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Thursday, May 11, 2006
by PopMatters Staff


Indie / Punk / Ska from Sheffield, UK

“Showroom XFM live session” [MP3]
“Storm in a Teacup” [MP3]
more tracks [MySpace]

Zero 7
“Throw It All Away” [real | windows]

Theory of a Deadman
video: “Santa Monica” [windows | quicktime]

Marykate O’Neill
“Stay” [MP3]
“Things Are Too Good (They’re Bound to Go Bad)” [MP3]
“Traffic Jam” [MP3]
more songs [MP3]

Mates of State
“Fraud in the 80s” [MP3]

The Stills
“Destroyer” [MP3]

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

I always suspect people are being disingenuous when they foreground their alleged optimism. It seems like the kind of thing that would never occur to you to remark upon if you actually lived it. Real optimists are grounded in an instinctual self-reliance that isn’t pricked by the complaints and doubts of others. These people don’t need their hopefulness ratified at the expense of others. They seem to be completely secure in their own significance and can thus project an aura of unself-consciousness that directs energy out at others and tends to lift the moods of everyone around them.

That’s not the case for the self-professed optimists though. In the hands of these reactionaries, optimism is invoked to bash the nattering nabobs of negativism who have the annoying habit of questioning the status quo, of expecting more from the institutions that hedge individuals in, of seeking to resist culture-industry manipulation when it’s so much more pleasant and pleasing to simply give in. Self-proclaimed optimists want to shine the light on people who resist and humiliate them—they’d prefer to direct the tanks that rolled into Tiananmen than be the guy getting run over by them, and who can really blame them. (I’m sorry; I know that comparison is way over the top.)

Naysayers always try to encourage people to ask more questions about what they are doing, to analyze one’s own motives, and that is admittedly irritating. Better to simply enjoy what has been made for us to enjoy rather than to ask why it sells our aesthetic capabilities so short. Why not just forget pride or any high-falutin’ notions of dignity and have fun, the fun you’re told to have? Optimism is a dogma to such people, an anti-critical code committed to finding the least-resistant path through the official culture being promulgated by the big media, big government, etc.

So “poptimism”—an antirock attitude in music criticism meant to free us from the Boomer cultural hegemony—as a critical mode seems almost oxymoronic. Optimism in this context is used as pure rhetoric meant to discredit a view that some contemporary critics find out-of-date, restrictive. Here’s how Jody Rosen, in the Slate article linked to above, sums it up:

The poptimist critique of rockism squares with my sense of musical history and resonates with my taste. I love hip-hop and commercial R&B and Nashville country and teen pop, and have spent much of my professional life listening to and writing about pre-rock Tin Pan Alley pop, a genre that rockists insult by ignoring completely. I’m not so crazy about most indie rock, never cared much for Neil Young, and will listen to the new Pearl Jam album only out of a sense of professional obligation.

I think Britney Spears’ “Toxic” is one of the greatest songs of the new century, that the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” was one of the great ones of the last, and that R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” is as transcendent as any Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown classic I’ve ever heard—and what’s more, most other critics I know agree. In fact, arguably today’s two most influential pop critics, Sanneh and The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones (who was also Slate’s music critic), are firmly in the poptimist camp.

Reading this made me depressed; sad to think the sharpest critics drowning in self-importance while believing they are shedding themselves of it. Basically by rejecting all that was once deemed important by a previous generation and embracing the opposite, you can make the case for your own importance. This is not optimism, it’s reaction. It’s opinion making as posturing. It’s not open-minded or perceptive, it’s just hipsters shitting on shibboleths.

The main problem with this as a critical methodology is that it fixates on the idea of taste being central to the phenomena of popular culture, which to my mind misses the entire point of thinking about the stuff in the first place. It doesn’t really matter who likes what specifically; what matters are the means by which the big players seek to control the entertainment market. Whether that market is in boomer-friendly rock records by 50-year-olds or cross-over hip-hop records is sort of beside the point, and carping over that, over your right to feel cool because you love Britney, means you are ignoring what is really at stake in the realm of culture-production. In capitalist society, culture is business, one that’s always trying to expand. Nice of the poptopian to do the marketers work for them and expand the reach and provide the ideological justification for the hegemony of the big commercial music manufacturers. (“Buy what records they’ve already decided to manufacture the most of; this will make you a positive optimist. Don’t reject what’s already been prepared for you; that’s so last year. It’s your patriotic duty to support blockbusters.”)

Rosen endorses the notion that pop critics “should spend some time trying to understand other’s tastes rather than building ideological buttresses to bolster their own.” That’s probably something we all should do in general, as part of being social human beings. Part of that understanding, though, is not simply fatalistic acceptance but interrogation of those tastes. While critics are pondering the righteousness of their own tastes and biases ad coining clever ways to discredit those of others, they miss the questions that might actually engage others at a more significant level. How are these mass markets made, shaped and controlled? How must entertainment be formulized to achieve this? How do the formulas change—in reaction to what changes in ideology, under pressures from what subcultural swells?—and what are the by-products, the externalities of this market-shaping, after the main goal of boosting profits is met?

