Today was a transitional one (and a holiday here in the U.S., Presidents Day – a third-tier holiday, but still a day off), and I spent most of my time around the house adjusting to the London-to-NYC time change. Now watching a mysteriously acclaimed film called “The Master,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
The soundtrack, by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, is reminiscent of that that accompanied another Anderson film, “There Will Be Blood,” which Greenwood also scored. Radiohead the band never did that much for me – too anodyne, too acclaimed by Internet trolls – but Greenwood’s soundtrack work is nicely asynchronous – it doesn’t go with the action on-screen and instead sort of becomes its own imaginary plot line.
The music over the opening beach and ship scenes, for instance, makes me think of a dance occurring in the desert, which obviously isn’t what’s unfolding on the screen. In a way, the Greenwood soundtrack is a throwback to the silent movie era, in which music dominated the proceedings because dialogue didn’t exist. It’s like he is dragging music from another era into the present, which is perfect for “The Master”‘s blend of meticulous 21st century film making and portrayal of a bygone era.
1998 feels like a million years ago, maybe because it was the last year that I felt like a child the whole year. I turned 12 and I remember the University of Kentucky Wildcats winning the national championship in men’s college basketball, which made me so happy.
1998 was also the year that I realized that I liked to read and write. Amazingly, I probably read more books that year than in any year before or since. I remember tearing through “The Lord of the Rings” in a week, reading seemingly half of Stephen King’s corpus over the summer and eventually getting into Tom Clancy and Charles Dickens in the fall.
That year was also the year the movie “The Big Lebowski” was released. I didn’t see it at the time, but it has since become one of my favorite films. I won’t attempt to add to the body of criticism about it – in part because I’m no longer in the business of writing reviews – and I’ll only add that I have a physical copy of the screenplay that my brother for some reason picked up off of a vendor in Manhattan. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie’s plot or legacy, just check out its IMDb page sometime.
Anyway, throughout the movie, Jeff Bridges’ character – nicknamed The Dude – indulges in many stereotypical stoner-hippie habits, from smoking marijuana to listening to a distinctive combination of Creedence Clearwater Revival (while driving stoned), whale songs, and – for some reason this always bowled me over – a cassette tape labeled “1989 league semifinals,” which is just the sound of bowling balls striking pins. The Dude is no “Rolling Stone” or Pitchfork.com critic.
Outside of “The Big Lebowski,” Jeff Bridges has had an interesting relationship with music. He starred in “Crazy Heart,” for which he won an Oscar for portraying a country music star, singing many of the songs from the film’s Academy Award-winning soundtrack. He released his own eponymous country album in 2011. This year, he released a follow-up of sorts called “Sleeping Tapes.”
The album is presented as a sleep aid but it is far too funny and unpredictable and experimental to serve as one. One of the more memorable numbers early on involves him explaining how he likes to hum while getting ready to act and that his makeup guy get a kick out of the tunes he hums. He then hums out the word “hummm” for several minutes in a surprisingly tuneful, almost vaguely Goa trance-y way. It’s like a Frank Zappa album that’s actually humorous.
There are lots of spoken word pieces, including one called “The Hen” in which he explains that a saxophonist he knew used to keep eggs of Silly Putty in his pockets and so acquired his avian nickname. The music, as it is, goes in and out, with some piano and what sound like Tibetan prayer bowls and other typically New Age instruments.
In the centerpiece, the 11-minute long “Temescal Canyon,” he wonders aloud if he and the audience should just be crows that could fly over the canyon. He sees a hiker, think he’s probably named “Steve or Neil” and shouts out to this “Neil” and gets a wave back, happy that his guess about the hiker’s name was accurate. He then ruminates on how “freeway’ is a great word.
As the album wraps up, Bridges muses about the relaxing sound that water makes when it fills up a toilet tank. So, back to “The Big Lebowski,” which of course has an early scene in which a character is dunked in a toilet to make him talk. It feels like “Sleeping Tapes” is life (it presents itself as a window into his daily routines) imitating art, with Jeff Bridges taking on the persona of Jeffrey Lebowski to narrate and, well, hum his way through an album chock-full of the New Age mysticism, fake philosophy and distinctive voice intonations that made Bridges’ character so memorable.
It’s almost like an audio-only sequel to the movie. During the last number, he says “you aren’t asleep yet?” and recommends replaying the album which I’m pretty sure won’t help anyone doze off. I listened to it twice today already during a walk through Forest Park in Queens and figure I’ll be coming back to it many more times, sleepy or not.
