Problems & Perspectives
Gaseous Logic
Christgau's Consensus

By Beppe Colli
May 14, 2014

At the start of this year, as per his usual, US music critic Robert Christgau wrote an essay about the current state of music. The occasion, of course, being the usual year's end Poll held by historic New York publication The Village Voice: a Poll that even in today's multi-centered world still appears to hold more than a few traces of the magazine's past influence and prestige.

Transparently titled The Consensus Has Consequences, the article was a direct continuation of May The Consensus Have Consequences, the piece Christgau had written for the Village Voice Poll of the previous year. At that time, Christgau had manifested his joy about the new commonality of judgment showed by Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, the music magazines Christgau regards as being the most important in today's panorama. For the first time, in fact, both magazines' music Polls had seen the same three names appear at the top, a fact that Christgau regarded as quite important, given the different personality of those publications. In closing, Christgau declared his hope that the Polls of the following year would show even more consensus.

Hence, the title of the piece he wrote this year. Christgau writes about "vastly more consensus", which after the "unprecedented commonality" of the previous year now counts twenty-three titles in common. This is regarded as very important, since Christgau considers this fact as "a small but encouraging sign" of the attenuation of the "atomization of taste". To be more precise, "One way the two have converged is that the new kid has outgrown his reflexive aversion for the corporate, beginning with hip-hop, which is unavoidable if you intend meaningful coverage, then extending into r&b and pop, ditto only more so, the stretch being respecting these approaches at all". (...) "both outlets now share a taste for legible songs with hooks and bite".

As it's usual for Christgau, the complete piece is quite dense and complex, but not impossible to penetrate. It has to be read in full. I think it can be said that he believes that a severe fragmentation of taste - hence, the market - would make it impossible for almost anybody to survive just playing music as their main occupation.

But there's more, as it's clearly shown by the closing sentence of his piece: "It takes all kinds. And we're healthier as a culture when we agree on a bunch of them."

On January 23, 2014 the topic was given attention on Rock Critics, the well-known website where Scott Woods is the guiding light. Under the title More Pazz & Jop (Pazz & Jop being of course the name of the Village Voice Poll) Woods invited readers and colleagues to comment. The discussion that ensued - forty-six posts: non bad at any moment, I think, but a great outcome today - offered many interesting points of view, with more than a few lengthy posts, and clever dialogue.

I hope readers won't expect an impossible summary from me! Interested readers will easily be able to access the original text, where I especially appreciated those contributions by Frank Kogan, JD Considine - a critic I still remember from Musician magazine's happy days - and Woods himself. I'll try to briefly discuss a couple of points as I see them, though.

First, I was greatly surprised that nobody who took part in the discussion appeared to agree about the relevance of the (supposed) convergence of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. For many reasons. There were those who attributed the change to the fact of Rolling Stone now employing younger contributors, who are not terribly enamored with artists from the past such as Jackson Browne. There were those who regarded this particular sample of writers as the proverbial "drop in the ocean" when compared to today's music landscape. There were those who even doubted the possibility of a "consensus" about anything, given the abundance of music that's up for grabs today - and please let's not forget there are many cultures outside the "western world".

There were those who mentioned Christgau's predilection for "monoculture": a concept he has never really clarified, to readers' chagrin. Here I'll quote JD Considine, who in my opinion successfully summarized a key point of the concept in question: "In terms of understanding monoculture (...) the issue is less a matter of "liking" as of "being immersed in". Yes, being in the monoculture didn't necessarily mean you were a fan of every single in the Top 40, but it does mean that those singles were part of your consciousness, your vocabulary, your sense of popular music. Think of it this way: Some people liked Paul the best. Some people liked John the best. Some people liked George, some liked Ringo. A few might argue against all of them. But they were all paying attention to a specific geography of popular music, as opposed to camping out in some land bordered by Eric Dolphy on one hand, and Ornette Coleman on the other. Liking or disliking parts of that landscape did not remove them from it."

