Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Pazzed Out Cold (Balm in Indiead)

January 20th, 2010

The new Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll is up, and while it’s not the event it once was (because of past turmoil, competition [congrats on outlasting the now worse-than-useless Idolator, P&J], and finally the fact that it now comes lagging behind ten billion other lists and polls) and the top 5 are perhaps the most predictable P&J top 5 ever, there’s always some value in the essays and quotes. I liked (mostly) this remark from Michael Azerrad:

A lot of people sneer at so-called “NPR rock” for being wimpy or something, but it’s a hoary cliché that underground music has to be loud, fast, and out of control. Once upon a time, mainstream culture was blandly, blindly complacent, so underground music was angry and dissatisfied — look at the Velvet Underground droning about heroin while America tried to paste a fluorescent smiley-face over Vietnam; look at the Sex Pistols railing that “England’s dreaming” in ‘77 while the Queen’s silver jubilee distracted from rampant unemployment and racial unrest. But in 2010, mainstream culture isn’t complacent; it’s stupid and angry. So underground culture has become smart and serene. That’s not wimpy — it’s powerful and constructive, a blueprint for kicking against the pricks.

That’s an interesting thing for the guy who wrote the book about Black Flag and Husker Du to say. He’s right that there’s a basic impulse to make music as much unlike Glenn Beck as possible, and that there’s a philosophical/moral undercurrent to it.

I’m not quite so convinced of the historical myth of complacency - America wasn’t stupid & angry during the McCarthy era? Under Nixon? But I also wonder if the dropout oppositional logic of Animal Collective and others, which I applauded in 2004, isn’t now out-of-date - way less serviceable under Obama, who needs to be held to account, than it was under Bush, who was never going to give a shit what you said.

The mainstream mood now actually seems more a mixture of complacent and shell-shocked, and while that (and the nature of media) means that the stupid-and-angry faction resonates way beyond its proportions (as it did, agonizingly, this week in Massachusetts), it also makes it seem much less “powerful and constructive” for the “underground” to sound so compulsively self-soothing.

(Mike Powell makes an affecting case to the contrary although mainly by focusing on content rather than sound; I’m talking more about the thing his dad brings up at the top - all that reverb, smeared over the music like so much Vaseline on a lens, or Bert’s Bees lipbalm or something.)

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  2. DJA says:

    all that reverb, smeared over the music like so much Vaseline on a lens, or Bert’s Bees lipbalm or something

    That is a tic that is every bit as tiresome and grating as auto-tune. And of course, Animal Collective actually dialed the verb back a few notches on MPP — it’s nowhere near as cavernous as their earlier records, or that Panda Bear solo record from a couple of years back. But somewhere, somehow, people seem to have internalized the idea that drowning the music in a reverb bath makes it sound “quirky” and “individualistic,” when in fact it does the exact opposite.

  3. malstain says:

    I was quite intrigued by this admission from Powell’s piece:
    “As I type this, I’m having the same feeling I often have when listening to pop music: How do people come up with this stuff, and how do they find the courage—or maybe it’s the stupidity—to write it down and then sing it?”

    I’ve never before seen a critic outright admit his lack of comprehension of the creative process. Pretty bold but kinda sad too!

  4. Matthew says:

    I’m kind of bored of the argument that popular music has to be progressive to be meaningful. I really like MPP (and I’ve loved AC for years), but I can see why people hate them: they are wanky and drony hippies who use too much reverb. Blaming them for not being something (what? aggressive? shocking?) and somehow connecting this with Obama (really?) seems bizarre.

    And although it’s in music reviewers’ nature to draw big conclusions from essentially random bits of info (and ignoring, say, that the aggressive, stylish and angry YYYs were in the top 5), I’d like to point out that the top 5 are essentially the consolation Oscars for Lifetime Achievement: all five have been around for nearly a decade or longer, and in 2009, put out albums that their fans would classify as amongst their best. Maybe it’s that simple?

  5. zoilus says:

    A lot of that’s true Matthew, but it’s true that this “NPR rock” argument has been going on quite actively for a while. I thought Azerrad’s argument was a useful intervention in that - but more the kind that should have come up a couple of years ago. Personally I really think this big peak of that freak-collective-folk sound is probably very much its epitaph, as moods shift.

    But I think they do shift, and they shift for reasons, and those reasons are partly social and partly idiosyncratic, but their reception is often very social. I’d stand up for that being more than some quirk of music critics to see artistic trends as telling about their eras - of course on a micro-level, it’s all just guesswork, but in the end it becomes way more than that, and part of what’s worth doing in cultural discussion is to try and decode that along the way. (Otherwise it’s mostly, “hey, this record’s cool,” which is nice enough but dull - politics on a microlevel are equally inchoate, but that doesn’t stop *anyone* from trying to read larger meanings into events.)

  6. Jody says:

    Just want to make the point that it’s kinda stupid to call mainstream culture stupid and angry. That’s the kind of generalization that clarifies nothing. Whatever “mainstream culture” is, it’s awfully variegated.

    Also it’s a pretty big stretch to call NPR rock “underground.” I dunno, Azerrad’s theory just seems glib.