Look out: Death From Above
Last year, Canadian band Death From Above 1979 (their name, if you’re curious, was created at the last minute so as to dodge legal action from DFA Records) released a record called “The Physical World.” It came 10 years after their only other record, 2004’s “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine.” In the intervening years, I had attended college, moved from Providence to Chicago and gone through a slew of jobs en route to my current gig. The band didn’t know these facts, of course; the record sounds like it could have been recorded back during that same autumn as the debut, when George W. Bush was facing off against John Kerry in the U.S. presidential election.
In 2004, if I wanted to explore music, I would take the 30 minute walk from my dorm to the Newbury Comics in the city mall. Web services like Ares were available for downloading MP3s for free, but I didn’t want to risk it on the university network. I saw a lone copy of “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine” one day and picked it up, having really only heard the band’s name on Pitchfork, not intending to buy in when I went down there, and only nudged into doing so by seeing it at that moment.
By 2014, this mix of ritual – the walk downtown with iPod in tow – and impulsiveness seems ancient. Finding “The Physical World” on the Internet, legally or otherwise, takes seconds. The only chance to “bump into” it, like one would in a record store, is now limited to seeing in a YouTube sidebar or having it come in after many other similar-sounding songs on a socially curated Spotify playlist.
If nothing else, the Internet – if there is any really single, organic “Internet,” rather than just an amalgam of the globe-spanning properties of American companies like Google and Facebook, bankrolled by advertising dollars and venture capital, and threatening professional death from above for publishers and artists everywhere – has in such ways offered to replace many of our social experiences with what basically amount to simulations. Often, words like “easy,” “convenient,” and “at your fingertips” justify the change – don’t walk to the record store, here’s everything Death From Above 1979 have ever recorded, right at your fingertips!
“Social”: What came after 1979
But how social is the Internet? The question comes off as both tone-deaf (where have you been during the last 10+ years of social media?) and Ted Stevens-y (he once called the Internet a series of tubes, which was widely lampooned but accurate in a strange way). The social dimension of the Internet – its impact on conversations, sharing, etc. – seems undeniable.
I recently listened to the first episode of the podcast “Upvoted,” from reddit, the self-proclaimed front page of the Internet. The story was about a man, named Dante, who had gone to prison for drug offenses, getting a much shorter sentence than he expected after a right-wing judge presiding over his proceedings was injured and replaced by a Clinton appointee. During his time in prison, he mastered drawing and sometimes sketched out what an iPhone looked like for prisoners who had been incarcerated so long that their last experiences with a computer was via Windows 95.
Near the end of the podcast, one of Dante’s friends talked about how justice was not meted out equally, not only across demographics but across Internet users. He asserted that kids who were less social and who didn’t have a lot of friends but instead hung out all day on the Internet were somehow at greater risk of punishment. I thought:
- Isn’t the entire Internet “social?” Isn’t that what has driven so many startups to record-setting valuations and fueled the ambitions of Facebook to connect every last person on the world to a website? Isn’t its difference from the physical world the notion that anyone and everyone is just a tap away, rather than cordoned-off from communications or in a faraway place? Isn’t the presence of these so-called awkward kids on a website like reddit (of all places) just the digital version of an analog community (to use a stupid digital dualism crutch) and somewhat of a problem for labeling these people as “not social”?
- What if, though, that guy from the podcast was right, that whatever “social” experience the Internet was ultimately providing wasn’t ultimately an equivalent of, nor a replacement for, what had come before in terms of “social” – the in-person social activities, or even the private rituals like record buying? What if the Internet had just as much reinforced the positions of the naturally sociable (in much the same way that it has come to entrench huge corporations, the top 1 percent of music artists, and millionaires and billionaires more generally) as it had given introverts/shy nerds/whatever label you like more freedom? What if all of the Internet’s activities really were just simulations that couldn’t overcome issues like inequity in justice?
The 1979 in Death From Above 1979’s name is the year before the Millennials generation is generally agreed upon to begin. People born from 1980 onward came of age at the same time as any number of Internet-reliant technologies. For me, born in 1986, it was the Web browser, which came into its own when I was about 10 years old, paving the way for social networks just a few years later.
