nitsuh-abebe

One of the more subtle casualties of rockism is the ability to articulate what’s actually good about a piece of rock music. So when a few exciting new rock bands come around the corner, like they did 10 years ago, they’re immediately bathed in clichés: This is what rock'n'roll is all about! Now that’s real rock'n'roll attitude! Rock is back! These guys are its saviors! And so on until the end of time. You could spend 24 hours straight reading praise for the White Stripes without ever coming across much talk about what made them valuable– just appeals to the existence of rock itself. The idea is always that rock is self-evidently good and true, in ways we all understand and value highly and would probably be a little bit embarrassed to try and explain to one another (explaining rock'n'roll is totally not rock'n'roll, right?), and so all that is really needed is to identify it: Here it is, firing on all cylinders, valiantly trouncing everything in its path. The weirdest aspect of this muteness was that you’d consistently see rock bands praised in the negative: At least they’re not Britney Spears (who, recall the tragedy, isn’t a composer), at least they’re not dance music, at least they’re not hip-hop, at least they’re not pop. But, you know… what are they, specifically?
—  It’s an interesting phenomenon that a genre which literally did not exist 60 years ago somehow became the defacto standard against which all other music will be measured.  Authenticity, musicianship, originality, dynamism, vitality…how is it that rock is the only champion of these qualities?  What strikes me though is that “rockism” is really just a nonsense term for the rigidity of an older generation which allows the rest of us to feel superior in our myriad of taste and sophistication.
Birth rates in America were sagging low in the mid-70s… in raw numbers, they sunk down near three million newborns a year. They were cresting relatively high around 1990, with raw numbers topping four million a year. You don’t exactly have to be a sociologist to notice that the sheer size of this age cohort makes its members’ lives, and their relationship with pop culture, a little different from others’. People born during a dip in the birth rate grow up consuming a lot of culture that’s aimed at someone older than them. People born during a boom do not do cultural apprenticeship, because everything is quickly aimed at them; they watch the things that appeal to their age group bloom and succeed, whether anyone else is interested in it or not. This is why some Americans have spent decades clutching their heads as the Baby Boom generation makes big chunks of our world revolve around itself: Large cohorts have a large gravitational pull.
—  Nitsuh Abebe wrote this great column about someone who called My Chemical Romance my generation’s Nirvana, our boom of MySpace bands, and how Skrillex is a weird outgrowth of that. 
[…] Violator just stands as a moving, solid, record, a classic for the archives of popular music; it doesn’t so much carry a lot of the things that made Depeche Mode feel so much themselves. With 1987’s Music for the Masses, that stuff is all there– which makes the music both harder to ‘get’, from today’s perspective, and also more interesting. The Depeche Mode of this album is the one that brought together a rabid audience of trendy coastal kids and middle-American teens who got beat up over stuff like this– all of whom saw them not only as the peak of style, but as something positively revelatory, something speaking only to them (even in a crowded stadium), something alien and cool, disorientingly kinky, and entrancingly strange. For many, this was probably one of the first dance-pop acts they’d heard that didn’t seem to be entirely about being cool and having a good time; their music had been dark, clattery, and full of S&M hints and blasphemy, and on this record it reached a level of Baroque pseudo-classical grandness (see depressed-teenager shout-out 'Little Fifteen’) that lived up to those kids’ inflated visions of the group.
—  Nitsuh Abebe on Depeche Mode’s Music for the Masses (published on Pitchfork, 2006)

Young Americans, music lovers, art aficionados. There’s an interesting habit that runs through these groups: People love transgression. People love rule-breaking, nose-thumbing, and non-fuck-giving. We find them exciting. We’d prefer not to get too wrapped up in which rules are being broken, or who’s having noses thumbed in their direction– it’s the act itself we love so much. Trangression for its own sake! It’s “rock'n'roll”; it’s “punk”; it’s “art.” It’s coded into our whole conception of rebellious young people and pop music, and into our Romantic concept of the artist, and probably into the American character itself. Sometimes you’ll hear people suggest rules in its favor: “Any art that’s pissing people off must be doing its job.” “The purpose of art is to offend our sensibilities.”

Often this translates into something slightly different: “Any art that’s pissing other people off must be doing its job.” “The purpose of art is to offend the sensibilities of people I already hold in contempt.”

