Cracking the new critical consensus

Last week, Vampire Weekend became the biggest band in North America.

…well okay, that might be a bit of a stretch. But even with middle ground on the sales charts between music nerds and their moms having evaporated, scoring a number one record is still a pretty big accomplishment. And the magnitude of the take, with 124,000 albums sold, immediately pushes the Brooklyn boys into the upper-eschelons of “indie rock,” with sales rivaling the last records by Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie and The Shins. Moreover, it’s only the 12th independent record to top the charts since Soundscan started the modern tracking system in the early 1990s.

To those who enjoy Vampire Weekend – and I count myself among them – this is pretty cool. To the band’s many detractors, though, this is hardly cause for celebration. In some ways, Vampire Weekend has become the designated lighting rod to localize larger issues with the entire indie rock subculture, not unlike an anti-hipster Rorschach test. Do you want to complain about indie rock’s lack of danger or sexuality? How about its upper-class elitism? Its white appropriation of music from other cultures? What about the rapid championing of bands who haven’t paid their dues? Or what of the stagnant consensus, where it seems that everyone online likes the same bands? Whatever your complaint, Vampire Weekend can fit the bill.

Most of these I couldn’t care less about, really. I long ago lost interest in litmus testing my record collection, and I try to find good reasons to like bands rather than lame reasons to dislike them these days. But this last one – the idea of an “indie consensus” – is more troublesome. It reflects an argument that Chuck Eddy makes in his essay accompanying the yearly Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. Eddy points out that their survey of American critics shares eight of its top ten records with Pitchfork’s top ten. When we extend this comparison to include the Hype Machine’s Zeitgeist survey of music blogs, we find six records shared between all three top tens and four records that showed up on two of the three.

So how does a nationwide poll of critics, a survey of several hundred bloggers and one zeitgeist-defining website end up with such a similar set of albums? Eddy offers up several theories with something to each of them, but they don’t seem to tell the full story. One is that the Pazz and Jop’s electorate has changed as older print writers have been replaced by younger bloggers and writers – essentially, the arrival of the Pitchfork generation as formal critics. Another is that a few of these albums were actually successful commercially, which might not have been the case for much indie rock in the past. And Eddy’s best observation is that critics are less likely than ever to be writing in a vacuum: now when preparing Top 10 lists, critics are reading what everyone else is writing.

But why does everyone write down the same records, then?

It’s not just laziness, nor is it just a simple copycat syndrome. I think there’s a few possible trends at play here, and maybe all of them mashed together. One is that music critics are responding to the democratization of their profession – the rise of online criticism both through online websites and blogs – by shifting their critical focus (perhaps unconsciously) to stay relevant. Another is that there’s a solidarity element at play: the ascendancy of indie rock to 21st century cultural relevance is “our” victory and so writers close ranks to champion its greatest successes (I’m convinced this explains at least half of Animal Collective’s 2009 acclaim).

But primarily, I think what’s happening is the result of the Internet transitioning from an information space – accessible solely to those with money/time/technical-knowhow – to a social space where the tools of local and global communication are available to all. Contrary to what you might gather from angry message boards and news story comments, the modern Internet doesn’t really incentivize contrarianism all that much. At the core of platforms like Facebook and Twitter are positive feedback loops that build a greater connection with their manufactured communities. We get a fuzzy feeling every time someone “likes,” comments, responds to or “retweets” our posts, because it’s giving us a sense of our social capital. And we like it – we really like it.

In the social Internet, what matters most is acceptance. The idea that music criticism can be written without considering these social implications is silly to begin with; that it could do so as it broadens to include bloggers, Twitter accounts, Tumblr feeds and other untraditional sources is laughable. There’s just not enough good reason to go against the grain these days and so much more good reason for this wide assortment of “critics” to line up with it. We’re all going to have our pet dislikes that challenge norms, mind you – be it disliking Vampire Weekend or, in my case, someone like Joanna Newsom – even just as token gestures to reassure ourselves that we actually are independent, autonomous thinkers. But as a whole, we seem more willing to join the crowd than rail against it.

So if our lists end up the same as everyone else’s, are lists actually a genuine expression of the self at all? Sure they are. It’s our expression that above all else, we all want to belong.

Watch: Vampire Weekend – “Cousins”

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3 responses to “Cracking the new critical consensus

  1. Well done, McNutt. I appreciate your acknowledgement that the dominant medium of the contemporary music industry has shifted criticism toward a new paradigm of democratized social capital….
    I wonder if this means an inevitable divide or fracturing between camps, or conversely, a heterogeneity of taste as the new generation of critics (whose credentials are intuitive and/or populist) scramble to agree with one another about bands that don’t exist yet.
    I wonder also if we’re seeing the limits of internet as a mediator of art – is there a disconnect between out live, local music scenes and the on-demand über-cast of the internet? Probably. But what is it, and where does it leave us?
    At any rate, you’ve given me some really interesting things to think about. I’ll say it again: well done, McNutt.

  2. Pingback: …in which McNutt counts down the albums of 2010 (15-11) « McNutt Against the Music·

  3. Pingback: My top albums of 2010 « McNutt Against the Music·

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