The Year in Music

The Fray Is Not Just a Band
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 22 2006 3:51 PM

The Year in Music


As usual, your posts all stimulate brain waves—thanks, Jody, for the science recs—but I want to take a moment and address what's happened in the Fray while we staged our little chat. Namely, we got trashed. We are hacks, Tiger Beat contributors, meta-holes who don't even like music, the lowest existing life forms, and of course Justin Timberlake obsessives—what is wrong with us for not talking about Goldfrapp, Danielson, Chanticleer, or Belle and Sebastian?

Putting aside my hurt feelings at being declared satanic, I'd like to explore why the conversation did tend toward pop and meta-discussion, rather than appreciations of "great" artists like those mentioned above, favorites of Slate readers. We're four writers from pretty different music-scene backgrounds who've known each other awhile, but what is our bond? Not a love of the Decemberists (for the reader who digs them, they did make my Top 10 list—but only the three-part title track of this year's The Crane Wife, not the whole album). What unites us outside of our little obsessions IS the mainstream. I think we've all arrived in this pop place first by accident, and then stayed because it's damn interesting.


For the first decade of my career, I didn't really have to wade there, because I wrote for alternative weeklies; then I hooked up with a daily and found myself reviewing Creed. Know what? I liked it. Not that bellow-and-bash band, trust me, but the amazing force of the monoculture—what Bob Christgau mourned, in a PopMatters interview this year, as the shared experience of the radio and the stacks up front in the record store, the ones upon which, in 1985, I piled box after box of Springsteen sets, which immediately flew out the Tower door.

These days, Bob suggested, there is no monoculture, only arrogant, small cliques whose knowledge is as narrow and deep as the plunge of a stiletto into a vinyl album's center hole. (Is it a coincidence that Pitchforkmedia's No. 1 album this year is by the Knife?) I think, if he could elaborate further, that Bob would agree there is a monoculture, but it's not primarily musical in nature. It's multimedia. How many millions of Xbox 360 games have sold in the past couple of months? Even Jay-Z can't top that. But he tries, not by making a great album—I think it was a flawed album with a couple of amazing singles—but by staging an insane marketing campaign.

These days, pop critics interested in the mainstream (and by the way, we're professionally obligated to care about what most people enjoy, just as film critics have to review Saw III alongside the latest Mike Leigh flick), like it or not, navigate through a maze of information. Some of it is musical, obviously. But the videos, the fashion statements, the moves, the persona—and, for those who don't consider this stuff "musical," the deployment of beats and samples and ring-tone-worthy, Pro Tools-shaped hooks—all of those are as much a part of a song's "meaning" as are lyrics or the grain of a singer's voice. Hell, Ciara included a DVD with her recent No. 1 release that teaches people her dance moves. I could lament the shallowness of kids who care about that stuff, or I could think, hey, that's interesting, Ciara's fans really care about choreography, what's up with that? In the face of despair, as Frankie Goes to Hollywood once said, I "choose life."

That said, I know it's a sucker's bargain. What I really must give up in chasing the mainstream is the authoritative position of having Good Taste—and this is something I don't see a lot of critics (present company, happily, excluded) doing. The recent critical shift that Carl mentioned earlier, toward "poptimism," still carries the taint of snobbery critics exude like Axe Body Spray. We're smart, the current attitude goes, because we understand the soul and brilliance of stuff most people think is trash. Important point: stuff most people think is trash even if they like it. We can explain why one thing that makes you shake your ass is great, while another booty-call is bull; you, dear amateur, can only shake.

This is obviously a shaky stance. Within true poptimist logic, whatever makes people happy (including the Pussycat Dolls) has at least a momentary value—so who am I to judge? Yet at the same time, I know that pop is also product, and especially now very hard to separate from advertising—and that this hard fact applies not only to Dirty South hip-hop and booty-shaking divas but to heartfelt rock bands with, if not full-time stylists, MySpace pages as well-tended as their melodies. We are living in a moment of almost incomprehensible commercialism. There is no purity, no triumph of the good, nothing that stops time. All my life I've thought that was music's point: to stop time, and that a critic's amazing job was to go deep into those blessed pauses and articulate their meanings. Now I wonder if flow is all there is, and the whole idea of the critic needs a major overhaul.

So, dear despising readers, consider yourself lucky. You can rest easy knowing you have good taste, clean ears, pleasurable listening lives. I will continue to struggle with the very idea that "better" can find a space to exist anymore. In the meantime, I'll enjoy the confusion. And Jody, Carl, Jon, I always enjoy my time with you.


P.S. I left out hyperlinks in respect for the readers irritated by them, but for those who do like lists, here are a couple of mine. Yes, I really do like Justin Timberlake!



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

The Best Thing About the People’s Climate March in NYC

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

John Oliver Debunks the Miss America Pageant’s Claim That It Gives Out $45 Million in Scholarships

Trending News Channel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Over There
Sept. 22 2014 1:29 PM “That’s Called Jim Crow” Philip Gourevitch on America’s hypocritical interventions in Africa.
Sept. 22 2014 1:37 PM Subprime Loans Are Back! And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.
Lexicon Valley
Sept. 22 2014 1:22 PM Is Arabic Really Just One Language? 
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM Escaping the Extreme Christian Fundamentalism of "Quiverfull"
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Sept. 22 2014 2:12 PM Crusader, Sans Cape The superhero trappings of Gotham are just a clever disguise.
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 12:14 PM Family Court Rules That You Can Serve Someone With Legal Papers Over Facebook
  Health & Science
Sept. 22 2014 12:15 PM The Changing Face of Climate Change Will the leaders of the People’s Climate March now lead the movement?
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.