Criticism

Shining a Light on Shady Journalism

Over the past decade, we have seen the internet become an integral part of everyday life, shaping and affecting not only our culture but many of our professions as well.  This is especially true of journalism, and not only in the traditional cries of how the Web is killing Print.  The very nature of online publishing has changed the way that journalists write stories and how outlets print them; the ephemeral nature of the media promotes a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach, with speed and clicks being the ultimate goal.  After all, pieces and features can be edited seamlessly behind the scenes–with the web one’s mistakes do not always have to live on (at least without an extra bit of detective-work), unlike print.

The question then arises of when is it okay to use the powers of selective editing, especially since it can so often go undetected.  The site RipFork lived up to its name in blasting Pitchfork for their handling of the new album from Sun Kil Moon, after catching their efforts in switching their review.  I encourage you to read their piece, but for those searching for a quick and dirty rundown, Pitchfork clumsily substituted their review of Universal Themes after an incident where Mark Kozelek called out a journalist onstage in between songs, and the fallout left a lot of music critics with a sour taste in their mouths.  In place of a presumably more positive review, Pitchfork ran a review which was less concerned with the merits of the particular album and instead conducted an inelegant meditation between The Artist and The Art.  As a critique of the music itself, it was not much of one.

We have a different philosophy when it comes to editing posts.  Our policy at Rust Is Just Right is to limit the kind of post-publication edits to only correct grammatical errors or make stylistic changes to clarify our points; otherwise, posts remain as written.  We stand by what we publish, and any modifications we make are done purely to better serve the reader.  For instance, we recognized Sun Kil Moon’s previous album Benji as one of the best of the first half of 2014, and we would never dream of going back and altering our decision.*  And to think, we are not even real journalists!

This controversy brought to mind another instance of this issue that I personally discovered.  At some point the site AllMusic substituted their review of My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves, switching out one that gave the album a mediocre two-and-a-half stars with a more effusive four-star review.  I had some difficulty tracking down any evidence of the switch, finding only a non-updated reference from Metacritic, and I only knew to search out the discrepancy based on my own memory of the initial review.

The discovery of this swap left me conflicted: on the one hand, I have always felt that AllMusic’s role has been to be that of an objective reference source, so I appreciate that the new review reflects the critical consensus of the album; on the other hand, we should not discourage opinions that break from the mainstream, and we are all better for reading heterodox assessments, so there is merit to leaving the original review in place.  As much fun as I have with citing the fact that Robert Christgau still thinks In the City is The Jam’s best album and how he despises OK Computer, I respect the fact that he has not kowtowed to the majority and still supports his opinions.  I am not saying we should reward people merely for being stubborn, but I have a begrudging respect for those that stick to their guns.

The best solution then is probably to at least have a policy of transparency–if you change a review, it is incumbent on the publisher to provide a notice to the reader that a change has occurred, and to give an explanation why a substitution was made.  And since we are talking about the internet, it won’t even be a waste of ink.

*It is interesting to me that Kozelek received much more pushback for his comments directed at Snapes than the entirety of his “feud” with The War on Drugs.  With one, he said that a woman whom he never met (he does his interviews through email) wanted to fuck him after she crossed a line by interviewing his family, and the other he over a series of months directed vitriol to a band with whom he had minimal contact, culminating in recording a song entitled “War on Drugs Suck My Cock”.  One was considered a major sin by the music press, while the other was portrayed as mere bickering, despite the differences in degree.

Personally, the incidents with The War on Drugs left a sour taste in my mouth, and I stopped listening to Sun Kil Moon on a regular basis.  This partly explains why we never reviewed Universal Themes ourselves–since we only review records we seek out and purchase, there was no need to go out of our way and publish our own take on the album.  However, if we were professional music critics, rest assured we would actually do our job as professionals and review the album strictly on its own merits.

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Possibly The Worst Three Paragraphs Of Music Criticism From Last Year

I refrained from discussing this Vox piece for weeks, mainly because it was the holidays and there is no need to try to make them a miserable affair.  There is also the fact that the general mission of this site is to focus on promoting music instead of finding ways to be negative all the time, so writing a critical piece on someone else’s opinion is something we would prefer to do only on rare occasions.  But the calendar is no longer a concern, and since Vox has decided not to bother making any corrections (more on that later), we figure the time is ripe to tear this article apart.

