Saturday, February 13, 2010

Blog Dreck

A half-baked Guardian Music Blog post asserts that "blog rock lacks a political edge." And then takes it back! Rockaliser has some issues:

•What the fuck is "blog rock"? Musicdom has some pretty lame genre designations--coining a genre post-anything is lazy, even if the music's often pretty neat, and don't get me started on cringe-inducing neologisms like shitgaze and glo-fi. I even remember people discussing blog house in the recent past, and that seemed pretty dumb. "Blog rock" seems like a backhanded attempt to saddle indie with stereotypes about internet users and sweatpants. And since the term is used interchangeably with "indie," it's semantically useless. We don't call the Kings Of Leon "glossy page rock," even though they feature in magazine fashion spreads.

•The post notes the popularity of lo-fi sounds. In our ProTools era (the liner notes to Fucked Up's Couple Tracks note that the band has never recorded on anything but ProTools) no song needs to sound like "Poldeo" ever again, but many still do. The post refers to lo-fi as "anti-corporate," and implies that it no longer is. But has lo-fi ever really been co-opted? I can't think of an instance. Lo-fi had remained outside the mainstream in ways that most elements of punk and indie haven't. And while I'm no partisan of neo-lo-fi, I ask those who disparage it: what makes lo-fi production values an inferior aesthetic choice, or any less of an aesthetic choice, than hi-fi production?

•Finally: let's set aside bands that make explicitly political music. Might there be something oppositional in the brainy music of Grizzly Bear or The Dirty Projectors? Michael Azerrad thinks so, and he's worth quoting at length:
A lot of people sneer at so-called "NPR rock" for being wimpy or something, but it's a hoary cliché that underground music has to be loud, fast, and out of control. Once upon a time, mainstream culture was blandly, blindly complacent, so underground music was angry and dissatisfied—look at the Velvet Underground droning about heroin while America tried to paste a fluorescent smiley-face over Vietnam; look at the Sex Pistols railing that "England's dreaming" in '77 while the Queen's silver jubilee distracted from rampant unemployment and racial unrest. But in 2010, mainstream culture isn't complacent; it's stupid and angry. So underground culture has become smart and serene. That's not wimpy—it's powerful and constructive, a blueprint for kicking against the pricks. (link)
I've been thinking about Azerrad's argument for weeks now. It's compelling and highly original, but I'm not sure I agree 100%. I'm still digesting it, but I welcome your thoughts in the comments.


  1. I will stand with you in categorically rejecting the designation of "blog rock," which I agree is not only reductive but also extremely unhelpful in determining what this music is seriously about. I would also say that we should really even think about if the word "indie" should be eliminated altogether as well: since it seems to no longer apply to music on an independent label, it's even more useless than it used to be.

    I agree with Azerrad that there's nothing wrong with what people call NPR rock (another useless designation!), but I don't see how he comes to the conclusion that the mainstream is now "angry and displaced" as opposed to the 60s or 80s.

    However, I would like to co-opt shitgaze as a general description for music I don't like.

  2. Also, are you interested in standardizing content from here on out and utilizing third-person singular on a permanent basis ("Rockaliser" as opposed to "I" or "me")?

  3. I think "indie" is still a relevant term, but it seems like people increasingly disagree.

    I'm fine with you using "Rockaliser" but will myself retain the first-person. Not entirely comfortable with assuming there is a Rockaliser party line (i.e. what is the Rockaliser take on "BedRock"?)

  4. In regards to the idea that the underground culture is moving towards a “smart and serene” existence sounds really nice, but is probably over-indulging in visions of solidarity within an exceedingly broad scene. This is comparable to animals searching for available niches; they do it because it is the easiest way to exist given the available resources.

    At this point in time the term “indie” is about as descriptive as “alternative rock” due to categorical/mainstream dilution. Its ambiguous nature can only lead to confusion and over-generalizations. To continue on my animal kingdom analogies, using indie to describe an artist is comparable to describing a skunk as a mammalian rodent. The description only draws a dim outline of the subject.

    Given this, I personally would not mind if the "underground culture" was moving towards "smart and serene" music, but it seems as focused on gimmicks as much as if not more than mainstream music. Even though many musicians are using gimmick laden niches there are many musicians that are dedicated to continually making interesting music. At the moment I am thinking of those like Phil Elverum and Radiohead. Both move forward in their given niche, but seem to do it without giving into at the moment gimmicks.

    Overall, niches are not inherently negative and are useful for the advancement of music, but I disagree that individuals filling niches, on any level, and specifically on the underground level, are doing such without acknowledging the need for an audience; no matter how large or small of an audience that may be.

  5. and this relates to "smart and serene" music being created to fill a niche rather than being created to advance smarter and more serene music as an opposition to stupid and angry music. Create a niche and something/one will fill it.

  6. Who came up with the name "glo-fi"? I hate those two syllables more than "iPad," and they are wholly inadequate to describe the sound of Neon Indian, the only so-called band I have heard (and musicians seemingly smart enough to reject the label?)

    I think "post-punk" is a useful shorthand and has become so disassociated from punk that it doesn't have to mean what it says it means. And "post-shoe" would be a preferable alternative to all these shoegazing offshoot genre names that have been cropping up.

    I like the Azerrad argument; it suggests part of what I love about punk-era bands like the Television Personalities, Young Marble Giants, etc.

  7. An important distinction--in the context of Azerrad's argument, maybe the important distinction--between bands like the Sex Pistols and Grizzly Projectors is that the Pistols practically insisted on their relevance. They were designed as a reaction to their surrounding culture, and in the time Warhol was associated with the Velvets, maybe they were as well. This doesn't mean a listener can't use the same interpretive frame listening to "Two Weeks" as he/she would with "God Save the Queen," but the kind of interpreting Azerrad writes of seems so forced to me. (And if our culture is angry and loud, it's still pretty complacent.)

    Somewhere in this AV CLUB post, I think there's a potentially better way to think about these bands--as a reaction to other, earlier indie rock bands, not to the culture at large. Even if Bob Pollard/Malkmus/etc trafficked in nonsense phrases, it's easy to regard them as ironists, and I'm not sure you can do them same with blog rock acts. Music for the irony-fatigued?


  8. The thing that bothers me about Azerrad's argument is the assumption that, if something is going on in 'mainstream' culture--undoubtedly a more slippery designation today than it was during the era of the Velvets or Pistols--than the opposite must be happening in the underground.

    It seems that indie bands draw mostly on sounds that were always in the underground, or genres no longer in fashion, so I'm not sure where that leaves them in relation to the mainstream.