Here I have to alert readers I'm just thinking aloud about this matter. I've thought long and hard about the reasons that have Christgau thinking along these lines. Of course, it would not be appropriate to regard his predilection - or his nostalgia - for "monoculture" as a sign of old age: without a doubt, Christgau is the perfect specimen of a critic who moves with the times, always ready to welcome the new with no prejudice. In my opinion, his attitude towards this matter is motivated by cultural reasons, which in his case have "political" repercussions.

I have to admit I've often regarded his special attention to problems of fragmentation and atomization of taste - in a nutshell, our judgment about objects is one of the ways we communicate with each other (a concept that is also featured in many pages of the classic volume by Greil Marcus titled Mystery Train) - as running in parallel with the preoccupation about the disappearing of the "social capital" that US sociologist Robert D. Putnam wrote about in his famous volume titled Bowling Alone.

The point here - better be clear about it - being not wanting to negate the "multi-centered" nature of today's panorama (I know quite well that those who don't have any sound arguments often accuse opponents to be nostalgic about the old days when there was only one set of rules) but the possibility of dialogue in a world where the ever-growing proliferation of sources and languages makes dialogue difficult. The problem is not the multiplication of "objects" - for instance, having "Korean pop" side-by-side with "country & western - but the diversity of the categories we use to interpret the world.

The background to all this being, of course, the current state of the industry, most recent news not being terribly rosy.

Recent reports indicate that Sony confronts a grey future, given what appears to be the premature decline of Blu-ray, the video format brought to market in 2006. This, while the monthly fee for a "movie channel" like US Netflix is currently $8.

An article which appeared on webzine PopMatters under the title The Music Industry's "1-2%" Death Knell, by Evan Sawdey, deals with a recent problem revealed by data about Tunes Radio: "iTunes has indicated that only 1%-2% of  listeners of iTunes Radio ever actively click the  "Buy" button to purchase a song they just heard. That's not bad: that's absolutely dismal." And while artists with a large fan base manage to survive and even prosper, "new, developing artists have a tough time breaking in, as traditional outlets and methods are slowly eroding, as some fans simply install apps onto their browsers that enable them to download MP3s of a YouTube video's audio in a single click."

It's not an original scenery, I'm afraid, but I'll have to talk about it all the same. Today's scenery sees an endless proliferation of places where one can get almost all s/he wants at prices that approximate zero. Meanwhile, today's world sees the disappearance of all "intermediate layers" as "filters", including critics. The ever-increasing importance of "social networks" keeps the discourse inside a landscape that - though potentially infinite - appears in practice to be limited in a way that resembles the clique of friends of one's adolescence, with its "horizontal" horizon. And while our being accustomed to multi-tasking makes our normal mode of attention very volatile, those "tactile" ways we use to deal with the world cause an impoverishment of our verbal skills, and so of our "communicative" skills proper.

Given this framework, what kind of music is more likely to attract one's attention?

I want to clarify that here I'm not referring to a "style" or something that can be considered as being of "poor quality" in itself - though I suppose that the fact that the most complex music is bound to be listened to by a small amount of people can be regarded as being self-evident. At the same time, we don't have to forget that for a long time "pop" music was regarded as a genre that was intrinsically inferior, with "rock" music of questionable quality being often considered as more "elevated" than pop's "easy listening" formulas.

My proposal for an identikit deals with music it's possible to talk about without making the majority of the audience feel like being cut out - as excluded - from the conversation. Readers are invited to imagine this conversation I'm referring to not as something that's necessarily "simple", but "indefinite", i.e., defined by a vagueness of meaning that presents itself as "openness".

The main point being that what it has to be discussed the least - unless it's done in "vague" terms - is music. While the artist's "persona" has to be "open" and "mutable".

It goes without saying that anything can be presented in an "elementary" fashion: Jimi Hendrix as "the exuberant rocker who played the guitar with his teeth", Frank Zappa as "the mustachioed Maestro of the Bizarre", Robert Fripp as "the inscrutable guitarist who plays sitting on a stool". Readers will easily understand that possibilities when it comes to this kind of identities are severely limited.

