Monday, May 25, 2009
Everybody's Got One
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.