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I usually think I have a fair bead on the sways and bends of the general consensus among music critics, but I was startled to see the self-titled album by Slowdive come in at number 7 in this year’s Pazz & Jop poll. Compared to every other album in the P&J’s top twenty, the English band’s comeback after 22 years generated relatively little chatter that I can recall. Some warm reviews, a few interviews, the end. That is, it didn’t cause much of a stir in “the narrative” — the loose conglomeration of gossip, images, anecdotes, outsize claims, invective, and controversy that these days positions a work as culturally significant, as either speaking to “the moment” or clangingly missing it.
Those stakes, of course, felt higher than ever in the civil war of ideas and allegiances that was 2017. Yet I find myself pleased and relieved to discover a sizable pocket of critics standing up for a record that offered no more fuel for hot takes than, “Hey, remember shoegaze?” It makes me eager to hear Slowdive, which I overlooked last spring because I was always shoegaze-neutral. You mean there’s a record that’s good, but not important? Pass that deliciously irrelevant little morsel over here.
Conversely, I was surprised at just how poorly Taylor Swift’s Reputation fared with P&J voters. I knew it wouldn’t equal Red’s or 1989’s respective top twenty and top ten placements (both too low, btw), but number 71 is a pretty rank ranking for an artist whose (apologies) critical reputation was surging with her last two albums. It wasn’t a matter of anti-pop bias: Albums by Swift’s fellow Jack Antonoff clients Lorde and St. Vincent made the top five, and on the singles list those two were joined in the top ten by left-field pop from Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX, and Selena Gomez. No Swift tracks made the top fifty. This is the reverse of Slowdive, something much more typical of 2017 — a case of narrative poisoning.
Reputation carried its title like a self-fulfilling curse, burdened by more than a year’s worth of growing social opprobrium around Swift’s celebrity feuds and some statements that seemed tone-deaf on race. Yet when she decided to say nothing, that also hurt her standing: Why wasn’t she using her platform to promote social justice? (Maybe because she’s no good at it?) Then there was the miscalculated advance “statement single” (a coinage from my Slate colleague Chris Molanphy that’s proved all too useful lately), “Look What You Made Me Do.” Despite its attempt at self-satire, it seemed to confirm the album would be a score-settling screed. I was among those who took the bait. It’s unfortunate the record included any such ham-handed beefing, to mix meat-aphors. But overall Reputation turned out to be Swift’s most grown-up album about love and sex, which should have been the story. Song by song, it deserves better. (It wasn’t in my top ten, but I did vote for “Getaway Car.”)
Something similar happened with Arcade Fire’s Everything Now: Many writers seemed unable to disentangle a solid (save a couple of stinkers) and not at all cynical effort from the clumsily sarcastic mock-publicity campaign that surrounded it. Likewise, LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream initially seemed in danger of getting lost in a debate over whether the group’s reformation retroactively rendered its 2011 breakup a scam. (The album’s P&J ranking at number 9 confirms that it didn’t, or at least that critics couldn’t stay mad at a band so perfectly customized for our nerd-love.) Meanwhile, Jay-Z’s 4:44 benefited from its narrative status as Mr. Beyoncé’s answer-and-apology record to the world-stopping Lemonade, though that was too reductive a way to process this midlife Another Side of… exercise from a hip-hop giant.
Lest I start sounding like a New Republic columnist, let me specify what I do not mean here. Not that we should “separate the artist from the art,” like purist formalists. In popular culture, performances of image, gesture, persona, scandal, community, and even publicity stunt have always been inherent to what artists are creating and what they signify. I also don’t mean that we shouldn’t consider art in terms of its cultural and political urgencies, or the dynamics of identity and representation — especially with music, with its relationship to the body, the part it plays in self-definition, and styles that come from specific places and traditions.
