The Music Club

Do You Ever Fantasize About Being a Movie Critic?
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 23 2008 3:52 PM

The Music Club

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Hey, guys,

So—I'm supposed to wrap this shit up, right? No way, Jo-day.

I mean, (gender inclusive) guys, do you ever fantasize about being a movie critic? How many releases a year do they suffer through? Five hundred, something like that? Plus some righteous moaning about how the evil mothers at Miramax are holding up the new Kiarostami? Boohoo. When I was doing Pazz & Jop, more than 1,500 albums a year made some crappy critic's top 10 or other. I dip into something like 2,500 albums a year, and the 300-plus I write about pass through my earholes in their entirety three, five, 10 times—good or recalcitrant ones even more. Yet as Ann's London Times link indicates, those 2,500 would barely fill out a Manx's tail. And as all our musical musings have made clear, albums are only the most readily rationalizable part of our job. Do Girl Talk's dancing girls equal M.I.A.'s dancing girls? Is the proper study of indie changing the world a little or building its own little world? Is music meant to capture time or enrich human interconnection? Does Auto-Tune feel T-Pain's pain? Who listens how much on YouTube to what, and so what?

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The good news is that we know the answer to all these questions and many others like them. The bad news is that in each case, the answer is some syntactically appropriate version of yes and no. It could be said that any closely examined art throws up similar conundrums. But not these conundrums. Although my life theory of why popular music is the greatest of the arts has its formal and thematic propositions, note that except for the music-and-time thing, which has assumed countless oft-incomprehensible guises over the years, these conundrums are not formal or thematic. They're social. No art has ever had as many social ramifications, especially post-recording. We can cite them. But it's just about impossible to get our minds around them in concise, journalistically plausible words. Albums are at least rationalizable. And should the critic so choose, they offer up critical images of the artistic images of social interconnection the music suggests. As an example, here's the Duds page from the November Consumer Guide, which excoriates the Bon Iver record Ann politely dissents from and merely lists the Pitchfork fave she gives the benefit of the doubt. (I should explain to those who read it that the Robert Creeley mention references a posthumous album featuring the poet and Ralph Carney that got an A-minus in that month's column.) So, I'm wondering, would it be possible to discuss the Girl Talk and Lil Wayne albums I counterposed to TV on the Radio and then left hanging last time in ways that address their social ramifications?

With Gregg Gillis d/b/a Girl Talk it's easy. Again I notice Ann being polite and wonder whether she shares my reservations about Feed the Animals, which my wife and daughter and I played with pleasure all during an August vacation that stopped at Ann's house—such pleasure that only these nagging reservations (and the aural displeasure they sometimes occasioned) kept it out of my top 10. I love Gillis' highhanded adoration of sacrosanct hooks, the way Procol Harum's claim to fame underpins the Youngbloodz' "If you don't give a damn, we don't give a fuck." But I see what Jody calls Gillis' "signature trick [of] juxtaposing melodramatic rock instrumentals with filthy hip-hop" as more than a gimmick. I see it as a pre-emptive normalization of filthy hip-hop. Gillis makes a strong case. But despite his pointed inclusion of female rappers mouthing priapic truisms, I'm not convinced that, statistically speaking, hip-hop's male-dominant carnality is normal—and if I'm wrong, I want to combat the normalization. Maybe this means I don't understand modern female pleasure. But it's just as likely UGK doesn't. In any case, I then extrapolate to the dancing girls at Girl Talk's shows and think spring break show-us-your-tits. M.I.A.'s stage-dancer shtick is almost as sexual—her own dancers are more sexual. But it feels more conscious and autonomous.

If Gillis is a comedian, as Jody quite reasonably says, he's a crass comedian—Don Rickles rather than Andrew Dice Clay, one hopes, but not Jerry Seinfeld or Richard Pryor. Musically he's crass, too—call it gusto if you like it, crudity if you don't. No TV on the Radio rock synthesis or DJ Shadow crate reconstitution here—just whomp-there-it-is, right down to a defiance of copyright law that makes this longtime sampling advocate wonder about economic morality. I don't think Procol Harum should be able to censor Gillis' blasphemous connections, his insistence that they're the Youngbloodz' secret sharer. But it's hard to argue that they shouldn't get paid—not as much as they think, but more than the other artists bricolaged into that track. Ah, economic justice. Wouldn't it be nice.

Economics are where Lil Wayne ramifies socially. Unlike Ann, I'm more bothered by Girl Talk's equal-time sexism than by Wayne's casual feel-'em fuck-'em—he's been using gangsta as a means to outrageous wordplay and untrammeled rhyme for so long that I don't take his sexual rhymes any more literally than I do his thug rhymes, and I doubt many of his fans do either. One of his achievements has been to turn hip-hop's pro forma it's-only-a-story defense into an emergent reality by shifting both those fields of hip-hop discourse toward fantasy and metaphor, so maybe that's social, too. But what he's done with mixtapes—which jack-beats as shamelessly as Gregg Gillis within the context of a back-scratching cooperative subculture—is even wilder, as big a challenge to biz capitalism as Gillis', though who else is talented enough to make it work is as yet unknown. The hang-looseness of his mixtapes at their best—especially Da Drought 3, which Jody jawboned me into exploring in this very venue just a year ago—is so seductive that for a week or two I was slightly put off by the pop moves and finished production of Tha Carter III. And, of course, Wayne—and his bootleggers, who as Wayne acknowledges in a recent mixtape, he'd be imitating himself if he were them—made plenty of money off these supposedly free items even as he primed the pump for 2008's best and best-selling new music.

Right, music. I'm enjoying that music right now, for many more than the 10th time. Social, schmocial—it sounds great. I'm a lucky man to own so many albums. I tell myself that even if music production sinks to nothing the way it did in the depths of the Great Depression (only a theoretical, I've already explained why that won't happen), even if no one will pay me to write about the new stuff anymore (much less a theoretical), there are all these wonderful records in my shelves just waiting for me. Some will lose their charm as social contexts shift in ways frightening to imagine. But just as sound, most of them will endure. Merry Christmas.

Xgau

Veteran rock critic Robert Christgau's "Consumer Guide" column appears monthly on Microsoft Networks. He is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a contributing critic for "All Things Considered" and is archived at Robertchristgau.com and Rhapsody.com. Ann Powers is the chief pop-music critic of the Los Angeles Times. Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He lives in New York City and can be reached at slatemusic@gmail.com.