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Wednesday, Oct 11, 2006

Though I’m an occasional practitioner, I’m generally turned off by pop music criticism. Usually the critic must strain to establish the reliability and authority of his own tastes, when these are often arbitrary or determined by extra-musical considerations. The critic’s need to sound authoritative often becomes an end in itself, so that informing the audience about a piece of music becomes subordinated to the critic’s establishing her cultural capital through allusive flourishes and headlong rhetorical rushes and crafty phrasemaking. Many reviewers are extremely creative, but the creativity seems misplaced if not parasitical. It’s a bait and switch: you begin the review wanting to learn about a band or an album and end up regaled with the reviewer’s diaristic ramblings. The reviewer uses the review as a ruse to get you to pay attention to his raconteur performance. Often this is entertaining and informative, but it feels as if that happens by accident. When I was a teenager, access to music and music opinion writing was so limited that I would consume whatever I got my hands on, and probably gave it more credit than it deserved: the scarcity of column space made it seem that those who had it had some privileged insight into the workings of pop, that they had oracular wisdom. There’s no scarcity of column space now; now there’s a scarcity of attention that readers can pay to all the reviewing that’s out there. This superfluity, paradoxically, has produced the monopoly Matt Yglesias argues that Pitchfork now has over indie-rock taste formation. I suspect that the long tail of Internet opinion writing makes those few “hits” at the narrow head seem that much more important; the more options there are the less consumers want to experiment—a “paradox of choice” scenario. Yglesias explains it differently, citing the decline of local alternative weeklies:

Most categories of media used to rely on a handful of big players that dominated the scene. The Internet, by lowering the barriers to entry, lets more voices get at least some audience and you see a lot of fragmentation. But indie music was very fragmented back in the day thanks to alternative weekly papers. That particular brand of media has, however, been very hurt by the Internet. On the one hand, there’s less need for each town to have its own record critic and movie critic when the Web can distribute reviews nationwide at very low cost. At the same time, Craigslist has really undercut the classified advertising market. So we’ve seen the emergence of a single website with enormous market power—Pitchfork.
The barriers to entry, of course, are still low. But to prevent a rival from emerging, Pitchfork doesn’t need to be perfect—it just needs to be good enough. Which it is. Their taste is generally reliable. What’s more, however, there’s an assymetry to what kind of reliability matters. A website that regularly recommended bands that turned out to suck would be a real problem. You’d waste money on albums and shows that you didn’t enjoy. But if the website merely fails to recommend albums that are, in fact, good you won’t notice. You just won’t buy them. Instead, you’ll buy other things that they do recommend. And as long as those things are non-terrible, your life will proceed just fine—you’ll still have plenty of good music to listen to and there won’t be an incentive to seek out alternative opinions.

I don’t know if Pitchfork has this kind of hegemonic power or not, and I’m not sure there’s greater incentive to write negative reviews than positive ones, though perhaps the unlimited space and the emphaisis on a reviewer’s raconteurship, though, has made preliminary filtering—the selection of only interesting things to review—less significant and customary. Still, people turn to reviews for recommendations; they don’t need to be told what not to listen to. And there’s no pleasure in writing negative reviews. I’ve written plenty of them, but usually out of misguided sense that what I was doing was some kind of radical truth-telling about the nature of the culture industry. But truth has nothing to do with it. I thought it made me seem credible and uncompromised to be negative; but record reviews are no place to make the case that commercial music altogether should be stopped.

Writers, knowing that a positive review will be read more than a negative one and will likely be featured more prominiently on a site or on a metafilter-type aggregrator, have more incentive to review everything glowingly and manufacture hype. And I don’t think it hurts Pitchfork or Spin or anyone else to hype bad bands. People are quick to forgive misleading hype because they get a temporary joy from the excitement it infects them with and because it is so universally prevelant that they probably don’t bother to hold anyone in particular accountable for it. In fact, it seems Pitchfork rose to prominence on the strength of its breathless hype of bands that succeeded in becoming semipopular. A pop critics’ power may seem to come from piggybacking on some high-profile trends and being regarded as the herald of things that have brought pleasure. But because music’s ability to give pleasure is so arbitrary, I wonder if a critic’s power ultimately has nothing to do with predictive power and everything to do with how entertaining a raconteur he is on a consistent basis. In other words, Pitchfork is widely read because the reviews are funny, not because they are accurate. Trends in indie-rock popularity are likely driven more by TV music supervisors selecting songs for shows or perhaps MySpace momentum than by Internet critics. And most of all they are driven by the word-of-mouth maestros that Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point, who differ from writers, I think, in the amount of ego invested in the taste-making process.

