Apparently when I wondered where all the music critics were, they were in Seattle, contemplating their own relevance. This morning Ryan at Catbirdseat points to Eric Grandy’s summation of last weekend’s EMP Pop Music Conference for the Stranger. Grady begins his overview with a provocative lead:
During the final event in a long weekend of geeking out about music, an open discussion about “The Future of Thinking About Music For a Living,” Pitchfork news editor Amy Phillips stood up in a Thermals t-shirt and told a room full of critical and academic heavies that they are basically dinosaurs. “Kids don’t care about Robert Christgau or Simon Reynolds,” she said (Christgau had left to catch a plane, but Reynolds was still there, and he seemed rather unconcerned about these “kids”). Phillips went on to say that kids want their music (and presumably their musical discourse) fast, yesterday even, that they want to hear their own voices online, and that critics no longer have the “luxury” of taking time to think about music.
Unfortunately Grandy continues with a general overview and doesn’t really address this point, which he himself bolded. (The comments section seems to be getting into this discussion, however.) Catbird, meanwhile, agrees with Phillips.
But the sad part of this situation isn’t the part about the fading of the “thoughtful” critic, it’s the part about the “kids” wanting their music (and their musical discourse) fast. Not only do critics no longer have the luxury of taking time to think about music, they don’t even have time to LISTEN to music anymore. But in today’s age, why should they? The kids are barely listening to it themselves. Music has become a sort of online baseball-bubblegum-cards scene-- cheap and disposable, with people more interested in filling out their checklists and talking statistics than investing the time to listen to some music.
This is a great conversation to have. Where to begin? Shall I call bullshit on Phillips, Catbird, or the kids first?
Why the gloss? Why “the kids”? Who says the kids don’t want musical discourse? Point us to the website that is giving us musical discourse and see what the kids say. Just go to any message board and you’ll see that “the kids” want to talk about music. They’re not so dense that all they do is right-click all damn day. Just because that’s the content blogs supply does not mean that’s the only content the kids “want.”
And what is this about critics not having “the ‘luxury’ of taking time to think about music”? Not everyone scours the internet for full album leaks. Personally I’m a little bummed to see Battles’ new album already being reviewed and hailed as a possible contender for best of the year when it’s still three weeks away from hitting stores. Does this somehow negate “critics”—Phillips is likely referring to print critics, but in my view that doesn’t really matter—from properly covering the album? Who do the critics think they’re writing for? If they’re trying to turn Gorilla vs. Bear onto something new, they’re fighting a lost cause. But if they have any regard for musical discourse, then it shouldn’t matter what the blogs covered yesterday vs. today.
Not to mention: for all the right-clicking that does go on out there, the simple fact of economics still remains. Many of us don’t buy an album the day it comes out. We’ve gotta wait ‘til payday just like our parents did. Sometimes ‘til next payday. By the time we’ve actually had the chance to process a full album, the mp3 blogs have left it well behind. So we google for the musical discourse we missed—because most of it was written three months before the plebes could get their hands on it—and what do you know, all we find are a bunch of hyperbolic posts about how it’s the best thing ever, because most blogs were more interested in being first than best. Go figure: for all the figurative ink spilled, there was no discourse.
In my post earlier this week there were some thoughtful comments on this very issue. A common sentiment that came up was that since blogging is not a full-time job, music bloggers should not be expected to “be negative.” Sorry, but that’s bullshit. First of all, critical discourse does not necessarily mean being negative. It means being thoughtful. Second, I can respect the fact that people have families and jobs and that blogging is a hobby, not a job. Same goes for me. And if you want to be an mp3 blog and dedicate yourself to digging up new wonderful stuff and that’s it, then that’s fine. That type of blog serves a crucial purpose, and if tomorrow they all stopped posting a myriad mp3 files and instead started waxing philosophical on Feist’s Adult Contemporification of indie rock (dibs on that post!), then a lot of great music would be lost.
If that’s the blog you want to write, great. But don’t use your job or family as an excuse for your content. It’s a simple matter of quantity vs. quality. Many blogs overwhelm with “good” music that, surprise surprise, people don’t actually listen to. For every mp3 you post, with a short little blurb about how great it is—because it’s your blog and you only have the time to post what you like—well, that’s three, four, five minutes out of my life lost to listening a decent but not spectacular nor terribly interesting band. Seriously: if you expect me to take more time to listen to your blog post than it takes you to compose it, then something’s not quite right.
This is obviously a topic with many layers up for debate. I know I’ve only scratched the surface. (Ryan Catbird makes a great point about how money affects mp3 blogs in the comments section in my previous post, for instance.) I’d love to get more comments. Even more, I’d love to see you other bloggers take up the subject on your own sites to really get the conversation going.
