Friday, August 24, 2012

Jody Rosen and the People's List

Slate's pop music critic Jody Rosen is an occasional guest on the Culture Gabfest, a weekly podcast put out by the online magazine which features weekly cultural discussions between movie critic Dana Stevens, deputy editor Julia Turner and critic-at-large Stephen Metcalf. A couple of years ago, they devoted a segment of their show to a discussion about a candid John Mayer interview in Playboy. At the beginning of the segment, Rosen attempts to bring audiences up to speed on who Mayer is and what type of music he plays. In the course of this, a minor disagreement between Rosen and Metcalf ensues.
Rosen: But just a little word of background about John Mayer...he is, for the record, not only good in technical terms--in technical terms he's a great musician, he's a great guitar player. He sort of instantly achieved this, you know, muso-wanker status right up there with Clapton and those guys. He is a sort of a "classic rock level guitarist" and is regarded as such. You know, he's constantly...the Police have him on stage to play with them. He's that sort of level of player, like a Mark Knopfler-style dude. Considered very cheesy by hipsters because of that. So it's not...
Metcalf: That...that cannot be the reason that hipsters regard him as cheesy. 
Rosen: No, but...
Metcalf: It has to be his status as Dave Matthews-lite, right? I mean...his awful singing voice...sorry. 
Rosen: ...I just want to complete the thought.
Of course he doesn't. It's a mostly unnecessary remark, and even if it wasn't such a cliche it would still add nothing to the discussion. Metcalf rightfully points to logical lapses in this blanket statement about "hipsters," and Rosen calmly ducks the rejoinder by talking up the cheesiness of "Your Body Is a Wonderland." Later, Rosen admits, "I'm not a fan of John Mayer's music at all. I am a fan, however, of John Mayer the celebrity, which is its own distinct thing."

Rosen seems to be one of those music critics who tends to view the act of listening to and enjoying music as secondary to the cultural experience of being a "music listener"--in other words, he's more interested in music fandom as a badge of status than he is in listening to anything for the art or pleasure itself. Of course, Rosen pretends to be all about "pleasure"--the music he listens to is inherently more pleasurable because it is popular and on the radio, seems to be the argument--but he also spends an awful amount of time chiding  fellow Brooklynites for not sharing his cosmopolitan, "poptimist" aesthetics as enthusiastically as he does. In fact, he seems to do a lot more of that these days than he does, well, reviewing music. To Rosen, honest aesthetic differences in the case of pop, R&B or country bely creeping racist, classist, or sexist resentments. If we were really being honest about what we'd like, he argues, we would listen to Brad Paisley and the Black-Eyed Peas, but "artsy-fartsy rocker types" (one of Rosen's terms for music listeners who don't precisely share his tastes) are terrified of being caught enjoying something popular. In fact, in Rosen's world it seems like music fans are a constantly-cowed, terrified bunch, obsessively weighing their tastes against others in bids to see who can agree the most with the narrow sociocultural niche-consensus. Ironically, that description seems to more accurately fit Rosen himself. This isn't music criticism, it's just "criticism" untethered to any set of tastes and cultural presumptions other than nihilistic political gamesmanship and Internet social-climbing.

Yesterday, Rosen wrote a piece for Slate about Pitchfork's recent People's List, an audience poll sponsored by Converse. Nearly 28,000 participants voted on and ranked their 100 favorite albums between 1996 and 2011, and the votes were then tabulated and displayed in all sorts of useful demographic categories. The overall results were fairly predictable and surprise-free, as one expects from committee votes. Who cares if Radiohead tops another list? Jody did, and his contempt for the voters (of which he was one [so was I]) and their aggregated list of choices was swift and damning:
In short, nothing about this list is surprising, and for those of us who love pop music in its many flavors and permutations--including pop music that is actually popular--the usual complaints apply. Aesthetically, generically, regionally, racially, "The People's List" is narrow and conservative. Pitchfork's readers ignored virtually every musical genre other than indie rock and its folk- and electronic-offshoots. The Top 40 scarcely registers a blip in this world. Hip-hop--and for that matter--Afro-America--is represented mainly by Kanye West. (Kanye contains multitudes, but c'mon.) Country music doesn't exist. Metal doesn't exist. Reggaeton, bachato, salsa? ¿Como? The word outside the United States--it's barely there. The United States, Canada, and the UK account for 174 of the 200 albums; the only non-Anglophone nations are France and Sweden.
Give Rosen some credit--he does leave the words "hipster," "rockist," and "pretentious" out of the discussion, thank Christ (I'd like to think us unpaid Rockaliser bloggers have down our part to shame critics into calming down on that a bit).

