Ten years ago this month, New York City writer Matthew Perpetua launched Fluxblog, a combination of music criticism and personal writing that’s provided a template for thousands of mp3 blogs created since. By the end of 2002 it had settled into daily song reviews and downloads, an elegant formula that’s been a defining influence on music criticism written for the Internet. Perpetua, now an associate editor at Rolling Stone, went on to contribute to publications like SPIN, New York magazine, Pitchfork, and many others, but still writes daily for the site that got him started.
Wednesday, he began posting a series of gargantuan survey mixes, one marking each year of the site’s life. On the first weekday of each following month, you’ll be able to drown yourself in chronologically distinct moments of pop music’s recent past. (The first mix also exists as a Spotify playlist.) We talked to Perpetua about his ground-breaking site, the writing career it launched, what all perfect pop songs have in common, and why the 2003 mix is going to be insane.
The L: What goals did you have for Fluxblog when you started the site in 2002?
Matthew Perpetua: I had extremely modest goals in the early days of the site. It was mainly written for an audience of people I knew from around the Internet, mainly from the I Love Music and Barbelith online communities. I was just out of art school and hadn’t really considered writing as a career, so it was just something I was doing to kill the time and entertain people who I’d never really met. The first year or so of the site wasn’t in the format I developed with mp3 reviews, it was actually more similar to the Fluxblog Tumblr which would eventually be the sidebar of the site. I’m pretty sure the Tumblr is more popular than the regular site these days, though!
How has curating Fluxblog changed your tastes in music?
It made me more open, especially early on. By setting up a requirement to write about a certain number of songs per week — these days, it’s generally one song per weekday, though I used to do two songs or more — it made me look outside of comfort zones to find things I might like and want to write about. I used to put the emphasis more on discovery, but it’s shifted over time to being more focused on writing, so for the most part I write about what interests me as a writer. Somewhere along the line I felt like the audience I have cares more about me and what I’m writing than in discovering things — there are lots of other, more efficient way to find out the newest possible thing. Which isn’t to say that I don’t want to write about the newest possible thing, just that I’m not a slave to it and don’t mind dropping everything to write about some song from a long time ago or a record from the recent past that isn’t in a hype cycle anymore.
As a medium, does blog writing lose its relevancy over time? Are a site’s archives always valuable as a record?
The writing stays relevant if it’s good. If you’re engaging with the art or ideas, it’s still going to be interesting and valuable to people who care about the topic. It’s really helpful to go back and see what people were saying about something in a moment. It’s good for perspective. And also, while news and hype stuff ages poorly, good critical writing has a way of staying relevant if just because a lot of things about art and the way we relate to doesn’t change very much over time.
What use is ten years of archives for you as a writer? Do you often refer back to things you’ve written in the past?
It’s nice to have a deep back catalog! I occasionally recycle stuff from the site on Tumblr if the mood strikes me. Like, I’ll put up a video of a song and pair it with what I wrote about it a few years ago. The writing is seldom dated, mainly because I generally avoid talking too much about context and focus on what makes the songs work.
Is there one single piece of music criticism you’ve written in the last ten years, that stands out to you as your best work?
There’s a lot of posts that I like a lot, so it’s hard to pick one in particular. I’m not one of those writers who cringes at their own work. I typically forget it all, and when I read it, it’s like someone else wrote it and I can appreciate it and sometimes even be like “wow, how did I do that?” I mean, the really old stuff is kinda embarrassing, but I think by the time 2005 rolls around, there’s a baseline level of quality where even if it’s not a winner, it’s not going to bum me out much. A lot of my favorite critical writing actually appears on my R.E.M. site Pop Songs 07-08, my favorite of that bunch might be my “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” post. That’s a good example of something where I can’t even remember writing it and wish I knew how I pulled it off, because I’d like to do stuff like that all the time.
Is there one subject you’ve written about that you’d consider the major theme of your writing about music?
I use criticism as a vehicle to write about a lot of pet themes and things that interest me. It’s not artificial or forced; I usually like the songs because there are themes that resonate with me. Anyway, there’s a few, and they kinda evolve and change over time. There was definitely a phase when I was writing about anxiety all the time. Thankfully, that’s kinda behind me. I like songs that are optimistic, I like songs that are about dealing with issues of identity. I like songs that are about trying to understand or negotiate the dynamics of relationships. I like songs that offer advice, whether it’s good or very dubious. I like songs that are about being creative, whether it’s about dealing with an audience or the thrill of making something. (For the former, the best song I can think of on that topic is “A Message to My Audience” by the unfairly obscure band Maxi Geil and Playcolt, and for the latter, the high water mark may be “Sweet Music” by Kylie Minogue. I’m also really big on songs in which the singer seems to be willing a fantasy into reality, especially because sometimes, in a way, songs can make those wishes come true, either for the artist or the listener.
Can you walk us through the whittling down and sequencing process of your year-by-year survey mixes? Are you constantly discovering songs you missed for any given year?
It’s a huge undertaking, and much easier when it comes to doing it for the year you’re in, because I always have a playlist on my iPod with my favorite songs from the year, and that is my default playlist. So I can just basically use that as a guide, and then fill it in with stuff I missed by looking at what other critics were into, what was on the charts, stuff like that. Looking backwards, I can go on my own archives, though that’s not too helpful for the first couple years of the site. I get help from other friends and critics, and they remind me of what I’m forgetting, or what I might not even know that should be included. These surveys will include some amount of songs by artists that I don’t really care about, but I feel should be represented because they were a big part of that moment. In 2002, for example, I have a song by Bright Eyes. At the time, I could barely contain my disdain for that band. I still don’t care much for Bright Eyes, but that song “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” is pretty decent and fits in well.
Once I get a long list of songs together, I spend some time sequencing them into however many discs is necessary. I try to make them flow well, and to mix up genres, because I think that’s important, keeps things dynamic, and makes the listener realize that for the most part, really good songs are more similar to each other than not. Especially with my taste, which favors uptempo music over slow or ambient stuff.
You’ve alluded to your opinion that 2003 is likely to be the best of these. What is it about the music released that year that makes it so vital?
2003 is, in my mind, one of the very best years for music across the board, up there with 1994, 1967, 1969, 1971 and 1977. The sheer quantity of incredible music that came out in those years is staggering. 2003 in particular is just this time where you have nearly all of the major artists of the entire decade either emerging on the scene or putting out defining works. 2002 and 2003 share this really excited spirit, and an openness about what pop music could be. Everyone was just going for it, and there were a lot of huge personalities creating brilliant singles, whether it was at the top of the charts like with Beyoncé, Outkast and Britney Spears, or in the indie rock world, or dance music, or a boom in straight-up pop music that seemed to only exist on the internet. A lot of the early phases of Fluxblog was focused on putting a spotlight on this alternate universe of pop music that was coming up at the time, and some of those artists – Scissor Sisters, LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A., The Knife – ended up breaking through as big stars down the line.
What, in your opinion, is common to all perfect pop songs?
Some kind of urgency. Great pop needs to present and emotion you can key into immediately. You can just hear it and know what the artist is saying, and the lyrics are almost like subtitles for what the music is getting across.