The Day Room is a column by Philip Cosores that features stories from the music industry that shine a light and brighten the corners.
Recently, I received a press release for Broken Bells’ new album, and it included two quotes testifying to the high quality of both the band and the release. One was from the New York Times and the other from Bono. This is Bono’s bit:
“‘We have Danger Mouse working with us,’ said the singer. ‘He’s a great soul and beautiful dude and the [Broken Bells] album is pretty amazing. [It’s got] extraordinary, melancholy melodies. As a singer, let me say: This boy [James Mercer] really knows how to be truthful in the telling of the lyrics he writes. There’s something about his voice that is very compelling. The kid’s a star!'” (Bono speaking to Rolling Stone)
Why include Bono’s endorsement in a press release announcing a No. 5 debut on the Billboard 200 and fast-moving concert tickets? U2 and Broken Bells wouldn’t seem to have much crossover audience, but there has to be a reason that the Bono words were deemed more useful than, say, Time magazine, who had previously been quoted in Broken Bells’ press release.
Well, Bono is famous, given Bono has many fans. And, at one point in his career, Bono made great music. So, even though the press release has statistical evidence attesting to Broken Bells’ success, the Bono quote gives some kind of credential that a critic or a consumer couldn’t. After all, who knows music better than musicians, right?
Noted journalist and author Michael Azerrad has fitted his relatively new web creation, The Talkhouse, with a statement of purpose that begins by engaging its audience with the idea that no one is better equipped to be talking, or writing, about music than musicians, a very true-seeming idea that just as easily could point to flawed logic. Azerrad lays it out as such:
“Naturally, no one knows more about music than musicians. They talk about their own work all the time, but they rarely get to talk about other people’s music. That’s what the Talkhouse is all about: smart, distinguished musicians from all genres and generations writing about the latest releases. And there’s a twist: there will be comments for each piece — but only from the artist who’s being written about. The idea is to promote dialogue between musicians who may never have interacted otherwise, and for Talkhouse readers to have a ringside seat to this unique exchange.”
It’s strange to think that a year ago, when this was written, it might have been considered a rarity to have musicians voicing their critical or not-so-critical opinions. Since that time, it seems the Internet can’t get enough of artist-curated content, be it reviews, lists, or interviews. And for good reason, as it is mostly fascinating to get insight into the creative process from those with experience in it, and artists do have some special insight into another’s process. But that isn’t why we, the fans, want to read artists talking about artists, is it?
In his recent near-cover story for Rolling Stone, Drake went on record, (or off record—same difference?), about Kanye West, Macklemore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and got everyone talking for a whole afternoon. Was it because he said something new, insightful, or particularly interesting about any of these people? No, it was because he is a star and was controversial and clearly out of line. The writer didn’t seem to challenge his opinions, but rather just held onto the quotes to use for the magazine’s gain. We like these things because of the possibilities they present. Drake might be involved in some beef that sees Kanye doing a similar quote in the media, and maybe they’ll eventually fight in a steel cage or something. Actually, I don’t know where it ends or what kind of outcome would ever be satisfying to people.
Also, keep in mind the following recent developments:
– Rolling Stone’s year-end coverage was focused on a series of interviews with artists giving their opinions of the best of the year. Noel Gallagher, obviously, excelled at this. As did Henry Rollins. Henry Rollins’ interview alone has 30K Facebook likes as of right now. That is a Henry Rollins interview where he talks about liking Ty Segall. 30K likes. Noel’s “gripe session” is at 38k likes. In 2014. The guy from Oasis that wasn’t the lead singer can talk about what music he doesn’t like and get that kind of reaction.
– On his 44th birthday last year, Jay Z ranked all of his own albums. What is common for critics to do, Jay Z did himself. After all, who better knows the value of art than the man that created it, right?
– On several occasions, The Talkhouse reviews have become news. Now, to compare, reviews are never news otherwise. If Pitchfork gives an album a rare perfect score, that is not news. But, if Lou Reed reviews Kanye West, that all changes. This has happened several times for the Talkhouse, for reviews on Arcade Fire, Drake, and Lana Del Rey. This is sort of like the Grimes Tumblr news story, which is basically what a lot of publications are aiming for. They want to facilitate Grimes Tumblr post scenarios. We’ll go through some of the talking points on these.
Now, the Talkhouse has hardly taken off outside of our small music blog-reading community. There is no real-world effect to any of this. No one has seen their reviewing make their band more famous or taken down a band with a critique. About five reviews have become must-reads and generally not because of the criticism. Many of the reviews seem more about the writer of the piece than the writer of the music, or the music itself. The image at the top of each review splits a picture of the reviewer with the album being reviewed. Can you imagine if a regular critic did such a thing, putting his face up at the top in equal proportion to the album he or she is reviewing?
Lou Reed’s Yeezus review is classic at this point because it is the last thing Reed gave us. Our last glimpse at a man that, unknown to us, had only a few months left to live. But the writing, the actual insights of the review, aren’t great in terms of music criticism, just great in how uninhibited they are. There is also a lot of an older white guy acting surprised that the younger black guy makes music that seems complicated and thought-out. There is a lot of trying to understand, without actually understanding. Reading it, little is learned about Kanye West or the album, but it is rather an intriguing look at what an aging man would get out of Kanye.