Let's try adding a new dimension by considering two simple dichotomies: rock/pop on one hand, group/solo artist on the other. So we have "rock artists" and "pop groups", but for our discourse the most important items are "rock groups" and "pop artists". It shouldn't be difficult to see what's easier to deal with in today's distracted market.

The solo artist is a better conveyor of issues concerning "personal identity", s/he's better at dealing with the consumer on a "one-on-one" level, and s/he's better equipped at putting the contribution of others in the background.

At this point, readers are probably wondering how this scenario differs from those from way back, starting with the "Glam Rock" phase that signaled the resurgence of the "singer" previously eclipsed by "rock groups". Well, the easy answer would be that David Bowie and Elton John were musicians.

Those "video-music" years did not pass in vain. But - while useful at pushing aside those musicians who were not suited to the treatment - those categories that contributors to magazines such as The Face borrowed from obscure French philosophers had still to compete in an environment where "authenticity" was still a notion widely believed to be true. But as soon as everything came to be regarded as being a "mask", all was over. (Sometimes I wonder what a critic like, say, Simon Frith thinks when confronted with the ultimate consequences of his way of theorizing.)

Today's deflagration appears to be the outcome of the combination of two factors: the ever-increasing simplification of the music that's possible to absorb in the era of multi-tasking; and an outbreak on the US scene, where the music critic as a professional entity was already an endangered species, of a cohort of graduates from "humanities" ready to put into practice those self-referential formulas they had learned.

The main point, as always, is the "disappearing of the object", and its incorporation in statements devoid of any possibility to be verified. So Christgau's "consensus" is bound to vanish not due to a multiplication of objects so severe as to turn all agglomerates into dust, but to the increasing inability to "build" an object that can be compared to others. Sure, there's always the chance to use the pure indicator that is represented by the quantity of sales. But what about sales in a world where people download for free?

As a "political" intermezzo I have to add that questions concerning personal identity as not linked to "material" factors correlated to production but to one's sexual identity and the social groups one sees her/himself as related to, became a widespread phenomenon in parallel to the devaluation of work, now transferred to those nations where producing hard goods is cheaper, or to those "sweatshops" where clothes are made.

The almost complete disappearing of music magazines able to survive in today's commercial terms makes it possible for those who write about music to talk a language that's vague and poor with meaning that's perfectly suited for those who read newspapers and general interest magazines, with the brevity dictated by social networks making it easy for writers to use colourful witticisms.

With music proper being just a part of their whole being, those amphibious figures that inhabit and populate today's media are a lot more suited to represent commercial interests than their counterparts from the past, since now objects are not an "addition" to, but a part of, their "persona".

Quite paradoxically in an era that's as materially inclined as any, if not more, what's glorified today is the (supposed) immateriality of the file - which can be seen as closely related to the way volatile financial capital behaves.

Something that goes straight to the top of my personal chart when it comes to horrors, the two-voice conversation between Ann Powers and Carl Wilson is something I would never have noticed had not RockCritics written about it.

It all starts with the publication, in 2007, of a book from the 33 1/3 series titled Let's Talk About Love, by Canadian music critic Carl Wilson. The book derives its title from a song by Celine Dion, the topic the book deals with is the way we relate to music we do not like. Readers who wish to know more will have to do it on their own, I'm afraid: given the fact that the quality of those few books of the series I encountered was not to my liking, I did not get this one.

Wilson's book attained a certain degree of popularity - can't tell you about actual sales - reviews I've read being for the most part quite positive. A new edition of the book appeared about two months ago, new essays by outside contributors - I noticed the names of Nick Hornby and Ann Powers - being added to the original text. And so I happened to read a dialogue between Ann Powers - talk about a conflict of interest! - and Carl Wilson, on the blog of US NPR called The Record.

