Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Grow old with me

During a free moment yesterday afternoon in Raleigh this weekend I had a chance to read Slate's rockcrit year-end round table, comprised of Jody Rosen, Ann Powers, and Robert Christgau. Their opinions (boy, do they love Kala, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, and Lil Wayne, but so does most everyone else; glad to see Bob's suspicious of Iron & Wine; would love to meet Ann's 83-year-old mom) are immaterial. What remains beyond the self-plagiarizing and a couple of frankly weird self-congratulatory remarks about adding girl-pop to a year-end list (Rosen's homebases of Slate and EW are not Lost at Sea) are a handful of chewy ideas, expressed too windily for my taste, but, hey, this is supposed to simulate three old pros sitting around a table, right? Particularly:
It's fine for [Ann Powers] to like music I don't care for—she helps me understand its meaning for those it touches. The music opens them up, she opens me up. The reason all of us have such problems with indie orthodoxy—really orthodoxies, since, to cite just the two examples at hand, the Ryan Adams-Wilco-Josh Ritter Americanans are nowhere near hip enough for the half-assed revisionists and band-of-the-month snobs of Pitchfork and its many inferiors—is that we don't sense much emotional generosity there. The formal conservatism of the former and one-upping sectarianism of the latter—not to mention the rarity of engaging prose in either camp—seem stifling...
Before we start thinking of new variations on the word "grouch," I should point out that the subtext of most of this round table's discussion is an acknowledgment of how age slows us down at the same time at which young people and technology speed past us. No, not an acknowledgment: an embrace, even. One of the odd things about my own maturation is how my ironic sense deepens at the same pace as my "emotional generosity"; it's too soon to know whether the former provokes the latter, but why not? At any rate, the usual strawmen that Christgau dismisses in the excerpt above are less onerous than other acts supported by my colleagues, like, say, Burial, whose constricted aesthetics and monochromatic appeal seem more representative. Ryan Adams and Wilco are at worst failed craftsmen; whether you prefer Battles depends on how much you accept craftsmenship as an end in itself, or think Battles are an act whose development bears close scrutiny.

Regardless, the fact that a lot of indie -- nomenclature growing increasingly meaningless with Rilo Kiley, the Shins, and Arcade Fire scoring high in Billboard's Top 40 -- horrifies me provokes no smug titters. Discussing music with good friend and colleague Josh Love this weekend, I admitted that as my self-assurance as a writer grows so does my fear of complacency. To be exiled to a tropical rain forest with neither guide nor map is no fun, and likely dangerous, but a thrill too. If it takes no great imaginative leap for me to accept heteronormative literature and music (it's a matter of course, actually), then wrestling with an Iron & Wine or Battles should be no different, and no less thrilling, results be damned. It's our responsibility as critics to assess art about which we know little and empathize less. I had the experience reviewing the new Mary J. Blige album; now there's an artist whose many rewards and unabashed pleasures (I've loved and feared her since 1994) still make me sick to the stomach when I'm compelled to listen to fifty-minutes-plus of her thumpety narcissism. If I risk a tone of bemused ambivalence, fuck it.

3 comments:

Josh said...

"Constricted aesthetics" is a very good description of Untrue, but I think in the context of one single album, it works. Hopefully subsequent records will cover other terrain (and even his debut was noticeably more far-flung), but there's a haunting cohesion to this one that makes its limited scope actually quite appealing. Definitely not something for the iPod shuffle, but played from front to back it's an experience that gets under your skin.

kiss out the jams said...

Well done, Lord Soto. Sometimes I get the idea that kooky nongenres like "dubstep" are erected for the sole purpose of giving people like Burial an easy hurdle to best, and a free pass to enter the rest of the pop universe without making an effort. If we're becoming complacent, well, so are the new Massive Attacks.

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