“The Music We Hate” in Maisonneuve

The summer’s just starting and already I’ve been ridiculously busy – which is why I’ve struggled to find the time to put together typical McNutt Against the Music essays.

But thankfully, there are other places to read my writing. For one, I’ve had some great opportunities over the past couple of months to freelance with The Coast, Halifax’s weekly. In addition to a number of quick album reviews, I’ve gotten to interview Wintersleep and Caribou, as well as put together a preview of the big albums of summer 2010. It’s been fun so far – a great chance to stretch my writing skills a bit – and I’m hoping to keep contributing in the weeks and months ahead.

But the writing I’m most excited about is in the summer issue of Maisonneuve, which just hit newsstands this past week. As always, there’s my Music Room room column, which this edition features records from The Gaslight Anthem, The National, LCD Soundsystem, Shad, Robyn, Teenage Fanclub and more.

But then there’s also the magazine’s cover story: “The Music We Hate,” a series of essays by music critics on the artists whose appeal they simply don’t “get.” It features:

  • Chandler Levack (Spin, Village Voice, Eye Weekly) on Broken Social Scene
  • Carl Wilson (Globe and Mail and Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste) on Radiohead
  • Sean Michaels (Said the Gramophone, the Guardian, McSweeney’s) on Sufjan Stevens
  • Sarah Liss (CBC) on Neon Indian
  • Michael Barclay (Macleans, co-author of Have Not Been the Same) on Animal Collective
  • Dave Morris (Eye Weekly) on Sonic Youth

Oh and, um, me. Writing about Joanna Newsom.

The feature was actually inspired by an e-mail exchange between Maisonneuve editor Carmine Starnino and myself just prior to the publication of the Spring issue. I had submitted my Music Room column and Carmine sent it back to me for review with a question: Had I considered Have One on Me, the soon-to-be-released Joanna Newsom record? Apparently, a few Maisy staffers thought that its exclusion might be an oversight, so he was politely passing along the observation for me to consider.

I was tempted to just write back with a laugh and a “Fuck, no,” but rather than get crude and blunt, I decided to explain myself a bit. I wrote that we all have our “pet dissents”: lines we draw in the sand to stake out our independence (however forced) from the critical consensus, badges we can wear to say that “yes, I do have my own opinions.” My three closely-cherished dislikes: Animal Collective, the Fiery Furnaces and Joanna Newsom. And of the three, only Newsom had yet to make an album that I at least appreciated. Carmine wrote back saying that I’d given him an idea.

A month later, I had a request in my inbox to take part in the feature story.

Obviously, I’m in some pretty esteemed company, so part of me feels a bit like the new girl in school who’s just happy that she got invited to the dance at all. But that’s not to say that I’m not proud of my contribution to the feature; on the contrary, I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. In some ways, it’s a bit of an outlier – most of the essays deal extensively with their artist’s place in the musical or critical culture, whether it’s the bands or behaviour they inspire or their annoying fan followings (“It’s not the band I hate / it’s their fans”). I had originally included quite a bit about the critical consensus that’s formed around Newsom, but as those parts were excised during the editing process, what was left is a far more insular essay: A piece mostly about the relationship between the listener and the record, which might reflect the process by which the article was written. I spent almost a full week listening to nothing but Joanna Newsom albums, trying – almost desperately – to find something valuable buried in them.

That I didn’t probably says more about me than about Newsom, which is, I hope, the point that comes across in my essay. Sometimes, us critical musical types tend to rest on “objective” reasons for disliking certain records, while casual listeners are content to just simply like or dislike records with no explanation required. But ultimately, our relationship with music is a dialogue, with the artist and listener as equal partners in the experience. So while my piece gets in the requisite cheap-shots against the low-hanging issues with Newsom’s music, I’m hoping that even her fans will appreciate where I’m coming from by the time they reach its end.

As for the rest of the collection, I gravitate towards the pieces that attack bands I love, since my reactions to them are more visceral (in comparison to, say, Barclay’s essay on Animal Collective, where I just smile and nod in agreement). Wilson’s takedown of Radiohead makes some easy (but valid) points, but I wish he’d spent more time on his most intriguing idea: that of “Radiohead syndrome,” bands aspiring to be awesome at what they do rather than doing something awesome. I think Levack is too hard on Broken Social Scene’s later work (and never deals with their live show, the sprawling, inspiring mess of which is one of the main reasons I love the band) but her gripes against the culture they’ve inspired are sharp and biting.

But my favourite of the bunch might be Sean Michaels’ take on Sufjan Stevens, which in some ways is the most similar to mine (as in, it’s almost entirely about Stevens’ music and barely touches the culture and fandom that surrounds it). What’s clear is that he admirers Stevens’ talents as a writer and arranger but is endlessly frustrated by his excesses. For me, those excesses are part of Stevens’ charm, which I think hits at something valuable: just like the people in our lives, the bands we listen to come with scars and flaws that we scorn, ignore or appreciate, depending on what the rest of the experience offers us. Michaels isn’t wrong about Stevens, just as Wilson isn’t wrong about Radiohead and Levack isn’t wrong about Broken Social Scene. But whereas I forgive or embrace those bands’ annoying idiosyncrasies (musical or otherwise), others find those flaws burning, crippling, dealbreaking.

Just like no matter how many fans she has, Joanna Newsom will always be acid to my ears.

You can read the full feature, “The Music We Hate,” as well as my Music Room column in the Maisonneuve summer issue now on newsstands. In addition, you can also read a series of companion essays at maisonneuve.org (including dislikes of the Mars Volta, Pavement, Lady Gaga and more). Plus, if you’re in Montreal on July 8, the magazine is hosting a launch party for the issue featuring three Montreal bands performing songs they can’t stand. Wish I could be there.

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