Jeff Klingman: Is it time to officially note that the open-source music criticism utopia some predicted last decade with the rise of the MP3 blog officially never came to pass? It's harder, not easier, to start a new site with any sort of cultural currency than it's ever been. Blogs with any sort of clout, like Gorilla vs. Bear, or 20jazzfunkgreats, say, are the ones that got in on the ground floor, and are now officially sub-sections of Pitchfork. There's even less money in it than writing for a traditional publication. Can we stick a fork in it?
Mike Conklin:Well, that would be nice, wouldn't it? I know I risk coming off like I'm just trying to protect my profession here, and it's not that there aren't some people out there doing very good work in the medium, but the lack of commentary, or at least the lack of valuable commentary is, I believe, starting to wear on everyone's nerves. Enough people have spilled enough words about the problems with simply racing to be the first one to post something that I have to believe it's become accepted as fact at this point. And the other thing I like to think people are growing weary of is that even in spite of what seems like it should be a more personal connection, my god, those blogs are just too fucking dry
Jeff:Well, no one is going to stop kids from starting new sites, and there may well be some as of yet unseen technological shift that will make the endeavor finally seem truly vital, but I think what no one reckoned with in those exciting early days is that the longer the MP3 blog exists, the harder it becomes to make any kind of dent in people's awareness by starting one. Like, if you asked what are some good music bogs, you'd get roughly the same answers today that you did five years ago. I think maybe the focus on obscurity and newness that people saw as a shortcut to relevancy is now proven exactly backwards. It's really perspective and time that are key to affecting criticism, right? You see that in how smart critical folks like Matt Perpetua, Maura Johnston, Eric Harvey, etc., have been mooning over Steve Hyden's "Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?" pieces running in the Onion AV Club. Now, there might be small blogs out there who do the same sort of thing, at a high level, but it's really tough to find them without some kind of authoritative filter pointing us there. Which is what the first wave of MP3 bloggers were trying to shake off, in a way. What other trends do you see in terms of more traditional publications taking back the lead in terms of driving the critical conversation?
Mike:First and foremost, we're seeing a lot more lists, of course—it's all "13 Reasons We Think This" or "8 Things I Hate About That," and on the surface, it's troubling. But as with anything, in the right hands, those lists can be really smart and integral to all sorts of conversations, big and small, if the writer is so equipped. And if all we have to do to get some power back into the hands of people with smart things to say is to present those things in list form, it doesn't seem all that bad.
Mike:As far as I'm concerned, the worst thing the big scary internet and its many blogs have done to music criticism is make it so that talented, professional writers are so disgusted by the whole thing that they've turned their back on a lot of important things and ushered in an era of unprecedented, debilitating contrarianism.
Jeff:What do you mean by that, exactly?
Mike:Just that the intellectual playfulness that was at the heart of a lot of populist criticism during the first half of the 00's, from guys like Klosterman and Sheffield, has sort of gone missing. And in its place, we have something equally populist but far more aggressive, where the de facto stance of most respected critics is that if you don't like Katy Perry or Odd Future as much as you like Fleet Foxes or, god forgive you, The Decemberists, then there's something wrong with you—either you're lying or have bad taste.
My pet theory about this is that as more and more people gained access to more and more of the records we used to have before everyone else and our opinions became less important, critics sort of recoiled—out of fear, out of frustration, out of anger—and when they finally mustered up the strength to fight back, they did so by using their considerable smarts to think up the craziest, most counter-intuitive shit you could ever imagine, and then sort of rolling their eyes at anyone who didn't feel the same way. I've said it before, but I think we're talking ourselves into a corner here, and it's exhausting, conter-productive and dangerous.
Jeff: Especially in Brooklyn, one sort of music that seems amazingly evergreen is indie-pop, in the classic 80s sense: spritely, sensitive, fuzzed-out guitar music played by young people who occasionally rock out, but not, like, as a rule.�
Mike: Yeah, with the Beach Fossils and Real Estates of the world continuing to do a fairly loyal version of that thing, it's easy to to sort of let the term "indie-pop" carry on as it always has, as a narrow, niche sound that appeals to nerds in sweaters.
Jeff: It's a frustratingly narrow definition though, for a term that meant to describe so much of current state of underground music, which continues to be less and less dominated by dudes with guitars, and more and more dominated by kids toying with electronic textures. It's time we opened that term up to swallow a universe of kids who are continually omnivorous in dusting off lost cultural blips for reexamination. On the higher end of the scale isn't that really a better definition for consistently solid craftsmen like Hot Chip or James Murphy, and even straight up would-be chart pop artists like Robyn? And what is Ariel Pink's "Round and Round" if not a personal, low-scale take on capital-P pop? Is "indie-pop" in this expansive sense really the dominant mode for independant music right now?
Mike: For me, it's a question of what the one or two defining characteristics of something called indie-pop are or should be. The more I think about it, the more your assertions make sense, and I think we may have different reasons why: Indie-pop, as far as I'm concerned, has always been music that, at its best, has the hooks necessary to find big, mainstream success, but that then goes and, out of principal or taste or necessity or just straight-up not knowing any better, sort of sabotages itself in some way—whether it's by willfully obscuring those hooks with reverb or fuzz or general low-quality recording, which would theoretically account for people like Beach Fossils and Ariel Pink, or it's by arting 'em up with electronics and whatnot, like Hot Chip and LCD. This is maybe a reductive way to look at things, I realize.
Jeff: But I guess what I'm really getting at is that the strains I appreciate the most are those who are either confident enough to commit to crisp clarity, or if they are going for a lower fidelity, at least have something specific to achieve with it. Ariel had my favorite record this year, and I think it's because although on the surface the music is interesting because it's giving a weird, idiosyncratic sheen to styles of pop music that aren't easy to think of as high-art. But beyond that he gets to a place where you its approximating the subjective experience of listening to the glossy, studio perfect pop of his childhood through the imperfect delivery systems, and crappy mall speaker of the day. I mean, that's interesting in a way that Dum Dum Girls or Best Coast doing 60s ballads with slightly more fuzz just isn't. Pop to me means at least an attempt to connect, not obscure facile songs with harsher tones which is a bit f a distancing mechanism. Which is why I'm getting awfully tired of indie pop in the classic sense, but don't have a better term to describe the stuff that felt really vital to me this year.
Jeff: It's conventional wisdom now that all but the sternest listeners have caved into Internet and playlist culture and have a harder time giving certain things, like Joanna Newsom's sprawling Have One on Me the attention they probably demand. Should artists feel compelled to cater to shrinking attention spans? Should we reward them with praise when they confound them, for being brave and artistically true, or are they just out of touch?
Mike: I mean, to address your first question (which I think you know the answer to), no, of course artists shouldn't feel compelled to cater to shrinking attention spans or any other type of attention spans. They should, quite obviously, feel compelled to do whatever feels right to them, whatever feels important—and if the public isn't down with it, well then fuck, such is life, I guess: maybe people will come around to it when you're dead.
As for the second part, that's where things get tricky. I feel like there's this thing going on where we're letting artists establish the grounds on which we judge their work, and it's strange. The most obvious example is Kanye, of course, who, seems to think he deserves some sort of grand pat on the back for releasing a track with the word "Interlude" in its title. As I said in my review (and in my blurb a few pages back), he made a really good fucking record that is just by no means perfect, as the silly Pitchfork review claimed. This is a real problem for me, and I think it's worth noting that ambition is maybe viewed a little differently depending on the genre at hand. It's a question of precedent, to an extent—Kanye tried to do things on that record that no one had ever though to do on a hip-hop record before. Whereas with someone like Joanna Newsom, well, a lot of people said a lot of really nice things about that record, but it was also just sort of whatever. It wasn't exactly big news that she would go and make something so challenging and enveloping, so no one made too big a deal about it.
Jeff:In terms of genre, I generally agree, but it's not quite cut and dry. Take the Nicki Minaj album. Despite her ambition to do what she thought would get her the biggest audience, which going by sales seems to have worked, reviewers were definitely bummed that she didn't think attempt to conquer all just with her rap skills. One sort of ambition still feels prized. But when Kanye uses his weird Ego/Id stuff and expansive artistic tics with the express goal of also being bigger than Taylor Swift, bigger than anybody, it combines both definitions, and that story is too good to pass up. The only way Pitchfork is part of a story that big is with a 10.0. It's the only arrow left in the quiver. 9.6 doesn't trend on Twitter.
And I was playing devil's advocate a bit, yes, because no one wants to be in the position of arguing against as artist's freedom of expression, whatever form that ends up taking. But, I think it is interesting to note records that do seem plugged into an eroded collective attention span. Have One on Me is this huge, pretty thing that's also sort of tough to slot into your life as a listener, for me at least. But while I respect its expansiveness on it's own terms for even existing, something like Janelle Monae's album feels like it has a better grasp on how people listen to music now. With listening culture being so dominated by playlists, especially for younger listeners, I think it's really smart to sequence albums as a logical path across genres and styles. Listeners are more eclectic now, so it doesn't make sense that the majority of albums, especially by young bands, so monochromatic.
Jeff:I think we're in for a greater 90s revival, as has been predicted without much effect for years, but not in the way people might expect. People usually say this meaning a return to loud guitars, but I think we'll actually see every part of the 90s landscape instead of loud, alt-rock guitars come into greater vogue. Already, and we can probably pin this a little bit on the Dirty Projectors, I'm seeing a lot of new bands playing with the melismatic singing and slow-grooves of 90s R & B. Rave music is making a bit of a comeback, though thankfully, not rave culture or fashion as much. You saw Wavves get some begrudging respect for getting himself together, if only to revive dumb Offspring/Blink 182 pop-punk. I'm basically living in fear that some some devastatingly attractive, compelling bunch of kids are going to conquer the 'hood just playing reverent, lunkheaded 90s alt-ska music.
Mike: In some horrible, half-serious way, I'd almost rather have a bunch of kids running around talking about how good Reel Big Fish or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones were than to have them running around writing shittier versions of Color Me Bad songs. You can say what you will about those silly ska-punk bands, but my goodness, at least they had roots in some sort of counter-culture. The thing that drives me crazy about this 90s R&B revival that's being threatened is that it's encouraging people who think everything they liked when they were 14 was good and is worth recreating just because a bunch of other people happened to have had the same experiences. That's my wish for 2011: that we learn to be more ashamed of the shameful aspects of our past and not simply come up with new and exciting ways to convince people they aren't actually shameful.