Feature:: Your Music Is Awful Because…

May 1st 2013

This little hand-grenade of a piece from small Denver blog Your Music Is Awful landed in the FBi office last week, posing the question: “when did all the skinny jeaned, fedora clad 20 somethings of the world decide to get together and completely fucking neuter music?” Some light reading for a Friday morning, hey…

The piece by Kitty Vincent starts with the general premise that young musicians need to “grow a pair” because what we have today is an excess of “watered-down, vaguely 60’s or vaguely folk, mid-tempo, non-offensive, cutesy indie music”. She cites as proof, a milky year’s-end top ten from an unnamed blog. She goes on to blame an unchallenging, follow-the-leader blog culture for diluting the music and unleashing a wave of “eunuchs… with synths and tambourines”.

Damn fedora clad hipsters!

This is visceral, emotional stuff and in that way I kinda related to it, even if I didn’t agree with all of its bits. Namely the bits insinuating that all music is shit now; that you need to be sonically and socially abrasive to make worthwhile art; and that “Nirvana took over the world” just by wanting to make art that mattered to them and that no one since has been able to “recreate that energy”. This is a sweeping claim ignoring, among other things, the fact that Nirvana were making music in an industry context that is unrecognisable to today’s musicians. The underlying point though – that music criticism is sick and needs attention – is something we can agree on.


We come in peace

Firstly, I think the YMIA piece obscures its point by attacking bloggers themselves. I would say most people who start music blogs have some desire to foster a musical culture, at the very least they want to participate in one. Not many people would start a blog, work to secure interviews with local bands and write reviews every day because they consciously want to do harm. But while I do think that noble intent should exempt you from personal attacks, I am definitely not saying that just wanting to do good equals actually doing good.

These aspiring pop-culture aficionados all want to contribute, but many lack the critical tools to be effectively discerning. They are prematurely elevated by an emerging culture of politeness and an obliging digital infrastructure. Trusted journalistic voices honed by years of editorial rigour are now competing in the same space as every music fan with good intentions and an internet connection. This space, now flooded with sanitised pleasantries is what the YMIA piece is reacting to, and rightly so.


Nice guys finish somewhere in the middle

“This is where links are passed around, recommendations exchanged, news spread, contacts and friendships made. It is also where everyone is selling himself and where debate and dissent are easily snuffed… affirmation is the habitual gesture of the Internet. We like, favorite, and heart all day; it is a show of support and agreement, as well as a small plea for attention: Look at me, I liked this too. Follow back?”

In this great Slate.com article, Jacob Silverman is writing about literary criticism but he could just as easily be describing the politeness contract that seems to be binding all online discourse when it comes to the creative arts. It’s a tendency that has affected not only cultural commentators, but artists’ own online representations, demanding antiseptic gratitude and fraternity in exchange for the assurance one’s own work won’t be eviscerated. Social media and blog culture are increasingly resembling drum circles to me, absorbing the unignorable arrhythmia of an enthusiastic hippy with forced smiles all round.

Hey, I know: being nice makes people like you and that’s nice. Plus it immunises you from the threat of retaliation, which is particularly seductive here in Australia because there’s a sense that the music industry is so small that offending the wrong person could end up severely limiting your career. But working out of fear of excommunication from the creative community and of being painted as haters and villains is no way to live, and it’s definitely no way to help enrich a scene.


A fine line between pleasantry and pain

I am completely torn here, because a supportive community is of course so vitally important to a flourishing creative culture. But when, as Silverman puts it “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments”, you end up being at best desensitised and indifferent, and at worst darkly suspicious of online praise. The perpetual online state of being SO EXCITED OMFG about every gig, record, song or clip is such a desolately empty one. And it’s become the normative state now so you have to push yourself to even greater heights of pant-pissing hysteria just to show you genuinely like something. True passion is almost completely obscured in the wasteland of blind enthusiasm.

After watching a video of The Rubens covering The Seed 2.0 live, I was really struck by the exclusively glowing comments it attracted. I thought it was a mediocre rendition and I was sure I couldn’t be alone in thinking this but the online consensus (re: their entire ouvre really) was that they were totally awesome. Then I found this review of their 2012 album on Polaroids Of Androids. It’s scathing and at times pretty mean, but its vitriol seems directed more at a system rigged in favour of bands like the Rubens rather than the Rubens themselves. And while it was a relief to have found a dissenting voice my first instinct was that it went too far.

While there on the page, I clicked the ‘like’ button thinking I was just liking the blog itself but I was actually liking the article and publicising this fact on Facebook. When a friend castigated me in the comments, saying that jealousy would get me nowhere and that they were a local band topping the charts playing their own music and I should support that, I quickly unliked and explained my mistake saying I didn’t actually endorse that article. But in doing so I realised I’d tacitly accepted his premise, and I immediately regretted it. I did agree with him that the POA piece was too strident, but to say that being local and topping the charts with your own music should exempt you from criticism? That it should earn you automatic praise? I think this attitude is at the heart of what the YMIA piece calls the “neutering” of indie music and points to a culture that equates criticism automatically with insult.


Nothing personal

In the New York Times article that pointed me towards Silverman’s piece, Dwight Garner reflects on Marx’s conception of criticism:

“It doesn’t necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human.”

Criticism is important and it can be suppressed for only so long before it starts toxifying into taboo. And our disinclination to invoke the taboo; to call anything out as pedestrian, derivative or even just not quite there yet, will inevitably lower the standards we set for our art. Through lack of exposure to robust well-reasoned argument about music and art, maybe we’ve all lost the ability to talk honestly to each other about it without getting offended.

Ultimately, I think you should always feel able to say you don’t like something, but the onus is on you to interrogate why you don’t like it before you shitcan it on your blog. If you hate it just because it’s an earnest jangle-pop album that happened to drop during your Biggie phase, then be self-aware enough to make that distinction. But if you think it’s deficient in a way that has broader implications, in a way that shines a light on some greater truth about the culture and that bears closer investigation, then have a crack! We’ll all be better for it.


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