Rosen goes on to take obligatory shots at Pitchfork and its readers ("as much a niche publication as XXL, or Cat Fancy") before turning his eye at the True Problem, which is the lack of gender diversity. Of the top 200 records voted by readers, only 23 were written or performed partially by women. This is probably the result of a complex interlocking of cultural factors, since Pitchfork readers aren't a representative sample of music listeners OR indie music listeners, and the 28,000 folks who voted aren't even representative of the average Pitchfork reader. Nevertheless Rosen cannot contain his righteous fury against those who had, by exclusion, wronged his favorite female artists:
Still--what the hell is wrong with these dudes? Did it escape their attention that for much of the past decade and a half, female artists have had a stranglehood on the popular music zeitgeist? Have they never heard of Missy Elliott? Can they really prefer The National to M.I.A.'s Kala, to Bjork's Homogenic to Joanna Newsom's Ys? Where are the politics in all of this?
My questions: what kind of "critic" compares his own aesthetic choices against some subjective, randomly-defined "cultural zeitgeist"? Why can't such choices be made openly and honestly without any regard whatsoever for the opinions of others? Yeah, Adele was huge--remind me again why I need to like her, other than that she is a woman and my list doesn't have enough female choices? Why not prefer the National to M.I.A. or Joanna Newsom, and why do you care? And why are "politics" only important  to you when it comes to the taste of indie rockers? On that last point, Rosen believes he has stumbled upon a great political irony, worthy of Voltaire. Indie rock's conservative consensus picks don't gibe with the culture's progressive views on gender and race:
If you surveyed the roughly 24,600 men who submitted "People's List" ballots, I wager you'd find nearly 100 percent espousing progressive views on gender issues. This would not be the case if you took a similar survey of pop, R&B, or country music fans--yet a "People's List" of top recordings in those genres from 1996-2011 with a similar gender breakdown is unimaginable. The fact is, when it comes to the question of women and, um, art, the Top 40's great unwashed--and even red state Tea Party partisans--are far more progressive and inclusive than the mountain-man-bearded, Fair Trade espresso-swilling, self-styled lefties of indiedom. Portlandia, we have a problem. 
Red state Tea Party...Fair Trade espresso-swilling...Portlandia...sorry for nodding off, just nearly had cliche seizure.

Anyway, notice what's missing from Rosen's inclusive summation of "pop, R&B or country music fans"--hip-hop. Rosen knew very well to leave that genre out of this part of his argument (though he mentions it earlier when talking about race) because of course a survey of hip-hop's greatest albums would yield even fewer female artists than Pitchfork's list. By the same token, a list of country music's finest records may include more overall females, but short of Cowboy Troy and a few others the country list is liable to be more white-dominated than even Pitchfork's sans Kanye. The only way Rosen gets away with characterizing such an ill-defined group of people is by moving the goalposts for each genre preference--when he asks "where are the politics," that's really code for "why aren't my aesthetic tastes being reinforced by more people like me?" Music lovers who are actually comfortable with their tastes don't demand that they be approved by others, especially for political reasons. For Rosen, liking Radiohead and its ilk is evidence of oppression against the "Top 40's great unwashed," a view of casual music listeners that no music fan actually shares, other than in Rosen's paranoid imagination. Maybe one of his Slate colleagues (Will Saletan maybe?) should sit Rosen down and read him some Hofstadter.

It's really hard to say what bothers me most about this piece: its presumptuous diagnosis of "indie music fans," who are actually not a monolithic group; its patently unfair and incorrect characterization of indie "progressivism," which holds fans to an unfair standard that even then is inconsistently applied; its smug jokes about some of earth's easiest musical targets like Bon Iver; its unwillingness to consider counter-arguments, from the previously-mentioned hip-hop/gender disparity to the existence of identical sampled results from female Pitchfork readers, who also placed white male-written OK Computer at the top of the consensus heap; the fact that this is overall an argument for tokenism, and the demonization of honest expressions of opinions.

But I guess what most bothers me is when he says the Pitchfork list is a "scandal." Really, a list that aggregates the musical choices of .0001% of the population of the US and presents it in various useful, colorful charts and graphs, is a scandal?

