The other day, I was having a conversation with myself on the drive home from work. As an only child, this isn’t exceptional behavior for me. But the talk was productive for the purposes of this blog, so I thought I’d outline what conclusions I came to. Suffice it to say, I have a lot of opinions about Sleigh Bells and the sophomore jinx.
It’s kind of surprising, as I like Treats quite a bit but don’t rank it as highly as music critics I respect, like Ben Sisario and Jody Rosen. All Songs Considered’s Robin Hilton recently named it his favorite album of last year to considerable derision. Though I don’t think it can hold that title in a year of heavy hitters where I couldn’t suss out a clear contender, I do relate to his sentiment that Treats made him want to punch people in the best possible way. I’ll go him one better. The record’s gleeful ballast made me imagine those punches turning into leaping kittens.
Carrie Brownstein made the point that her incredulity toward Treats stemmed from its novelty and timeliness. She wasn’t sure if the record would date itself or prompt the duo to develop their sound. I empathize with her criticisms but made peace with them some time ago because, to a degree, all buzzworthy debut albums generate these concerns. Frankly, we won’t know for a year or so what its larger impact will be. The Strokes’ inaugural release still holds up really well. The Go! Team’s Thunder, Lightning, Strike–once described in laudatory tones as Northern soul reinterpreted on Fisher Price toys–kinda sounds like Fatboy Slim. This isn’t inherently bad, but suggests that one record was influential and precipitous of what followed it and the other didn’t impact the zeitgeist in quite the same way.
I don’t bring up Fatboy Slim to burn Norman Cook. I lobbied firmly on the side of the Chemical Brothers during the late 90s “who will be the king of electronica” debate that only music critics engaged in, but have some room in my heart for “Praise You”, “Right Here, Right Now”, and “The Rockafeller Skank”. Credit can be given in part to Spike Jonze’s video for one of those songs, but Slim’s sophomore release You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby broke so big in the states because selections were licensed to multiple advertisers and featured in the soundtrack to virtually every movie starring a young actor angling to break out of the WB. I actually heard “The Rockafeller Skank” for the first time in She’s All That, when Usher orders a bevy of professional dancers posing as high school students to shimmy through an intricate routine during prom.
Sleigh Bells’ new wave sound tap into that cross-promotional potential as well. “Riot Rhythm” is used to sell sports cars. “Kids” is featured in a promo for MTV’s remake of British teen soap Skins. And if The O.C. were still on, dammit if music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas wouldn’t have “Rill Rill” close the season, assuming that it ended with Summer reconnecting with Marissa’s ghost at a beach party instead of Seth sailing off into the sunset. The sampled acoustic guitar (lifted from Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That”) even recalls the loping piano hook in Phantom Planet’s “California,” the show’s theme song.
But what of the sophomore jinx? How does a buzz band follow up a lauded debut when they’re doomed to disappoint a fickle public? There are a few courses of action. You can strike while the iron is hot, as The Vivian Girls and Franz Ferdinand did when they followed up their first albums in quick succession without abandoning their sound. The Strokes waited two years and brought on producer Nigel Godrich to ultimately make the same record again, with a handful of synth flourishes and metal riffs. Life Without Buildings and the Unicorns disbanded. Members of the latter group formed Islands, a breezy outfit that anticipated Vampire Weekend’s indebtedness to Paul Simon’s Graceland by almost two years with their great debut Return to the Sea. The former can claim Any Other City as an promising work, largely because of Sue Tompkins’ infectious talk-singing.
Vampire Weekend are actually a good professional reference point for Sleigh Bells. My partner also cited Ratatat, with whom the twosome share sonic similarities. Both groups resumed and prospered following their initial success, largely by incorporating their novel ideas and thievery into larger concepts. Vampire Weekend did so this past year with Contra, which received backlash and critical accolades in equal measure. It’s also a pretty good pop record that builds upon their jittery, treble-heavy sound with deft employment of Auto-Tune and airy electronic instrumentation. While this move surprised some, it came as little surprise to those who recognized keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij as the band’s MVP. In 2009, long-time collaborators Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot front man Wes Miles teamed up as Discovery to release LP. While spotty and half-formed at times, this endearing album marries an unironic love of modern R&B giants like R. Kelly with the glacial production qualities of pre-millennial Timbaland and Max Martin. It didn’t take much guessing to imagine how this could be filtered into Vampire Weekend’s sound.
