“There’s just so much time set aside for baffled reaction. I believe we’ve reached the limit.” - Don DeLillo, The Day Room
As a child, I was taught that no phrase was worse than “I hate you.” Usually, when it would slip out in a moment of unguarded passion, the target was my older sister, undoubtedly committing some unspeakable act of injustice against me, her undersized and slightly effeminate brother. Anyone with an older sibling understands; regardless of your parents’ rules, sometimes, you just really hate them, and you need to let them know.
Still, the severity of the word “hate” was enforced with such rigor that in time, I wouldn’t dare say that to my sister or anyone unless under extreme duress. And, to this day, the word “hate” holds weight beyond reason, with only lighthearted applications like Dave Chappelle’s Playa Hater’s Ball (“Hate! Hate! Hate! Hate!”) making sense out of the word.
This makes engaging a topic like “hate clicks” difficult, as the term itself is generally inaccurate in describing the emotion sought to drive traffic. And though the phenomenon extends back to before there even were clicks, — “hate page-turning” doesn’t have the same ring — its foundation is the same that much of music rhetoric is based on: the concept of us versus them.
This idea is unavoidable, from the Jewish and Christian struggles against oppression throughout The Bible, to American colonial history, to civil rights and women’s rights and gay rights, to red states and blue states, Mac or PC. As Americans, our history is defined by our unions against common enemies, for better and for worse. Likewise, our struggle to accept differing opinions has plagued these same histories, with this duality of our consciousness never seeming to sort itself out. Essentially, we are stubborn, opinionated, and passionate, but always seeking validation.
Awhile back, the “us versus them” mindset drove me to write about the world of music news in a weekly feature called “The Week’s Worst News”. I’d gather five glaring examples of what I thought were trashy, deceiving, or manipulative news posts, adding commentary to both amuse and, ideally, affect music writing for the better.
And the first one went great. The tweeters were tweetin’, the fans were likin’, and even the commenters were uncharacteristically encouraging.
I thought I had a hit; an original idea that will collect some clicks, provoke some laughs, and, possibly, impact my industry positively.
Week two went much worse.
Now, writing on the internet requires a thick skin and enough confidence to look past those who disagree with you. But, the objections of Andrew Martin, then a news writer for Prefix and better known now as Editor in Chief of Potholes in my Blog, allowed me to see another perspective: Why didn’t I just go to the publication or writer directly with objections to a post?
How often do we do this? Whether using someone else to get laughs or openly criticizing an error to inflate our own ego, we disregard the potential damage we cause to make ourselves seem smarter or gutsy or opinionated. Sure, some injustices need people to call attention to them, but where does this stop? Just because this is common, doesn’t mean it is right. By creating The Week’s Worst News, I was just perpetuating the problem, policing an internet that didn’t ask me to, and potentially embarrassing or discrediting people that were trying to figure out what they were doing out there is the blog desert, just like me.
Articles that seek “hate clicks” run by the opposite principle, that malicious attacks are okay if what is said is amusing or holds enough logic to survive a drunken argument. Their writers imply (and editors explicitly state) that they are doing a great service to the world, that they expose fraud and that the supporters of what they call out need to hear a voice of dissent.
And, I wouldn’t disagree with that outright, but we have long had a very specific place to criticize both an artist’s albums and their live performances: reviews. Accepting these troll-articles as philanthropic ignores the appeal they have to people who actually share the same views, or those who simply enjoy controversy, which no doubt makes for an attractive pitch in the eyes of editors.
Still, the result has been an “us versus them” situation where both sides are forced to share real estate and let readers decide what they want to read. This column is not about calling out writers or publications that print articles I object to, though The Week’s Most Trollish and Hateful Music Writing is a catchy title. Rather, the goal is to find a positive spin, a sign that we aren’t just all patients in the same asylum. And to learn to live with articles seeking “hate clicks” is to admit that most “us versus them” stances are not black and white — even those that challenge our core beliefs.
