Hey Starbucks lovers,
Thanks, Carl, for all the podcast suggestions—there are a few on there I have been meaning to dig into and, barring anyone pulling a
Beyoncé Bono Black Messiah maybe the holiday will finally grant me the serenity to follow through. I’m also glad you brought up the whole notion of podcasts as an aural respite/palate cleanser for those of us lucky enough to get to listen to music professionally. That’s the role podcasts play in my life, which is probably why I find myself gravitating toward ones that aren’t explicitly about music: My perennial faves are the Longform podcast, and—I swear I’m not just saying this—Slate’s Culture and DoubleX Gabfests. Last year, in an essay I still think about like once a week, Alexis C. Madrigal dubbed 2013 “The Year ‘The Stream’ Crested,” essentially meaning it was the moment that the abundant Everythingness of the Internet went from being a source of excitement and wonder to one of fatigue and paralyzing bouts of FOMO. To me at least, 2014 seemed like the year a lot of people recognized this and devised personal strategies for combatting that fatigue, whether that meant periodic Twitter sabbaticals, spending way too much money on vinyl, or—at its most extreme—indulging in pre-3G flip-phone chic à la Anna Wintour. (2015 trend watch: #pagerrevival.)
In the last round Ann asked about our strategies for “deep listening” in this world of digital distraction, and Jon, you’ll be pleased to know I keep it straight 2006: I still get a ton of use out of my scuffed 160-GB iPod Classic, a relic that Apple finally pulled from shelves this fall, and which is now fetching ridiculous sums on eBay. I rep for the ol’ click wheel partially because I can store about 20 times as much music on there as I can on my phone, but even more so because of its blissful ignorance of what “3G” even means. This would have sounded crazy a decade ago, to the naysayers who saw the iPod as a horseman of the digital-distraction apocalypse, but iPod-and-headphones is now my go-to set-up for immersive listening. It’s become my way of shutting out the world. I can’t receive texts, I can’t get lost in the bountiful archives of Bieber’s Instagram, I can’t Google the first dumb thing that pops into my head. When I’m out there, even Bono can’t reach me.
At its worst, 2014 felt less about the music and more about how the music reached your ears, with some of our most prominent artists fashioning themselves Silicon Valley–style “disrupters” as much as musicians. U2 hacked our smartphones, Thom Yorke evangelized actually paying for torrents (lulz), the Taylor Swift Corporation took a strategy for selling even more records and rebranded it as a stand against Spotify’s artist-compensation policy. But much like Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows, none of these distribution strategies were as paradigm-shifting as they claimed to be, because they only work for artists who were already hugely successful. It all made me feel some type of way that Ann articulated in her last post: “2014 made me feel burnt out when the din around those few big names we’ve already discussed grew too loud. I needed to walk away, make a space, contemplate something … smaller?”
Maybe as a reaction to all of this, the record that snuck its way to the top of my list, Frankie Cosmos’ Zentropy, was refreshingly miniature, clocking in around 17 minutes and barely raising its voice above a mutter. Frankie is the stage name of the witty, sardonic, and razor-sharp songwriter Greta Kline. Carl, I’d add her to your “Year of the Rookie” list, not only because Zentropy is her first “proper” album (more on that in a minute), but also because she works in that same dreamy, poetic teen-girl aesthetic that was too often culturally marginalized, maligned, or flat-out ignored until Tavi Gevinson and her crew forced boys and grown-ups to finally take notice. Kline has a way with starry-eyed melody and playfully self-deprecating lyrics (“I could be thrilling if you are willing to overlook a few things/ I am crazy, I have no idea what I’m doing”), but in a year like this one, Zentropy’s most profound charm was its distrust in any kind of profundity. I found myself returning to it 10 times more than records trying 10 times as hard to capture my attention.
Zentropy is Frankie Cosmos’ only “official” release (she’s been putting out a steady stream of self-recorded demos on Bandcamp for the last few years, some with titles as glorious as Much Ado About Fucking), but in 2014 what “official” and “release” even mean in that context got blurrier than ever. My friend Jordan Sargent wrote a great piece recently championing Drake as the mainstream vanguard of this new distribution model, essentially releasing non-album tracks to Soundcloud so regularly that he’s made “the album cycle” seem relatively old-fashioned. Of course, smaller artists do this all the time, but Drake has turned this practice into some kind of bridge between the mainstream and underground. It worked for him in 2014: Even though he didn’t put out a new record, he still had a big year thanks to non-album singles like “Trophies” and “0 to 100/The Catch Up,” as well as his
co-option of appearance on the remix of iLoveMakonnen’s beautifully #based left-field hit “Tuesday.”
Jon, I’m with you: I wish we had more time to talk that Makonnen hit and Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type,” but depending on how their 2015s play out, maybe those are conversations we can pick up next year. (Although, potentially unpopular Makonnen opinion: Probably not?) But I wanted to close out by seconding your eye-roll at sanctimonious open-eared-ness and “hybrid sensibilities” becoming the hot new musical accessory. The Internet has made taste more performative than ever, but it’s always worth keeping in mind that listening to hip-hop doesn’t make you magically exempt from internalized racism, and being a feminist means something a little more than tweeting about how much you just dropped on the Sleater-Kinney box set. There are deeper questions we need to confront within ourselves, and harder work that has to be done.
What’s more, one unfortunate side effect of blurred genre lines is that a certain form of bragging about omnivorousness has become its own kind of snobbery: “I ain’t got no type” is the new “I only like their early stuff.” It’s all well and good in theory, but it often makes for boring critical conversation—I hate when I get the feeling that a critic is championing an artist primarily to peacock his or her own progressive political beliefs and supposed open-mindedness. I’m all for a more inclusive musical landscape, and I am truly exhilarated by the very tangible steps the pop world has taken in the past few years away from racism, sexism, and homophobia. But music criticism loses out when we fail to be honest with ourselves about the simple truth of what sounds good to us and what doesn’t. It’s OK to take unpopular stances and surprise even yourself. It’s OK to viscerally love music that offends your sensibilities and be bored by artists that share your political beliefs. Often, the best criticism carves a winding but navigable path through ambiguity. Follow yr arrow wherever it points.