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Aesthetic Stalinism, Pitchfork Edition


The post below about Rob’s immortalization was somewhat embarrassing for me, as I actually own the album in that “compact disc” format your grandparents may have told you about, but missed the appearance of our blog in the first perusal of the liner notes. I had been waiting for a few more listens to let it sink in before making a point about a classic “cult of authenticity” fallacy, but since it’s timely I figured I’d go ahead.

I can’t say yet if the evaluation of the Pitchfork review is wrong. Well, even a couple listens confirm that the rating number is absurd — even subpar M.I.A. is better than much of the crap that gets respectable numbers and mentions (anyone listen to Ryan Adams’s pretentious-even-by-his-standards 29 lately?) from the Pitchforkers. But the bottom line that this good album is more uneven and less songful than its very good and exceptional predecessors is plausible based on initial listens, and has been essentially conceded even by its defenders. What bugs me about the review is the extent to which the Pitchfork reaction was overdetermined.  You could see the review that spent two paragraphs taking the Hirschberg hatchet job and the allegedly troubling questions it raised about her authenticity seriously before it even got to the music coming a mile away, and sure enough. And it’s not just that the Hirschberg thing was puddle-deep and inept (the telltale Truffle Fry was in fact ordered by the journalist, the horrors), but even to the extent it’s true it’s irrelevant. I had no doubt anyway that the now-wealthy artist who married into the Bronfman family isn’t a “revolutionary” — who did think this, I can’t tell you, but I hope I can play high-stakes poker with them some time. But these types of contradictions are utterly banal among artists, especially popular ones. What matters is the work, and even to the extent that /\/\ /\ Y /\ is flawed it’s because of excessive ambition, not millionaire complacence. And if you think that artistic pesonas should have one-to-one correspondence with an artist’s personal life, you really shouldn’t be assessing art for money.

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  • rcobeen

    This inability to separate art and artist pops up in rock music more than any other entertainment form. The two best examples I can think of are “Last Gang in Town” and “Mansion on the Hill.” “Last Gang” is a horrific biography of The Clash in which Mick Jones is rated a fraud because 1) the lyrics to “Stay Free” aren’t 100% accurate to the truth, and 2) he stated before he joined the Clash that he wanted to be a pop star. “Mansion” is subtitled “Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce”, which is an indication of it’s inanity. The idea that rock is or should be pure without the influence or interest of the free-market is to put on blinders that allow you only to see a pinprick of the world. When I was 18 and thought Springsteen was God it was understandable that I couldn’t see this rather obvious truth. To print a feature length story in the Times that doesn’t understand this is embarrassing.

    The Maya reviews linked above get it right, a good but inconsistent album by an artist who was thrust into the limelight and some controversy rather quickly. Maya will never be mentioned as a possible album of the decade like Kala (it was, just a little ahead of Love and Theft, Welcome Interstate Managers, and College Dropout), but how many artists make albums that great. Let’s just hope she handles this better than Sinead O’Conner.

    • rcobeen

      Sorry, forgot to put in the last italics thing. I don’t think my last comment is that important.

      • Scott Lemieux

        a good but inconsistent album by an artist who was thrust into the limelight and some controversy rather quickly.

        That seems right to me too. But since on the first couple of listens I thought that Kala was less songful and consistent that Arular (which, crappy Timbaland track that’s by far the least interesting thing on all three records aside, was very wrong) I’m inclined to defer judgment for a bit.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    Arrgh, my 30 year old hipster creds must be lacking, cause this was quite possibly the most unintelligible blog post I’ve ever read.

    • Boudleaux

      Don’t worry. It appeared to be about an act that I had not heard of. People like shitty music. My default is not to follow links to find out whether they refer to shitty music or not. They likely do.

    • hipster prick

      Your ignorance of the latest developments in Sri Lankan hiphop disgusts and saddens me.

      • I’m not sure what a major-label album you can get at any Best Buy or WalMart in the country has to do with “hipsters,” but then 99% of the time “hipster” seems to refer to “something I don’t know anything about but have chosen not only not to like but have strong opinions about,” so I guess it’s being properly used here.

        • Amanda in the South Bay

          Exactly! Now as long as you don’t start wearing skinny jeans, flannel shirts and drinking PBR while chain smoking at a hip coffee shop in the Mission District in San Francisco, it’ll be ok.

          • Oh Amanda, skinny jeans are the worst. Hey, make me feel better- I moved out of the Bay Area, and the one thing about hipsters- they live in places that have cool stuff- go do something cool, or even better, eat something really good. I don’t care what, but I can suggest the fried spring rolls at Vung Tau II in Milpitas.

  • Morbo

    When I implement aesthetic Stalinism, I promise that the person who came up with “slash, backslash, slash, backslash, space, slash, backslash, space, capital Y, space, slash, backslash” as an album title will be the first to the gulag.

  • We have an entire hilarious Pitchfork category I might add. O’Connor, btw, I believe.

    At least we’re funnier than David Cross ripping on Pitchfork, but he’s so cool he actually gets to do it on their site. I think almost every one of their writers has the potential to be interesting, but they’re caught in this self-reflective insidery abyss. Also, a bunch of them love baseball in rational ways (i.e. FJM types), which makes you wonder why they are such cobags in their reviews.