I’ve long argued that people can’t really listen to music without at least roughly picturing a context for it. It’s so abstract by its nature, compared to predominantly narrative forms such as film, TV, and literature, that the mind feels compelled to construct some account of where it’s coming from, a theory of the agency behind it. This can be as simple as, “Aw, beardy James Taylor feels sad,” or as complicated as, “Hmm, James Taylor, following the literary example of his fellow New England upper-class confessional poet Robert Lowell, is using his own emotional turmoil as a synecdoche for social crisis in post-Vietnam America.” (To use an example so far gone that no one will care.) But you’re going to do some version of it. This is part of why a scrap of information can totally change the way you hear a song — for instance, “Oh, James Taylor was addicted to heroin.” It’s also part of why people muddle their opinions of music up with their assumptions about its audiences. But it’s important to remember that these contextual constructs are at best half-explanations, useful fictions. Otherwise we risk getting mired back in the myth of authenticity, just the digital edition.
I think we’re experiencing something most critics didn’t expect early in the century when the collective sensibility, along with the economics of the field, began to shift from a more specialized and skeptical tone to a more pro-pop, eclectic, and ecumenical one. In retrospect, it feels like we were anticipating the rise of social media. But once it got here, our sense of context would more and more be pre-prepared by a conversation bigger than criticism, and too big for anyone but the most savvy artists to ride smoothly. It’s become too easy to reiterate and respond to that context, rather than interpret it or, better, interrupt it with unexpected tangents. Because as writers we also work in a structurally narrative form, and now often with very fast turnarounds, it’s far easier to add chapters to an existing story than to start new ones, or to find less narrative-driven modes of talking about music.
Publicists always have tried to cater to the media’s need to sell stories on that level, but now they’re also servicing a social-media audience of amateur commentators who likewise want heroes and villains, something to defend or to prosecute, to thumbs-up or thumbs-down, while checking the receipts. As always, though, the work of art itself, the music — a statement single or two aside — performs its real magic on a timescale that is too slow for the internet, and often for our internet-rewired heads. It’s at once not enough data and too much. Instead, a pullquote- or headline-length statement of purpose, whether supplied to or supposed by the critic, is perfectly byte-sized. (In the past few years, headlines that package an essay’s most contentious thought as its whole point have become as much a nemesis to critical nuance as star/number/letter-grading systems ever were. On Twitter and Facebook, that’s often the only part most viewers see.)
No shade, because I’ve been doing it, too, but saying that “Despacito” became the song of the summer because audiences were giving the finger to Donald Trump’s racism towards Latinx communities is much quicker — and less convincing — work than delving into the musical sources of a steamy, joyful, innovative, but (aside from “this is how we do it down in Puerto Rico”) minimally political song. Otherwise critics become more automated algorithms than geographically grounded humans with their ears and brains and hearts all imperfectly pumping blood. We definitely should talk about the social politics, but not like a Spotify playlist called something like “Woke or Unwoke?” Yes, be part of the resistance, but recognize that art’s always been extra. It feeds the part of people that survives by believing something more is constantly happening than what verifiably “happens.”
I hear that when I listen to SZA, for instance, and worry what’s at risk when media reduce her to an event or a spokesperson. She’s among the many young emerging artists whose work feels deliberately first-person and closely held, compared to the panopticon-positive divas of the wave before (witness Katy Perry’s Witness, if you dare). This might be an intuitive way of warding off the narrative barrage, from a generation that’s grown up with the pressures of online self-fashioning and mutual surveillance.
There was also plenty of terrific critical work in 2017. For one, NPR’s “Turning the Tables” project went very right this summer by aggressively trashing the narrative generated by decades of greatest-albums-ever lists (including much of P&J’s history) and envisioning an alternative, woman-centric canon that kept people talking, listening, and objecting for months. It was progressive, and networked-society aware, but it also felt like actual human conversation.
I can’t say quite the same about the spate of clever think pieces that came out a couple of weeks back in relation to a one-minute Man of the Woods trailer from Justin Timberlake, in which the snatches of songs weren’t nearly as loud as the plaid flannel. The two tracks that have been released since are hardly the country-roads Caucasian retrenchment pundits predicted. They’re more of the off-the-rack, funky-white-boy, pleather costuming Pharrell and Timberlake’s collaborations are known for. But let’s wait to hear if it also has a “Getaway Car” or a “Dress” before deciding. And indulge in a few more Slowdive-like, music-for-music’s-sake guiltless pleasures too. That is, if I dare to imagine that overnight deadlines, the race to publish first, and the economy of “likes” (for media workers, Black Mirror’s “Nosedive” episode was a documentary) will allow it.