‘Best Music Writing 2010’ Ought to Be a Collection of Risks

[5 December 2010]

By Robert Loss

Ultimately, anything worthwhile gained from music writing emerges from what it risks. After all, the music has already done its job of either enticing or appalling the listener. A simple rehashing of the song, of the album’s making, of what’s already been said—these tactics risk little by adding little. When a critic ventures into an obscure topic, or a journalist dives past the easy surface of a profile, or when a writer dares to craft an opinion with some detail and personality, the risk begins to grow. Some will be unhappy, taking any utterance of opinion as a claim to absolute authority, and some writers indeed go that route. Too many, perhaps. They, too, aren’t risking very much when they write as if the story has already been written, as if everyone already agrees on the why and the how.

Best Music Writing 2010 ought to be a collection of risks, and in flashes, it is. This annual anthology edited by Daphne Carr and a revolving guest editor—this year, Ann Powers, chief pop critic for the LA Times—continues to rebuke those academics and writerly peers who still question the legitimacy of pop music writing. The anthology also reflects the growing impact of a subgenre regarded with even more skepticism: the pop music blogosphere. If you’re reading this at PopMatters, my hunch is that you’re not too skeptical. Maybe you even believe that the mainstream pop media nestles comfortably in the pocket of corporate record labels and that online sources are more authentically of, for, and by the people. Best Music Writing 2010 should only complicate the picture, since some of its best entries are from both camps, as are some of its worst.

Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions. Maybe instead of focusing on where the writing comes from, we ought to ask what it’s saying and how it says it. What Best Music Writing 2010 does best is showcase the vast diversity of opinions, forms, styles and subjects at work in the music world: Phillip S. Bryant’s lush verse-memoir “Stompin’ at the Grand Terrace” (excerpted from the eponymous book); Nikki Darling’s “Appropriate for Destruction” which combines teenage fantasy, grad-school analysis and gut-punch description of gender and sexuality as it revolves around its inamorata, Axl Rose; the oral history of Nas’ Illmatic, published in XXL; Michelle Tea’s blend of reportage, personal essay and queer theory in “The Gossip Takes Paris”. Few magazines or websites in our increasingly silo-structured information age can achieve the anthology’s scope.

Occasionally new media assists new form, as in Mary Gaitskill’s “Lady Gaga in Hell”. Situated directly below the embedded YouTube video for “Poker Face” on Ryeberg.com, Gaitskill’s original post possessed an immediacy and vibrancy lost in the reprinted version, here, but the writing is still extraordinarily sharp:

…her face is heavy as a meat puppet or a painted mask with a card stuck between its teeth, a thing made by crude animation to flick the card from its lips onto the table or raise its arm in a wide arc and bring the card down while other holograms dance around it in fevered jerking motions.

Gaitskill’s writing is so poetic in its density and focus that she avoids the triteness plaguing so many brief online entries, despite throwing in a couple William Blake quotes about the soul. Tavia Nyong’o avoids banalities through sheer willpower and finesse. In his brief essay for Bully Bloggers about Adam Lambert, his debut album For Your Entertainment and the 2009 performance of the title song on the AMAs, Nyong’o examines contemporary queer theory and its intersections in popular culture, as discontent as Lambert with “the stultifying norms that increasingly pervade what passes for queer culture these days”. His essay is the epitome of strong cultural criticism.

Again and again, the medium matters less than the thought coursing through a piece of writing. You could have read Robert Christgau’s interesting but slack appraisal of Brad Paisley on Barnes & Noble Review and not been moved, I suspect, to immediately purchase one of Paisley’s records. Even if you found Hua Hsu’s engrossing essay “The End of White America?” in The Atlantic, you might still wonder if it talks enough about music to merit inclusion here. While Greg Tate’s superb piece on Michael Jackson’s legacy was published in the Village Voice, Jason King’s essay on the same subject was originally sent, Powers reports, in an email. Both are rich reminders of Jackson’s cultural impact beyond the tabloids and the breathless idol worship, though King’s essay better reminds us of the history behind the image and the sound. That both stem from the moment of Jackson’s passing (all of the volume’s inclusions were published in 2009) is even more remarkable.

