The Future of the Left, Pitchfork, and Fair Fights

Well, first there was this, which I found a little disappointing and a lot unsurprising. But then there was this, which is everything Andy Falkous says it is in the pre-script (“lame, self-serving, and immature”) but is also spot-fucking-on and hilarious.

What we’re talking about today, if you have not been able to guess, is the best album of 2012 so far (and probably the whole year): The Plot Against Common Sense, by one of my favorite current bands, Future of the Left. There’s not much for me to say about the album itself; I was predisposed to love it and, true to form, I love it. I love it more every time I hear it. I love it on a level somewhat approaching my affection for London Calling and if you’ve read this blog at all over the last four years, you know I do not make that statement lightly (an odd aside: a classmate of mine at the School of Social Work once opined that it was “boring” to say that London Calling is your favorite album. At the time, I didn’t know what to say to that because London Calling is genuinely my favorite album. I kinda get where he was coming from – there are like five or six records that people always say are their favorite and that can get tedious. But if saying London Calling is my favorite album is boring, I’m boring. I never claimed to be otherwise).

So rather than repeating myself by counting the ways in which I love The Plot Against Common Sense or the Future of the Left in general, I thought I’d spend some time discussing Ian Cohen’s Pitchfork review, which I found kind of fascinating. I wholeheartedly disagree with Cohen about this album (and most albums) but, hard as this is to admit, I can muster a little empathy for the guy. Like Cohen, I vomit my opinion about music onto the internet, which can sometimes provoke a barrage of mean-spirited and often misspelled comments. It’s the price of doing business (a business for which Cohen is paid and I am not, a fact which somewhat mitigates my sympathy for that particular devil) and it’s fine, but it can get a little exhausting because it only rarely happens that several people provide you feedback because they also loved a record that you love. And by “only rarely,” I mean “never.”

But Cohen, apart from misunderstanding the meanings of several Future of the Left songs (point of needless pride: I had thought since first hearing it that “Polymers are Forever” was about oceanic pollution and, according to Mr. Falkous, I was generally correct in thinking so. Yay me), made a couple of statements in his review that I would have found funny if they weren’t so irritating. First, there is the assertion that Andy Falkous is engaging in “unfair fights” against various targets. Setting aside the fact that it is totally fair (and necessary) to take aim at Trustafarians (“Sorry Dad, I Was Late for the Riots”), I’m curious as to why Ian Cohen thinks Falkous should pick fair fights.

There is a brilliant instructor at Portland State University who, leading a workshop on anti-oppressive practice (that’s “AOP” to those of us in the all-powerful social work/industrial complex), pointed out that many young students, when they start to learn about ways to combat oppression and injustice, approach these issues with a hammer when they should be using tweezers. I wrote this down at the time because I recognize my own tendency to use a hammer when I should be more subtle, but I took the note like so: “When doing AOP, don’t use a hammer when you should use tweezers. When writing punk songs, by all means, use the fucking hammer!” Now, I’m not entirely sure Andy Falkous and his bandmates view themselves as a punk band, but it is my humble opinion that they embody that spirit better than pretty much every other band going right now (if you suggest to me, dear readers, that Blink-182 is a punk band, I will find you. And I will hurt you).

The point here is that Andy Falkous has no business picking fair fights, much less a duty. Hell, “Common People” isn’t fair and it was, according to the corporate-slick writers at Pitchfork, the second-best song of the 1990s (they were wrong about that, by the way: “Common People,” for my money, is far and away the best song of the 1990s). And, just like Future of the Left, I don’t want Pulp to be “fair.” I want them to use a hammer while I’m out there doing my job with the fucking tweezers! Jarvis Cocker, dog bless him, is still being wonderfully unfair and if he ever stops, I’ll probably stop listening to him. But it’s not like Future of the Left was all that fair prior to The Plot Against Common Sense. How fair is the suggestion that we “reimagine God as just a mental illness” (“The Hope That House Built,” from Travels with Myself and Another)? How fair is “Fuck the Countryside Alliance” from Curses? If you want “fair” songs, listen to John Mayer or Jack Johnson or any of those other hack white guys who can write you a thousand songs about how everything is going to be all right. But don’t bring your concept of fairness to my Future of the Left albums; I like them just the way they are.

The second thing Cohen did to piss me off was start a sentence with the following assertion: “It’s a shame Falkous is playing to the cheap seats on The Plot Against Common Sense.” Fuck you, Ian! Not everyone gets the VIP access at Coachella, you classist dickhole. Some of us can only afford the cheap seats (and, more often, many of us can’t even afford that so we listen to our favorite records at home or with friends, wondering what it would be like to have the same access to music that so-called indie luminaries like the good folks at Pitchfork enjoy) and your implication that music needs to be dumbed down for our (apparently) limited comprehension is equal parts smug and ignorant.

I read Cohen’s review before I heard The Plot Against Common Sense (there’s that ease-of-access thing again. I couldn’t quite snag an advanced copy from up here in my “cheap seat”) and my first thought was, “I will probably adore this album.” And here I am, adoring it.

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Is There a Correlation Between Music’s Popularity and Its Shittiness?

So a couple of weeks ago, I was discussing my Grammys post-mortem with my pal Max and he asked me a question, inspired by my assertion that, statistically speaking, a Grammy-nominated band will be a shitty band. That question was, “Do you think music’s popularity and its shittiness are somehow correlated? And if so, why?”

I gave Max a short answer (“Not as much as people think”) but he and I agreed that an in-depth discussion of this topic might make a good Bollocks! post. So that’s what this is.

The first thing you have to get out of the way in any discussion like this is the (obvious to me) fact that this is all dependent upon taste. One man’s dookie is another man’s donut and all that. If you like a lot of really popular music, you would probably say that there’s a correlation between its popularity and its greatness. And that’s fine.

But Bollocks! is all about my opinion; for whatever reason, that’s what people come here to read. As I’ve said a billion times (and I’ll say it a billion more), we can love completely different music and still be friends. I promise. But the fact is, I don’t like very much popular music so it might be tempting for me to say that there is a correlation between how popular something is and how awful it is.

But I don’t think that’s the case. There’s plenty of insanely popular music that I like: Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, the Beatles, Cee Lo Green’s Ladykiller, and I could go on all day. I bring this up to provide you, humble Bollocks! readers, with evidence that I never dislike popular music (what the fuck is a Kesha, anyway? I won’t put the fucking dollar sign in her name, either. But what the fuck is she? Who is creating demand for a white trash pop diva?) simply because it is popular.

For purposes of our discussion, I’m gonna divide popular music into two categories: good popular music and bad popular music. Again, this is all based on my subjective experience of music (there is no objective experience of art, no matter what any pretentious asshole tries to tell you. It pleases you or it doesn’t and the reasons why you hate something might be the same reasons other people love it. My wife, for instance, does not like the Screaming Females because they are, true to their name, Screaming Females. On the other hand, this is precisely one of the reasons I love them). I think that good popular music becomes popular because it is just undeniably, universally appealing. This is why a lot of good popular music happens to be in the pop style – that particular genre is almost always on a mission to be catchy. Punk music, on the other hand, is typically designed to polarize and won’t appeal to a broad enough swath of the population to become truly popular if its any good. For “punk” music to be popular, it has to water down its message and attitude and stay vague about its politics. This is why Green Day’s American Idiot (not a punk album in my opinion) is more popular than Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ Shake the Sheets and it’s also why I tend to despise the popular shit that some people consider “punk” today.

Last summer, I talked about The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and his suggestion that stuff has to be “translated” for mass consumption before it can become really popular. At the time, I said that the translation idea was a killer for good music – my exact words were “By the time the raw, beautiful music you love is fit for consumption by everyone, it fucking sucks. Always.” I stand by that assertion, but I have to admit that not everyone likes the purest, rawest forms of music. For instance, you might like John Mayer where I like Chris Whitley or Son House. You can sort of see a tenuous connection between the blues of Son House and the white frat-blues of John Mayer, and Mayer definitely moves more units annually than the late Mr. House. Likewise, the Clash is undoubtedly an influence on Green Day, but fans of Green Day are not automatically fans of the Clash (and vice versa; I love the Clash and I think my feelings on Green Day are pretty clear).

So why does so much shitty music become popular? Well, to be popular, you have to appeal to as wide an audience as possible (duh). That’s extremely difficult to do without compromising your sound quite a bit (“compromising” might be a bit strong of a word, but we use strong words here). If you want to rock like the Screaming Females rock, you have to accept a smaller (though certainly no less devoted) audience than if you want to rock like Nickelback rocks (which is, in my opinion, not at all). Nickelback fits a definition of “rock” that appeals to a whole lot of people, some of whom most assuredly think about music a whole lot less than I do. That’s not a criticism of those people (in an odd way, it’s a complement), it’s just a fact. A lot of Nickelback fans probably want some drums and electric guitar, but they also want a couple sensitive ballads thrown in there for good measure (I, on the other hand, want “Buried in the Nude”) . Some of those folks might even take the commercial success of Nickelback as an endorsement of that band’s talents; “if other people are buying it, it must be good.” And I don’t think the fact that Nickelback sells lots of albums makes them bad; I think the fact that they suck at playing music makes them bad.

Because pop tends to be built around catchier melodies and major chords, it’s easier for someone like Cee Lo Green to become massively popular behind something like “Fuck You” than it is for someone like the Future of the Left to earn an appearance on everyone’s I-Pod with “You Need Satan More than He Needs You.” Snobs like me enjoy Cee Lo because he represents the cream of the pop crop, while I think some people will eat up “Fuck You” because it’s the best song on the radio, which in my opinion is like being the cleanest corn kernel in a chicken turd. So I think how you find music influences how you feel about the most popular stuff. If you don’t wanna work that hard to find music (again, that’s your right), you will choose what’s good and bad from what you hear on the radio – so you’re already choosing from stuff that is kind of popular. I use every resource I can think of to find music and I dismiss a lot of the homogeneous stuff that shows up on the radio because it all sounds the same to me. I’m not saying this stuff because I think I’m better than other music listeners; if anything, I’m admitting to you what an obsessive fucking nerd I am.

There’s a lot more to discuss on this topic, so we’ll call this Part I and continue our discussion tomorrow. Let’s leave it here for now: music that is popular is not automatically shitty. Since it was a Grammy post that started this whole discussion, I want to talk tomorrow about why it is I think the Grammys specifically reward shitty music (it’s to do with how albums and artists get nominated) and hopefully wrap things up by dispelling the myth that only so-called “non-corporate” music is good.

How Bad is the New Whigs Album, Really?

Relax, Whigs fans. I don’t think In the Dark is as bad as certain other internet people do. I don’t think it’s bad at all. It’s no Mission Control, but that albums is exceptional, especially compared to other Whigs albums. The Whigs stand accused, by Pitchfork and the Onion AV Club (whose reviews are becoming suspiciously similar of late), of watering down their sound and overproducing their new album in a callous attempt to reach a wider audience. This is the same sniveling bullshit Pitchfork said about the last My Morning Jacket album (which only proves that some people wouldn’t recognize awesome music if My Morning Jacket stuffed a whole album full of it. Which they usually do). That said, though, In the Dark is not great. It’s an okay album where a great one was expected. I see what they were trying to do here (I’m not going to question their motives. Guess what? Every band wants to make money because every band wants to quit their fucking day jobs. And if you’re going to hate the Whigs for In the Dark, you’d better hate Kings of Leon for their last two albums because their first two were vastly different and far superior) and I’m happy when any band tries to expand their horizons. But, though it doesn’t deserve the critical knicker-twisting it has apparently caused, In the Dark satisfies far less than its predecessor.

