Is Kingmaking At CMJ A Real Thing Or An Act of Futility? Our Critics Discuss

Titus Andronicus play Webster Hall during last year's CMJ. Photo by Rebecca Smeyne
Titus Andronicus play Webster Hall during last year's CMJ. Photo by Rebecca Smeyne

Ah, the first day of CMJ: a moment of optimism, possibility, and prophecy. Even now every website and publication with any kind of music-related bent is scrambling to post guides and predictions, links to MySpace sites with virginal three-digit playcounts. But can the system actually be gamed? Can critics actually predict with any kind of accuracy who will emerge at the end of the week with the coveted gold star of consensus? We convened a panel of two to discuss (the third member of our critical SWAT team is talking about CMJ on WNYC right now, if you want the full SOTC stereo experience). Well?

Zach: So it used to be a huge mystery to me from where these buzz bands came from every CMJ. How, for instance, did people know to be at Surfer Blood's first show in NYC last year, which was at the Cake Shop on this very day in 2009? But I think I finally have a working theory: just start counting. Ubiquity is what makes this happen. Surfer Blood played I think twelve shows last year? So before we even get to the MySpace/Stereogum Band to Watch/Forkcast element of desperate remedial listening here, let me make some predictions as far as bands that are about to have "buzz," based only on their upcoming show volume: Wild Nothing (5 shows). The similarly named Cloud Nothings (5 shows). And my lock of the week, Lower Dens, who are playing a whopping 11 shows in five days. Honorable mentions go here to Teen Daze (also 5), and the recently YIMBY'd Sisters, who have only 3 shows, but whom I like, and am rooting for. Am I on the right track, do you think, or is it just the illuminati that makes this stuff happen?

Rob: I think you're right, unfortunately: I fear that the mythical "I just happened to be at X bar and then X band came on and totally blew me away" construction doesn't really happen anymore, if it ever did. Too romantic. Nobody's willing to take that chance anymore, and given that the folks most likely to tell you who the buzz bands are/were -- Pitchfork, Stereogum, Brooklyn Vegan, even the Voice! -- are all doing their own showcases stacks the deck even further. Not that this is such a terrible thing, or that "CMJ Buzz Band" is even such a tremendously lucrative or desirable thing. I guess Surfer Blood has tangibly reaped the rewards -- from Cake Shop to Webster Hall in one year! -- but, y'know, Black Kids. There's a scare-quote element to whoever gets anointed here now: "Everybody shit on these guys."

But I mean, how did YOU know to be at that Surfer Blood show?

Zach: Good question! In retrospect, no idea, except for maybe some not-quite-conscious precursor theory that involved having seen their name one too many times in the run-up to CMJ 2009. But regarding the theoretical enviability/lackthereof as far as being the "CMJ Buzz Band" goes: Though I may be one of the more outspoken people in all of New York, as far as expressing skepticism about the ongoing relevance of CMJ, I'm increasingly swayed (in part by guys like Matt McDonald) by the argument that getting anointed at CMJ does something. As for what exactly, I'm not entirely sure, but Surfer Blood are on a major now, are playing Webster Hall, and generally seem to be living a good life in 2010. CMJ surely had at least a little bit to do with that. Ditto for Sleigh Bells' meteoric rise in the immediate aftermath of the festival last year. Cheesy as it was when Matt said it, there is an energy in certain spots--Ludlow Street, Fader Fort, etc.--that seems to later translate to tangible interest. But don't take it from me!:

Still not sure about the larger questions of for whom/by whom though. One could look at the way Wild Nothing are booked at Pitchfork's thing, Stereogum's thing, and the Fader's thing, and get the idea that the fix was in, long before this thing ever got running. See also today's Rising on Pitchfork: Sun Airway (4 upcoming CMJ shows, one at #Offline). If that's not an attempt to stack the deck, I don't know what is.

Rob: The other dilemma for the casual CMJ-goer is whether to even chase the Next Big Thing at all. The fest doesn't exactly bring a murderer's row here, but still, do you really want to spend tonight chasing some ephemeral notion of buzz when Greg Dulli (who's taken to shouting "STOP CHECKING YOUR EMAIL!" at people mid-song) and Yo La Tengo are options, the latter for free? (I'm not certain that Dulli is a CMJ show, though I've seen him lumped in with CMJ-preview coverage a lot: same with Phoenix at MSG.) Marnie Stern has a shitload of shows this week, too, but hopefully she's not sneaking up on anyone at this point. There's a genre of fan super into that "Losing My Edge"-style "I saw them before they were huge" experience, but that's not necessarily everyone: Even a super-plugged-in site like Pop Tarts Suck Toasted, their "Top 5 CMJ Bands to See" plan today features all three bands on the YLT bill tonight. And I can't disagree! Anyone grab you, tonight or otherwise, in that same comfort-food sort of way?