The title was an immediate red flag: “5 Songs I’m too embarrassed to name Song of the Year.”  It’s a fancy way of saying “I find these songs to be guilty pleasures,” when the entire concept of a guilty pleasure is a completely ridiculous notion, especially for a music critic.  As a critic, you have an opinion, and we expect you to defend it; if you like a song, it’s your job to explain why you like the song.  Usually we as an audience don’t have exacting standards, and will accept simple explanations along the lines as “it’s catchy” or “it has an infectious melody”; reasonable minds may disagree, but clearly this is merely a subjective assessment, and it’s hard to argue against it.  The “guilty pleasure” also operates under the assumption that there is an objective standard as to what is good, when that is certainly not the case.  Sure, critics like to discuss things in absolutes and will proclaim something to be good based on certain common criteria, but in the end this is a creative field that is subject to personal interpretation.  If these songs are your picks for “Song of the Year,” then say so–we can’t say that your opinion is wrong.

However, one can give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that perhaps the idea was that the article would provide a list of songs that, while not considered “Serious Art”, are at least fun or worth taking a listen.  Looking over the list, I see mostly songs with which I have only a passing familiarity (beyond the expected inclusion of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” (because that’s a song and artist that now requires THINKPIECES in order to appreciate/bash)), but notice one artist that sticks out like a sore thumb from the list: Spoon.  Now here is an artist that would never be considered for a “guilty pleasure,” so there has to be some unique rationale behind this selection.  After reading the explanation, I can say that “unique” roughly translates to “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

The primary sin that Kelsey McKinney commits is contradicting herself between the first two paragraphs.  She first states that “[t]he groovy, guitar-heavy tracks are easy to listen to, but sadly just as easy to forget” (which I would say is debatable, but hey, that’s how music criticism works), but is followed later with “[b]y far the standout off They Want My Soul is ‘Inside Out,’ a mellow, dreamy rock song…instead of the catchy, lyric-heavy, piano-backed songs Spoon is famous for.”  Logically, the songs can’t all be easy to forget if there is one standout track, so that argument should probably have been woodshedded a bit longer.  Then there’s the fact that somehow Spoon is both “guitar-heavy” AND known for “lyric-heavy, piano-backed” songs (we’re going to slide over falling back on the “-heavy” trope for a second, but don’t mistake that for us forgiving that sin).  It’s hard for Spoon to be both of these things without sounding like a total cacophony, and even more so considering that they’re known for their “minimalism.”

What is even worse than these clumsily-constructed arguments is McKinney’s thesis that too many critics love Spoon and therefore give them a free pass: “They Want My Soul is an album with songs that are mostly passable not because they are great songs, or even good songs, but because they were released on an album that said SPOON at the top of it.”  From an outside perspective, that may seem reasonable–how else to explain that Spoon has gotten consistent praise throughout their career?  The idea that Spoon is actually a good band is too easy an explanation and should be dismissed, because this is clearly either a case of groupthink or an example of a massive conspiracy among music critics!  No, the problem with McKinney’s theory is that this is precisely the opposite problem that Spoon has–they’ve been consistently good for too long so that critics take them for granted and as a result they try even harder to find faults.  The piece’s central argument fails to hold up even under the barest scrutiny; the final point that “[p]icking a Spoon song for its production in a year where we had incredible productions from rappers like FKA Twigs and new pop stars like Rita Ora” just adds fuel to the fire, indicating zero understanding of what “production” is, especially when discussing a rock band.

Now, I could easily have let this pass and ignore this article, except that Vox kept promoting it for weeks and weeks after it was originally published.  So I was reminded every couple of days of this horrible article’s existence, and I was forced to wonder once again “if you don’t care for Spoon at all, why are you saying that you’re ’embarrassed’ to name one of their songs the best of the year, when you can just leave them off the list?”  Of course, that would have been too easy.

And to think, after all those promotions, they never bothered to go back and correct the spelling of the name of Spoon’s frontman.

*Also, we’re sorry for not even being able to go a day without mentioning Spoon.

