Note: This concludes my three-part discussion with pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones.
CP: One of the most well-known and controversial pieces you've written recently was last fall's "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which generated a lot of talk.
SFJ: Yeah, it comes up.
CP: There was a lot of internet backlash. Did you anticipate that, and was it warranted?
SFJ: I knew people were going to get heated up about it. I didn't make up the title or the subtitle – I thought the title was clever enough, but I hated the subtitle, "Indie rock loses its soul." It's just not what I said or what the piece is about. I think that created problems for me and it's not said anywhere in the piece.
The problem with the piece – I mean, I have my own problems with it, though I largely think it's right, which is why I wrote it – the ending was a bit rushed because of logistical reasons. These tiny things end up being life-changing, like you're building, and you run out of money so you skimp on fireproofing and your entire building burns down. That's sort of overstated. But the ending – the timeline was sort of messed up; the piece is really mostly about the '90s and the very early '00s, because I think the current indie situation is much more schizophrenic and changed.
I kind of wanted it to be a little bit of a . . . maybe a smaller I.E.D., not a huge explosion – but I wanted it to get at people and I wanted it to be accessible, and I didn't want it to be too insidery so it had to have some heat to it. But some of the criticisms were just bonkers, like that I'm a racist or that it's too essentialist. It's a piece that's very specific about music. If you go back, you will not find any generalizations about people in it. Because I wasn't generalizing about people, I was trying to theorize about what happened to – a really simple way of putting the question is, why is indie rock called indie rock? What is it? People seem to know what it means; it's one of the vaguer terms, it's not the greatest one, so wide right now, but it became a thing, and it became clear over time that what it was was music that had subtracted . . . the shortest way to say it is, the blues, and everything that came out of the blues: soul and funk and so on.
Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing, maybe it seems in the piece like I think it's a bad thing because my preferences run toward the African-American musical tradition, but I was really more fascinated that it had happened. I thought people would get the opening, which was, I chose a band [The Arcade Fire] that I had just written a very positive piece about, and it's still there in the writing for me but it didn't work for a lot of people – I found myself thinking, here's a band I like, but their musical composition is so different from the version of this band I would've seen 20 or 30 years ago. Something has really changed, almost in the physical composition, almost like examining a plant and saying, "Oh my god, the soil no longer has zinc in it, look at this plant."
And I think the reason that a lot of people were confused is that I also had a lot of my preferences in the piece and I think it just got reduced to "You just want there to be black music in everything!" I can understand why people think that, I take most of the blame myself – I'm not really worried about it, if people think certain things about me that's fine, it doesn't bother me, but I might've been a little more surgical about separating – here's the progression I saw, this music progressed and seemed to be losing this musical strain.
People say crazy shit about it – that I was accusing indie rockers of being racist, when I was if anything accusing them of quite the opposite, of being so conscious of racial issues because of the political mode of the '80s that kids – and I think this is true – didn't want to risk doing anything that was even remotely racist. So it's easier to not engage. It's a guess but I think it's true, so it's the opposite of me thinking everyone is racist. And it was interesting because indie rockers had to find other stuff to draw on. But one thing that I'm happy to lean on, or draw from, is that if you're going to play popular music in this day and age in America, kind of a lot of the best stuff – young black folks made that stuff up. And if you're really, intentionally or unintentionally, avoiding that entire chunk of material, you're gonna have to be really really good, because . . . it's good to fall back on a few tricks that have been around for a long time.
And there's been a proliferation of bands that in some ways were just trying to reinvent the wheel in a way that I find utterly annoying. The sort of incredible swarm of Beach Boys-derived, harmony-crazy, post-Sufjan people, which is a hard thing to do because you have to be really fucking good with harmony and melody. First of all, you have to sing well, which is really fucking hard to do. It's not enough to rely on a firm, simple backbeat unless you're a fucking genius. Sufjan can get away with it because – I'm not a huge fan, but he has a real gift for vocal arranging and singing, and that stuff is really pretty. It's not really my bag, but he certainly pulls it off. But I'm getting pretty far afield here.
I would've changed a couple of bits and made it a bit clearer that you can do interesting things that have nothing to do with black music, and black music itself went off in some pretty wack directions. It was really more – the thing that started the whole rock'n roll party, in this particular population was now gone. And that's strange. Or it's just notable. And I could have kept my preferences out of it entirely, and I wouldn't have had much trouble. There was a way to write that piece that nobody would've been bothered, but it would've been weaker, and it's not such a bad thing that so many people got angry, and I don't mind that they got angry at me. It foregrounded the issue, and that's cool.
I don't love getting literally 1300 angry emails. Though I got tons – and still do – of really positive responses. And a lot of the people who disagreed had incredibly interesting things to say. It's really only the people who lost their minds who make you feel kinda bad during the day. But the majority of what happened was that people had a lot to say. And a lot of it I thought was fascinating and people got engaged and I thought that was exciting.
CP: Was that part of what you were hoping to accomplish with the piece?
SFJ: Yeah, there's even a blog post on my personal site – I knew people were gonna trip. Because every time you mention race, people trip. There are still people who think – insanely – that there's no such thing as black and white music now. Okay, that would mean something if there were no such thing as black and white people. But the semantics, the symbolism – and it's just real that certain people invented certain things. There are some things that it's harder to attribute authorship to and there are some things that it's not hard to. We're talking about a relatively young art form, with a few exceptions this is almost all recorded music. It's a much easier thing to talk about, popular music, as opposed to say, Renaissance drama, where are the people are dead and there are huge missing pieces. We're talking about stuff that's all documented. It's all recordings, it's all documents. We can figure this shit out.
But no, I don't like people hating on me. As much as it's nice to have a big discussion, I didn't go for that.
Note: This is part two of my discussion with Sasha Frere-Jones. Part three will be posted tomorrow.
CP: You keep two blogs, one for the New Yorker and one – I'm saying this as if you didn't know it . . .
SFJ: You know, it's actually possible that I wouldn't realize that. I could easily have forgotten.
CP: There's been a lot of backlash and writing recently about music blogging having a negative affect on people's listening and buying habits because people blogging piggyback off of one another and end up hyping things that might not deserve the hype that they get – then that band will get big for a short time then disappear again. I wonder whether you'd agree that with them that's a trend in fact, and that that's a negative trend.
SFJ: My sort of disappointing answer would be that I don't really care. I don't know. Bands getting hyped is really far down my list of things I care about.
Hype is sort of fun. It's like Bob Christgau said, and I think it's totally true – if you read too many blogs, you're going to get annoyed, but there's a really simple cure and that's just don't read them. Probably kids now who are checking into blogs every day are going to get really weird headaches because there just isn't that much to talk about.
One thing that hype does is that it's sort of like Hamburger Helper – it sort of extends the conversation. It's like when you're IMing and you're reduced to saying shit like, "Wow, are you watching that video?" You're just sort of filling up the space because you have a blog. I have nothing against the places that post 97 times a day like Brooklyn Vegan or Stereogum or whatever, but they made the decision to post 97 times a day, and they're going to sort of be simulating newsiness, and there's going to be this feedback loop of, like, "I'm sick of Yeasayer! What's the deal with Deerhunter?" and that's because they're people who just stare at the computer all day long and – or Vampire Weekend or whatever. These things do shake themselves out pretty easily in the marketplace when people start recording and touring, they last or they don't last.
But again, hype is fun. It's fun to get excited about a thing. And I don't know what could be harmed. It's sort of like Napster. The guy from Offspring, or maybe Rancid, his line on it, back when Dr. Dre and Metallica were like "We're gonna sue because we need to be, like, more millionaire-ish!" and the guy from the Offspring, or Rancid, I can't remember which, said, to me it's very simple – more fans is better. That's how I feel about all this.
When people start complaining about blogging, or some kind of meta- like, the new world isn't good, I think – the rules haven't changed. Good writing is good writing and there isn't going to be a lot of it. If people are exchanging mp3's and into music and talking about it, that's only good. Really terrible blogs just don't last. They just don't. The democracy of the web is really great – like, this guy who writes fourfour, Rich, who now has a lot of real writing gigs –he only got popular because he was so good ,and he was just a blogger but he rose above the other nine million blogs because he was so funny and put unbelievable amounts of time into these crazy video things. And that's awesome. And there are obviously bloggers who are 20 times smarter than people who have some newspaper gigs.
And the idea of being put out of business – I think some music magazines have been put out of business by the internet, but that's the way it goes. The internet has not put, say, restaurants out of business because they're not doing the same thing. That's an obvious thing to say, but if history replaces you, that's harsh, but that's the way it goes.
CP: The incident a month or two ago with the notorious Maxim review of the Black Crowes album --
SFJ: Yes, that was me.
CP: Right, so I thought. Some people were up in arms – this represents the degradation of music criticism as a practice – do you see it as an isolated thing or represents a larger trend toward laziness in criticism?
SFJ: Well, there's sort of no way for me to answer that question because I only know what I do. I know that I listen to records about a gabillion times before I write about them, but that's just me. That is what most good critics do. I mean, I can't really figure anything out, because I have such a shitty memory, unless I listen a billion times. And it takes me a long time to figure out what I think.
I don't like quick turnaround time. That's one reason I like this job, though we do occasionally come out with something right on top of the record release. But one of my favorite columns I've done lately was the Mariah Carey piece [anthologized in DaCapo's Best Music Writing 2007), which came out close to a year after the album came out. And I think there should be more of that in criticism in general.
Bob Christgau again, and not to keep talking about Bob, but I did notice growing up that he was one of the few cats who would sort of be quiet about a record, and you wondered where he went, then after everyone else had had their turn, he would weigh in, and he had figured out what he thought.
It matters with things like theater because it's a limited run, and art, and it even kind of matters with cinema because movies go out of the theater, but with records it only sort of matters. Bands don't tour, usually, until a few months after the record comes out. Although I suppose you can wait so long, the band breaks up. All this is not the answer to your question.
It's hard, you can't write about a record you haven't heard. Ironically, there are probably records that don't even deserve to be listened to all the way through, and the Black Crowes thing – the funny thing is, the joke is that it probably was a pretty accurate review. I don't know that writer but I'm going to assume that he probably doesn't do that all the time. I read somewhere on a blog that he didn't think it was going to be a full review, and it was run as a full review, which could be true, I have no reason not to believe that.
If you're being paid very little and you're being pushed to do little hundred-word blurb reviews, you've got a lot of people who are probably listening to five songs and then writing the review. And how much do those blurby reviews matter to people? I don't know. I've never really liked them and I don't read them and I never did, though I did end up writing them for a while. I always liked essays more.
Especially picking up a magazine where I don't know the writers – three or four or five stars is kind of meaningless because I didn't know who they were. It was really critics that I could establish a relationship with that I would read, and those would be people in places like the Voice and Artforum and the Times, where they got to work in a longer format, and you could get to know them over time. But people I guess love those little squibbly reviews because you see Blender and EQ or whatever, the other one, Uncut, "With 270 reviews!" But people also seem to love lists, which have taken over. I used to really like lists but they've been ruined for me. How many times are we going to read about the hundred greatest albums of the '80s? It was really fun the first time but now it just makes me want to start writing lists that don't mean anything.
Overcanonization – there's a crosstalk that cancels everything out. If everything is the greatest album ever, then you begin to lose perspective. But that's the casualty of the age where you can't stop people from having a million lists. We have lost consensus and there are bigger things to worry about than whether there's a clear consensus about bands. I think that's one reason I'm not particularly worried about hype.
Note: this is the first of a three-part series that will document my talk with New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, who appears at Carnegie Mellon University on Tuesday, March 29.
CP: The first thing I wanted to talk about was a little bit about how you got into music writing – I know you were in a band for a long time –
SFJ: Kind of by accident. Well, that's kind of stretching it. It was certainly not a plan. I mean, I didn't accidentally write something, I obviously wrote something intentionally. Yeah, I was – I mean, I am a musician, altho I haven't really honestly done anything htat real in a few years. It was – '94, and I was definitely concentrating on my band Ui, and there was a writer for the Village Voice named Ann Marlowe and she came to an Ui show, and our drummer knew her, and I loved her writing, and I said, will you review us or something like that, and she said, "No, I don't like your band." And I said "Oh, great." And she said "But, I'd like you to write something for me," and I said "What are you talking about?" and she said "Well, I'm starting a fanzine." And I said "Oh, how do you know I write?" And she said, "Well, you just look like you write."
Okay, you've insulted me twice in like 3 minutes. Which is really Ann, she's the most direct person.
She had a zine called Pretty Decorating, and I wrote a few pieces [fot it]. The first piece I wrote was sort of a rant about indie rock, which seems to be what I do. So I started this dumb career by slogging on indie rock.
I was sitting with my friend Andy Hawkins, who's a musician that I played with sometimes who is in this great band called Blind Idiot God, and we were sitting there grousing, in that annoying way that people do, about, I think, Guided By Voices and poorly recorded rock and we were like, "Why don't people just record their shit properly? Like, you gotta save up and do it right." And she said "Write down that thing you just ranted and rant that for me."
And that's what I did, and I wrote a few pieces and everything after that was an invitation. The most significant exchange was with Simon Reynolds, the critic – in a way it's more his fault than anyone's. He wrote a piece, ironically saying basically that American bands suck, Britain has this great new thing called post-rock. I mean, it's ironic because the bands he mentioned all suck. Bands that were supposed to be interesting for five minutes and really never were. And then my band ended up being called post-rock, and I wrote a piece back saying, no, American bands suck, it wasn't that great an exchange really, I'm sure it wasn't his best piece and it wasn't my best piece, but then the Voice asked me, we're going to do a post-rock section and you're in one of these bands, will you write something for it, and then that's what got it going, writing that first Voice piece.
They asked me to write more, then I had a column in the New York Post, which no one really remembers, probably because it's not on Nexis but also because no one really reads the Post. It's amazing that you can actually be in a newspaper with huge circulation and no one you know reads it. If you want to find out if there's really such thing as class, and divisions, get a column in the Post. Literally, no one will ever say, "Hey, I read your column!" I felt like I was writing for a fanzine, it didn't matter what I said – I don't think record labels cared that much. Who the fuck reads the pop criticism in the New York Post? Anyway, it just went from there. And I had day jobs and I always thought I was in a band. That's who I thought I was. But the writing started to take up more and more of my time, and it got to be something of an occupation, it ramped up when Slate asked me to write a column, then I got the call from The New Yorker about a year after that. But I hadn't really accepted it as a reality until recently. If you had asked me, I would've said I'm a musician, but, the last four years . . . . my first column was March of 2004. So I guess it's been four years.
CP: Talking about considering yourself to be a musician – how do you feel being a musician plays into your writing? Do you think that's something that's really important, or essential, for a music critic?
SFJ: No, I don't. I think the gig is largely about writing. That seems like an unbelievably tautological and dumb thing to say. But it's not, because I think it's much more important as a critic to be a thinker and a writer. Being a musician has given me a way to figure out certain things when I'm listening, but I think largely – my favorite critics are often not practitioners. I mean, there are a few musicians who are great critics; I think John Darnielle is a great critic, but Darnielle is really just a great writer, he'd be interesting about anything.
CP: He's kind of a nut.
SFJ: He's a nut, and he's interesting, and has an awful lot of energy.
I don't know, people tell me – they point out things that seem to maybe derive from being a musician but I don't know. My favorite critics are not musicians, generally.
CP: I've written about music and I've played music and I'd say my writing about music is probably a bit better . . .
SFJ: Also because music itself uses so much muscle memory and feels so involuntary, like eating or sleeping or whatever, physical things. Writing criticism, you have to do a lot of thinking and rethinking and stepping outside of yourself.
Somebody recently said to me that criticism should be about enthusing, and I don't really agree. I think that enthusing is fun, I like enthusing but I think a lot of what criticism is best at doing is putting it into context, doing aesthetic thinking.
Local 17-year-old pop-country singer Sarah Marince has a new single out, called "Just Look At Me." She's an accomplished vocalist, a senior at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, and plans to attend Point Park this fall. But most Pittsburghers are probably already familiar with Marince's voice, not from getting spins on FROGGY, but from a the "Place for Smiles" jingle she's recently recorded for Pittsburgh institution Eat'n Park. (Or, as one friend with a fondness for a post-booze blitz on the all-night breakfast buffet calls it, "Park'n Barf.")
If you want to download a commercial to you iPod, or "Just Look At Me," they're available on the Eat'n Park website here.
But what's much more interesting is the "Place for Smiles" video, which shows the perky Marince recording the track. It's remarkable for three reasons, some snarky and some surreal. First, there's Marince's remarkable ability to maintain an ear-splitting grin throughout the performance (does she have "extra" teeth?), and secondly, the uneasy tension that builds up during the instrumental break, before it's all sunny-side-up smiles again. And finally, it's a little glimpse into what local country- and jingle-writer Bob Corbin's been up to since the demise of the PovertyNeck Hillbillies, who he produced and wrote with. That would be him behind the mixing desk, not looking all that smiley, if you ask me.
Welcome to a new FFW>> weekly feature, the cleverly alliterative mp3 Monday! Each week on Monday, your friendly CP music bloggers will be bringing you a quick introduction to a local band you might not be familiar with.
First up is the local three-piece Medic Medic. They play rock songs with a metal edge to them, verging on sludgy at times -- there are some sweet heavy riffs in there. And lead singer Nicole Ranalli's vocals kinda remind me of the Lunachicks sometimes. That's cool, right? I think so.
To get you started here's an mp3 from their site (actually an mp3 wrapped up in an m3u, but you get the idea):
Bands accustomed to performing at small clubs often have their work cut out for them when taking to a larger stage. The sound, the space, the energy, the interaction with each other and with the crowd -- everything's different, and it's a difference that can result in a local band coming across as uncomfortable and flat.
So when locals Lohio and Donora -- groups probably more comfortable in the homey confines of Brillobox -- took the stage at Mr. Small's last night with Tokyo Police Club, I expected some jitters. Fortunately, I was wrong.
Lohio kicked things off with a bigger, more robust sound than I'd heard from them before, thanks in part to an expanded 6-member lineup and the solid rhythm section comprised of bassist Trevor Baker (of Goodnight, States) and drummer Matt Miller (of Pleasure Technicians). Vocalist and guitarist Greg Dutton was engaging and personable, as guitarist Josh Verbanets twitched like a spastic Muppet alongside.
With only three members, Donora didn't quite fill the space in the same fashion, and as I listened to the Cure-like guitar lines being triggered by drummer Jake Hanner, I wondered for a minute just how hard it would be to have an actual guitarist on stage playing them (probably not that hard). But their catchy songs connected with the audience, and both groups invited each other onstage at the end of their sets to sing backup, which leant a friendly feel-good air to the proceedings.
Closing the night, headliner Tokyo Police Club put on an excellent show -- if you haven't caught their blend of indie-pop, proggy breakdowns and Morrissey melancholy, they're definitely worth a listen. The band probably wasn't onstage that long, time-wise, but with so many short songs it did get a bit fatiguing. But, give 'em a break: It was their last night of the tour, and they still packed plenty of energy and swagger. Plus, if I were in their shoes, I'd take the screaming girls as an encouragement to keep playing, wouldn't you?
You may remember writing a couple months back about Screaming Females, the New Jersey band with the diminutive frontwoman with intense shredding skills. They tore it up at Roboto in January, and they're back this Saturday for a "Gay/Straight Defiance Party" at Belvedere's in Lawrenceville.
The part is the project of Pink Party Productions, a group of queer-identifying women looking to create more social events that are GBLTQ-posi. The Gay-Straight Defiance idea is to have a show that's explicitly geared toward the queer community and those support it. PPP also hosts occasional house shows for traveling bands.
Saturday night's event also features locals The Harlan Twins and Nicole Reynolds, and a dance party featuring DJ's Shorty Rock and Thermos, who hopefully won't be receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the thermal carafe people anytime soon.
The forecast is for torrential good shows in town Saturday night -- the New Pornographers, Forca Macabra, Andrea Parkins -- but if you get a chance, this is one to check out.
If this primary season has taught us Pennsylvanians anything, it's to be careful what we wish for -- after all the bellyaching about how the election would be over by the time our primary rolled around, we're getting our chance to shine after all, and if you're like me you're already sick to death of all the candidate visits and commercials.
Some folks are still excited, though, and count among them the musicians and poets who'll be performing at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern Saturday night. It's the monthly Delorean Music Showcase, and it features some well-known local names: Bridgely Moore, Axelrod (featuring Devin Russian and members of Benchwarmer), Fangs of the Panda, Guyliners and Oru (Delorean founder John Huffman's solo deal). There'll also be spoken word by local notables Nikki Allen, Brian Francis and Renee Alberts.
It's too late to register in time for the primary, but the hopeful Obama-ites will be registering folks who need to get straight before the general election in November (avoid the crowd, register early!), and there'll surely be some stimulating, if partisan, discussion with your drink specials.
Also, did I mention this whole thing is free?
Haven't gotten word of any local Hillary bashes with bands, though I'll let you know if I do, in the interest of nonpartisanship. For now, you folks will have to be satisfied with this.