30 Sep 2015

Words Fail Carly Rae Jepsen

I don’t read conventional music journalism/album reviews so much any more, because they increasingly drive me to despair. More and more, I perceive the insufficiency of writing when it comes to dealing with pop music. Music writing is its own genre, of course, and it can be very powerful, but it is also guilty of producing a whole load of bizarre value categories and interpretative frameworks in its desperate attempt to differentiate, define and assess musical phenomena. Most of all, I really believe that most of the dominant music review ‘narratives’ — i.e., the ways in which a review is given its own ‘literary’ structure — have very little if anything to do with how people actually listen to music.

Two recent and extensively discussed albums — Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION and Ryan Adams’s 1989 — provide perfect examples of this. I have to thank my friend Georgia (@gmllgn) for alerting me to the controversies surrounding both of them; her arguments were the motivation for this post. While both album releases were their own events, reading the resulting critical reactions alongside each other proves fascinating. The Ryan Adams album is a song-for-song cover album of Taylor Swift’s 1989, with each song reworked/reinterpreted in Adams’s own style. This provided some (but thankfully not all) reviewers with the opportunity to rehearse their most unreconstructed rockist arguments, about Adams finding the depth and the complexity in Swift’s superficial music, etc. etc. This is a line of argument that is quite unambiguously sexist, in 1) its arbitrary attribution of certain values (depth, complexity) to some sonic characteristics and not others, and 2) its privileging of these (usually ‘masculine’/rock) values over others (usually ‘feminine’/pop). For a round-up of such critical reactions and analysis of their problematic aspects, Anna Leszkiewicz’s article ‘Ryan Adams’s 1989 and the mansplaining of Taylor Swift’, in The New Statesman, says it all.

Adams’s project, like any white indie guy’s appropriation and ‘authentication’ of a female pop artist’s music to make it palatable for his own earnest white male audience, was quite straightforwardly sexist, even before the critics weighed in. The case of E•MO•TION is far more complicated. It is, of course, an incredible album, with brilliant pop song after brilliant pop song, no filler. It is even better than 1989 (the original). And yet it has proven near impossible for some critics to write about. I am mainly talking here about the review by Alexis Petridis in The Guardian (that Georgia discusses, below) and the eerily similar review by Corban Goble in Pitchfork.
Both reviews dedicate a good two paragraphs to listing the various co-writers and collaborators, presumably stressed in the press release, before lavishing backhanded praise on the album as a kind of successful business venture (a risky investment in the Carly Rae Jepsen brand) and concluding that the fatal flaw is the palpable lack of Jepsen as a distinctive ‘presence’ on the record as a whole:
Ultimately, you can listen to Carly Rae Jepsen for days and still have no idea who she is. (Goble)
[A] single like I Really Like You is so tightly constructed that you don’t notice the weird void where the artist’s personality should be. But over the course of an album, it gradually starts to nag at you: it’s hard to see what she’s bringing to the party as a performer. (Petridis)
E•MO•TION as a whole sounds like a slab of blank space. If only Jepsen had written her name. (Goble)
The tweets above show the strangeness and perniciousness of this argument. Certainly the initial emphasis on the (male) writers and producers is an all-too-familiar critical obsession, but these writers know better than to equate songwriting/instrument playing with authenticity and thus quality, in the kind of grotesque rockism that is rife in the comments below the Guardian article. Like any good poptimists, they are open to other routes for an aspiring artist to show her worth. However, it seems that in this case, Jepsen is being given one alternative route in particular, which she fails to properly take. This is for her to ‘distill attitudes and emotions into gestures so perfect they can take on a life of their own’ (Goble), to loom large as a kind of diva deity, to ‘appear’ in every song and beyond, and incorporate the album as one exhibit within the overarching artwork which is her life: her story, her media presence, her style, her videos, her performances, her body, her love-life, her trials and tribulations, akin to the ‘total musical work’ which is Beyoncé, or Katy Perry, or Rihanna, or Miley Cyrus, or Drake. This is a new kind of paradoxical ‘authenticity’ — one that is authentically overblown, performed, artificial — that the reviews see Jepsen Inc. as trying and failing to produce.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think that the inclusion of an artist’s visual aesthetic, videos, stage shows and public persona within a holistic consideration of ‘pop music’ has been absolutely invaluable in tackling the pernicious sexist/racist rules of rock authenticity. But at the same time, it’s striking that what is really missing from these reviews — the absence that runs throughout them — is the sonic (or, dare I say it, ‘the music itself’). This is more pronounced in the Pitchfork review than the Guardian review, and in many ways it has always been a problem for mainstream music writing. Formal musicological analysis is, of course, inaccessible, but there are certain alternatives one can resort to: name-checking influences, sound-alikes, genres or styles, using metaphors or analogies from non-musical sound or other sensory domains, subjective emotional/physical reactions and associations, or even just clichés deployed as place-holders. Perhaps the music (since it already exists as a consistent, independent element) isn’t even supposed to be a presence in music writing. But if this is the case, I think it’s important to consider what mainstream music criticism is for, and whether it might be doing more damage than good.