You’re Not As Cool/Smart/Edgy As You Think, Sir

A couple of weeks ago we linked to a commentary published by the New York Times entitled “Streaming Music Has Left Me Adrift.”  The opening paragraph gives hints of a potentially much better piece, one that highlights the connection between musical product and consumer in a much more eloquent fashion.  There was an opportunity to explore how the creation of a physical production of music can help inspire an emotional attachment in the listener, especially when one considers the effort that went into procuring the damn thing in the first place.  Instead, we ended up with the online equivalent of the stereotypical prick who works at a record store yelling at the world at large to get off his lawn.

There is some merit to the complaint that ease of access to an entire universe of music has cheapened our connection with it.  As the author alludes to, it definitely took effort to attempt to seek out music that wasn’t already played everywhere, whether it be to take the time to research through magazines and the like, or simply purchasing albums with the hopes that you got lucky that it was worth the inflated sticker price.  This is an entirely different world from today, where you can instantly search for a band based on a mere mention of their name and then fire up a sample immediately afterward to get an idea of their sound.  If you make a mistake, no problem, all you lost was a couple of minutes of your time; if you’re lucky and find something worthwhile, hey, purchasing the album is only a click away (or selecting it for your Spotify/Pandora/whatever streaming station).  You’ve lost all the risks and have a similar reward, but in the process you don’t experience the disappointment of the lows, but also miss out on the joy of going through all the effort to find a new favorite band.

The article doesn’t spend much time on this conceit, but instead goes in a different direction to discuss the split between alternative/indie and the mainstream.  Again, there are ways in which this could provide an illuminating discussion.  One could explore the different machinations that explain the dissemination of different musical trends, or simply come up with a way to eloquently describe the merits of underground music.  Instead of these potentially worthwhile exercises, the author chose to simply complain that it’s not as easy to impress people with his knowledge of esoteric artists.

The key problem with the entire piece is that the writer reveals that he is forever stuck in high school, trying to position himself as some elite outsider who calls out the masses about his superior taste in music.  The problem now is instead that we cannot properly acknowledge this guy’s pure fucking awesomeness for taking all this time to curate a knowledge of obscure musical acts.  It is now this man’s awful burden that there are now thousands of people that can share in his “love” of particular bands, and woe is him that he can’t immediately judge someone based on the fact that he or she owns the same CD as the author does.

At the heart of the matter is the belief that the author is that music is a dividing force, instead of a unifying one.  He selects new music based on its ability to separate himself from the ignorant masses, and if the mainstream catches on, it signifies a defect.  Instead of being glad that there are potentially more people than ever that can become fans of great music, this fucker is pissed off he has to share.  What a douche.

Also, if you’re going to make your big point by quoting LCD Soundsystem, then you should make sure you fully understand the irony inherent in their song “Losing My Edge.”  Hint: you didn’t get it.

How to Spot a Charlatan

A few days ago, we linked to an interview with Peter Matthew Bauer that the AV Club hosted, but expressed a bit of trepidation with our comments in advising whether or not one should read it.  Though we were big fans of Bauer’s solo album, we feared the potential for it to be an irritating piece because of the particular writer responsible for the interview.  It turns out our concerns were well-founded, as Rick Moody once again provided his unique combination of pretentiousness and ignorance.

The actual interview was rather illuminating, since Moody generally let Bauer lead the conversation, and the reader didn’t have to bother with Moody’s attempts at rumination and conjecture.  Bauer provided several insights into his journey into discovering his voice as an artist, as well as details about both his upbringing and the dynamics of his previous band, The Walkmen, as the group eventually dissolved.  The problem was the first half of the article, when Moody attempted to provide some background by contemplating over the place of Bauer’s old band within a grand theory of rock music, as well as comparing Bauer’s Liberation! with the his other bandmates’ solo efforts.  There were several irritating individual lines that landed with a thud, with various descriptions and theories that alternately showed Moody’s haughtiness or laziness.  Consider the statement “[t]his band made two short recordings, EPs as they used to be called and are still sometimes[.]”  Why add all this unnecessary verbiage?  They’re still called EPs, even when people weren’t buying vinyl, and nobody calls them anything different.  There’s also the mini-rant about the press release announcing The Walkmen’s “extreme hiatus”: it’s “an example of the overuse of extreme that I have come to find denotatively irritating. It’s either a hiatus or it’s not, and it’s only in retrospect that anyone will be able to evaluate the adjectival qualities of this hiatus.”  Within the context of discussing the careers of different bands, this kind of terminology is actually useful–declaring that a new album should not be expected any time soon but to make sure not to rule out a reunion at some point–but for Moody, I guess it’s his chance to take a stand against the fact that the kids just don’t know how to speak any more.  And he does so in the most irritatingly pedantic manner.

