Sunday, December 22, 2013

(You And I) We Can Conquer #Trollgaze

You may be way ahead of me on this one, but I've only recently been thinking through the implications of the online surveillance society, where everything we click on is recorded and analyzed, and the economy that's created when all these clicks are resold and monetized. What we do with our leisure time, most of us, is now making money for someone, most likely a giant corporation - even if we're not paying for anything. The RIAA was very active in warning us that music downloading and streaming would kill record sales - they haven't been as quick to point out that the industry no longer needs those sales to make profits.

As we've known since the early days of deceptive banner ads, a click doesn't care why you clicked, it only cares that you clicked. A page view or video watch from boredom is the same as one from obsession; telling your friends how much you love a song equals telling them how much you hate it; a dislike is as good as a like. And that's what's led to the preeminence of possibly the most important internet-generated phenomenon of all, the troll.

To be sure, old media has long understood that stirring up emotions, negative or positive, stimulates consumption. And there have always been people who would do pretty much anything to get attention. But the past few years have seen a dramatic rise in artists who seek to generate page views, comments, posts and links as an end in itself, employing the usual risqué images and language but also intentionally inept dance routines, intentionally flat singing and affect, and intentionally offensive material. The most successful trolls position themselves so that both their defenders and detractors will draw an audience: the way intersectionality works these days, trolling is easiest for well-off white women claiming their use of racist tropes is really resistance to sexism, or well-off black men claiming their use of sexist tropes is really resistance to racism.

[Insert Clickbait Subhead Here]

It's hard enough for us ordinary people to avoid getting caught up by these calculated provocations; for those trying to make a living either making art or writing about it, it's nearly unavoidable. Music critic Maura Johnston - who coined the term "trollgaze" to refer to media crafted specifically for Internet virality - has incisively lamented the way writers who want to promote fresh and exciting work find themselves instead constructing listicles of sartorial mishaps or best bad bands or worst good bands or why I'm right and you're wrong and vice versa. And naturally that feeds the whole phenomenon.

That's not to say artists shouldn't court controversy and push buttons: they often will, and we're better off for it. Even when the resulting art is not so great: While I find Rihanna's work difficult politically and disappointing artistically, she's no troll; Lady Gaga too seeks to shock but with an (admittedly trite, admittedly Madonna Lite) underlying motive of challenging society's strictures. (Unfortunately for my argument, Kanye West can't be simplified as readily: The same way Tolstoy's main characters unified a Chehkovian true-to-life sketch and a Dostoyevskian representation of a Big Idea in the same person, West is a troll and a serious artist at the same time, and it's not always easy to tease them apart. As a rule of thumb, though, his records sometimes contain authentic work, while the interviews, public appearances and videos are pure trolling.)

tl;dr: PDFTT

I'm going to be much more intentional about what I click on, link to, and write about. Though the old saying "If you ignore him, he'll go away" doesn't apply in many situations, it does work on trolls. There's a smug pleasure in hate-watching people making fools of themselves but that's a pleasure I can no longer afford.

A couple of years ago, Kathleen Hanna said that we should all stop talking about a fauxfensive (or is it nontroversial?) West Coast hip hop outfit, and my thought was "True, but by telling us that you are talking about them." I'm not saying that we should keep mum instead of pointing out egregiously kyriarchal or just poorly executed songs, videos and performances, but it's more critical than before to promote work that moves, challenges, inspires, excites and amuses rather than cataloging how much junk is out there.

In that spirit, my favorite 2013 albums. (DBW)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Funkadelic Fantasy Camp (Did This Really Just Happen?)

In a better world, legendary keyboard innovator Bernie Worrell would have a private plane taking him and his Orchestra to their gigs. In this world, though, he ran a Kickstarter campaign raising funds to buy the Orchestra a touring van, and one of the reward perks offered was a music lesson with Bernardo Da Vinci himself. I signed up for that even though I don't play keyboards, and even though Worrell has a reputation for being uncommunicative (verbally, at least) - frankly, the documentary Stranger: Bernie Worrell On Earth painted a rather alarming portrait.

