In Defense of Hype, Sorta 

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Make no mistake about it: At this year's CMJ Music Marathon, you will without question learn the proper way to pronounce the name of the xx, a much talked-about British band consisting of four extremely mopey-looking 20-year-olds. As of this writing, they're scheduled to play four shows during the five-day festival, and it won't be at all surprising if, when all is said and done, they've played twice that amount, all of which will be filled to capacity with a crowd that's equal parts attractive young people and decidedly less attractive old industry nerds. And bloggers, of course. They're somewhere in the middle. It might seem like a lot of fuss to be made over a bunch of kids who can't even legally drink on these shores just yet, but... sure, maybe it is.

You'd think we would have learned by now.

And for a little while there, it looked like we had--pecifically, in the weeks and months following the CMJ Music Marathon way back in 2007, when you couldn't go ten minutes without hearing someone ordaining Black Kids saviors of rock and roll. The band had formed just a little over a year earlier and rarely played shows outside their hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. In August of 2007, they self-released their debut EP, Wizard of Ahhhs, for free via their MySpace page. It would eventually earn the Best New Music tag and an 8.4 from Pitchfork, and by the time CMJ rolled around in October, they'd secured a glowing endorsement from the New York Times. Their shows were selling out like crazy, and they'd even joined the festival circuit: Coachella, Glastonbury, Reading, etc.

All of this on the merit of one EP. Four songs. Fifteen minutes and six seconds worth of music.

When the time came for Black Kids to release their debut full-length, Partie Traumatic, in July of 2008, the music press already seemed to have recognized that it had made a mistake, that things were moving just a little too fast, and that its credibility was very much on the line. So, with its back against the wall, it lashed out at the band, dragging them down as quickly and with as much vigor as they'd built them up just months earlier. The whole thing culminated with the now famous Pitchfork "review" that read, simply, "Sorry :-/".

It was disrespectful and childish, but it also captured exactly how a lot of us felt about what had happened to our profession and about how we were treating young bands. That the type of success Black Kids experienced was out there as even a remote possibility for other young bands could only be a bad thing, and we knew it, and it was mostly our fault. So for the next little while, you got the sense that people were being a bit more careful about who they declared important or messianic or whatever. It didn't last, though, and it's probably high time we acknowledge that it never will.

Cynically, we could blame this on the fact that everyone--from bloggers to, well, mostly bloggers, but also print journalists living in constant fear of becoming irrelevant--is more willing than ever to go on record with an opinion long before any valuable opinion has had time to form. Since no one wants to seem behind the curve, it's easier, and less risky, to simply go along with what's already being said. It snowballs, and before you know it, you have a band playing The Tonight Show that can't do more than a half-hour at the Mercury Lounge.

There is definitely some truth to this argument, but there's something a little less sinister at play, as well: For those of us who are so inclined, there are very few things more exciting than hearing a new band that, out of nowhere, seems to understand everything everyone's been talking, singing and writing about in the 50-some odd years since rock and roll started. To a certain extent, what's going on today has been going on that whole time: Everyone wants to be the one to tell their friends about the great new band. It's just that, because of the Internet, and because of the newfound viability of "indie" in the mainstream marketplace, the stakes are higher than they were when you were just a loudmouth at the corner table of your favorite bar, or even when you were a DJ at your college radio station. You have more friends now, even if most of them only exist in an alphabetized list on your Facebook page, or as anonymous readers of your personal blog, or as people you communicate with on a message board. Somewhere out there, someone stands to make a decent living by staying tuned into the things you and your "friends" are talking about, and it complicates things greatly.

But should any of this really affect how we feel, or even act, when we hear something that immediately and truly excites us? By the time I heard the xx, I was already aware that they'd become something of a hot topic in the U.K. (where, it should be noted, they've been doing this whole Next Big Thing dance for far longer than we have), so I was a bit more skeptical than usual going in, which, realistically, is all we can expect from anyone, professional or not. Upon first listen, I rolled my eyes, violently, at their cool detachment, and I quietly derided the general public's enduring weakness for said cool detachment. Then a few weeks later, I heard the record again, this time by accident, and I found myself more impressed. Their taste level is striking for a band their age, early Velvets crossed with a sort of blatant indie-fication of Memphis soul-singing, with some of the most minimal accompaniment you'll ever hear. It's like the instruments take turns more often than they work in unison, and it's a strange and interesting sensation to always know exactly where your attention is supposed to be directed.

All in all, it's a debut that's made me happy to file the xx alongside all the other bands whose next record I will definitely make it a point to listen to. Will I still care about this one in six months? Six weeks, even? Do I think they're deserving of the amount of attention they've gotten? I don't know, and I don't think it matters, particularly. What matters is that someone, somewhere, was so moved by this band that they couldn't stop talking about it. It's neither that person's fault, nor the fault of the band, that other people have knee-jerk reactions, positive or negative, to the excitement of others. The onus is on us, now more than ever, to be diligent about making sure our opinions are fully formed before we share them. Because, while no one wants to see the Black Kids scenario play out over and over again, we also don't want to wind up in a situation where people feel like they risk being frowned upon for going out on a limb and championing a young band. It's what we've always done, and it's what we should continue to do.

And it's pronounced "the ex-ex,"by the way.

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