“When men display Amos’ brand of unpredictable, reckless ambition, we call them geniuses. Think of Jack White, or how very strange Radiohead’s Kid A sounded when it was first released but how enthusiastically that strangeness was greeted. Look outside of music, too, at how we adore the formal experimentation and/or self-indulgence of David Foster Wallace, or Charlie Kaufman, or Community creator Dan Harmon. Spike Jonze just got an Oscar for writing about his imaginary girlfriend! For a guy, doing strange things with form and pulling up bizarre visions from the core of his own personal torment is proof that he’s a capital-A Artist. But we scarcely mention it when we talk (or don’t talk) about Amos. I hate to pull a “because the patriarchy” here, but I can think of no other reason why so many people have worked, so hard, to avoid engaging with her work — or why they so often do it by way of trivializing Amos herself. When a woman claims the freedom to experiment that’s necessary to approach “genius” territory — the freedom to disregard or flaunt expectations, to alienate people, to fall flat on her face, to produce something that it might take more than one or two casual listens to penetrate — she’s grabbing at a traditionally male prerogative. When that happens, rather than admitting that a woman might intentionally release unusual work because she’s got some new ideas, most of us decide that she’s letting weird stuff leak out by accident, instead of applauding her sense of purpose.”—
“I think a lot of people [in indie rock] now are inherently apologetic because of the things we grew up with in the ’90s, and we saw rock music go from the most beautiful, amazing, culture-changing thing to, like, rap metal. The world of indie and rock music became very apologetic, and no one’s trying to be too good and they’re always trying to hold it back either with the songs or the production. No one wants to be quote-unquote “obvious.” But, like, everyone references Paul Simon, and Fleetwood Mac has become a huge indie reference nowadays, but that’s all bullshit because the most important part of that reference is not the dry snare drum, it’s the unbelievably classic songs and production. After rap metal in the late ’90s, there was this split of mainstream and indie and rock, like they couldn’t coexist. But I grew up when The Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam and Nirvana were all mainstream, but they were also really good. I’d much rather be a part of mainstream culture than be a part of my own culture and have it be not…all the way.”—
“At one point during the [808s and Heartbreaks] session, Kanye wrote a song about how dumb all of T-Pain’s ideas were. He then proceeded, T-Pain said, to make “everybody in the studio join in with him to sing, like, ‘T-Pain’s shit is weak.’ ””—
“It’s easy to describe Morning Phase as a sequel to Beck’s quiet, melancholy 2002 record Sea Change, but while there are aesthetic similarities and nearly identical personnel, it seems inaccurate to sell this as a depressing record. Yes, there are notes of sadness and regret over the course of its 13 tracks, but it’s all rather muted. Whereas Sea Change was written in the immediate aftermath of a painful breakup and has the distraught yet blank feeling of clinical depression, the pain in Morning Phase – particularly on cuts like “Say Goodbye” and “Blue Moon” – feels like it’s been long since processed and accepted. The only tension in the record is in figuring out which parts speak to a genuine, newfound serenity for Beck, and which parts are just him giving a cold, thousand-yard stare.”—
“But while bands will still adopt and adapt to other music – and sometimes, like Radiohead, be loved for it – “Discotheque” also threatens to hold up as threadbare the entire vision of rock as the natural base of musical progress. If “rockism” has ever meant anything, it means what happened on [U2’s Pop] – an assumption that other musics exist to provide new directions and stealable ideas to four rock guys in a guitar/bass/vox/drums lineup.”—
I actually quite like U2’s Pop, but I can’t really disagree with much of anything Tom Ewing wrote in this incredibly smart piece about the record and specifically its lead single “Discotheque” over on Popular.
“Early on, I made it my goal that if my music were ever recognized in any way, I would want it to lure people into my world, the way music has affected me in the past, like when I first heard R.E.M., and there was the mystery of the South, with the kudzu growing over everything, and the people. It made me want to go down there and experience it myself. There was a sort of magic to it. So I wanted to incorporate what it was like to live here in the Midwest, in Dayton, where there’s really nothing to do but drink and watch airplanes. I wanted to convey the mundane nature of the place. It’s restrictive in a way but it’s also what keeps me here. It’s what keeps me coming back here. There’s a comfort in it. I’ve thought about living in New York City or Austin, but I know I could never do it. I’ve got too many people here that provide me with ideas. I mean, I’ve always been more interested in creating alternate worlds rather than literal ones. I feel like there’s a spiritual component to that as well. I write about these alternate worlds that I believe might exist, but I’m also doubtful.”—Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, interviewed in 2004 for The Believer. This interview is featured in Confidence Or The Appearance Of Confidence, an forthcoming collection of Believer conversations with musicians.
