Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Real amateurs

I've been listening to that new Sleater-Kinney album, the one that is so special and precious it can't be released until May, though the press has had it since January. The band released this statement: "We don't think of The Woods as some product getting out there early, we think of it as our art and lives and dreams. For us it's about respect and about people supporting us by being aware of our artistic intent. We ask that you please respect our wishes to present this record the way we intended. We're certain that you would want the same for your own endeavors, artistic or otherwise." Allow me to decode: The label wants to get the PR push coordinated with the mainstream press far enough in advance to place fawning articles and break the band out of the indie ghetto, so they can get "respect".

Hey, more power to them. They don't make records for fun; they make them to make a living. They are professionals. And the new album sounds like the work of professionals, punctiliously competent and confident. But I say this because my only context for forming an opinion about the album is the one formed by their statement, by their eagerness to professionalize and maximize their respect. Until its released to their fans and not just to media business types, it's just a product with a calculated pitch, it's a marketing campaign. Without a community of fans to share my response to it with, I can't really listen to it like a fan. I listen to it, wondering how it will play with their fans. I make jourrnalistic calculations about how it will be come to be described. But I can't yet really enjoy it as plain old music.

An ambitious journalism student surveyed me on my attitude about online music 'zines and the threat they may pose to the mainstream music press. Here's an excerpt:

Q: It seems like the fact that they provide timely reviews and news, specifically on their release date is one of the most attractive aspects of web zines…do you think this will effect how mainstream newsstand magazines approach reviewing
albums (rolling stone, AP, Spin etc.)?

A: It won't affect it at all. Mainstream coverage is typically guided covertly by PR and advertising considerations. Web zines are motivated by a willingness to cover anything they can get for free from the labels or their PR firms. Placing a review in a mainstream publication remains a signal that an act has "made it" on the national scene in some way. That is its function, not to offer timely information about the quality of a band's music. (That is almost never the point of mainstream coverage. It's a recieved fact that if the mainstream press are covering it, it's already supposed to be worth your attention. No one has time
for negative reviews. With so much stuff, why waste time finding out about what sucks?) Placing a review in a web zine probably means you have hired a PR firm. That web zines can occasionally scoop the mainstream press is purely incidental.
But because they are largely staffed by amateurs, web zines will give you actual opinions, not professional assessments of the current zeitgeist inflected with hedged bets on whether an act will "break out."

Q: One thing about online music journalism is that there is much more expression of opinion in the reviews, whether it be through a sense of humor, sarcasm, concept reviews…do you think people (music fans in particular) are attracted to this
type of journalism?

A: I don't know. I think people say they are, and want to be, but aren't really. They are looking for confirmation of what to be into culturally, and that confirmation comes from established mainstream sources. They read to make sure they aren't missing out on something "important." I think people want to make sure they know about the things they ought to know about and that they aren't becoming ignorant culturally, and that they ultimately enjoy tighter, more polished writing animated by the authority and confidence a professional writer brings and the clarity of story-pegs that editors bring out. It may be that people like online music journalism when it's brief, sharp, and funny, and that standard of quality is pretty rare. Opinions for their own sake are pretty boring. And the judgement of online reviewers is pretty erratic, adhering to no
coherent criteria. For better or for worse, mainstream music magazines are guided by the same criteria -- they cover what they think will sell magazines and they pretend that whatever that is is good and important. There's a consistency to that.

Well, I felt awash in cynicism after sending these answers off, felt that this bleak outlook wasn't entirely representative of how I feel. And I neglected to mention the one form of music writing that always brings me joy, the one type that gives me hope: the music reviews on

I love to read the reviews of records on I think it is the most reliable source of opinion out there in the music marketplace, far more entertaining and illuminating than what you find in the music press, which is larded over with bombast, hype, and treacle. These are often the ravings of enthusiasts, making their case for their favorite band, or angered ex-fans venting their sense of betrayal. But sometimes they are these measured, articulate accounts of the record from people who are congenitally addicted to giving their opinion, who can't withhold their opinions on anything, and have to express them somewhere. In other words, these are pre-professionalized critics, untempered by market/audience considerations and unhampered by editors. What is great about these reviews is that you don't have to wonder about what's really at stake for the writers. The real amateurs are motivated by some raw need to communicate and leave their mark somewhere, and I recognize myself in them. This sympathy makes me trust their authenticity completely.

Reading reviews makes me understand why I read any reviews in the first place. It's not for information about the music. Taste in music is pretty fickle and idiosyncratic; it resists coherent explanation and steady criteria, and it often depends on context: where you are when you hear something and how popular it already is and what your friends think of it and what the musicians look like and how cool their CD designs are or whatever. One reviewer's opinion isn't likely to worth much as an assessment. But what's so nice about the Amazon reviews, especially when there's a lot of them, is that it creates a sense of consensus and community. And only within a community is it even worth forming an opinion about something, articulating it in clear terms, even to yourself. One of our culture's biggest fallacies is the idea that you can have an opinion on culture in isolation from fellow participants. There is no pure reaction, no way in which some essential ontological you unaffected by environment is able to register how it feels when hearing some ontological essence of the music free of all the implications of how it was made and distributed to you. That history, the way both you and the record got to be in the same place at the same time, is not just a factor in the listening experience; it is the entire listening experience. And those histories are made by people, by a variety of intersecting communities who all ultimately configure what we end up cherishing as our unique personal self-defining opinion.

Without a community within which to situate your position, you don't even bother to have opinions about things as ephemeral as pop music. It would just exist, pleasant noise; all albums become an ambient Eno record. I am one of those people who needs to have a reason to listen to music, who wants to express an opinion, for whom the construction of an opinion constitutes meaningful work, salvaging life experience and redeeming it, making it amount to something. I can't stand the idea of having things happen to me without my commenting on them, assessing them, remembering and reconfiguring them in some way -- I don't want to be passive, I want to rework everything I experience to take claim of it, to stay actively engaged. So I am so grateful that these Amazon reviewers are there, to provide a community, to give me a mirror in which I can recognize myself, to validate my whole approach to life. So I read reviews to find confirmation not even of my attitude toward a particular album, but of myself, my whole way of thinking. I read them to consume authenticity.

It's refreshing to think that there are real people out there, not professional opinion-makers but real amateurs, who are having these spontaneous, unrehearsed responses to music. And that sense of spontaneity, that sense of unpracticed being-in-the-moment is something we have learned to value, something that seems to be more and more rare in a hypermediated culture full of pseudoevents and entertainment wholly given over to emotional engineering, extracting Pavlovian emotional responses from us without ever really challenging our preconceptions, our ideological safehouse. Spontaneity guarantees a kind of truth, a freedom from the calculation -- the ads and the flattery and the manipulation and the efficiency -- that dominates the public sphere. It shows us that people can really still be "in touch with themselves" and know their "real" feelings. But then, it's ads themselves that conjure this spontaneity as the true ultimate value, as the guarantor of truth. Spontaneity is already been reified into a product, another manipulative device. Paranoia closes in. These reviewers, are they just marketing spontaneity to me, too? Already, I'm sure, savvy PR firms have begun to hire fake fans, fake amateurs to gush about records on Amazon, perhaps Amazon themselves will hire them and get them started. There are some reviews that read suspiciously like the press releases that barrage my inbox every day, I'm sure of it. These aren't real amateurs. I want some real amateurs, dammit!

The fact is, in a culture so phony that it must fetishize spontaneity and authenticity to the degree that ours does, even amateurs have to be self-conscious about their amateurism. The false notes creep in to their reviews, the posturing the preening. And we are all pitch-perfect unforgiving critics of those. I can look in the mirror and see that, too.

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