Saturday, December 6, 2014

What is critical about contemporary music criticism? On Knowing and Not Knowing in Nicholas Szczepanik, Owen Pallett, and PC Music (with Nick Croggon)

What was music criticism in 2014? Or, more precisely, what was “critical” about it? How exactly is offering a critique different from, say, regurgitating a press release or clicking “like” on Facebook? In other words, just how critical is contemporary music criticism, and why, in the end, does it matter?

Out of all the reviews, features, comments, blogposts, tweets, and discussion boards — all the endless, interminable text — that comprised the collective conversation about music in 2014, two moments stood out to us as especially symptomatic of where things currently stand on these questions. The first almost certainly passed you by, trivial, a non-issue in the vast data-sea of music discourse, but no less telling for it. The second you may have noticed, because for a few brief weeks in March, it was everywhere.

It’s with these two moments that we want to begin. From there, we’ll move on, in the final part of the essay, to consider how they might speak to one of 2014’s most talked about phenomenons: the dramatic rise of London-based label PC Music.

Read the whole piece here

Friday, May 9, 2014

Pop & Non-Pop After The Conceptual Turn: How pop’s appetite for itself has led to a taste for the sacred (with NIck Croggon)

This essay is the second in a semi-regular series of slightly longer pieces exploring some of the ideas and conceptual strategies we think are at the heart of music production and reception today. 

Our last piece, “The Trouble with Contemporary Music Criticism,” was about history. We argued that contemporary music writing often fails to think about history adequately because of its commitment to a mostly unacknowledged ideology of progress. This is particularly problematic, we said, when so much of the strongest music being made today seems to take history itself as its main point of orientation. Musicians keep presenting us with alternatives to this default idea of music as the endless progression of the new, and we keep missing it. The best in contemporary music is often much smarter than we think it is — and much more productive too. 

Contemporary music is often accused of a kind of passivity: of refusing to be sufficiently “political,” of failing to “innovate,” of capitulating to the stultifying forces of retro-culture, of being little more than a composite of historical references. But in order to think that way, you need to commit to a pretty narrow view of “politics” and “innovation”. It is, by contrast, perfectly possible to listen to contemporary music and hear something extremely active: music that, in its best instances, is right in the thick of both questioning and rethinking ideas and hegemonies (like history and progress) that underpin art, culture, and social life. For this reason, it is also robustly political. It really does matter.
But our last essay left a lot of key terms unaccounted for. What did we mean by “contemporary music criticism,” for instance? Or, for that matter, “contemporary music”? If the answers to these questions seem self-evident, or if the questions themselves seem redundant, they shouldn’t. The assumptions we make about each of these key terms are directly bound up with how we write and listen. 

We’ll look at the question of criticism next time. In this essay, we’d like to tackle the question “What is contemporary music?” The answer to this question will unfold in two parts. First, we’re going to argue that the key to this question is the relationship between pop and non-pop: a relationship that contemporary music, with increasing intensity, is actually already investigating itself. And second, we’re going to argue that it is this investigation that has laid the groundwork for some of the most inventive musical experiments in recent years. 


Pop Eats Itself

If you asked yourself what sort of music you tend to listen to and read about on sites like Tiny Mix Tapes, what would you say? Underground music? Experimental music? Terms like these are always either too specific or too vague. Usually, the easiest method is to answer by putting the music we like into dialogue with what it is not — whatever I listen to, it’s predominantly not pop music. This pairing is the most common way that music in the 20th century has been defined — popular vs. serious music, pop vs. experimental, mainstream vs. underground. 

But by defining pop by what it is not, we often ignore the fact that pop music has always had a bit of a knack for defining itself.

In 1957, Chuck Berry released a song called “Rock and Roll Music.” It went, “Just let me hear some of that Rock And Roll Music/ Any old way you choose it/ It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it/ Any old time you use it/ It’s gotta be Rock And Roll Music/ If you want to dance with me/ If you want to dance with me.” The song peaked at #8 in the US charts and, in obvious tribute to an artist and a genre they loved, would go on to be covered by the likes of Bill Haley & The Comets, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys. All of them were making rock & roll about rock & roll.

Without listing endless examples, what we’re suggesting is that, from its very beginnings in the 1950s and 1960s, the modern form of pop music has always had a certain self-reflexive quality. It drew its own boundaries to some extent, defined itself in the process of its own embodiment and production.
What’s most striking, however, is just how much pop seems to have upped the ante in this respect over the last 60 years. 