The first social network I used was naturally MySpace, then Facebook in July 2004, not long before “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine” came out. I guess I’m one of the earliest users of Facebook and that I’ve explored its feature more than most (e.g., using Skype to see the entire News Feed, not just the EdgeRank-filtered results). All of this expertise and experience has done nothing to make me a “social” person in the physical world (“real life,” I guess, though I don’t like that phrase since it has so much baggage). My time on Facebook, in other words, hasn’t given me the social high or prestige that I would need to avoid what that one podcast speaker had deemed the demographic disadvantage of shy, Internet-addicted kids.
Everything on Facebook isn’t really the physical me. I don’t make long speeches in person that are equivalent to my Facebook comments. I don’t leer at faces the ways I stare at images. I don’t try to find out what news articles, lists, and videos someone at the restaurant I’m in is interested in. I don’t have anything resembling a “network” (in recruiter-speak) of actual, contactable people that maps to my list of Facebook “friends.”
The same mostly holds for reddit. Reading posts in the Bitcoin and Nintendo subreddits are ways to waste time rather than reflections of what I really think about when I’m out walking or in bed. I would never make some of the comments I had made were the interlocutor standing in front of me (this is the tragedy of Internet comments, which are still good for something though).
You’re a Man, I’m an Internet Social Network
For someone who is not naturally social or sociable, the Internet – in this case, social media sites and forums like the ones discussed here – can be dispiriting. It’s possible to make new friends or relationships on the Internet (I met my spouse this way after all) but it’s also possible to have a good email exchange or emailed job application torpedoed once other forms of communication – a phone call or meet-up – enter the picture. The latter example deserves a post all of its own, but I’ll just say that Internet job postings paradoxically give everyone and no one a chance – volume is often so high that candidates who have put in more legwork in the physical world – met the right people, gone to the right seminars – are best differentiated.
Likewise, having scores of LinkedIn contacts or Facebook friends doesn’t necessarily give one an advantage in physical world situations in which cronyism, who-do-you-know, it’s-always-been-like-this, and you-can’t-sit-with-us still rule the day. And then there’s the way in which a friend’s Facebook photo at some famous monument makes us feel like we’re missing out (on physical activities and places, mostly), or some listicle about how we all need to be more “spontaneous” (i.e., insane), which of course would require a lot of activity beyond just being on the Internet all day – despite its often-cited deep “social” character.
It feels like the Internet is still a poor map of the physical world and many of the behaviors – secret meetings, hard labor, conversations that involve more than texts and “…” [this person is typing] balloons – that made it the way it was. This includes even “inefficient” processes like walking to some store to buy a Death From Above 1979 album (or, even further back, a copy of Windows 95!) – the time I spent doing that is now “saved” so that I can just waste it straight away on BuzzFeed or getting to the top of the Twitter stream. Moreover, by only giving us, in most cases (not all), simulations, it really can subtly weaken people who aren’t predisposed to being social, by giving them the illusion that they can change (“disrupt” would be the cliché word choice here) things and get ahead, when they’d probably have a better chance of doing so by just taking a walk outside and buying whatever they wanted to.
I can still listen to “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine” anywhere I go, just as I can do with “The Physical World.” If I hadn’t had the longwinded physical world experience of the former, though, who knows if the band or album would be special to me at all a decade later, or if I would have taken the 30 minutes to write this…
deadmau5’s career has been a recurring topic on this blog. I was inspired to write one of my most successful posts ever, about authenticity in EDM, by deadmau5’s occasional orneriness on Twitter and the perception by some amateur DJs that the giant Canadian mouse head guy had lost his artistic integrity by confessing to the “just press play” ethos, whereby a DJ doesn’t mix live but instead uses prerecorded/sequenced material during a live set. I also used the album cover of “While (1 <2)” in a recent post about “greatness,” and deadmau5 is always close to mind when I write about criticism of EDM.
Albums and sets
When “While (1 < 2)” came out in mid-2014, deadmau5 called it his first real album. For sure, it had all the clichéd trappings of an album: crossfaded songs, recurring themes (he had six songs with names corresponding to the Latin words for the seven deadly sins; weird how he didn’t just do songs for all seven), and protracted moods. Plus, it was a double-disc/triple-LP affair – who has the patience for such a collection in the era of Spotify? It was like deadmau5 was doing a rock n’ roll opus.
A big part of what made “While (1 < 2)” memorable for me was how it seemed to filter the spontaneity of EDM – the experience of it – through the lens of art rock, creating something that seemed like EDM on the surface, but had a whole other layer of controlled pacing and experimentation beneath. There were splashes of piano, alt-rock guitars, and even a remixed Nine Inch Nails song. It was an album that basically begged to be reviewed, more so than something like his 2006 debut, “Get Scraped.”
