by carl wilson

Tall Ships Made of Snow, Invading the Sun

iceboats.jpg
"Ice sailing, Toronto Harbour, 1912," by John Boyd, Archives of Ontario.

In today's final episode of the Slate Music Club, I go ultrapatriotic and try to introduce U.S. readers to Destroyer, Final Fantasy, Laura Barrett and Blocks Recording Club, while also making encomiums to Matmos and Howe Gelb, and sniping a bit at Nickleback, Dylan and Girl Talk. (Main regret: How did I get through that whole series without ever mocking the Decemberists?) I know it's the start of the holiday weekend, but keep an eye peeled for Ann Powers' final installment later today, in which she tries to respond to some of the rockist hateration we've received from Slate readers in "The Fray" - relevant for anyone who's been following this thread in the Zoilus comments.

Aside from that, later I'll post use the player below to hear the 1998 Giant Sand Xmas song that Gelb played at the show here last week, Christmas Everyday (Maybe It'll Help), and I'm on my way out to make sure my family doesn't get stuck with, like, nectarines for Xmas. Have a happy one if you're celebrating it (and if you're not too), and we'll catch you back here after Boxing Day.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 22 at 12:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (18)

 

COMMENTS

Hey Carl -- Happy New Year! Here's to a better '07.

Posted by john on December 31, 2006 6:08 PM

 

 

Thanks, Christine. And yup, I'm old!

Interesting image there, Scott - that the person who likes the most popular music is the weirdo at the back of the class. This is what happens when the class is mostly made up of weirdos. It's kind of a total inversion of the social order. Which sounds cool, except for the way that when nerds get their revenge, they can tend to turn into the worst fucking snobs of all time.

Posted by zoilus on December 28, 2006 2:12 PM

 

 

hey carl! merriest of non-denominational holidays to ya! and happy belated b-day!

you're old.

xoxo

Posted by christine on December 28, 2006 12:56 AM

 

 

> "there has been in the last several years a very strong shift in views of pop among the rock-based critic world compared to what prevailed in North America from approx. '77 to the late '90s..."

You're right, Carl, I was nitpicking, and I agree with your comment insofar as the dominant strain of rock criticism goes (i.e., most glossy music magazines, most daily newspaper music journalism, etc.). There have always been a lot of smart critics going against that grain, treating pop as seriously as everything else, but those voices have, in general, been much more confined to the margins. (Ironic that, before the web, one had to--in the '80s and '90s, I mean--mostly look to underground fanzines to find intelligent writing about Top 40 pop. It's always seemed to me something like the 90-10 rule: 90% of rock critics are most interested in what 10% of the rest of the population purchases.) But yeah, on a general level, the 'shift' you mention has been occurring. I do think there are real limits to how far into pop most critics will go, but those limits are probably not dissimilar to the limits of how far most critics will go into the outer edges of avant-garde music or death metal or whatever (in other words, it's about as likely that your average rock critic will be interested in the new JoJo single as they will into some weirdo noise-metal outfit from Denmark; some will, of course, but there's a somewhat fringe stigma attached. As someone not just interested in but largely prejudiced towards Top 40 pop--and pop sounds in general, as opposed to noisy, arty, messy, atonal shit, which I also can love and which are also sometimes PART of pop--I've long felt much more like the weirdo at the back of the classroom than the Joanna Newsom fan, assuming, that is, that the classroom consists of my peers.).

Posted by scott on December 28, 2006 12:33 AM

 

 

Carl,

Good point about Ann not denying her rockist past. I imagine you might not disagree that it would be pleasant for all concerned if I were to find a way to tamp down my inner Stalinist-Puritan urges that want to see people shipped off to John's Own Utopian Re-Education Camp for Abject Confession.

I was a rockist too, but strictly amateur, and by the time I was digging the Jackie Gleason Orchestra, age 19, I had found the bohemian game of one-downs-manship, from which I have yet to recover.

Posted by john on December 27, 2006 6:34 PM

 

 

Scott, I wouldn't disagree at all with you about how things were in the founding decade of rock criticism (which we can call something like 1967-77, right?) - but yes, punk did change things, as did the classic-rock reactionary digging-in after disco, etc., and while I might have been exaggerating and too self-congratulatory in my phrasing, I do think my point iks accurate: that there has been in the last several years a very strong shift in views of pop among the rock-based critic world compared to what prevailed in North America from approx. '77 to the late '90s. The situation in the UK was different because the post-punk/new-wave period there was more mainstream and had the benefit of critics at the NME etc., the people who invented the construct "rockism" as a criticism, but Americans have only caught up with it this decade.

