In one of the most provocative pieces of music writing we've read this year, Jess Harvell wonders whether it isn't time to get a little stingier with the hosannas. His thoughts, which are passionately stated and rather more nuanced than one's accustomed to finding in online music-crit, give us pause here.
After all. Last Plane to Jakarta was founded, as a print 'zine, in 1999 (I think; it was a long time ago). I decided at the very beginning to only write about music I liked, and I carried that into my assignments for other press outlets. I've often described that decision as the result of reasoning, but it would be fairer to call it a reaction. The 'zine culture of the Indie! Rock! Explosion! had its roots in the earlier indie community of the eighties - guys listening to stuff on Homestead and Rough Trade and Touch and Go and Dischord and sometimes even SST and a hundred other labels who, while not averse to selling records, had broader pretensions: of importance, and all that. These pretensions were both hilarious and vital, as what's funnier than a guy who thinks what he's doing really matters, right, but at the same time: Minor Threat. Big Black. Sonic Youth. The Smiths. Guys who were into this stuff weren't afraid to snarl (or in the case of Smiths fans, to raise a disapproving eyebrow) at music they thought counterproductive, or lazy, or just plain shitty. They did not suffer fools gladly, though they certainly did suffer.
People tend to get infatuated with the sound of their own snarling, though. Young writers, especially, tend to feel like they're doing their best work when they're burning something down. By the middle of the nineties, it wasn't uncommon to run across a higher-profile 'zine editor ladling out seven hundred words & half a page in damnation of some band from east Kansas who'd put out their own 7" and blindly sent a hundred copies out to 'zines they'd read about in Fact Sheet Five. Whole pages of self-satisfied, pointless bile, much of it every bit as self-celebratory as bloggers who big-up bands that don't really deserve so much big-upping quite yet: the point then, as now, was to establish tastemaker status. To register credential. To belong.
Harvell's point is a good one: the hunger for something that feels good and exciting and important seems to have progressed to a point of insatiability, and the needling urge to be the guy saying "This band is gonna be huge!" seems more pronounced, in our climate, than the quieter desire to be the guy saying, later, "I told you the Birthday Party looked like they might be interesting." This relates directly and powerfully, I think, to the state of mainstream celebrity culture; indie culture remains, for better or worse, more reflective of the mainstream than it likes to think.
But I'm not ready to throw the positive baby out with the overhyped bathwater. I think the reaction against the Beavis-with-a-B.A. tendencies of eighties indie cats was reasonable, and that while it'd be nice to read better, more interesting criticism that didn't reach for superlatives at the first sign of vitality, the likely alternative is only a mirror of that: people making specious comparisons just for the sake of damning by association, or decontextualizing lyrics to be held up for ridicule without having the courage to say what about them is actually bad. We have seen a lot of that before, and it was a drag. It's true that much indie blogging reads like Tiger Beat magazine for the Goodwill set. I'll still take that over the alternative, because I remember the alternative. But I will throw my hat in with any call for aiming higher.
The ideal would be criticism that aspired neither to praise nor to damn, but to understand and elucidate; the ideal would involve not wanting to help or hinder the object of one's scrutiny, but to fairly describe it. That would be real progress toward something rigorous and difficult and exciting, and...well: does that sound like something our culture, macro or micro, is really equipped to do at this point in our history?
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