It seems to me that these reviews have absolutely nothing to do with how this music will be listened to and valued. I certainly have barely any interest at all in who co-wrote or produced these songs, and I’m quite sure that very few fans, casual listeners or even detractors would care either. But more to the point, many people who will listen to these songs on the radio or in a club and enjoy them will not even care who performed them. Even if they have heard of Carly Rae Jepsen, and know something about her, the main way in which they will be appreciated is not as context-specific snapshots from her unique career-as-artwork, but instead as pop songs. And that is not to devalue them, because an individual pop song is just as fascinating an object of appreciation as an album, an oeuvre or an artist. The only difference is that music writers don’t know how to talk about a pop song. They can assign it to a genre/style/influence and perhaps describe the texture of this or that cross-section, and they can do a bit of lyrical analysis (although these reviewers don’t). The problem with pop is that, in a lot of cases, these aspects can be quite similar from song-to-song or artist-to-artist, and yet the people who like these songs know that this doesn’t actually make the songs the same. And this is the problem of E•MO•TION  — it’s a collection of really great pop songs, which are all different while all remaining pop songs. It is therefore hard for music writing to articulate why they could be better, or at the very least different, from other similar songs. However, I’m not sure this is because of rockist critics obsessing over ‘the music’ at the expense of the more relevant, multi-disciplinary spectacle of the contemporary pop star; I actually think the opposite is true.

Pop writing has always been, to some extent, an exercise in fan fiction. We are presented with the artist’s known history, their back catalogue and a press release, and the record in question, and we have to recreate the story: write them into the album as a protagonist. This could be on an emotional or biographical level, or in terms of the creation/production process. The concept of the 700-word album review as the archetypal music critical text, in combination with this fan fiction ideology, created modern pop criticism as a genre, with all its attendant conventions. In some ways, it is a literary genre like any other; at its most successful, it is also a musico-literary genre, which forms an ‘assemblage’ with the album being reviewed to unlock new and gratifying interpretations and experiences for the listener. However, as a literary genre — an episode in the Bildungsroman that is the career of the artist — it has a) an album-length scale, with b) a strong sense of continuity with past and future releases, as a context-specific moment in an artistic ‘life’. The hegemony of poptimism hasn’t managed to shake this, and instead, new narrative tropes have been invented to allow the album-shaped review to convincingly address single-oriented pop records (not that considering such records as ‘whole albums’ isn’t valid or interesting, it just doesn’t seem appropriate as the principle/‘official’ way in which this music is assessed). This is where the artist’s identity — her mediatised persona, face and body — come in. Unlike Ryan Adams, who controls his own artistic project (even though he didn’t even co-write the songs on 1989), Jepsen’s agency and authenticity is located in her very self, the self that we must touch, feel and taste on every track, which also must be a hyper-real, spectacular self, immediately iconic and ubiquitous, if it is to register at all.2

