Black artist pens a track in a genre culturally-focused toward black audiences. It gets popular but doesn’t translate much into the white mainstream. There’s a dance that goes along with it, but it predates the track, and is mostly used as background—as most dances are. Then, using a genre focused toward the white mainstream, an artist creates a track inspired by the culture around the dance and original track. It gets obscenely popular, along with the rest of the new genre—which many accuse of cultural appropriation before the popularity overwhelms them. White audiences dance like idiots to this new track, which is loosely connected to the original black culture, but in more name than anything else. By the time the white dancers are doing their version of that black dance, the black audiences have moved onto other genres and dances.
Reviews on the new My Bloody Valentine record are trickling out, but the first words were, as usual, from the brain trust at Spin in their insta-takes. This isn’t a frustrated comment re: the wisdom of MBV speed reviews (which in itself is interesting! Of all records and comebacks, we choose THIS one to ask for a quick moratorium on discussion. “Shh we’re listening.” Is it more a function of the 20 year hiatus, or the relatively indigestible music? Is it a cliche to call MBV contextually hype-ridden but musically hype-averse?), but instead a quick insta-reaction to music writing styles.
So Brandon Soderberg is a really smart writer. A friend of mine said “he’s way better on Twitter than in his writing,” which I’m not sure I agree with but is definitely indicative of his great use of social media and phrasing. He has an ear for the pulse of conversation and context, which is why I thought his take was something of a failure.
First Soderberg calls Isn’t Anything a better record than Loveless—which, like, is fair, and he justifies it well. Then he says stuff like “In 2013, some ding-dong would probs even say Isn’t Anything is an “alt R&B” record.” which might not be true, but whatever. He calls “Soon” the apex of the MBV widescreen heartbreak sound they were going through. He mentions MBV once:
“Who Sees You” from the new one could be from Isn’t Anything so I am feeling that one. And when the guitars sounds like whales fucking like they did on Loveless, well, that’s something for sure.
It’s not the biggest deal if you don’t take apart a record in an insta-take. Nobody’s expecting a track-by-track “oh I loved the rumbly guitars on etc.” In fact, that shit’s usually pretty weak, though Soderberg has done it well before. But here, less so.
See, he’s not making these points because he cares about Isn’t Anything or even “Soon.” Everything becomes clear at the end:
I also tried to ignore the Twitter party circle jerk of Saturday night, which was everything awful about indie rock canonical bullshit and maybe some kind of “stuff middle class hipster fucks like” breaking point. Then again, Twitter was pretty annoying that night Gucci Mane released three mixtapes at once a few years ago.
He’s not wrong here—the noise around MBV was kinda insane, and anyone writing an insta-reaction would be willfully oblivious to not mention it at all. But Soderberg uses his annoyance with the hype as a foundation point for his entire argument. His defensiveness became snark—and while snark is entirely legitimate as a writerly device-thing, he slathers his entire reaction to MBV in it. Restate: he bases his opinion of the record, and his ensuing writeup, on how annoying Twitter was on Saturday night.
The problem isn’t acknowledging the reaction. The problem is reacting to it: Soderberg turns up the snark and as a result becomes dismissive of the record. That strikes me as an insincere judgement, and pretty lame.
Compare that to Rob Harvilla’s take higher on the page. He doesn’t dive into the record either, instead focusing on contextualization and shoulder-jostling. Here’s an example of useful snark:
I pity this record for the oppressiveness of its context, for the insta-opinions (guilty!) said context demands when its sleepy and unhurried fuzziness plainly calls for the Live With It Casually for a Month and Then We’ll Talk But Until Then Shaddap treatment, for the ominous shadow that 20-plus years of frothing anticipation cast over it long before it ever emerged, for the yawning gulf between the (old? possibly old) people who genuinely loved Loveless in 1991 and the millions of younger (much younger? possibly much younger) people on the Internet who love Loveless only because older people on the Internet told them they had to.
Harvilla also calls out the conversation, social media, other critics, hype, and listeners. But notice within his anaphoras how he never passes judgement, and is careful to delineate his perception of the record ITSELF from his perception of the hype. He’s tonally kinder, but that’s both because of his writing style (somehow both funny and nice, which is really difficult to nail) and because he likes the music more—but neither of those are important. He might be as annoyed as Soderberg, but you’d never know it from his reception of the music.
I have no problem with Soderberg rating MBV lower than the other insta-takes—those ratings are functionally meaningless, and most of the writers seemed hesitant to state a critical opinion on the record. (That’s probably why so many focused on context!) But even if Soderberg loves “Soon,” or ignores Loveless, or thinks MBV is amazing/terrible/fine/anything, his opinion is based on reacting to noise and not music.