The latter is unique in the deadmau5 catalog, since it seems to be neither a coherent album-like statement nor something that could pass as a mainstream DJ set (like 2008’s For Lack of a Better Name, for instance). Within the first three songs, it goes from an Oakenfold-esque track with radio call-in intro (“The Oshawa Connection”) to a 90s trance revival (“Intelstat”) to a vocoder’d-up acoustic number (“Careless”) which is reprised later with the redundant title of “Careless (Acoustic).” Then there’s “Unspecial Effects,” which has the strings and ominous keys of, say, the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack.
The album, such as it is, has no flow and plays more like a mixtape or an un-danceable DJ set. I mean, imagine going to a club that played “Waking Up From the American Dream,” with all of its sprightly keyboards. Looking back at “Get Scraped” and all of this randomness, it becomes clearer why deadmau5’s later work seems more significant. That is, he’s been trying more and more with each release to create something that pushes back against the free-flow, every listener for him/herself culture of EDM – seen well enough on “Get Scraped” – in which one person’s favorite song is another person’s song that that just gets a press of the “>>” or “next” button because it doesn’t suit the mood.
Albums and criticism
In a way, by going for increasingly coherent albums (“While (1 < 2)” is the peak of this direction) he’s reversing the overall trend toward the removal of the album as the central unit of music consumption. One could easily cut up and scrape up different bits of “Get Scraped” into a more listenable album than the original; not so much with “4×4=12” or “<album title goes here>.” I’m reminded of what music journalist Ned Raggett wrote in 1999, when compiling his list of 136 favorite albums of the decade:
“The album model is not set in stone, but a creation of the technologies and limitations available in the mid-century: how much you could fit on any one side of a vinyl slab, the attendant size of the product and need to create art or design works of that size, and so forth. As much as vinyl fetishists kicked against the compact disc dominance of the last two decades, CDs at least fit a familiar listening model still. The rise of this new model, which like every other musical medium will get increasingly cheaper and with wider access for both purchasing and actual creation of music, is a much different kettle of fish. Uniform ‘releases’ may become increasingly irrelevant when two different consumers judge the same batch of songs from an artist and select only those which please them, and therefore only keep those.”
He also has this great line, which I think sums up well why EDM has so far been a blind spot for critics still obsessed with the album form:
“If, say, live DJing was the backbone of the record industry, it would be the putative norm criticism would react to.”
Would it? I still maintain that DJing and live EDM are much more about experience than evaluation, meaning that criticism would be limited in its application. Still, deadmau5’s career arc seems to be toward cultivating a bigger reputation for himself by making bold album-like statements that cohere and flow. “Get Scraped” was the disorganized, MP3-playlist-like start that allowed for a gradual reversal, culminating in “While (1 < 2).” It’s like deadmau5’s career is an alternate history of what has happened to music over the past 15+ years. Rather than the chaos of going from a mainstream dominated by albums and criticism to one dominated by decentralized distribution channels and playlists, we got order.
Yesterday, Netflix included in my “Top Picks” queue the Cameron Crowe film about rock n’ roll stardom (and journalism), “Almost Famous.” I had already seen it, but, given the recent arc of my blog posts about criticism, I thought I’d give it a second pass. It seemed so dated, despite being less than 15 years old.
Of course, calling it dated isn’t fair, since it is fictionalizing the excesses of a band on the road in the 1970s. The period-piece aesthetics were fine, but what really stood out was the entire mythology around rock music: the preeminence of the album as an artistic statement, the deference to print magazines like Rolling Stone that pioneered rock criticism, the presence of Lester Bangs, etc. Does anyone anymore await the release of a new Kanye West or deadmau5 album, reading the write-ups from Rolling Stone, Spin or even Web-first outlet like Pitchfork before making a buying decision? Did they ever (with earlier artists)?
There is almost nothing as strange about rock music as the criticism industry that grew up around it. The star system (like Rolling Stone uses), the longform essays (a la Pitchfork, esp. in its early years), the constant need to situate specific albums as the “greatest” (Rolling Stone has plenty of these the “500 Greatest ___” lists), and, above all, the amazing blowback that one can get on message board if she questions the “fact” that Pink Floyd is listenable, for instance.
Searching for “[rock album title] review” leads one to a black hole of online magazine write ups that may talk about one or two songs and then editorialize about whatever, plus the usual Amazon reviews. Reading any of these reviews brings out perhaps the most antiquated idea in “Almost Famous”: that one can be a “music journalist.”
