Friday, May 21, 2010

Don't Eat Yourself, It's Not Good for You

When did autosarcophagy become an acceptable practice? Now let's make no mistake, I'm not saying that self-cannibalism isn't a little more selfless than your everyday, garden variety cannibalism, but there's something about consuming your own flesh that still seems more demented, at least more masochistic. But regardless of how degenerative this mentality seems to me, this has clearly been deemed okay by a certain subculture of society (one that I am regrettably a part of) because Indie Rock is eating itself alive and we are not only standing by, watching it happen, but are actually applauding every time another chunk of meat disappears down its proverbial gullet.

As I see it, there are three interrelated causes for this: 1.) The fans, 2.) Technology, and 3.) Pitchfork. (But not necessarily in that order.)

First off, there has been a change in attitude of the fan. Indie Rock was always a call to arms for the disenfranchised. If Heavy Metal of the 80's and 90's was the music for the disregarded, burn-out youth, Indie Rock was the music for the bookishly intellectual and misunderstood sect (I'm thinking Ducky from Pretty in Pink, but then again, most people probably were.) If you were a little too artistic in the 70's to play High school football and couldn't get into the sounds of Average White Band, you had Bowie or The Stooges or The Velvet Underground to make you feel like you had allies in the world. If you weren't comfortable in an Izod polo and couldn't afford (or didn't want) tickets to the big Duran Duran show in the 80's, then The Replacements or Robyn Hitchcock or Nick Lowe might have had something to offer you. If you were outside of the norm but couldn't fit in with the W.A.S.P./Krokus/Dokken bunch, you still had R.E.M. or The Cure or The Smiths to listen to and find a home. Just like the Heavy Metal of 30 years ago, this music welcomed anyone; Underground rock has always given the outcast a place to belong as long as it felt good to be a part of it.

Fast-forward 30 years, and things have most certainly changed. Indie Rock has become an exclusive club for over-intellectualizing prats. Indie Rock fans tend to be fashionable hipsters who like to laugh at those who aren't like them. Where the Indie fan was once part of a faction of society that had banned together to create something beautiful and extraordinary because they had been spurned by "normal" culture and had no where else to turn, they have now morphed into the very kind of culture that the music was initially created as a reaction to. Simply put, Indie kids think they are smarter, cooler, better.

And if you've ever read the album reviews and opinion pieces on Pitchfork, you already know that the content on the site plays directly into this elitist mentality. Did Pitchfork create this superior attitude or is Pitchfork simply reacting to the already-in-place superiority complexes of it's readership? I don't know the answer to that, but it's clear the more you talk to Indie kids and read the Pitchfork editorials and reviews they regurgitate like scripture, the two are definitely working together to make Indie Rock an increasingly exclusive and uninviting club that most of us are not cool enough to join.

Now let's combine this first idea with the hyper-fast, technologically advanced, digital age of music. Music has become such a "point-and-click" medium with iPods, iTunes, home computers and P2P networks that it has changed the way we listen to music. We have access to a greater number of albums, songs, artists, but still have the same 24 hours in a day to digest it. We obviously can't listen to it all. At one time, we had to make hard choices. If you buy a record, you're going to give that record more than a simple cursory listen. But now, with everything quickly at the touch of a button, we can try to hear as much as possible, even though we may not really be listening to anything.

That of course, doesn't change the fact that there's so much out there. How do we hone? How do we focus? How does the hipster-about-town figure out what they should be hearing? Easy, let the "├╝ber-hip" Pitchfork guide your way. The "ultra-sheik" Indie elitist looks to Pitchfork to see what's hot, and has their self-serving insincerity validated by the identical tone of the pieces they read. Again, whether the "better than you" modern Indie Rock persona originates from Pitchfork or Pitchfork is simply a reflection of the contemporary mindset, I can't say for sure, but one way or the other, this co-dependent relationship that has developed between the reader and the read is cultivating the destruction of the very music both groups claim to celebrate.

Still, there's a bigger problem...a much, much bigger problem. I've noticed for years that a strange difference in the way people are listening to Indie Rock has slowly been occurring. I could see things changing, but up until recently, I couldn't quite put my finger on what that change was (and when I say a recently, I mean recently, as in a little less than two weeks ago). But then Heaven is Whenever came out.