[Update: Phil Ford at Dial M for Musicology has a post up about the EMP Conference, and a lot of what he claims went on at the conference is what I wish would happen online. It also flies in the face of Phillips's statement:
The goal of the EMP conference was always to get the two sides to rub off against one another, which is pretty much what happened.... The best sessions... were neither exactly “academic” nor “journalistic.” What one heard at these sessions was intellectual music writing—music writing that represents that middle ground between academia and journalism that everyone has been saying doesn’t exist anymore, can’t exist anymore, died with the passing of Partisan Review’s glory years, etc. What I got out of this year’s Pop Music Conference was, ultimately, the sense that right now pop music is a ground on which the best thinking and writing in and on our culture is taking place
Good! Yes! Now let’s get tell those thinkers and writers to get on the net.]
Last year was our first chance to check out High Desert Test Sites since moving to Los Angeles, and it's coming around again May 12–13. My brilliant wife and I had a great time, even if we spent more time in the car than seeing the art, and when we did see the art, guess what—it was hot outside! But it was fun nevertheless, the community spirit of it all. Strangely enough the highlight was doing laughter yoga with a bunch of art snobs. It was a nexus of lame cliches somehow coalescing into a lot of fun. It was almost like we were initiated into California once and for all.
HDTS, if you don't know, is put on once a year in Joshua Tree and Andrea Zittel is one of the organizers. One of the best parts of HDTS is that you get to roam around her property—and if you know anything about her work, you know that that is her work. Her show, currently up at MOCA, is terrific; but it's even better in person.
Last year involved something like twenty or thirty artists or groups, spread miles apart. We therefore missed most of it because we tried to cram it into one day. This year purports to be "more like the early days," with fewer artists (including Zittel, Ann Magnuson, and David Shrigley, among others). Check the site for more details. If you're in Southern California then you should make the trip. For the art, for the fun, for the outdoors, for the sake of getting out of town for a day or two.
My brilliant wife has begun blogging again, I'm happy to say, and if you haven't browsed her blog, upon which I piggyback, take HDTS as your opportunity. She's got a whole smattering of suggestions for hotels and campsites in Joshua Tree.
And if you're thinking about traveling anywhere else—really, anywhere else—you may do well to check in and see if she's got some suggestions for you. Croatia? India? Kentucky? Madrid? Seriously, she has some suggestions for you.
So I’ve updated my blogroll, purging a few sites that seem to have died or that I simply don’t read any more, and adding a few more recent finds. Two that I’ve been enjoying lately are Grammar Police, an art blog that occasionally diverts itself with music posts, and the Existence Machine, which I find to share a similar perspective as myself—right down to the color choices for its design template. Richard Crary’s blog covers literature and music and like pgwp spends more time writing about music rather than simply serving up mp3s.
Which brings me to the rest of my blogroll updates. I added a bunch of mp3 blogs (mostly pilfered from Chromewaves’ blogroll) that seem to have tastes running parallel to my own. But there’s still something missing in all those music links—not just the new ones but nearly all of them. Where is the music writing? I love an mp3 blog as much as anyone—I wouldn’t have found Midlake, Okkerville River, or Margot & the Nuclear So-and-Sos without them—but the daily onslaught of the Next Best Thing is ridiculous. Worse though is that I get the distinct feeling that many of these blogs don’t even believe in the product they’re shilling half the time. Many posts might as well be press releases and one sheets, they’re so devoid of opinion beyond “They're sooooo good.” Big deal. Tour dates, profiles, tracklists—tracklists?—concert reviews, youtube videos. There’s a place for all of that, sure, but where are the critics? Where is the personality? The perspective? Is anyone writing about bands or albums in a broader context? Dear readers, please point me to them. I don’t need any more mp3 files; I want a conversation.
I read a lot of book blogs, and one conversation that comes up a lot is the effect those blogs have had on the book industry and on literary criticism. Witness the melodrama that was the n+1 vs. blogs dust-up from last month. Book bloggers, in addition to pimping little-known authors or giving news from the publishing industry, have taken on a crucial critical role, especially as many print publications cease to exist (witness the Los Angeles Times’ recent merging of its Sunday Book Review with the Opinion section). Literary critical blogs alternately have print critics cheering and jeering—but there’s a real dialogue going on no matter how you slice it.
But what about music blogs? No doubt they’re having a serious effect on the industry. Pitchfork, for one, is the Rolling Stone of our generation. Love it or hate it, it is the ultimate tastemaker for all things indie rock. The Shins and Arcade Fire would certainly not have debuted at #1 and #2 on the Billboard charts without their web support. And that’s great, but there is an element missing from music blogs that the book blogs have in spades—critics; opinions. To continue the Pitchfork/Rolling Stone analogy, mp3 blogs are the new NME. I go to them to find out what’s the new hot shit, but I have no hope whatsoever of reading anything truly thought-provoking about any of it. You get nuggets every once in a while, but I’ve yet to find a blog that’s consistently engaging in this way.
