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OK, I Will Allow Myself to Be Trolled By the Rick Reilly of Pop Culture Critics

[ 66 ] January 29, 2012 |

There are two types of criticism I find particularly irritating. On the one hand — this was particularly prevalent in Seattle alt-weeklies when I was a grad student — you have criticism that isn’t really about the music/movie purportedly being discussed but about what the critic thinks liking or disliking the art in question will say about your social status. On the other hand, there’s the faux-populist criticism that assumes that if you like any art less popular or more complex than Transformers 2 then you must be some kind of poseur arguing in bad faith. What makes Chuck Kolsterman’s TuneYards piece so special is that it manages to combine both of these angles (with a little Abe Simpson for seasoning.)

The thing has, at least, occasioned plenty of excellent writing that also actually tells you something about the band. Scott Creney, among many excellent points, notes Klosterman’s sexism (“At the top of Chuck’s list of relevant facts: Is she hot or not? One can assume this was not one of Chuck’s primary concerns when he started listening to LCD Soundsystem.” See also Jen Girdish.) Maura Johnston is excellent on Klosterman’s critical incompetence. And by critical incompetence, I don’t mean that his evaluation is wrong (he claims unconvincingly to like the album and it would be perfectly reasonable not to in any case) but that there’s no evidence he’s listened to it carefully even once. (The lyrics aren’t “indecipherable” and they really aren’t “asexual”; you’d think “my man likes me from behind” wouldn’t be too subtle even for a Brett Michaels fan.) Anyway, while Creney is also good on this point, my minor contribution is to point out that the entire premise of the article — to summarize it is to make it seem more coherent than it is, but roughly that people will be embarrassed to have liked whokill if Garbus doesn’t make a lot of better records that are also popular — is built on a foundation of 100% pure bullshit:

This happens all the time. It now seems super-funny that so many people once believed Arrested Development was among the most important bands of the early 1990s. The idea of anyone advocating the merits of Fischerspooner now seems totally ridiculous. It somehow seems crazy that Cornershop was previously viewed as luminous, even though their songs still sound good to me. It’s just an impossible problem: We always want to reward art for being innovative, but most artistic innovations are not designed to hold up over time. They exist as temporary reactions to other things happening within the culture. And that means they will seem goofy and dated when the culture changes again.

Let’s take these one at a time. I suppose very few people would strongly defend the merits of Fischerspooner now, but then very few people did at the time if their grand total of zero top 40 (let alone top 10) Pazz&Jop finishes is any indication. With respect to Cornershop, what happened seems clear — it took Singh five years to come up with a follow-up to When I Was Born for the Seventh Time, and while Handcream for a Generation was also a very good record it lacked another “Brimful of Asha” that could grab public or extensive critical attention. But, anyway, since Klosterman doesn’t cite anyone (including himself) who’s embarrassed for having liked Cornershop, and since if you liked When I Was Born at the time I’ll bet you still will even if you haven’t thought about the band lately, I have no idea what this this has to do with anything.  The band is “somewhat unfairly ignored,” not “routinely mocked.”

Then there’s Arrested Development. Here, at least we have a band that most would consider retrospectively overrated; I’m certainly pretty confident that if critics were polled about 1992 again their debut wouldn’t be the winner and I doubt it would be in the Top 10 of what was actually a pretty good year. (I’ll even throw a bone to Klosterman by speculating that some indie purists irrationally upset about Mould’s pop move and/or SY’s major label move may have underrated what strike me as two of the year’s great records, Copper Blue and Dirty.) But, again, what happened here seems pretty straightforward — sometimes a killer single puts an uneven record over (and not just in the pre-iTunes era: cf. Oracular Spectacular), and I’m sure some critics also overrated AD because most of the other critical and commercial hip-hop successes of the year were the work of misogynist assholes. So it’s not surprising that their reputation faded over time, especially since they disbanded after one real follow-up. But leaving aside that AD are more ignored than a punchline, there’s the issue that 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . . was utterly mainstream music, expensively promoted by a major label, that went quadruple platinum. So what does this tell us about the “perils of indie stardom” that await Garbus after her weak-selling succès d’estime? Beats the hell out of me, and presumably Klosterman is hoping that an audience that hasn’t heard of most or any of these bands won’t notice.

