Posts tagged "criticism"

Throughout my own music listening history, few experiences have been as dispiriting as the brief period when, as a 19-year-old, I conscientiously attempted to plough through several “classic albums”, even reading up on them in the vain hope that this information would make the dreary music coming out of my speakers suddenly click in my brain. None of it ever seemed as vibrantly, vitally alive as the music I was actually thrilled by at the time.

Alex Macpherson, “Public Enemy are rubbish? If only more classic albums got this treatment …,” The Guardian, July 17, 2012

I nodded my head with recognition at this because I did the same thing once upon a time — also when I was 19, incidentally — and like Lex, I found it rather a dispiriting experience. The best lesson I learned from that period of my life was that setting yourself homework is the worst way to experience art.

And yet my story of engaging with the canon only to realize its worthlessness is only partially true. My eager absorption of the classics is not something I could or would want to repeat now, but I did get something out of it at the time. Forcing myself to seek out the music and movies and books that popular consensus had deemed unimpeachable made me realize that many of those works weren’t worth the acclaim, but it also expanded my horizons and introduced me to things I genuinely did enjoy — or even love.

And I can’t do that anymore. I can’t embrace the worth of a project of watching “classic” films and reading “classic” books and listening to “classic” records the way I did in my first year of university, even though there are so many of those that I still haven’t watched, read, or heard. (Perhaps one thing I’m better aware of now is the number of non-classic works I haven’t experienced.) But the period of my life shaped by an insatiable desire to conquer the canon had some worth, beyond even realizing the eventual worthlessness of such a desire.


The author speaks!

And then there’s the would-be hipster nod to Heatmiser’s “Not Half Right” on the swooning Smallville balladry of “Kill” (“like your favorite Heatmiser song said/ It’s just like being alone”). Elliott Smith’s only been dead for a year, guys — a little respect, please.

Great moments in Pitchfork vs emo. (Previously. And.)

n.b. No shots at the author of the review, who may see this post and who is someone I like and respect. I didn’t remember who wrote it until I looked it up, but if you’re making someone think about one of your reviews eight years after it was written, you’re doing something right.

(I totes think “Kill" is a great JEW song though. Up there with "Pain," "Work," "Big Casino" and "Jen" in terms of great Adkins-penned post–Bleed American tracks. And, no, that’s not a long list.)


thepretender said: hey, just wanted to say i thought your take on 45 by the gaslight anthem on singles jukebox was completely on point, definitely summed the track up better than i did. -a fellow jonathan

Hey, thanks! That’s great to hear!

I’m never particularly happy with what I write about Gaslight Anthem. I talk about the way the band’s sound has changed over the years in my take on “45,” but as with my reviews of “American Slang" and the Horrible Crowes’s "Behold the Hurricane,” I think I really only scratch the surface of what it is that makes this band so compelling. (For that matter, I’m intrigued very much by your contention that “Brian Fallon is some sort of master at second verses.”)

I still haven’t worked out how to talk about the Gaslight Anthem. I’m well aware of the problem Mike talks about when he says

The fact that you’re writing about a piece of art nearly sacred to you can easily turn into a conviction that it doesn’t matter what you say because you are writing about the greatest thing in the entire world, and that lazy transformation of collectively-held art into personal totem or bullshit “but I was there!”-ism makes for awfully boring reading. The mere fact that you liked an album is not interesting to anyone but you.

As Kelefa Sanneh says, “good critics are good listeners,” but even a good listener needs self-knowledge. So though I can listen to what Brian Fallon’s music does, I haven’t been able to identify why it does what it does to me. Which is a shame: it means instead of talking about the music, I talk about the sounds it makes. 

It’s strange how that works. I like about six or seven Katy Perry songs but can go into great detail about exactly how I feel about Perry’s music. But for one of my favorite bands ever, I can’t go much beyond they have guitars and there are emotions

Incidentally, fellow Jonathan, you share a name with one of my favorite political bloggers. We Jonathan Bs show up in the strangest internet places. 


In this schema, rock is metonymic with “authenticity” while “pop” is metonymic with “artifice.” Sliding even further down the metonymic slope, “authentic” becomes “masculine while “artificial” becomes “feminine.” Rock, therefore, is “masculine,” pop is “feminine,” and the two are set in a binary relation to each other with the masculine, of course, on top.

Norma Coates, “(R)evolution Now,” in Sheila Whitely (ed.), Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender (1997)

This is as good a delineation as any of the not-so-subtle prejudices at work in rockism, and I suspect comes as no surprise to many of my readers. But critics seem to react to this schema in two ways. Some, and I include myself in this group, want to dissolve the hierarchical structure of popular culture entirely, and embrace the pluralistic potential of creative expression.

Others seek to invert the hierarchy while preserving its stultifying rigidity, heaving artifice up over authenticity in the vain hope of creating a new order. These critics seem as if they might read about Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh fighting the culture wars, and think: That’s fantastic! If only I could talk about my record collection in the same way!

"President Obama likes Radiohead. What a snob."


Oh, hang on...

Tyler is a clever but effortful rapper, working hard to squeeze jokes and ideas into his lyrics, and harder still to push his lyrics out with his inflamed bronchia. In one typically sturdy and obnoxious couplet, inspired by his disdain for the Los Angeles phenomenon known as jerking (a briefly ascendant local dance craze), he seems to be repeating himself, though he is actually changing the meaning by tweaking the words:

I hate gays, gang-bangers, and fuckin’ jerkers—
unless it’s gay gang-bangers that’s fucking jerkers.


