Yesterday, Stereogum pointed out some new controversial cultural criticism that appeared in the Daily News, an article written by the paper’s top pop music critic, Jim Farber. The article, “Stop being so sensitive! Burly men become girly men, turning pop music into a wuss-case scenario,” expressed frustration with what Farber called “wimpy” music, specifically Bon Iver and his newest album. But Farber’s point was much more aggrandized than that—he used Bon Iver as a platform to launch criticism of an entire generation of people (college-age, skinny jean-sporting hipsters) and their taste in music. He also willfully ignored women, including KICK ASS, loud women, who make music. The only people who measured up to Farber’s standard of cojones were The Black Keys—Farber conceded that Arcade Fire was okay too, but not without their fair share of wussiness. Now, with that said, it would have been easy to dismiss this as old man rock contrarianism, but Farber’s article highlights something else, something that has to do with a more deeply embedded societal ill.
The main problem here is that Farber is pointing out an obvious trend without delivering any real music criticism. He acknowledges that the artists he uses as examples are “admirable, talented and unquestionably progressive,” but whines that the “macho punch” and “swagger” is lacking. Macho? Let’s get underneath this article’s pretense of music criticism, and look at it for what it really is: a warped view of the world (and art) as contingent upon a really old, really stupid idea about masculinity in order to be valid.
Farber believes that kids these days just don’t appreciate the good old, sexy, thrusting, guitar stuff, and his blame for the development of wimp-centric music culture rests with them. Farber writes, “To these folks, the phallic guitar of yore represents the moldiest of oldies, a cornball signifier of a sad time when numb-headed musclemen ruled the world.”
As a skinny jean wearing, hipster music lovin’, college-type myself, I grew up on “phallic” guitar. I spent much of high school drooling over Led Zeppelin performance DVD’s and worshiping the fingers of Jimmy Page. And Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? to this day remains the most played album on my iTunes. I do not consider the classic rock I grew up on anywhere near cornball—in fact I have taken an ample amount of shit for defending the Zep when it comes up on the party playlist. I would also like to add that the first concert I attended was The Mars Volta and System of a Down. I still appreciate these bands, and I still like Bon Iver, as do many of my peers.
So, let’s amend Farber’s explanation of why things are the way they are: Perhaps we’ve moved away from the brutish, rape-and-pillage kind of rock-and-roll because masculinity is not the determining factor for good music. Maybe Jimi Hendrix was sexy, and certainly played that guitar like he might play a woman’s body, but maybe he was also flipping innovative, and more than that—*gasp*—EMOTIVE. That’s right. He had feelings, and if that guitar didn’t wail, I don’t know what does. Innovation, the ability to communicate through sound, sincerity of feeling—these are gender-neutral qualities that, well, I think contribute more to music’s longevity and level of impact than the degree to which it simply makes you horny, hungry or angry.
To Farber’s credit, he does say that, with the exception of Bon Iver, the shift away from frathouse rock has “made for some of the most inventive, and just plain different-sounding, music in decades.” According to Farber, it’s more a matter of “balance.” But again, I would argue that the way to achieve balance isn’t through regression, but through new tools, as well as organic kind of ingenuity. People who are sick of Bon Iver will make music that isn’t like Bon Iver, but leave the Bon Ivers of the world alone. And it’s not like exuberant, smart, punkish stuff doesn’t exist anymore—just listen to Ponytail or No Age, for heaven’s sake.
The problem with the Daily News argument is that it conflates biting rock and roll with gender identity. And as any gender studies major will tell you, the gender binary is so over. The ideal of the violent, competitive male and the coy, nurturing female serve neither individuals nor society well. And trying to argue that we should use these ideological structures to measure the quality of our music is like arguing that we should use an abacus to do our taxes.