Every week when the new releases come out, I try to read as many record reviews from as many different media outlets as I can. I find real value in the work of the Rock Critic. In fact, if I had my choice of "dream jobs" and that choice couldn't include being independently wealthy/unemployed, Rock Critic would be the job I would choose. The Rock Critic provides a biased yet essential service to the music consumer, and I appreciate what they do for me. I don't have a ton of money to drop on records. Because of this, I do my best to read and take into account what they have to say in order to focus my purchasing decisions. The critic helps me a lot. But occasionally, there's an album that comes out where the "to buy/not to buy" question is already answered, regardless of what the Rock Critic has to say about it. Good or bad news, thumbs up or thumbs way down, I'm going to buy "this" record. In these cases, I tend to avoid the reviews until I've formed my own opinion, then after I've decided how I feel about said record, I backtrack to see what the Critics have to say.

Last week, this very scenario presented itself. The new Hold Steady album, Heaven is Whenever, came out, and this was something I was going to own regardless of what any other person in the world had to say about it. Come hell or high water, Heaven is Whenever would be mine, even if every critic on Earth panned it. So I waited until I thoroughly digested the record before I looked to see what the professional appreciators had to say. After a little more than a week, I had made up my own mind about the album (fucking brilliant), so I began to scour the globe (maybe a slight over-exaggeration) to see what others had to say about The Hold Steady's fifth joint. I hit all of the obvious outlets: Rolling Stone, Spin, allmusic, Paste, but I went much further than that. I read everything from legitimate but tiny e-music site reviews to what the average blogger thought (I even read Entertainment Weekly's review...still kind of shocked that there not only was one, but that I took the time to care what EW thought). I wanted to read it all. And everything I read was, if not glowing, at least reasonably positive. They all had written the things that mimicked my feelings about the record...but then I got to Pitchfork's review.

When I read Stephen M. Deusner's review of Heaven is Whenever, I was angry. I wasn't angry that he gave the record an unfavorable rating. He did in fact give it what would amount to a D if it was a test, but he and everyone else is entitled to their opinion, even if that opinion happens to be wrong. But reading Deusner's review, it quickly became aware to me that his problems with the record had very little to do with the record.

"Coming from a band so rooted in notions of community and classic rock, "The Sweet Part of the City" seems to acknowledge that the Hold Steady realize their function as a liaison between the underground and the mainstream. They're trying hard to achieve widespread appeal while remaining embedded in the scenes they've been chronicling for half a decade. Heaven Is Whenever loiters in the same dives, clubs, and party houses as their previous albums and chronicles the sagas of similar hoodrats, townies, gamblers, waitresses, and girlfriends. Meanwhile, the band has graduated to larger venues, festival appearances, and an avid fanbase that shouts along with every word. The distance between subject and band has never been greater than it is on this album, and these new songs just don't hit as hard."

Maybe I'm overreaching and overreacting. Maybe I'm being petty because a guy I don't know, whom I'll never meet or even speak to wrote a less than positive review about an album I love by a band who is easily the best Rock n' Roll group recording today. But I'm not. Mr. Deusner doesn't have to like the new Hold Steady album, but if he is writing a review of this album, he should write a review of the album.

Now I don't want this to disseminate into a Hold Steady blog because 1.) I wrote a Hold Steady blog not more than 3 weeks ago, and 2.) I have every intention of writing another Hold Steady blog about the new album and the band in general because the new album's kick-ass and I left a whole bunch out of that initial blog that I wanted to say (a topic I intend on writing about in and of itself, so I will abruptly cease this line of discussion). But with the Pitchfork review, it seems obvious to me that the writer's problem isn't necessarily with the music, but the fact that The Hold Steady have achieved a certain level of fame.

Essentially (and I now paraphrase and interpret), Deusner feels that Craig Finn has no right to sing about dark alleys, drug deals, and raved-up, boozed-out nights because The Hold Steady have become too "mainstream" to have a valid perspective on these subjects. But as angering as it is that this sentiment seems to drive the entire feel of the review, that's not even the most maddening part. What's so revolting to me is that Deusner calls the Hold Steady "widespread" and "mainstream".

I'm not upset by any means that The Hold Steady are "big". The Hold Steady are an amazing band that deserve to sell millions of records and get super fucking rich playing the music they do because they're better than the bands who already do that. The Hold Steady are better than U2 or Green Day (not to take away anything from U2 or Green Day, I like them both). They are infinitely better than Coldplay or Train (2 bands I absolutely don't like). The only problem is The Hold Steady are not "big". They are not selling anywhere near the number of records the afore mentioned bands are selling. If you ask the average person on the street in nearly any city or town in the U.S. if they like or even know who The Hold Steady is, I can almost guarantee they will say "no". Okay, in college towns and NYC or other big cities, that ratio might be skewed, but then again, are college towns or the East Village average?

