Monday, May 25, 2009

Everybody's Got One

(Above: three people worse than Hitler)

Opinions, man.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the inevitable backlash to the rise in popularity of bands who could be tagged with the lo-fi label. I reasoned that a band like Tyvek would become victims of circumstance and wind up getting a fistful of snarky derision from ill-informed, self-appointed cultural gatekeepers when the band released their first full-length. Tyvek actually quietly released their debut album a couple of weeks ago on Siltbreeze. With the limited budget of a label that small, the album (which is quite good, by the way) has gone pretty much ignored by most of the major music blogs, who generally derive their content almost entirely from whatever publicists are sending them.

It may well be Tyvek's good fortune to avoid any kind of scrutiny right now as the backlash is happening in a major way. The band that's getting the worst of it: Vivian Girls.

Take a look at the comments section in this Stereogum post for the band's new video for evidence. Admittedly, the song isn't their strongest but it's certainly not radically different or patently inferior to their material that was being hyped to the heavens only a few short months ago. Some of the very same forums that aided in Vivian Girls' ascent are now bored with them and seem to wish the band would just go away so they can move on to covering the next flavor of the month. I suppose that's what happens when your opinion goes whichever way the wind is blowing. Trendiness is a fickle mistress. In any case, there seem to be three lines of reasoning as to why Vivian Girls are not worth your time. Please allow me to attack a straw man for a moment:

1. They can't play
First of all, anyone who complains about bands like Vivian Girls' lack of musical ability should be forced to listen to nothing but Steve Vai and Rush for the rest of their lives since technical prowess is so important to them. Joe Satriani has a new band with Sammy Hagar. That should be right up your alley.

One of the most appealing things about rock music for me is that it's democratic by nature. Any one can do it. Most of the Velvet Underground's songs are fairly simple and easy to emulate. This was so inspiring and influential that it changed culture forever. One of the most important (though often overlooked) aspects of the original punk movement was its access. "It was easy. It was cheap. Go and do it" as the Desperate Bicycles sang. This do-it-yourself aesthetic got a lot of creative people making rock n roll regardless of commercial considerations or myopic definitions of "ability." Thirty-plus years later, this remains punk's gift to the world. I'm not implying that everyone who started a band using this approach had something of value to offer nor that inspired amateurism is inherently superior to technical skill. However, when one fails to recognize that brilliant music can (and often does) come from players who are less than virtuosos makes me wonder why they're into indie music in the first place.

2. No one would care about them if they weren't cute young women
This is to say that people only really care about Vivian Girls due to their gender and physical attractiveness and not their music. This is often followed by an insult regarding the relative homeliness of their drummer, which is not only cruel and unnecessary but also serves to show that the speaker is just as superficial as those he is accusing. Way to try and have it both ways, asshole.

There are certainly those more qualified than I to discuss gender issues in popular music. However, it should be evident that treating women playing rock music as some kind of novelty in 2009 is fairly despicable. It is perhaps a bit of a Utopian ideal that listeners would see no distinction between male and female led bands. There has always been and possibly always will be the kind of fan who fetishizes the female voice. And there are also those whose libido turns their ears tin, projecting their lust for the performer into the music. However, theorizing that the only possible reason one could like an band led by women is because of the above demonstrates casual sexism at best and bullying misogyny at worst.

3. What's the big deal about them anyway?
Usually, this argument goes something like "Why are these guys so popular when band X is much better?" You would think people ostensibly into underground or independent music would understand there's no real correlation between popularity and quality. Less than stellar bands get buzz all the time. Are you the type so committed to fully absorbing every flavor of the month hyped up by the blogosphere that it would truly bother you if one of these bands is not to your liking? That just shows you don't have much in the way of a personal aesthetic regarding music or "taste," if you prefer. Hence, your opinion is pretty much irrelevant and you should probably keep your mouth shut.

I don't begrudge anyone for disliking Vivian Girls. Taste is subjective and individual, after all. However, you're going to publicly trash them (or any other band) try to come up with some kind of legitimate reason. For all the criticism that can be found on the web's various forums, actual critical thinking is in short supply. This is true not only for the negative but the positive as well. Things move so fast nowadays that there seem to be two or three new bands every week getting major digital ink but it's a rarity that anyone actually explains why these acts are worth your time. All too often, it's just the band's name, an MP3 and a few sentences cribbed from the publicist's bio, like so much spaghetti flung at the wall. I know that trying to describe music with words is challenging but as Woody Allen said, it's important to make a little effort once in a while.

Preemptive postscript: Yes, I'm aware that I'm lamenting the low critical and journalistic standards of internet scribes on a blog, their chosen medium. I'm also aware that for my argument to be valid I would have to consider my blog and my opinions to be superior to others, but you know... I kind of do.


joe said...

i like where youre going with this. but i think it's bigger than blogs. look at a band like the Crocodiles. they were anointed the 'band to watch' by Stereogum, than inevitably derided by Pitchfork, but even The New York Times weighed in, writing a review which acknowledged the whole internet kerfuffle.

I guess my point here is that we're all a victim of this new medium, even if we exist outside the bubbble. record stores are gone (mostly) and blogs and such just happen to be the new places where people gather to talk about music. obviously this is new and extremely flawed. hopefully a more efficient system will emerge

PB said...

I just read that NY Times article:

I suppose the point is that with all the coverage on the web (and, yes, it extends beyond the blogs) so much of the writing at criticism just seems completely arbitrary. Of course PF is going to give the Crocodiles a bad review. They've got to assert their authority/cushion themselves for the backlash. These opinions have so little to do with the music it's sickening.