So when he showed up at my apartment with Glen Fittin (the Orchestra's percussionist) I wasn't surprised that Worrell was humble; I wasn't surprised that he could remember details from long-ago P-Funk sessions; I wasn't surprised that he could coax stunning sounds from my wife's ancient electric piano. But I was pleasantly surprised that he could speak volubly about a range of topics including his composing and arranging process, the role of bass in his music (bass guitar being the instrument I was trying to play), the different approaches he's used working with the Funk Mob vs. Talking Heads vs. Bill Laswell vs. his Orchestra. It was the opportunity to jam with him and Fittin, though, that made it a one of a kind experience - he listened carefully to every note I played as if I were a peer, his face lit up when he heard something he liked and he had boundless patience when I wandered off course. (The songs we played, in whole or in part: "Jam in D(avid)," "Red Hot Momma," "Undisco Kidd (The Girl Is Bad)," "Take Your Dead Ass Home (Say Som'n Nasty)," "Jam in A(rabic)," "Bop Gun (Endangered Species).")

I learned more about improvisation in that one session than I'd learned in the previous 46 years. I could have gotten a lot less and still been satisfied, but doing the minimum is just not how Worrell operates: he put everything he had into my lesson the same way he gives his all onstage.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Who Killed A (Meta)Critic: Where Quant Meets Qual, And Both Are Disappointed

I’ve seen several articles over the past couple of years speculating on whether the value of criticism has disappeared with the advent of “you like this, so we recommend that” functionality on consumer sites (Amazon leading the pack). Well, not so fast. That feature can be helpful for dabblers, but if you’re reasonably up on popular music or getting anywhere off the beaten path, you’re not going to find those recommendations very revealing: if you bought one technical death metal band, they’re going to suggest you try Meshuggah and Necrophagist; if you look at anything really obscure, you’ll learn that the same people who bought it also bought Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber records. The engine runs into the main pitfalls of quantitative analysis.

Professional critics may think of themselves as defending true art from the savage tedium of the marketplace (and they may be right about that), but most people read record reviews hoping to buy something good, or avoid buying something lousy: They want an in-depth opinion from someone who’s good at forming and presenting opinions. In other words, they’re looking for qualitative analysis. And that can be extremely helpful: To name just one example, I’ll be forever grateful to Maura Johnston for hipping me to Sleigh Bells. But one limitation of qualitative analysis is that respondents (like torture victims) tell you what they think you want to hear, and in the case of music critics that results in an oddly non-conformist conformism: As Lester Bangs pointed out forty years ago, anyone looking to make a name in the field will look for stuff the masses aren't interested in, and try to get them interested in it. Over time - as the scribes push their pet acts, and their colleagues don't want to be seen as falling behind - groupthink develops, and the next thing you know there's critical consensus on boring, trivial acts like the BLAND (Beach House, LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, The National and Deerhunter) Class of 2010.

Being aware of these pitfalls, market researchers usually seek to combine quantitative and qualitative analysis, and that’s exactly what Metacritic tries to do: filter all the blathering of critics into recommendations that a consumer can use. The trouble is, their methodology not only doesn’t cut through groupthink, but actually celebrates and elevates it: the flavor-of-the-month acts clutter up the top of their list, who also tend to be the artists you’re already familiar with because every other article is about Frank Ocean or Jack White. So it ends up being a technology-based version of the Pazz & Jop Poll: useful if you need to know who critics are hyping, not useful if you’re looking to find compelling art that might enrich your life or at least inspire you to put down that bag of chips and get off the couch.

Surprisingly enough, it’s that venerable Village Voice poll itself that suggests a way out of this mess: They’ve taken the annual vote numbers and thrown them up on a sortable page that lets you see, for example, which records were picked in the Top Ten by only one critic; which records were picked mostly by non-groupthink critics; and (interesting for a dweeb like me) which reviewers had the most similar lists to a given critic. That dataset only includes Top Ten picks and only covers five years, but it’s a big step in the right direction. We’re getting within hailing distance of the system I consider ideal: You enter in your favorite albums, and a database matches you up with a critic whose taste is similar to yours, but (we assume) listens to a lot more stuff and thinks about it a lot more, and is thereby in a position to bring lots of amazing, transcendent, mind-exploding music to your attention. Wait, did I just give Metacritic that idea for free? Dang.