I don’t know what Sleigh Bells’ plans are or if they’re at all interested in heeding some blogger’s career advice. But if there’s anything I’d like them to elaborate on, it’s their beats. This seems to be a pair that, if they don’t outright love commercial hip hop, at least absorbed a fair amount of it in their youth. People tend to bring up bubblegum and metal when they discuss Treats, but “Run the Heart” is obviously a club track. The driving beat on “Crown on the Ground” recalls the Bomb Squad or, perhaps less charitably (since my partner grimaced at that comparison), DMX’s “Who We Be.” It’s all four-on-the-floor without relent right now. But if they played around with sequence patterns or hooked up with an inventive producer, the band might surprise themselves and their detractors.
Echoing Maura Johnston, I’d like vocalist Alexis Krauss to be foregrounded in this development. Given the cultural assumption that girl groups and female pop singers are controlled by men and bolstered by instrumentalist Derek Miller’s role as producer, there’s probably an assumption that Miller runs the show. Once the member of a would-be commercial girl group, Krauss’ gauzy vocals display surprising character under layers of processed metal riffs and pulverizing beats. It isn’t a strong voice but she imbues its limitations with a distinct smoothness and keen phrasing. Aaliyah achieved similar things with her feathery whisper of a voice. Hopefully, we’ll soon hear what treats we’ll be in store for next.
Okay, so M.I.A.’s divisive third album, /\/\/\Y/\, has been out since early July. Its official release was on the 13th, though she “leaked” it on her MySpace page earlier in the month. Of course, the release of lead single “XXXO” and the music video for “Born Free” ramped up anticipation, as did her sound-bite shit-talk toward Interscope label mate Lady Gaga.
Pitch escalated when Lynn Hirschberg’s scandalous New York Times profile damaged the M.I.A.’s profile, prompting folks to provide advice for how to put her suddenly waning career back on track. Back in 2007, M.I.A., LCD Soundsystem, and Panda Bear topped many critics’ best-of lists (and dazzled this moi) with albums that expanded the studio boundaries of fringe-audience pop music. All of these artists release follow-ups this year. James Murphy has made it through his most recent foray relatively unscathed. I imagine that Panda Bear’s Tomboy will be kid-gloved as a musical evolution while M.I.A.’s self-titled /\/\/\Y/\ will be framed as a manic detour. How’s that for sexism?
I’ll admit some bias. I’ve been an M.I.A. fan since I saw two girlfriends execute the “Galang” dance with perfect synchronicity at a college party. Her first two albums rank amongst my favorites of the decade, though I’m always aware of how middle-class and white I am when I pump “Paper Planes” in my Mazda 626. But for me, there aren’t that many female artists at the level of fame she’s achieved who consistently relish in having pop culture ram against political insurrection. As Jessica Hopper put it in her review, she makes pop for capitalist pigs.
But I’ve also been critical of M.I.A. She was the subject of the first presentation I gave at a national conference. At the 2008 PCA/ACA conference, I proposed that her deliberate use of b-girl fashion projected a subversive racialized femininity. Predictably, this resulted in the Sri Lankan refugee turning outdated, second-hand designs into a hot commodity once she reached a certain level of fame, making her a hipster icon for designers like Marc Jacobs and retailers like American Apparel and Converse. Unfortunately, the current backlash was bound to happen.
Some folks wrote incisive commentary on Hirschberg’s article, evident in LaToya Peterson’s Jezebel article and Sady Doyle’s Tiger Beatdown piece. Unfortunately, the piece irrevocably skewed the reception of M.I.A.’s new album, forcing buried tensions to surface around the actual political merit of her artistic contributions that previously went unquestioned. Thanks to this article, many critics now seem to think she’s crazy, phony, constructed, and untalented (though unable to admit that they’ve been had, as Arular and Kala were almost unanimously praised). Much of this criticism seems short-sighted and blind to how popular opinion is engineered. Apart from explicit references to Hirschberg’s profile, its influence is particularly evident in the annoying ubiquity of the term “agit-prop,” which has lost all meaning for me.
So now that the album has been out for a few weeks and writers don’t have to play hand pile with Twitter, how about we calm down? M.I.A.’s third album is not that bad. Actually, it’s pretty good. More to the point, it’s remarkably consistent with her previous offerings, leading me to wonder why folks are just now getting annoyed with her tendency toward mock-incendiary sloganeering and posturing. Let’s put things in perspective, shall we?
Oh and let’s also get truffle oil French fries out of our minds as a symbol of her waning credibility. Like it’s hard to find a basket of those in Los Angeles. Matter of fact, I remember sharing a pizza topped with truffle “essence” at the Brick Oven before a Gravy Train!!!! show a few summers back. I was doing some contract voice-over work at the time, which wasn’t especially lucrative but could afford me to go in on a $10 pie. Also, I find Maya and fiancé/Seagram heir Ben Brewer’s decision to turn a Brentwood mansion into a squat for their friends a far more interesting application of wealth, perhaps more clearly indicating the couple’s political values.
