Critics Poll 27 — Page three and a half

Ben Krieger asked some questions that I felt I should stop and think about. This is my attempt to answer him.

Why do family and friends always instinctively frame our talents potential within the confines of a capitalist model?

I know what you’re getting at, and I sympathize — the arts aren’t a business enterprise, and artists shouldn’t be evaluated reflexively on the basis of a bottom line or a place on a corporate ladder. But I often wish that those family and friends would come to a clearer understanding of capitalism and what it asks of its subjects. Because if they did, I expect they’d realize that people in the arts, and specifically people in bands bands are actually way better at entrepreneurial action than people who just went straight to business school and did what they were told. I’m not talking about me, of course — I’ve got no business sense at all, and that’s not something I’m proud of. I mean somebody like Oliver from A Place To Bury Strangers. Not only has he held together a noise-rock band for many years, made the kind of music he wants to make without compromise and toured all over the world, he’s also run a homemade guitar-effects company. That’s impressive, and it was all done through his own initiative. Capitalism, at its Adam Smith-y best, is supposed to make that kind of thing possible: it’s supposed to be designed to reward risk-takers who are willing to go play in Lithuania (which A Place To Bury Strangers actually went and did this year, God bless them) to spread their ideas.

Do I believe in this notion of capitalism? Well, no; I have major theoretical problems with it. I’m one of those hippies who believe that there are deep contradictions within capitalism that create economic and psychological difficulties for everybody saddled with this mode of production. I think we can do better. I don’t expect others to agree, but I do insist that they be consistent. You want a system dependent on individual actors who take chances and don’t ask to have their hands held? That’s what artists do, and that is why real capitalists have always sought them out.

The problem is that those friends and family members aren’t being honest. They’re not fans of capitalism — or at least, they’re not bringing that fandom to those conversations in which they knock Guitar Joe for his decision not to helm Johnson and Johnson. What I’ve come to realize is that they’re just mad at him for exercising his freedom to do what he wants — freedom that, for whatever reason, they don’t feel they have. So they hit him over the head with the expectations stick: you’re not supposed to be painting squiggles, you’re supposed to be working toward your MBA! That’s what responsible people do! Whenever I hear such nonsense, I am always reminded of something that a talented experimental photographer once told me. We were driving through Jersey City and he asked me to look around. Everything you see, he told me, was designed by an artist. People don’t realize that, he said, but it’s true. Unless you’re in the wilderness, the appearance and function of everything in your environment was developed in a studio by an aesthetician who had to figure out how it fit into your life. For the arts to work, there needs to be a constant supply of crazy visionaries who are willing to live in a garret and try out bizarre things all day. Again, this is something real capitalists know, and why you’ll never see one of those guys knocking artists — no matter how difficult or temperamental they are. It is only the people who feel trapped and used who run artists down and attempt to make them feel terrible for doing, if you’ll pardon my poetic language, what God has asked them to do.

Has the allure of success and exposure that a capitalist hub like New York City promises pulled artists away from vital local scenes?

New York City, as you’ve probably noticed, is the land of hierarchy. Everything is measured, life is a constant performance review, and people have a tendency to treat strangers according to their level of professional achievement. It’s all a game, but it’s one that’s taken very seriously by its players, because if it were ever to be destroyed by hippie powers, nobody on the island(s) trusts what would come next. I think we’ve recently seen that they have good reason to be protective, and suspicious of the outsiders who are ever-so-suspicious of them. In my opinion, people who survive and thrive in New York City deserve respect: if you can be the rare lumberjack who stays on the log as it spins faster and faster, go on and pat yourself on the back for your persistence and agility. The trouble is that it’s possible to spin on the log so long that you get disoriented and assume that that’s the way that the earth moves. Some New Yorkers find the motivations of non-New York artists inscrutable: what, you don’t want to be on MTV? You’re not on social media? You have qualms about selling your writing to a reality TV show? Huh. You must be a rare bird indeed.

But in fact the nonprofessionalizing non-NYC artist is not a rare bird at all. She does not necessarily want to spend her time making career moves. Maybe she wants wider exposure for her work; maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she just wants to play in the mud. If she’s the sort of artist who digs the hierarchy game — the kind who frets about how many Instagram followers she has, or whether her name is in bigger type on the bill than her rival’s is — she’s going to gravitate toward New York City. We’ve seen a lot of that, and I’m of the opinion that it’s had a dulling effect on Big Apple art. (You may think I’m just being a Jersey chauvinist, and maybe you’re right.) As for the scenes they’ve left behind, well, the engine goes on, albeit at a somewhat lower RPM. The locals who don’t share her sense of enterprise might feel like it’s good riddance: she was a sellout anyway, she was a name-dropper and social climber first and an artist only after that. They may feel so much better off without her that they might not notice the distinct attenuation of energy during the next local arts festival. As I see it, it would be healthier for everybody if she stayed in rural Rockville and used her drive to turn it into a regional hub with its own distinct artistic personality. But she’s not going to do that, and her decision is part of a much wider trend of the provinces emptying out as socially alienated young people try their luck in the showbiz centers. Which is making for a monochromatic countryside.

What role has journalism played in the reinforcing certain models of artistic success over others?

