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

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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.

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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.

xakp

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!

Ann Powers is a critic at NPR Music. She is the former Los Angeles Times' chief pop critic and the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.

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