by carl wilson

When Anti-Rockism Becomes Rockism, Part 127

Ever wonder what Kelefa Sanneh looks like? I got curious. This is him on the right, with photographer Rahav Segev at a VP Records (dancehall label) party last fall. Despite what I say below, in general he's an excellent critic.

Kelefa Sanneh's review of Pitchfork Media's Intonation festival in Chicago last weekend is incredibly entertaining, from his full disclosure that the P'fork website once called him "a dog that may need to be put down," to his playful use of the site's notorious 0.0-to-10.0 rating system throughout, and even his provocative contention that the Go! Team is a "British indie-pop version of the Black-Eyed Peas." He's certainly correct, too, that the bill was not "filled with bands that seemed destined to blast into the stratosphere, or even the troposphere. Instead, the stages were filled with bands that are already about as popular as they will ever be." (He's talking about acts such as the Wrens, Four Tet, Deerhoof, the Decemberists and, yes, sorry Toronto, Broken Social Scene.) I was also glad he was there to confirm my suspicions about the tokenism of the attempt to integrate non-white, non-rock music into Intonation - that is, that the DJ tents weren't exactly a big success.

So far, so justified, although I was already feeling like, man, it's one thing for us all to put down indie-centric blinderedness on our web sites and chat groups, to champion pop pleasure and puncture the fake heroism of the so-called "indie yuppies" etc. But, uh, isn't this The New York Times? You wonder how many of their readers really have mindsets that need adjusting on this subject. (On the other hand, who knows, maybe more than I think.)

But that was just a twinge. Then I got to the end of the review, and Sanneh simply took things too far: By weekend's end, it was clear that Intonation had succeeded on its own terms. But it was hard not to think about what was missing, namely the swagger and ambition and hunger of musicians ready to take over the world, or at least the country. Many of these acts seemed happy to stay right where they were, making music for fans who accept them as they are. Any park where Deerhoof is a crowd favorite can't possibly be a bad place. Still, two days is a long time to spend there, let alone a whole career.

There's a need to counter indie righteousness by saying that a pop star's desire to get rich and famous can often be a creative and dramatic force, that most of the best music in pop history was made by people with that drive. But when you take that argument to an extreme, and start condemning musicians just because they're not so interested in "taking over the world" - especially when you're making that statement from, ahem, the most powerful newspaper in the world's only superpower, a country that arguably has a bit of a take-over-the-world problem, including in terms of culture - it stops being populism and starts to sound like anti-art-for-art's-sake showbiz blather. I think Sanneh wants to say these bands are musically unambitious, or culturally disengaged, or socially insular, and that the closed-circuit nature of the indie scene encourages that, all of which are fair cops. But to condemn them for being content to leave a smaller footprint, for not being rapacious and "swaggering," is to propose that there is only one route to great art. At that point you shouldn't be surprised that your dogmatism in turn provokes rebels who want to destroy that values system, and indie's vision of itself as having greater artistic and social integrity than the rest starts to sound halfway reasonable. This is where indie came from, and while I'm not so down with where it's ended up myself, the point is to get off the merry-go-round, not to take it for another, accelerated, reactionary spin.

It's a classic case of an argument going wrong by taking the terms of the opponent and inverting them, thereby staying within the same myth - if indie rockers say careerism, arrogance and overweening ambition are ipso-facto bad, Sanneh feels compelled to suggest that careerism, arrogance and overweening ambition are not only super-great but compulsory, rather than (e.g.) suggesting that it depends what your ambition - or lack of it - lead you to. It seems to me that if Broken Social Scene, for instance, became any more fame-hungry, they would mutate into Rush in a heartbeat - their community-mindedness leads them to certain musical values that are not the most obvious outcome of their basic style. On the other hand, if Deerhoof decided they wanted to become the biggest band in the world, the results could be mind-bending. There are more songs than this to sing.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 19 at 12:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (18)



I wish I had an ism.

Posted by Michael on July 21, 2005 12:19 PM



I was jus' ribbing about the BSS hatin'... Although I do like them an unreasonable amount, it is nice to see a toronto critic not wetting himself about them. There certainly are a lot of great Toronto acts, and yes, BSS gets about 90% of the attention...

Posted by andrew on July 21, 2005 8:30 AM



And I'll go on record that I love the Go! Team album to death, was just borderline underwhelmed by the live show. Even "borderline underwhelmed" might be overstating the case -- I enjoyed the show, it's just that I mostly enjoyed it because of the frontwoman's presence and stage moves, and I'm not sure how much there would have been to recommend it without her.

Posted by DW on July 20, 2005 10:33 PM



let the record show that i like the go team record a lot! and i love "the power is on". i'm just saying. she had a certain... fefeness.

im telling you, it was the dancing. argh.

