Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Hipper-Than-Thou Rock Critics

Books & Culture currently features an article by Mark Gavreau Judge entitled "Please Flush: Why Rock Critics Need to Re-Read Lester Bangs and JP II." You can read the entire article here.

Judge takes rock critics to task for their elitist attitudes. He begins his article:

"Let's impose a moratorium on rock critics. Now. A few months ago, I came across this line by critic David Dunlap, Jr.: "[The band] Windsor for the Derby has plenty of experience jumping subgenres … everything from slo-core to krautrock to electronica to its current flavor of Mancunian-tinged postrock."

Call me square, dismiss me as an oldster, but I think when you're referring to Mancunian-tinged postrock, it's time to hang it up. Pop music criticism has grown so insular, full of itself, hipper-than-thou, and, most important, aesthetically disjointed from the thing it claims to examine that we'd best start over ..."

Call me overly sensitive, but what's a rock critic to do? The problem is that for at least the last thirty years, the best, most creative, and most influential rock music has existed on the fringes. You won't hear it on MTV. And unless you live in one of the three or four genuine cultural outposts of creativity in the U.S., or have discovered the wonders of Internet radio, the non-obsessive music fan is simply not going to be exposed to it. I understand Judge's whining about "Mancunian-tinged postrock." It sounds like an insular, hipper-than-thou statement that is designed to inflate the ego of the rock critic and deflate the egos of the 98 percent of the world that has never heard The Stone Roses, Lush, or The Boo Radleys. But in fact there is such a thing as "the Manchester sound," and there is such a thing as postrock, and when you combine those influences, you may very well end up with something that sounds like Mancunian-tinged postrock. You could compare Windsor for the Derby to Britney Spears, an artist who is known throughout the world. But Windsor for the Derby doesn't sound like Britney Spears. They sound like Mancunian-tinged postrock.

Rock critics are, by and large, elitist snobs who write for elitist snobs. There's no getting around it. But the hipper-than-thou factor can be mitigated by the kinds of human connections that Judge promotes in his article. And I agree with him. I don't want to read album reviews that are more about the reviewer than the music. And I don't want to read a laundry list of musical sub-genres and influences, either, although a short list is usually helpful. What I do want to read is why I, the reader, should care about this particular album. What does it sound like, and what does it say? But you know what? Sometimes it sounds like Mancunian-tinged postrock, and any other comparison with a better-known artist/band will be wide of the mark. In those circumstances, I'd like to think that instead of whining, the serious music fan might check out the Manchester sound and postrock, and might eventually arrive at Mancunian-tinged postrock.

9 comments:

Beth said...

I think that writing regarding ANY area of expertise runs the risk of sounding hipper-than-thou -- just think academic literary journals (or maybe don't if that makes your stomach hurt as it does mine), where writers/reviewers often play the "I know more than you do" card. Perhaps the key is accessibility -- how accessible can the critic make music (or for that matter dance, literature, or any other art form) to someone who might not be in on all the lingo? I like your reviews because they make me WANT to learn about the music I don't know -- even though you are almost unbearably hip:D

Andy Whitman said...

Hi, Beth.

I am almost unbearably hip. I think the receding hairline and hearing aid really add that special scenester touch. And who wouldn't want to adopt the Garden Gnome look?

I really do value accessibility, though, both in the music I review and in the way I write about it. I generally don't like weirdness/hipness for the sake of weirdness/hipness, and I am sucker for things like, oh, melody, harmony, and a good, catchy chorus about girls or cars.

Anonymous said...

seriously, andy. garden gnome look?!?!? thanks for the laugh of the week! YOU are a funny man.

Joshua said...

mancunian post-rock.

jam-band-flip-flop trip-hop.

athenian agit-punkster funk.

music-hall "fall"esque doll moll garage ball.

cjdm said...

hi andy. my take is that books and culture should stay away from rock reviews. did you see the preposterous harangue that they published in conjunction with the cameo shot of sufjan stevens on the cover (speaking of "hipper than thou")? the reviewers (no doubt it takes a committee to write a review this dumb) suggest that sufjan is good, but that his musical reaches are necessarily ineffective because he's limited formally as a classical composer and thus ends up sounding (gasp!) like a chamber-pop folkie. and God knows that's not SS's plan. sufjan really falls short in that respect.

i mean, you don't even need to like sufjan in order to realize that the writers are missing the point entirely.
the guy doesn't WANT to sound like a lush classical joanna-newsom-esque something or other. he just wants to wear dumb wings and sing like a folkie backed by the high school pep band.

i was puzzled at best. actually, i thought it was staggeringly imperceptive, stilted, and weird.

-caleb.

Andy Whitman said...

Hi, Caleb. I saw that Sufjan review as well. I was particularly befuddled by the statement:

"In short, there is a major disconnect between the subtleties of Sufjan Stevens the poet and Sufjan Stevens the composer. His music lacks the carefully modulated gradations of tone, meaning, and mood that distinguish his poetry."

Hmmm. Let's see: Sufjan plays banjo and guitar, features trombones and trumpets, uses vocal counterpoint to great effect in songs such as "The Wasp of the Palisades," works in tricky time signatures, employs elements of funk and heavy metal, and frequently employs female backup singers who function equally as Phil Spector girl group and Greek chorus. I'm not sure what the author is looking for, but that sounds like "carefully modulated gradations of tone, meaning, and mood" to me. Maybe if he had included a few more oboe solos ...

jackscrow said...

I've been trying to navigate the maze of supposedly verifiable electronic voting.

Compared to the stuff I am reading about the machines, etc., and the problems with programming, I'll take the hipper than thou critics over that secretive world anyday.

BTW, for those of you who are interested and polically aware, here is a good site:


The Center for Election Integrity

http://urban.csuohio.edu/cei/

scott said...

Your exchange with Beth reminded me of a Randy Newman public TV appearance in the seventies - maybe Soundstage? - where he asked the audience to get two coins out of their pockets, and to click them together during his next song, in lieu of clapping. Before starting the song he added "the tragically hip are excused from participating." Still breaks me up. Most reviewers, and authors of "academic literary journals" often seem far more intent on demonstrating how much smarter they are than me than addressing the subject at hand. These folks don't need to tell me something I already know. That's precisely why I read them - because they do know more than I do. I just don't like being condescendingly and snidely reminded of it in the article. Andy, while you are indeed most hip, you are neither tragic nor unbearable in your hipness. Thank you for making me understand why I want to go out and check out artists and bands I've never heard of before. Keep up the good work.

Andy Whitman said...

Thanks for your kind words, Scott. I appreciate them.

In all honesty, hipness is a game I have no interest in playing. I wouldn't be very good at it, and it's only going to get worse as I get older and lose more hair and hearing and gain more of a paunch. I do love music, though, and I still get the same visceral thrill in discovering great new music that I got when I was in my teens or twenties. I've never figured out that I'm supposed to stop caring about it, so I suppose I won't.