The assertion that The Hold Steady are a "mainstream" band made me realize that somehow Indie Rock now exists in a vacuum. Okay, so the last 2 Hold Steady records have manage to garner a pretty decent position on the Billboard charts (Stay Positive topped out at #30, and Heaven is Whenever has thus far reached #26, but still, if you aren't breaking the top 20, I'm not sure you can be categorized as big. Furthermore, the first 3 albums haven't managed to climb into the top 100. In fact, the first 2 haven't even charted.) Shit, Godsmack's latest album came out on the same day as Heaven is Whenever, and it debuted at #1 on Billboard's top 200. If a great band like The Hold Steady can't outsell fucking shit-ass Godsmack, can they be that huge?

To answer my own, they can't be. They may be a big Indie band, they may even be the "biggest" Indie band, but that still means they are no more that a large fish in a comparatively small pond. What this says to me is that from the perspective of Pitchfork, which ultimately has become the perspective of Indie fans, Indie Rock operates outside of the actual mainstream. If you're a "big" Indie band, that means you're a "huge" Indie band even if you've only sold 400,000 records worldwide simply because other Indie bands haven't sold as many records as you have. And this is dangerous ground to tread, because in the Indie paradigm, "mainstream" has become the dirtiest word, and as a result, we are inorganically backing Indie Rock into a cacophonic corner.

Because we've forced Indie Rock into this separatist bubble that operates outside of the rest of modern pop music, our reality has become skewed and our perspective has become disoriented. And The Hold Steady aren't the only applicable example of this. Take Neutral Milk Hotel. The amount of times I've had conversations with people who make the assertion that "everyone" has heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is overwhelming. Virtually no one in the grand scheme of things has heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It's sold over 200,000 copies, and I'm sure twice as many people have downloaded it from P2P networks. Still, 600,000 people is not a whole lot. The world population is currently estimated at 6,822,200,000 people. 600,000 is less than 1% of the population. That's hardly "everyone". And if we compare my NMH estimates to the sales of a truly mainstream record, like say Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction, Guns N' Roses debut album has sold 46 times more records than NMH's sophomore release has had in total listeners. I apologize for the math lesson, but the numbers make it clear. Nearly every Indie kid knows Aeroplane..., but no one else does.

And this brings me back to my first issue. A stigma has been attached to the word "mainstream" because if the indie kids desperately want to be smarter and cooler, and certainly different than the mainstream, than they can't possibly allow themselves to relate to something that is considered mainstream. And because they are also influenced so severely by the Pitchfork pedagogy, when Pitchfork says "mainstream", Indie fans flee. And because Indie Rock is now in a Pitchfork-induced Indie bubble, the number of acceptable Indie Rock bands is shrinking and becoming more and more unlistenable.

Imagine for a second drawing a line in the dirt. On one side of the line is "Indie", and on the other is "Mainstream". As a "respectable" Indie fan, you are to believe you need to stay a minimum of 5 feet from that line at all times. Once again using The Hold Steady as an example, when Boys and Girls in America came out, The Hold Steady were 10 feet from that mainstream line. Then comes Stay Positive. It was a little more mature and a little more accessible. So now, even though The Hold Steady's sound hasn't changed much, because more people have bought the record (probably pretty much all Indie Rock fans, I might add), the line has to move. The Hold Steady doesn't move; they're in the same place. The music, attitude, soul, focus hasn't changed. The only change has been the perception of what mainstream is, based on the fact that more people like this band.

So the line moves to the left 3 or 4 feet, leaving The Hold Steady only 1 or 2 feet from the safe 5 foot distance. Now comes Heaven is Whenever, apparently not simply more accessible, but in the eyes of Deusner and the folks at Pitchfork, actually mainstream. The old mainstream has stayed in the same place. Nickleback hasn't moved, nor has 30 Seconds to Mars or Coldplay or Daughtry or HIM or any other crappy bands that a lot of people listen to. But still, somehow, The Hold Steady is now on the other side of that line, grouped with these other (f)artists (I fucking kill me). The line has moved 10 feet in 4 years, but the music has retained the same heart it had in 2006. But the Hipsters still need to stay 5 feet from that line. They've moved 10 feet from where they used to be. Every time that line moves, they have to take another step to maintain a 5 foot distance. With each move, the line is forcing good bands onto the other side, making them "unlistenable". And with each movement of the line, the bands who are now deemed hip enough to rock out to become more subversive, abrasive, gimmicky, and ultimately less musical.

