Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Problem With Jody

This is kind of old, but bear with me. I wanted to barely touch upon the response to my last Lady Gaga post. As I said before, I'm not interested in hashing old debates, nor do I care when things I say are willfully mischaracterized (nor do I, myself, like to be portrayed as having an outsized interest in the Young Money clan when I haven't even bothered listening to their album). For my own sanity, I wanted to say that I think that post is probably the best thing I have written in a really, really long time, and without trying to sound too self-congratulatory, I wish there was more criticism that would question the assumptions behind why we choose to talk about the music that we do.

Which segues quite nicely into a comment made about Slate's music critic Jody Rosen and his piece on Eva Tanguay. Like most people, I liked the piece due to the fascinating nature of Tanguay's personal history, and the parallels drawn (although sometimes forced) between her and today's pop stars. I am also not alone, thank God, in becoming increasingly irritated by pop critics' tendency to label anyone, from Tanguay to Elvis to John Dillinger or whoever, as the "original punk rocker." I can add that to my long list of rock critic statements that need to die.

Here's another word that needs to die: "pretentious." Almost always leveled by those seemingly ignorant of that practice/preach note of caution, it seems like the last 10 years of music criticism can be defined by a pocket of cultural experts who will go to any lengths to discredit any rock or guitar-oriented band who tries anything not aimed at the basest levels of the pop charts. Rosen and fellow Slate critic Jonah Weiner illustrate this obvious unease with discussing non-Billboard charting pap in a recent discussion of the Dirty Projectors' new song "Ascending Melody" on Slate's culture blog Brow Beat.

I've been a pretty regular reader of Slate since I was 10 years old, back in the days when my father would print out each week's issue and read it like he would any other magazine. Back in those days, I was particularly enthralled by the heyday of Slate's Movie Club, moderated by the great film critic David Edelstein and including in those days unbeatable company like Jonathan Rosenbaum, A.O. Scott, and, of course, the Ebert (I remained a fan until a series of crassly ignorant, liberal-baiting exchanges started by Armond White soured me to the whole experience--it has since gotten better again).

Its music criticism, on the other hand, continues to perplex me. Those who know me know how weary I am of this whole "poptimist" school, not because I'm opposed to pop music in any sense, but because it seems less and less about music and more about starting pissing matches with straw men referred to as "rockists" (or "racists," if you're Sasha Frere-Jones). So began a generation of writers who got off on making snide, ignorant generalizations about "indie rock," 99% of the time invoking that dreaded p-word as a way of shutting down those who would like to point out that hey, actually, most of what passes for music on the radio does indeed suck, and it shouldn't make me an elitist for pointing that out.

(Is the paragraph above itself rife with generalizations? It could be. Really, anyone who refers to him or herself as a "poptimist"willingly and knowingly deserves to be put in such a box).

So anyway, back to the curious nature of Slate's "Brow Beat" column. Unique among its contemporaries, it covers the few areas of popular culture I have no interest in, such as Project Runway and How I Met Your Mother. It's also a haven for the occasional dumping on indie bands. Here is what Rosen has to say about Dirty Projectors:
Unlike nearly every other youngish white inhabitant of the gentrified New Brooklyn, it took me a while to warm up to Dirty Projectors. In fact, I'm still only lukewarm. I respect them, I'm mildly awed by them, but I don't quite love them. It's my fault, not theirs. In general, I have a hard time with art rock, and the DP's tricky, showy songs are very arty indeed: trompes l'oeil—or trompes l'oreille—whose meaning and purpose, concealed beneath disorienting blasts of rhythm and melody, emerge only after a lot of close listening.
Style trick No. 1 of the so-called "poptimist." Introduce every indie act with a variation on the following: "Other people (usually Brooklynites or hipsters) like X, whereas I like Y." This is also the mode of criticism most favored by Armond "False Equivocation Pulled Out Of My Ass" White, but let's leave that alone. Plus, I bet I could walk down Williamsburg and ask any random hipster on the street, and I am willing to bet at least half of them would say exactly what Rosen says above. Everybody else likes so-and-so...except me. Substitute Radiohead, or the Beatles, and you begin to see my point.