By “core beliefs,” I’m not talking about science or religion or the supernatural (though I am always down to talk about ghosts. @philip_cosores.) Rather, I’m speaking of the line we draw in the sand that separates the validators and the challengers. For me, it’s between music that’s created as art and music that’s made as a product. On one extreme, something like John Cage’s “4’33″ would be music that only exists as an artistic piece and is in no way pleasing to the ears. On the other end would be commercial jingles and songs like “Now I Know My ABC’s”, pieces that are either commissioned solely to sell products (this doesn’t count) or educate by appealing to the human’s innate connection to certain combinations of notes. My line lays somewhere in-between.
Others see the gap as pop versus indie, or major label versus independent label, or black music versus white music, or even Pitchfork artists versus non-Pitchfork artists. Some take and leave acts from every realm so that their lines are as jagged as a coastline. Some take the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance-stance, unable to define their view of quality, but claiming to know it when they see it.
There is a line in the sand for most people, with each defining for themselves who belongs with them and who challenges the ideals they fight for. (Nitsuh Abebe covered topics like this in his remarkable column for Pitchfork, Why We Fight.) This is how musical movements are formed, as a reaction to something, whether it was the hippies or the punks or the MCs. The difference now is that the enemy is no longer easy to identify, as music is in a strange state of melding together. Playlists can go from Aphex Twin to Kanye West to Coldplay to Rihanna without turning a head, perhaps a natural evolution that mirrors our American culture, or, perhaps, a forced cohabitation that is breeding resentment and confusion. If so, this is likely the catalyst for the mindset that sees hate-click stories as necessary. They are intent on taking a stand because, well, we are supposed to take stands.
In the ‘90s, maybe even before, the biggest threat to my alternative rock and, later, to my indie rock, were the “sellouts,” anything commercial that didn’t question the establishment of our parents and churches and schools. If you wanted to instantly call someone’s taste into question, hinting that their favorite bands were inauthentic and guided by a desire for financial gain, that was the rhetorical kick to the balls you were looking for. But, as music has drifted away from “costing money” to “mostly free”, pointing out corporate partnerships in music has become more of an acknowledgment of success. Long gone are the days where a label deal might be an act of treason.
Now, as we see with some of these hate-click articles, the former commercial-versus-art relationship has reversed, as the “hipster bands” are being ridiculed for being too unique, or emotional, or personal. Acts like Sonic Youth and Dirty Projectors have been targets of attacks, called out for bucking the foundations that the commercial music world is based on. Even Phish, though not a “hipster” act, are attacked for similar reasons. Creativity is associated with pretension, subtlety labeled as boring, and music for a particular audience that happens to crave three hours of guitar and organ noodling is called out for not making sense to someone who would never like music of that style to begin with.
Suddenly, the discourse of the music community has degenerated to a high school lunchroom, with the music geeks finding their table commandeered by the proverbial letterman jacket bullies, turning the tables on the arts, championing a changing of the guard with a belief that the mainstream is the most exciting and relevant area of contemporary music. Of course, pop music has always had plenty of fans and plenty of writers covering it, but being placed side-by-side with what was once counterculture is a strange development. There is hardly a recourse for those who wish to criticize artists for their creativity.
As writer Will Ryan has pointed out, Beyoncé was able to stand in front of a Pepsi logo for 20 minutes at the “Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show” and all anyone saw was a fierce diva titan, not the product peddler that occupied the same space. Beyonce’s endorsement is a moot point in part because music fans feel a general sense of pity and guilt for the state of the industry and its artists, so why not give them the benefit of the doubt to try to make a living?
Also important to consider, though, is that Beyoncé can work with Pepsi for a cool $50 million without losing her integrity because she doesn’t need Pepsi.We can never know if Beyoncé takes part in secret meetings at the Pepsi Manors where her songs are developed in the same labs that test pomegranate flavoring for the next bad soda idea. But, we do know that Beyoncé could tell Pepsi to shove it and be just fine financially, and that gives her the benefit of the doubt, though some fans still bemoan the implications. Regardless, Beyoncé’s pop is being received as art despite its commercial connections; as vital to the contemporary music landscape as the suburban kid brewing up bedroom sounds that come from isolation and loneliness and pain, or the inner-city gang survivor that takes his way with words and turns it into a reflection of his environment.