I have no trouble admitting that I found the exchange of views posted under the title Why We Fight About Pop Music to be quite disconcerting. I'll try to explain why, quoting at length from the text. Readers are invited to read it all, of course.

The conversation is divided into five parts. In the first one, titled Is There A Crisis In Music Criticism? Ann Powers asks this question: "Does the dexterity involved in surfing the huge waves of available sounds make going deep obsolete?" (...) "That's a line of despair I don't buy." (...) "But I can't figure out why it's resonating now. This is a moment of great empowerment for music lovers. So much is available. Technology constantly offers new tools to enable and organize musical appreciation. And everyone can be a critic, after all, posting playlists and YouTube responses, blogging and Tumbling, telling the world that this is my jam." (...) "So why the whiff of fear right now - not revolving around the music industry falling apart or musicians being able to pay their health insurance, but about more philosophical matters of meaning and authority? Perhaps it's a reaction to the clamor so many soundwaves creates, an attempt to contain the uncontainable."

I have to say at first I could not decide if those sentences had to be taken seriously or not.

Then I got to part Two, by Carl Wilson, titled: "Why do people have beef with Poptimism? Because it's winning."

Writes Wilson: "Pro-pop forces dominate. There's you at NPR, me at Slate, Jody Rosen at New York magazine/Vulture, Jon Caramanica and his colleagues in the NYT proper, Sasha Frere-Jones at The New Yorker and more at nearly every other prominent mainstream venue you could mention. Even Pitchfork, once a redoubt of indie-rock obscurantism, now devotes generous space to dance, pop, hip-hop and other forms." (...) "Therefore I have to call what we're hearing from the anti-pop authors a backlash, sour grapes from people just noticing that a cultural battle is over and they "lost"."

I have to say that had I listened to this conversation on my car's radio my surprise would have been even greater, sure now I was curious to know the names of those people and their sour grapes. But no names. Meanwhile, that list of "friends" prestigiously employed at those magazines reminded me of the way in my nightmares I imagine those tenured posts at prestigious universities get assigned.

Beware, Wilson is serious, as clearly demonstrated by the following excerpt: "My new Afterword is partly about the issues you raise: how technology and the millennial generation, among other factors, have altered the skyline of taste. I even speculate if it's possible to conceive of a post-taste society, in which hardly anyone maintains a loyalty to any aesthetic guidelines, and we just surf from meme to meme."

This, to get back to Christgau's "consensus", is the theorization of the death of any possibility of a rational discussion of one's preferences, a possibility that now gladly evaporates. But we don't have to forget that a realm of our life where "whim" rules with no obstacles already exists: it's called Fashion, where choices are not "explained", but "shown". Should we accept the new rule of this "gaseous" logic?

Let's take this piece to its close quoting Ann Powers, from part three. "Linday Zoladz recently wrote on her Tumblr about attending a Miley concert and realizing that - at least sometimes - she wanted to write for the Bangerz, Miley's devotees, not for her fellow Pitchfork nerds." What's the difference? Are the requirements of those two categories so diverse? Is maybe a matter of tone? And what about that "nerd", when applied to one's colleagues, is it fanciful, or serious? Who knows.

Powers again:  "In his excellent feature on EMA - whose album The Future's Void is one of my 2014 faves - Sasha Frere-Jones almost calls her music rock, but instead says it's a "hairy, occasionally digital beast". I like that phrase. It sounds like what Jimi Hendrix would play now. In other words, to trace where rock went, we have to agree on what it is. And that isn't easy."

I have to admit somebody's out to lunch here, and I think it's not me.

Just a tiny p.s.

Since this was the first time I read the name Lindsay Zoladz, I did a search, adding the name EMA, and I found an interview which appeared in Pitchfork. I noticed this question: "In a way, the aesthetic of this record feels pro-internet, too. There's lots of degraded digital noise, and processing on your vocals that sounds almost pixelated. Was that a particular vibe you were going for?"

I rest my case.

Beppe Colli 2014 | May 14, 2014