An Idolator Real Talk Special Report: The Black Kids Hype Must Be Stopped

jharv / October 22, 2007

One of the worst things about the earnest nature of music blogs at the moment–whether giants like Stereogum and Brooklyn Vegan or some kid happily posting up uncleared MP3s, where most copy amounts to recycled press releases or “OMG! Music is so awesome!” if it expresses any sort of opinion at all–is that it’s now gauche to call out a crock. You get called a “reactionary” or a “hater” and these pushovers want to know why you can’t just relax and enjoy the bounty of an era where every new band is more mindblowing than the last. But the wheels-within-wheels meta-coverage of Black Kids, the latest blog-crush turned (almost) real-world hype, has forced us to say something about this pathetic state of affairs. Because Black Kids are some bullshit. And it’s not even their fault. It’s our fault, which is to say the fault of bloggers and writers. Because right now no one should even know who Black Kids are.

I had planned to write this over the weekend, and a lot of what I’m about to say already started to slip out in my post about day five of CMJ. Hell, it’s been written about elsewhere on Idolator, like Maura’s post about the Oxford American article on blog hype, and we’re hardly the only bloggers to voice similar concerns over the last few years. But after this morning’s New York Times hit the doorstep, it feels like it all bears repeating. Loudly. If they’re not killing music, which is sky-is-falling horseshit, then blogs are killing certain bands, mostly indie rock bands, one at a time, by acting like a surrogate network of Lou Pearlmans forcing kids without the chops or songs into the hard-touring, hard-interviewing, hard-pressed-to-come-up-with-material spotlight. And the hosannas heaped on what amounted to middling performances from a group (Black Kids) that should have been third on a five-band bill playing a small bar in a second-tier city feel like people trying to save face, and they’re an excellent example of what makes the whole “blog band” enterprise rancid and ridiculous and potentially unstoppable.

Many of you are probably sitting there grousing to yourselves that you don’t even know who Black Kids are or at least what they sound like, but isn’t that par for the course in a climate where a four-song demo is ripped from a band’s control and claimed the second coming in major newspapers and magazines (and Pitchfork counts if anything does these days), the blog dominoes falling one after the other? Black Kids may have evolved into something interesting in a year or two, but right now, at an impossible early peak of popularity, they’re half-formed at best. Despite the routine and baseless praise, Black Kids’ music is just a collection of indie-pop cliches–basslines ripped off from Peter Hook or James Jamerson, sloppy drumming, rudimentary guitar heroics, and the melodic fallacy that going “la-la-la” in a unsion shout qualifies you for Brill Building canonization. Like most bands still feeling their way around a practice space and each other, they’ve mashed these signifiers together to quickly write their first clutch of songs to see if it all works. And unsurprisingly, it’s all still very much undigested.

Which makes the hype the usual consumer fraud, and Jon Pareles’ half-hearted contribution to the hype someone turning a dispassionate eye to a real problem for young bands. In his defense, as a longtime critic for one of the biggest dailies on the planet, Pareles probably (rightly?) doesn’t feel very distraught by the state of online journalism or the vagaries of being a band in the era of online journalism. But I do, and I gather anyone reading this site regularly does as well. As for his critical evaluation of the band, while the article mostly allows him to turn that dispassionate eye to the larger issue of blog-hype, he still arrives at the conclusion that Black Kids are “a pretty good band with more than its share of blogger-friendly hooks” and “unpolished but immediately likable.” Which is faint, somewhat incoherent praise–what the hell are “blogger-friendly hooks”?–but praise nonetheless. Hell, the earlier Times blog report on the band reads like praising an invalid for not shitting their pants.

But the article is also a major news outlet at least stabbing at most of the problems afflicting indie rock and online criticism at the moment, even if Pareles doubles back on himself repeatedly–bloggers are usually there to puncture hype, but not always, and so on–and some of his assertions verge on laughable: “Lately, as downloaded songs tear apart albums and one-hit wonders come and go, indie rock has been one of the few zones where audiences stay loyal; they actively seek out bands, stay with them and give their music some undivided and repeated attention.”

What kind of madness is this? Blog-era indie fans are among the most promiscuous music listeners around, and it’s precisely this insatiable need for new bands among both fans and blogs desperate for more content that’s forced Black Kids into this position. For every major band that fits Pareles’ description like the Arcade Fire, where fans tape their photos to their lockers like they were Soulja Boy, there is an endless progression of “important” next big things to be forgotten about with the next iPod cull. The genre maybe have always been crowded with nonentities, but now it feels overpopulated with “bands to watch” to the point of polluting its own ecosystem, with listeners acting like game wardens mercilessly thinning the herd once they become bored. Most of these bands, even the ones more technically accomplished or even “interesting” than Black Kids, are obviously less than deserving of the attention. And yet it’s almost hard not to feel bad for them, considering that if they get written about in July, they’ll be forgotten by Christmas. (This is not exactly restricted to new, unsigned, or unknown bands either. Just ask Bjork, who apparently released an album this year.) It’s a “one chance to blow” kinda deal, with the idea of a band refining or improving or changing a distant memory from an era with, you know, albums and junk.

