Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Here's the link to the poll itself, and all the affiliated essays 'n' whatnot.

Here are the 10 albums I voted for, with their placement on the final list:

1. Ayumi Hamasaki, Rock 'N' Roll Circus (#1001)
2. High on Fire, Snakes for the Divine (#162)
3. Rick Ross, Teflon Don (#34)
4. Iron Maiden, The Final Frontier (#273)
5. The Sword, Warp Riders (#179)
6. Kylesa, Spiral Shadow (#86)
7. Ratt, Infestation (#407)
8. Yakuza, Of Seismic Consequence (#673)
9. Flesh Consumed, Ecliptic Dimensions of Suffering (#1023)
10. Kill the Client, Set for Extinction (#1151)

Of those, I was the only voter for Ayumi Hamasaki, Flesh Consumed and Kill the Client.

I also sent in a long-ass comment, as follows (the parts they actually used are in bold):

Though I’m proud to vote in Pazz & Jop every year, it always ends up exacerbating my feelings of alienation from my so-called peers. I’ve never heard 80-plus percent of the music that winds up filling out the year-end lists published on Pitchfork, the AV Club and here at the Voice. (This year, I heard seven of Pitchfork’s Top 50, and two of the AV Club’s Top 25; I fully expect to have heard no more than two of the top 10 Pazz & Jop albums, and a maximum of five of the top 20.)

I’d like to offer my peers a deal: If you listen to Rotting Christ’s AEALO or Decrepit Birth’s Polarity (#s 7 and 9 on my year-end Top Ten for MSN Music) and find something thoughtful to say about either one, I’ll try and do the same for Kanye West or the Arcade Fire. If you listen to Ayumi Hamasaki’s Rock ’n’ Roll Circus, I’ll try my damnedest to make it through a whole Robyn song.

At one point, I was accused by a friend and colleague of “always us[ing] your ignorance of pop music as a pole to raise your flag upon. Like, I can't fault anyone for not caring about Adam Lambert, I'm faulting you because you constantly think it’s grounds for bragging rights. And yeah, you are def right about the music audience getting more stratified and retreating to more insular worlds, but I generally see this as a BAD THING and it’s hard for me to wrap my head around not wanting to see these walls topple.” And I admit that 2010 really sent my snarky D-bag side into overdrive, to the point where I was commenting on Facebook about how glad I am that I don’t get paid to care about Taylor Swift. But here’s the thing: My so-called peers don’t get paid to care about what I listen to or write about, either, with one or two exceptions, and they’re fine with that. So why am I expected to care about what I’m supposedly “missing”?

I write about what people are willing to pay me to write about. That’s mostly metal, with some side trips into jazz and Latin music. That takes up enough of my time that I listen almost exclusively to what people are willing to pay me to write about, with one or two exceptions, notably Japanese pop. In this way, I have been the beneficiary of cultural balkanization. Since most of the other critics filling out Pazz & Jop ballots are all busy listening to the same three dozen records, I can keep my calendar pretty damn full just by writing about stuff that sells as well as or better than the music reviewed on Pitchfork, stuff with a very real fan base that buys CDs (I know, right?) and T-shirts and tickets to shows, but that isn’t remotely cool in Voice/Pitchfork/Brooklyn Vegan/AV Club circles.

I’m far from unaware of pop music. I really liked the Diddy-Dirty Money and Rick Ross albums. I like Kelis and Kylie Minogue and Pink (though to my ear she’s never topped her third album, Try This, the one nobody else liked). M.I.A. isn’t pop music (she’d have to be popular—as in, sell some records—for that to be the case), but I’ve listened to every one of her half-baked, jabbering records at least twice. Outside of R&B-based pop music, I like Brad Paisley, and I liked Jamey Johnson’s The Guitar Song, though That Lonesome Song, from 2008, was clearly the better, more cohesive album. But for the most part, when I keep up with the so-called mainstream, it’s through videos. I don’t listen to the radio (terrestrial or online), but I watch MTV, VH1, Fuse and mun2 (the latter of which offers a killer hour-long show of norteƱo/Tejano videos everyone reading this should check out), and I’ll click links to videos on YouTube when I spot them on Twitter or message boards.