Posted by markp on July 20, 2005 9:26 PM



I'm agnostic on Go! Team, myself, because I haven't listened to them - mainly because they sound like a Brit version of the kind of indie-dance-fun I think Toronto already does very well (Hidden Cameras, Republic of Safety, Ninja High School, Barcelona Pavilion, etc.) and my usual prejudice is to be less interested in British versions of whatever. But I've always assumed they had more than Black Eyed Peas/Polyphonic Spree goofness going for them.

As for my occasional heresies on BSS - it's mainly for balance because I do feel they've been overrated compared to a lot of other local artists. Sure, the guitar jams get somewhere eventually, just not by a route I'm so attracted to. But when I said their community mindedness keeps them from being (a more emo) Rush, I did mean it - and what I meant is that they want their songs to be commodious enough for their various female singers, for one thing, and to embrace a variety of tastes, genres and opinions within and without the band, and that gives them something special beyond the rock-guitar-guy core of it. I admire that, so don't take me to be hatin' on the BSS - they're just not so high on my extensive Torontopian kiss list.

Posted by zoilus on July 20, 2005 12:43 PM



Insightful as always, Carl. As someone who experienced Intonation only through Sanneh's article and various blog write-ups (Fluxblog has a good one, also with number ratings to one decimal point, but you knew that), I too was left wondering why the NYTimes devoted the column space to what Sanneh himself is saying was a display of self-limiting acts readers will likely never hear of again. Is he hanging in Chicago long enough to give us a taste of Lollapalooza, as well? The article seemed tailor-made for blog chatter, if not an ILM thread, and is perhaps just one sign among many (a significant, Pitchfork-run music festival is another, as is a recent Business Week cover story on blogs) of how "blog culture" (for serious lack of a better phrase) probably doesn't need or deserve the mock quotation marks anymore. (Or maybe I'm just the last one using them.)

I was also reminded of the pre-SFJ New Yorker, where the pop music section often seemed to be dutifully (if not respectfully) explaining to their longtime subscribers just who, say, Pavement, was, and why they might care.

Posted by LeDrew on July 20, 2005 12:42 PM



thank you, katie, for voicing precisely what i was going to say about the go! team.

i dig deerhoof, but i have no problem with a band that has no shame about its pure pop ethos and indulges in unself-consciously gleeful pep rallies. perhaps that's a sign that i'm just not as sophisticated as sanneh; if so, i have no desire to reach his (such) great heights. beyond that, black eyed peas crank out derivative, bland crap and seem to have no concept of pop music history before 1990; the go! team are working toward mastering mash-ups of stuff that spans pretty much the last 60 years. i'm a fan of stuff that sparks my inner popcultfiend kid, and i appreciate the aural contrasts of recorders butting up against spector-tweaked soul.

and i totally disagree with the fefe dobson comparison, mark. TOTALLY.

i actually found sanneh's piece obnoxious and catty, but maybe that's just me. not that i'm a fan of pitchfork's indier-than-thou posturing, but sanneh's piece had a pong of "nyah-nyah-nyah! i don't wanna be in yer dumb club anyway! so there!" that's not to say i disagree with all of his points; merely that i found the tone questionable, which detracted from his critique.

Posted by lisstless on July 20, 2005 12:24 PM



rock on, Zoilus. KS often writes, in my opinion, for effect. Over exaggeration gets people's attention, but it makes me pretty wary of his actual opinions. You hit on exactly what I felt yesterday reading that article. thanks!

Posted by AMM on July 20, 2005 12:19 PM



all the BSS hatin'! Those 6 guitar jams *do so* go somewhere! :)

Posted by andrew on July 20, 2005 8:26 AM



Found this NY Observer bit notable (and laudable!) in light of this discussion.

Romenesko summary:

>>>Times managing editor Jill Abramson has told her young writers to resist the papers "stentorian voice." A staffer under 30 tells Gabriel Sherman: "Jill encouraged us to be rebellious in our writing. She told us we should fight back. If we want to do something risque that editors clean up, we should push back." Abramson says: "Not to start World War III with editors, but I wanted to consciously send them a message that we want the paper to be full of engaging writing and engaging voices.

Posted by Marc Weisblott on July 20, 2005 7:42 AM



Ah, yes, let's dump on the Go! Team because they're shiny and fun and probably will do quite well for themselves (all things which the head-in-ass indie scene can't stand). Isn't the Arcade Fire backlash quite overdue by now? Sheesh.

Posted by Katie on July 19, 2005 6:41 PM



As Carl notes, the problem is

...these bands are musically unambitious, or culturally disengaged, or socially insular.

I think that's really the key point here, and the rest is just endless MacGuffin.

Posted by Paul on July 19, 2005 5:46 PM



great piece, carl. sanneh's was a blast too, especially the little numbery digs. i just came back from intonation and have only two things to add:

1. the dj tents were not a big success because the djs were people named things like 'will oldham', 'jean grae', 'rob lowe', and 'peter from baby teeth'. if nobody comes to my trews-headlined indie rock festival, it does not necessarily follow that my city is wanting for kids with backpacks and buttons. (as a corollary, i understand that diplo killed it on sunday night. sadly i wasn't there to witness it, but i wouldn't be surprised.)