And above and beyond the current vogue for conflicted, confused blog-hype trend pieces, the problem is really that Mr. Pareles–or anyone, really–shouldn’t be writing about Black Kids right now, at least not writing about them as the linchpin in a larger narrative or calling their derivative sketches some of the year’s “best new music” with a straight face. They’re a minor league band unfortunately aggrandized into a position of prominence that their music can’t support. The problem is that it’s all minor league bands aggrandized into a position of prominence these days, having the life immediately sucked out of them by the two-month (and shrinking) press cycle. “Organic” growth on the part of a band–i.e. getting better and building an audience by touring and recording–is actually denied them when the blog ankle-biters swarm in, unless the band is refusenik enough to extricate themselves from the whole process. And obviously most aren’t. And the kind of indie/indie-pop virtues that Black Kids trade on–unskilled but earnest bands playing against the limits of their abilities–have no place in the rather ruthlessly “professionalized” world of insta-attention, where you have to grow-up into a Totally Freakin’ Mind-Blowing Band within months, sometimes weeks.

Or maybe more accurately those indie-pop/rock values become poisonous when transplanted to the music blog world. We all know that indie bands like Black Kids once thrived in supportive–cranks might say codependent–small city music communities for minor audiences. But these bands shrivel under the gaze of national press scrutiny, if there was any “scrutiny,” and that kind of uncritical, codependent support takes on ugly dimensions when it’s coming from “tastemakers” immediately pushing bands into the arms of major labels and MTV News pieces. Bands need someone calling them on their shit to improve past the status of a hobby. Empty boosterism is fine on the level of bands playing house parties, but it feels almost cruel to watch its effects on suddenly “important” young bands in 2007 and depressing to watch its effects on the musical landscape of 2007. And calling it criticism with a straight face is the biggest canard of the blog era.

As for what to “do” about it, well, you’ve got me. There’s a growing feeling that you can’t fight city hall, especially when, as a music writer, it’s almost impossible to not feel like part of the problem in a climate where writing positively about any new band feels suspect. I don’t like to talk about writing for Pitchfork because it’s unseemly, and because I don’t want to turn into Sasha Frere-Jones desperately trying to turn his old band in a major plot point. But in this case I feel like it’s at least somewhat germane, and otherwise it would be the BNM elephant in this tiny room. Whatever the outlet, I spent most of this year writing only about records I loved, under the assumption that life was too short and word counts were too limited to waste time on crap. As a result, I piled up a lot of raves, including raves for a lot of new bands. At the time, it didn’t bother me, because I believed in those records and still do, but now I’m not so sure that my all-love tack wasn’t just inadvertently feeding into the debasement of popular crit. The feeling of being hyper-aware about looking like you’re tossing around indiscriminate praise is, as Mr. Pareles mentions in his piece, a worry among many writers, at least the ones with enough self-awareness to actually be concerned about such things. Which is obviously not enough.

Like I said, these worries and gripes are not new. You may have voiced them before yourself. But they need to be talked about, if only so they don’t get steamrolled by the defeatist feeling that this slack slide into international-scale boosterism is irreversible. CMJ and Black Kids weren’t any kind of Damascus moment–this has been an issue long a-brewin’–but they did remind me that we’re at a precarious point right now for the future of what some of us still call criticism. If nothing else, people always love to argue about whether or not critics and reviews are useful as a “buyer’s guide,” and many have also argued that if music is as oversaturated as everyone says at the moment, it follows that the intermediaries should be more important than ever, even if the MP3-and-no-contextual-information evidence seems to say that the converse is true. Taste is subjective, but right now there are a lot of untrustworthy voices out there, voices with little in the way of insight–hell, voices that don’t even really want to start arguments–and yet are nonetheless regarded as the New Critics, at least among those old media types with the power to anoint such empty titles.

It’s easy to have a lot of friends when you don’t stand for anything–again, having opinions is called “hating” these days–and it’s equally easy to look like you’re merely out to snarkily puncture hype with no stance of your own when commenting on reviews and trends. But for the bands’ sakes–which means for the listeners’ sakes, since they can only benefit by a band actually getting, you know, good–a moratorium on slobbering praise, at least when it comes to newborn bands like Black Kids, needs to be imposed by those with the kingmaking abilities. Or maybe listeners just need to start imposing some sort of fine on the “critics.” Or maybe people just don’t feel ripped off when confronted by the bland realities of bands like Black Kids because they know there will be another mediocre train along soon enough that will at least entertain them until the end of the semester.