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.