A fever to tell

by Rob Horning

7 February 2006


Generally I’m pleased when The New Yorker runs pop music criticism, because it helps legitimize what some still think is a juvenile predilection beneath the dignity of real surveyors of the cultural scene, but when the magazine runs pieces of toadying hype like Sasha Frere-Jones’s (who’s generally very insightful) recent story about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it sets perceptions backward and reaffirms the notion that pop doesn’t yet warrant serious criticism or an audience for such criticism because those who are interested in it just want to read and write PR for their favorite crushes.

I have nothing against this particular band (though I never have understood what the fuss is). And maybe its new album is as impressive as Frere-Jones wants us to believe—but I’ll never know now, because I’ve been blind-sided by hype where I didn’t expect it and will thus have my skeptical guard up, will look for holes in the hyperbolic claims made for the record rather than hear it for what it is—if such a listening is even possible. What bothers me is the uncritical perspective that in advance sanctions and celebrates every gesture the band makes and fails to support such claims with anything other than bald assertions of what we must take as the reviewer’s good taste. The telltale rhetorical moves: (1) unqualified observations that slide right into hyperbole—“Like everything the Yeah Yeah Yeahs do, the show was both off-kilter and mesmerizing.” Everything? Don’t listen to their songs while you are walking around, you might walk smack into a telephone pole in your mesmerized stupor. Another example: “Chase ... is one of rock’s most satisfying drummers; he is capable of complicated polyrhythms but rarely plays anything fussy.” That describes every session drummer who has ever been hired. Are they all the most satisfying drummers as well? The problem is the unqualified superlative “most”—it’s pure hype. (What’s with Frere-Jones’s fixation on drummers—in the same issue he calls the Arctic Monkeys’ drummer “the most limber dummer of his class.”) The same problem adheres to the penultimate point of the article—“In her recordings and her live performances, she satisfies the audience’s need for a star while allowing us to see the ordinary person struggling in that role.” The same could be said of many performers—it’s true of pop music in general—so it doesn’t really illustrate anything about this band. But it’s not supposed to; it’s instead articulated in that breathless way that characterizes the entire review, sounding profound enough to satisfy a sense that significance has been established without really specifying the significance. It’s great if you already believe or want to believe that this band is important, but offers nothing if you don’t. (2) Reference to sales figures as a way of authenticating the band’s talent: “The group has sold half a million records, in part because the video for ‘Maps,’ a stirring love song that is as close as the band gets to a ballad, has become a staple on MTV2.” It’s unlikely that Frere-Jones means to cite MTV2 as a cultural arbiter, yet he needs to inflate the band’s significance with numbers because his uncritical love for it is such that he is at a loss for superlatives that do it justice—so really big numbers help. Though he does slip in something that mars most pop-music writing, the unsubstantiated hyperbolic adjective that has specific meaning: the “stirring love song.” Why stirring? What does it stir, and whom, and how? Those questions, which can only be asked if you doubt a band’s automatic genius, if your goal is to scrutinize and analyze rather than celebrate and promote—are nicely evaded by the well-placed adjective. (3) Simillar to the unsubstantiated adjective is the contradiction that intends to testify to the band’s complexity: of singer Karen O’s performance style: “It was a typical performance for her: simultaneously aggressive and vulnerable.” Not a bad observation to raise as a lunching-off point, but Frere-Jones doesn’t mean to investigate that, he just wants to assert it so you’ll be swept along into thinking the band is interesting in general. So no explanation is given about how this is achieved or what it even means. (4) When a pop critic beats you over the head with how much fun a band is, then you know that critic is on shaky rhetorical ground. “Their songs—like their performances—have all the traits of Top 40 hits: economy, momentum, personality, and pleasure. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs value joy over indie credibility.” (Maybe Frere-Jones is getting a little complacent—in the Arctic Monkeys piece he describes their singer as having “personality” in the same unexplained way. Don’t we all have personalities? Is it a capacious personality? Is he magnetic? Why? He scurries down the same blind alley when he talks about Karen O’s charisma.) Never mind that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though they make such pleasing simulacrua of Top 40 hits aren’t on Top 40 radio, and leave aside the hackneyed idea of “indie credibility,” which has had no meaning now for a decade. (Indie has long since referred to a band’s sound, not its position relative to the means of production. Death Cab for Cutie, with a top 5 record on a major label, is called indie.) Indie credibility is just a tired trope that is dragged out to hype a band—either the band is presumed to have it because a PR writer asserts it or is alleged to have transcended it. But what is so egregious about this passage is the idea that the band is doing something really unusual by seeking to provide “joy.” The implication is that if you don’t like this band, you are against “pleasure” and “joy,” that you “value” something else. Framing the band’s appeal as a matter of pleasure makes it strictly a question of taste, impossible if not pointless to analyze or argue about. When pop critics evoke “joy” and “pleasure,” what they mean is “don’t think about this too much, don’t analyze, just enjoy it”—which is basically what our society asks of its citizens in order to keep them compliant; it’s why society presents the convenience of not having to think as a kind of ur-value, a Holy Grail. Critics erect the fun shield around their favorite bands to deflect criticism or inquiry into what they do or why they do it and in doing so trivialize the whole notion of pop criticism in the first place. People who think pop music is unworthy of investigation dismiss pop by saying it’s just silly, empty entertainment. When pop critics say the same thing, it doesn’t help the cause. (Not surprisingly, this line is used as the caption for the photograph, in which the band makes arty poses. Don’t worry, this tells readers, this band won’t really challenge you. They may look like art students, but unlike those dour and annoying artists, they like “joy.”) At the end of the article, the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s share the essence of their joyous mission: ” ‘It’s important for kids to feel bigger than they usually do,’ Karen O told me. ‘We’re trying to make you feel a little bit cooler than you might actually be.’ ” Hey, thanks Karen O. That’s really thoughtful of you. (Note also how Frere-Jones can’t resist the “told me” construction that positions him as a co-conspirator, helping make kids feel cool when in fact they both know they are hopeless dorks without the music of Karen O.) (5) As subjective as joy is “charisma”: “Both men need to be this good to hold their own against Karen O, whose fearsome charisma would have made her a success had she appeared with nothing more than a microphone and a pair of maracas.” Charisma allows critics to claim a power for a performer without having to explain that power. Doubtless, charisma exists, but it’s a claim that can’t be supported with words. So it’s subject to critical abuse; it, like its critical synonym, personality, can be invoked to short-circuit disagreement and avoid difficult assessments. But it’s essentially meaningless—both the Arctic Monkeys and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have it, but they are very dfifferent sounding bands, and he doesn’t bother to tell us what the nature of that difference is in terms of their contrasting appeals. They just both have “personality”—meaning, presumably, we are just supposed to accept that the singers are appealing and “cool”. Why? Because that’s already been decided, that’s why the piece has been commissioned and is being published in the first place.

Like “joy,” “charisma” seems to admit no analysis and thus serves as another device to keep hype flowing unchecked by skepticism or careful consideration. Don’t mind her substance, such a claim implies, just let her “personality” supply “momentum” so that you can be swept up into “joy.” This may be the essence of pop culture experiences—millions are carried away and unified as an audience by the collective pleasure a performer provides—but the task of criticism is not to replicate that churn but to halt it mid-sweep and figure out why it has manifested itself in this particular configuration. Being a critic at some level means standing in that crowd and outside of it simultaneously. Frere-Jones is lost in the crowd here.

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