Comments (66)

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  1. MikeJake says:

    This is why I listen to death metal. I don’t have to worry about whether a band has achieved some special mix of critical acclaim while maintaining their indie bona fides, concerns about poseurdom are a relatively minor issue (“They totally jumped on the black metal bandwagon this album!”), and new bands are under no pressure to make their mark on the zeitgeist. All I have to concern myself with is whether I can pedantically describe the precise sub-genre of metal a band embodies, and whether they’re good or they suck.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Or, even better, you can just ignore that shit when listening to any music!

      • MikeJake says:

        Sound advice for everyone!

        But…when you have to choose between 5 bands that sound exactly like Coldplay, you’re going to have to drum up some additional rationale to rank one ahead of the others. That’s where the bitchy debates about whether or not a band is “underground” or “overhyped” come in. Virtually no one is overhyping metal, so if the new Decapitated sucks, I just shrug my shoulders and listen to the albums that don’t suck, and my enjoyment isn’t diminished.

        • Furious Jorge says:

          when you have to choose between 5 bands that sound exactly like Coldplay, you’re going to have to drum up some additional rationale to rank one ahead of the others

          Or you could just say that it’s all crap, and ranking one ahead of the others is as useful and relevant as ranking the turds your dog made this week.

        • Anonymous says:

          when you have to choose between 5 bands that sound exactly like Coldplay,

          This seems like a dilemma faced by music critics with evil, vengeful editors, and no one else.

      • Lindsay Beyerstein says:

        Klosterman’s critique is doubly bullshit because he claims to have no idea what posterity will say about Tuneyards. Dude, if you want to say the album is overrated, spit it out. It’s not any kind of argument to say that there are bands that were overrated and that, for all we know, Tuneyards could be one of them.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          If there’s anything worse than an incompetent hatchet job, it’s a passive-aggressive incompetent hatchet job without the courage of its convictions.

    • Morbo says:

      I don’t know about all that; arguments whether Vintersorg is folk progressive black metal or black avant-garde progressive metal can last long into the night.

    • strategichamlet says:

      Death metal is one way to avoid trendiness (with its over hype, social posturing, and everything else that comes with it), but my method is just to wait it out. Maybe this Tune-Yards is really worth listening to, in which case it will still be there in 10 years. In the meantime, there’s tons of awesome music from 20+ years ago that I’ve never heard. Other than making it more difficult to hear live music you’re into, I’ve found this way to go to work great.

      For example, some of the best albums I’ve bought in the last few months:

      Swans – Children of God / World of Skin
      The Damned – Machine Gun Etiquette
      The Glove – Blue Sunshine
      The Cramps – Bad Music for Bad People

  2. sleepyirv says:

    Favorite line:

    At this point in her existence, I can’t imagine that Merrill Garbus has been able to reap much tangible benefit from her talent.

    “Her existence.” Kolsterman isn’t even willing to concede she’s human until further investigation! Which he, of course, won’t bother with. What an exciting piece of work, either a piece of criticism with no criticism (but passive-aggressive insults galore!)or a piece of journalism with less research than you could get from a google search.

  3. Martin says:

    Good stuff. The AD case is too sui generis for Klosterman’s purposes. They reached some kind of critical mass among critics (heh) in a very short time (a matter of weeks) primarily because of what they seemed to represent and not what they actually were. And then the backlash hit approximately 12 seconds after the Pazz & Jop results were posted. If you read Christgau’s writeup you’ll see him represent the dissenting (now accepted) point of view, which is that they were wildly overrated for a very brief time. In brief, those critics probably are embarrassed that it happened, and it does partake in the personal politics/identification thing that is necessary for almost any musical act to make it in a big way, but you know, who cares. As you say, you still assess albums for what they are and not what your prior self once thought about it and what that might say about you because you don’t want to be associated with an overrated album etc etc etc.