As Rosen points out, pop critics of the Boomer mold that these poptopian fans of top-40 ephemera loathe sought to form a canon and some aesthetic criteria to give their discourse a reason to exist. Reversing the old ‘rockist’ criteria may make some of the new generation of critics feel clever and original and iconoclastic, but they are just trapped in the dialectic. And if they are ignoring the dialectic itself and they aren’t erecting new criteria—if they are arguing that people should be left alone to listen to what they enjoy with no interest in investigating where those preferences come from culturally—then they are writing their treasured discourse (which is about canon building and nothing else if it ignores socioeconomic questions in favor of taste spats) right out of existence.

That is not necessarily a bad goal, but probably not what they’re intending. Really these critics are proposing counter-canons and perpetuating rock criticism as one of the supports for building little taste communities, cliques wherein one can discover what’s in and out on any given day by reading the right magazines and scorn those who haven’t taken the trouble to be in the know. Knowing what’s in lets others in the community know you got your priorities straight, and that your mind is on the marching orders.

In the end Rosen endorses “gluttony”—a non-discriminating, non-taxonomizing ingestion of all the varieties of music we can jam on a 60 GB iPod. It used to be that secret discoveries deep in the heart of some specific genre had currency, had meaning to a select few, earned you special admission somewhere—probably a back room in an indie record store with some pasty-faced vinyl snobs. You could be one of the few people who know about some band, some sound. Those days are over, and the criticism that functioned along those lines is over as well. Before the Internet there was a tyranny of the top 40 charts—if you were stuck in the suburbs, you couldn’t escape it, and trying to was an important symbol of freedom to 1980s teenagers (when Blender readers apparently were not yet finished with their cribs).

When access to music was limited—when you couldn’t get the obscure records Rolling Stone writers discussed reverently just by going online, when you couldn’t find out about foreign or underground bands without digging deep into an archive of old magazines (people use to save rock magazines; I kept a stack of Spin magazines from 1985 for seven or eight years because the inofrmation in there seemed so precious and rare)—one had to appreciate the music one could get one’s hands on much more deeply, which invited an intensive close-reading style of criticism of those few albums—even if it was just in our heads, thinking how it was that these songs worked themselves into our minds so deeply, seeming almost to spur the events of our lives.

Now, in the age of pop gluttony, what we seem to be left with is list-making and promotional blurbs. The best we can hope to do is filter some of all that music all out. Slowly but surely, I’ll have my filters perfected, and I’ll enjoy pure silence.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

I’ll try to be reasonable and measured in my rhetoric in this post, but frankly, the whole notion of—the site where college kids post profiles of themselves for fellow college students—turns my stomach. The objectifying name, first of all, puts me off—I don’t want my face in a book (I’d rather just have words in there, I suppose). The idea of being an image in a human catalog seems about as dehumanizing a condition as I can think of—and so what if that’s in fact what our condition is. (If I were Kenny Rogers, I would just drop in to see what condition my condition was in.) And the thought that by design, this catalog is full of, in the words of a Facebook VP, “the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum of the 18-to-24-year-old age group” doesn’t settle my queasiness any. Facebook has the pretensions of being the country club MySpace, where the lesser orders need not apply and you can be sure of mingling with only the right sort of people—just like on the campus at Princeton. Just what we need, a site for rich kids at privileged schools to flaunt their advantages and show off to each other while the national media looks on—this week The New Yorker has an article about the site.

But at least the article afforded a few details that made me believe the author was eager to stick the knife in to the preening kids of Facebook—the college students come across as vain, shallow, inane, conformist, pretentious, selfish and gullible all at the same time. One of Facebook’s flacks tells John Cassidy, the author of the piece, that if you aren’t on Facebook, “you don’t exist” and students seem to believe this. Says one: “I tried to hold out and go against the flow but so many of my friends were members that I finally gave in.” (How many friends would have to jump off the proverbial bridge before he would? How many would have to be stoning an embassy before he would join in? What kind of reasoning is this?)
Cassidy reports how some students feel helplessly addicted to the site, logging time on it “obsessively”. Eventually these sites will be able to measure exactly how much time you spend watching your own profile and grooming it, and that information will likely prove very useful to advertisers down the road. Already ads are targeted to users based on what interests they list, and some users join corporate-sponsored groups voluntarily. (Cassidy here affords himself the opportunity to point out the hypocrites who belong to anti-corporate groups like “Not a Corporate Whore” and to groups sponsored by Apple.) Another student describes “agonizing” over what bands to list as his current favorites “I’m a musician: what I play and listen to has always been an important part of my identity.” Though I’m always arguing that people define themselves via pop music, it’s still sad somehow to see it so baldly stated. Aren’t there better ways to make your mark on the world than by being known as a fan of Babyshambles and Lady Sovereign? (Though what a marketing coup for another band the student names, Marxy, who by being mentioned in this article just got the most prominent advertising they will ever get.) One hopes this kid discovers politics, and starts staking his sense of self in that instead. At least it seems to matter a bit more in the grand scheme of things.

