Last year, the Brooklyn band Sleigh Bells' demos made their way to the internet, garnered plenty of attention, and were named best album of 2009 by New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones. Last week, Sleigh Bells actually released an album, Treats, their first (Nathan's take on it is here).
The album is already divisive, and appears set to provoke several cycles of backlash, as any group ‘hyped’ on the internet inevitably does among the statistically insignificant portion of the population that follows such things.
If you’re reading this you’re likely one of those people, and probably already expected that of Sleigh Bells. It’s de rigueur, after Wavves, Vampire Weekend, and the rest. Rappers like Gucci Mane and Freddie Gibbs have inspired similar awe and consternation among hip-hop fans. If you scour the internet for information on some other corner of music, you can probably furnish your own examples.
The script—mp3 by a new artist gets online exposure, a slow stream of tracks, videos, shows, EPs, mixtapes, and leaks build anticipation for the album, buzzy artist releases exciting/execrable debut—gets more predictable with each iteration. Plenty of intelligent people follow and comment on these happenings, but it always seems like uncritical adulators and kneejerk haters make the most noise. It’s my sense that, after the album’s out and a handful of adjectives have been attached to it—preppy, say—then argument revolves less around the music than it does speculation about what sort of people listen to the artist in question. I think we all know what sorts of colleges Vampire Weekend-types supposedly attend, or what decade of hip-hop Freddie Gibbs fans are said to dig.
I would speculate that niche artists attract so much attention and debate because there’s no real dividing lines in popular music today. Think about it: between 1975 and 1985 years ago you either got punk or were a dinosaur, felt disco or thought it was trash, heard hip-hop as revolutionary or considered it a novelty.
There’s no analog to that in 2010--no genre that throws down the gauntlet, threatens the values of any other, or makes possible new kinds of listening. Portable music players, one would assume, might encourage different kinds of music (rather than music that is simply louder), but they mostly enable antisocial behavior. And the serendipity of radio listening has been diminished, by shrinking audiences and reduced playlists. On the internet, no one is ever forced to sit through anything.
Two competing trends help explain the obsession with polemic individual artists. On the one hand, music fans are more able to focus on small slices of the genre pie, reading only those sites and blogs that cater to their tastes. On the other, and thanks to the poptimists or whatever forces brought them about, few listeners have a blanket animus toward any genre of music, the obnoxious sort who claim to listen to “anything but country” excepted. That no polemic genre on the scale of the three mentioned above has emerged recently surely plays into both of these. But is it also the product of these trends?
I wonder: what transformative musical forces exist today? And if you, like me, hear none, then what happened?