    • Martin says:

      Oh, and as a technical matter, I would argue that NO ONE thought that AD was one of the most important bands of the early 1990s. For a brief time, from afar, they looked like the kind of thing that would one day become an important album, and critics praised them on that basis, mostly unwisely. It’s a little bit like saying that people thought that Michel Hazanavicius was one of the most important directors of the early 2010s. Nobody thought that. People are talking about him because The Artist is new and people like it. The guy has made one movie that has had a powerful appeal to some category of viewers, nobody is saying he’s the next Martin Scorsese — yet. If he ends up with a career that good, people will start saying it. Same deal with AD.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Another interesting point from the Christgau essay is that the album got unusually tepid support from the weighted ballots; it’s more a record lots of people thought was pretty good than an album with a number of very passionate defenders. Which is further evidence for your point that “NO ONE thought that AD was one of the most important bands of the early 1990s,” which seems obviously right.

  4. Auguste says:

    I’ll defend Fischerspooner all day. Twice today.

  5. elm says:

    Damn, 1992 was a great year for albums. R.E.M.’s last great album, new music from Neil Young and Leanord Cohen, Freedy’s best album, plus the two you mention. (Copper Blue is fantastic; Sonic Youth is a group that I never really got into, although obviously they’re good.)

    Although Arrested Development does not belong at the top of that list, it’s a fine album and Tennessee a great song. That the follow-up album wasn’t very good (isn’t that quite often the case with 2nd albums?) and the band broke up before coming up with a third album doesn’t take away from the quality of the first.

    • elm says:

      And, looking again, Pearl Jam’s debut was ranked 34th and Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes 36th. Scott’s right. No way AD cracks the top ten in a re-vote, though I stand by my “pretty good album” statement.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        And also, The Chronic, a late ’02 release that many people regard as a masterpiece (not me, but I’m sure it would be top 5 if critics were polled again today.)

    • howard says:

      fun to go back to christgau’s piece and the ballot (hello there, basehead, haven’t thought of you in a long time!), but let me seize the moment to note that david murray’s killer tenor/organ record with don pullen, shakill’s warrior, was second on christgau’s ballot, justifiably….

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Interesting; I don’t always trust him on jazz but that one sounds intriguing. I’ll have to check it out.

        I also had a lot of fun looking at these archived lists. I created a 1992 list on my iTunes; maybe I’ll write up a retrospective ballot later this week.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Yeah, I definitely take Christgau’s jazz recommendations with a grain of salt, but he has also turned me on to some people I otherwise wouldn’t have heard.

          • howard says:

            in christgau’s generation of rock critics (full disclosure: having outed myself as a former pazz and jop voter, roughly 1978-1990 or so, i’m at the tail end of that generation), the only one who really knew jazz was robert palmer. in comparison to greil marcus or dave marsh or ellen willis, christgau was a savant of jazz, although basically he doesn’t have any feeling for anything that rhythmically goes beyond bebop. (another way of putting this is thelonious monk is his favorite, and i’ll never dis anyone whose favorite jazz musician is monk.)

            i wrote about punk rock and jazz, and that made me fairly unique in those days, although by now, all 3 of the ny times front-liners (pareles, ratliff, chinen) are polymorphous perverse when it comes to styles.

            but if it makes you both feel better about spending the money on shakill’s warrior, not only am i a big fan, so is gary giddins!

            • Erik Loomis says:

              In fairness to Christgau, I think he knows that he’s a bit out of his element on jazz and he doesn’t much try to hide it. So I don’t mind it much when he writes about it–he likes what he likes and just goes with it.

              • howard says:

                i should also note that the great lester bangs did like some jazz, but mostly as a function of his affection for noise and not because he was into the art form as such, and he only mentioned jazz in passing, not as something he wrote seriously about.

  6. Uncle Kvetch says:

    Whether anybody’s still paying attention or not, Cornershop is alive and well, artistically speaking. Last year’s “Cornershop and the Double ‘O’ Groove Of,” a collaboration with Punjabi singer Bubbley Kaur, is a joy.

  7. Thers says:

    This is a great sentence:

    “The older critics tend to overrate artists like Graham Parker and underrate artists like Kid Rock.”

    Which strikes me as an “I’m totally serious except also I’m kidding” maneuver, which is also “heads I win tails you lose” dickery.