Though more than anything else, I sympathize with this student. Reducing yourself to a profile is a totally humiliating experience; it’s like hollowing oneself out. I know I wouldn’t want any of my actual friends looking at my canned profile on one of these “Me Media” sites because they would immediately know what utter bullshit it is. How can it not be; none of us can live up to some ideal notion of ourselves in front of other people, especially people who like us and pay attention to what we do. Any actual friend would immediately be able to highlight all the phoniness, no matter how earnest my attempt at self-description might be. These profile pages offer an embarrassing glance at one’s daydreams and posturings, it renders you shallow to those who probably know you more deeply. The idea of having a life online seems ultimately reductive in just this way: for all the promise of interactivity, it still seems to reduce you to an array of items you display on your 1-gigabyte shelf. You sell yourself in search terms and provocative photos, and you use site meters to measure your significance, and you compete to amass the largest number of “friends” as though it means anything. You can only have meaningful friendships with so many people, studies have placed the number, if I remember right, at about eight. (How’s that for crack research? Plucked that number out of thin air. I think I read about the studies in an Economist article a few weeks ago and I can’t find it now.) It seems a shame that has people racing to compile thousands and thousands of fake friends while neglecting those eight people who actually matter. Though these sites are often called “social networking” platforms, Cassidy cites a sociologist who reveals the truth about them: “It doesn’t have anything to do with networking at all. It’s voyeurism and exhibitionism.” One user tells Cassidy, “It’s a way of maintaining a friendship without having to make any effort whatsoever”—you just add someone to a list and you have performed your duty as friend. You get to feel like you have a lot of friends, without having to go through all that troublesome business of getting to know them or giving a shit about what they are up to. Instead you can think of them only insofar as they are looking at you and making your profile page seem more impressive. What else are friends for?

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Moses Avalon prides himself on being an industry insider who knows all the creepy in’s and out’s of the business.  He publishes books about and holds seminars to make sure naive musicians don’t get eaten up and chewed out by the industry.  Definitely a noble goal and he provides a good newsletter also.  A recent item he had caught my eye: CD Baby’s New Digital Deal Is Not What It Seems.  The article brings up the thorny issue of “digital distribution.”

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Via comes a link to this article, which explores recent developments in shopping research, including Jennifer Argo’s anthropological-style field studies from drugstores,

Argo’s research centres on the retail experience itself. Like an anthropologist in the field, she goes to stores and watches shoppers in the aisles. She even hires “mystery shoppers”—plants, in effect, who do nothing more than stand nearby and look at different products.

To analyze shoppers buying batteries, for example, she asked her mystery shoppers to stand at a rack looking at camera film located near a rack of batteries. There was no interaction between the battery shoppers and the film browsers. Argo wanted to know if the mere presence of another shopper affected a buyer’s choice. It did.

When anyone was standing beside the battery shoppers, most would buy the most expensive brand. If no one was there, they’d buy a cheaper brand; if there was a crowd of three or more, they would always buy the expensive brand.

Argo’s findings held up in three separate studies involving hundreds of shoppers and were published in the September issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
“It’s impression management—people don’t want to look cheap,” she says. “We will spend more money to maintain our self-image in front of others.”

It seems that in the store, in public, is one of the moments we feel most vulnerable. Does this mean it’s best to shop alone, in a state of hyper-efficient focus that obliterates the presence of others (shopping paranoid, as I recommended here, or does this simply underscore the fact that what we buy when we shop is not products but the approbation of others? There’s a defensive component to that as well—it depends on what you are more paranoid about, getting ripped off or looking like a cheap skate.

The article also explores neuromarketing, the brain-scanning science that tries to figure out what biological mechanisms are involved in purchase decisions, what part of our mind is engaged by brands. One neuromarketer admits, “We still haven’t found the buy button.” But it seems pretty troubling that they are looking for it. If retailers found such a button, it’s a sure thing that it would be pressed even more than the rats would press the lever for more cocaine in those addiction experiments. The whole notion of a trigger that could make a purchase irresistible evokes eternal questions of agency and desire—if the fulfillment of a “phony” desire provides real pleasure, who wins and who loses? What makes for a real desire anyway? If we are all brainwashed into loving Coca-cola, but the satisfaction we get from drinking it feels real, aren’t we glad we were induced to love it so much? The Matrix is the logical endpoint to such enquiries—if the whole world is fake but it feels real, what difference does it make? Maybe reality actually sucks.

The somewhat scary truth is that as much as we celebrate autonomy, we also enjoy being manipulated, whether it be by a tearjerking movie or an ad that makes us feel as though what kind of razor we buy is Important. Not to wax too psychoanalytic, but perhaps there is a primal, regressive allure in passivity that recalls for us a time when all our needs were attend to from without and we were free to react without any guardedness or suspicion. At certain moments in our shopping excursions we experience inklings of this perfect credulity, Wordsworthian “unremembered pleasures” that remove us from what is at stake in the economic exchange and shifts us to another resister of experience altogether, where we are contemplating the sweetness of surrender to the inherent benevolence of the mothering universe. I’m tempted to say the shopping mall has become our Tintern Abbey, but that’s probably more pithy than true.

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