The Perils of Criticism: Arcade Fire Edition
1) Supposedly, the Arcade Fire's 2004 Funeral was the album Pitchfork made, the album that made Pitchfork, or both. In some limited sense, both. David Moore's rave, and 9.7 rating, certainly speeded up a bandwagon that was already rolling, and as Funeral began its march toward gold-level 500,000 sales (which took till this year), the magazine's underground rep as a kingmaker--especially as of editor Ryan Schreiber's rave for the much more subcultural Canadian band Broken Social Scene a year before--was duly noted in the MSM. What I always wondered was the extent to which Schreiber had ordered up the review, as was widely but not therefore credibly rumored (backbiting rumor-mongering being even more rife in the online rockmag world than in the rest of journalism). One informant guessed but didn't claim to know for sure that Schreiber softened up the then 20-year-old college student Moore and then handed him the assignment on a band he wanted to make sure was very positively reviewed. So I got hold of Moore and obtained his version. Moore told me that there was some back-and-forth with Schreiber, but via IM rather than in person--he was a student at Ithaca College at the time. For sure it was clear that Moore would write a positive review, but he felt no pressure and got no instructions. Until, that is, it came to the rating. Moore wanted to give the record a perfect 10.0 (which he knows now was a little silly--"I was young, there was a lot I didn't know"). Pitchfork--Moore doesn't remember who--told him they didn't give 10s, so he suggested a 9.7 compromise. Which as a longtime grader I'd say is still a little silly. Within a year or two Moore had lost his passion for alt-rock--his crush on Funeral was based largely on its emotional avoidance of indie irony--and now writes a blog called Cureforbedbugs that's big into girlpop. He loves Ashlee Simpson. His ideas read better when you don't know the music in question. He makes his living running an enrichment program for lower-income elementary-school kids in Philly.
Could be better--gets a little carried away with Latinate abstractions, although note the Anglo-Saxon "real bonds" and "dread," that four-verb series, and the apparently tossed-off final sentence. But as it happens, it describes how the album works and means pretty accurately. So then I read down the comments, what was I thinking, and though many are positive and some pretty smart I came across first this one:Radiant with apocalyptic tension and grasping to sustain real bonds, The Suburbs extends hungrily outward, recalling the dystopic miasma of William Gibson's sci-fi novels and Sonic Youth's guitar odysseys. Desperate to elude its own corrosive dread, it keeps moving, asking, looking, and making the promise that hope isn't just another spiritual cul-de-sac. After all, you never know who might be coming in the next car.
and then this one:This review is utter pretentious gob****e. The 'dystopic miasma of William Gibson'? What the **** are you talking about? Great album, though.
Is really no one mentioning the final paragraph of this review? May I quote:
"Radiant with apocalyptic tension and grasping to sustain real bonds, [it] extends hungrily outward, recalling the dystopic miasma of William Gibson's sci-fi novels and Sonic Youth's guitar odysseys. Desperate to elude its own corrosive dread, it keeps moving, asking, looking, and making the promise that hope isn't just another spiritual cul-de-sac."
Did no one notice this? "Apocalyptic tension"? "Real bonds"? "Hungrily outward"? "Dystopic miasma"? "Corrosive dread"? And, the coup de grace, "Hope isn't just another spiritual cul-de-sac."
Is this a joke?
Right, what was I thinking. This is why I never read my comment threads at Rolling Stone and MSN. You want me to notice what you say, spend 44 cents. Snail-mail my gastropod. Still, the aggressive stupidity of these two comments exemplifies why I have a hard time getting misty-eyed about the inherent democracy of the online world. We know there are people with these prejudices reading us. We also know we're making sense in clear and grammatical English, so fuck them. And if we're rock critics, we may even suspect--I do--that without the aggressively stupid pressuring the art we love, it might well sink into a pretension we have no use for--the Arcade Fire are a dangerously earnest band. but they know enough to put on a joyous and sometimes silly show, without which they might be fatally earnest. And nevertheless, absorbing aggressive stupidity in all its pustulating detail is disheartening in a way that does nobody any good I can see.
3) My favorite horrible stupid thing any critic had to say about The Suburbs responded to that album's several disparaging remarks about the snobbishness and one-ups-man-ship of indie-rock culture and "modern kids" in general. Here's a brief comment from a critic you can Google later at Sputnikmusic:
And so one must ask what did all this frustration achieve? Even if Butler's right, that kids today do suck, who wants to listen to that?
And who's gonna read it either? Tell me what I want to hear. I have infinite options.