Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]


Kings of Leon are four inbred-looking brothers and cousins from Tennessee whose 2003 debut album got US critics slightly excited. I was dubious; as so often happens, I thought crits were attracted to the novelty of a concept the band had yet to fill out with material--meaning tunes, lyrics, songs. By the time of their next album, which I thought was much better, crits here had moved on to the next concept, a shift facilitated by the band's accomplished stupid act. But in Europe, where in this century American bands have entered the market with an entire government's stupid act against them, they'd caught on--presumably as avatars of some stupidly conceived authenticity, I don't have the energy to investigate the details. Anyway, having concluded (provisionally) that their 2007 album was neither here nor there, I liked the 2008 one better and went casting about the web for orientation. Soon I determined that by Metacritic's stupid metric, they'd gotten 100 from the UK's Observer Music Monthly and a 38 and 20, respectively, from reigning US webmags Pitchfork and PopMatters. And there in the middle was a supposed 60 from this paper I used to read a lot called The Village Voice. And in that review, by a critic I'd never heard of named Lexy Benaim, I found the following sentence:

But "Closer," "Use Somebody," and "Be Somebody" could only work at giant festivals: Through headphones or computer speakers, Caleb's echoey vocals just don't ring credible.

Turns out Benaim is lead singer of the Harlem Shakes, a local band of minor repute and small but not altogether nonexistent formal similaity to Kings of Leon. No previous Voice appearances. So I'm not blaming him. Given the logistics of the current Voice review section, where lengths look to be 300-400 words, I'm not even blaming his editor, the estimable Rob Harvilla, though I prefer Rob's writing to his editing. What strikes me about the part of the sentence after the colon is that it's at once so momentous and so unexamined. In the review, it has a context--Benaim's thesis is that this KOL album, which he likes somewhat less than I do (though more than 60--who makes these asinine calculations?), is their "arena-rock" album. Fine, don't like arena-rock; I don't much like it much myself, though I try to imply why when that taste comes into play. But the idea that a piece of rock and roll has to signify through headphones or computer speakers, while it obviously reflects the way many on-the-go young people hear a lot of music these days (hope when he's home that Benaim can easily hook his laptop up to his home sound system, which I hope he owns), is clearly worthy of a little exploration. There really are a lot of gradations between iPod and convention center. Instead, the assumption is left hanging.

Review lengths, which have been declining approximately forever, are a big part of this. In a 300-400 word review, assumptions are inevitably left hanging. And perhaps somewhere in the trackless expanses of web-based musical rumination, somebody--conceivably somebody worth reading--has done some version of this job. But even in Pitchfork, where writers are allowed to go on, I find very little of this kind of historical and contextual self and subcultural examination. After all, the privatization of music consumption that the iPod-computer speaker model assumes--and though I am a proud and stinky old fart, let me note that I have worn headphones around my neck daily for nearly three decades now--doesn't exactly encourage the mindset such examination requires. When people's tastes and judgments are atomized, idiosyncratic by carefully cultivated choice, they're much less likely to think outside their own aesthetic responses. They won't look for historical patterns because at some level they think they're immune to them even as they pursue the cutting edge just over the horizon.

Wonder if Rob Harvilla could figure out a way to write a column about this. Guy gets 1200 words or something. These days, that's Being and Nothingness acreage.


By Joe Levy on December 9, 2008 9:47 AM

Not having read the Benaim piece, let me just point out two things: Overseas KOL actually are a festival/arena band; I took the suggestion that some of their songs could only work in that setting to be a comment on just that. Second, and more importantly, no one listens to music on a sound system anymore. This gross generalization (I have a million of 'em, including "no one watches television on TV anymore") is an overstatement meant to reflect a generational truth, which is that stereos are no longer in fashion. A five-speaker surround-sound rig for your TV (which is used to watch DVDs and play video games, not--as I've previously stated--to watch television; that's what Hulu and Torrent are for), that's worth having. But big speakers for music? No thanks.

Kids in high school and college today have grown up in an era when musical recordings no longer have any physical dimensions--this cannot be over emphasized--and ergo don't see any reason to run the MP3 files they download through big equipment. This isn't just a matter of convenience (though certainly that's a factor); it is a fact of life with complex roots in technology and psychology. (By technology, I mean actual diminishment of sound quality; the way in which MP3s literally contain less information than CDs. By psychology, I mean the unconscious decision you make about how to treat something with no physical manifestation. Why use some specialized piece of equipment to play MP3s? They don't even exist! They are an airy nothing, a cloud of digits compressed into a small file. You might as well buy a plane in order to fly it as a kite.)

Let me say this with the complete confidence that comes only with gross generalizations: Young music fans would no more have a stereo (or sound system) than they would a typewriter. I put it just this way this two or three years ago to the president of a major label, who refused to believe it could be true. (He'd just moved his son into an NYU dorm the week before, and his son had a great stereo! And also a father who earned several million dollars a year selling--or failing to sell--music. Not coincidentally, that guy no longer has a job.) But every time I'm on a college campus and tell that story as an example of how out of touch record companies have been, every head in the room nods in agreement. And 90% of those heads belong to music fans who've shown up to hear the editor of a music magazine talk.

My point being: While there are plenty of gradations between iPod and convention center (the club, for one), it's entirely reasonable to address younger readers who don't make them. (Especially in New York City, where the major step up from iPod in most young people's lives--car stereo--doesn't factor in much.) Otherwise, it's pretty much ear buds and computer speakers.

By Milo Miles on December 27, 2008 12:30 PM

I agree with everything Joe says, except I think the typewriter metaphor is a bit off. Typewriters were supplanted by computers, which can do everything the old keyboards could do, and much more. Replacing stereo systems and CDs/LPs/whatever with MP3 iPods and downloads is more like replacing typewriters with a pencil and a piece of paper. The new system is just not as powerful.

And I certainly agree that any artwork without a physical manifestation has less meaning. (You knew you really cared about a song on the radio when you went out and got the record.) Seems likely that at least a whole generation will grow up, not to finally get the fancy stereo they want, but to not care much about music at all.

Articles, Dec. 9, 2008

Prog-ress A Sonic Sample