Back to buying, though: I remain skeptical that the vast critical arm of the rock n’ roll industry ever made a dent in sales. Just go through any collection of vinyl LPs in a Baby Boomer’s home or at a thrift store – they’re filled with Led Zeppelin and Queen albums that were panned at the time, as well as minor works of Genesis, Jackson Browne and others that didn’t move the critical needle even back then.
However, visit a new age vinyl shop, like Reckless Records in the Chicago Loop, and the setup is a bit different. There’s the Arcade Fire, Death From Above 1979, and other works that have borne up almost completely on the back of favorable indie Web criticism, written by part-time enthusiasts who have about as much acumen and experience as William Miller from “Almost Famous.”
In this way, I think, the flood of criticism over the years (and I admit that I have contributed to it and changed my stance on its value many times) hasn’t been a commercial force so much as a cultural one, in that it has formed divides about what artists it is and isn’t “ok” to like. But subscribing to the idea that Pitchfork or Resident Advisor approved albums constitute an objective outlook on quality naturally requires a strong filter, one that blocks out all the negative reactions and indifference toward said music. Virginia Woolf once hinted at this effect of a surplus of criticism, albeit through the lens of sales; there isn’t a general “opinion” of any work anymore; you’re just as likely to run into someone obsessed with the “classic” Aphex Twin album Classics as you are to find someone who has never even heard of it:
“Now that [the author] has sixty reviews where in the nineteenth century he had perhaps six,” she wrote. “[H]e finds that there is no such thing as ‘an opinion’ of his work. Praise cancels blame; and blame praise. Soon he comes to discount both praise and blame; they are equally worthless. He values the review only for its effect upon his reputation and for its effect upon his sales.”
She was talking about books, which are a bit different than albums, admittedly. The book industry, more so than the music industry, has much more infrastructure in place as far as critical institutions go. It is so hard to even know that a book exists, so publishers and critics have to create an enormous volume of reviews to foist upon the public. Critics can impact sales in ways that they can’t with music, albeit the effect is usually of tanking a book’s sales by simply not even reviewing it rather than trashing it publicly.
Travistan to EDM
There is one exception I can think of where music criticism rivaled book criticism for sales impact, although it occurred on such a small scale. Travis Morrison’s 2004 album Travistan was given a 0.0 (worst possible score) by Pitchfork, causing it and Morrison himself to become persona no grata in indie circles for some time thereafter. Of course, I listened to the album and liked it, which made me think: Why should anyone take a review seriously?
Elizabeth Gumport argued against reviews in a stirring essay a while back, saying that they basically assign absolute authority where it isn’t merited and actively devalue personal experience. It was such a relief, too, that she torpedoed the notion that works must age before they can be evaluated:
“The solution [to evaluation of art] is not to grant distant generations absolute authority when it comes to aesthetic judgments. That would be making the same mistake on a loftier scale – counting on time to tell us what matters. Instead of prostrating ourselves before the future, we should give our own experience its due.”
Whereas the book industry and the rock/indie ecosystem have a glut of reviews, though, electronic dance music has no equivalent. I went to Above & Beyond’s AGBT 100 celebration in New York last October, and the spectacle, like the band’s music, occupied a world in which no one seemed to care how anything would be reviewed, upvoted/downvoted, or given a public lashing in “The New York Times EDM Review” (wouldn’t that be cool).
I have written about the weird place of the album in EDM before, and paralleled EDM to early rock n’ roll. Perhaps the lack of a concrete, digestible artistic unit (like the book or album, as opposed to the sprawling live DJ set) hamstrings any prospect of mainstream EDM criticism, or maybe the genre is just too young (although this issue didn’t seem to hurt rap that much in the 1980s and 1990s).
But I think it’s about experience, in the way that Gunport alludes to. EDM, replete with free-flowing songs and epic running times, begs to be experienced – like meditation, or taking a long walk through one of New York’s parks – rather than consumed in the often strictly evaluative, analytical manner of rock music (much of which is listened to only so that it can be criticized! – an absurdity/non sequitur for the EDM listener).
EDM listeners have made their choices; the Protestant notion of reviewing (read Gumnport’s article for more on this) as an extension of absolute authority just doesn’t exist, since there’s both a more individual, independent aspect of the listening experience (i.e., I’m in the moment) and a collective one (i.e., look at all these other people enjoying this too on the floor). Sure, there are rock concerts and festivals that offer similar experiences – but the artists are often only there because of the criticism industry.