Zach: Right: If I'm being totally honest, the thing I've been anticipating most is Thursday night's the Blow/Pains of Being Pure at Heart/Screaming Females show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Not only have I seen every one of those bands before; I wrote favorably about a Blow show at CMJ, back in 2006. Plus we've been flogging Screaming Females for a minute now, and I'm shocked the Pains are even bothering at this point to play CMJ. Discovery that showcase is not. Ditto for Extra Lens that same night at Mercury Lounge. But it's also true that there will be a band--if not several bands--that emerge of out of this festival that you will like, and listen to in the future. Our mutual friend Jon Caramanica suggests this band will incredibly unthreatening-- purveyors of "the New Simplicity," as it he put it in today's Times. In practice, this means acts like Cults, Best Coast, and Tennis, two out of three of which nearly put me to sleep at shows in New York earlier this year. Do you think Jon is onto something?

Rob: "Incredibly unthreatening" seems to be our preferred mode right now, absolutely -- we want something woozy, soothing, nostalgic-seeming... chillwave! Putting you to sleep is sort of the point. Go to Wild Nothing's MySpace right now and you get a super-gauzy Kate Bush cover. Stuff like that generally works better on record than in person, where at least a half-assed interest in actually engaging the crowd is generally desirable, so hopefully at least a few of these bands have a focal point with more charisma than, say, the Toro y Moi dude.

As for "The New Simplicity," I don't know -- has difficulty ever been "in," really? Wasn't "Quiet Is the New Loud" the big thing, once? "Twee as Fuck?" Not that we need another Mars Volta in the world, but I'm hoping at least one labyrinthine prog-metal band or whatever emerges from the fog, too, just to counterbalance all the day-glo lullaby shit.

Good lord, I sound like Weingarten.

Zach: God you do, it kind of makes me loathe you. (Love you Chris!) Part of this though has to be critics covering their own asses, so to speak, right? You're always going to have more consensus around something with manners than something without. This is maybe why I'm rooting for Sisters this year--at least they have a few loud parts. Sun Airway and Lower Dens and all those other Altered Zones bands just sound like mush to me (where is our chillwave intern when you need him?). Teen Daze, another band who seems likely to emerge this week, describe their own music as "Neo-soul / IDM"--Toro y Moi all over again. But let us note here also that Wocka Flocka Flame was booked at last year's CMJ, too (he didn't make it, but OJ Da Juiceman did)--there is a whole parallel ecology of the Ghostface/GZA/Freddie Gibbs waving the New Yorker around the stage variety that now happens at CMJ too, though it doesn't usually enter the narrative. Probably because Ghostface has been Ghostface for going on 20 years now. So let's finish this up and get down to brass tacks: what do you--a smart, savvy, open-minded critic--want out of the next five days? Discovery? Finding the next big thing? Greg Dulli?

Here is my answer: I'd settle for seeing one band I'd never seen before that I liked. That, in 2010, would qualify as success. What about you?

Rob: I'm hoping for an expertly mapped out mix of Biased Old Favorites (will I see Yo La Tengo tonight given that I'm not in line, like, right now?), 2010 Records I Already Like (this year that'd be Baths, an affinity only slightly mitigated by the fact that he looks like this), a few Obligatory Zeitgeist Bands (no problem with simplicity, new or otherwise), and hopefully a few Totally Random Happenings, because there are, like, 2,000 bands at this thing, and in the takeaway maybe 20 of them will be talked about at all, and I hypothesize that that's not because the other 1,980 aren't necessarily all terrible.

You're right about the hip-hop undercurrent, too, which is great, even if the biggest story turns out being who got booed offstage. In that vein perhaps we should close with an actual recommendation: The Duck Down vs. Blacksmith showcase at LPR tonight has so many names attached (Jean Grae, Pete Rock, Pharaohe Monch, Boot Camp Clik, etc. etc.) that's it's bound to be a little of everything: old favorites, zeitgeisters, totally random surprises. If you boo Jean she will probably kill you, though.

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