Friday, February 1, 2008

Among the Critical Living

Apologies for the lack of presence; my current semester is slowly solidifying itself.

January is normally a dead month for the music industry. Very few albums that come out this month do well in sales and within the critics' circles. (The Strokes come to mind.) So I've used January as an opportunity to catch up on older music and new music I missed the first time around, and it gives me a chance to look through the "best of" lists that flood December. (Thank you Metacritic.)

I admit to being a regular Pitchfork reader (no need for a url there) for the past 5 or 6 years, a witness to Brent DiCrenscenzo's then ongoing meltdown as a writer. I miss the nonsensical writing littered with inaccuracies and laced with snark, though, but not that much. Thankfully, they've improved in the last few years, both in terms of overall content and with their reviews. This year's lists had some surprises that I'll have to check out. Elsewhere, the Village Voice published their annual Pazz and Jop poll results along with the usual essays commenting on music culture and music criticism. The usual gripes about the commercial appeal of artists from the non-mainstream arena were there (Feist is representative of the present Age of Accessible Hotness? I must be living in a wholly different era and country then.)

Some of their essays did manage to change my mind about certain artists, though; Amy Winehouse and Miranda Lambert will have some attention along with Britney Spears.

My reconsideration of Spears came from Tom Ewing's often brilliant Poptimist monthly column on Pitchfork (no fixed url unfortunately). His comparison of Spears latest album (and possibly her last until the personal life/career reboot) with Twin Peaks' central mystery and off-screen focal point, Laura Palmer, gave me pause in my dismissal of Blackout. The album will get a few listens.

Ewing's recent column addresses something that annoys me occasionally and relates to my friend Matt's question about my "singles vs. album" listening perspective. Matt wanted to know what constituted a single for me. Listening to an album on its own terms can make it difficult for him to separate the potential singles and from just the album songs. I grew into my teen years with the radio and the DJ setlists at school dances (I recall house party DJs or mix CDs played during parties being barely tolerable or being as awful as the music at school dances). I had distinct tastes at the time: mainly hip-hop and R&B with the occasional Top 40 or old rock and pop thrown in. Then, and even now, it's hard for me to say what a good single is. I can break down the common components possibly (strong, clear melodies; good rhythm; discernible lyrics that can be said without music; and so on), but I don't know if others see it the same way. (The Village Voice's pollsters often didn't.) Ewing talks about how people would choose their best song or album based on what would "stand the test of time". He argues that that criterion is functionally useless, especially if you're engaged in pop music and its culture. The best that anyone can say, according to Ewing, is that the music you choose satisfies some present need you have, that it fires up some sort of music-culture dependent pleasure centers residing in your brain for this period of time.

And I agree with him. You and I can't tell if new music will sound dated in the future until the music and us reach that future. The exception to this would be new music that already sounds dated and sounds terrible at its release. (Then again, history and future generations of music critics can change public opinions.) So if you like a song or an album, then great. Enjoy it and pass along your recommendation. Don't worry about whether it will stand the test of time. Let time (and future generations) take care of that. Think about how important the music is to you right now and how it fits into your life.

This may explain why I have an affinity for pop and singles: moments of music intertwined with formations of memory.

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