What I Learned From Stereogum

Indie fans, so the theory goes, are an intellectual kinda group. They all went to college, and not your common state school either, but liberal arts colleges. Their preferred music reflects this: it’s a little detached, a little effete, a little bookish, disconnected from the more bodily pleasures of something like metal or dance.

Why, then, is there such a virulent strain of anti-intellectualism among the indie rock fans on music blogs?

Allow me to employ an example from my own life. Last week, Stereogum thought to link me in a post about an imagined beef between Radiohead and Prince, in which Prince seemed to be asserting ownership over the cover of “Creep” he performed at Coachella earlier this year. The author of the post, Brandon Stosuy, linked to a piece I had written about the cover, claiming that I said “the Purple One actually did write (or re-write) ‘Creep.'” After quoting four paragraphs of my post, he concluded: “Or maybe he forgot the words. Grad School [sic] is fun. Give it up for Borges.”

The thing is, I wrote the piece a month before any of this surfaced, so it had nothing to do with copyright wrangling. I was really just saying that the cover was awesome, specifically because Prince made “Creep” his own. Though Stosuy seemed to have some problem with this, the idea of making someone else’s song your own is not an unfamiliar one to most music fans. This is because of a little show called American Idol. See, for instance, Randy Jackson at the end here:

(Or, you know, you could just read an earlier post on Stereogum.)

I’ve spent some time thinking about the art of the cover, and I’ve come up with a certain set of guidelines. First, if you’re going to cover a song, it has to sound different from the original. If I wanted to hear the original, there are many outlets for me to do so. Second, any good cover reinterprets the song using the coverer’s particular sound, and should meld the song into the quirks of phrasing and effects that permeate that artist’s originals. And finally, covering a known song is almost always better than covering an unknown song. The thrill of hearing a cover comes from referentiality, not discovery.

All this stems from a particular philosophical viewpoint: there are too many songs out there, and not enough interpretations of songs. The history of recorded music is deep enough at this point that pop should be adapting some of the techniques of older musical forms, and one of the most important ones is reinterpretation. A great cover shows us something about the original that we never saw before, some stylistic similarity or hidden element that the coverer brings out and highlights. This is what “making it your own” means. A good cover doesn’t just transmute an existing song into a new style to make hay from the absurd juxtaposition; it makes an old song sound like a natural part of the coverer’s repertoire, thus revealing things about both the original artist and the one doing the reinterpretation.

All this was very clear in my piece, were you to actually read it rather than placing it out of context into a new setting that had nothing to do with it. The spin put on the piece by Stereogum was not just wrong, it was some Bill O’Reilly shit, intentionally misinterpreting what I said so as to cause outrage. Though I don’t normally respond to crazy criticisms of things I write, I figured a clarification was in order, and I threw together the least snotty comment I possibly could–which, in fairness, was still kinda snotty–to make sure everyone was clear on what I meant. I then went on with my day.

Still, something about it bugged me. Maybe it was the comments. Here’s a sampling, all [sic], naturally.

That second to last paragraph almost made me throw up.

What kind of insane garbage was that second statement. If I go into a karioke bar, fuck up a song…can I claim that I was just using my creative genius too?

That ClapClap paragraph is a load of bullshit: If All Along The Watchtower’s still a Bob Dylan’s song, then Creep is still Thom Yorke’s…A cover’s a cover, no matter how much “astounding pop magic” is used, period. Maybe if I could see the fucking thing I could change my mind for the better, but since that’s pretty much nil, Prince remains a corporate whore to me. Plus, the fact that Radiohead embraces this new age of open media has to say something for them compared to other popular rock bands.

I LOVE the description of how Prince made it his own – it’s like that great clip where Vanilla Ice defends the bassline in ‘Ice Ice Baby’ as being completely different from the bassline in ‘Under Pressure.’

“i’ve written this new song its called “2009” i copied Prince’s “1999” almost verbatim but instead we’re going to party like its about to roll over to 2010. you get it? I’m brilliant.

Now, this is being somewhat unfair. Comments posted after mine corrected many of the errors in the original post: Thom was just pointing out the irony of being unable to hear a cover of a song he had written, Prince did have a right to request the videos’ removal as the performer, and my post had nothing to do with any of this.

Still, one issue remained: that final sentence of Stosuy’s post, the one where he mysteriously capitalized “School” and sneeringly–and just as mysteriously!–invoked “Borges.” In my attempt not to be snotty, I nevertheless couldn’t resist responding to that one, beginning my comment with: “I appreciate the hat tip–and the anti-intellectualism!” A Stereogum commenter took issue with this:

And I don’t know if you got the memo, but intellectualism is not very cool anymore (or was it ever?).

There’s an irony in this. Stosuy is not exactly one to shun intellectualism himself, having written, among other things, a book about conceptual artist Matthew Barney, as well as the introduction to a book published by Semiotext(e). And good for him! These are all interesting, worthwhile things. And they make it not only more difficult for him to accuse someone of being pretentious, but fairly depressing to see him do so.

Gentle reader, I must be honest with you at this point. I am, indeed, in grad school. But I began writing wordy, pretentious, and overexcited things long before I rejoined the academy. Four years ago, I wrote over 23,000 words on a single Fiery Furnaces album. And this was not entirely unusual for the time. Those of you who remember the early days of music blogs might remember them as being more or less like what I described above: long, thoughtful, serious posts about music. I’m sure you need not be told that this is no longer the case, and the fact that a Stereogum commenter thought to tell me that intellectualism isn’t cool–key choice of words there–should indicate why.

If my writing gets pretentious and overly serious, I’m happy to be called on that. But if you read my piece, I don’t see anything approaching grad schoolishness; it is, after all, mostly about fucking. What I do see in my piece is enthusiasm, something that’s never cool, whereas what you get on Stereogum is the exact opposite: hysterical denunciation. That’s always pretty cool–were you to ask commenters what they were rebelling against, “What do you got?” seems a likely answer.

As the audience for music blogs has expanded, the wordcounts of posts have shrunk, and the commenters have gotten meaner and greedier. Instead of the kind of thoughtful and occasionally heated discussion that was once the norm, we are now treated as heretics if we fail to bestow upon our readers the free music they feel they deserve. Forget good writing–music blogs have chased the lowest common denominator so aggressively that anything longer than a blurb merits a “tl;dr.” Maybe the indie rockers read so much in college that they they’re tired of it.

I try not to let it get to me. I try to get excited about things, and think about things, and write about things at whatever length they deserve. And if I don’t always get it right, I’m OK with that. An error is forgivable. To pander to the worst impulses of your audience by snidely dismissing thoughtfulness is, I think, a bit less forgivable. A writer or a critic with any concern for his craft should not so easily abandon the idea of expanding the imaginative possibilities of art, especially not in pursuit of more click-throughs from a readership that likes nothing better than being told everyone is stupid but them.

[Photo: Vincent Giordano]