    • Hob says:

      That’s also a pretty good description of Robert Christgau’s general approach to everything – the double-reverse-ironic dickery, I mean, not overrating Graham Parker. I have such a violent antipathy toward his writing that I can’t imagine ever giving a shit about what the Pazz & Jop Critics Poll says about anything, simply because Christgau is involved in it and writes the introductory essay about what it all means.

      • Pinko Punko says:

        Yeah, but he is hilarious on 70s prog bands and essentially any genre band for “dorks”- compare him on Rush/Yes vs. KC and the Sunshine Band. He is a cantankerous one. Just go through any 70s band that might have ever been considered lugubrious or wanly, and he’s just a fountain of disdain. He will come around on some bands and this is why I like him sometimes.

      • rcobeen says:

        Except that he hasn’t written the essay since 2005, when he was dumped by the Voice. The opening part doesn’t really make any sense since he’s not a particularly ironic writer.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Also, I don’t think Graham Parker has been a cause celebre of critics of any age since the first term of the Reagan administration. And, of course, Pazz & Jop winners hold up a lot better than Heisman trophy winners.

      • howard says:

        robert christgau holds up a helluva lot better than almost anybody, and he knows a lot more rock critics than most people, so his opinion in any given year about what’s on rock critics’ minds tends to be not unreasonable, given the inherent ungeneralizable nature of the field.

  8. Uncle Kvetch says:

    I have such a violent antipathy toward his writing

    Violently seconded. I’ve never really had a problem with his opinions…that is, to the extent that I could penetrate the godawful prose sufficiently to figure out what the fuck he was saying…

  9. laura says:

    I looovvvee the TuneYards record. I waited all year to buy it because it set off my warning bells for pretentious crap, but I’m so glad I got it in the end. I find it extremely listenable and still odd and a bit unnerving, original and challenging without approaching that Blueberry Boat indie this-turns-pop-music-on-its-head territory. And the lyrics are fantastic: funny, sexy, provacative and smart. It’s not feminist exactly, but it’s not a record a man could have ever made.

    And… Anybody who begins by describing WhoKill as “asexual” should just stop right there. In fact, it’s kind of ironic that somebody who would toss out a column that lazy on a widely read platform would fret about other people potentially getting mocked in 10 years’ time.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Ha, glad you finally tried it! Although, in fairness, you may have decided you liked the record before knowing that her Wikipedia page was suspiciously lacking in gender-specific pronouns.

  10. mark f says:

    How could a true pro like Bill Simmons could mistake this guy’s casual bullshit and practiced insouciance for analysis and style?

  11. zolltan says:

    Look, I’m sure this has been said before, but the guy specifically told me to stop reading his boring-ass essay in the third sentence. After that, I can’t begrudge him that it wasn’t worth my time.

  12. hylen says:

    Bottom line: Klosterman is terrible.

  13. So the only things that matter are (a) her reputation among other serious people, and (b) how she views her own work and identity (which is, of course, partially dependent on the reaction of her audience).

    The only thing that matters about that other person is me Me ME!

  14. Western Dave says:

    You know, Speech is still making some cool music, and they’re big in Japan. (No, seriously). But the point Klosterman really misses is that there’s huge gaps between being the next savior of indie music and being out of music completely. Remember when Steve Forbert was supposed to be the next Dylan? Dude is still touring and making good music. Hanson are still making great pop music (if you don’t find those things contradictory). Michelle Shocked, still on tour. etc. etc.

    • laura says:

      This is very wise. I think what a lot of contemporary pop criticism misses is how a lot of “action” in music, and much of the joy that contemporary pop music provides to people (as well as money being made), is by bands who are completely off the cutting edge. Hansen is a great example — a new record a couple of years, a large cult following who see them as the pinnacle of modern sweet-natured power pop, but you’ll never hear of them reading the Village Voice or Pitchfork or even the more mainstream-y sites.

      Wheezer is another great example: they are widely “mocked”, but appeal to enough people to keep going, sell out their tours, release albums on a major label etc. — not that you’d ever guess from reading most music sites. The same is true, I think, of my much-maligned favourite band Gomez.

