Thoughts on the Music I Heard This Year (Part One): The Year of Accidental Racists

The Paisley

Another year is coming to an end, which means I have spent a good part of the last month trying to convince various horrible readers’ polls on the internet that Future of the Left’s How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is the best album of 2013 and “Singing of the Bonesaws” is the Very Best Single of the year. Although it wasn’t technically a single, I operate on the assumption that we live in an era where every song simultaneously is and isn’t a single.

There’s a lot we could talk about looking back at 2013 but for some reason, my mind keeps coming back to “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley (featuring L.L. Cool J). I thought about adding it to my ongoing list of The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard but 1) I’m not even sure I can do that feature anymore and 2) it would just be too goddamn easy. To address the first point first, part of the reason Bollocks! has been so infrequently updated over the last two years is because I was finishing a master’s degree but another part is that I’ve spent a lot of time looking back at what I’ve written over the last few years and honestly, I don’t like much of it at all. There’s some stuff I’m kind of proud of  but there’s mostly a lot of jokes that seem too easy, not to mention enough ego to swallow a music industry awards show whole. A surprising amount of people (i.e., “any people at all”) dug a lot of that shit and that’s fine. But for me to keep doing Bollocks! it’s gonna have to be different. Better. More on that as it develops.

But as for “Accidental Racist” being too easy of a target for being one of the Worst Songs I’ve Ever Heard, here’s what I mean: it is most certainly one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. It’s lyrically embarrassing and musically banal but so is most modern country music these days. Like a lot of white guys, I find the reaction to this song kind of shocking. Unlike a lot of white guys, I mean I find it shocking that my fellow crackers were quick to give Paisley points for trying and thereby brush off accusations that “Accidental Racist” is (accidentally, of course!) racist. One writer suggested that this was the “first time ever” that a song had sparked a national dialogue about whether or not the Confederate flag is racist. Essentially, a lot of defense of “Accidental Racist” wants to give Paisley points for trying and shush up all the meanies who dare to suggest that being racist by accident is still being racist. 

This is the point that a lot of people – including Brad Paisley – seemed to miss. That whole “accidental” part doesn’t stop racism from being racism and to suggest that hey, I’m just an earnest white dude in a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt trying to do my best in this complicated world is to suggest that I’m not accountable for my acts of racism. And points for trying? I’m sorry, but fuck “trying” – it’s not good enough. When it comes to eradicating racism, the stakes are incredibly high. The disparities nonwhites experience at the hands of our so-called justice system, from our police, in housing and employment are literally matters of life and death. In the face of all that, for a white person to expect points for trying is, I would imagine, pretty goddamn insulting.

Similar defenses have been deployed to defend Miley Cyrus’s current nonsense and Katy Perry’s dressing up as a geisha for some goddamn awful performance (the American Music Awards, maybe?) – these white folks weren’t trying to be racist so it’s definitely not racist, according to (surprise!) a bunch of white people. My fellow white folks, we have to do better than that. Ask yourself: doesn’t it seem a little too goddamn easy to dehumanize an entire segment of humanity (by accident or design) and then, when they speak up about it, call them over-sensitive? Doesn’t that seem a little fucked up to you?

So I know I’m rambling a bit but I feel like it’s not just that “Accidental Racist” is awful music (please do remember though that it’s really awful music) – it’s that the rush to defend it based solely on the perceived intentions of the singer is a symptom of how pervasive white supremacy is in our culture. It’s so pervasive that a lot of white folks I know tend to misunderstand the definition of racism, often seeing it as a Southern stereotype with a Confederate flag on his shirt shouting the n-word. Let me take a stab at clarification: our just-mentioned Southern racist is being prejudiced by shouting the n-word at someone. But let’s say (just hypothetically, of course) that he’s from Florida and he doesn’t ever say the n-word, but he, absent of all evidence, makes the assumption that (just for instance, mind you) an unarmed African-American teenager in a hoodie is engaged in criminal activity. Now let’s say our Floridian gets away with murdering that (again, unarmed) kid by claiming that he was in fear for his life – that’s racism (if our Floridian’s jury is made up of mostly white folks, the entire defense is predicated on racism as it asks the white jurors to find it completely understandable to fear for your life from unarmed black teens). That’s prejudice with the power to enforce it broadly to the disadvantage of an entire group of people. It’s what makes it seem acceptable to certain reporters to talk about Renisha McBride’s blood-alcohol level when writing about how a white man shot her when she was seeking help after getting in a car accident, as if to suggest that the fact that she was drunk means she deserved to die.

