Why We Fight
Why We Fight #1
Indie Will Eat Itself
by Nitsuh Abebe, posted March 12, 2010
Welcome to “Why We Fight”, Pitchfork’s latest column. The ongoing goal of this column is to look seriously into our conversations about music: how they work, how they locate what’s at stake when we make allegiances to different artists or genres, and the different issues– like social class, race, novelty, and transgression– we bring to bear when we talk about music. These conversations might be “about” music, but they say even more about how we see ourselves and the world. More importantly, they might even change the music itself– both how it’s made and what it winds up meaning to us.
Of all the ways technology’s changed how people relate to music– how we make it, listen to it, hear about it, pay for it (or don’t)– the one that’s always amazed me is the way we talk about it. For most people, that conversation hasn’t changed: we still get word-of-mouth recommendations, share circles of taste with our friends, and don’t waste time obsessively tracking what’s going on beyond our interests. For many music geeks, though, all that’s been joined by an online world where “everyone” hears about “everything” at the same time– every development tracked like breaking news and hashed out in reviews and comments boxes, on blogs and message boards.
And in the small and geek-heavy world of indie fans– where people pride themselves on being shrewd, unique, opinionated, and sensitive to bullshit– this is a pretty meaningful development. Now, instead of just figuring out how we feel about music in relation to our friends, enemies, scenes, or schools, we’re also figuring it out in relation to a whole far-flung network of people who share our taste. (Suddenly, amazingly, we live in a world where a high-school kid in Montana can talk about how sick she is of minor trends in Williamsburg.) It means a whole lot of what’s happening revolves around our conversations and our different postures toward music– and toward our fellow fans.
As an experiment, think on this question. Over the past few years, who have you seen fiercer, more divisive debates about: Joanna Newsom or Lady Gaga? I’d guess that for a lot of you reading this, the answer is Newsom. Which is interesting, especially if you think about ways these artists are mirror images of each other.
As far as Newsom goes, it’s pretty easy to identify her unique qualities: An odd, expressive voice with a creak like an old door; a vision of her work so elaborately detailed that it can seem stilted and overwhelming; and a love of words and attention to poetic effects so deep that it actually doesn’t sound silly when she lists Vladimir Nabokov as a songwriting influence. So we’ve seen healthy debate about what, if anything, those gifts have to offer us. People argued about whether there was something precious or fussy about her manner, or even something childlike about her imagination. (Press material that painted her as some kind of unicorn-riding medieval fantasy didn’t help.) People argued about whether her obsessively crafted suites and allegories were really what pop music was for— whether maybe all those elaborate, writerly constructions were just highbrow feats of imagination in a medium that should prize real-world actions and gestures. You know: too pretentious, too many words, too many big words, too pretty, too satisfied, too comfortable, too much artifice.
And now, oddly enough, she’s released a triple LP that defuses some of those arguments. Vocal-cord problems keep her from exploiting that old divisive croak. Most straightforward lyrics reassure us that she’s speaking to our unmagical world, even if those lines remain packed with tricky poetic effects. Her recent photos look like fashion shoots. Simple things like piano and pop drumming allow us, for the first time, to say aha: we can finally identify her as fitting in with something concrete– Joni Mitchell, Laurel Canyon folkies, 1970s California, something. So the question of what the hell to make of her talents travels its way further up into the mainstream, where every critic dutifully offers a list of the kinds of words you’re going to encounter on her records (“palanquin!” “gormless!”), and Vanity Fair runs a tongue-near-cheek article explaining– no kidding– why it’s not emasculating to listen to her. “It’s just a straighter path,” she tells London’s Times, “to the same truth.”
Pop star Gaga, meanwhile, seems to work in the opposite direction, despite being every bit as steeped in artifice and pretense as Newsom. Her latest product is eight songs and 34 minutes long, compared to Newsom’s two-hour set; its most upscale English word is, by my reckoning, “saline,” versus much-noted Newsom vocabulary like “etiolated” (which also gets called out in the annotated edition of Nabokov’s Lolita). This is the big difference, of course, and the thing that some people find lacking in Newsom: Gaga’s big bundle of affectations may not be carefully constructed around a specific point– it’s not writerly in that Nabokovian way– but it’s rich and visceral enough that just about anyone can draw something thrilling or unsettling from it. Newsom gets pegged as some woodsy creature whose art is highly constructed; Gaga gets pegged as some artificial construct whose art feels intuitive. Newsom’s music feels private, a strange artifact waiting for you to come engage with it. Gaga’s is entirely public, to the point where most of it is located in image and gesture and persona. Sometimes it’s as if she’s still figuring out how to reliably pack more of that meaning into the songs themselves.
That’s surely why we don’t write Gaga off as “pretentious,” a word loaded with all kinds of social-class connotations: Her music doesn’t scan as highbrow or aimed at any elite. Besides, we want pop stars to be oversized and perverse– often we want them to think they’re more special than us. My question, though, is this: Don’t we want the same level of imagination and confidence from indie acts? And if so, why do a lot of us seem slightly wary about the possibility? Why celebrate pretense and bold gestures in pop music, but get weirdly skeptical of them in the indie world? It’s as if we’ve reached the point where one long-running indie value– the idea that the performers are a lot like the audience– has started eating up a much more interesting one: that indie can be a realm that embraces oddity and strangeness. This is the funny predicament of a lot of talk about modern indie. It’s as if the audience doesn’t think of itself as very interesting, and is skeptical of any band that comes out of its midst thinking it’s any better. (Especially if people, somewhere outside of the indie world, seem to agree.) Successful, self-conscious strangeness in the mainstream is a triumph; the same thing in this fringe genre is, for some reason, sometimes considered pretentious, self-satisfied, laughable, overstepping one’s station.