Soderberg might have strong feelings on My Bloody Valentine. But I doubt it—his tweets and body of work basically give the perception that he’s not really into their music, which is totally fine. More likely, he has strong feelings on people who made him defensive when he didn’t like what they liked. Look, personal context is totally part of a perception of a record. When someone gets too vehement, your first reaction is sometimes to tell them to shut up, even if you agree. It’s a human-people thing. But modulating your own judgement of music based on the surrounding hype is wrong, even if a really smart writers do it a lot. (Incidentally, the further back you get from the hype, the less interesting writing about hype gets. Look back on some Black Kids blogging.) It just feels insincere and disappointing, because he’s totally better than that.
The reader’s list came out, and while it’s not much more than a pretty great market research tool, there are a few cool bits of intersection. Just like the official list, Pitchfork’s readers really loved Channel Orange—but unlike the staff, readers had no interest in Andy Stott, Miguel, or Schoolboy Q. And unlike the list, readers really liked Alt-J. Unpacking below:
Reader vs Official
Some big reader favorites that Pitchfork didn’t care for:
- The xx (#17)
- Alt-J (#18)
- Animal Collective (#19)
- Wild Nothing (#21)
- Jack White (#23)
- Father John Misty (#24)
None of those albums appeared on the official list.
Some big Pitchfork favorites that readers gave the cold shoulder:
- Andy Stott (#14)
- Miguel (#23)
- Schoolboy Q (#25)
- Julia Holter (#26)
- The albums in the top 10 were consensus picks for the most part—save Fiona Apple, which readers pushed down to #8 (from #3); Grizzly Bear, which readers moved to #4 (from #10); and Swans, which readers really didn’t like (even though staff writers did!).
- Bat For Lashes (17) and Burial (16) were wayyy lower among readers, at 40 and 33, respectively.
- DIIV (40) and Crystal Castles (49) were wayyy higher among readers, at 22 and 25, respectively.
Speaking of the staff, I did a crude point-based weighting to see the staff’s consensus list. I weighted the #1 picks at 3 points, the 2-5 picks at 2 points, and the 6-10 picks at 1 point, and then tabulated the results for all the albums on the official and reader’s lists. (Obviously nothing remotely scientific in this, but it’s better than some metrics.) Here are the top 10:
- Frank Ocean—Channel Orange (57 points)
- Kendrick Lamar—good kid, m.A.A.d city (43 points)
- Fiona Apple—The Idler Wheel… (37 points)
- Swans—The Seer (27 points)
- Grimes—Visions (19 points tied)
- Andy Stott—Luxury Problems (19 points tied)
- Japandroids—Celebration Rock (18 points)
- Beach House—Bloom (17 points tied)
- Godspeed You!—Allelujah! (17 points tied)
- Dirty Projectors—Swing Lo Magellan (16 points)
So immediate takeaway is the same as before: all the writers loved Frank Ocean more than any other record this year. The top 3 records on the Pitchfork list are the same, while it switched out Grizzly Bear, Death Grips, Tame Impala and Chromatics for Andy Stott, Japandroids, GY!BE and Dirty Projectors. I’d be interested in seeing if CO was a bigger consensus choice than any record since Kanye or Animal Collective.
You might notice that DIIV isn’t on the “readers + official” hated list above. That’s because even though not a single writer voted in DIIV at all, their album popped up at #40 on the official list—the only time that happened.
The biggest discrepancy between the staff list and the readers list is Tame Impala—readers ranked it #2, while consensus put it somewhere around #13. (It got #4 on the official list.)
So to sum up: readers have loyalty toward established rock groups (AnCo, The xx, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors) and don’t really love hip-hop as much as writers do. The staff is not into Grizzly Bear but loves Swans, which readers aren’t down with. I’m not comfortable with making any more blanket statements about stuff.
And jeez I need a stats lesson.
Also, in case anyone was wondering, the ballot that most adhered to the official list was Ryan Schreiber’s, with 8 votes within the top 10 (he liked Cloud Nothings and Burial more than Fiona Apple and Swans). Least Pitchfork-y writer was a tie between Martin Douglas, Kim Kelly, and Rachel Maddux—all with one vote in the top 50. In fact, with her choices accumulating a total of 4 points across every writer, Kim Kelly is the most niche writer on the Pitchfork staff. (Which makes sense, since she writes about extreme metal!)