And that’s too bad. Indie music is having such a moment right now, and it is almost entirely due to the grassroots anarchy that is the internet, with individuals all over the country acting as boosters for their favorite bands. And that’s phenomenal! To think that someone in their apartment in Indianapolis is actually shaping the content of the Billboard charts and Clear Channel’s playlist is amazing. That’s what I’m drawn to—individuals. There are webzines out there (Dusted, Urban Pollution, Coke Machine Glow, etc.), but they’re not individuals, and they’re often just as caught up in listing tour dates and news and reviewing albums straight off the press sheet. A unique perspective is subsumed by a masthead.
That’s where the bloggers come in. Certainly you can get a sense of a blogger’s taste just by listening to all the mp3s he or she posts, but there’s more to say about music than “If you like that, then you’ll like this” or “I like this, don’t like that.” Not to mention you can sniff out the bloggers that have gotten so popular that the record companies have begun coming straight to them, press releases in hand. In their crush to create daily content, I’m left with the distinct feeling that many of them are just selling something. They don’t actually care, let alone have any real opinion beyond “It’s good!” The serpent is starting to eat its own tail.
Nevertheless I do go to these blogs on a regular if not daily basis. They do serve a purpose and I don’t discount that. But there’s something missing. There are things to be said about the twenty-five bands broken per week on the internet—is anyone saying it?
Of course, I could be woefully misinformed. Have I simply overlooked the cornucopia of music writing on the web? Readers, let me know. Where do you go for insight on the web?
At age 29, Graham Greene was already publishing his fourth novel, Orient Express (also known as Stamboul Train). Perhaps it’s no wonder that his previous three novels were not that great; broadly speaking, it’s common that a novelist in his or her early or mid-twenties might not have settled on his or her own voice or style. But as one grows older, giving one’s craft time to develop, the grasp on nuance, subtlety, and tone becomes more firm. Orient Express finds Greene taking on an ensemble cast and a third-person omniscient perspective—the opposite of his near-claustrophobic debut. Where The Man Within could work easily as a play—you’d need no more than three sets and a cast of three main players—Orient Express is decidedly more filmic, which is not surprising given Greene’s love of the cinema.
You can almost see the credits rolling at the beginning of the book, as it opens at a train station in Ostend, where a purser helps a succession of distinct character types aboard the train: a young chorus girl, a wealthy Jew, and a mysterious mustachioed doctor. We meet each of these characters—Coral Musker, Carleton Myatt, and Dr. Czinner—from the perspective of a detached character who knows nothing but what he sees. This announces a new tack for Greene and sets the tone for the rest of the book, even as we get to know the characters better: Greene paints their disposition through their actions and appearance rather than their innermost thoughts. It’s a Creative Writing 101 lesson, but Greene didn’t really seem to embrace it until now. It also suits the mystery element of the novel. Immediately there are clues to take in, about the doctor in particular. The purser is surprised to learn that the doctor has an English passport, despite a noticeable accent. When Myatt encounters him later, he notes that the man’s clothes are torn and worn—not the clothing a man of means would wear.
Orient Express is most definitely working within a subgenre, the train mystery. Think Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, or Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Putting your characters on a train just begs for mystery. But Greene’s mystery is not one of murder (though there is a murderer); it has more to do with identities, with a certain freedom from your own life you can enjoy while traveling. So long as your feet are not on solid ground, you can be whoever you like. Dr. Czinner is the first and most obvious example. He boards the train as Dr. Richard John, a schoolteacher from England. But we learn soon enough that he is actually a political exile returning to his home of Belgrade. As the train makes its three-day journey to Constantinople, stopping in Cologne, Vienna, and Subotica along the way, more passengers board the train, and each wear their masks. Josef Grünlich, who boards in Vienna, is a murder on the lam, so of course he hides his identity. The author Q. T. Savory has banked his career on appearing as a working-class Cockney, though the reporter Mabel Warren finds him transparent. Warren, who is a butch lesbian, suspects her lover, the beautiful, feminine, and fairly vacant Janet Pardoe, to be looking for a new sugar daddy (she’s tired of her sugar mommy, apparently); so Warren herself sets her sights on Coral Musker as new girl-toy. All of this speaks to an anything-goes mentality that only feels natural in the limbo of the locomotive.
