The Year in Music: A Conversation 

Page 4 of 5

On the Rewards of Ambition in Indie Rock and Elsewhere

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.


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