As for Timberlake as an easy example - yeah, of course, but look at Jody's opening list of favourite albums and singles, or the positive mentions of American Idol in the discussion. He was far from the sole case of pop being praised, and my use of him definitely had to do with the vitriol around our praise of him from readers in the Fray. I'd also argue that the embrace of metal and country in our discussion is at least implicitly strongly anti-rockist (though metal fans are rockists, most rockists have not been metal fans in the criticism world).

And the accusations that John makes above about someone like Ann having been one of the people who promoted rockism in the past - well, that's true of me too. What she and I (and probably Jon, though not Jody) are in re: pop are converts from what was by far the status quo of the "alternative music" ghetto (from whence most current critics come, methinks). I don't deny that and Ann didn't either, and I consider her and me and dozens of others like us perhaps the best evidence that, yes, something has changed. Though of course it hasn't totally changed yet - and for some of the reasons Peli raises above, there are questions about whether a 100 percent turnaround is really what we're seeking here - pro-pop sentiments shouldn't become just as kneejerk as anti-pop ones were, should they?

Posted by zoilus on December 27, 2006 1:48 PM

 

 

im not the music-geek i once was

and my blog doesnt have much to do with music these days

but thanks so much for Zoilus, Carl

happy birfday

and top of the season to ya! :)

Posted by Rob on December 24, 2006 2:52 AM

 

 

actually, peli, it's a fair question that does account for tendencies i share and am not proud of (that is, to ignore the wider context of certain pop things altogether, to not even let a performer's persona enter into the equation when discussing their music). i've gotten so irritated in the past about the predominance of the 'how' over the 'what' in criticism of certain musics, that i probably have swung in some sort of reaction in the other direction.

Posted by scott on December 23, 2006 9:28 AM

 

 

[err... I was asumming way too much about your position in the previous comment, possibly conflating your opinion with tendecies you might not take part in at all]

Posted by peli grietzer on December 23, 2006 3:21 AM

 

 

scott- Is it that insane for a critic to feel that in the Paris Hilton case, it's more urgent for him\her to say what he\she has to say about the social and cultural state that made Paris Hilton an idol than to meticulously review a cd of (as I understand) averagely good music? Or is it strictly forbidden to feel that any cultural or social phenomenon is negative (as long as it's not indie or artsy -- then it's hunting season)?

Posted by Peli Grietzer on December 23, 2006 3:15 AM

 

 

[i clearly should have edited that rant somewhat...hope the points aren't too muddled.]

Posted by scott on December 23, 2006 12:44 AM

 

 

In the slate discussion, Carl wrote: "A decade ago, would you have found even two, let alone four critics in this kind of exchange who'd praise in the same breath an aesthete like Joanna Newsom, a sweaty popthlete like Justin Timberlake, and a whole lot of quick-witted make-believe drug dealers?"

This bothers me a lot, in at least a couple ways. First: yes, a decade ago--in fact, two or three decades ago--it would not have been at all uncommon to find four rock critics in the same room praising a wide breadth of music, including some of the chart pop of the period. "Rock" critics, in general (I'm tempted to but won't say the smart ones, anyway) have always gone out of their way to do this. 30-35 years ago, it's not at all difficult to imagine Christgau, Marcus, Frith, Marsh, Willis, Cohn, Landau, et al. having such a conversation; part of what these people insisted on, in laying down the very foundations of what became rock criticism, was not just having that sort of breadth (Christgau even wrote back then about what a cliché "eclecticism" already was in rock criticism) but in discrediting altogether the usual cultural distinctions between high and low, pop and art, etc. How many rock critics preferred (or at least wrote with more unguarded enthusiasm about) the early Beatles to the post-Pepper Beatles? How many rock critics have written more lovingly about late '60s bubblegum than prog rock? Disco and punk were maybe where an unfortunate divide started to set in (and interestingly, I've noticed that a lot of the early critics dropped out of the game around or not long after that time, which I don't believe is entirely coincidental), but there has never been a period where it would be difficult to find four music critics advocating for stuff all over the map, including pop. (Look at the Stranded discography; the widely-regarded-as-"seminal" Rolling Stone Illustrated History collection; Christgau's record guides; early issues of Creem; The Aesthetics of Rock (the entire book of which is essentially a treatise on Top 40; Nik Cohn's book; Frith's work). Sorry, but it sounds like you're patting your colleagues on the back there for something that has never NOT been happening.