2. i will accept the go team! as berwick st-friendly black eyed peas motion if you will admit my horrid realization that their lead singer is A CLONED FEFE DOBSON into evidence. from the hipswaggery one-two foot shuffle and the right angle fist punch, the resemblance was uncanny.

sorry to ruin the band for everyone else. i'm sure they're very nice people.

mark p.

Posted by markp on July 19, 2005 5:10 PM



Nice response. To me his argument was mostly about context and sameyness -- that if you've had nothing but vanilla for a while you inevitably crave some chocolate, and vice versa.

Once in the mid-1990s I was riding in my sister's car and she had Zeppelin on the stereo, "Your Time Is Gonna Come." I hadn't heard it in years, had mostly been listening to indie rock. (Let's just say that when I do record-collection housekeeping these days I invariably end up asking myself, "How the hell do I own four separate Butterglory albums?") Anyway, riding in that car I was completely blown away by good old Led Zep. It sounded so BIG, it grabbed you by the shirt and yelled "LISTEN to this, this is IMPORTANT."

Not saying that the Zeppelin approach is "super-great or compulsory" or anything, but it was damn refreshing. Just as the Meat Puppets and early R.E.M. and Husker Du were refreshing in the 80s to us kids raised on Zeppelin.

Anyway, I took the NYT piece to mean simply that a little refreshment at the Intonation fest might have been in order. And I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that the "let alone a whole career" bit at the end was a lapse of judgment prompted by a search for a closing zing.

And I'll also concede that the search for refreshment is, after all, inherently "reactionary." But hey, us humans are flawed creatures.

It WAS interesting, though, that he particularly dumped on the Go! Team, who were presumably one of the more "swaggering" acts on the bill, and that in fact he seemed most put off BY their swaggering. And as you point out, it was the most anti-pop band that earned his highest marks.

(Great line about the Black Eyed Peas, I must admit. I saw the GT show in Toronto last week and was ambivalent myself, though NOT because of the swaggering, which was about the only thing they had going for them. I'm going to digress, but here's a pet peeve: if a record has a lot of bells & whistles that are hard to reproduce, isn't it best to figure out how to put the songs across live WITHOUT the b&w;, rather than just, say, bringing along some tapes?)

Anyway, great, thought-provoking post.

Oh, but I must ask for clarification on one thing:

>> It seems to me that if Broken Social Scene, for instance, became any more fame-hungry, they would mutate into Rush in a heartbeat - their community-mindedness leads them to certain musical values that are not the most obvious outcome of their basic style.

Dude, I'm sure it's just my own obtuseness, but I have no idea what that means.

Posted by DW on July 19, 2005 4:54 PM



There seems to be a perception that musicians have to be superstar millionaires or starving slackers. But a lot of them (including many Intonation acts) probably get by making $50,000 a year from consistent touring and modest record sales, as opposed to working 9 to 5 in an office. I don't think you can accomplish that without drive or ambition.

Posted by stuber on July 19, 2005 4:52 PM



I think Sanneh would say that you don't have to become the next Coldplay - you could become the next Radiohead or Jay-Z or Usher, if you really wanted to go for it. But of course most of these bands actually couldn't do that, no matter how much ambition they had - they wouldn't be playing to their strengths.

There are exceptions, of course - Arcade Fire certainly has the potential to have hits, for instance, and the same goes for a lot of the pop-form-writing bands. (But not the Decemberists.) But that doesn't make those bands inherently superior - or inferior, Craig - to the ones whose best qualities are not their hooks. There's no general rule. Hell, surely the reason KS liked Deerhoof best is that they were the least middle-ground, the least semi-pop, the most anti-pop of the bunch? Musicians are best when they just follow their deepest drives, and if that's toward hit dance songs, great, and if that's toward cut-up noise collages, also great. (If that's toward six-guitar jams that don't really go anywhere, well, all right.)

Posted by zoilus on July 19, 2005 4:16 PM



That's funny. I heard a Go! Team song at a party on Saturday and was picturing the Black Eyed Peas jumping up and down at the MMVAs in my head... I should be a music critic!

More Radiohead! That Modest Mouse is quite good! I like old musicals!

Posted by JKelly on July 19, 2005 4:07 PM



very insightfull commentary as always. as I see it the stylistic and core value compromises necessary to attempt to take over the world musically are not worth the risk for most of these bands. I suppose all bands want to be exposed to ever greater audiences but not to the detriment of their music. To become the next Coldplay you've got to be the next Coldplay and release maudlin, uninspired fluff.

Do you really think that's the artistic direction these bands want to take (assuming they're not too high to have any direction...sorry cheap shot directed at BSS)?

Posted by craig on July 19, 2005 3:37 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson