In defence of ‘difficult’ music
The ‘poptimist’ trend has been a thing to behold among music critics over the past five or ten years. Those who once strode the music world like colossi, sneering at the plebian tastes of those who would consider anything by Mandy Moore to be of merit, suddenly found themselves extolling the virtues of the Black Eyed Peas’ megahit ‘Boom Boom Pow’ as a masterpiece of “nonsense pop”, on a par with ‘Tutti Frutti’ from sixty-odd years ago.
Music critics have long considered themselves to be the arbiters of ‘taste’, the gatekeepers to what should and should not be entered into the pantheon of ‘good’ music (I should know, having spent some time as a budding, fairly incompetent one in days of yore). During a period where their job is increasingly irrelevant, the need to attract eyeballs grows ever more pressing.
There once was a time when buying music involved significant financial and emotional investment. Buying whole albums was, in terms of cost per song, offered by far the best bang for one’s buck. However, with Rage and FM radio the only sources of hearing new music, most consumers only heard one or two songs from a potential album purchase. Thus the critic served a vital purpose – listening to the album in its entirety, and reporting back to the curious listener whether it was worth the cost, and explaining why (often in wonderfully witty prose).
It barely needs mentioning just how redundant music criticism such as that is today. Bands at all levels of prominence and calibre may now simply foist their work onto one or many websites, provide samples via iTunes, or sacrifice any possibility of income by offering their work to Spotify. But there is a cohort of music writers out there who justifiably enjoy their job, and in an effort to justify their paycheque, have reverted to the mean: pageviews.
Which brings us back to the poptimist movement. Why, suddenly, have those who considered Can’s Tago Mago to be the bastion of good taste (disclaimer: I still do), begun telling us that ‘Call Me Maybe’ is so good? Granted, they do not spend time forwarding the theory that it’s the new ‘A Day In The Life’, but what was once unmentionably bad, gradually shifted to “guilty pleasure”, then to “genuinely well-crafted pop song”.
The reasons appear to be twofold. First; the aforementioned pageviews. As music criticism becomes increasingly redundant, the shock value of a headline ‘Boom Boom Pow is song of 2009!’ is irresistible clickbait for the high minded looking for an outrage fix.
The second is, perhaps, more existential. In his seminal essay on music criticism, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson searingly picks apart the potential motivations behind what drives tastemakers’ determinations of ‘quality’. The most persuasive of those was quasi-evolutionary; that, like the need to appear faster or stronger or sexier, the need to appear more intelligent or better-informed revolves around questions of taste. Is the world totally getting into Bon Jovi and Warrant? Get on the Nirvana bandwagon pre-Nevermind, before subtly implying in future conversations that you had. Ensure you’re on board with Dylan “going electric”. No doubt Stravinsky experienced a similar tastemaker backlash/reverence cycle when ‘The Rite of Spring’ was unveiled in 1913.
But it was inevitable that in an era when Sigur Ros’ otherworldly soundscapes are considered very nearly passe that there needed to be a new means of culturally differentiating. In this case, it is the embrace of pop megahits, such as ‘Call Me Maybe’, Bieber’s ‘Baby’ or everything the Black Eyed Peas have done since 2003.
Which brings me to the Dirty Projectors’ new album Swing Lo Magellan. The title and band name alone give a fair indication that this is not a group interested in appealing to Nebraskan tweens.
This is a band, mind, who came to prominence with their 2007 album Rise Above, an attempt to recreate Black Flag’s Damages, from memory, having not heard it for 15 years. Their previous, wondrous, Bitte Orca (again, title offers significance) featured such things as ‘vocal hocketing’ and was challengingly syncopated at every turn. They are, needless to say, a ‘difficult’ band.
At their essence, Dirty Projectors are an old-fashioned RnB group, steeped in the rhythmic traditions of purveyors from Ray Charles to R. Kelly. The two full-throated songtresses Amber Coffman and Hayley Dekle are forcefully melismatic, taking cues from Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. But in this instance, the downbeat is hard to pick out of a lineup, melodies swirl, appear, then morph unrecognisably in the course of a single stanza. Frontman Dave Longstreath’s guitar lines are irregular, arrhythmic and peculiar. It takes time to love this band.
And this is where the poptimist argument falls down for me. There is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ about pop music. There are certainly examples of megahit pop songs that are genuinely thrilling and interesting. And, granted, ‘Call Me Maybe’ is a weapons-grade earworm. But being immediately engaging and semi-permanently lodged in the frontal cortex does not a good song make.
Swing Lo Magellan is a tease. A seductress, gradually revealing itself to you, listen after listen. Melodies and hooks do not simply make themselves available to you; you must want them. And the thrill and satisfaction of finding them is thus made all the greater. The multi-part harmonies on ‘About to Die’ and ‘ Gun Has No Trigger’ (and, hell, half the album) are not conventional, and are occasionally confronting on first listen.Longstreath’s cascading guitar on ‘Just from Chervon’ likewise sounds nearly atonal on first listen, but gradually, as your brainwaves align with his, the song coalesces into reason, and beauty. ‘See What She Is Seeing’ feels alien, the rhythm section feeling almost as if it was in a separate room without headsets, until the horns kick in, bringing all into lovely cohesion.
So, if you REALLY want to spend time listening to Carly Rae Jepsen, good for you. But please resist the temptation to lambast those who still enjoy ‘difficult’ music as ‘pretentious’ or ‘snobs’. Perhaps they just find that music repetitive and boring. Just as you may, inexplicably, find Dirty Projectors.