That kind of casual, semi-passive osmosis is how I know I haven’t missed anything by never listening to a whole Kanye West album. He’s a pop artist, so presumably his singles represent the best of his work, the stuff he’s presenting as the bait to lure listeners in. But I’ve seen the videos for every one of his singles, all the way back to “Through the Wire,” and not one of them has ever done a thing for me. I’ve had the same reaction to Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Ke$ha and just about everyone else who sold what passes for a lot of records in 2010, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to state that if I can’t make it a full minute into your video without switching the channel, I’m not gonna listen to your album.

Here’s the real problem, though. The Big Lie of generalist pop criticism (people who claim to cover “everything”) is actually two lies bound together. The first is that when you write about Kanye West, or whoever his equivalent will be in 2011, you’re writing about “mainstream” music. West, like every other musician on earth, is a niche artist—he may have millions of listeners, but there are untold millions more who have never heard him, may indeed have never heard of him. There is no mainstream. Critical consensus is built through publicity campaigns—writers (still, mostly) get records for free, and then they talk to each other about those records on Twitter, on Facebook, via email, and sometimes in person. And gradually a collective verdict emerges, with the token dissenters oftentimes anticipated and always genially taken into account, all under the unquestioned assumption that this is a record which Must Be Discussed. Which leads to the second lie, which is that the three dozen or so records that become The Sound Of [Year] cover all the bases. That outside the small pasture in which the pop critical community is carefully fed, tended and groomed by the labels and the publicists (and the musicians themselves, now), nothing of importance is happening. If the few dozen critics who write for the ever-shrinking roster of magazines and websites that cover “mainstream” music (including the “indie” division) don’t know about it, it must not be worth knowing about, basically.

But that’s absurd, and my own career path proves it. I write about metal five days a week for MSN Music. In mid-December, I posted a list of the 40 best metal albums of 2010. Mainstream and indie-minded critics, who consider themselves conversant in music, have probably heard as few of them as I’ve heard albums on their year-end lists. The music I spent all of 2010 listening to barely exists, as far as my so-called peers are concerned. And yet, I’m the one who’s considered ignorant when—if—these matters are discussed. The idea that metal (to pick only one) is a specialized genre, but “pop” is the mainstream, the baseline from which all other deviations are calculated, is utterly wrong. I’ll close with my response to the accusation quoted above, which could serve as advice to next year’s crop of eager children looking to break into the writing-about-music-for-money racket:

“Generalist, buffet-table pop criticism is dead. Specialist genre criticism is all that matters anymore, because listener communities are atomized, self-sealing and frequently hostile to outside input. I know who I'm writing for, and more importantly, I know who I'm not writing for. And I'm not gonna pretend to give a flying fuck about Taylor Swift or Kanye West just because all the other writers on my Twitter feed still think platinum-selling records ‘say’ ‘something’ ‘about’ ‘the culture.’ There is no monoculture. Pick a niche and grind it out.”


j. sot said...

i agree with you, re: the pop/indie hegemony of mainstream music criticism, to an extent. but since i believe your argument basically boils down to "art" vs. "pop" in popular music, i gotta say that nobody is required to listen to any "art" music whatsoever--unless they so chose, natch; whereas with "pop," i believe that it's more or less incumbent on the popular music fan to stay abreast of what's what (even if s/he doesn't like it all that much)--if only in the sense of one being a part of an informed citizenry/democracy, if you will. therefore, to my understanding, your challenge above appears to come down to the following: "if you listen to this art music, in which i personally am heavily invested in, i'll listen to your cheap, lowest-common-denominator-targeting pop swill."

(btw, i'm not saying that's literally what you mean, just how it comes across to me here.)

Hank said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hank said...

Oops—thought my comment had not made the Blogspot length cut, but it looks like it did. At any rate, my response is now living on Dark Forces Swing:


Thanks for an interesting post, Phil.

Anonymous said...

Right on, Phil! I think that there's a way to work within musical subcommunities as you describe without building walls, as Hank suggests, but you're absolutely spot-on in decrying the inherent power imbalance (and resulting bs) that comes from the *concept* of "mainstream pop" which exists through the exclusion and marginalization of so-called "niche" music such as metal or jazz.

One thing that you point to -- increasing specificity and focus on "niche" musics -- is really important (if it's done without flipping the bird to potential new fans). I recently wrote about how the jazz community is struggling with a very similar issue at my blog:


Keep up the excellent work,