterculture? where is the DIY insurgency? where’s the radical new youth movement that will make us obsolete? where is the new thing that will carry the new flag against the new establishment? what’s subversive now? what’s cutting-edge? is punk dead? is hip-hop?
For instance: anyone saying the notion of an underground is “over” is generally seen as delivering some kind of bad news, right?
So let’s just note that this is the mental map lots of people seem to carry around and use to figure out where they’re standing, culture-wise. There’s a big gray row of buildings representing the establishment, and then there’s some district of basements, warehouses, lofts, and garages where the vibrant and challenging and revolutionary thing is.
I told you Hopper was great a lot
You may know me as having vehemently disagreed with Jessica Hopper about one thing in the past, but I am very much on her side when it comes to tons of stuff, including this post, about nostalgia for the 90s as a golden age of women storming into music. Meaning, of course, a certain kind of music, a certain kind of storming, and a certain kind of “golden,” which can be a problem.
Part of this nostalgia is pretty obviously just an issue of timing, and in a lot of ways it’s a testament to that early-90s spirit that so many young women were moved by it, grew up through it, and now, around the age of 30, want to write about it, and hand it off to a new set of young women. (There was a time, maybe four years ago, when I realized that nearly a half-dozen women I knew were working on books about riot grrl, Courtney Love, Liz Phair, or something else from that moment that first sparked them to get involved with music or writing in the first place.) There’s also a funny inside/outside issue happening, because that moment obviously inspired lots of people beyond just the music of it. This means that some of the people talking about it will be critics (like Hopper) who are still finding tons going on with women in music to love, while others will be talking about it as a social (or even personal!) moment, something in which music is kinda secondary and there’s no obvious call to think that hard about how today’s music compares. (People who aren’t music critics are allowed to take the usual path of how music was so much better when they were teenagers and has clearly declined ever since.)
But there’s also some slippage in the punk-rock politics of the thing that’s always an issue. There’s this sense — a valid sense, in a few ways — that the punk/indie ethos surrounding this conversation was part of the point: the do-it-yourself ethic, the community-building, the dovetailing of feminist dissent and punk dissent. But obviously that becomes a problem if you start feeling like the actual sound and style and speech of the music back then has the only real claim to empowerment, anger, or independence. I don’t know a ton about the convoluted and controversial history of the Rock Camp for Girls, but I seem to remember this being an issue there, for a moment: the goal was to get girls to dive in, pick up instruments, and learn the confidence to do everything themselves, but as far as I heard, it required shrugging off a couple last ideas about authenticity to decide that working a sampler did that job ever bit as much as picking up a bass. I think part of what Hopper’s pointing to is that slippage in reverse — this idea that singing, say, electronic pop automatically means taking up a disempowered, manufactured, pandering role, even if the woman in question is creating everything herself. This slippage involves being more interested in what the music seems to represent, socially, than the actual relationship between the female artist and the art she’s making.
(And there’s always the question of “storming.” Trust me: I’m all in favor of women continually pushing further and further into the music space, until such point as no “storming in” is needed ever again. But the thing is that this isn’t always going to look like visible storming. It won’t always be that excitement of seizing something that feels new — which was a lot of the excitement of the post-punk era, and of the riot-grrl/alt-rock era. Those nostalgists can make a few good arguments that the moment’s ripe for that sense of gate-storming again, but success on this front will always have another front, too: the opportunity for lots of women in music to be embraced not for seizing something but just for being.)
This assessment about the indie-ness of this season of Idol is really interesting (and references both Nitsuh Abebe’s great The Decade in Indie and my essay—which some people seem to think are two totally competing pieces, though I’m not so sure) and just the latest thing I’ve read that makes me pretty sure at some point we’ll be looking back on this specific period of time and saying, yeah, there was some really weird stuff going on then, huh?
I’m still kinda honored to be paraphrased by Powers. But I don’t know if I’d really claim that indie has been “full co-opted into the mainstream,” which suggests all kinds of power dynamics and things swallowing one another. What I was trying to describe was something a lot more casual — just a sense that this slim slice of the world of “indie” had emerged further into mass culture. This isn’t unusual: mainstream culture always holds thin slices of things, sorta stock visions of what it might mean to be, say, a rocker, or goth, or punk, or metalhead (or musical theater, or a nerd, or even “gay”). And now it contains sort of a common, stock sensibility that happened to come out of indie.
