Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

What's the Point of Holding on to What Never Gets Used? (Or: Why Negative Reviewing Does Not Belong Here)

While I am unsurprised that my least acknowledged post continues to be my confused and rambling "mission statement" (I mean, it has no pictures or music!), there's something to the whole idea. If I had to stop the rambling and confusion and take it to a single sentence: I want to talk about the good, the peculiar and the interesting in music.

I thought of this as I was listening to limbo band (somewhere between independent and 'mainstream,' and with derision and praise arriving from either end) the Whigs. I was attempting to decipher a word here or there in the song "So Lonely,"¹ and I couldn't actually find the lyrics posted anywhere, which is relatively unusual for a band on ATO Records (a division of RCA) and all. They've released two albums, no less, both even distributed on vinyl (indeed, because it was a ridiculously good deal for including the actual CD, I have the vinyl of Mission Control), meaning there's some force behind them.

What I did find were a bunch of dismissive reviews, quoting the lyrics I was attempting to filter by as means to decry the band as "cliché-ridden" or derivative (though I did also find a brief entry on one blog from someone who stumbled into the song after liking their first album and losing track). The two foremost reviews--which quote the chorus of "So Lonely"--are from PopMatters and SputnikMusic, sites I've run across in the past, though I admit that I really don't read reviews too much, unless I'm feeling anxious about a new album from a band I already like.

Now, just to give us a frame of reference before I launch into the whole point of this entry, here's that song and its accompanying video:

I almost didn't link to those reviews, because they are essentially the antithesis of anything I ever want to write. Of course, I realized that using them for illustration of that point would be helpful toward describing that idea.

See, in a general sense, I don't want to sit and write "criticism" in the sense that it's commonly perceived: negative. This may come as a surprise to people who know me, especially those who have read things like my lengthy diatribe on a certain movie (to maintain the tone of this particular blog, I'll refrain from naming it or linking to the review/rant). It's not unusual though: generally the things I dislike strongly are things that don't need criticism or breakdowns. Either their reputation is already mud with a lot of people, or they are so widely liked that the criticism is going to fall on the ears of those uninterested in listening or those who want to engage in this self-congratulating need to feel superior. Hell, truth be told, that review I allude to I wrote only because I felt passionately about the stylistic, mechanical and functional problems with the film in question--primarily because it was an adaptation, which is the reason it's probably the only fully-realized negative comment of mine floating around.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with disliking the Whigs. Or any other band. There's nothing wrong with loathing them, absolutely hating their music, or having that occasionally-worse reaction of indifference. I do begin to take issue when it starts taking turns toward that Pitchfork-style scathing, caustic kind of stab. Both of those reviews do it, and it doesn't sit well with me. Yeah, it can be disappointing to find a "published" writing on a band you like that suggests they aren't very good, but it becomes something else when it starts getting into claims like:

“So Lonely” also features a lazy chorus (“Hey! / I don’t want to break down / Why I’m feeling so lonely when you’re around”) that’s delivered with so much self-assurance that it’s almost offensive to hear. [...] However, they have alien standards to the lover of emotional sincerity
The idea that "self-assurance" is offensive is weird, and the refusal to believe "emotional sincerity" smacks of a kind of self-inflicted refusal to accept that sincerity may just come out in cliché, knowingly or not. It's likely related to author Spencer Tricker's central conceit that the Whigs are "rock on autopilot" and "If you asked some space creatures to create an album of banal Earthling arena rock, they might very well create In the Dark using a tentacleful of the simplest mathematical algorithms."

Jared P. at SputnikMusic is probably worse, overall, in the sense that I mean. It's as if some reviewers are more interested in conveying their wit and bile and receiving adulation for "destroying" a bad band, song or album, that they lose track of the fact that they're talking about music, which has few rules about what it "should" or "needs" to be, as well as the idea that their own experience is equivalent to that of everyone else (and if it isn't, theirs is superior).