  7. malstain says:

    I think Azerrad makes an interesting point… I remember having a similar thought when that wave of Canadian “collective” bands got popular a few years back (Arcade Fire and BSS the biggest ones, but also New Pornographers, The Dears and Hidden Cameras)… it seemed like just as the angry post-punk music of the 80s-90s seemed like a reaction to the mainstream discourse of its time, so the positive energy of these bands seemed like a reaction to the discourse of the Bush years - when the mainstream energy was all about anger, violence, ignorance and hatred.
    I think the main problem with making this argument in the current context is that there basically is no mainstream discourse anymore - everyone is just living in parallel realities (see the polarized opinions on Obama).
    But I’d have to say that not only is that music neither powerful nor constructive…. it’s actually wimpy!

  8. Matthew says:

    Carl, I don’t have a problem with using trends in music to illuminate overarching social trends. It’s fun to do, and it helps you grapple with the chaos of the world by testing out various theories.

    However, as you point out, it’s mostly guesswork, and that’s why I get itchy when people connect this with politics. Because eventually it turns music criticism into a way to separate the sheep and the goats (this band is politically good and this one is politically bad). The progressive politics of music should be that enjoying it is an unalloyed good, or else we flirt with censorship.

    Or let’s flip the politics around: Maybe AC reached the top because its NPR-ish unifying qualities are exactly the sort of thing people need to deal with the inhuman amount of information we are immersed in. With the downfall of the mainstream, perhaps people crave music that is warm and genuine and familiar, and that doesn’t involve a flame war or a tea party - the tyranny of the fringe. As anyone on the Internet knows, you can’t fight a flame war - you can only try to be positive and move on.

  9. Matt Collins says:

    While I hold Azerrad suspect for including Mission of Burma in Our Band… (as well as his assessment of Liz Phair), I think it’s more likely that he typed this “opinion” out as a result of a lie he was fed by Sonic Youth (see: his book about Nirvana).
    Also, almost all of the most memorable music from the past two years has been excessively loud and impossibly angry- Azerrad (and his peers) just happens to listen to NPR, which is unlikely to play a track by Total Fucking Destruction or Fucked Up.

  10. JD Considine says:

    Just curious, Carl — why didn’t you vote in P&J?

  11. Neal says:

    Going with some of the ideas in your essay for Slate a little while back Carl, I think the social flip on mainstream and underground music has some socio-economic roots to it as well.

    I think people truly forget that, at its heart, a lot of really huge pop music phenomena in the 00’s had an aspirational tone to it. The rise of American Idol and its imitators, pop country, glam hip-hop.

    Indie on the other hand has a white collar reputation as of late. Its the domain for young professors, authors, city dwelling, and officer workers. Not typically people are going to express anger and resentment in large doses.

  12. zoilus says:

    * Agreed, Neal, but I didn’t want to go over my mantra on that grounds that again. It’s a nail I’ve pounded enough.

    * Matt: That’s why I put “underground” in quotes when referring to Azerrad’s quote, but it’s not so much a question of what’s the most vital (in whomever’s pov) but what’s most acclaimed, semi-popular etc., coming off the P&J. Good point about the rude health of noisy aggression though. (I’m ignoring the stuff about Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma and whatever you’re trying to imply about whose pocket Azerrad’s in.)

    * Matthew: Similarly, I’m not judging what’s progressive about the bands or the music, but more about the tenor of their reception, and certainly not what side they’re on politically - referring it to politics is really meant as a shorthand. And even the use of “mainstream” was just responding to Azerrad’s comment; likely I shouldn’t have accepted his terms, but this was a quick quote-and-reply rather than a full dissection.

    * JD: Same reason as every year. I’ve never been invited.

  13. andrew says:

    Same reason as every year. I’ve never been invited.

    Crime!

  14. Jordan says:

    never been invited

    Whoa.

  15. john says:

    Carl — Been thinking of you recently as I picked up a collection of Terry Gross interviews from the dollar bin of the used books store, and she all about, you know, capital-T, Taste. Very tasteful. (I wouldn’t have plunked down the buck if it didn’t include her famous cage match with Gene Simmons.) And she talks about taste with different people, so, I thought about your Celine book.

    And then, you know, these End of Year Lists — they’re all very Oscars, aren’t they, with more bookish jokes and less interesting clothes and no red carpet. Always-looking-over-the-shoulder taste-jockeying in service of Big Bucks capital. All good fun, and very pop in the sense of popular, but much to munch on if meaning-of-taste munching is your thing.

    Terry Gross should have read your book. And taken it to heart. Reading her made me kind of wish that you’d expand the Celine book into something Bigger and Un-ignore-able by the, you know, the taste-makers, the taste-makers beyond rock-and-pop-ville. But only if you want to!

  16. Maldo says:

    Carl, I’d like to know if you were at least, say, 12 years old in either the McCarthy or Nixon eras. Seems to me you’d have to have been there to really say what the temper of the times was. Seeing as acts like John Denver, the Fifth Dimension and the Carpenters were some of the most popular of the Nixon era, while the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank, to quote someone or other, I’d say the blissful ignorance ran pretty strong back then.

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