Nico Muhly Takes on the Times, the Word “Precious,” and, Uh, Us


Brooklyn Vegan has kindly noted Composer to the Indie Stars Nico Muhly’s spirited and pretty much instantaneous riposte to the New York Times‘ “weirdly mean-spirited” review of late May’s Grizzly Bear show. (Ben Ratliff’s closing thought: “I left Town Hall grinding my teeth.”) Nico, a major player on GB’s new Veckatimest, ignores that one but takes umbrage at several other lines/phrases, mostly acknowledging the usefulness of “fussy” (“…the opposite being a Hot Mess, I suppose?”) but coming down hard on the pejorative use of “precious.” Preach it:

Now, I have major objections to the word “precious.” It tends to be borderline homophobic in its coded usage, first of all, but second of all, it’s a derogatory adjective with no alternative. It’s reviewspeak. What I mean is: if you say, “that’s ugly” somebody else can say, “no, it’s beautiful.” If you say, “it’s over-stuffed” somebody can say, “really, I thought it was pretty thin.” So the problem with a word like precious is that the scale of adjectives with “precious” on it belongs solely to the reviewer and is just a way of being mean. Case in point: this whole nonsense about Sufjan Stevens’s’s BQE Thing. Words like fey, twee, and precious have become these little nuggets of coded disdain, but they are really just useless self-congratulatory gestures on the part of the reviewer. What is the opposite of twee? Muscular? It all reminds me of the insane misogynist critiques of Jane Austen’s novels. I guess the place for a word like that would be in a larger piece about the music world — there was an enormous brouhaha in Iceland about the so-called Krútt scene. Krútt is probably the closest approximation in Icelandic of “precious” — it refers to Múm, kind of Sigur Rós, and a lot of imitators: it denotes little bells, reversed glockenspiels, fairytale vocals, cutely-outfitted brass bands. Now, all of that is just a description and not derogatory; my iPod overflows with this shit. Anyway, to go to a concert of that kind of music and be like, “it’s precious,” all you’re doing is going to a Chinese restaurant and being like, “wow, they were serving mad chinese food up in there!”

When I saw he’d attached a link to the “Sufjan Stevens nonsense” bit I thought, “I wonder who’s he’s talking ab- ohhhhhhhhh.” Me, it turns out. The guy who called Sufjan “The Fey Highwayman.”

Let me give “fey” some thought — I can see the point. “Precious,” though, I’m less willing to concede: The Sufjan performance in question features him wearing a bird costume, accompanied by hula-hoopers, as he conducts his symphonic ode to the BQE. (This is after his whole cheerleader-outfit phase.) And Grizzly Bear’s music is pretty much objectively fussy, ordered, refined — not joyless, but very buttoned-up, very reserved, very delicate. If you ask me, drummer Christopher Bear very pleasingly smashes that facade quite a bit: “Muscular,” you’d almost call him. But even if you wouldn’t, “precious” is not exactly the ultimate insult. Nico, meet Chuck Eddy.