If I rated things on a scale of 10, I’d give /\/\/\Y/\ a 7. It retains much of her signature while loosening its grip periodically to incorporate dub and industrial’s influence into her sound. It meanders a bit and lags toward the end in a free associative haze, not unlike fellow pop iconoclast and mother Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two. For me, its tangential feel simulates the non-linear nature of online interaction that’s foregrounded in the album art as well as the typing sounds and the mantra that comprise opening track “The Message”.
As an album, /\/\/\Y/\ doesn’t pack the immediate wallop of her first two albums — particularly the breakthrough Kala, which made her a household name and also guaranteed that she’d disappoint people after her Grammy performance, involvement with Slumdog Millionaire, and musical cameos in movie trailers.
However, I’d put the compressed energy of “Steppin’ Up,” “Born Free,” and “Meds and Feds” up there with “Bird Flu.” I also like the contrast with smoother numbers like “It Takes a Muscle,” “Tell Me Why,” and “Space.” I side with Ann Powers’s reading of “XXXO” as a statement about the problematic nature of constructing a pop star and a commentary about M.I.A.’s assumed role as a producer’s muse. I’m fine with the pro-weed chorus to “Teqkilla,” as it plays like a commentary on the post-ironic hipster inanity of a Nylon party that’s honoring her. And if Mark Richardson believes the lyric about Googling yourself in Discovery’s “Orange Shirt” captures “the low-level digitally assisted narcissism of the current age,” I wonder what he makes of M.I.A.’s line in “It Iz What It Iz” about having discussions with her partner while playing Wii.
Part of what prevented me from writing this piece earlier is the inability to reconcile her status as international pop star with her national heritage and cultural origins. Recently, I was having a sloshy party conversation with my friends Alex and Jessalynn about this problem. They proposed that M.I.A. has mythologized her family’s move from war-torn Sri Lanka to London to the point of distortion. They were skeptical of how she got to London, noting that her family must have some connections gained through privilege that the pop star is obscuring to lend credibility to the marginal cultural position she’s defined for herself. Fair point, because while London has a considerable immigrant population, I do wonder what educational programs were offered to a South London teenager that granted her enrollment at St. Martin’s College. I am also troubled by how a pop star is expected to speak on behalf of her home country’s systemic oppression, particularly as she grows more distant from its citizenry while exploiting a telegraphed representation of her heritage for profit.
Yet I find these set of issues especially interesting, particularly as many of our contemporary female pop stars make interchangeable hits about partying in appropriated pan-Native American couture or cupcake bras. I’ll take M.I.A.’s recent Late Show performance of “Born Free” over any of this nonsense. There may not have been gun shots to censor this time, but the army of M.I.A. avatars bested Eminem’s VMA performance of “The Real Slim Shady” and Suicide’s Martin Rev bleating out the sampled riff to “Ghost Rider” created televisual drama. M.I.A. might be a frustrating pop cultural figure and a guaranteed sell-out, but she’s far from boring.
Thanks to my friend Evan, who alerted me on Monday that some serious Aughties musical canonization was going down this week, I’ve been following Pitchfork’s unveiling of the Top 500 tracks of the decade. As it may be of interest, I thought I’d share my feelings.
In subsequent posts, I may comment on their impending coverage of the decade’s best music videos and albums, as well as their formulations on the reclamation of pop, the exploration of noise, and the mainstreaming of indie rock. I won’t devote posts to it, though, because there’s a fine line between providing useful commentary and hearing yourself type. And my hunch is that discussing the singles list will suffice, as it presents, by microcosm, a general set of criticisms I’ve long held about the “tastemaker” e-zine.
Covering Pitchfork’s appraisal of the decade in this way makes more sense to me anyway, as the 2000s marked the resurgence of the single. Our increasingly digitized media culture cultivated the need for that one song, found at the click of a mouse or the touch of an mp3 player button or phone pad. That song also tended to get posted on blogs, e-zines, and MySpace pages (however briefly) as a means to define the self or selves (this was a decade when Gnarls Barkley, Brightblack Morning Light, and Crystal Castles could potentially coexist on the same shuffle or mash-up).
So, this list is the first time I’ve seen music of my youth canonized in such a way that it now seems historical. When Pitchfork first did the list half-way through the decade, I was 22 and just out of college; an adult, but only sorta. More specifically, the songs were still new. But having graduated from college twice over and a year into my second post-college job in 2009, I can look at songs from 2000, when I was in high school, and feel my age like many folks who transitioned into adulthood in decades prior.
