Diary of a Mad Composer
This seems to be a golden age for writing about music. The monetary costs to blog, or publish a book, are almost nil (once you have a computer). That leaves inclination, time, and effort, which is a technical way to define passion.
I know something about that. I’ve written about music off and on since the late 1980s, which, considering I can barely remember what I wrote about in the early days of blogging in the late 1990s, seems like several lifetimes past. There was a review of Steve Lacy’s CD The Window (1998) in a print magazine that no longer exists, some stuff about Carl Ruggles on a BBS that no longer exists, articles on Jean Sibelius and Jason Moran for an online magazine that hasn’t been updated since 2011. The print has hopefully long since been recycled, the digital detritus is probably headed for a landfill somewhere—do websites and blogs, if left untended, evaporate slowly over time, byte by byte?
Music seems to me to elicit more passion among the public than any other medium, and that can be a problem. People who write about music are motivated by passion, and that often means they write about the quality of their love, rather than the quality of the music itself.
So we get the pernicious influence of High Fidelity (1996) and the Nick Hornby/The Believer school, with the pedestrian one-upmanship and social validation of musical taste codified as criticism. The words offer no insight into music, but say everything about fandom and consumerism. Since the subject of the vast majority of music writing is popular music—no matter how accomplished, inventive, or stylish, it’s music that embraces commodification—the end product is mostly a vapid and ephemeral apology for the flavor of the moment meant to show why listening to it makes the writer special.
Commodification is a black hole of taste and critical thinking. Even important and intellectually charged topics can’t escape the event horizon. In March, Sarah Sahim published a welcome salvo at Pitchfork, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie,” pointing out how few artists of color there are on the “indie” scene. This was enhanced by Noah Berlatsky’s response at The New Republic, “Why ‘Indie’ Music Is So Unbearably White.” But neither writer can escape special pleading for what they love. Sahim states that “indie rock and the DIY underground, historically, have been proud to disassociate themselves from popular culture.” This may have been true when bands were touring the all ages circuit, spreading the word via Napster, and selling directly to fans at the merchandise table, but with the advent of Pitchfork as a taste-making juggernaut and indie as a substantially successful market segment, this is now nothing more than the received opinion and mythology about indie, an element of the cred the term confers.
Even if indie were indeed a subculture at some point, the fans who made it such—white college kids—went on to become the mainstream of society, where their past dabbling in the commercial underground served as a pedigree. When they took their places in the white middle class, they brought their taste with them, and their taste, with barely a dash of true cult genres like jazz and contemporary classical music, was never much outside the entropic regression to the mean that is mass culture. The “DIY underground” arguably reached its pinnacle in 1988, when Sonic Youth produced Daydream Nation. The basement homebrew values of DIY are touted in disposable cycles—it took less than a year for dubstep to move out of Burial’s bedroom and into television commercials and Las Vegas discos. Music supervisors for the better quality cable shows are constantly trawling for the hippest, most of-the-moment music to play at the end credits. And the young black kids making mixtapes, and hawking their CD-Rs on the street, are looking for that one big break.
Indie cred affirms both quality and authenticity. The former leads to a tautology and the latter to a peculiar cultural chimera. I—call me Nick—like good music, so the music I like is therefore good. I’m also cool and appreciate authenticity, and indie is authentic, so therefore indie is good. Authenticity is supposedly the sincere expression of values in conjunction with a lack of interest in popularity—everything else being fake—and both pop musicians and politicians, each of whom want to sell to the most people, are judged on their authenticity. Sahim points out that M.I.A. “looks like me,” and wraps her in the indie blanket, but M.I.A. is so thoroughly woven into the celebrity-media-industrial complex that what Sahim is fundamentally revealing is the commodification of identity politics and aesthetics.
Sahim and Berlatsky’s arguments boil down to the struggle with quality and authenticity mediated by ego and money: I’m cool and I have good taste, so of course I like indie, and I also like Kanye and Belle and Sebastian and FKA Twigs, so why don’t the arbiters of indie reflect my taste back to me? Pop music is dominated by the styles of black music and black artists themselves, and white artists—Robin Thicke, Madonna, Iggy Azalea—who emulate both. Indie in particular is rooted in rock, and rock is black music made safe for white parents to buy for their kids. Wishing indie culture included more artists of color strikes me as the listeners’ self-consciousness about race, a recognition that while indie may be culturally hip, it is musically square.
Writing about music in any meaningful way means listening to the music and thinking about it on its own terms. How does the music work? What is the band doing? Berlatsky wonders why Beck is indie when Kanye is not. “Yeezus,” he argues, “is a swaggering left-field electronica soundscape with hip hop elements. So was Beck’s major-label debut, Mellow Gold.” I think he’s confusing the press materials for the actual contents: Mellow Gold (1994) uses studio techniques to show off Beck’s mastery of pop production styles as a genre in and of themselves (no one should take “Analog Odyssey” seriously), while Yeezus (2013) is an enormous statement where the music supports what Kanye is telling you he thinks and feels. Berlatsky, like too many music writers, fetishizes techniques over purposes, and discounts the lyrical content when it muddles the neat niche he’s formed—in this context, Beck is indie and white because he’s knowingly, coyly eccentric, while Kanye is hip hop and black because he sees no division between eccentricity and the mainstream. That last is enormously important in black music, where Sun Ra, Cameo, Stevie Wonder, and Missy Elliott are part of the same continuum—there’s nothing like that in indie.
Berlatsky also conflates Moby’s use of gospel samples—the pluperfect example of a white artist appropriating black culture to gain both authenticity and soul—with Jordannah Elizabeth’s actual singing—which derives from her musical background in gospel. Moby’s music uses someone else’s voice, Elizabeth’s music is her voice. Berlatsky thinks indie should embrace Elizabeth, I think Elizabeth should stay as far away from indie as she can and make the music she wants to make. Critical opinion might catch up.
All the way back in 1980, Andy Partridge said, “There’s no youth culture / Only masks, they let you rent.” I’ve loved that song since the first time I heard it, even though I know it’s only rock and roll.
George Grella is the Rail’s music editor.