PS In case anyone’s interested, just two of my 2012 Top Ten albums received votes in P&J: Regina Spektor’s What We Saw From The Cheap Seats and Angel Haze’s Reservation. I was much more groupthink-y in 2011, where seven of my Top Ten received votes, and my #1 pick won the poll.

Friday, February 1, 2013

High Ceilings and Low Floors

I'm rarely right, but it sometimes happens: In 1996 or '97 I was hired by an encyclopedia company to write a few music entries, and one of my assignments was Alanis Morrissette. Though her latest album was the best selling release from a female solo artist ever, I identified her as a flash in the pan, and I'd say history has borne that out. I called the decline of Oasis pretty early, too, but I wasn't confident: that was largely wishful thinking. (On the other side of the coin, I first heard Tracy Chapman and Living Colour on the same day in 1988, and instantly determined that they'd never catch on.) While those may sound easy - akin to predicting Psy will be a one-hit wonder -an artist's early peak is usually clear only in retrospect. Was it obvious at the time that Hootie & The Blowfish would never approach the success of Cracked Rear View rather than cluttering up the airwaves for years a la Nickelback? (Darius Rucker's subsequent country career proves rather than invalidates the point.)

Evaluation of potential doesn't square with an album-based rating system very well. For example, when I rated the Sleigh Bells debut ahead of Janelle Monáe's The ArchAndroid as the best record of 2010 I was still looking forward to Monáe's followup more than Sleigh Bells', because I had a sense that Sleigh Bells had already maximized their potential and Monáe had room to grow. To put it another way, I think she's at least one hundred times more likely to make a five-star record someday. A more recent example: in 2012 I rated Gökçe's Kaktüs Çiçeği four stars, and Angel Haze's Reservation "only" three and a half, but I'm certain Haze's best future album will be better than Gökçe's.

Where does that sense come from, and what's it based on? Well, sometimes there are obvious, easily fixed problems with an early album: The arrangements and mix on Kaktüs Çiçeği are polished and precise, while the backing tracks on Reservation sound like they were whipped up in a weekend - Haze could make a much better record without improving a whit as a rapper or writer. Similarly, it can be a positive indicator when an artist's reach exceeds her grasp: Treats shows marvelous mastery of a very limited sonic palette; The ArchAndroid reaches into a wide range of genres and approaches but not always successfully, and it's easy to imagine Monáe digging deeper in plenty of different directions. (I try not to talk about Frank Ocean, but by these criteria he's a cinch to make a better album than channel ORANGE one of these days.)

Maybe this makes me an Auteur Theory goon, but I do cherish my suspicion that low floors imply high ceilings... In other words, any Jane or Joe can cut a bad record, but it takes a true original to get far enough away from stylistic norms to make a terrible one. For example, Lumpy Gravy is worse than anything ever put out by early peak/low ceiling icon Liz Phair. So rather than pegging artists by how good they can be on their best day, you might want to hear how bad they can be on their worst.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Chuck Mangione, "Feels So Good" (1977)

Typically this hit instrumental is thought of as 70s AM pap, on a level with "Feelings" or "I Really Want To See You Tonight," and that's fair I suppose: it's catchy and overplayed, with no evident purpose apart from entertaining, plus it has that disco climbing bass bit. But I find the piece interesting for a couple of reasons: One, it's an extremely long melody, going on for about a minute before it repeats. According to some sheet music I found online, it's a 23-bar composition, so not up there with "Unchained Melody" but lengthy compared to your usual 16-bar A section, which usually repeats a four-bar phrase in there somewhere. That's not to say it's complex, because it's at a moderate tempo and can be whistled by practically anybody who was alive in 1977. But it is compelling... I find myself running through the whole melody in my head whenever I hear or think of the opening held notes.