Annie Clark, St. Vincent to many, also featured prominently on the site when she reviewed Arcade Fire’s latest. She made headlines not because of the review but because of her fame and Arcade Fire’s. The actual review is less about music and more about being pithy, formatting the piece in Google search list form and then trying to wrap up too quickly. It often felt young, like someone trying to paint themselves as an intellectual when the more wise approach would have been to just write an insightful album review. Also, at one point in the piece she asks the band a question and receives an answer, which is something that most critics could never do, and speaks to a problem that could occur with musicians handling more content themselves: how far is too far?
The Talkhouse has a tremendous range of possibilities, exemplified in write-ups on Drake and on Lana Del Rey. Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, neither do much to expand reader understanding of either’s music, but both seek subversion, a big part of why musicians would write record reviews at all.
Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig doesn’t even attempt a review in any sense in his Drake piece. Instead, he tells a non-Drake-related story about Panda Bear and a club and some random shit. He drops a ton of f-bombs, kind of sounding like a Vice editor in his style, and paints a cartoonish world for the reader to experience, baffled, confused, and thoroughly entertained.
As it plays out, Koenig is actually doing what most Talkhouse pieces do, just on an extreme scale. The story is (jokingly) meant to self-glorify himself, never really talks about music, focuses on his famous friends, and is ultimately revealed to be just publicity for his own band. The story even ends with a link to the Vampire Weekend Myspace. It is a little hard to believe Azerrad published what is either a critique on the whole project or just blatantly not taking the assignment seriously. Either he got the joke and didn’t care that his creation was being made fun of or didn’t get the joke and still published because Ezra Koenig is a big star, and the clicks were virtually guaranteed.
But Koenig’s piece, seemingly in a deliberate fashion, points to a key question: when artists control the content you read, does that mean more insight or more self-aggrandizing? If the artists were the ones writing about music, would it often just be about themselves?
Then there is Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz, writing about a Lana Del Rey music video. The opening paragraph:
“When I was fourteen, my parents sent me to Kent, a private boarding school in the northwestern corner of Connecticut. It’s one of those schools where they send America’s pre-fame Paris Hiltons and JFKs; it was almost immediately clear that the place was a horrible fit. I wasn’t a super-rich kid or a super-bad girl. I never got picked up on the weekend in a private limo and the only time I had a sip of alcohol was when I thought a Long Island Iced Tea was some kind of regional Arnold Palmer. The mandatory Episcopalian services icked me out — I even pretended to faint during weekly chapel — and Christianity commingled into the education as well. One particular English class involved a hefty amount of biblical analysis, with religious interpretations permeating nearly every novel or poem on the syllabus.”
Now, not to be too high school lit class, but it is pretty obvious what happens here. Dupuis sets herself up as the hero of her review, so to speak, by casting everyone at this school as obscenely rich, or a troublemaker, or religious, or all these combined. She continues:
“So it’s telling that in a school of less than four hundred kids, I remember almost nothing about Lizzy Grant, who, only a few years older than me, served as both arts and literary editor of two campus publications, and sang in several school choirs. I know her better as Lana Del Rey, the ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ by which she now self-identifies 10 years after graduating from Kent. Apart from a yearbook photo, I don’t remember her as she was then, but I can remember the amorphous hers she hung around at Kent School: slick kids in pleated skirts, silk blouses, and pressed blazers; prefects dethroned for their coke problems. And I can picture her sitting at the table in that same English class, finding the religious connotations in Salinger, mimicking Whitman’s poetry for a Blue Book exam.”
Artwork by Cap Blackard
This is the last I will quote of this review, as after this it uses the setup to take down a music video, but what Dupuis does here is, frankly, pretty low. Admitting that Lizzy was “a few years older,” which likely makes her a senior to Dupuis as a freshman, she goes ahead and characterizes her by her impressions of other students. She can’t even remember seeing Grant at Kent, yet has no problem making pretty unflattering associations. Now, certainly this kind of unfair attack isn’t limited to musicians, but I wonder if this was allowed to publish only because of who Dupuis is and that her band was at its buzziest at the time this was posted. If I told a similar tale of knowing a young Justin Timberlake and then likened him to a pseudo-intellectual cokehead, I wouldn’t be published, and I’d probably never write for whoever I turned it in to again.
Why does Dupuis go so low on Lana Del Rey? Who knows, and I won’t speculate. I do know she is a creative writing teacher, as she mentions in another Talkhouse essay, and she is probably a better writer than 95% of published music critics, but she is writing not to talk about music but to aid her own music career. And when criticism is done as self-publicity, it gets into murky waters.
But, aren’t my own reviews promoting myself as a brand? Yes, but the brand is the reviews, and if I compromise the quality or integrity, my brand suffers. If Dupuis does this, a low-blow attack on a pop star who is unlikely to know who Dupuis is, much less read the writing, Dupuis raises her own profile on the back of her enemy. No scenario hurts Dupuis’ music career, as it could at worst be written off as shitty writing from a good musician, so the writing is no risk, all reward. And that makes it pretty worthless for a reader.