This theme is played out in the relationship that serves as the heart of the novel, that of Myatt and Coral. This is the most tentative romance I’ve ever read; their entire relationship is built on mixed signals and misunderstood overtures—if ever two people fell in love, it’s these two. It is alternately awkward, sweet, creepy, noble, and cruel. Coral is a struggling chorus girl, flawed because she is “forgettable.” She is too plain to ever be a leading lady. Myatt meanwhile is a rich Jew, in an often unfortunately stereotypical sense. For reasons of both class and culture, the two should never meet nor fall in love. At first Myatt reminds Coral of any other Jew she’s ever met—they stand outside the stage door waiting to take her out; and after their first encounter Myatt has a dream in which he and a friend are driving down a boulevard looking for prostitutes and he chooses Coral. But nevertheless their lives intertwine on the train. Coral has a fainting spell so Myatt lets her sleep in his first-class berth; he sleeps in the hall. She suspects him but nevertheless takes him up on the offer. The following morning he buys another first-class berth for her out of charity. But she assumes he expects some quid pro quo. Still, she takes him up on it. When she alludes to his expectations he denies it, but now that the thought is in his mind, they do set a date for that evening after all. Both seem to approach the night with dread, despite spending the day together on the train. By the night, she’s declared her love for him; when Myatt realizes Coral is a virgin, their sexual act becomes more noble in his mind, and he too declares his love for her. They make plans to remain together once they’ve reached their destination. But of course, Constantinople is an actual place. It’s not limbo.
The other lead in the novel is Dr. Czinner, a Communist who narrowly escaped arrest and certain death five years previous and has never been heard from since. He is on his way back to Belgrade to lead an uprising. Unfortunately for him he is recognized by Mabel Warren. Warren is a fascinating character. She has the briefest ride on the train—she gets on at the second stop and is left behind at the third—yet she sets Czinner’s story in motion and plays a less direct but significant role in Myatt and Coral’s story as well. Greene has a great knack for making colorful and memorable characters out of people who occupy only a small number of pages—I’m thinking of Mr. Tench in The Power and the Glory or Albert Parkis in The End of the Affair. Warren is an alcoholic lesbian with major co-dependence issues. She’s full of spite and loathing and has the tenacity of a terrier. She is positive that Czinner is returning to Belgrade and bullies him into a story for her newspaper. He doesn’t cooperate beyond uttering a few words, but she publishes her story via phone from Vienna, and by the time he reaches Subotica the police and military are waiting.
Subotica, a town on the border of Hungary and Yugoslavia, is the penultimate chapter of the novel and is the real climax. The action leaves the train as Czinner is pulled for questioning—along with Grünlich and Coral (perhaps not incidentally, the most depraved and most pure-hearted of all the characters). This is the moment when the novel becomes a true potboiler, as the trio makes a daring escape after being found guilty of various crimes. This is also the moment where you realize Greene is better, more deft, than the preceding pages might have lulled you to believe. It is a tragedy that Coral has been wrapped up in this portion of the plot, and I didn’t realize until this point just how wrapped up I was in her story. I was screaming at her to stay put, the way you scream at characters on Lost to do the sensible thing.
This novel, like so many of Greene’s books, lives and dies by its plot twists, so forgive me if I become vague. Suffice it to say the fates of Czinner, Grünlich, and Coral are determined at Subotica. But the real tragedy of the book is its coda: Constantinople. This short, twenty-page chapter follows the remaining characters to the end of the line, and the whole thing is a brilliant dagger to the heart. Myatt, of all characters, is the ultimate embodiment of the novel’s theme. The Orient Express is a limbo where you can be whoever you want. But step off that train and your fantasies slough off like water from the shower. We are who we are: it’s a delicious tragedy.
Wow, the New York Times sure did dote on Feist yesterday, didn't they? Fine by me; any success Feist finds is well deserved. I've heard two songs from her new album, The Reminder, so far. Both are great, and the videos are a joy, too. Here y'are, if you haven't seen them yet:
My Moon My Man
1 2 3 4
[Update: Centripetal Notion has audio for a third song, "I Feel it All."]
Regular readers of this blog know that my attitude toward music and literature and art and everything else is one big overlap. How it all affects me is all tangled up in a web of mental associations, which in turn determines how I approach all of it.
Take my Graham Greene obsession. The first mention of it was this post, which was sparked by conversations about music, not literature. Prior to posting about it here, I'd had an email conversation with a friend where I also related my Graham Greene fancy with music. The title of that email was "Graham Greene is my R.E.M. is my Graham Greene," or something like that. I was going on about how the best thing about Greene is that he's done just short of a million books, so any time I'm in a reading funk I can go to him. It's sort of like realizing late in life that you really dig R.E.M.—there's always more back catalog, all dependably wonderful. (Not coincidentally I was picking up a bunch of R.E.M.'s back catalog at the time, thanks to Tower Records' going-out-of-business sale.) I really do think that if Greene could have a pop music equivalent, it would be R.E.M.
So imagine the kismet when, just as I'm starting in on reading everything Greene has ever done, Matthew Perpetua (a Fluxblogger) has begun a similar endeavor with R.E.M. At his new blog Pop Songs 07, Perpetua is writing about every R.E.M song ever written. If ever a band was worthy of such an effort, it's probably them.