What’s fascinating about this, though, is that it’s not named: it’s not recognized as coming from some specific place outside mass culture, the way the idea of “goth” might be. Often it just floats around being perceived as quirky, creative, nice, thoughtful, or maybe having something to do with Zooey Deschanel or Ellen Page. It’s entered mass culture as a kind of mood or sensibility, even though — like anything else — it comes from a place where it has specific conventions and genre-values and such.
And in that sense, then sure: of course Idol contestants — just like the people who pick out songs for teen dramas and commercials — can use a dash of this particular “indie” sensibility to telegraph that they’re quirky, creative, thoughtful, or special, or have interestingly refined tastes. In that sense, the things in this quote don’t have to be “opposites” any more than it’s “opposite” for Idol contestants to sing disco one day and do a hard-rocker pastiche the next.
At the time I wrote that article, it seemed to me that indie bands and the core indie audience would, as usual, trend toward some new or different set of aesthetics. Tom wasn’t so sure, and pointed out that in the UK, this kind of dynamic didn’t lead to any great rush of creativity, just more popular and more generic/uninspired indie guitar bands. I haven’t yet figured out how to verbalize why I think the dynamic here is different, but that quality of being (thus far) “unnamed” might be part of it. Or maybe it’s just the American attachment to individualism; I dunno. Obviously I have a vested interest in hoping things turn out the more interesting way!
more hacking through “indie” and criticism and genre — TWO, with apologies
Since that last post, I’ve been asked whether I think the indie bent of middlebrow music critics is actually A Bad Thing. Part of what I’m trying to do here, of course, is reject the terms of that question; I think the question itself is flawed. Beyond that, I’d give it a qualified “yes,” though maybe not for the reasons you’d think. My reasons for saying yes have less to do with indie music itself and more to do with the “too much consensus” Chuck Eddy is pointing at; as an avid reader of middlebrow criticism, I’d rather it didn’t get to the point where we’re all telling one another things we already know. And since I think middlebrow, analytical criticism is an interesting thing in and of itself — i.e., it’s a medium I choose to follow because I like it, not because it’s important — I’d love to see it exercised on as many corners of the music world as possible.
Back to the terms of the question, though. Maura Johnston ends her Pazz & Jop essay with the following quote, from Jay-Z.
“All these ways we classify things as r&b and hip-hop and rock … It’s bullshit. It’s all music. If you put yourself in that box, then you won’t be able to hear that it’s all music at its soul. When people say stuff like, ‘Oh, that’s soft rock. I don’t listen to that,’ I find that elitist. It’s music-racist.”
a lengthy hack through recent music-crit stuff mostly re: indie — PART ONE, sadly
I’m going to attempt to make this edifying even for those who aren’t already neck-deep w/r/t the “Issues in Contemporary Music Criticism” syllabus, though I doubt I’ll succeed. If that’s you, let me catch you up. The central issue is something you may have noticed: if you sit down and take in a certain realm of “music criticism” — in this case, the kind of thoughtful, analytical, standard-English-with-good-vocabulary approach to thinking and talking about music provided by professional music-lovers via well-regarded middlebrow sources — you will find yourself hearing a great deal about relatively obscure musicians in a genre we think of as “indie,” and maybe a little less about artists, platinum-selling or equally obscure, in other genres. That’s the complaint: “music critics” are always on about indie.
which part of songs do you like? (this is not really a post about animal collective)
Off to the side of last week’s spat about Animal Collective, I kept talking about the “proportions” of songs. Something about this stuck with me over the weekend. I was using the word “proportions” in an extremely general way, of course, to refer to nearly anything — the proportions of verse to chorus, bass to treble, instrument to instrument, signal to noise; just about any relationship of bits in a song, no matter how abstract. But at least one person in the discussion was pinpointing a specific proportion the song in question was playing with: it “start[s] in a nebulous wash and only hit[s] ‘full song’ in the last minute.”
Which, yes, is a basic trick, and clearly a big part of what “My Girls” is shooting for — it wants to suspend itself for as long as possible at that moment of high drama right before something happens — that moment like a balloon that keeps inflating and must soon pop. (Rodney Greene called it a “physically discomfitting mass of treble,” but that’s probably what it wants: to keep inflating the high end until you’re just begging for the big entry of the low.) There are a lot of discrete moments in the conventional rise and fall of a song: this track wants to focus on one moment in particular, that before-the-dam-breaks rush.
That’s just an example; this post is not about Animal Collective. It’s about how most artists have similar inclinations, whether conscious or not, and it’s sort of a fun technical aspect of music to think and talk about. Just about every artist has some particular point on the slope of rise and fall that they’re most attracted to, that they plant their flags in.
in praise of Andy Falkous, who is an adult …
… formerly of Mclusky; now fronting Future of the Left.