These are stubborn, declarative lines; like many of Tyler’s best lyrics, this one is a lumpy sentence beaten, more or less, into verse. Earl is more graceful, more fluid, and although he shares Tyler’s belief that sex and violence are funny, especially in combination, he often gets distracted by the musical potential of words. At his best, he pushes his lyrics to the brink of gibberish, delighting in the echoing syllables:

Your grind’s feeble, I’m regal — really, I’m Willy Smith,
“I Am Legend,” a Snicker dick in a vanilly chick.

Kelefa Sanneh, “Where’s Earl?" The New Yorker, May 23, 2011

That OF article Kelefa Sanneh did was really great, though everyone at the time was distracted by the NEW YORKER FOUND EARL angle.


five words — “what might have been lost” — which signal the song’s shift from a series of chords that ring without any clear time signature to a steady 3/4 stomp that uses those five words as a main motif … Those words are what get me — joined with melody, they seem like a summary of the entire album, especially with that highly conditional “might.” Trying to keep track of everything lost? Or celebrating what wasn’t?

Sasha Frere-Jones, “Into the Woods: The Bon Iver sound,” The New Yorker, January 12, 2009

From an unfinished thing I wrote about Bon Iver:

People who dislike Justin Vernon usually do a much better job of writing about him than people like me, who like him. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything about Bon Iver I’ve been happy with. My review of “Holocene" was a cop out, in which I strung together words that, in combination, amounted to little:

Listening to “Holocene” in isolation draws its static beauty into focus a little, sharpening details like the muted handclaps and shifting bass that I’d previously disregarded.

My take on “Calgary wasn’t much better, though I think I was getting somewhere when I mentioned “the unexpected brutality of his best songs.” On considering one of my favorite songs of 2011, “Beth/Rest,” I made a comparison to Dream Academy, but shrank away from continuing down that path and feinted with this:

If the 2011 adventures in reinterpreting soft rock (see also: Destroyer) have been more than pose and irony, it’s because they’ve taken musical wallpaper and filled in the emotions that played out before that decor. 

In response to this charge by Alfred Soto, I have to plead guilty:

The embrace of Destroyer and Bon Iver couldn’t obviate a holding-your-nose attitude towards the eighties acts to which these acts purportedly alluded. If contempt towards a precursor is going to be the line, we owe it our readers to explain how Dan Bejar and Justin Vernon transpose these influences; we must examine the paradox whereby Chicago, Bruce Hornsby, Howard Jones, and The Blow Monkeys, to name a few artists cited all year by critics (including yours truly), suck but Destroyer and Bon Iver don’t.

Well, except that I don’t really know anything about Chicago, Howard Jones, or the Blow Monkeys. (Bruce Hornsby contributed to a good Pac song.)

But of pro-Bon Iver–related writing, one of the better examples is SFJ’s early take.


Not everyone appreciates or respects that legacy but it is substantial and will outlast the circumstances of her death and a latter-day reputation centred more on erratic behaviour and drug use than talent.

Bernard Zuel, “One of modern pop’s greatest voices falls silent but the echoes will last forever,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 13, 2012

This was from the news story on the front page of the Herald yesterday reporting Houston’s death. Am I alone in thinking those first seven words are a bit… uncalled for? I mean, there’s not a musician alive whose legacy is appreciated by everyone, but I don’t expect we’ll see news stories after, say, Elvis Costello dies that include asides reading “yeah, but some people think he was a bit shit.”

It’s not that I demand hagiography after a major star’s death — I thought Alfred Soto’s deeply ambivalent eulogy was excellent — but I don’t see the point in using the occasion to reiterate that a recently departed performer was never permitted proper entry into the rock canon, as if that fact says something important about her life.

Incidentally, I know almost nothing of Houston’s catalogue. I was turned off when I took an instant dislike to “I Will Always Love You” and I never found a way back in. That’s my failing; it’s not too late to explore.


gazzyd-deactivated20130912 said: Who else is talking intelligently about hip-hop, on tumblr or otherwise? Please advise.

Oh, wow, awesome question. Excuse me if I go on a bit.

You will find some of the best rap writing on the Internet at the Passion of the Weiss, founded and published by all-round good dude Jeff Weiss, whose Tumblr is here. Passion writers Sach O and Martin Douglas are both real smart on hip-hop, though they seem to spend more of their time writing about bass music (Sach) or garage rock (Martin) these days.

I’ll also recommend the Singles Jukebox-affiliated writers Andy Hutchins and Michelle Myers, and not as a professional courtesy. I started reading Andy and Michelle long before they started writing for the Jukebox.

Elsewhere, you should definitely be keeping an eye on Nate PatrinDavid Turner, Willy Staley, Brandon Soderberg, Jordan SargentDavid Drake (who can also, with some other dudes, be found at So Many Shrimp), oh, and, naturally, Noz. If Real Nigga Tumblr ever comes back, make sure to keep an eye on him as well.

There are many more, and if I haven’t mentioned you, it’s almost certainly because you slipped my mind, not because I think you suck. (It might also be that you used to write about rap, but I haven’t seen you doing it much lately.) Which is why anyone reading this should reply with any other recommendations for gazzyd that you can think of.



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