Saturday, January 31, 2009

Party's Over, Tell the Rest of the Crew: Nick Sylvester Takes It To Hipster Runoff

If any of this is going to make sense, you're gonna need to read this first.

It's Nick Sylvester, Pitchfork/Village Voice/freelance scribe, taking issue with Hipster Runoff's post "Animal Collective Is A Band Created By/For/On the Internet" Since I'm a little too tired to make a cogent argument with a beginning, middle, and end, I'll address my thoughts on both posts with that ol' standby: bullet points.

- Firstly, Sylvester pretty much nails Hipster Runoff for exactly what it/he is: "...a "failed creative type" just like the rest of us, who gets off pointing out how we're all failed creative types just so (he) don't have to confront (his) own lack of vision." That's harsh, and it doesn't do justice to how entertaining that pointing out can be, but it's true that pointing out the fact that people who want to be cool and "meaningful" are full of shit is the sort of thing that ultimately, as Sylvester points out, leads to nihilism. In the Hipster Runoff universe, we're all just pathetic, needy losers desperate to define ourselves in any way that will help us believe we're special and unique, when the truth is we're nothing but faceless and spineless nobodies. That's an ugly vision of the world, and as a philosophy for life, it's pretty much crippled by self-consciousness. You can't do anything, because everything has been done and everything is a cliche.

-Sylvester's defense of Merriweather Post Pavillion and Animal Collective is just a little too heart on the sleeve for me:

"Step into the music, the lyrics, and you realize this album is about three thirty year-olds trying to figure out how not to become grups. They are fundamentally different from the parents, living totally different lives--and yet they love their parents, probably respect the jobs they did on them, want the same for their own. The clash between knowing how screwy life is, being relatively set in your ways, and yet still wanting to remain wide-eyed--open to new possibilities the way you were at age 9, 19, 29—this is what I hear in MPP. A big vulnerable theme, and I admire them not for their answers so much as their bravery to just fucking go for it like this."

I know it's ridiculous to fault a critic for enjoying music for self-centered reasons (clearly Sylvester feels like he's in the same boat as the members of AC), but based on this description of the album, why would anyone who's not in their thirties, doesn't have kids, and didn't have a well-adjusted childhood want to listen to the album? As the entire discussion surrounding Hipster Runoff's post and its satire of people using Animal Collective as a cultural signifier attests to, music is not listened to in a bubble. Context matters. Narrative (as in "This is why/how we made this album") matters.

To give a concrete example, back when I first listened to Animal Collective's Feels, I couldn't stand it. The lyrics drove me insane because they sounded like the inane and solipsistic ramblings of someone who just got into a new relationship. References to "making funny faces in the bathroom mirror" and needy codas like "Would you like to see me often?/Though you don't need to see me often/Though I'd like to see you often/I don't need to see you often" irritated me to no end. It wasn't until I looked up the lyrics online and saw how dark and strange some of them where that I could begin to appreciate the album. For me, songs without some negativity or pain can never truly resonate because they ring false to my experience. If I were recommend an album using Sylvester's above description of MPP, I wouldn't go near it with a ten foot pole.

-Mark Richardson, who wrote the Pitchfork review of MPP and gave it a 9.5, is apparently a great fucking guy. How do we know this? Well, he was in a car full of Pitchfork critics and a song came on and he asked the name of the song. Mark Richardson is truly a model of humility if he was willing to risk the abject humiliation that could have come from revealing his musical ignorance to a car full of music critics. What this anecdote says about the vanity of certain music critics is kind of scary and the fact that Sylvester uses it to illustrate what a decent guy Richardson is makes me think he's a few more notches above down to earth than he'd ever like to admit.

-Sylvester's critique of HRO is ultimately a pretty important one, I think. As much as the site is a satire of trends in music, fashion, and culture changing daily and weekly, seemingly totally oblivious to any actual market or scene or demographic, it's also a real reflection of an immense cynicism about the power of culture or art to do anything. All those first level "alts" are pictured on the site looking naive and enthusiastic about music and life so that people older and more cynical than them can laugh at how much those kids are going to be disappointed by everything. The endless running joke of the site is the belief of all these fresh faced kids that everything is going to fall in place for them, that once when they leave high school or college, they'll move to a big city, find a great music/art scene, land a creative and fulfilling job, and live happily ever after.

I can't lie and say I haven't laughed at that joke, but it's a cruel one. If the world is as truly as empty and sad as HRO seems to think it is, the least we deserve is our illusions.