—  From Why We Fight #14 by Nitsuh Abebe: http://pitchfork.com/features/columns/7977-why-we-fight-14/
It’s funny, though: Most music lovers carry around some shred of a very powerful myth that says the opposite, that pleasant music can never really be where the meaningful ideas are. Nobody says that outright, of course, but we’ve all been just a little bit indoctrinated on the point that “nice” music is old news. It is, allegedly, the sound of complacency, boredom, and undeserved comfort. Niceness is for wimps and sell-outs, a bland little house in a repressed little suburb; everyone knows the real power of music is built from aggression and loud noises in dirty basements, transgression and energy and screams.
—  This article references a few of my favorite bands (The Mountain Goats, Why?). If you like niceness (like me) stay tuned for my upcoming piece on the year in indie pop. 
Rock and Resentment

In Nitsuh Abebe’s most recent Pitchfork entry “Embarrassment Rock,” he embarks on a backhanded apology for the rock fanatic’s point of view.  He sardonically characterizes the rockist as a lonely purist, doomed to be one of “the select few who could spot real talent while everyone else was fooled by mediocrity and fraud."  No doubt, I read through the first half of this article with a bit of a twinkle in my eye.  Some of my best friends are rockists, and there was certainly a time or two when I was guilty of dishing out the same abject, if blind, praise or condemnation Abebe mentions.  I’ve played many a guitar solo in my day, and know for sure that I can stand up straight with my feet spread out far beyond the width of my shoulders: rock pose.  Those days aren’t too far behind me, and will probably never be all that small in the rearview.  However, at the same time Mr. Abebe’s description of rockism is spot on, it’s possible his suggestion that corruption of language by rockism is to blame for dysfunction in modern musical debate may be somewhat misdirected.  The attempt to find a more total vocabulary with which to approach conversation of rock music can simply be rolled up into the question of how we develop a vocabulary useful to the discussion of all sorts of music at once.  One way we can accomplish this is by endearing ourselves only flexibly to our own vernacular, since in the end the debate over music is wonderfully individualistic. 

Keep reading

Watch the Throne: Uneasy Heads Wear Gaudy Crowns - Nitsuh Abebe
http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2011/08/watch_the_throne_review.html
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“It could be so much better, more pointed, more coherent, more in the spirit of living up to the giant topic it winds up revolving around. But this is the thing about documents of a moment; you don’t really get to choose them that way. It’s remarkably strange: Right now, this is just a reasonably good album, but it’s my honest suspicion that 50 years from now, it’ll make for a much more fascinating time capsule — a strange crystallized moment in the story of new black wealth and power and questions of assimilation in a Post-Civil-Rights America.”




Here’s the question I’d like to put forth: Shouldn’t it be more possible — maybe even more common — for essays about music to be able to neutrally describe what “sources say,” or sources do, or sources listen to, without out trying to read behind that into what the author’s own tastes are? Amazingly enough, this isn’t something I’m suggesting out of defensiveness: I just think it’s incredibly important. There needs to be room for music writing that’s not just about the author performing taste and making value judgments. So much of the life of music — the ways we hear it, the things we want from it, and so on — exist in a huge, complicated context, and someone needs to describe that context. This is one of the things I’d hoped to be able to do at a magazine like New York: Explain to a general audience what’s going on among music listeners, and what the landscape is of their tastes, trends, knee-jerks, and politics of sound. I haven’t yet figured out how to actually do that, obviously — there’s a strong possibility it’s just not something I personally am bright enough to accomplish — but I have some gut belief that it’s a thing worth doing.
—  Nitsuh. Agree. Felt generally good about his piece and kind of ignored the controversy around it. 

I sorta feel like ‘excoriating’ pieces often suffer from the same problems of glib skimming, ungenerous interpretation, and easy superiority. Often it makes them a lot less excoriating than they want to be: They become little rallies for people who already agree with you, people who read words on the internet in order to be told what they already know. To me, it’s a hell of a lot more damning to look at something you object to, worm into its heart, bring all your generosity to bear on it, and demonstrate that it’s still shitty. Not 'it’s my opinion that this is shitty’ — who cares about my opinion? — but rather 'if you come with me and look hard at this thing, you will see for yourself what is shitty about it, without needing me to tell you.’ One advantage I like to imagine this has is the potential to sway a person or two who hasn’t been convinced by just being told they’re wrong.”

YES.

“I should probably ease off showing-not-telling and be explicit more often.”

NO.