Second: Justin Timberlake is becoming (and you can see this a bit through the Slate discussion) some kind of all-purpose pop strawman. I mean, you need to illustrate your points with examples, I get that, and he's as convenient and available and as relevant as anyone else out there right now, but is it really so surprising that critics are going nuts for Timberlake? In a way, yes it is: he comes out of the boy band thing (and though I haven't read it, it sounds like the Slate Fray people would prove me otherwise). But from a critic's perspective, anyway, it's not like in 2006 he was some left-field pop surprise: he's got album #2 on his belt, he was praised in the New Yorker and other such places a few yrs ago, he long ago proved (to critics who aren't complete imbeciles anyway) that he was "serious" about his music, etc. (When I saw him at that horrible SARS concert a few yrs back, I more than anything felt sorry for the guy that he had to try so hard to prove that he could really play boring extended soul licks on his keyboard.) Critics prejudices are still at work in many ways against pop, but you need to look beyond Timberlake to see it. Try 9 out of 10 smarmy (not remotely interested in the music) reviews of the Paris Hilton CD, for instance. Or note the inbred prejudices most critics still have against American Idol (which are less prejudices against the music than against the concept; prejudices not against the 'what' but against the 'how') There were a lot of great popular songs in 2006 (cf. Natasha Bedingfield's essentially perfect single, "Unwritten") that I didn't see any critics say anything about. Am I totally contradicting my first point here? Yes and no. Yes, because I'm now insisting that there are major anti-pop biases at work in rock criticism; no, because even if that is the case, there are plenty of critics who don't fall for that malarkey (Jody Rosen himself wrote unsmugly about Idol, and I think even Paris Hilton, in Slate).

Posted by scott on December 23, 2006 12:39 AM

 

 

I don't see "hate" in Ann's reply either -- just condescension, in a situation for which I think she historically bore some responsibility.

But maybe Ann wasn't being condescending, maybe I'm wrong -- maybe what I'm feeling there as condescension is genuinely wistful envy and she really does wish she were still a rockist. Ah well, best wishes to her, and to all concerned, and to you too, malstain. "nerd machismo" is a good coinage -- and it seems you mean it in a nice way, which is nice!

Posted by john on December 22, 2006 6:55 PM

 

 

I didn't really see any "hate" in AP's entry. If there was a hint of snark, her whole post was in the form of a reply to those who, among other things, invoked Pearl Jam and the Chili Peppers as artists who the critics "should have" been paying attention to.

And it's puzzling that this whole "artists should write their own songs" mentality persists. I don't recall that Sinatra or Elvis wrote their own songs, to name only two obvious examples.

All of which is just to say that the critic-haters deserved at least a little swipe back. Sure, the whole Music Club exercise was partly a display of nerd machismo (I'll coin a catchier term for that someday), but surely that comes with the territory. I say to Carl and the rest: keep up the good work!

Posted by malstain on December 22, 2006 6:38 PM

 

 

& happy birthday too! My son will want to know (I'm curious too) -- how old are you?

Posted by john on December 22, 2006 6:02 PM

 

 

Hey Carl,

love the ice sailing pic -- my grandpa used to ice sail in Michigan. My people love hockey too, so maybe Michigan is a cultural suburb of Canada? Dug your Canada & localism post -- and the whole discussion . . .

. . . until Ann's last post. Ai yai yai. So condescending! Rockcrit has always been very free with dispensing the hate, and while I don't recall her ever having been hateful, some of her closest friends and loved ones have been, including Bob Christgau, whom I respect a great deal. I see the derisive condescension of a lot of classic rockcrit as a form of hate -- derision is hateful. I do recall her having been a thorough authenticity-mongering rockist. So she's moved on, good for her! Unfortunately for everybody, the hate-spewing of the old regime still lingers. No surprise that it's blowing back now.

Anyway -- sorry about the unpleasantness for all concerned (and of course, as ever, my own role in it), and Merry Holiday to you & yours.

Posted by john on December 22, 2006 6:00 PM

 

 

It's actually tomorrow (the 23rd) - but thank you!

Posted by zoilus on December 22, 2006 5:54 PM

 

 

Hey,

Have a happy birthday today.

Posted by jlon on December 22, 2006 5:23 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson