30 Sept 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.

23 Sept 2015

The Singular Brilliance of Glee

It's been a busy few months, I've moved to Germany and not had much time to finish new blogbook chapters. Things are calming down now though, and I hope to write more regularly in the coming weeks.

However, I did recently collaborate with Georgia Mulligan on a listicle about the television series Glee, which you can find over at her blog: The Idiot Box. Through the format of a deeply subjective ranking of all the characters from worst to best, we try to make sense of this hugely influential show, its successes and its many failings.

I was a big fan of Glee when it started, and continued to find the show fascinating as it progressed through its six seasons, mainly because it deals quite uniquely with the way in which people use real pop music in their lives. As the only musical show to make use of extant songs, which fully exist  within the diegesis of the characters, it presents a listener-focused understanding of how music works, what it can do and what it means. The American pop repertoire is presented not only as an instruction manual for life and love, but as a set of tools and costumes through which action can be taken. The artists referenced in the show — not only their media personas but their song-specific vocal personas — are treated as a pantheon of gods and heroes, whose fables are editable and whose identities are open-source.