    • One step ahead of you! (See links.)

      • rcobeen

        I believe the problem is they don’t believe in hiring editors.

      • Haha- nice (thanks). I thought that hyper would have gone to a personal pic on something so unbelievably terrible (like this Phil Sherburne one working the Deepwater Horizon blowout in as a metaphor for a band being prolific in its releases– I’m not joking).

  • nick

    Pitchfork is just so utterly tedious: 20somethings who review indie rock in prose that aspires to be as dull as that of the Times; prose that yearns to be as vivid as that of Michiko Kakutani…..so of course it makes perfect sense that they think the Times story “destroyed her credibility”. Please. A music writer who thinks the NEW YORK MOTHERFUCKING TIMES can destroy the credibility of a musician? Giving a damn about the Times, however, could indeed be said to destroy the credibility of a young music writer….

    • The old dudes on their are older than 20 year olds, but yeah, the most depressing part is the nostalgia for their 90s teendom.

  • strategichamlet

    Not having read it, is this actually different (worse?) than every other Pitchfork review ever written or is it just because you happen to own the album in question that you’ve blogged on it?

    • Scott Lemieux

      Well, you can’t really generalize; they have a lot of writers, and as Pinko says many if not most do some good writing. But too often they sort of write around the records and talk about the zeitgeist and their relationship to it instead, and this is a really bad example.

      • Henry Holland

        But too often they sort of write around the records and talk about the zeitgeist and their relationship to it instead, and this is a really bad example.

        So, in other words, they’re doing the exact same thing that got Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and a bunch of others at CREEM and its clones lauded and praised to the skies, right?

        • rcobeen

          Except Bangs and Meltzer could write and had editors (even if it didn’t seem like it).

          • Bob

            rcobeen: I don’t know about that. I’ve been hearing for years about what a great writer Bangs was, but every time I try to plow through Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung or anything else of his I find it horribly overwrought navel-gazing. Every once in a while you stumble across a well turned phrase or interesting insight, but my god the amount of blather you have to pass through to get there…..
            Try to get past the first page or two of A Tale of These Times and come back to announce what a talented writer he was. It’s the sort of crap every stoner (yrs truly included) scribbled back in my suburban high school in the early 70’s.
            I’m beginning to wonder if most of his fans have read any of his stuff in the last decade or two or three or if they’re remembering how much their stoned 17 year old selves liked it.

            • Henry Holland

              It’s the sort of crap every stoner (yrs truly included) scribbled back in my suburban high school in the early 70’s.

              Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it or: it was writing by writers that had their minds blown by Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and took that style in to reviewing albums and concerts and doing interviews.

            • Bangs is 50/50- some of it is great performance. Even if it is a wank, its not a looking directly in the mirror and watching himself do it. There is no comparison. Even NME, old Melody Maker hackery is at least entertaining in its hyperbole and those are more soundbites and shorter reviews than the masters theses they turn out at cobfork.

  • Oh my God. Now this is in my motherfucking wheelhouse. (By which I mean that I like to rant about Pitchfork every once in a while when I’m drunk-ish, which I am). Pitchfork makes me want to… do something terrible to someone or thing or inanimate object that probably does not deserve it.

    See, e.g., their review of the latest Bonnie “Prince” Billy album, in which the writer gives it nothing but accolades and then proceeds to give it a 7.something. Never mind the whole, 7-point system (“This album was a tenth of a point better than that album, because I said so. I will not justify this in any way.” I mean, even that d-bag Robert Parker justifies his wine ratings with a rubric that his audience can evaluate–and critique!–on its own). In other words, their rubric is completely bunk, because it doesn’t fucking exist; their critics are insular and full of themselves; and, as mentioned above, they care more about trying to key into whatever they perceive the zeitgeist to be than they do about offering actual, you know, criticism.

    And I don’t even like the new MIA album! I just feel like talking shit!

    Someone like Anthony Lane is, on the contrary, a motherfucking critic. A good one. One that actually tries to, uh, criticize something and explain–without deferring to inexplicable numbers pulled from his ass–what the meat of a piece of artwork is, for him and from his perspective. You don’t have to agree with that perspective, but he always makes the goddamned attempt, without simply relying on his street-cred to get him through another column.

    Would that all critics took their responsibility suchly.

    End rant. May I never speak of Pitchfork at such length again.

  • Bob

    If authenticity mattered Billy Ray Cyrus, born into a Pentecostal family in KY, would be a much better musician than Ingram Cecil Connor III, better known as Gram Parsons, who was driven to prep school by a chauffeur, but I’ll be damned if Hickory Wind isn’t an infinitely better song than Achy Breaky Heart.

    • Boudleaux

      Oh my fucking God. I don’t know if “infinitely” covers it. Thank you, though, for apparently loving Gram as much as I do.

      Also, Stevie Ray Vaughan was white. And yet, somehow channeled Albert King better than anyone ever.

      I guess he “practiced.” Musicians absorb what they hear and become that, if they’re driven. I personally find the notion of “talent” offensive, because it belittles “work.” Much less “authenticity.”

      I’ve never met an aspiring music writer who was not first and foremost a really lazy musician who was just no good. Hey — I don’t sit around writing songs about your articles! Nice fucking “art form” you have there.

      Tin-eared assholes to a man/woman.

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