On Wednesday, Sound of the City published an essay on why Frank Ocean sucks. It was called “Frank Ocean Is Boring: The Year Lifeless Music Found Critical Praise” and called out Swans for being too moody, Gotye for using a xylophone, and Ocean for being too much like Drake. It was a hitpiece—in more than one way. It’s received a ton of traffic, engagement, and shares. As SOTC’s current editorial strategies are concerned, it’s a successful piece. It also got a lot of hate, for understandable reasons—the piece disses the most critically-lauded records of the year. A friend of mine called it “trollgaze.”
When you talk about linkbait and trollgaze, you mean it disparagingly—even as everything is out to engage with readers, some posts get a critical pass while others are derided as exploitative and inauthentic.
Friday, Maura Johnston and Chris Weingarten gave a funny talk to WNYC about their least-favorite music of 2012: Mumford and Sons, P.O.D., and Alt-J (which Maura hilariously called “if somebody left a Steve Miller Band record out in the rain”). It was a hitpiece, but hit on the same things everyone’s been hating all year. It’s received over 130 notes on Tumblr and nobody called it trollgaze.
Was there a substantive difference between the WNYC episode and the SOTC post? Put another way, why do we lol at one and call the other trollgaze?
It’s not decent or interesting, but we need to figure out what trollgaze is first. It’s just not fair to writers to live under the threat of an amorphous thing that invalidates their words. You can’t just “know it when you see it.” The fundamental idea of linkbait is that it’s inauthentic work. And that’s a scary thing to swing around next to people’s heads. This might not be the most compelling subject, but it comes from a place of a junior writer’s insecurity. So take these two hatepieces—both pretty light on the analysis, but you shouldn’t couch subjective taste post hoc in cultural analysis anyway.
Easy thing first: Weingarten and Johnston are astounding writers and critics, while this SOTC post was surface-level, longwinded, and rhetorically bogus. But a disparity in writing isn’t enough. Inauthenticity can’t be dependent on the quality of writing. Then there’s the idea that “everybody likes/respects Maura + Weingarten, nobody likes/respects SOTC.” That’s true too—as good as some SOTC pieces have been, the overall Buzzfeedification has been pretty sad. But linkbait can’t be contextually-dependent, either—it happens everywhere. And if critics, listeners and writers aren’t separable at this point, we can’t give one group a pass and the others a beady eye. Anybody can trollgaze. So linkbait isn’t dependent on the writing, who writes it, or where it comes from. So it has to be the ideas.
And the only crucial difference between the two pieces of content is the perspective. The SOTC post took the most critically-lauded and bloggable acts of the year, and hated on them. The WNYC talk took easy targets in alt rock and hated on them. One engages against the audience, and one validates the audience’s tastes. So that’s why you can laugh along to Weingarten shitting on David Guetta but blanch at SOTC calling Shrines sushi restaurant music.
It’s a more successful piece because it goes after those targets. If the headline said “Frank Ocean is the AOTY” you wouldn’t get the 106+ reactions or the ~1000 Facebook likes. But that’s a systemic thing—within the piece, there’s just subjective dissent and a patina of meaningless criticism. Chris Chafin didn’t like Frank Ocean. But is that linkbait? Is the definition of trollgaze “arguments why your opinion is wrong?”
It’s not just because you like Frank Ocean and people who like Frank Ocean, and you hate Mumford and Sons and people who like Mumford and Sons. That would be needlessly tribalistic and too lizardy to sit well with me. I like the idea that someone can disagree because of subjective taste—wasn’t that the point of the whole poptimism thing a few days ago? I get to say “this sucks even though you like it” and explain why, and you get to disagree and call me out.
But it’s still weird to me where the line sits between a dissenting opinion and trollgaze. Is it just because Chris Chafin doesn’t like what you like? Is it because he doesn’t like what everybody likes? Is the moral of the story “diss responsibly if you’re firing shots into the crowd?”
So there has to be a difference between a poorly-written piece and an invalid one. Weingarten hilariously savaging “Hey Soul Sister” only avoids calls of trollgaze because it hates things you hate—not, I’d argue, because it’s really well-written (though it is). Maybe trollgaze—the sense of “fuck, this idea is inherently useless”—comes via a position of cultural consensus, not from inherent qualities within the piece. It’s a little too circular: trollgaze needs to disagree with what you like, because otherwise it won’t be called trollgaze.