“In a time when it’s broadly assumed that rock music is no longer a vibrant part of pop culture, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an argument that heavy, aggressive rock can still be the ideal vehicle for a major artistic statement. Against Me! do nothing to reinvent the wheel on this record — on a purely musical level, there’s nothing here you wouldn’t have heard on any given Epitaph or Fat Wreck Chords release in the ’90s — but Grace embraces the strengths of aggressive rock to communicate thoughts and feelings that simply would not have come across as well in other styles.”—
“What you like in your twenties is not completely trustworthy. I trust the teens more. Especially before you develop an aesthetic, you like what you really like, and they just glow to you in this way and it’s beyond capitalism. It’s not necessarily because things were marketed towards you – Devo was marketed towards me, but I was just like “this is the shit.” It just sticks out like a sore thumb.”—
I’m very proud of the set of year-end posts Aylin Zafar and I put together at BuzzFeed this year, with big help from Caitlin White, Maria Sherman, Alex Naidus, Tanya Chen, Gabriela Kruschewsky, and many other writers. Our goal was to be as helpful to readers as possible, cover as much as we possibly could, and avoid the sort of apples vs. oranges dilemmas you get by mixing everything together, so we broke things out into genres and themes. Here’s the full set. I hope you find some things to enjoy.
Here’s all the music criticism pieces I wrote for BuzzFeed in 2013. I just want to have it all in one place, really, but I think it’s worth looking over if you’ve missed any of it. I’m pretty happy with this body of work overall, and think that a few of these pieces are among the best things I’ve ever written.
I interviewed Trent Reznor and Rob Sheridan about the truly astonishing visual presentation of the current NIN tour. Gifs and youtube videos can’t really do this justice — it’s a very full aesthetic statement, and technologically so far ahead of what anyone else is doing.
“If you grow up in the United States, it can be very easy to have no perspective on living in a culture dominated by art and media from another country. Some music from around the world seeps into mainstream American culture, but it’s never dominant, and music from abroad is made with the understanding that you have to cater to the American market to be a big star. Americans are used to the rest of the world bending over backwards to blend in with their culture, and think nothing of foreign stars from ABBA and Björk to Shakira and Phoenix singing in their second language to appeal to the English-speaking world. Americans are almost never asked to adapt, and very rarely have to feel as though their culture is being infiltrated by the value systems of foreign nations.”—
“ARTPOP is interesting in that it’s somehow both deeply weird and conventional at the same time. Unlike her last two records, in which Gaga expanded the range of her sound, this album is almost exclusively focused on the sort of thumping straight-up Euro dance pop that made her a star. The lyrics and thematic conceits, however, go way further than ever before. She seems eager to push the envelope of what level of artsy absurdity she can get away with in a pop hit — name dropping Jeff Koons, quoting Sun Ra, sketching out a loose philosophy about “art pop,” having the chorus for one of the catchiest songs be “you’re just a pig inside a human body,” and generally coming off like something from Mike Myers’ old “Sprockets” sketches from Saturday Night Live. ARTPOP sounds like it was recorded in an igloo made of cocaine and feels like diving headfirst into the most glorious extremes of her narcissism and pretentiousness. It’s gleaming and glamorous and relentlessly ecstatic, as if all the chords were just slamming down the buttons on every pleasure center in your brain at once. If you’re cool with Mother Monster’s excesses, ARTPOP is pure, uncut Gaga-ness and you will loooooove it. Everyone else should just skip it, because Gaga is at the point where she’s not really interested in entertaining anyone but her core fans.”—
“Oh, and while Reflektor is ostensibly a concept album shouting down an Internet-based lifestyle, the event was populated by folks who won some kind of social-media contest. Further, it was being filmed as part of MTV Iggy’s “Music Experience 2.0” and was cosponsored by Intel. There was a booth full of laptops that weren’t even for sale, just hinging on the possibility that you might hear “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” and become intrigued by the possibilities of Pentium processing.”—
“While it’s nice to hear Arcade Fire expand their musical range, their idea of what styles to experiment with on Reflektor is very conservative, and are exactly the same moves The Clash made to expand their sound in the early ’80s with London Calling and Sandinista. This was all radical and fresh back then, but now it’s all stuff that is permanently classified as cool and timeless. Every move they make is something based in music that is pre-approved by the majority of people who would consider themselves to have good taste. The record will only remind you of stuff no one is ashamed to say they love. There’s no real creative risk here, and almost no trace of influence from the recent past.”—
“Perry’s kitschy side is mostly cringe-inducing, but at least her whole Candy Land burlesque thing is something that sets her apart from other pop stars. “Birthday,” one of the better tracks on Prism, pushes this aesthetic to the max. Its central conceit of equating a birthday celebration with sex is so obvious that it seems too generous to call it a double entendre, but Perry fully commits to the song’s over-the-top cheesiness and delivers the its climax, “Let me get you in your birthday suit / It’s time to bring out the big balloons,” with an exaggerated wink that would put Lucille Bluth to shame. Singing unapologetically dorky dance-pop songs that frame love and sex in the context of regressive, childlike imagery is, for better or worse, Perry’s strong suit. But she was already pushing it on Teenage Dream; remember how she spent an entire song chanting, “I wanna see your peacock, cock, cock”? Now she’s almost 30 — isn’t it time to at least approach sexuality with the maturity level of, say, a high school senior?”—
I wrote about why I think Katy Perry’s new album is a total disaster. I kinda think of this as being like the third part of a trilogy that includes my Pitchfork reviews of Jessie J’s Who You Are and Madonna’s MDNA.