I haven't even gotten into the meat yet of what they have to say about "Ascending Melody." Their beef with the band, and particularly songwriter/guitarist Chris Longstreth, is that the songsmithing is arch and arty and Longstreth himself possesses a voice too warbly and thin to be fit for proper consumption. They also don't like his lyrics. Here's Jody again:
Is it wrong of me to hate these lyrics as much as I do—to want Dirty Projectors to make sense, or at least to be less pretentious about their nonsense? The band is lavishly interesting, musically; I know that should be enough. But as with Radiohead, I can't ignore the doggerel. "Repine unfathomable enigma"! Bob Dylan used the word "repine" in a song once, but he's Bob Dylan. No one else should go near that word. Ever. Also, can we call for a moratorium on Williamsburg hipsters giving snotty life-advice to "businessmen"?
Okay. On the first point, who the fuck are you to say which words can be used by the many, many non-Dylans who populate the world of popular music? I'm not particularly enamored with Longstreth's lyrics either, but I'm not going leap to claiming that certain words must be indicative of a snotty fancy pants big city mouse mentality. Such an attitude is, dare I say it, Palinesque? And again, look at how he phrases it at the beginning: "Is it wrong of me to hate these lyrics as much as I do?" The message again: look how different my opinions are than most of my peers!

I believe that Rosen and Weiner both have a big problem with experimental, guitar-oriented rock 'n roll music. That's a question of personal taste, I guess. So why do they find Dirty Projectors moderately acceptable by comparison? It comes down to the song "Stillness Is The Move," which can be considered (I guess) as the band's big hit:
I tend to agree with you: I'm impressed by this band, but I don't enjoy listening to them, exactly. The big exception to that is no big surprise: "Stillness is the Move," the "breakout" single off Bitte Orca. In-the-pocket clatter, nagging guitar drone, Longstreth-free vocals, and Coffman doing a spry, note-vaulting, tricky-cadenced, Destiny's Child/Aaliyah impression. One of my favorite pieces of rock criticism last year was Solange Knowles' smart, lush "Stillness" cover, which made the song's R & B connection explicit. Between the Xx's "Hot Like Fire" and tUnE-YarDs' "Real Live Flesh," it's a good time for R & B-inflected art-rock.
Ugh. I would be very rich if I was paid every time someone said that they were "impressed" by some experimental band, but couldn't really "enjoy it" due to any semblance of artiness (I've always wondered: how is that possible?). Importantly, it gives us a window into the kind of indie music that Weiner and Rosen can admit to liking, which is music that basically takes its cues from popular R&B. In case you haven't heard it, "Stillness Is The Move" doesn't really sound like anything else on Bitte Orca; Longstreth's crazy rhythms and modal changes are reduced to a fairly simply 12-string figure that remains unchanged throughout, and the brunt of the melody rests on singer Amber Coffman, whose acrobatic, hook-laden harmonies draw a lot on the R&B/American Idol/autotune axis of evil permeating popular radio. Which is fine: it's a really good song.

But there are other good songs on the album as well, and it seems the only way Rosen and Weiner would find it in their hearts to validate Bitte Orca (or "Ascending Melody") as music would be if it was covered in its entirety by Beyonce's sister. Or you could go the other route, as suggested by The xx, and pledge your allegiance to the Ameries and the Aaliyahs of the world. All of this is perfectly fine: The xx in particular do a great job of evoking Timbaland strobe effects and tinny drum machines and the like. But if you're a rock band playing rock music, and you don't particularly care what is popular on the radio, and if you like playing with time signatures and adding weird electronic effects, Jody Rosen is going to call you "pretentious," no matter the shape of your melodies, no matter the quality of your cadences. It's a foregone conclusion. Anyone who is not Beyonce on the mic is automatically irritating (although David Byrne gets a pass, I guess), and lyrics with any sort of message will be mocked for using big words.

One last note on those lyrics: as I said before, I'm not a big fan either, but take a look at Jody's favorite song of 2009, and reflect upon the following statement: "I'm so 2008/You're so 2000-and-late." What single lyric, in the annals of either Dirty Projectors or popular music as a whole, could possibly be more irritating, self-regarding, and tin-eared than that? In fact, I would be almost inclined to use that certain word to describe it. I am ready to have this argument...

EDIT: By chance I happened upon the Pazz and Jop poll not long after posting this, and I note an article by Maura Johnston that sums up a lot of what I was feeling on the matter.


  1. I know for some ungodly/unknown reason, you think your grizzled Lady Gaga diatribe was the best work you've done (Briefly: it was your tone, not the inquiries in themselves that were problematic, you get that, right?) but this post is pretty amazing.

  2. I also prefer this to the Gaga post (even though I generally prefer questions to declarations) but I don't think this post will allow you to have any arguments, as everything you say is perfectly reasonable. But I'm glad you're willing to take critics to task, as it seems the only way of repairing the damage that the internet has done to critical thought.

    Agreed about "pretentious," though I looked back at some of my old writing and was sad to learn I've been known to use it. Doesn't seem like me, though I harbor a deep distrust of the academic that has been very hard to eradicate.