Everyone tricks the crowd into clicking. But it’s only the unsuccessful pieces where the crowd feels tricked. It’s also easier to write a crappy validating piece (“Ten Best Kendrick Lamar Remixes”) than a crappy hit piece—readers are less charitable toward “your thing sucks.” That’s probably a no-brainer, but it deals with questions of crowd interaction and writing for pageviews, which are important to me. I wonder whether, in this current climate, a powerfully dissenting opinion can ever withstand cries of trollgaze. If Chris Chafin was Nitsuh Abebe calling out Swans in New York Magazine, how would we react? Are people like Weingarten—people who thrive on contrarianism—inherently trolls, because they interact with our perceptions of consensus for both credibility and readership?
I dunno. I’d be lying if I could conclude with an easy “this is why SOTC sucks and Maura rules” sentence. This was just something I woke up thinking about, so sorry if it’s a little unformed. But it’s weird to me how we can hate on one thing and then pivot to applauding a similar thing against the bad guys. Older writers—how do you avoid those internal doubts of “Am I just being a troll here?”
It’s less effective to calculate salience for tracks, mainly because they’re so diffuse—34% of writers had a SOTY pick that didn’t touch the Top 100, and the most-chosen SOTY only had three votes. So there are a few points of interest, even if they’re a little more spread out:
Grimes’ “Oblivion” was Pitchfork’s choice for song of the year—and it was one of three consensus favorites. “Oblivion” took home a greater number of Top 10, Top 5, and AOTY inclusions than any song except one. “Pyramids” only got two votes, but one of them was a SOTY from Schreiber, so do what you want with that.The concentrated single-ness of “Oblivion” was significant, as the cumulative votes from Frank Ocean’s catalog were double that of Grimes—but writers couldn’t decide between seven songs. (Though Noz was careful to differentiate the OF Tape version of “White.”) Again, this assumes there was any correlation between the ballots and the overall results, and it wasn’t just a reorganization of Ryan Schreiber’s favorite songs. But like I said before, it’s not that big of a deal—though it’s pretty funny to compare the Albums list and Shry’s picks.
But just because the list was diffuse didn’t mean there weren’t some rallying tracks. Aside from “Oblivion,” the other crowd-pleasers were “Adorn” (#12) and “Call Me Maybe” (#29). In fact, more people put each of those in their top 10 than “Oblivion,” and just as many stuck “Adorn” as their SOTY. More people picked “Call Me Maybe” than the top tracks by Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and Beach House put together. All three of those songs had high Top-5 salience: 75% for CRJ, 81% for Grimes, and 83% for Miguel. So while “Grimes” might be Pitchfork’s best song of the year, its favorite song of the year was definitely “Adorn.” Because it’s amazing. Like, if you’re one of the remaining four pop-sucks kids in the crowd, listen to it.
Out of the top 10 tracks, 8 of them came from top 20 records, and 6 of them came from top 10. (Usher’s Looking 4 Myself was kinda cruddy—though it did get a vote from Steven Hyden—while Jai Paul doesn’t really exist.)
Aside from that, “Myth” was the least-liked song in the top 10, only one person chose “Kill For Love” at all, and 8 out of the 9 votes for “Climax” put it in the top Top 5. With 89%, it has the highest Top 5 ratio of any notable track, but also only one person chose it as their SOTY. And with all the Sky Ferreira love in the air, only five people stuck “Everything Is Embarrassing” on their list, and nobody chose it for SOTY.
Oh, and no votes for “Gangnam Style.”
So I’m an admittedly huge Pitchfork geek—like, the level of data analysis I’ve done with Pitchfork reviews proudly soars past “borderline psychotic”—so the P4k Top Albums list is always a bunch of fun. But instead of the usual gripes and moans—though I might do those later, seeing as Frankie Rose’s phenomenal Interstellar was totally boxed out—I’m going to try something different this year.
There’s no way to tell how Pitchfork puts together their list—and to be honest, I don’t really care about the actual weighting mechanisms, or even if Fitz, Richardson and Shry get together and smoke salvia til they scratch out a ranking with their bloody fingernails. For me, the real interest is in the potential distillation of salience. The ratings are interesting, but the heart lies in the staff ballots, which cover a great range of writers. So you can tell the impression an album made—not just against other albums, but across people. You can tell not just how good a record is, but how many people thought it was good, and what kinds of people. (in this case people = writers, which is always a shaky bet, but anyway.) It’s a way to short-circuit the attempt at consensus authority, and just go straight to the beating adolescent heart of What Albums People Loved.