      Personally, I’ve found this to be the major shortcoming of the majority of music critism over the past 10 years. Critics listen to what other critics listen to and only a very select few actually try to pay attention to what’s going on outside the critical-consensus Rolling Stone-Pitchfork circuit. I like to that’s starting to change a bit, but I admit it’s difficult when there’s just so much music out there.

  15. todd. says:

    I’m not going to run around trying to defend Klosterman, but to call a man “The Rick Reilly of” whatever is just awful.

  16. Halloween Jack says:

    You know, if Klosterman had put the center of his criticism–”Finishing at the top of Pazz&Jop is meaningless because they tend to make an overly big deal out of the Flavor of the Month”–into a tweet instead of a whole column, I think that I would have agreed with him and he wouldn’t have embarrassed himself (further) by being snottily dismissive of a record that he could barely be bothered to bend half an ear to.

    • howard says:

      let’s face it: it’s a rare critic who is so deeply attuned to the art form he or she is criticizing that genius is recognized instantly.

      my favorite example? find me anyone who noted in 1967 that the most influential rock album of the next 44 years would be the velvet underground and nico.

      i’ve also mentioned several times in this space that there was no one in 1967 who listened to the miles-wayne-herbie-ron-tony quintet and said “here’s the group that will be the most dominant influence on the sound of jazz in the 21st century;” on a similar note, julius hemphill’s masterful dogon a.d. was barely noticed on its release in 1972 but received hosannahs on its reissue last year.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        Was the Miles quintet circa 67 really that underrated at the time? I don’t know the history of jazz criticism very well so I don’t know. But this surprises me given Miles was already famous at that time.

        • howard says:

          it’s a subtle point, erik: it’s not that miles and quintet were under-rated.

          rather, it’s that during the quintet’s period (1964-67), everyone assumed the future of jazz was coltrane (see also ayler, shepp, sanders) or ornette (the end of standards and standard forms).

          and then miles himself went electric, and the assumption amongst jazz critics that didn’t hate miles for that was that electric miles (and the mahavishnu orchestra and weather report) were the future.

          so miles was recognized for having another great band (which recorded some excellent studio albums, including the debut recordings of a number of wayne shorter tunes), but that band, which borrowed conceptually from ornette and which, with shorter as part of it, was certainly influenced by coltrane, was not recognized as pointing to the future.

          and the reason i can say this with such certainty is another example for this little discussion: columbia didn’t even release live at the plugged nickel, which today is regarded as a classic but which, while recorded in 1965, didn’t get out of the columbia vault until 1976.

          and the reason they didn’t release it was because it didn’t have any new compositions on it, failing to understand that stylistically, that quintet was making everything new.

          (and, of course, last year we saw the live in europe 1967 release, which even surpasses live at the plugged nickel, but which suffered from the same problem at the time of its recording.)

      • In 1967 rock criticism wasn’t very well developed. The writers we think of as defining the form were just getting started, so to say that they “missed” the Velvets isn’t quite fair. Christgau reviewed it, I think retrospectively, and his capsule on White Light/White Heat was, I think again, contemporaneous.

        • howard says:

          bill, it’s absolutely true that in 1967 rock criticism was in its early days (and its also true that yes, this is a retrospective christgau comment on the velvet underground + nico), but it’s truest of all that such critical attention as there was in 1967 was on sgt. pepper and the san francisco bands initial recordings, which is why eno had the famous comment that velvet underground and nico may only have sold only 10,000 copies but that everyone who bought it formed a band.

          (i, however, was the exception to that rule.)

          • Actually, I think Christgau’s collected volumes of Consumer Guides are in and of themselves an interesting look at how rock crit followed that music over the course of the 70s’, 80′s and 90′s. As he starts out he’s reviewing a lot of stuff that was mainstream pop, along with the occasional oddity. (I’ve always liked his quip about The Move’s Shazam: “Recommended to Stooges fans who just found a five-dollar bill.” As the decade progressed he started writing about artists that were more esoteric, and by the 80′s he was reviewing both Northern and sub-Equatorial African music, and an array of esoteric stuff that it would have been extremely difficult to have discovered independently, even for an musically engaged New Yorker like me. By the 90′s there was so much being released that his system essentially broke down. Nobody could keep up with the stream of music that was being released at that point, and as a result rock crit has reverted to what it once was. Instead of the Grass Roots we have Katie Perry, and apart from the roles these performers play as some sort of cultural signifiers there isn’t much to say about either musically.