It’s not just Moody’s shitty writing, it’s his lack of professionalism that’s also infuriating.  When talking about Hamilton Leithauser’s solo album, Moody writes “I feel like the single, “Alexandra,” is about Alexander The Great, merely changed to a feminine ending, and is, accordingly, a tribute to the idea of attempting to rule the world.”  Sounds like a great theory (when divorced from the actual song, but whatever (seriously, read those lyrics and try to figure out any connection to the historic ruler)), except that the song was written about Hamilton’s daughter, and he just changed the name because it fit better.  I would not expect everyone to know this fact, but I also would imagine that a professional writer like Rick Moody would bother to do at least some cursory research before writing his piece.  Then again, Moody spent multiple paragraphs talking about Jonathan Fire*Eater, one of the two predecessor bands to The Walkmen, to make some grand point about rock and roll.  The problem is that Bauer was in the other predecessor band, The Recoys (a group he was in with Leithauser, the person with whom Moody makes the most direct comparison).   Of course, Moody does not mention The Recoys at all; in essence, Moody’s entire thesis about the nature of rock and roll is irrelevant to the interview, and is just an excuse for him to ramble about “private schools” and class.

This was not a surprise.  Moody had previously caught our attention when Salon published an exchange he had with Dean Wareham (former member of Galaxie 500, Luna, and others), where they discussed the relative merits of “Get Lucky” and the new Daft Punk record in general.  The problem was not with his opinion about the song, to which he is perfectly entitled.  It’s the fact that there were several arguments and lines throughout the discussion that indicated that either Moody had no idea what he was talking about or that he would miss the point entirely.

For example, he simply refused to understand the basic artistic conceit of Daft Punk itself, that the duo’s goal was to produce music that was as mechanized as possible (seen in their previous work), or in the case of Random Access Memories, an album that was supposed to resemble a robot’s attempt to recreate human music.  His condemnation of the method used to record the album (using live session players from the era) also betrays a total lack of knowledge of how disco music was produced (using live session players).  And for further proof that Moody doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, consider his praise for Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, who employed the same method of hiring musicians to bring his vision to fruition.

Or take a look at this word salad: “But the French robots apparently do not know about “Trans,” [ed. note: he’s referring to the Neil Young album] or rather, they are too cynical to care about “Trans,” and they bank (it’s the operative word here) on the audience’s lack of knowledge about the history of the vocoder. So they use it again and again like a neurological tic, and given that this vocoder section is the only appearance on this song of the actual robots rather than their surrogates—the musicians who are hired to make the song sound as though it has actual soul—it is inadequate as a sign of the auteurs.”  At no point does he explain why the history of the vocoder is necessary to understand the song, and that it is apparently unsatisfying for the songwriters to only make a cameo appearance in their own song.  And all this occurs before an unhinged rant that touches on the “tyranny” of four-four music, that it’s wrong for French guys to pay tribute to the black music of their youth, and a total misunderstanding of the basic concept of Kraftwerk.  That’s right–at one point, Moody asserts that Kraftwerk used the vocoder to hide the weakness of their vocals…instead of further entrenching their entire philosophy of mechanizing and dehumanizing music.

More than anything, it’s so hard to believe that Moody never understood that the title of the album should have tipped him off to its goals.  Random Access Memories combines both the robotic nature of Daft Punk (with its allusion to RAM) and a tribute to the past with the slight tweak to the plural of the last word.  These songs were written to represent facsimiles of past musical genres, as interpreted through the “minds” of robots.  So, if despite the human touches in producing the album it still carries an air of artificiality, that’s the point; if it sounds like a reproduction of black American music from the 70’s, that’s the point because that was the music that Daft Punk enjoyed in their youth.  If you don’t care for the concept, then fine, but at least acknowledge that this was the intention.

Rick Moody is a fucking idiot.  Not your normal idiot, mind you–it’s clear that along the way he’s learned a lot.  It’s just clear that he never understood at all what it is he learned.

The Folly of the Never-Ending Search of the Rip-Off

We recently saw the release of new albums from Jack White and The Black Keys (events which readers of this site should be very much well-aware), and while we were happy to hear new music from these great artists, that was not all that returned.  If you were to read up on any of the news surrounding these releases or the reviews themselves, you were bound to find the same tired joke/trope/criticism in every piece: these artists were merely “ripping off” old music.  Often this would be accompanied by the added attack that these were white men getting rich off of black music.  While there is an element of truth to this, it’s time to stop resorting to this same hackneyed cliche.

In the past, this was once a novel and significant complaint.  There were vast amounts of people that had overlooked or were  ignorant of the exploitation of artists throughout our history, and this form of criticism helped illuminate the struggle they endured.  It’s why Chuck D’s lyric that “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me” could strike a chord with so many people, both in the fierce resistance by some of an attack on their idol, but also by the support of other communities who could point to how they were left out in the process of cultural appropriation.

It’s taken for granted at this point by many that Elvis built his “revolutionary” rock’n’roll sound off the rhythm and blues music of contemporary black artists like Little Richard.  But this attitude that Elvis “stole” black music is an ultimately shallow analysis and illustrates a pointlessly reductive attitude.  It’s a charge made without context.  Elvis acknowledged the influence of black music and performers throughout his career, and made sure to point it out to others; his career shouldn’t be viewed in the same way as say, Pat Boone’s.

The problem with approaching music in only this way is that it completely reduces the role of the performer.  A song is made up of several components, from the chord changes to the rhythmic patterns to the lyrical content and so on.  While the strength of one part may dominate over the others, to rely solely on that part would make for boring and crappy music.  The fact that we have a whole feature on this site (Covered) where we analyze different performances of the same song helps emphasize this point.  Personal interpretation as well as individual technical skill are both vitally important elements and can significantly change the effectiveness of a song.

[This is where I would put up a video clip of the scene from Spinal Tap where the band spontaneously begins singing “Heartbreak Hotel” at Elvis’s grave, but you’ll have to make do with just the audio.]

The focus on deconstruction of the elements of a song to a simple common origin ignores the collaborative nature of music, and how new works of art are always indebted in some way to past works.  New music is built on the ideas of old music, often through slight tweaks or modifications.  A slight change may seem insignificant on paper, but the effects in reality are often significant–by changing the emphasis of the beat, you can switch a polka (hit the 1 and 3) into a rock song (hit the 2 and 4).  Therefore to identify a song as employing a traditional 12-bar blues structure and then calling it a day is ridiculous.  It invites the assumption that we have already found the One True Blues Song, and everything post Robert Johnson has been a waste of time.

You can play this game with just about any artist.  The Ramones play sped-up Beach Boys songs, Nirvana is a slicker version of the Pixies, Rachmaninoff puts the bombast of Beethoven and the lyrical romanticism of Chopin in a blender, and so on.   I’ve been guilty of this myself, namely when I complain that the EDM scene today is solely a rehash of the work Aphex Twin did over a decade ago, that it’s just “Windowlicker” with a heavy dose of “Come to Daddy”.  But why limit ourselves to music?  I mean, there’s no need for new video games when we already have “Pong”.  And for that matter, what are you doing on your computer, when you have a perfectly good television over there?  It doesn’t take much to show that the entire exercise is pointless.

None of this is to say that “rip-offs” don’t exist; artists still have to contribute something to the exercise.  But pointing out that elements of a song bear a resemblance to previously recorded music is not an end in and of itself.  Because Television used the double-hit ringing guitar in “Marquee Moon”, does that mean that Interpol can’t use a similar figure in “Obstacle 1”?  It should be obvious to any listener that the two bands achieve different results using the same concept, with each having their own merits.

This should be just as clear with Jack White and The Black Keys.  Yes, they are heavily indebted to old styles (namely the blues, but country and folk play roles as well) and they wear influences on their sleeves, but to deny the fact that each of them add significant personal twists on old ideas is idiotic.  They’re also ready and willing to point out their influences and to try and convince their audience to check them out–Jack White is quick to mention Son House, and The Black Keys released an EP of Junior Kimbrough covers.