So sure, Kendrick beat Frank for #1, but did you know that Channel Orange had a phenomenally higher proportion of writers sticking it in their AOTY spot? It wasn’t even close: 17% of the 24 writers who picked good kid; m.A.A.d. city put it as AOTY, while 37% of the 27 Frank Ocean fans picked it for #1. Not only was CO the only record to have a spot on more than half of the 53 contributors’ lists—but more than a third of the people who chose it at all put it at #1. So it wasn’t just a consensus favorite—it was a consensus favorite. By a lot.
That’s crazy—but it’s only surpassed by The Idler Wheel, which had a staggering 14 top-5 spots out of 17 overall choices, seven of which were AOTY. That means when writers liked Fiona, they LOVED Fiona. No other album comes close to that 41% AOTY ratio, except Channel Orange (and in the top 20, GYBE’s Allelujah).
On the flip side, you had consensus favorites that everyone tolerated, but nobody actually loved. I like to use the phrase Tattoo Albums—records that you love so much, you’d get them tattooed on your arm. The Idler Wheel is clearly a tattoo record among Pitchfork writers. Swing Lo Magellan, with seven top 5s in nine picks, is too—though with no AOTY picks, maybe it’s a small tattoo. The Seer had a staggering 85% top 5 rate, with four AOTY picks. It’s definitely a Tattoo Album.
Shields, on the other hand, is so not. The record got the lowest number of top 10 picks (five), and only one person stuck it in their top 5, let alone in their AOTY—and that was at a #4 by Laura Snapes. In fact, even among the top 20, Shields has the lowest salience. The other record that scored five votes—Attack on Memory, Slaughterhouse—were big “if you chose em, you love em” albums. Maybe it’s because Shields is a boring-ass album, and nobody wanted to admit it.
It would be interesting to tally up the individual choices and see which albums didn’t get on the list—but that’s a way bigger job, and the psychiatrists are already making concerned calls. You can also cross-reference those choices with the impending readers list, as well as the social media data on each review, to tell if the audience/industry had any idea who Andy Stott was—even though 13 writers voted for Luxury Problems, the review got like half as many Facebook likes as Mac DeMarco’s did. There is also data on the singles lists. And finally, you can use the data from 2011, 2010, and so on to see if this year was “monoculture”-y, fragmented, or what. Loads of possibilities exist, but so do anti-psychotics.
Forbes’ new music column just posted a longish explanation that, despite evidence to the contrary, rock is not dead. It argues that rock is a malleable entity, and that anyone proclaiming the death of the genre hasn’t looked hard enough. Trash Talk, Deftones, Titus Andronicus, Metz, and Linkin Park are cited as examples of Rock Is Alive.
I’m not really sure why the author didn’t think the rock bands that are currently storming the charts—Lumineers, Fun, Mumfords, and so on—count as rock. Forbes didn’t explain. But qualifications aside, it is true that rock, as a collection of musical touchstones, is at something of an impasse.
Forbes’ definition of rock as “exists for a reason and that reason is not to sell you a t-shirt” aside, rock is a bizarrely static-yet-mutable entity. Popjustice can bemoan rock as “sounding almost exactly like something that’s happened before,” while everyone from Tune-Yards to Deftones to Mumford and Sons can take shelter under the label. I’ve written this sentence before, but rock is inclusive to the point of contradictions.
And there are contradictions. Rock can be both resurgent, and still not at the vanguard of current culture. The successful rock bands on the charts derive their popularity from a decade of now-stagnant indie rock—as good or bad as they are, they do exist as a successful commercial interpretation of an aesthetic. At the same time, they interact tangentially with the dominant EDM/electropop trends. Aerosmith playing rap-rock isn’t the same as Muse playing dubstep—one synthesizes two popular scenes, while the other grasps for relevance. Rock might be successful on the charts again, but it is still not healthy.
Meanwhile the engines of rock over the last decade are on back burners. Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles lives with his mom. The indie apparatus has put its chips behind hopefully-viral pop songs or rappers. None of this is meant to be an indictment of artists like Kitty Pryde—but ask yourself who turns heads quicker in 2012. There is a gap between blips like Torche and Ty Segall—who, feature aside, still doesn’t cut that much of a figure—and The Lumineers. It used to be filled by “mindie” acts like The National and Grizzly Bear, but in the absence of a cultural impetus those bands have become legacy acts.
And in dismissing Fun, Mumfords etc, Forbes might not be wrong. This is an abstract but crucial point: as a result of their location in the marketplace, aesthetic goals, and irrelevance in the scene, the commercial rock bands currently on the chart do not scan as traditionalist rock. This isn’t quite a “no true rock band” type argument—the perception of “rock” derives from rockist narratives of scenes, the songwriter/producer/label relationship, the emphasis of albums over singles, and the relationship with a mainstream marketplace. Everything from 90s indie, grunge, southern rock and beyond—all the fingers of rock as an identifier—has maintained those signifiers. For this argument I’m not valuing one over the other—but as “rock,” the cultural and semiotic difference between Torche and Fun is important. Dismissing The Lumineers as “not a real rock band” might be a shitty backward thing to do in 2012, but there may be unintentional truth to it.
So is rock dead? Functionally no: Good young rock bands still exist, and the commercial power of post-indie (ick) acts is greater than it’s ever been. On the flip side, the cultural engines that replace uncool dad rock with relevant rock acts are coming up dry. And the usual rock bastions like blogs, critics, and scenes are at nadirs in their influence. Popjustice dreads the imminent “next wave of guitar music,” but either those writers are on the cutting edge, or the UK is way off—because right now, that ain’t happening. Rock might be alive, but it’s kind of lame. And isn’t lame rock dead anyway? Those contradictions again.
A few weeks ago, Spinner published an essay analyzing Celebration Rock, the balls-out second album by Canadian rock duo Japandroids. The essay was largely critical of what it saw as an incongruous relationship between the record’s youth obsession and its age. “Celebration Rock is a record of memory forced into the shape of something more tangible,” Maria Sherman wrote in Spinner, “which is why instead of empowerment, instead of rocking the fuck out, it feels disingenuous.” To an extent, it’s an anti-nostalgia argument. Leave youth to the kids. Stop writing music about remembering stuff. Don’t try to fistpump and woah-oh-oh to wishing you were young again.
Let’s get this out of the way: Celebration Rock is a weird piece of rock music. It’s this bizarre mismash of emo songs played with classic rock scale, produced like indie punk. It exists within indie rock’s production sensibilities—”just two guys and they’re having a good time”—while existing outside of indie’s sense of songwriting, scale, or sentiment. Maybe it’s a little more narrow: Japandroids just write songs like genres they remember from growing up. There are unembarrassed glam guitars, shameless pop-punk woah-ohs, 80s indie drum sounds. It’s a memory chimera of a rock album.
Yet even as it extols and basks in the idioms of both, Celebration Rock doesn’t have classic rock’s cocky naiveté or emo’s hysteria. If you tried passing it off as classic rock or pop punk, you’d get laughed off the planet.
A lot of Spinner’s issue with the record comes from its reception. The accolades have been significant. But Celebration Rock isn’t a perfect record. Every song sounds the same, which means the best songs render the worst irrelevant. If anything, you need to wonder if the largest-garage-in-the-world aesthetic might be a disservice—if the album is an emo-tinged monument to a memory of rock at its peak, imagine it as an unapologetically high-produced piece of AC/DC sheen with more overdubs than good sense. It might be distasteful, but all the best classic rock and emo albums were.
So no, the album isn’t perfect in a way that Back in Black or Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge is. But this isn’t a perfect world anymore. Japandroids isn’t a band for the era of 30 million copies. They wrote a barnburner for the recession, which functions in perfect tandem with their thematic obsession with getting old. At its core interest, though, Celebration Rock is a killer album capturing the dynamism and tastelessness that pure Guitar Hero-style fuck-it-all rock affords with the naked shamelessness of 90s emo songwriting. The reception is a reaction to the quality of songcraft, for sure, but it’s also a little tension release from listeners who don’t remember the last time guitars sounded that fearless.
Part of the appeal of Celebration Rock is its interaction with listeners’ memories. (Celebrating. Rock.) That’s a dangerous road to take—nostalgia music risks vacuousness. Hazy memories of early 90s pop songs have become de rigeur in indie pop. It’s rather disingenuous, since much of the intended connection is borrowed, often leaving very little at the core of a track. And you can borrow a hook, but you can’t borrow a feeling.
This is a different kind of nostalgia record. Celebration Rock is nostalgic, for sure—but it is nostalgic by position, not by intent. The songs don’t rely on listener memory, but are memories themselves. They are independently wistful. As such, they acquire a weight to them. The music stands on its own, since it doesn’t rely on how the listener cares about the past. In fact, it has nothing to do with the listener at all. Ideally, a rock fan from Mercury could tap her toes to it. If not for the production and structural decisions, Celebration Rock could exist in any universe where guitars and drums play along to each other and vocal cords yell along.
