Notes on the Biz (What's Left of It)
Metal had one of the best years in recent memory—metal's been having a pretty amazing 21st century, frankly. But you'd never know it from year-end lists not published in metal magazines. The Onion A.V. Club completely ignored metal, except for making fun of one of their critics who voted for Opeth on his ballot. Pitchfork's year-end list was also totally metal-free, choosing to focus instead on albums (to quote their write-up of Titus Andronicus's The Airing of Grievances) "about spending your twenties . . . overeducated and underwhelmed." These sites, along with Popmatters and a few others, are nominally the new zeitgeist, shaping pop discourse—and, in the process, defining the canon for the future. And as far as they're concerned, the canon is guitar-based pop music that runs the gamut from folk to soft psychedelia. Token hip-hop and/or r&b acts are permitted, as long as they're stoners (Lil Wayne) or hippie-ish (Erykah Badu). But the rock genre that can actually claim commercial successes this year (not that sales are an aesthetic yardstick)? Nah, no need to bother with that. Pitchfork et al. have broadened their coverage quite a bit—they do a good job of writing about metal during the year. But when list-making time rolls around, the need to fake broad-mindedness goes out the window, and it's time to close ranks in the Short-Haired White Guys With Guitars Club.
I edit a metal magazine; I'm not required to listen to Fleet Foxes or Vampire Weekend when putting together a year-end list. But editors who want their site, magazine, or whatever to represent the full spectrum of rock/pop music, or want to convince people that's the goal, should be willing/able to admit that good albums were made in 2008 that were not limp indie-pop. Or they could just admit they are who their detractors have always said they were.
Voting in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll is a lot like voting in the Democratic primary: I don't necessarily vote for the candidates I like the most, but for those good enough to admire and mainstream enough to have a legitimate shot at winning. I didn't really think the Hold Steady and Raphael Saadiq albums were among the 10 best of the year—releases by Bill Frisell, the SteelDrivers, Jon Dee Graham, and David Murray were much better—but I really liked the Hold Steady and Saadiq discs, and I thought they might actually place in the printed lists, especially if I added my votes to their totals. Besides, Voice voters are no more likely to support a jazz or bluegrass act than Democratic voters are going to support an out-of-the-closet socialist or atheist. Both electorates are going to stick to the safe, slightly left-of-center mainstream—and in pop-music criticism, that mainstream is hip-hop/r&b and indie-rock.
This year, I finished an investigative book about the record industry, and 60 percent of my top albums and 50 percent of my singles came out on Universal. I'm not sure what that says about me, other than that I don't read Pitchfork enough.
One question I'd love to see asked in a year-end poll would look into how many voters maintain an ongoing Best Albums/Best Tracks list, and how many spend a couple of desperate days each December trying to remember (like I do) what they were listening to and liking back in April. It's not that I don't understand the impulse to make lists; where I break ranks is when list-making becomes a form of ranking. Moving something up a list of favorites is obviously an act of affection, and declaring this or that recording to be the best is not unlike informing a loved one that he or she is the most wonderful person in the world (and about as objective). As critics, we're expected to make value judgments and declare some things worthy and others un-, but why does that have to become a form of scorekeeping? Really, isn't the notion of debating whether TV on the Radio made a better album than Vampire Weekend a bit like debating whether Wolverine could beat up Spawn?
While some of the most innovative production work is coming from pop music, this is the arena where over-production is also becoming more scarily common. Some of the biggest hits were also the most bewilderingly multi-tracked and over-compressed. "Shake It" by Metro Station . . . "In the Ayer" by Flo Rida and will.i.am . . . almost anything by Katy Perry . . . all of these are almost physically painful to listen to. Lady GaGa? I can't form an opinion on her, because I simply cannot hear whatever song might be buried under the studio bells and whistles of "Just Dance." That track makes T-Pain's entire oeuvre seem organic by comparison. And as I write this, I'm still a member of the 24-and-under demographic, so I would like to think this isn't a knee-jerk, old-fogey reaction. It's a cry for mercy.
What nags at me is that, given my pedigree as a fairly undiscriminating Metallica fanatic, Death Magnetic should by all rights have been #1 on my ballot by a wide margin. The trouble, as I understand it, came when you approved a mix designed to fit in with the current mania for the kind of loud, dynamics-free sound that allows much lesser talents to sound passable on the radio. Your album prompted me to wonder if my stereo speakers were broken, then to wonder if the equalization on my iTunes was out of whack, then to resolve not to listen to it on headphones ever again (luckily, it still sounds decent in my car). So what should have been one of the towering achievements in what remains a remarkable career becomes an especially tragic casualty of a "Loudness War" that is an insult to great music and the people who love it enough to listen to it closely.
2009 will be greeted with two gigantic empty spaces in the East Village: that weird, wonderful collector's emporium Love Saves the Day on 7th and Second—immortalized in the 1985 Madonna star vehicle Desperately Seeking Susan—and Mondo Kim's on St. Mark's. The closing of Kim's spikes a particularly deep hole in my heart, as it was the first record shop I frequented in New York City when I began driving down here with my friends from the Hudson Valley. I even remember my purchase upon my maiden visit: Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus on vinyl. It's a very, very sad thing to see these places that helped define NYC for me disappearing without a shred of resistance or upheaval. These are truly dark days for Manhattan, and the reason why I only come into the city when I absolutely have to.
West Caldwell, NJ
Rationally or not, I am constantly worried about being laid off.
New York, NY
My days of making a living by writing about music are probably over, unless and until I get some traction on a book project I'm shopping. I write regularly for regional sections of The Washington Post, and we know how well newspapers are doing these days. For now, I have a lovely paying hobby that I do because I can't bear the thought of stopping, and every day that the postman comes to my door with a puffy envelope is like Christmas.
Truman defeats dewy motherfuckers!
R.I.P. Paper Thin Walls. Not so much because I'm forced to bid adieu to yet another repository of sparkling crit wit and talent, or because another stream of steady work's gone dry, but because now my excuse to pummel Whiney with babbling e-mails all day when I'm supposed to be working is no more.
Until September 1, I worked for Paper Thin Walls, which shut down after a couple of really fun, great years. People asked why we shut down, or—more often—how we didn't shut down sooner. I guess it basically came down to this: 1) We paid writers a fair rate; 2) We had no advertising; 3) We had no sponsors; and 4) We had no subscription fees for content. We did have a well-funded company behind us. But by not having ads (or even space for ads, or even a business model), I think we were no different from other music websites—we were just a little more explicit in our not-for-profit-making. Now, I am freelancing full-time, which is also fun and great in a really different way. One nice benefit of freelancing is that you can't get laid off. One awful benefit is that all of your other music-writer friends can and have been laid off. And then your friends become (at least for a minute) your competition for what little work is out there. But I try to help friends out with leads and whatever else, and they help me, too. I'm hoping things get better this year.
It's been unavoidable that writing about the year in music has focused almost entirely on the business end, ever since the industry started its whiny, hand-wringing tradition eight years ago, causing panic with dire predictions of the Death of the Album and criminalizing their best customers (those who download a lot of music also tend to buy a lot of music). Let's set the record straight: Albums, like movies and books, aren't going anywhere. Movies have survived cable TV, VCRs, video stores, DVRs, Netflix, and Bit Torrents. Books have survived used bookstores, libraries, and the Kindle. Formats come and go, profits ebb and flow, and retailers open and close. It's the nature of business. Get the fuck over it.
Anthony Van Dorston
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