The other odd feature is that Mangione doesn't solo: he states the theme at the beginning (twice on the album version), after the rest of the band solos he states it again, and then after a noodling coda (again, cropped from the 7") we're done. If you're thinking the leader lays out to spotlight his ace band, listen again: they each lollygag through the changes in horrendous clichéd fashion. So why doesn't he play? Because it's not a lead & chord progression to be improvised on, it's a piece to be played straight through. (Not every jazz piece lends itself to improvisation - Monk's "Crepescule With Nellie" springs to mind, and I'm sure some of the Ellington chamber work fits too - but they're the exceptions; they also develop rather than repeat.) To put it another way, the tune is excellent pop but terrible jazz, and if you care about the difference (not that you necessarily should), you can find it on this cut. (DBW)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Wilson & Alroy's UNforbidden Words 2013

Everyone has their own personal list of band names they will never use, some of mine being agitpoppers Larry Holmes and his Pearls of Wisdom, angst-daddy outfit Clairvoyant Doorman, and punk act The Runs (as in "Get The Runs!"). Along the same lines, here are words I've long desired to shoehorn into a review, but could never figure out a plausible way. So updating my 2011 pledge to avoid my worst cliches, next year I promise to use these words somewhere, appropriately or not:

Vivacious or Vivacity
Satiated or preferably Satiety
Canter (I may use "cantor" too, but not figuratively)
Tawny (but I promise not to combine the above two into "tawndentious")

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Free to be you and me, but maybe try being someone else for a change

For the past month or so, I've been listening to a playlist on my phone that alternates tracks from my favorite album of 2011, tUnE-yArDs' W H O K I L L, and my favorite album so far in 2012, Sıla's Joker. This is partly because I profoundly enjoy listening to each record, and also because I'm sort of checking myself on whether the two are indeed roughly equal in quality (I rated each 4 1/2 stars). I do stand by my high recommendations, but the differences between the two were instructive in a way I wasn't expecting.

Though both are basically solo artists (not to diminish the contributions of tUnE-yArDs bassist Nate Brenner) who write their own material, Merrill Garbus and Sıla Gençoğlu have little else in common: the song structures on W H O K I L L are boldly original where Joker follows pop conventions; Sıla's sound is smooth and sophisticated while tUnE-yArDs is unapologetically unpolished; Garbus multitracks most of the instruments herself while Gençoğlu - at least on Joker - relies on live band interaction. It's overly reductive but not inaccurate to say that Sıla's approach is communitarian while Garbus's is individualistic. It perhaps goes without saying that Joker has been unnoticed by U.S. reviewers, after W H O K I L L was a critics' darling and Pazz & Jop winner. Finally, Garbus has a raw, instantly identifiable vocal approach, and Sıla adapts her singing style to suit each number without binding herself to a particular, locatable identity. That got me thinking (for once).

Film criticism has long differentiated between actors and movie stars, on the grounds that you go to see an actor to see her - Meryl Streep being the most obvious example - or him disappear into the character they're portraying, whereas you go to see a movie star play herself or himself (or at least the same approximation of same that they play in every other movie). And the underlying assumption has been that as great as a movie star may be (Katharine Hepburn, say), the actor is performing at a higher artistic level. What seems curious to me is that rock critics (and me as much as anyone) have tended to assume the opposite, that the sui generis performer is making the authentic artistic statement, while the singer who loses her/himself in the tune is more or less a hack. Someone pointed out to me a while ago that one reason critics dislike Billy Joel so much is that he played characters in his songs, in the musical theater tradition, rather than sounding his own barbaric yawp. I'm not retracting any of negative things I've said or thought about Joel over the years, but it's a good point: while it's one thing to assert that his parade of 70s Brooklyn guys - Joey, Eddie, whoever it is who walked through Bedford-Stuy alone - are too similar to each other, it's bordering on puerile to complain that they aren't authentically him. Without a doubt, Garbus's accomplishment is more audacious, but I think it's equally indisputable that Gençoğlu's inhabiting of received forms is more subtle and in its way more difficult: Self-expression is essential, but I in privileging it over empathy I - and I’d say I’m not alone in this - have gone too far. (DBW)