Listening to The Whigs is kind of like watching a B-grade movie on Lifetime: what's experienced is based on an idea that’s all well and good, but it’s already been done much better by bigger members of the same family.
What kind of nonsense is this, really? Is Jared a probable watcher of Lifetime movies? No, and their reputation for movies proceeds them, which makes it a construction of deliberately hyperbolic intensity under the guise of an "off the cuff" analogy. Of course, it may be off the cuff, but it's not as if it was "TV movie" or some other acknowledged "inferior" format, but specifically a "B-grade movie on Lifetime," which at a glance even implies it is of inferior nature on the scale of the already dismal reputation of Lifetime movies (though this may simply be a matter of construction, and unintentional). It might indeed be taken as unintentional, but it's followed by pretentious and boring commentary like "...sound redundant musically, as well as lyrically: ‘I don’t even care about the one I love, and there’s a black heart inside of me” – isn’t that already implied with the first clause?" and snarky comments like "‘I wanted more, and I can’t ignore,’ admits Parker Gispert with his best Grohl impression - funny, I was actually thinking the same thing."

The latter comment emphasizes the nudging, "Amirite?" nature of this kind of review, while the former is grasping with a presumed interpretation. Of course, if one wants to remove lyrics with any kind of redundancy, there will be gaping, important holes in popular music. The entire idea is silly, but it's even more ridiculous when one considers that, well, no, it's not exactly redundant. By itself, "I don't even care about the one I love" is a callous statement of fact. Without a context, the perception of it is left ambiguous, where, "and there's a black heart inside of me" clarify's that there is some awareness of that callousness, and maybe even an embrace of it. The two ideas aren't the same thing, though one could imply the other, and in reverse would likely lead to it.

Of course, the reason for this is the same as always: some element of rapid judgment and assumption. I'm not absent of it, but it means I'm not going to be writing about the bands I dislike, as I have little of value to add on the subject other than for those who want to read and nod their heads with a smug look on their face--or, I guess, to create controversy and try to start some kind of feud or fight (another part of why I did not want to link to those reviews). When I looked at Stephen Thomas Erlewine's review of Ryan Adams' Rock N Roll, I got the exact same vibe. The quality (or lack) of the music was lost to the need to prove (weird, considering he's the primary writer for the site) his "credibility" by saying that Adams is clearly referencing other artists:

It's not just that the sound echoes bands from the past and future; the titles consciously reference other songs: "Wish You Were Here," "So Alive," "Rock N Roll," and "Boys" borrow titles from Pink Floyd, Love and Rockets, Led Zeppelin, and the Beatles/Shirelles, respectively; "The Drugs Not Working" reworks the Verve's "The Drugs Don't Work," "She's Lost Total Control" is a play on Joy Division's "She's Lost Control," "1974" harks back to the Stooges' "1969" and "1970," "This Is It" is an answer song to the Strokes' "Is This It," and "Note to Self: Don't Die" apes Norm MacDonald's catch phrase. These songs don't necessarily sound like the songs they reference, but there sure are a lot of deliberate allusions to other styles and bands: tunes that sound a bit like the Strokes, songs that sound like Westerberg, tracks patterned after Interpol but sounding like U2, and the glam songs that are meant to sound like T. Rex or the New York Dolls but come out as Stone Temple Pilots.
 If you can read that and seriously believe that titling a song "Boys" or "Rock N Roll" is a "conscious reference," you're a pompous jackass. Any single word title, in particular, is a stupid claim. Maybe he's referencing Bauhaus! Or maybe it's just the right word for the title. And, really now, "Wish You Were Here"? Do you know how many songs have that title? Or the Bee Gees. Alice Cooper? Fleetwood Mac? Hell, Incubus? If he's referencing The Strokes, surely he could reference a band slightly older. And how on earth does a song titled after a year, that he admits may have no relation to the music of predecessors, automatically relate to 1969 and 1970? Did the Stooges "ape" themselves when they recorded "1970"? And what kind of drugs do you have to be smoking to think that "Note to Self: Don't Die" could only come from the now unremembered Norm MacDonald gag?