Moreover, this nostalgia is not disingenuous. Because the album is a Record About Nostalgia, not a Nostalgia Record, sentiments of “give me younger us” scan as sincere. This is a Mature Rock Album made by guys who know what heartbreak really feels like, and why it’s maybe not a big deal—and why moving past setback is more important than wallowing in it.
This album has a memory—it’s not a young record, which is why it’s all tied up in themes of tiredness and “remember this?” and “remember that” and “remember that really good chicken roast you made a few years ago?” This isn’t the vapid internet-style “REMEMBER THE 90s GUYZ” provocation that depends on listener interaction for resonance. This is music made by old guys about being young. It isn’t young music, and never tries to be.
An interesting comparison would be Cloud Nothings’ sublime Attack on Memory. Dylan Baldi is an angry kid, and that record is Angry Kid Music. Baldi excoriates nostalgia, memory, and anything about feeling mushy toward a useless past. Being 20, Baldi has no “past,” and so finds any expressions of nostalgia to be disingenuous and unnecessary.
But as Baldi uses that language to break from the past, his new musical directions tie him to it. Neither casual nor intense listening reveals anything necessarily new here—Baldi bases his sound around all the assorted indie touchstones of the last three decades. He even got Steve Albini to produce the thing, which is as much a mission statement as anything else. Baldi’s pissed—future sucks, past sucks, everything sucks, even the indie rock that he’s playing. But he’s not playing in a vacuum, no matter how much he tries. He wields resistance to time as a weapon, but plays a guitar and sings about loneliness with a jagged edge. And if you want to broadly define “indie rock,” that’s not a bad place to start.
Importantly, neither Celebration Rock nor Attack On Memory are retro records. For different reasons, though—while Celebration Rock interacts with the past, Attack On Memory tries to sound timeless. Neither is beholden to the listener’s past for its emotional resonance: Japandroids is beholden to theirs, while Baldi tells his to fuck itself.
At the same time, both records are rock albums, which means they are forced to answer to rock’s long history. The out-of-vogue “rockist” perspective sees rock as exclusive and beholden to the past, such that any new rock music can only sound like older, better bands. Under this idea, Japandroids can only be a shadow of its influences, while Attack on Memory will always be an Albinism from decades ago.
Even as non-rockist viewpoints go, both records are considered nostalgia pieces. Poptimists have become hypersensitive to questions of timeliness. Sherman writes in Spinner, “How can we place value on something that already happened and herald it as futuristic?” The problem is that rock is not a linear progression or a static canon. Among countless contradictions, the sound of rock is at once both completely malleable and totally static—it can sound like a woman with a loop pedal and a ukulele or a band assembled from the ashes of bedroom pop-punk. But it always gives the impression of solidity—this is the sound of rock until next year, at which point something else will always have been the sound of rock. As a genre, rock has never progressed until it ends up doing so, after which it’s as stagnant as it never was.
Japandroids won’t ever sound of a time—this is Defense on Memory, not defense on old man Rockasaurus Rex. Rock might not ever be timely, but maybe it should be allowed to remember itself. If it doesn’t know where it’s been, how can it get anywhere new?
Today, Buzzfeed Music published a post called “Linkin Park Might Be The Most Influential Rock Band Of The Last Decade.” The format was a nine-song analysis of Linkin Park’s career, and why those songs are great, and how they hold up. For a variety of reasons, the post is problematic. I’ll start at the beginning, in order of least worrisome to legitimately troubling.
Whether or not you like Linkin Park (and chances are that the majority of Buzzfeed’s readers don’t), Ryan Broderick’s arguments in favor of the song choices were weightless. Choosing the song “Numb/Encore,” he writes:
“Numb/Encore” is such a staggering musical achievement. It’s almost like Linkin Park summoned the devil and was like “hey, we have this crazy idea and we’ll sell you our souls if you can make this work,” and the devil was like “you want to do WHAT?”
This song shouldn’t be good. It shouldn’t have a really strong sense of energy, it shouldn’t have an unexplainable sense of drama, it absolutely, without a doubt, shouldn’t seamlessly mix Linkin Park’s suburban angst with Jay-Z’s story of rising from a street hustler to hip hop mogul. But somehow, some way, it does.
And that’s his argument in its entirety. Obviously “It’s good because it’s good” is not a valid argument for why a song is good, and stating an opinion as fact isn’t a reasonable substitute for, like, argument.
But bad writing isn’t a big deal. It’s almost mean to gang up on Buzzfeed for its music writing, which has been spotty since its inception. Calling this post crappy is a basic response. Of course this writing is bad. (As well as inaccurate; Broderick got the band’s origins incorrect before a commenter corrected him—obviously the updated post never indicated as such.) This wasn’t even worth a good hate-read. You shouldn’t get mad at bad music writing—it exists in droves across the internet—though it’s really frustrating.