In my opinion, neither the old rockist nor the new poptimist review conventions really touch on the experience of actually listening to the sounds in question. More traditional ideologies of authenticity, acknowledging the ‘rawness’ or ‘directness’ of musical communication, allowed a kind of short circuiting, wherein an artist’s or band’s notable background, history, or socio-political concerns would be automatically manifested in the sounds themselves, if those sounds fitted the right ‘authenticity’ parameters. Discussions of Katy Perry’s and Rihanna’s latest release in relation to the various events that have occurred in their mediatised lives since their previous release can be fun and important exercises in collective exegesis, opening up valuable discussions about race and gender in the public sphere and charging the soundtracks of our lives with pedagogical or resistant power. Yet for many people, the value of this music is realised in spite of all this.

It is a cliché to point out the impossibility of representing music in writing, and clearly I think there can be value in the attempt, but too often (as in the case of Petridis’s E•MO•TION review) the imposition of the demands of music writing as a genre — and the ideologies of its own forms of narrativity — creates weird ‘straw women’ problems where none exist. These are nonetheless uncritically received and internalised by readers, other writers and (to an extent) artists alike.3 Indeed, the need for there to be a single, consistent artist-protagonist running through an entire album (not to mention an oeuvre) already necessitates the creation of a ‘straw man/woman/band’ who will be held up to unnecessary standards, considering the prevalence of the single pop song in contemporary listening culture (for which, I have argued extensively elsewhere, there is often a single consistent protagonist, or ‘vocal subject’). The result is reviews like Petridis’s and Goble’s takes on E•MO•TION  which effectively make all the music disappear, in an earnest attempt to salvage Jepsen as a kind of endearingly try-hard everywoman, failing to achieve diva divinity and instead paradoxically distinguishing herself as a ‘regular, really boring person’.4

This is, of course, by no means a problem with all music writing. Notwithstanding the fact that the ‘review’ criterion itself, according to which an album must be ‘objectively’ assessed by an expert for the benefit of the prospective consumer, already ruins most music criticism, the Pitchfork-style ‘literary’ album reviews are still by far the most problematic of a whole range of genres proliferating online (Pitchfork’s own blog and features are often significantly better). Many other approaches are possible, and the future of music writing must certainly begin with the demise of the ‘professional critic’ (a hideous concept).

To conclude then, the reviews by these two male critics can be instructively contrasted with the review of E•MO•TION on Drowned in Sound. A track-by-track discussion between two non-male critics (Sammy Maine and Kate Solomon), not only does this format demand an engagement with every individual song, and their differentiation, but it also puts the subjective reactions of the listeners to the forefront. The listener replaces the hypothetical album-sized artist as protagonist, and the expertise of a singular ‘knowledgeable’ voice is replaced by that of plural fan voices. The reviewers themselves reference the Guardian article, and respond to it directly, in terms of a gender divide. It is a far more appropriate, incisive and interesting format for writing about Jepsen’s fantastic record:

1 It's true that Goble potentially circumvents this criticism by quoting a statement by Jepsen's manager, claiming that their 'campaign' was to 'stop worrying about singles and focus on having a critically acclaimed album'. In this way, it is easy for him to vindicate his judgement of the album as 'the conclusion of a team determined to create an unassailable pop product'. His focus on the album as a whole is therefore understandable, but not really excusable, since cloying to the artist's stated intentions is a very unimaginative and incomplete way of assessing anything.
2 This line of thought is heavily indebted to Robin James’s Resilience and Melancholy, which is fairly prominent in my mind at the moment.
3 Thinking back, I can date the crystallisation of my own suspect teenage musical ideology, and performative shift from Capital FM to Virgin/XFM, to my first encounter with mainstream music journalism, in the form of the supremely rockist Q Magazine.
4 Similarly, over at Cokemachineglow.com, another (male) reviewer enthusiastically praises Jepsen's 'unassuming persona' and 'less-than-larger-than-life personality': 'In a year where pop stars fight for brand supremacy, sell personas, and get the most coverage from media outlets for their tweets, it’s funny that the year’s best pop album doesn’t once feature the singer talking about herself.'

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