Understand something, please: we all have prejudices, every single human does. But not all of us have the ability to institutionalize our prejudices – in the U.S. of A., that dubious privilege falls to white people.  Some of us may not like it, but guess what? Not liking it isn’t enough either. We have to stop seeing a level playing field where there isn’t one and we have to own it when we fuck up, which we’re gonna do.

You came here to read about 2013’s musical highs and lows and you got this. I’m not sorry. This is what’s on my mind when I think about picking up this blog again in any kind of regular capacity – I still want to write about music, but it has to connect to all the other shit that’s out there because everything happens in context. And my context has always been that Bollocks! has to matter to me in order for it to continue. And it matters to me to look at the context in which music is made.

Here’s a thing bell hooks wrote that I like: “One change in direction that would be real cool would be the production of a discourse on race that interrogates whiteness… Many scholars, critics and writers preface their work by stating that they are white as though mere acknowledgement of this fact were sufficient, as though it conveyed all we need to know of standpoint, motivation, direction.” I think about that a lot as something to bear in mind when I’m writing even something as seemingly frivolous (and certainly meaningless) as a music blog. Is Brad Paisley interested in interrogating whiteness through the prism of country music? Time will tell. If he is, he’s never gonna get there without learning how to be held accountable for fucking up, which is a really hard thing to do (I’m not, by the way, trying to claim that I’m an Enlightened White Person who never trespasses on folks – I fuck up as much or more than the next person).

Next time, we’ll talk more about music. Unless I wanna talk about something else.

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Tautological Arguments About the Internet (Are Tautological Internet Arguments)

Three years into the adventure that is Bollocks!, I feel like I’m pretty good at finding things to write about. But I also love it when people hand me things, perhaps with the knowledge that I will either bury those things in a molten sauce of disdain or raise them up on an uncomfortably high pillar of praise. Sure, it strokes my (perhaps too-healthy) ego to discover that some twisted souls out there actually want to know what I think about certain albums or developments in the music industry, but I also enjoy the challenge of articulating precisely why something pisses me off (or why something makes me want to jump up and down a lot).

My friend Maximillian tipped me off to this Planet Money podcast about Jonathan Coulton. The podcast features regular Planet Money host Alex Bloomberg gamely trying to convince NPR Music people Jacob Ganz and Frannie Kelley that Coulton’s success is not a fluke but a sort of harbinger of a new way for artists to put their music out in the 21st century. Bloomberg apparently fails, for Kelley ends the podcast by comparing Coulton to a Snuggie.

Coulton has expertly handled a lot of this on his own blog in a response that is far more intelligent than the analysis of his career was on Planet Money. I’m not going to try to defend Coulton better than he did himself (honestly, it’s not possible), but Ganz and Kelley’s lame defense of the major label model got my dander up.

They began the podcast from the perspective that the internet was “bad” for artists and then they conveniently never stated exactly how it’s bad for artists. They trotted out the old chestnut about how nobody will buy albums now because they can steal them for free, and they repeated it in the face of the fact that people pay good fucking money for Jonathan Coulton’s music! I think Ganz and Kelley are making two very bad assumptions about people who make music and about people who listen to it.

First off, they define success in terms of things like “selling out Madison Square Garden” and getting songs on the radio. They somewhat snarkily mention so-called “middle-class” musicians who make a living but aren’t mega-stars like Justin Bieber. They seriously suggest that Justin Bieber is a better internet success story than Jonathan Coulton because a movie was made about his rise from the bacon-paved streets of Canada to selling out Madison Square Garden. They don’t discuss the possibility that, when Bieber and his fans pass through the acne-crusted crucible of adolescence and he can no longer hit the notes that made him rich, Coulton will still have a loyal fan base and make a comfortable living. Ganz and Kelley seem to assume that making a shitload of money is (and should be) the first priority of anyone who makes music. Contrast that with Coulton’s point of view: “Know only this: to do this you need to work extremely hard, make music that is great, and find people to buy it from you.” To be fair, I think Ganz and Kelley have a valid point that the major label system is a good way to become a megastar, but not everyone likes megastars.