Of course, I've yet to hear the Crocodiles myself. This is because I first heard about them via the PR blogs and through the "legitimate" channels I use to find music. That's my own arbitrary bias, I suppose.

dola said...

I'm not a big fan of the VG because I think that at this point all of their songs kinda bleed together for me. I've seen them twice live opening for other bands and I haven't gotten a lyric or melody from them stuck in my head at all. That single "Tell the World" (had to look it up) is fine enough. They're so young though. Maybe by the time their music develops into something genuinely interesting, people will still care.

This talk about hype and trend speculation makes me think that Real Estate is an apropos name for a (very good!) band.

BTW Paul your teenage years just committed seppuku:

That fucking lastnightsparty aesthetic can destroy even the loveliest flower.

Ben said...

we've spoken about this before Paul. So I'm sure we can agree to disagree. I still would say that:

A), you cannot argue that the sex or sexiness of a band doesn't play a part in the level or kind of attention they get. Same is true of race, and other superficial-yet-defining attribute. I have never (seriously) made the argument that the ONLY reason they're liked is because some members are attractive, but whether we're talking about garage rock or American Idol, it plays a role. On top of that, I think you have to be careful--rock is still very much peopled by the male sex. Does that mean an all-girl band should blow your fucking mind? Of course not, and it's irresponsible to suggest as much--which I hope to be your main point here. But I'm not sure that means it's completely fair to be angry when someone views and all-girl band as something exciting about they are females, either. There's a lot of gray area in here, is what I'm saying. You're right to take aim at those who make simple, dumb arguments, but to to make any suggestions of the opposite end of the spectrum is tricky ground too.

B) I assume this statement "anyone who complains about bands like Vivian Girls' lack of musical ability should be forced to listen to nothing but Steve Vai and Rush for the rest of their lives" is made in part for shock value. Because that's something that bothers me about them, and it doesn't bother me about plenty of other rock bands playing the "democratic" music of rock and roll, as you call it. I like music that's simple, sure, but that doesn't mean you can't respect technical ability or dock a band points for lacking it--just like you can dock a band points for having technical ability and lacking restraint.

PB said...

My decidedly late response to Ben:

Yes, physical attractiveness can garner attention, in pretty much any medium. And yes, it probably aided in the attention the Vivian Girls received. That doesn't mean it's not completely superficial and generally beside the point. I would hope those covering the independent sector would be above that kind of showbiz shit. The fact that they've shown they're not is disheartening.

On the issue of gender, I agree that it's more complex than the way I dissected it above. Women in rock (there's a phrase I hoped to never type) are a minority, which I suppose makes any band consisting entirely of women to be somewhat noteworthy. I'm sure Greil Marcus got a lot of millage out of the sociological context of Sleater-Kinney. However, can we agree that it's still ultimately irrelevant when discussing the quality of the music? The sex of the Runaways didn't make them any better or worse than Slade.

As far as ability is concerned, I feel the chops of Vivian Girls are more than adequate for the music they're creating. I know that sounds like I'm damning them with faint praise but I'm really not. I like their songs and they have the skill to convey those songs to listener. They're hitting the notes they want to hit. You can argue those notes have no appeal to you but you can't claim incompetence.

Paul Bruno said...

hello Paul Bruno,

I typed my name on google and found your blog.
Looks very interesting.
I'm listening to your latest, short, podcast's last song now.
Could be longer to my taste.

It's an interesting discussion about what it should be all about:
Presentation or Contents,
Nice looking girls or quality music.

In my opinion the one always goes at cost of the other and visa versa.

Both matter.

It depends on what you are looking for.

Also the democratic aspect of the new media is noteworthy.

The effect of true democracy seems obvious:

You feel depressed about the lack of quality around and still get your first impression through the regular Old World Media to know what's hot or not.
Then you discuss it on your blog and complain about the lack of attention to your opinion.

I only found out about your opinion because I typed my own name in Google!

So how to improve this blogsphere?

Streamlining the search engines somehow, but the problem is it is all done with words.
But my interests cannot be expressed only in words, and also the same word can mean so many different things to so many people.

For instance if I would google the word LOVE (never did it yet, will do a.s.a.p.) I doubt if I would find any.

What could work better maybe is to put together all the tags attached to the articles people write on their blog and compare the lot with the sum total of someone else's entry's to connect blogs that have many of the same tags...

The reason I typed my name on google was exactly that I wondered who else but me ever wrote anything about me.

You are my mirror and show me my blind spot.

I realize all I am telling you is only about me, so don't take any of it personally.

(I just erased this message and then pushed the 'undo' button, because I thought that the way you show me my blind spot, I might show you yours.)

If any of this resonates, check my blog at:

Your podcast just started it's third loop and I am still enjoying it!

boy said...

Another excellent piece by the Mayor of Staten Island! Reading you is just like talking with you, except without the bar and the beers...

I think there are ladies in our band, but I'm not sure. We have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to sexuality. We're that egalitarian.

PB said...

Boy- the bar and (especially) the beers make my opinions infinitely more tolerable. They also make me much more charming and attractive.

I heard a rumor you're changing the name of your band to Boy Genius featuring Girls (with boobs). You've got to use those lady parts to the best commercial advantage.

boy said...

As per our "don't ask, don't tell" policy, I wasn't aware we had females in our group. The only name change option would be genderless genius.

Paul Bruno said...