To the End
by Jeff Johnson
illustration by Scott Cocking
Fandom is a pursuit, in the literal sense of following someone. Writing about music is an extension of fandom. I’m not talking primarily about criticism, and to the extent that I am, I’m sure to alienate myself from those who insist that if one writes as a fan, s/he is a zinester and not a critic. On the other hand, many (and probably most) of my friends who are music fanatics say they’re tired of reading about music. When we were developing Kitchen Sink, we sent a survey to friends and associates, and one of the questions was “What are you sick of reading about in magazines?” Guess what 90 per cent of my friends said?
Why are even music fanatics disenchanted with music writing? My theory is that music criticism has become indistinguishable from marketing. Writers and editors who receive promos from labels and PR firms are expected to review them. Successful writers review enough of them, in a way that is useful to labels and PR reps, that they continue to receive advance copies. Either that, or they write for high-circulation publications, which keeps the promos coming, because even a few well-placed write-ups make mailings worthwhile to publicity people.
This writing-for-promos cycle makes for glad-handing, mass-produced, boring-as-hell music writing. Where’s the scope and ambition in capsule reviews? How does this type of writing distinguish itself from what’s found in a catalogue? It’s not just a matter of critical decadence; music writing has fallen away from the way we talk about music. Or, worse, when we talk about music, we do so in the language of reviews.
How many of you wrote a top 10 list of albums for 2002 and emailed it to your friends? How many of you self-consciously noted that your list was in no particular order, or called it your favorite albums of the year, rather than the best of the year? These are signs of resistance to the commodification of taste represented by the list. Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity, might have you believe that listing is one of the primary outward signs of the music fanatic. I think it’s as much a sign of how marketing has influenced our fandom. It’s not such a surprise, since the fanatic’s conundrum boils down to whether or not to share his or her favorites and, in effect, recruit other listeners. And as we’ve seen with the whole brouhaha over filesharing, the music industry’s main concern is to make sure listeners are customers. If we think of ourselves that way, well, we’re buying what they’re selling. As Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, who’s had plenty of time to think about selling out, once sang, “Songs mean a lot/when songs are bought/and so are you.”
Fandom is a pursuit. We follow the people who sing most sweetly to us (or talk dirty to us, the way we like it) over the years. Music fans know about the side projects, solo ventures, past glories and juvenilia of their favorite musicians. I snap up Gary Young’s Hospital albums when I find them, because in them I hear a part of Pavement that disappeared when he left the band. For a similar reason, I am enchanted by the most honestly, appropriately titled album I can think of at the moment, Lost Planets & Phantom Voices, the latest from Tobin Sprout, formerly of Guided By Voices.
My favorite musicians seem to approach their music as though they are reading and rewriting the records they’ve listened to all their lives. I’ve had Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks’ Pig Lib on heavy rotation since a friend who didn’t like it was kind enough to pass along his promo copy. I’ve poured my attention over it, listened in every state I can muster, and tried to follow its leads and arrows. Like a Pavement record, it plays with the music that made its generation possible. SM isn’t the restless songwriter he once was. Perhaps what Pavement made was a shifting pastiche of rock, and SM’s solo work is more of an homage. Much is being made of the ornate, classic-rock guitar amblings on display in Pig Lib. Those who called late Pavement the new Grateful Dead are as dismissive as ever, but plenty of fans are scratching their heads over the fractured crown of indie rock ‘s fidelity to the old sounds. Why so proggy? For the same reason he made a burnout’s vacation album (Stephen Malkmus), a fragmented stoner epic (Wowee Zowee), a child-of-the-Fall debut (Slanted & Enchanted), etc. He’s replicating his record collection and retelling the stories he’s found there. Now he’s in his dotage, and his guitar speaks for him.
The last time I wrote a column for KS, I mentioned Pavement and GBV. Are you tired of hearing about them? I’m not through listening to them, and I still have things to say about them, because I’m a fanatic, and I’ve been chasing them for years, and I keep catching them and letting them go when they disappoint or bore me, and then they grab my attention again. Sure, I’ve spent a lot of money on these bands. I ran into Malkmus at a bar in New Orleans and tried to buy him a beer. I cheered for Robert Pollard from the front of the crowd in S.F., and he finally passed me a beer from his stash. The point is, what’s really important to me is that I get something out of the strange little one-way relationship I have with my favorite musicians. I consume their music in a way that cannot be summarized by the countless merchandise receipts and ticket stubs, or the top 10 lists I’ve put them on so many times. The music I love has become a part of me, like writing is a part of me. When I write about music, I don’t do it for promotional purposes. It’s a pursuit. I’m looking for the song that will save me. I’m looking for the words that will make me.
Jeff Johnson is the Louder Than Words editor. He is also senior editor of Kitchen Sink. He sings and plays bass in century schoolbook, and lives with the monster.