Not that this keeps ambitious or oddball indie acts from being popular and successful. But still, there’s a high level of self-consciousness around it all, and a lot of it traces back to our conversations. Look at this amazing quote from Newsom, in a recent feature: “I was bummed at everyone saying my songs were innocent and nursery rhyme-like. When people would put me and Devendra Banhart in the same sentence, they were coding his eccentricities as world-weary and ‘witchy’ and coding my eccentricities as childlike and naive. I felt like it minimized my intelligence. But I think in my defensiveness I disavowed some realities I should not have disavowed.”
This is revealing, isn’t it? Newsom’s clearly smart enough to know that a good artist can’t afford to deform her vision simply because not everyone in the world treats it kindly; besides, it’s not as if a trained harpist with an odd voice and devoted following is going to turn into someone else. But forget Newsom for a minute and just look at the self-consciousness involved. If we’re surrounded by conversation, what happens if the things the conversation sets upon turn out to be flip, superficial, or full of odd standards? What does it do, not to the artist, but to us, or music as a whole, or the music that hasn’t been made yet?
Because on the web, there’s no such thing as silent dismissal, the invisible shrug of this-is-not-for-me: everything’s verbalized. Casual dismissal– “this bugs me,” “I can’t stand that voice”– starts to look more like active criticism. People snipe or worry about whatever seems to be at issue, even if what’s at issue has more to do with our arguments than what’s happening in the music. The basic dynamics of numbers and taste, in fact, dictate that there will usually be more people who dislike something than enjoy it– valid opinions that’ll all be registered, some snidely. At times, this can turn a discussion into simply locating what’s different or notable about a given act and then chipping away at it, finding the most efficient way of mocking it, ferreting out the exact interpretation of what’s happening that best allows us to critique it.
This gets particularly weird when it comes to indie, a genre in which people are used to thinking of their taste as interesting and different. Because once the web brings everyone in a niche like this into constant contact, well: Where does the discussion go? Instead of figuring out your taste in relation to the world, you start figuring it out in relation to your immediate peers– which sometimes means distinguishing yourself from them over smaller and smaller differences. You can wind up with a conversation in which everyone’s edgy, wary, and near-religiously on guard for certain errors: being “pretentious,” thinking you’re clever, trying to be highbrow, seeming smug, or, at some point, doing anything that you seem to think makes you cool, interesting, or worth listening to.
This doesn’t mean people should just be “nice.” People who dislike things should say so, and any artist who puts out a record should be prepared for the fact that not everyone will love it. This is just life, and there’s no good alternative to it: Scenes in which every artist is uncritically considered a special, fragile snowflake tend to get really cruddy really quickly. But when you get to the point where you’re wary of any band that seems to think it’s actually doing something cool– even when that act’s only gotten as far as selling a couple of hundred singles– you’re halfway to kneecapping any opportunity for bands to actually be cool.
So whenever I hear complaints about new indie acts being predictable, bland, overly tasteful, or unambitious, I can’t help thinking this might be part of the reason: That this scene may have started producing music the way some adolescents get dressed, corrosively self-conscious about any sign of unfashionable difference that opens them up to be mocked. At worst, you can wind up with a whole genre where the acts and the audience are both armoring themselves against standing out or embracing risks. You wind up reaching that weird provincial point where you’re always cutting down the plant that grows higher than the others– where the way you call for the music to be more interesting (or try to express what makes you more interesting) actually has the effect of making it tamer, less interesting.
If all that sounds like needless handwringing, well, maybe it is: There’s always enough great stuff to listen to that the healthiness of this dynamic feels like a footnote. (“Indie will eat itself.”) It’s strange to me, though, that when I sat down to try and think of an act that fits somewhere between those mirror images of Newsom and Gaga, the first to come to mind was one that still floats beneath the radar. Give a listen to Parenthetical Girls’ 2008 “Song for Ellie Greenwich”, a song whose arrangements and melodies might skew in a Newsom-like direction, but whose pretentions– including the vocals of Zac Pennington, who actually vaguely looks and moves like Lady Gaga– share the pop star’s visceral, unsettling shudder and edge. Or try their cover of the Smiths’ “Handsome Devil”, which– over a quarter century later– they manage to keep sinister and sordid. And then consider: whether you’ve enjoyed it or not, what do our opinions about stuff like this wind up doing?
And here: by Ben Coe Check out his music posts, as well…hell, most of his posts are pretty insightful. They’re making me think…
In the deepest sense money isn’t real. It’s true. Intrinsically it has no real value. It’s just a fancy piece of paper. If you were to take our money to an alien world what could you use it for? Money is simply a mutually agreed upon token we use to exchange for things that provide REAL VALUE to us like food, community, comfort and shelter. It is the thing we buy with money or the thing people buy from us that has actual value.
Why then do we stress over money? You stress about money because you have mistakenly identified money, the actual money, as the thing of value. You feel stress because you are “fighting” to get something that doesn’t exist- the closer you get the more elusive it becomes. There is another way.
Look at the thing of value as what’s underneath the money. If you want to generate more income, then think of how you can generate more value, not more money. Also recognize that both value and wealth come in more forms than just money. You can be financially wealthy but be bankrupt in true friendships, peer respect or health.
This observation is universal; applicable to anyone, anywhere in any business or organization. It applies to the artist business, the management company and the United States Government.
In equation form it looks like this:
Wealth = Value Provided by Y * Number of Entities that Directly Value Y
(Where Y is the product, employee or subject generating wealth).
Think about this on a higher plane. We are all connected in a giant ecosystem and the flow of money is merely a manifestation of the exchange of our energy. Next time you are stressed out about money be self-reflective. Rather than stressing about how you can get more money for money’s sake, focus instead on how you can provide more value to more people. All sorts of wealth will flow from this mindset.