This argument doesn’t work because it operates on the assumption that Arcade Fire is in any way, shape, or form on the same plane as anyone playing CMJ, or CMJ as an institution. Arcade Fire are now a major label arena band in the process of rolling out a multi-platform promo campaign. This event in Brooklyn was mainly intended to drum up press and hype for the new album. You know who else does stuff like this? U2, Coldplay, R.E.M., Radiohead, and other high profile rock bands. Arcade Fire did not take attention away from a legion of CMJ bands because those bands were not going to get that attention anyway. If Arcade Fire took attention away from anyone by doing this, it was Pearl Jam, who were playing at Barclays Center both nights they did this thing in Bushwick. That’s their peer, that’s their context.
“Cyrus, who is about to turn 21 in November, is young enough that her frame of reference for pop music has always been dominated by hip-hop. She’s also from a generational cohort that has grown up on social media and is conditioned to share culture in a performative way. Think of it like Tumblr’s reblog function — where what you share with others represents how you want people to think of you, even if what you’re sharing isn’t necessarily who you are. This mentality disrupts a lot of the self-consciousness earlier generations have had about cultural borders. Miley — and many, many, many other artists and music fans around her age — aren’t “not seeing color” as Jay Z says, but they’re not seeing race as a boundary they can’t cross, or something they can’t freely integrate into their own identity. Miley isn’t actively trying to be a cultural imperialist, and she has no statement to make other than “I really like this!””—
“Lorde’s underdog position is very appealing, and on her own terms, her music is as relatable as Katy Perry’s songs about triumphing over adversity, or Rihanna’s hits about glamorous, doomed romance. This makes her a very good pop star, in her ability to synthesize common feelings, fantasies, and self-perception into evocative, accessible music. There’s a touch of melancholy and angst to her music but she mostly comes off like someone who is happy with who she is, and comfortable with standing apart from the crowd. Unlike Perry, she’s not in the business of telling herself or anyone else that they’re some special “firework,” but she does spend a lot of time repping for working class people from small towns and far-flung places, which is sort of hard to come by in contemporary pop. When she sings songs about love and romance, the details are pointedly small in scale and low key in sentiment, as if to highlight that she’s just a normal person. A normal person like you.”—
Kristine McKenna: Why is the notion of originality so valued in the creative arena?
Brian Eno: It’s a red herring, the originality thing. People are original all the time, and some people choose to regard it as important, while others dismiss it as an aberration. One of the things that’s interesting about nearly all ethnic music is that it doesn’t pivot on the idea of newness. In reggae, for instance, you hear the same riffs year after year in a shifting context. The idea there is to use a thing for as long as it still means something. The idea in the high culture of the west is to drop something as soon as you can no longer claim it as only yours. As soon as other people are onto it you have to drop it and go elsewhere, and that’s such a stupidly childish attitude.
”—From an Kristine McKenna interview with Brian Eno in 1980, which you can find in a collection of her interviews called The Book of Changes.
I wrote a short story based on the Nirvana song “Very Ape” for a collection of stories inspired by all the cuts on In Utero in celebration of the album’s 20th anniversary. It’s a period piece set around 1993. I’m pretty happy with how it came out, and thanks to Kristen Kim for inviting me to contribute. There are also stories by Nick Sylvester, Jayson Greene, Adam Moerder, Kim Kelly, Mish Way, Jeremy Gordon, and some other cool people, so check those out too.
“As post-Weeknd acts like Banks and PARTYNEXTDOOR crop up, Pharrell serves as a reminder that the R&B/pop zeitgeist consists of songs like “Blurred Lines”, “Get Lucky”, and “Take Back The Night”. These songs might not be a reaction to the Weeknd, but they do suggest that love is more than sex and sex is more than just a transaction. These loving and lovable songs serve as soundtracks for people who go on silly dates, make asses out of themselves at karaoke, get married, attend Bar Mitzvahs, and are capable as seeing everyone and everything as something other than an enabler.”—