The second assumption I hear in Ganz and Kelley’s foolish argument that the internet is bad for artists is that people will automatically buy something if they can’t get it for free. I keep waiting for this misguided notion to disappear and and it keeps not doing it, largely because people keep repeating it with no evidence to back it up (this is probably due to the fact that there is no evidence to back it up). While it might be true that some kids out there might purchase a Lady Gaga record if they couldn’t pirate it, there are plenty of folks who have an entire tier of their music collections that you could label “Shit I Wouldn’t Own in a Million Years if I Didn’t Get It for Free.” I’m not gonna moralize about this position, but I know that it exists. For my part, I could have easily downloaded the last two Radiohead albums but I purchased them to reward Radiohead for the way in which they’ve chosen to distribute their music. I buy albums from artists I like, especially if they’re on a label that tends to be more artist-friendly (I would sign to Kill Rock Stars today, by the way, but I don’t think they’re at all interested in putting out an album of weird folk songs inspired by Finnegans Wake).  I think a lot of music fans are interested in putting money in a musician’s pocket but not necessarily in the pockets of major labels and I really don’t blame them – labels used to basically make indentured servants of their artists (read Return of the Last Gang in Town for a good discussion of how badly the Clash got fucked by their label in the beginning; or read Lowside of the Road to learn about how Elektra sent Tom Waits on tour playing two shows a night in front of hostile crowds) in order to make money.

In listening to the Planet Money podcast, I kept waiting for Ganz and Kelley to talk about the effect that legal downloading has on artist income. When they finally got around to it, all I heard was the brief mention that somehow, the ability to purchase songs for ninety-nine cents (“or forty-nine cents,” gasped Kelley, who might have been remembering the long-dead pricing model that briefly made e-Music awesome) is just as bad for artists as the ability to illegally download the album for free. So wait -if it’s bad to steal it and it’s bad to  pay for it, what would Ganz and Kelley have us do? They offer no solutions, and their argument ends up being basically, “The internet is bad for artists because the internet is bad for artists.” This reminds me of a favorite XKCD comic of mine.

Given that the Planet Money podcast isn’t quite half an hour, I don’t blame Ganz and Kelley for coming without a twelve-point plan for how artists can use the internet to their advantage. But their arguments were laughably unsupported, they spoke about the internet the way I imagine some people spoke about those “confounded horseless carriages” back in the early 20th century, and their dismissive attitude toward Jonathan Coulton (who is less a nerdcore niche artist and more a nerdcore Woody Guthrie – history will bear me out on this point) comes off as petty and elitist. On his blog, which you should fucking well read, Coulton summed it up thusly: “I truly believe that the sooner we all acknowledge the internet is not actually killing art, the sooner we can get back to making things that are awesome.”

In closing, I’ve linked to this article before, but I’m going to link to it again until everyone reads it and shuts the fuck up: This is a piece David Byrne wrote for Wired four fucking years ago that breaks down the state of things succinctly and intelligently. Please disseminate it widely.

Thoughts on a Lost Decade

Last night at work, I found myself in a conversation with a young man (Nick, the same dude who gave me the new Panic! at the Disco record) wherein he opined that the first decade of the 21st century was one of the worst ever for music. Since I was working, I had to keep my response brief, so I said I disagreed. He clarified his statement by saying that he meant it was a bad decade for “mainstream music.” Again, I was working, so I couldn’t bust out my soapbox and deliver the sermon that I felt bubbling up to the surface of my brain. But Bollocks! is my fucking soapbox, so what follows is my somewhat rambling response to the questions of 1) whether or not the last decade was really so awful, musically speaking; 2) If so, for whom; and 3) why or why not?

Obviously, I think the Aughts were peaches and fucking cream for music. I have several reasons for thinking so. But I don’t have to bash out some discursive essay on the historical factors that contributed to music being great through the first ten years of the twenty-first century. There was awesome music during that decade and it’s not my fault if some people couldn’t fucking find it (if you knew me over the last ten years, I would have been more than happy to sit down and listen to music with you until you found some shit that really moves you). Whether that music was “mainstream” or not is immaterial to me.

If you haven’t been able to make the inference in the three years that Bollocks! has existed, let me spell it out for you: I don’t give a shit if music is mainstream or “indie” or twee or emo or whatever. I don’t give a shit what anyone calls it, I only care if the music is good. I really don’t like to tell people how to live their lives, but I will offer this one piece of advice, which I believe I’ve offered before in some form: you shouldn’t give a shit how the music you love is classified. Like what you like and try not to be a dick about it.