And now, some nostalgia. A lot of the songs on this list bring up specific memories, images, people, and feelings. I remember my friend Brooke trying to teach me a dance routine to Aaliyah’s “Try Again” for our junior prom. PJ Harvey’s “Good Fortune” reminded me of a high school boyfriend which, in hindsight, speaks to an epic love song’s power to project. I remember a classmate singing the chorus to OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” to herself in French class. I remember hearing Jay-Z and UGK’s “Big Pimpin'” at a Claire’s somewhere in New York City on a field trip. Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” confused the hell out of me, but I kept playing it at full volume anyway. Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” was a confusing song that made perfect sense. And if Daft Punk’s “One More Time” was released when the class of 2001 voted for our song, it would’ve been my pick (I submitted U2’s “Beautiful Day” and Counting Crows’ “Hanging Around”; our song ended up being Aerosmith’s cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together” from the Armageddon soundtrack, for some reason).
Then there’s the rough transition between high school and college. Songs off Radiohead’s Amnesiac and Daft Punk’s Discovery suggest my lonely, uncertain summer before college. I started college, withdrew mid-way through my first semester, and resumed in the spring. This was a “the” time — The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Shins, The Avalanches, and the last album by The Dismemberment Plan. It was also when I started to follow Pitchfork, mostly to avoid writing term papers.
After a summer back home, I applied for a college radio show. It was here that I really started learning about music, and just how much music there was. KVRX maintains a “none of the hits all of the time” policy; if a musical act got a single or video on rotation in a commercial market, they could not be played. While I was there, we pulled The Arcade Fire and Franz Ferdinand from rotation. Some deejays would think that by pulling a musical act they liked out of rotation, we were initiating a taste-based attack on coolness (i.e., undiscovered = good, discovered = bad). While this prejudice existed (and I would certainly perpetuate it at times), pulling an artist embraced by the mainstream out of college radio rotation felt more political to me. “Spoon is on 101X? Great! They’re awesome. Now let’s shine a light on the thousands of other bands who’ll never get that kind of attention.”
Pitchfork made an effort to shine a light too, biases notwithstanding. During my tenure at KVRX, my relationship with Pitchfork became contentious. While I followed Pitchfork, I was also dismissive or derisive of the staff’s opinions (a classic push-pull for many music geeks: we are at once too cool for Pitchfork, yet check to see if we line up with their rulings). As I came into my own as a feminist, I also became more critical of what they covered, how they covered it, and what they dismissed, out of which came, among other things, this blog.
Yet, there are so many songs on this countdown that remind me of that time. I remember my first radio show, when I played Interpol’s “NYC” because I had some vague idea of who they were. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard TV on the Radio’s “Staring At the Sun” and Dizzie Rascal’s “I Luv U.” I remember seeing Spoon perform “The Way We Get By” on Conan and hoping they’d get big. I remember hearing the bass line to Broken Social Scene’s “Stars and Sons” for the first time. I remember fighting The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers” for weeks before surrendering. I remember being unable to avoid The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” I remember playing Broadcast’s “Pendulum” while getting ready for parties. I remember rocking out to The Gossip’s “Standing in the Way of Control” in the deejay booth. I remember LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” being one of the go-to songs deejays would throw on for a smoke break when we weren’t quoting from it (I alluded to it in this post’s title). I remember hearing M.I.A.’s “Galang” at a party and having it blow my mind. I remember impromptu dance parties after Alliance for a Feminist Option meetings when a bunch of sweaty grrrls I still call friends would shimmy to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” I remember skanking harder and smiling wider than I ever have with the person I built my life with to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”
In addition, there was Boards of Canada, Wolf Eyes, Feist, Black Dice, Andrew Bird, Ladytron, Devendra Banhart, Destroyer, Hot Chip, The New Pornographers, Deerhoof, M. Ward, Liars, Junior Boys, The Walkmen, Manitoba (later Caribou), El-P, The Go Team, (Smog), Sufjan Stevens, RJD2, The Books, Talib Kweli, Phoenix . . . . The list goes on. If I ever had trouble keeping up with new artists after graduating in 2005, it was only because I had so many established artists to follow.
Of course, my college radio utopia didn’t last. It couldn’t. My monolithic friend group fragmented. People moved, lost touch, became casual, or just stopped being friends. Perhaps this is really when the decade became more to me than a sequence, instead an evolution of time. Late-in-the-decade offerings like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” and Animal Collective’s “Fireworks” convey this for me.