            • howard says:

              along similar lines, bill, i remember when i was reading “this band could be your life” and i discovered that albums that i considered absolutely indispensable – say, for example, husker du’s early work – had sold maybe 2,000 – 5,000 copies….

              personally, i have nothing against best-sellers, although my taste rarely overlaps with that of the mass market, but i am often fascinated by just what makes a given recording a megahit (on the small scale, when it became clear that nevermind was going to be a smash, i had trouble understanding what nirvana had that husker du hadn’t; on the large scale, has there ever been an explanation for frampton comes alive?)

              • Frampton Comes Alive hit a sweet spot. Per Wikipedia it was preceded as Billboard’s #1 by the Eagles Greatest Hits, and followed by Wings at the Speed of Sound. It was guitar-based soft-rock at a time when the alternatives were largely dance records– Punk and New Wave didn’t really hit until the next year. Since dance records were racially and sexual-preference suspect to the white male record-buying public, Frampton was a not unreasonable alternative. If we look at the other #1 records from 1976 we find Chicago’s Greatest Hits, Earth, Wind & Fire’s Gratitude, Dylan’s Desire, Zep’s Presence, the Stone’s Black and Blue, George Benson’s Breezin’, Fleetwood Mac, and Songs in the Key of Life. Not really an inspiring list, but it puts Frampton in a sort of context.

                If we look at the weeks that Comes Alive was #1 we see that it was there April 10 (Spring Break!), July 24, (Beach Party!), August 14-28 (Beach/Back to School), and September 11-October 29 (Dorm Parties!). That’s kind of how I remember it too.

                • howard says:

                  bill, that’s a reasonable explanation as far as it goes
                  (though just for the historic record – and i just double-checked the precise dates – the ramones first album was released the very week frampton comes alive went number one, and christgau, of course, loved it, which is how i first heard of it), but what it still leaves unresolved is not how it got big but how it got so monster big, staying on the charts forever and becoming what was, iirc, the biggest selling live album of all time (at least at that point): that’s still the puzzle to me.

                  (that said, i was reminded in quickly checking the dates on ramones and frampton, that it was sold at a discount $7.98 for double album price, and that may well have been the kicker into the stratosphere of sales, although interestingly enough, $7.98 today, by cpi, according to the wonderful relative worth site, would today be $30.56, but of course even a single lp, then $6.98, would today be $26.73).

        • Halloween Jack says:

          That would be the same Christgau who infamously dismissed Jimi Hendrix (on the basis of his performance at Monterey Pop) as “a psychedelic Uncle Tom.” (He also notes, quite specifically, that Janis Joplin’s left nipple was erect. The dean of American rock critics, ladies and germs.)

  17. Ginger Yellow says:

    It somehow seems crazy that Cornershop was previously viewed as luminous

    They were? I seem to remember them being pretty much a one hit wonder in the UK, certainly from a critical perspective. Do they have a different reputation in the US?

  18. mark f says:

    Turns out Klosterman really was trolling:

    Editor’s note: The following is a piece from way back in the TNI archives, Malcolm Harris writing about Chuck Klosterman in 2001.

    [. . .]

    The book Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman was just named winner of The ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award.

    I’m guessing this doesn’t mean much to more than (maybe) 10,000 people in the entire country

    [. . .]

    I am rooting for you, Chuck Klosterman. I like your book, and I hope you make many more. I want you to be a genius, and I have no reason to believe that won’t happen. But maybe don’t start waiting for the MacArthur call, because maybe you are already dead.

  19. [...] = [];}This is more Scott’s beat than mine, but evidently Chuck Klosterman — the nitwit who couldn’t spend 30 minutes or so actually listening to a tUnE-yArDs album (“wow, [...]

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