Because some people labor under the delusion that I hate most music, I’m often asked – in a “stump the asshole” kind of way – to name bands that I like. I’m usually interrupted by the third band on my list with the addendum, “Bands that I’ve heard of.” I used to try to figure out what bands the asker knew about and adjust my list accordingly, but I’m not going to do that anymore. Because if I tell you I like a band and you haven’t heard of them, you know what you can do? Go to the fucking internet and find out about them! When someone tells me about a band I’ve never heard of, I go find out about that band. I’m not saying this because I think I’m hip – I’m saying this because I’m a fucking nerd. But if you think you only like so-called “mainstream” bands, you’re cheating yourself out of some great music. Likewise if you think you only like “indie” bands.

Astute readers will point out that I frequently rail against corporate rock on Bollocks! and I pick on mainstream bands like Nickelback and My Chemical Romance with a zeal that approaches (and, okay, surpasses) the sadistic. That’s true, but that’s also because I have little tolerance for bands when I perceive that they make music to make lots of money instead of to make good music. How can I tell the difference? It’s a feeling I have when I hear the music and yes, it’s one hundred percent subjective, but so is everything we say when we argue passionately about the music we love or hate. And besides, I don’t hate corporate rock because it makes money – I hate it because it’s fucking boring. If you like Nickelback, though, if you really like them, I can live with that. Just don’t tell me they’re better than the Hold Steady because they’ve moved more units.

Obviously, my work duties didn’t allow Nick the opportunity to define exactly why he thought the Aughts were so terrible for mainstream music, but my point is that great music has been with us almost since the first music was made. So has shitty music. It’s up to each of us to find the music that moves us and if we’re really wise, we’ll keep open minds about it. I’ve been no fan of Kanye West (although I agreed with him when he said George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people. I don’t think Bush’s lack of concern is due to any animosity toward African-Americans, though. I think they just literally don’t occur to George Junior. Same goes for poor people), but I was delighted to find that I really enjoyed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I like it when an artist changes my mind. I doubt that Taylor Swift will ever record a song that I give a shit about but if she does, I’ll be the first to trumpet that fact from the rooftops.

Grammy-winning artists the Arcade Fire sang last year that “the music divides/ us all into tribes” but the tragedy is that it doesn’t have to. Just because you normally like mainstream rock records, it shouldn’t rule out the possibility that you’ll fall in love with an underground hip-hop album or maybe some early country music. I love music from almost every genre I can think of (if I count the Cure’s Disintegration as emo), but I’m aided in that by a seething disdain for genre. If you tell me you love shoegaze, I’ll wonder what the fuck you’re talking about or I’ll wonder if you also like heroin. But if you tell me you like Asobi Seksu or My Bloody Valentine (I abhor My Bloody Valentine, by the way. They’re fucking terrible), I’ll understand where you’re coming from.

If you’ll permit a somewhat awkward segue, part of my absolute fury that some people want to ban gay marriage in this country is that I see an implicit assertion in the anti-gay marriage argument that we can choose who we fall in love with. Deep down, I’d like to think we all know this is bullshit. We have no control over what moves us, but if it doesn’t hurt other people (and, contrary to increasingly unpopular belief, being gay doesn’t hurt anyone), we have a right to be moved. That’s especially true with music; I can’t always articulate why I think Joe Strummer was such a badass, but I’ll always get a little misty-eyed listening to Streetcore. I can’t help that and I wouldn’t want to.

What I become afraid of when I hear someone suggest that music is getting worse, that it was better way back when, or that some recent decade was terrible for music is that the person speaking these thoughts has given up (or begun to give up) on what I feel is a lifelong quest to find art that resonates with our own humanity. That’s a gateway drug to premature old age and – far worse – bitterness. Every country in the world has music, even countries completely rent asunder by war, famine, and death. Hell, especially those countries. That is a testament to music’s power to help us transcend our misery and celebrate our joy. So I’ve made myself a solemn vow to never close my mind about music or say that it was better when I was younger. Though I will no doubt be a cranky old man someday, eager to chase the kids off my lawn, it’s likely I’ll ask them to stay a while if they bring their records.

The Hold Steady’s Finest Hour

It’s Friday and I’m still working my way through new albums by Pharoahe Monch and the Strokes (and preparing to run the fucking Warrior Dash tomorrow), so I thought it would be totally awesome to end this week by doing another installment of my new favorite Bollocks! feature.

The Hold Steady is tied with the National for being my favorite band working right now. I’ve mentioned them a million times on this blog and that’s because they make awesome rock music for people who read books and they successfully perpetuate the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is a valid form of spiritual practice. So if you gave me one hour to convince you that the Hold Steady is fucking awesome, I would drop the following tracks on you.

“You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came With)” – This song is barely two minutes long but it rides a Tad Kubler riff that I can only describe as fat on a merry jaunt about playing the hand that you’re dealt, no matter how shitty that hand is (“I got stuck with some priss/ who went and sliced up her wrist/ but you know you gotta dance/ with who you came to the dance with”). This song is permanently on my mp3 player’s running mix (helpfully titled “Run, Fucker!”) because it makes me want to run around and rock out.

“Rock Problems” – You should just assume that every song on this list features a guitar riff, played by Tad Kubler (until there are statues of this man in every city, he will be an underrated guitarist), that will climb into your brain and fuck pure joy into your synapses. Because they all do. “Rock Problems” is from last year’s Heaven is Whenever, it’s kind of a sequel to “Most People Are DJs”, and it has a line about listening to Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy and getting “hung up on ‘The People Who Died’,” which is an experience I have had many times myself.

“Your Little Hoodrat Friend” – This was my first favorite Hold Steady song and it opens like this: “Your little hoodrat friend makes me sick/ but after I get sick, I just get sad/ ’cause it burns being broke/  hurts to be heartbroken/ and always being both must be drag.” I wanna share a story with you about my friend Zac, who gets mentioned a bit around here. He got married a couple months before I did and his bachelor party was at a strip club in Portland. Zac slipped some dollars to the DJ and bought his way into getting a lap dance on stage, to this fucking song. It was, needless to say, a moment of tremendous pride for both of us.

“Most People Are DJs” ends with a guitar solo so awesome that they just had to cut the tape off and go into the next song (I saw them play it live once and they went straight into “Killer Parties”). This is a quintessential early Hold Steady tune (from Almost Killed Me), with its crashing drums and Craig Finn’s self-deprecating, self-referential, and just totally awesome lyrics: “Baby, take off your beret/ everyone’s a critic/ and most people are DJs” (Finn’s delivery of the last word tells you precisely how he feels about DJs). I’m not gonna say that you don’t like the Hold Steady if you don’t like this song, but there’s a strong correlation between believing this song is awesome and liking this band.

“Stuck Between Stations” – The Hold Steady knows how to open an album. “Stuck Between Stations” opens Boys and Girls in America with authority and some of Finn’s finest writing: “There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly/ but he didn’t, so he died/ she said, ‘You’re pretty good with words/ but words won’t save your life’/ and they didn’t, so he died.”

“Ask Her for Adderall” – A great song that didn’t quite fit on Stay Positive (though it was released as a bonus track for that album and for the live album A Positive Rage), “Ask Her for Adderall” might be the Hold Steady’s catchiest song, which is saying something. Later career voice lessons have really helped Craig Finn and “Adderall” has one of his finest melodies.

“Constructive Summer” is still probably my favorite Hold Steady song. For now. It’s got all the stuff I need in a Hold Steady song – a hard-charging Kubler riff, pounding drums (“like the drums on ‘Lust for Life'”), and the fucking truth: “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/ I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher” (also: “We are our only saviors”).

“Knuckles” – I’m not sure how many Hold Steady fans would put this in their mix if they were only choosing an hour of music by this band, but I fucking love this song, which features a pretty unreliable narrator (“the last guy didn’t die/ I just lied”) who’s just trying to get people to call him Johnny Rotten, but people keep calling him Freddy Fresh. But I do believe that “it’s hard to hold it steady when half your friends are dead already.”

“Girls Like Status” was a bonus track on like the Australian release of Boys and Girls in America, but it’s worth seeking out. The chorus goes, “Guys go for looks/ girls go for status/ there are so many nights/ when this is just how it happens.” But the best line is, “You want the scars/ but you don’t want the war.” I’ve made much of Tad Kubler’s badass guitar playing, but Finn’s lyrics are the best rock lyrics there are. Period.

“Banging Camp” – Separation Sunday was the first Hold Steady record that I owned, and it still has a very special place in my heart. “Banging Camp” follows “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” on the album, making for a one-two punch of epic awesomeness. “If they think you’re a Christian/ then they won’t send in the dogs/ and if they think you’re a Catholic/ then they’ll wanna meet your boss.”

“The Cattle and the Creeping Things.” While we’re on Separation Sunday, this song is a master class in clever references. “I got to the part about the Exodus/ and up to then, I only knew it was a movement of the people” is a Bob Marley reference, for instance. This is why I hate things like Train’s name-checking Mister Mister in that insipid “Hey, Soul Sister” song.