So frustrating, in fact, that there is another interpretation to this post:
It’s more likely that a “Linkin Park is the BEST EVER” post is meant to troll the readership. Obviously it’s a ridiculous thing to say—and the quality of argument is so poor that it might even be a likely scenario. Parts of it are too bad to be serious, and the overall conclusion is insipid.
To an extent the troll has worked—I clicked on it, so did others—but even as a troll post it fails. Bashing alt rock is far too easy, for the same reason Nickelback hatred has turned into a joke. It’s not a provocative statement, but merely an easy button to push. A way better post would have been “Animal Collective Might Be The Most Influential Rock Band Of The Last Decade,” because a) it’s not a laughable opinion, and b) it would certainly be taken seriously from the get-go and mocked as such. If critics will get frustrated that a 23 year-old writer thinks Linkin Park holds up, imagine how they would react if he wrote about “Leaf House.” Especially poorly. It would have been legitimately amusing. (Choosing Radiohead would have been similarly successful about six years ago, but now they’re starting to fall victim to “Fuck You, Dad” Syndrome.)
That’s bad journalism, yet still not something to get truly upset about. But at the same time, the post seems incongruous. Why now? Why not a few weeks ago, when Hybrid Theory had its 12th anniversary? As it stands, a weirdly vacant puff post about Linkin Park is unjustified in its existence.
Unless you read the news.
Last night, a woman was killed at a Linkin Park concert in Soweto. Google News cites 288 sources covering it, including Billboard, Spin, Rolling Stone, Complex, and the New York Times. Linkin Park sent condolences to the family, and it’s a top story in music news today.
There is no indication that Buzzfeed covered the story at all. The twitter feeds of Ryan Broderick and editor Matthew Perpetua say nothing about the deaths, though both retweet the “Most Influential” post. This leads me to three possible conclusions:
- Option 1: Buzzfeed had scheduled this post previously, and this was all an unfortunate coincidence. Nobody checked Twitter or any music news website. As there are no comments about it, nobody at Buzzfeed knows a woman is dead.
- Option 2: Buzzfeed had scheduled the post previously, and this was coincidental. Broderick and Perpetua did not feel that the woman’s death was worth pulling the post, mentioning in the lede, or mentioning on Twitter.
- Option 3: The post was used to maximize Google traffic, as Buzzfeed knew people would be searching for Linkin Park today, and they decided to write a cheap post for context, while not mentioning the death, which they thought was not newsworthy.
Option 1 is a sin of ignorance and poor research, but it’s unlikely, as Buzzfeed is the most social-heavy content source on the web. To argue that nobody at Buzzfeed read Rolling Stone this morning—where the story is on the home page—is absurd.
Option 2 is a sin of ignorance and bad faith. Under deadlines, maybe Broderick didn’t have time to browse the news while writing that post. But you would think that were Broderick to think that Linkin Park was so notable, he would have mentioned the story on his Twitter after he wrote it. A simple “Oh wow, I didn’t see this. Horrific.” would have sufficed. Instead he had time for poor banter at Weingarten.
Option 3 is the most grievous, and it’s so fundamentally terrible that I’m not sure even Buzzfeed is capable of it. The level of cynicism it would require is significant, and to say “okay, people care about Linkin Park today, let’s run a bait-y post on it” is only made worse by their non-mention of the death. Had they started the story with a quick segue, it would have been tasteless but precedented—that’s Traditional Linkbaiting, and it sucks, but most people move on. Instead, Buzzfeed didn’t mention it at all, and so the post is tasteless and disingenuous. It uses the news of a woman’s death to capitalize on hits, while ignoring the simple courtesy—and semblance of journalistic integrity—of baldly acknowledging it as such. In this scenario, Buzzfeed goes beyond journalistic improprieties and starts violating simple decency.
I’m not sure which is the case—Option 2 is most appealing, since the pressures of content creation result in some stupid decisions. Music news is always a weird middle ground between actual news, PR, and hits, so if Buzzfeed didn’t cover the death at all, nobody would hold it against them. But then this article comes out with zero mention of the news around it. And you have to wonder.
For me, stupidity is always preferable to malice. But the fact that we have to decide which applies to Buzzfeed—whether they are incompetent writers, journalists and content creators, or incompetent and morally destitute writers, journalists and content creators—says something about the state of their content, and maybe the state of ours as well.