Other timely, brief, usually online responses to a trending topic don’t fare so well and have nothing to do with where they were published. Maura Johnston’s “Kanye West: Back to Reality?” is two-thirds commentary on her Idolator post, most of it giggling and pleased with itself. I suppose this is meant to be a kind of sociological portrait, but it fails to unearth anything interesting. The same can be said for Chris Willman’s twee and slick piece on Bob Dylan’s Christmas album for New York Magazine, which is full of lines like “Dylan’s being Bing again, not born-again”. Willman writes near the end of his article that “Dylan’s vocals, for all their constant playfulness, have never betrayed much emotion”. Really. “Idiot Wind”, “Blind Willie McTell”, “Love Sick”: these are clearly playful, yet devoid of emotion?

Champions of online culture like to poke sticks at the troubled state of “fallen-tree” magazines like Rolling Stone, but where else can you discover profiles like Jason Fine’s “The Fighter: The Life and Times of Merle Haggard”? Like Hopper’s portrait, or even Philip Mlynar’s powerful sketch of 50 Cent, Fine’s piece benefits from a compelling, complicated subject, true—but it’s the time covered by the feature and the sources consulted (Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, and very importantly, Haggard’s family) that reveal anew the many sides of Merle Haggard: dope-smoker, libertarian, family man, outlaw, social critic, specialist in the working man’s heartbreak. You finish the profile as you would finish a good novel: transported, awakened, grateful for the ride.

As is often the case, the profiles and reportage are a highlight of the anthology, including Geoffrey Himes’ “BeauSoleil: BeauBrothers” and Randall Roberts’ absorbing account of LA band Ozomatli’s US government-sponsored tour in Burma. Both articles parse fine distinctions about genre and politics—overt and subtle—while relying on the insights of the musicians. These are followed by the fascinating story of David Bazan, former frontman of Christian indie-rock crossovers Pedro the Lion. In Jessica Hopper’s piece for Chicago Reader, Bazan returns to the Christian music festival Cornerstone as a modern-day Thomas whose message of doubt and committed desire to ask the hard questions about faith conflicts with his past work’s impact and the young festival attendees who, Hopper writes, “gently bait him, referring to scripture the way gang members throw signs, eager for a response that will reveal where Bazan is really at.”

By design or chance, this trio of profiles proceeds and dwarfs what should be a centerpiece of the collection, Nitsuh Abebe’s “The Decade in Indie”, written for Pitchfork. Abebe’s personable sermon is a trend piece posing as historical overview of not only indie from 2000 to 2009, but its roots in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Apparently there is a group of people who debate whether indie should be loud and experimental or soft and insular. Or something. Writing about trends demands copious generalizations, and here qualifiers like “more or less” and “tended to be” and “everyone” abound, sapping the essay of its usefulness:

…those years saw indie types paying more attention to things outside the indie world…. People embraced house acts, got excited about the possibility of ‘dance punk,’ dabbled with underground rap. At first, plenty of folks derided these trends as faddish, embarrassing, or somehow even elitist, like the people who went for them were trying to fool someone. But as far as I can tell, things changed.

Things tend to do that. Why those changes matter is ignored. It doesn’t help that the essay is written in a perfect blend of that extremely high and low diction common to the blogosphere. The former element demands to be taken seriously, the latter apologizes for the former. Thus Abebe can write about “the neutral reading versus the visceral tooth-grinding hate-that-stuff feeling” and cheerlead about why he’s “really, really excited about what might happen to indie over the next decade”. At times Abebe’s essay reads like he’s trying to talk you back from a cliff, and sometimes it reads like he’s got this Kool-Aid he really, really wants you to try.

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.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/134211-best-music-writing-2010-ed.-by-ann-powers/