“The Weekenders” is all the things I’ve already said about awesome Hold Steady songs, but it has one of the best endings of any of their songs – “In the end, I’ll bet no one learns a lesson.”

“You Can Make Him Like You” – Sometimes the truth isn’t subtle. “There’s always other boys/ there’s always other boyfriends.” This is kind of an ode to feminine wiles that cautions that “it only gets inconvenient/ when you wanna go home alone.”

“Barfruit Blues” is another early song from Almost Killed Me, which is probably the Hold Steady’s most raw album (though it is still fucking awesome). I mostly just love the end of this song: “We’ve got the last call, bar band, really really really big decision blues/ we were born to bruise.”

“We Can Get Together” might be the sweetest song the Hold Steady has written to date, so much so that my wife and I included it as a slow dance for our wedding reception. And our programs had the phrase, “Heaven is whenever we can get together” on the front. My wedding was mind-blowingly awesome. The sentiment is correct and beautiful and if you think that’s cheesy, I can live with that.

“Yeah Sapphire” is another one of those songs that benefits from Finn learning to sing a bit. The melody is awesome, and that guitar riff is another feather in Tad Kubler’s cap (he’s gonna need a really big cap if I’m gonna keep handing him feathers for playing awesome riffs). I guess you’d call this a “deep cut” from Stay Positive, but it gets stuck in my head all the fucking time. Why is the radio too stupid to play songs like this?

“Stevie Nix” – Craig Finn is a great storyteller and Separation Sunday tells the story of a girl who becomes disillusioned with her local drug scene and disappears for a while (does she die? We don’t know), only to come back and tell the kids how a resurrection really feels. “Stevie Nix” is a plotty piece in the middle of that album, but it proves that a song can be raw and beautiful at the same time. When Finn sings, “Lord, to be 17 forever,” you know he means there’s only one way to do that.

So on the off chance (I hope it’s an off chance, anyway) that your Friday wasn’t quite awesome enough, try these Hold Steady songs on your headphones and let the weekend open up its loving arms to ya.

Jon Bon Jovi Has Probably Bought a Lot of Shitty Records

Hello again, Bollocks! readers. Thanks for the kind thoughts during my little hiatus there. Especially to Simon from Australia – I’ll email you back soon, I promise. But I had no fucking idea people in Australia read this blog and I’m pretty stoked about that. So if you’re in Australia, reading this right now, I raise my glass to ya.

While I was away, it would appear that Mr. Jon Bon Jovi managed to embroil himself in a minor controversy, which – let’s face it – is probably about the only kind of controversy Bon Jovi can really handle. The point of contention seems to be that Jon Bon Jovi believes that Apple’s Steve Jobs “is personally responsible for killing the music business.” I choose to believe that most thinking people would agree that this is bullshit and I’m not sure where to start disagreeing with Bon Jovi.

But I’ll try.

For starters, Mr. BJ (as his friends call him, for reasons unavailable to me at time of writing) assumes that music fans care about the music “business.” It might seem intuitive to believe that fans would want their favorite bands to make a decent living creating music and would therefore, at least implicitly, support the music business. But Bon Jovi is failing to consider the possibility that consumers – even Bon Jovi fans – are just trying to consume music by the easiest, cheapest means possible (to be fair, others before Jon Bon Jovi have made this assumption too). Like locusts, they will consume all of the music they want and if a band or label goes bankrupt, they’ll just find different music to consume. In other words, many music fans probably care about music first and might not think much at all about the business side of it. We can debate the finer points of that until we’re blue in the face, but I have a hard time arguing for the survival of an industry that has made Gene Simmons a rich man.

The thing that struck me as the most hilariously misguided about Bon Jovi’s anti-Jobs rant though, was his assertion that “Kids today have missed the whole experience of putting the headphones on, turning it up to 10, holding the jacket, and getting lost in an album. And the beauty of taking your allowance money and making a decision based on a jacket, not knowing what the record sounded like, and looking at a couple of still pictures and imagining it.” I can’t help but think that, by his own metric, Jon Bon Jovi has probably purchased some really shitty albums. Buying an album because the cover is cool seems like you’re not doing much in the way of due diligence before investing your hard-earned (or, in the case of allowance money, “easily parentally bestowed”) money.