It's a slippery slope. before you know it, Pitchfork going to be calling The Animal Collective Neil fucking Diamond. With each band that falls prey to the "mainstream" tag, the bands and Indie kids in response have to up the ante and move further away from what this new perception of mainstream is. Now LCD Soundsystem and Broken Social Scene are considered the wunderkinds of Indie Rock, and then the line will sweep them up because too many Indie kids will buy their records and the next band will be swept up, and the next band and the next band, and the next. Before you know it, it'll only be cool to listen to bands whose albums of nothing more than a series of blips and clicks and buzzes. Because of Indie Rock's desperation to be so anti-mainstream and Pitchfork's desperation to seem ahead of the popularity curve, and the fact that so many people are unwilling to see Indie Rock in the context of music at large, the "good" stuff is becoming nothing more than an abradant in cool clothes.

And what does this mean for those bands who are actually good? Well, they won't be mainstream enough to garner a significant mainstream following, but because the hip Indie Clergy have deemed them sinful, quoting their website like the Bible to save the elite souls of the eagerly converted, they'll lose a large percentage of the hipster Indie kids. They'll be a band condemned to hell. They'll be a band without a country, and that's not only a shame but a downright Shakespearean-sized tragedy.

The Indie world is shrinking into a black hole of chaos. Slowly but surely, the less capable you are of playing an instrument, the greater possibility Indie fans will love you. The more noise and less song you write is all the more chance you'll sell records to the Indie crowd. No melody, you gain allies, more melody, your simply maligned. Indie Rock, with the help of Pitchfork and the misguided, misdirected ethics of the fanbase, is slowly killing itself, lopping off the good bands like pieces of flesh and devouring them, tossing the ripped tissue down its throat and smiling as it bleeds out. Eventually, if attitudes across the board don't change, there's going to be nothing left but a large intestine full of bullshit, and this makes me sick to my stomach. But I guess I should look on the bright side; if I record the sounds of my purge and combine it with a sweet back beat, Pitchfork will probably make me an Indie God, that is until the sound of electro-vomit becomes mainstream.


  1. I agree with the issue you have with the effect of technology on how music is listened to. But as a casual hold steady fan that has basically only listened to BAGIA - and really loves that album - the new album isn't very good. This opinion was formed quickly due to technology allowing me to listen a couple of times for free streaming on the NPR website. If it were the 80's I'd probably like it cause i would have bought it and at that point felt compelled to listen more and when you own the album it's more an extension of yourself so you automatically like it better. So technologies got me on this one for sure. And like you have said before, The Hold Steady aren't the kind of band that attract a whole lot of casual listeners. The whole pitchfork thing might be true for 19 year old kids but they're fucked up all around. And more so than the actual fact as to whether or not pitchfork likes an album, it seems your issue is the reason WHY they dislike the album. But why do you dislike Coldplay? I know the reason i dislike them has nothing to do with the music. They write awesome songs but they're just such assholes in that ipod commercial where they're playing lazers for guitars and chris martin is holding his arms up to the sky. it now makes me want to throw up everytime i hear a song of theirs. it sucks, technology got me there again...

  2. First off, the reason I don't like Coldplay has nothing to do with album sales, it has to do with the fact that they actually made a decision to sound different, but in the process, they lost all of the human elements to the music. They didn't evolve, they changed; they didn't get big, they sold out and there's a big difference. But the point is, Pitchfork's decisions often seem to have little to do with the music and more to do with the image, which seems at direct odds with the principles that Independent music was founded on. Big band, small band, Indie or Mainstream, I don't really care about any of that in the end. My problem is, if you're going to be a music website, write about the music. Listen to the music without expectation or pretension or preconceived notion before you critique someone else's art. Pitchfork is essentially teaching kids that it's what's on the outside that counts, the inside doesn't really matter. That's stupid and irresponsible.

  3. The problem begins with the labels that get attached to genres or styles of music. Once a label (i.e. 'alternative, 'indie') becomes established and recognized, the mainstream music business destroys it by diluting the market with artists that are regarded as fitting for that particular label. These genres are born from certain musical styles, attitudes and the perspectives of the artists themselves within the current society. But as the genres mature and become more recognized, the lines become more fluid. Alternative had a totally different connotation in the 90s as compared to now. While my finger is not usually on the Indie pulse, I would say that the lines of Indie music have blurred quite a bit also. Once a genre becomes saturated, and the reviewers are not only serving as guides to good listening, but also as guides to good taste, then that genre has no meaning anymore. If an 'Indie' band is now a band that fits a certain sound, that only hipsters like (or pretend to like), then maybe a revolution is in order. True music fans are intelligent. They won't be told what to like and what fits their tastes. Maybe they'll have to abandon their current sources, like Pitchfork. But, they'll find the music that they like. And when they do, someone will give it a new name, and the industry will do its best to ruin that one too.