'Best Music Writing 2010' Ought to Be a Collection of Risks

by Robert Loss

5 December 2010


Christopher Weingarten’s Cry in the Wilderness

All of this softens any argument, any risk. On the other end of this spectrum, then, is the invective rant of Christopher Weingarten in his speech “Twitter and the Death of Rock Criticism”, originally delivered to the 140 Characters Conference in June 2009. While Abebe’s essay is proof we’ve come to a place where music writing is increasingly specialized—diverse, but segregated—and where indie rock critics speak to indie rock fans with no need to win over the converted, Weingarten’s speech rails against the complacent shallowness of that passive specialization.

After outlining how traditional music media waned in the face of sites like this one and then blogs, Weingarten boils down the instant gratification available to anyone with a reasonably fast internet connection, all of which has made us obsessed with speed of coverage at the expense of critical thinking. “So, one of the unfortunate side effects of the lack of critic culture,” he says, “is that people are getting more stratified and separated in their listening habits”. He’s describing what’s often referred to as the silo effect, narrow chutes of information which are aided by the accessibility and ease of the Internet. Complexity has given way to the style tag. Have we always excelled at identifying sub-sub-genres, or did our iPods make us this way?

Numerous bloggers missed the point of Weingarten’s cry in the wilderness, seizing on his declaration that bloggers were going to drive him out of work—why pay him when they can do it for free?—and generally tsk-tsk-ing his abrasive, David Cross-like style. (Style, after all, is easily criticized.) After Weingarten’s repeat performance at this year’s 140 Characters, a SXSW panel was proposed for next year entitled “Curatorial Culture: The Case Against Christopher Weingarten”, ostensibly to explain how the internet is so good for bands. But Weingarten never condemned the technology itself, only what we do with it. His own Twitter account, @1000TimesYes, wherein he’s reviewing entire albums within the strict confines of a 140-character-limited post, actually enacts that brevity so many decry in the blog world.

Though there’s plenty of good reason avoid it, I find it impossible not to compare these two screeds. At the risk of putting words into Weingarten’s mouth, “The Decade in Indie” seems to typify the problem he sees in online writing. When Abebe discusses why, the answers are so generalized as to seem completely inarguable, even if they’re founded on the wrong questions. More often the essay obsesses over not the substance of the music but its definition and its popularity, with an incredibly painful self-consciousness about whether or not it’s okay to like the music you like. Abebe’s take on collective trends reveals what we’re really worried about: ourselves and the cool kids. Is the music fresh? (In two pages Abebe uses some variation of the phrase “fresh air” five times.) Do we fit in? Are we any good if we don’t? In other words, middle school.

Weingarten’s jeremiad begs us to ask those rare questions of why and how, and warns against the assumption that the story has already been told in a way everyone agrees with. Describing his experience at Bonnaroo and the copious Twittering going on, Weingarten writes of the posts:

And it was all very self-centered.  I’m having a great time.  I’m having so much fun…. And no one was trying to convince anyone to see anything.  No one said why.  No one said why these bands were great.  No one stopped to say, “Everyone at #bonnaroo, you should see my favorite band because….” And that’s what we’re missing in a world without critics, the “because .”

When we are hyper-concerned with fitting in, or simply feed from the same information silo, divergent opinions become risky or simply cease to matter. Though Weingarten may be right about the majority, Best Music Writing 2010 offers more than a few examples of writers straining for the “because” and pushing beyond the simplified answers devoid of risk.

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