October 12, 2006

Hooray for Hapless Hipsters

By way of a worthy digression on the Sicilian Mafia, Henry Farrell suggests that music critics need to issue unexpected and controversial verdicts from time to time in order to stay relevant. Critics, he argues, "don't want consumers to feel so secure in their own tastes that they can bypass the critic" and hence "have incentive to inject certain amounts of aesthetic uncertainty into the marketplace, by deliberately writing reviews which suggest that bad artists are good, or that good artists are bad, so as to screw with the heads of the listening public."

That's... clever. Might even be true in some cases. But Farrell's writing in the context of a discussion on Pitchfork, the online magazine with a virtual monopoly on indie music reviews, and in that context his take is, I think, inapt. Mark Schmitt's advice to politicians has always been, "It's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you." The same thing applies to Pitchfork. The reviews fairly obviously have less to do with measuring the aesthetic quality of a given album, and more to do what liking or not liking an album would say about you as a person.

It's not shocking to say that a lot of people's musical tastes are a means of self-expression. When I was a short, skinny kid in high school and getting picked on, I developed an interest in indie rock partly as a way to distance myself from the "cool" kids listening to Dave Matthews Band and Pearl Jam. It wasn't only an aesthetic consideration. Frankly, I can't tell you, from a purely musical standpoint, exactly why I prefer Neko Case to Norah Jones anymore than explain why Beethoven outshines Brahms. I have genuine preferences in both cases, but much of it is so influenced by extra-aesthetic factors—by authorities who deem Beethoven a giant, or by Neko Case's indie credibility—that it's hard to disentangle everything.

I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I've never agreed with the New Criticism view that works should be judged on formal aspects alone, and in any case, I don't have time to learn enough music theory to describe music in any but the most rudimentary terms: "This sounds like a cross between X and Y," or "The lyrics are witty!" And neither do the Pitchfork people. Their reviews tend to involve a series of addled metaphors sprinkled with references to obscure lo-fi indie bands from the 1990s. There's little in the way of rigorous musical analysis. (Consider their review of Kid A: "Comparing this to other albums is like comparing an aquarium to blue construction paper." Okay, then.) But so what?

Mostly they're saying, "This is how liking this band will help define who you are." Aesthetic judgments play at most a co-equal role. And that's valuable to a lot of people—in the same way advertising is valuable to a lot of people—even if it's not always the only thing they want. It also explains why Pitchfork reviews can be so mercurial. Calculated snobbery requires a bit of unpredictability now and again. The genius is that, even when people disagree, their disagreement is still an opportunity to define themselves through their musical tastes. In a strange sense, even a disagreeable and totally off-base Pitchfork review can give people what they're looking for.
-- Brad Plumer 4:21 PM || ||