Journalists have been sucked into the whirlpool by those same centralizing forces, and as a consequence they tend to reward the artists who are immersed in the big city game and treat those who aren’t as quaint curios from the fifteenth century. I’ll give you an example from my own experience: when I first started playing music, there were many, many newspapers and zines in New Jersey. Some of them were statewide, but most had a regional focus: the Bloom Beacon might not have had distribution far beyond the Meadow, but Milo and Opus and Editor Overbeek, or their Jersey counterparts, did attempt to cover its territory comprehensively. Since the Internet has accommodated the launch of a thousand personal pages, we’re told not to mourn the loss of the Bloom Beacon too much — surely there are many more outlets for publicity than there were before? The truth is more complicated: yes, Bob’s Kickin Rock Blog does exist, sort of, but to get the publicity benefits sort of attention that local journalism used to provide, you’ve got to play ball with the big operations, most of which are located in those showbiz centers. That probably means being on the scene in New York, especially since media consolidation and shrinkage in New Jersey has effectively left us without a voice.

At the same time that’s all happening, we’ve been handcuffed by the rise of click-driven journalism. It used to be difficult to convince skeptical editors that Vanishing Twin merits coverage when Bon Jovi is in town, but it wasn’t impossible. The writer could make a passionate (albeit largely bullshit) case that the artistic significance of the former was something that the readers needed to learn about, and everybody was sick of the latter anyway, and c’mon, are we men or mice here; let’s throw the dice already. We can’t do that anymore. The proof is in the count, now visible for all to see, and those numbers will always be less interesting than our fantasies. Local coverage has always depended on those fantasies and the willingness of editors to take an occasional ratings hit. Everybody’s belts have tightened. Let’s get some celebrity stories up, right this minute!; those quotas ain’t going to make themselves. Like Editor Overbeek used to say: run that baby.

Why haven’t scenes like the one Michael Azerrad documented sprung up again? Or have they? Whats going on outside of New York, anyway?

The old college-rock circuit was a beautiful thing: it sustained clubs and zones and record shops and independent bookstores, regional radio stations, cheap restaurants, copy-shop poster duplicators, and so on. But I don’t want to get too nostalgic for it. For one thing, at least in the Northeast, it was a white man’s underworld. It was not a place for hip-hop, and hip-hop has been the tailwind of culture for at least a quarter-century. And even if the college rock scene ain’t what it used to be, it’s worth noting that something not dissimilar to it has been happening in urban areas — spoken-word events and open mics for poets and locally-focused websites meant to support budding rappers and producers. Much of the best music released in 2016 came from a group of Chicago artists who’d connected through after-school programs and the library and promoted by Fake Shore Drive. I don’t know what kind of book Michael Azerrad would write about contemporary hip-hop, but I’ll bet he’d hear echoes of SST in outfits like Royal Rap and Wondering Sounds, and see Chance and Jamila and Fatimah Warner as good scene citizens.

The difference is that this is a city phenomenon. So far at least; there are probably hip-hop scenes in small towns, too, but we haven’t heard much about them yet. And this exposes the common thread shared by all of these questions — are country mice and city mice going to find some common ground or are we destined to be at each others’ throats? Can artists do something about the cold civil war we’re presently engaged in? Can artists stand aside and be observers, or are they destined to be partisans arguing (or even fighting) on behalf of urban values? I like to reserve for the arts a role nobler than political commentary, and I’m corny enough to think that during good times, every guitar strum is balm for our national wounds. But these sure aren’t good times. If artists want to get the hell out of the sticks, I can’t say that I blame them. Most of the nuance of modern politics has fallen away, and we’ve been left with a ferocious elemental struggle between people who want to open things up and people who want to close things down. Artists tend to be open by disposition. They’re not going to want to be where the wall-builders and border shutters are, and they’re under no obligation to sacrifice time or sanity by singing to those who won’t listen. Until we get a little glasnost around here, that’s the way it has to stay.

What’s going on *inside* New York, for that matter?

The irony is that while New York symbolizes openness and does so for very good reasons, the actual experience of living in New York is often anything but. Manhattan, in particular, feels like it’s on 24-7 lockdown: black helicopters in the sky and heavily armed police in the train stations and at major intersections. A staggering amount of wealth has been concentrated in New York City, and the town is preoccupied with guarding the safe. It has surely not escaped your notice that many of the city’s most visible artists and arts institutions either 1.) celebrate big money, 2.) sheepishly apologize for big money, or 3.) gingerly poke fun at big money in a manner that suggests no real harm is meant. Like I said above, if you’re the kind of artist who digs hierarchy and loves keeping score — and there are great ones who do — New York might be the place for you. Otherwise, I’d advise you to head for smaller cities: places like Baltimore, Detroit, Richmond, Providence, etc. Rents are cheaper, studio space is easier to come by, and there’s more room to build something of your own that won’t immediately be sucked into the orbit of global commerce.

What exactly are the criteria that Pitchfork uses when rating those records and can we discuss them?

Probably not. I don’t know exactly how Pitchfork assigns its ratings, but I have to imagine that they’re developed in committee, and that plenty of extramusical factors go into that number grade. There’s nothing new about that, though — it’s just basic showbiz. Artists with good connections and good backstories are going to get prioritized. Fairness is for soccer matches, right? That said, I think it’s been a long time since Pitchfork was a leading indicator: the records that they tend to like are the same ones that everybody else does. Their Top 10 of 2016 is loaded with celebrities and major-label moneymakers. Like many other middle aged Internet music sites, it gives the visitor the sense that it’s struggling to catch up with current trends. I felt like I was being hyperbolic when I called it People Magazine plus bad cultural studies jargon last year, but I look at Pitchfork now and see Beyonce Releases More Amazing Pregnancy Photos and Frank Ocean Sued By His Father and other such monkey business and wonder if I went far enough. Most brand-name Internet websites have been pulled toward the gossip column over the past five years; Pitchfork has made its transition with more enthusiasm than most. Whether this trend will ultimately discredit the ratings number remains to be seen — I think it’s already happened somewhat. But we’re in an intermediary period where the Pitchfork assessment is still consequential to musicians while it probably isn’t that consequential to Pitchfork itself.