Judging an album by its cover can occasionally yield positive results – if you’re buying Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone or the Clash’s London Calling. But an uncool cover doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in for an uncool album. The Beatles’ White Album has an incredibly boring cover. Still one of my favorite albums. And does Jon Bon Jovi really believe that someone purchased his band’s New Jersey record because of the fucking cover? Love that album or hate it (I choose the latter, thanks), that cover doesn’t do much to compel one to purchase it.

Technology, like it or not (although you must like it at least a little if you’re on the internet reading a blog), has made it easier for people to know what they’re buying when it comes to music. That’s a good thing, assuming you make good music. It’s amazing to me that some of these “artists” who bemoan the death of the album (claiming that iTunes has made it too easy to just buy the few songs you like on a record) have made no attempt to remedy this situation by making albums full of songs people will like. Perhaps against type (since I’m part of the generation of “kids” to whom Mr. BJ refers), I still buy albums. I like having the physical CDs and album art in my hands. I buy albums from all kinds of genres and all types of labels, indie and major alike. This isn’t motivated by some sense of hipster cool; my priority is to experience great music and the common denominator among the albums I’ve purchased is that I like all (or most) of the songs on them. The Hold Steady doesn’t have to worry about me going to iTunes and buying individual tracks from their records because they’ve had the foresight to record an album’s worth of material that I’m inclined to love. Maybe it’s easier for the Hold Steady to do that than it is for Bon Jovi, but that has nothing to do with Steve Jobs.

Even if you want to argue that Bon Jovi should be mad at Napster inventor Shawn Fanning instead of Jobs, the fact remains that digital distribution of music, legal or otherwise, is not going away anytime soon. And I’m more inclined to believe that the music business’s failure to adapt to the times is far more responsible for its death than a guy who just wants to make billions of dollars giving people convenient ways to hear music and laptops upon which they can make it themselves.

I’d like to believe that Jon Bon Jovi’s motives are pure in criticizing Apple’s contribution to music consumption. I’d love to believe that he really is concerned that the kids these days are missing out on some valuable music-listening experience, but it’s a little hard to believe that, especially since the bottom line is that artists might not make a whole lot more from iTunes downloads than they do from CD sales (they might make a little less, depending on the label’s take). That fact suggests that the ability to know what is on an album before you buy it does not inhibit  in any way your ability to “get lost” in it. I think if just one person can still get lost in an album that they’ve previewed online, that would prove Bon Jovi’s full of shit, don’t you?

And I think I am that person.

I listened to LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening for free on their website, before it came out (James Murphy, what were you thinking? Don’t you know that you’re depriving me of a vital life experience by allowing me to know what my money is buying before I spend it?). Then I purchased the CD, took it home, and proceeded to get lost in it just fine. In fact, I still get lost in that album because it’s a good fucking album. If you buy an album because you like the jacket, you’re still gonna have a hard time getting lost in it if the music sucks. (“Help! I’m lost is this shitty record and I can’t find my way out! The music is so bad that I’ve become disoriented. I should’ve never started listening to this album without my flare gun!”)

The way we get music (and the way it’s made, for that matter) is definitely changing and you can decide for yourself whether or not that’s good or bad. David Byrne wrote an excellent article on this topic for Wired back in 2007. Jon Bon Jovi seems to have made up his mind on the issue and that’s his right, but I’d been keenly interested to go over his record collection with him and find out which ones he bought based solely on the album art. Because I bet there’s some really awful stuff in there.

Ongoing Discussion: Popularity, Shittiness, and Why the Grammys Tend to Reward Shittiness

So yesterday, we started talking about whether or not I think there’s a correlation between music’s popularity and its shittiness. The short answer was “not really” and you can click the link for the long answer, if you missed it.

Today, I want to talk about why I do think that the Grammys specifically tend to reward shittiness. It was a post-Grammy discussion that started me talking about all this stuff anyway, and I want to try to bring things back around to that; here at Bollocks!, we like to give our readers a real sense of closure.

I think the problem with the Grammys starts with their nomination process. Members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences get to vote on the Grammys, but only a select few take part in the nominating process.  And, to make matters worse, individuals and record companies can submit albums to be considered for nomination. Now, I don’t know how an individual goes about submitting an album for nomination, but I do know that record companies have absolutely no incentive whatsoever to see great music rewarded on the Grammys. Record companies, especially now (insert your granddad right here saying, “what with all the downloading”), are all about the bottom line and if they’re submitting an album to be nominated for a Grammy, it’s because they’re hoping, like the desperate little money junkies that they are, that they’ll see even the tiniest bump in sales from a Grammy win. Could we subvert this process by starting a grass roots movement to nominate our favorite bands for Grammys? Maybe, but I’m not interested in that because I’d much rather just lose the Grammys completely. Good bands don’t make music to win little trophies.