These are the kids who would suffer from a corporate sponsorship. Chris Ott’s Shallow Rewards engaged this idea and concluded that for rising acts, the short-term payout cannot be worth losing credibility in a music community that still cares about authenticity and integrity. The Joy Formidable put a song in a Jawbone ad last year before the album had even surfaced, becoming the first exposure for many to either the song or the band. Sure, they probably made their deal and went on their way, but what did that money get them? Just more questions as to their music’s intentions. A band like Best Coast designs clothes for Urban Outfitters and though it’s probably just a case of a person using her opportunities to fulfill a dream, how quickly has the perception of the band gone from weed-loving kids next door to something a little more calculated, and a little less relatable.
These may seem like petty complaints. After all, a band just wants to get paid or gain exposure. But, like Inception, the seeds are planted without consent. The most unfortunate result is that songs or artists that had meaning to people can lose that connection. Many Vancouver residents will now associate “The House That Heaven Built” with hockey games rather than the feeling of youthful exuberance the song once gave them. For Japandroids it’s an honor, but when you give your music away to a product, you now have someone else cut into the exchange between artist and fan, and that might not be in the best interest of that relationship.
But no one to my knowledge has used the idea of selling out and corporate sponsorship so completely backwards and brilliantly than this recent run from Beck. A couple weeks back, Beck suddenly announced a performance piece to be filmed by visionary director Chris Milk and featuring a 180-person orchestral re-imagining of David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision”, presented by Lincoln/Ford Automotive. No tickets were sold to the event and no release has been announced, so, ostensibly, there was no profit outside of donations, advertising, and sponsorships. And, though Beck certainly lives comfortably from his long career, he is not in the Travolta or Cruise level of Scientologist superstar to where he can act on every indulgent artistic whim, like, say, Battlefield: Earth or Knight and Day.
From an outsiders perspective, Lincoln looks like they handled most, if not all, of the tab, and to their credit, they are partially responsible for something historic. They are a modern benefactor whose primary request is the freedom of marketing the shit out of your project. Milk and Beck ran with whatever freedom they had, with the director inventing new listening and visual technology, creating a music video experience that allows the viewer to witness the performance from the live audience’s eyes and ears. Sure, the load time on the whole thing is pretty gnarly, but once you begin the show, it’s revolutionary.
Not more than two weeks later, Beck was once again in Los Angeles for the opening of his Song Reader exhibit at Sonos Studio. Again, Beck had a big sponsor looming over his event, as various musicians interpreted selections from his book of sheet music and attendees were invited to create their own interpretation of Beck’s unrecorded songs on the spot.
The actualization of the Song Reader project was eight years in the making, with Sonos helping in the execution but not perceivably getting involved in the creative process, beyond any suggestions about what speakers to use. Both Lincoln and Sonos have positioned themselves beyond branding a SXSW showcase or a Live Nation venue or even a Super Bowl halftime show. Businesses will always pay for advertising, but few really want to help artists achieve their creative vision without having an opinion on what that vision should be.
Maybe these corporations don’t care if their sponsored artists make something memorable. But, like Beyoncé, Beck is big enough to not really be affected by that. Beck has combined both the unbridled creativity and pretentiousness associated with music geek culture and the corporate handshaking stereotype of the mainstream, with both camps likely to reject these projects for compromises than to praise them for innovation, if not for Beck already being considered an innovator.
Does this erase my line in the sand between art and product? Not at all. The point is you just don’t know, and have to consider everything as having the capability to impress you artistically until that art proves otherwise. Just as Beck demonstrates the most innovative developments can come from commercial connections, the same applies to pop music, where it’s fair to be suspicious of music with higher financial stakes, but it’s also fair to consider that it might be art before writing it off.
If you apply this to writing, it doesn’t excuse some of the “hate click” articles that have been appearing; rather, it means there could be something worthwhile hidden within them.
But, it’s also not an excuse to pretend that there are no lines anywhere. Without some sort of personal framework for approaching music, and expectations for what you think music should and shouldn’t be doing, there wouldn’t be much point in engaging it. And as pop and indie and hip-hop and R&B and metal all currently share a pretty close-knit territory, defining what you stand for might be the best preparation for the looming fallout from those who too often let us know what they are against.