After college, I acquired Deerhunter, CSS, Hercules and Love Affair, Santigold, Bat for Lashes, Grizzly Bear, Battles, No Age, Be Your Own Pet, Girl Talk, Magik Markers, Vampire Weekend, Vivian Girls, Women, King Khan and the Shrines, and St. Vincent.
Assuredly there will be more new artists for me (and you) to adopt. Just this week, because of the countdown, I picked up on The Knife.
There are artists whose countdown placement evinces moments when we were willing to bet the farm on an act that now seem dated (Death From Above 1979, The Streets, and Klaxons). There are also acts I didn’t “get” but sorta came around on later (hello, Joanna Newsom). There are acts I didn’t know that well in college but came to treasure later (bless you, Neko Case). There are acts I enjoy but could never fully champion (I like you fine, Belle and Sebastian). There are acts I appreciate, but kinda overwhelm me and can’t listen to all the time (Jesus, Xiu Xiu). And then there are acts for whom I just never got the fuss (Fleet Foxes and The Decemberists).
With that said, this countdown plays predictably. Accepting minor issues like what song was selected to represent an artist and where songs fell in ranking, Pitchfork got a lot right. They also got caught up with some songs that I think they’re overselling, and some things they marginalized or completely overlooked. I’ll preoccupy the rest of this post with those flaws.
For me Pitchfork’s big Achilles heel has always been hip hop, primarily because they really only cover mainstream hip hop (Lil Wayne, T.I., 50 Cent, Clipse, Eminem, Cam’ron, OutKast, Kanye West, and Jay-Z — the last three are all over this countdown). And while this isn’t a problem in its own right, it limits how hip hop is defined and what it represents, which, in a lot of commercial hip hop, that still means money, Cristal, whips, blunts, and bitches (though not in all cases). It certainly suggests that the only way for rappers to be successful and culturally relevant is to be part of a corporate mechanism. This seems like something a publication that prides itself on giving visibility to independent artists should re-evaluate. Because, in my mind, if there’s no Busdriver or Jean Grae, I question the validity of the list.
As a result, it largely eclipses underground hip hop which has seen tremendous advancements over the course of the decade, particularly in the states. Talent from labels like Stones Throw, Quannum Projects, Rhymesayers, Definitive Jux, and anticon., along with talent at labels like Plug Research, Mush, Warp, and Ubiquity have created some of the most vital and interesting work in the genre, expanding its sound and its content while working outside a corporate mechanism in the process (anticon. runs as a collective). But you’d never know that if you only read Pitchfork, who acknowledged a few efforts, primarily from white male label owners (El-P) and instrumental artists (RJD2, DJ Shadow). No female MCs were acknowledged. This may also speak to the dearth of female MCs in underground hip hop, but doesn’t excuse it (I love you, Jean Grae; I love you, Psalm One). My challenge to hip hop fans in the next decade is to try to create online resources as influential as Pitchfork to get the message out. You’ve got guaranteed spots on my blogroll.
Also, as you may have noticed if you combed through the entire list, only the top 200 songs are accompanied by blurbs from the writing staff. While I understand that writing 300 more blurbs presents its own challenges, I also think it suggests that tracks 500-301 weren’t good enough for a write-up. And this makes me especially sad when many of the women I loved in this decade — Vivian Girls, St. Vincent, Goldfrapp, Sleater-Kinney, Bat for Lashes, Björk, and The Gossip — are thrown at the end and not given any qualifying statements. This especially seems necessary for a song like The Gossip’s “Standing In the Way of Control,” which became an LGBTQI anthem this decade. That would be especially useful to read alongside #18, Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind.” This is a great dance song that I’ve always interpreted as an anthem for coming out and living life queer. But you wouldn’t know that from Tim Finney’s write-up.
And while I’m heartened by the women who did make it to the top 200, especially women like M.I.A., Beyoncé, Missy Elliott, Annie, and Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who made the top 20, I can’t help but notice that many of these women are pop artists who work extensively with predominantly male producers. I don’t want to suggest that cutting a track with Timbaland or Diplo or Pharell from The Neptunes means that women are robbed of artistic autonomy, as I wouldn’t say that for Justin Timberlake. However, I do take issue with what female artists and what songs get praise. Or even what versions of songs. While the Diplo remix of the version of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” that features UGK is great, I wonder why her version isn’t enough.
That said, the 2000s were both a hell of an education and a hell of a time. Pitchfork knows it. I know it. Hopefully, you know it too. It was a great time to be alive. I hope the next decade is even better.