In an interesting post at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell picks up on Yglesias’s observation of distorted incentives to make a slightly different point about the source of pop critics’ alleged power. Farrell cites Diego Gambetta’s work on the Sicilian Mafia in an effort to relate the arbitrarity of pop music criticism to the Mafia’s racketeering methods. Just as the Mafia must broker negative outcomes to chosen victims to demonstrate their power, so must critics advocate dubious art to assert their ineffable powers of discernment:

Critics serve to guarantee to the public that certain artists, certain music, is ‘good’ (there are a whole bunch of sociological questions about what constitutes ‘good’ in this sense that I don’t want to get into). But they also want to preserve their own role as critical intermediaries and arbiters of taste – in other words, they don’t want consumers to feel sufficiently secure in their own tastes that they can bypass the critic and formulate their own tastes about artists. Therefore, one could make a plausible case that critics have an incentive to inject certain amounts of aesthetic uncertainty into the marketplace, by deliberately writing reviews which suggest that bad artists are good, or that good artists are bad, so as to screw with the heads of the listening public.

I think critics lack the kind of leverage with consumers to make this work, but for those who have fallen into the trap of looking to “established” critics to foster their own taste’s legitimacy, this sort of strategy will keep them ensnared. I doubt critics consciously embark on such a nefarious plan—it’s not as organized as organized crime—but they probably excuse their abstruse choices as demonstrating their versatility or flexibility or personal growth as a critic rather than an effort to keep readers guessing. But it’s probably right that the motive lurking behind all pop-critic discourse is the need to justify the need for pop critics at all—they are always threatened by the fact that pop culture is made to be directly accessible by a mass audience without intermediaries, that its aim generally is to cater to broad, simple tastes. The pop critic wants always to obfuscate that if he wants to do anything other than filter.

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Wednesday, Oct 11, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Eric Bachmann —"Carrboro Woman"
From To The Races on Saddle Creek.
Returning home from tour to no commonly-defined home, Eric Bachmann largely wrote his new album, To The Races, in June and July of 2005 while voluntarily living in the back of his van. Bachmann made the best of the hospitable Northwestern summer by setting up home and shop in his vehicle, and found that living like a makeshift Siddhartha worked well for him: he used the time to craft the unadorned and unapologetically forthright collection of songs that compose his first Saddle Creek release.

The Awkward Stage —"The Morons Are Winning"
From Heaven Is For Easy Girls on Mint.
In a musical climate that has never been more artificial, commercialized, and commoditized, what with television commercials replacing record stores, radios, and live venues as the new medium by which new artists get discovered along with the whole American Idol phenomenon wherein we are shown the card trick, taught how it is done, shown how empty and vacuous the industry has become, and yet we still line up for more. For those of us feeling the cultural atrophy, and yet who enjoy good pop culture, The Awkward Stage is at the forefront of that return to quality and, quite simply, pop artistry.

Chin Up Chin Up —"This Harness Can’t Ride Anything"
From This Harness Can’t Ride Anything on Suicide Squeeze.
As anyone who’s lived there can tell you, the Midwest can be an unforgiving place. The winters are freezing, the summers are humid and it’s easy to feel landlocked by the vastness of earth in every direction. Chicago’s Chin Up Chin Up have successfully embodied that feeling with their second full-length, This Harness Can’t Ride Anything;  yet as bleak as things may appear, there’s a pervasive feeling of hope inherent in the band’s brand of avant pop which stretches further than the Windy City’s skyline.

Rafter —"Bicycle"
From 10 Songs on Asthmatic Kitty.
All the day-in-day-out experience of working with every conceivable genre/instrument/taste has created a Frankenstein richness that Rafter employs to grand effect. Electro-keyboard chug and gurgle is matched with wind/string flourish, raw drum melded with toy piano plink and banjo plunk. The wire that runs through and connects these disparate structures is a wide-openmindedness when it comes to style and sound, and a lyrical essence that more often than not trades the circuitous metaphor for the straightforward communique.

Jeremy Enigk—"Been Here Before"
From World Waits on Lewis Hollow.
The last time Jeremy Enigk, the singer and songwriter for emo-core pioneers Sunny Day Real Estate and The Fire Theft, released a solo album, Hilary was testifying about Whitewater, Dolly was being cloned, and the Ramones were about to play their last gig. It’s been awhile. If World Waits has more rock and less chamber texture than its predecessor, they both share a timelessness in sound that has roots in Enigk’s lifelong love for The Beatles, The Who and vintage U2.

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Tuesday, Oct 10, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro

The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.