I think and write a lot about music and politics. You know what is actually a scandal? It's a scandal that, in the wake of the massive French media conglomerate Vivendi buying EMI last year, there are only three major record companies controlling (and often limiting) the output of thousands of artists. I think it's a scandal the Department of Justice, after only a year's worth of investigation, approved the merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster--the DOJ's solution to the inevitable monopoly was a worthless mandate that the company "create" two of its own business rivals. Along those lines, I also think it's a scandal that Ticketmaster-Live Nation can basically buy the support of politicians like Rahm Emmanuel. I think it's a scandal that music education, and the arts in general, are no longer a priority in public schools, and while no politician ever seriously considers this idea it seems long past time that affordable instruments were made a priority for children in low-income communities. I think it's a scandal that aspiring professional musicians on Broadway and elsewhere are losing live gig opportunities to penny-pinching producers who cut live music out of the equation via prerecorded tapes and mp3s. When I walk past a street performer in Manhattan, I often think of how scandalous it is that Bloomberg gets away with charging buskers a $250 fine for being within 50 feet of any city-designated monument. And that's just for a first-time offense.

I think it's a scandal that payola still exists in the 21st century, ensuring the sometimes-awful music that Rosen admires remains on the radio, and to me it is infinitely scandalous (and suspicious) that the one governor who actively prosecuted payola (and Wall Street) fraud was busted in a prostitution scandal and mocked by Rosen's colleagues at Slate for not realizing that corporations mandating a pre-selected set of tunes is just the Way Things Are. It is especially scandalous and pathetic how the FCC rolls over for the RIAA and anyone else rich enough to lobby Orrin Hatch. It also bothers me, though I try not to lose any sleep about it, that "indie" has just become another brand word for publicists, and that people who complain about this are derided by fake, usually white populists as "elite" or "Fair Trade espresso-swilling."

What else? The sampling laws in this country are scandalous, responsible for insane fines and nonsensical legal barriers against legitimate creative expression. It also seems to me scandalous (if not necessarily illegal) that the few Jay-Z-Kanye level artists who can afford to pay for high-profile samples buy them directly from the record companies, and don't consult with the artists themselves. It is horrifying to me that an artist can refuse to put his or her song in a commercial, only to turn on the TV and hear what is essentially a copycat version of that artist. It is scandalous that the RIAA still charges a $150,000 fine for the crime of downloading one 99 cent song. These are just a few musical/"political" matters that bother me a bit more than how many female or black artists a certain ill-defined group of people put in their top 10.

Yet Rosen never reports about any of these issues for Slate or Rolling Stone--he's too busy mocking liberals for their intentions in the Slate-est of manners, smugly characterizing folks like Springsteen as classist poseurs for dealing in some Occupy-type language ("painting WPA murals" he calls it). Much of what Rosen has written for Slate or Rolling Stone suggests he is a proud, active defender of the corporate status quo. That he chides others for their lack of "progressivism," and then looks upon himself as a model of cosmopolitan music fandom is as insulting as it is refutable. Perhaps with this article, those critical of indie fandom will discover how "poptimists" are in fact just as capable of smug, judgmental observations as the artsy-fartsy types or "rockists" who hate on the Top 40 "unwashed masses."

I don't dislike Jody Rosen as a writer, I don't want him fired or anything like that. Unfortunately, he's playing the Internet discourse game*, where manufactured outrage over the most asinine of issues is retweeted thoughtlessly by people who like to see their narrow worldview reinforced, never challenged. Rosen defends his piece by saying that, so far, only men have criticized it. Since women haven't, that somehow makes it more legitimate. This is how a writer who can't actually defend his or her arguments deflects criticism, by talking up the people who parrot it uncritically.

By being demonstrably obsessed with the measure of his opinions against others, Rosen is as much a creature of "indie" close-mindedness as those unwashed mashes he mocks. To me, as harsh as that sounds, that's at least a partial definition of a "hack"--someone who fits their opinion around a preconceived political narrative. And it is a common tendency amongst paid music critics. I get it, I took Sociology 101, so I understand there is something called "white privilege" that exists. Now, does pointing that out constantly actually enhance anyone's understanding of the Vampire Weekend album?

Sometimes I wonder if there's anyone left on the Internet with an honest opinion.

*As I am now, way ahead of you.

No comments:

Post a Comment