When the Singles Jukebox took on a recent Future of the Left song, Fergal O’Reilly — who liked it — described Falkous as “permanently enraged,” filled with “irrational fury,” and “browbeating.” I guess this is reasonably accurate. On “To Hell with Good Intentions,” one of Mclusky’s best-known songs, he sounds like he’s holding hostages and listing emotional demands. (Browbeating is a strength of his.) And the song in question, “Arming Eritrea,” shoots for a size and grandeur that Mclusky always steered clear of; it leaves Falkous sounding a lot more conventionally furious. But all this talk of throat-shredding and bile only describes one thing about Falkous — possibly a minor thing, and probably not the most interesting thing. It doesn’t even begin to explain how he can be so funny, so witty, so precise.
I think Falkous’s gift is that he gets something lots of rock singers don’t: he understands the value of individual utterances. Often he treats each individual line of singing — his voice and his lyrics both — as a single dramatic performance. Sometimes they even seem “overheard,” like you’re catching one person speaking to another in a very specific situation. Falkous doesn’t give us much context for those situations, and as a result it can be pretty difficult to say what his songs are “about,” narrative-wise. But they’re easy to understand on the level of the utterances themselves, because he shades them with wit and character and loads of different inflections — all the different modes in which people speak to one another — in ways that can really resonate. Beyond that, you can imagine the context and the connections: the situation of the person speaking, the person the line is addressed to, the circumstances it’s delivered in. You can design your own set around this dialogue.
There’s not necessarily a ton of this in “Arming Eritrea,” but it’s definitely still there: hell, some of the first words are a fiery “C’mon, Rick, I’m not a child!” I don’t know who Rick is, or what he has to do with Eritrea. But the sense of the outburst itself seems complete. The speaker keeps insisting, in a tone somewhere between a plea and a declaration, that unlike some drunks out there, he knows his own worth, knows exactly where he stands, isn’t deluding himself that he’s special: “I’m an ADULT!” You can construct a lot of different contexts around that, but the sense of the utterance itself stays fixed, and Falkous knows how to give it voice. No matter who Rick turns out to be, you probably know what it means to want to scream at someone that you’re not a fool or a child.
There are better examples of his inflectional wit with Mclusky. One of my favorites was “Undress for Success,” which has not only a terrific range but a good sense of comic timing. The first half of the first verse is delivered in a relatively conventional rock shout — but in the second half Falkous starts parodying himself, barking and clipping his syllables to the point of laughter. (You can call it “parody” or just the good, clean, totally underrated fun of singing funny.) He’s got a killer line at the end of the chorus, and he breaks it in half to pace the effect just right: “When I lost my TEETH” — high, funny yelp on that last word — “I gained a friend.” Across the second verse he gets increasingly bug-eyed and comically serious — to the point of actually shouting “I AM ABSOLUTELY SERIOUS!” — and then deflates it by drifting into a smarmy, cliche-spouting, evening-news type of voice and following up: “And the weather was a bonus!” No matter what kind of scenario you imagine around this stuff — and I have an alarmingly specific environment I like to imagine this song taking place in — the stuff he’s doing with his inflections steals the show.
He did that rock-singing self-parody a lot with Mclusky — amusing the listener by going a little too far, getting too breathless, going comically unhinged for laughs. There’s plenty of humor in his lyrics, too. But the real great moments are when it all comes together in a knot: the words, the voice, the inflection, the performance of the thing like a piece of drama — it lets him telegraph emotion and get a laugh and get you on his side, all at the same time. He’s not just a bilious screamer: he gets so much more than that about voice.
on nirvana, the 1990s, irony, and how david foster wallace predicted rivers cuomo’s decline, all at great length
As a kid, in the early 90s, I didn’t listen to a ton of Nirvana — already too caught up in mopey, romantic British stuff, your Smiths and Cures and whatnot. Soon enough Cobain was gone and alt-rock had shot off in new directions anyway; the band felt more like background and bedrock, the starting gun for “alternative” as a newly commercial thing — settled news among fresh battles. This is probably why I haven’t been able to resist picking through this new Live at Reading release: it’s honestly one of the first times I’ve listened closely to Nirvana in hindsight, with adult ears and new perspective. (That, after all, is the whole utility of these packages, these attempts to milk new product out of acts that don’t exist any more — we get to re-hear the music, outside our frozen reactions to recordings we already know too well.)