Does this mean that some of those--maybe even most of the musical ones, screw the Norm MacDonald nonsense--aren't based in that sense? No. But the dismissal is just arbitrary and irrelevant. And it's hardly news that Adams sounds like Paul Westerberg, so mentioning that here is like reminding us that a pop band seems to have hints of the Beatles.

Once reviews wander off into this tangential land of, "I'm superior to this artist by virtue of my obviously greater breadth of musical knowledge/experience," they stop having any value except as collective smugness. Now, some people like collective smugness, and that's fine, don't get me wrong here. Some people like this stuff, else Pitchfork would not exist and be known as a website.² The thing is, those reviews are not about the music anymore. They're about the writer, and not in a "let me make this personal to me" sense, but in a detached, self-aggrandizing one. I don't want to deal in negative reviews here in the first place, but even when I have bothered, it was never with the intent of proving my intellect or superiority, and never perpetrated as an ego pinprick to a barely-heard independent band. Yeah, okay, Ryan Adams is not barely heard by any stretch, but there were other significant flaws in that discussion.

So, alas, do not look forward to my ranting screeds on this or that band I have distaste for--not even the ones I think have undeserving positive "intellectual" followings. Because, you know what? I may not have respect for that music, but I do have respect for the people who like it. Some people who have been very good to me (including some who may or may not be reading) like bands I most emphatically do not.

Besides, I live in a glass house on the subject of "good bands" by most external criteria--especially considering I happen to own an album named after them. I'd just open myself up to a never-ending torrent of, "Yeah? Well you like ____!" And I want people to give _____ a chance, so I'm not going to waste my time ripping others to shreds. Sometimes people already "know" (or truly know) they dislike _____. Sometimes no amount of positive commentary will make a difference. But if I start from the ground of "I won't tear your things to the ground," then there's less a need to reactively dismiss my more peculiar or hard-won tastes--and that's the point for me, really: the music. Not my opinion of it.

FINAL NOTE: I realize that I'm talking very negatively here in a discussion about avoiding negativity, but I felt it needed to be clear, and also that it's not a far cry from the asinine declaration that someone is intolerant because they will not tolerate intolerance. If you wish to enjoy smug destructions of bands, there are plenty of people out there happy to do that. I want something else, and what I want is to share interesting music, and look at music from a positive approach.

Back to Post ¹No relation to the song by the Police from their debut, Outlandos d'Amour. Though that's an excellent song, so let's listen to it, shall we?

Back to Post ²Well, to many of us. For those that don't know Pitchfork Media, they are a notoriously pretentious music website, so known for it they have been parodied by David Cross (on their own site!), record label Sub Pop and plenty of others. A band I love dearly characterized their own Pitchfork review with this video:

The review was effectively, "You have a bunch of hipster influences," (the irony was apparently lost on them?) as exemplified in the closing sentences:
At last, on the sinister, electronics-laden title track, with ghostly harmonies out of a subpar TV on the Radio outtake, Oliver screamo-wails that "the movie monster was mechanical"-- and he could easily be describing his band's rote reiteration of snazzy influences. Sometimes you meet the monster, and it is you. And sometimes there are motha-fuckin' snakes on this motha-fuckin' plane.


  1. Also, negative reviews often come from contemporaneous circumstances and are retracted in the end. Can't think of how many times I've seen music/movies that were panned by some (all) critics at the time of release, only to have them change their tune at a later date.

  2. An exceptionally valid point.

    Paranoid, for instance, or Exile on Main St.. Of course both now considered possibly the best of that artist's discography.

    This site has tons of reviews, and that particular page is on The Cars, and it notes that it is not for those who cannot accept anything but adulation for The Cars. But then it's quite reasonable about everything, and gives credit where credit is due, for hook-writing and end function of anything that might otherwise be iffy.


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