Fire (1996)/ Earth (1998)/ Water (2005)
Color, Hindi
dir: Deepa Mehta
Inspired by Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs Trilogy, Deepa Mehta set out to make three films that would provide an unsparing look into the hypocrisies of Indian society.  Fire and Water concerned such thematically controversial topics as lesbianism and abuse of both the lower castes and women that they are still banned in India. Mehta forces contemporary India to explore they ways in which it justifies oppression and inequality, all in the name of religion. Narratively, Fire tells the story of a young woman trapped in a loveless arranged marriage who finds an emotionally and physically fulfilling relationship with her elder sister-in-law. Earth takes us to Lahore just before the traumatic 1947 partition of India and Pakistan and shows us the chaos of people being uprooted and displaced, and how generations of friendships forged between Hindus and Muslims, overnight, transform into murderous hatred as the city erupts in communal riots. Water, the final film in the series, casts light on the struggle of poor Hindu widows abandoned by their families to live a life of celibacy in overcrowded ashrams. All three films demystify the sacred values that Indians hold family, love, homeland, and identity. They give us a glimpse of all the insidious compromises and sins we are willing to commit in the name of duty and faith.

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Tuesday, Oct 10, 2006

When it comes to guns and butter, gimme margarine any day and not just ‘cause I hate to bite the bullet.  Considering that for the last six years, the Bush administration has indulged in gunboat diplomacy and still refuses to publicly admit how poorly it’s fared, I was intrigued to see this Washington Post article where it looks like they’re now taking baby steps to also initiative a soft option to win hearts and minds.  But I also wonder how successful cultural diplomacy would be now and what the perils are for the people who try to practice it now.

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Tuesday, Oct 10, 2006

Tim Harford’s column in Finanical Times this past weekend adopts the familiar economists’ argument that altruism is a convenient fiction, and that all behavior at some level is self-interested. “It is not that economists are incapable of imagining - or even modelling - altruism. They can, but they usually don’t. And there is a good reason for that: people aren’t selfless.” I don’t disagree necessarily: Yes people who do good get something out of it—the satisfaction of doing actions that others and themselves wil find meritorious. But I’m not sure what the point of such a case is, other than to make the argument that it’s no good to even make the effort to be anything other than selfish and to encourage people to spend less time rationalizing their selfishness or checking it. Is that what’s at stake? Is Harford wanting to espouse the Hayekian idea that altruism undermines price signals and makes it impossible for others to properly value what an economy requires? But generosity on the scale he’s discussing doesn’t really threaten spontaneous order. Is he perhaps at heart one of those Ayn Randians who think charity is actually detrimental, a patronizing impingement on the dignity of those you seek to aid? (“Those children with cerebral palsy don’t want your pity. Let them learn through hardship how to cure themselves.”) What’s wrong with wanting to impress people with how giving you can be? It may be a sneaky way of being ostentatious, but isn’t it better than buying a Lamborghini? (“Well, actually, the Lamborghini plant employs…”) The whole thing seems like a cheap way to be contrarian without making an especially clear point.

But I was most perplexed by this piece of econothink:

Even the way we choose to dole out cash betrays our true motives. Someone with ₤50 to give away and a world full of worthy causes should choose the worthiest and write the cheque. We don’t. Instead, we give ₤2 to the street collector for Save the Children, pledge ₤15 to Comic Relief, another ₤15 to Aids research, and so on. But ₤15 is not going to find a cure for Aids. Either it is the best cause and deserves the entire ₤50, or it is not and some other cause does. The scattergun approach simply proves that we’re more interested in feeling good than doing good.

I don’t follow this at all: why would wanting to support multiple causes call your sincerity in question? Is “authentic” charity really an all or nothing proposition? This is what comes, perhaps, when you are locked in to evaluating utility at the margins, or fixated on the logic that leads one to decide voting is pointless since the chances are astronomical that your vote will be decisive. There the logic is the same; one votes to make oneself feel better and to pretend to be a good citizen. But it’s not a pretence; these sorts of “useless” gestures establish important parameters for one’s behavior and elevates a principle of doing a virtuous activity for its own sake, not because one has rationally calculated the action that will be maximally efficacious. Donating money to several causes may demonstrate indecisiveness but it doesn’t imply self-satisfaction necessarily. Charitable impulses are necessarily haphazard, because they represent a flight from “rational” selfishness—the pleasure we take in them is in part how irrational they make us feel, disposing of Bataille’s “accursed share.” The altruistic move is the one that can never be modeled or predicted; thus it’s a way to reassert our human spontaneity in the face of institutions that increasingly anticipate, often to our delight, our every next move.

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