Let’s take three examples from last year. In September 2013, 14-year-old US pop star Madison Beer released “Melodies.” The video starts with Justin Bieber listening to the song on a set of purple Beats speakers. “You hear that, Ryan?” he asks. “That’s a smash.” He signs a set of matching purple headphones, puts them in a big red box, and we cut to Madison opening said box somewhere in middle America. She takes out her newly Bieber-pimped Beats, puts them on, and hears herself singing. “I hear melodies in my head, hear melodies in my head, hear melodies in my head… My heart is a beating drum, repeating my favorite song.” This, then, is an earworm about the fact that it’s an earworm. This is pop eating itself.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Trouble with Contemporary Music Criticism: Retromania, Retro-historicism, and History (with Nick Croggon)

Two hundred years before the release of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, people were losing their shit over a different sort of robot entirely. This one was known as the Mechanical Turk, and it was built at the end of the 18th century by a guy named Wolfgang von Kempelen. The Mechanical Turk comprised a puppet dressed in Turkish robes, sitting on top of a box containing an apparently complex set of mechanics. And it played chess. The Turk was so good at chess, in fact, that it toured the world for the best part of a century before it was finally destroyed in a fire in 1854. It played for Emperor Joseph II, Frederick the Great, Charles Carroll, and Edgar Allen Poe, and it actually beat Napoleon Bonaparte, Benjamin Franklin, and Catherine the Great. On one tour of the UK, it won 45 out of 50 matches, and it played them all with a one-pawn handicap.

The amazing Mechanical Turk turned out to be an elaborate hoax of course. The machine’s interior was an ingenious system of smoke and mirrors, expertly designed by Von Kempelmen to conceal the chess master, a small hunchback nestled snugly inside.

In the realm of contemporary music criticism, there is an equivalent of Von Kempelen’s Turk, a criticism machine that is making the rounds of contemporary music circuits, amazing a largely unquestioning audience. 

The contemporary music critic machine plays its game by confronting and demystifying any and all contemporary music as nothing but a series of historical references — well-known dance outfits from the 1990s, not so well-known German synthesizer duos from the 1970s, and totally obscure British sound recordings from the 1960s. We read this criticism and are impressed at its apparent rigor and erudition — never realizing that, concealed within the box, something else is pulling the strings. 

In 2011, Simon Reynolds introduced the world of music criticism to the notion of “retromania.” The idea was that, more than ever before, contemporary music is concerned with being “retro,” with repeating its own very recent past. In justifying this central claim, Reynolds detailed numerous examples, both pop and experimental, that referred either explicitly or implicitly to music of bygone eras: the eternal return of 60s- and 70s-era garage rock, Amy Winehouse and Adele’s ludicrously successful neo-soul, the onslaught of 90s Eurodance recently unleashed by David Guetta et al. on the world’s charts. And in the global underground: chillwave, hypnagogic pop, hauntology, hipster house. In each case, Reynolds’ diagnosis was almost entirely negative. For Reynolds, retromania is a sickness, a form of cultural malaise. With each passing year, he worried, the pulse of the present is growing increasingly faint.

Reynolds’ book struck such a chord both with the public and in critical circles, because his account married perfectly with a way of thinking that has dominated critical discourse about music since at least the 1960s. This approach is premised on the twin ideas of “novelty,” on the one hand, and “historical progress,” on the other. 

In Retromania, as in so much of the music critical tradition, including Reynolds’ own previous work, music is at its best — indeed, achieves its core social function — when it confronts the listener with the shock of the “new”: the exhilaration of experiencing a soundworld totally unlike anything they have heard before: the thrill of having ‘been there’ at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, techno, or rave. Moreover, this shock, this experience of radical novelty, is not only a historical experience, but also an experience of history as such — albeit a specific type of history. In Reynolds’ terms, the excitement of new music is the experience of being on the very edge of the present as it hurtles into the future: it is the experience of the essential truth of human historical existence as constant progress and change. 

The retromania of contemporary music, characterized so astutely by Reynolds, fundamentally challenges this way of relating to music. Its contemporaneity consists precisely in its repudiation of progress, its refusal to create new sounds: in some cases by shamelessly or irreverently copying or reframing, and in other cases by carefully paying tribute to or unarchiving the music of the past. Either way, a denial of the inevitability or desirability of change. And this is why Reynolds condemns it.

In the wake of Retromania, the world of music criticism has undeniably become increasingly “retro-sensitive.” The contemporary music critic hears retro everywhere.

Of course, with the likes of YouTube, Wikipedia, Spotify, The Pirate Bay, Discogs, and a vast data-sea of blogs at their disposal, it is increasingly easy for them to do so. Struggling for a reference? Google it! Wondering which precise Ash Ra Tempel record the new Emeralds record sounds like? Spend just a few minutes surfing YouTube! 

The result is a now almost ubiquitous form of music criticism which we call “retro-historicism.” It can be found in the printed music press of The Wire, NME, and Rolling Stone, and most predominantly, of course, on the web. In essence, its critical project is the reduction of music criticism to a form a historical list-making: a mechanical exercise in influence fishing, the mere identification and cataloging of historical reference points before moving on to pass judgment, as if that were in any way sufficient. 

All this is not a tribute to or a continuance of Reynolds’ project, but a depressing performance of precisely the approach to music he condemned. Contemporary music criticism has become infected by its own version of retromania — in other words, its own obsession with the past. Although, rhetorically, such criticism’s appeal to history projects a certain kind of critical rigor, it is our belief that retro-historicism involves nothing less than the abandonment of the critical task. 

Read on at TMT