The “rip-off” argument at this point is close to outliving its usefulness, and comes off now as lazy and a desperate attempt to impress others with the appearance of some music knowledge.  Hopefully we’ll see the end of it soon.

Sometimes A Cigar Is Just A Cigar

Sometimes I get in the bad habit of finishing an article, and then deciding to stick around the site by clicking on an attention-grabbing headline to a different story.  Yes, I understand that this is the very foundation of the online publication model, but there are some sites where that strategy is not a good idea and that it is best to disengage from standard internet protocol.

We recently posted a link to an article in Slate that explored the mystery of the time signature of the theme from The Terminator.  This was an interesting and fun story that allowed the reader to indulge in harmless music nerd-like tendencies, while also revisiting a great film.  It’s a perfect time-waster that also benefits by adding a little bit of knowledge of music theory and production.  However, instead of closing the tab and continuing with my previously-planned surfing, I made the (figuratively) fatal error of clicking on this article.

Sexism worthy of more concern

Sexism worthy of more concern

There’s not much to this article–an NPR producer has an extensive record collection, and his wife started a Tumblr where she criticizes his albums called “My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection”.  Sounds innocent enough, right?  But apparently when constructing a personal Tumblr examining a record collection, one needs to be hyper-aware about the possible gender politics, and the politics of the gender politics as well.  The initial criticism derived from the premise of the Tumblr itself, with Slate mentioning that “[f]emale music writers Annie ZaleskiMaura Johnston, and Ann Powers have pushed back against the blog’s conceit, arguing that it reinforces negative stereotypes about the role of women in the music world.”  This of course assumes that a personal response to a shared relationship concern is somehow supposed to be a reflection of music criticism as a whole.  If someone can clue me in on why this assumption exists, I would appreciate it.

In addition, according to the critics cited in the piece, not only should there be concerns about the blog itself, but with the reactions to the blog and their possible sexism.  To quote: “Flavorwire‘s Judy Berman initially appreciated the blog’s charm, but then, ‘as acquaintance after acquaintance—almost all of them men—enthusiastically shared the blog, I noticed a more powerful, gendered slant to their appreciation of it,’ she wrote.”  Is the point then that an author should then be concerned not only with the reactions of readers to the piece itself, but then how they then frame their appreciation of it later?  The article continues, “[b]ut seen another way, her exercise is not very funny at all, because it helps those same music-nerd dudes who have boxed women out of the subculture—keeping them on the periphery in the roles of wives and girlfriends—to share the link as confirmation that women just don’t get it.”  At this point, anyone’s reaction should be “Who gives a shit about what these people think, and more than that, why should anyone believe that this Tumblr is great evidence of their point?”  The fact that I’m reading an analysis that amounts to a reaction to the reaction to the (initial) reaction means that we are ever closer to fulfilling the prophecy that the internet is merely an ouroboros of shit.*

The article itself makes a half-hearted attempt to justify all this wrangling over nothing, and the best the piece could do was talk about the premise of art from the perspective of the outsider.  Congratulations for explaining how a significant percentage of comedy works (to the piece’s credit, the author acknowledged this).  The problem is that this analysis should have been the one and only paragraph that was needed.  The author of the Tumblr is not attempting to ingratiate herself within the insular culture of record collectors; she is distinctly attempting to mock it from the perspective of an outsider.  It is not her responsibility for how other insiders react, and it’s not her concern.  By criticizing her, it takes away from other issues of gender politics within the music community.  The fact that women still fight to achieve respect within the community is a significant issue, and taking on pieces like this one is irrelevant to that fight.

The ultimate lesson should be that when critics are going so far down the rabbit hole to look at third-level reactions of a piece and what it means about society, it’s time to take a step back.  There are other issues of gender politics that are worthy of concern, but this is not one of them.  And next time, I’ll remember not to click that extra article.

*Note: I am fully aware that by participating at another level of criticism can be cited as an example of perpetuating the problem, but hopefully my intentions are clear that rather than perpetuating the cycle I am attempting to end it and slay the ouroboros.