Why?

So glad you asked. The Whigs, in this reporter’s opinion, have long been a pretty mediocre rock band (not bad, just not great) that managed, with 2008’s Mission Control, to put together something amazingly greater than the sum of its parts. “Right Hand on My Heart,” one of the standout tracks on that album, is also one of the most lazily written songs I’ve ever heard. Sure, I love it, but the truth is the truth and there’s no point sugarcoating it. It seemed to me that, on Mission Control, the Whigs were more interested in rocking out fully than they were about sweating the details – and they still managed some nice dynamics and textures on that record (“I’ve Got Ideas” and the title track come to mind). Now, with In the Dark, the sound is shinier, thanks in part to producer Ben Allen (last year, he produced the Animal Collective record with the one and half songs I like). The roughshod, shambolic sound of Mission Control has been all cleaned up for the ball (or the shameless wooing of FM radio, I guess?)  and the results are not what most of us had in mind.

Let’s be clear, though: there are good tracks on In the Dark. I would go so far as to say the title track is awesome and I actually really like “I Don’t Even Care About the One I Love.” The problem is, for the first time on any Whigs album I’ve heard, there are actually bad songs. “Kill Me Carolyne” is annoying, “I Am For Real” is cloying, and “Naked” is needlessly long. If you want a scorecard, I’d say In the Dark has three really awesome tunes (“Someone’s Daughter” being the third), four bad ones, and four mediocre ones. If you could bump three more mediocre tunes into the good column, I bet you’d get much better notices for this album. For the sake of contrast, I count seven to eight awesome tracks on Mission Control, and the rest are mediocre at worst. No outright bad songs on that album. So people are probably right to be a little disappointed in In the Dark.

But…

Let’s not be the nattering nabobs of negativity that so frequently dominate the internet (just the other day, Band of Horses posted yet another free video from Infinite Arms to their Facebook page. Lots of positive comments. Except this one guy who was all, “You shouldn’t have so much nature in your videos if you want to make money.” Lord help me, I want to find that guy and punch his cock into oblivion. A band you like just gave you a free taste of an album that is still almost two weeks from release and you want to talk marketing with them? What kind of asshole are you?), just for a second. Okay? What’s positive about In the Dark? What can we love, apart from those three awesome tracks (seriously, “In the Dark” is so good I listen to it two or three times every time I come through the album)? Well, the Whigs did go for a bit of a change in sound – more bass-driven, dancey stuff on this record. If – and this might be a big “if” – if they can weld that stuff to the rougher rock sounds of their past, they might really be onto something musically. But Parker Gispert and company need to get a little more disciplined in the songwriting department (some songs have things called bridges in them, guys. You might want to look that up). And, I’ve never seen the Whigs live, but their live reputation is pretty solid. I’m willing to bet In the Dark sounds all right live (I could be wrong, but I’ll try to see the Whigs live and then get back to you) – if it doesn’t, then there’s a real problem.  Speaking of live performances, more good news: there’s a theory floating around cyberspace that touring with Kings of Leon had a big effect on how the Whigs approached making In the Dark. If that’s the case, I can’t wait to see what the Whigs do after supporting the Hold Steady this summer. Perhaps their next album will be their best yet.

Will In the Dark win the Whigs new fans? I’m kinda skeptical. It might win over those rare musical fans who just seem to like everything. I don’t think this album will lose them fans (I guess I can only speak for myself, but I still like this band), but then my expectations of this band are calibrated a little differently. I never expected much from them and they gave me Mission Control. I wasn’t sure what to expect after that, but it wasn’t In the Dark. Here’s the thing: as I listen to this album right now, it sounds pretty good because I’m only half paying attention to it. I’ll tune in for the great songs and distract myself for the other ones. Your goal should never be to make music for people who don’t want to commit to the music they’re listening to, but let’s not shit ourselves over the fact that the Whigs tried something new and wrote a few bad songs. Even the Beatles wrote bad songs, for Christ’s sake.