The nomination process dictates that the broader section of  Academy members – musicians and technical folks who might have a little more refined taste – are choosing from pre-screened nominations, many of which were sent in by record companies who want to push those albums and singles. If nothing but shit is nominated in a given category, you have to vote for someone shitty to win the Grammy. Yeah, sometimes an Arcade Fire or Esperanza Spalding gets through, but that’s rare, which is why so many people were talking about it this year (and why some delightfully uncouth Justin Bieber fans took verbal shits all over Spalding’s Wikipedia entry). And while it warms my frigid heart just a little to see the Academy choose good music over bad, it doesn’t give me any urge to preserve the annual orgy of self-congratulation that is the Grammys. As the saying goes, if the Grammys were a horse, we’d all stand around wondering how it was born with an ass for a face. And then we’d shoot it.

When I said that a band is, statistically speaking, a  shitty band if they’re nominated for a Grammy, I was engaging in a little hyperbole for the sake of a joke. But I’m not going to distance myself from the grain of truth that I see in that particular quip – the Grammys reward shit because a lot of record companies sell shit and they do that because they’ve spent the last two or three decades chasing duplicates of the last big sound (for a while, they wanted everyone to sound like Nirvana. Now I think they want everyone to sound like Beyoncé, who doesn’t really sound that distinctive to me). That may seem like a cynical position to take on the music industry, but I submit to you that the real cynics are the suits who think that the music-buying public can’t be trusted to purchase real musical art.

But now about this good music I keep mentioning: my tastes, for the most part, could be somewhat adequately described as “indie” if you were in the mood to create a single, arbitrary genre of music and lump everything I like into it (why would you ever be in that mood?). That does not mean that I think any band on a major label sucks (Radiohead was on a major label; Wilco is on a subsidiary of a major label). Nor does it mean that I think a band is good just because they’re “indie.” There are plenty of bands revered by the indie kids that I think suck just as much as Nickelback or Maroon 5. Portugal. The Man comes to mind, as does Sufjan Stevens, who I think is probably the most overrated musician to ever receive almost awkwardly fawning praise from the goodish people at Pitchfork. If I’m gonna say that there is no real correlation between music’s popularity and its shittiness, I hope we can all agree that I’m also saying there is no correlation between music’s lack of popularity and its awesomeness (but I will say that I’m completely fucking baffled by some bands’ lack of popularity. For instance, why doesn’t the whole world love The New Pornographers?).

Obviously, as I’ve said before, I can only answer this question in terms of myself, but I wanted to talk about it in order to help illustrate a few guiding principles of Bollocks! as a place where you (in your less productive moments) come to read about music: firstly and foremostly, great music can come from anywhere. The only thing that matters is if you like the music. For me, I’ve gotta like the sound of a band, what it is they’re saying, and whatever ethos I detect behind what they’re saying. If you don’t care about any of that shit, you’re probably pretty easy to please as a music listener. Second, principle number one means that I have to accept the possibility, however remote, that John Mayer or Portugal. The Man might someday record something that I think is really good. It’s far more likely, of course, that the Hold Steady will do that (because they already do), but I long ago made a solemn vow to only let music piss me off on a case-by-case basis. Third ‘n’ finally: why do I bother even talking about all this shit? Believe it or not, Bollocks! doesn’t exist because I love my opinions about music. It exists because I love music. I wish listening to music supplied me with nutrients so I could spend my grocery money on records and still survive.

If the last two days of discussion have felt a little inconclusive to you (these are some of the most qualified statements I’ve ever made on Bollocks!), it’s because I am extremely loath to make any assertion that might cut people off from music they love, even if I hate it. If you genuinely love, say, Coldplay’s “Fix You” (a song which I abhor) because maybe your boyfriend sang it to you the night your grandma died, I’m not gonna tell you not to listen to that song. I’m sure as hell not gonna like the song more myself, but I’m gonna love hearing your story about why it means so much to you. See, I’m not one of these guys who learned the wrong lesson from High Fidelity – I know that I’ll learn more about you as a person by hearing why you bought an album than I will by simply noting, with approval or disapproval, that you own the album.

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.