27 January 2009
RE HIPSTER RUNOFF'S ANIMAL COLLECTIVE POST
RE HIPSTER RUNOFF'S ANIMAL COLLECTIVE POST
Several people have asked me what I think about Hipster Runoff, specifically his post on Animal Collective. My guess is this is because HRO and my previous enterprises Riff Central and Riff Raff (R.I.P.) played similar performo-critical games, or were the "funny" music blogs, something like that. Maybe we're the same person even--or maybe I've never heard of him. Maybe you're one of those matchmaker types, and maybe you think Carles and I might like each other. Except maybe Carles and I already go on man-dates and maybe we order two different entrees so we can taste more of the menu. Maybe we're that tight--or would be, given the shot. Or maybe I would hate him. Maybe he's my "ironic creative fiction" nemesis. Who knows.
I didn't know about HRO until early 2008. That might have been when he hit his stride, but I have no idea. I'll assume I was late. "The most authentic blog on the information super highway, yall," HRO is an intense parody of how "entry-level alts"--whoever they are, whatever they are--attempt to construct authentic "personal brands" through their technologies, clothes, haircuts, drugs, music choices, etc. Thinking aloud in the babbling patois of his targets, HRO obsesses over authentic vs. inauthentic, mainstream vs. alternative, selling out vs. keeping it real, on and on and on. If my identity is predicated on liking something precisely because other people don't know about said something, and then said something becomes a thing that other people like--how does this affect my personal brand?
At the same time, HRO's character fears the end of this extended adolescence. When do I stop giving a shit? When do I grow up? Does growing up mean giving up? Etc., etc. One post Carles is proud of--I know this because he made a big image link for it and put it on the right column--involves a screen grab from Daft Punk's Electroma and short declarative sentences emblazoned on the bottom third: "Should I get a gym membership?", "I want to invent a meaningful Web 2.0 service", "Will my hair fall out?", "I want to make over $100K a year" are my favorites. If you like reading about this stuff, I point you to Chris Ott's "Bjorn Against" post and from there Adam Sternbergh's piece in NY Mag about grups, if you missed that one.
Anyway I had Hipster Runoff on my reader for a few months. When The Dark Knight came out, I enjoyed all the photos Carles compiled of people dressed like the Joker--and you know, I got his point. I laughed. Here was a bunch of extremely young people trying to be/look/act cool--just like everyone else ever. But unlike everyone else, their brains told them: One awesome way to be cool is to re-appropriate the face paint of a terrifying nihilistic villain. This is smart and ironic because (a) I am not a terrifying nihilistic villain, and (b) by wearing the face paint, I am undermining the terror/nihilism/villainy of the Joker, and (c) the man who played Joker is dead, possibly because this role drove him nuts, however, I will not go nuts, I am not an idiot. Ergo: Joker paint. This is cool thing to do. Maybe a girl will think I am funny by doing this ridiculous yet easy thing. Maybe I will become "the funny person" in my grade and then maybe a girl will kiss me.
Carles lucked out with this one. You should find those posts, if only for the curatorial work he did. I also remember a post about Cut Copy, and whether or not they were authentic, and the ever-popular question: At concerts, why do some people really "get into" the mood more than others? Even when something is bullshit, like that band [X], how do people not know? Isn't it obvious? And HRO's answer inevitably boils down to a distinction between entry-level alt bros and full-fledged tried-and-true alt bros--the latter party, of course, having developed their personal brands to differentiate themselves from the entry-level alt bros, etc., etc.
The comedic engine of HRO is this, then: Nobody really likes something on its own terms. Tastes aren't one-way, they're reflexive--or rather, the things we like are reflective, mirror-like, ciphers in themselves. Most people out there aren't interested in the things themselves, or incapable, so much as what it means for them to like these things. Carles doesn't exclude himself from this predicament--he's just the only one telling it like it is. There is a lot of bullshit out there and yet people like it. Most people are (ta-da) hipster runoff.
So you can see why I stopped reading this blog as soon as the Joker posts dwindled. Hipster Runoff is really fucking boring. Not just old ideas, but ones made irrelevant by the internet’s infinite capability of accommodating niche interests, and with that a decline of truly “mainstream” moments. Mainstream versus alternative? "Alternative is just a construct of the mainstream"? "Young people don't know who they are and I am going to make fun of them to the delight of slightly less young people who don't know who they are yet either"? Really dude! Are you a grad student? Did you study continental philosophy at a small liberal arts college? Do you buy Monocle off the newsstand so the subscription interns don't know you read it?
But then so Mark's Animal Collective review ran on Pitchfork. A long-standing fan of the band, he gave Merriweather Post Pavilion a 9.6--the highest Pitchfork grade in a history of mostly highs for the band. Richardson is one of the site's earliest contributors. His professional writing career started with the site, I think. He used to be "Mark Richard-San" back when Pitchfork was Ryan and Ryan did some things simply because he thought that would be funny--that is how far he goes back. He was at the first Pitchfork "convention", which I think was shorthand for beers and weed at some lake house in Minnesota. Mark is one of Pitchfork's best writers, if not the best. He has the ability to make the most daunting music very intelligible, very approachable. It's a Midas-like touch he has--everything becomes warm. He can do this because he has the ability to analyze his own visceral reactions, and provide reasons for them. Super-rare quality in people, let alone internet music critics. The process seems to be: I like the way these sounds make me feel; Why do they make me feel this way?; How is different from the way I feel about things that don't make me feel this way? I will now write a critical assessment of this album.
Goes without saying: A history of music listening is built into his reactions, and he discusses it when appropriate. That is, he situates the music personally, before moving into the abstract and critical. This is difficult to do. He's aware of his soft spots--e.g. heavily processed guitar sounds, like Fennesz--but he doesn't dismiss these soft spots for the sake of the show, which a less confident critic most certainly would if called out for the same. He’s not embarrassed by their existence. He seems incapable of liking something ironically, and might likely convulse at the thought of loving something so. If you believe that some writers aspire to be honest and communicate honestly, and can be delightful and entertaining too--if this is something you think can happen without guile or alterior motive, then Mark Richardson might be your guy. If you believe in the possibility of having visceral reactions to music, and the worthiness or at least entertainment value of talented writers coming to terms with why they feel those ways, here's a dude for you.
I admit I'm cheating a bit here, because I've also had the pleasure of spending some time with Mark, back when Ryan and Scott were only "thinking" about firing me. Mark is older than me, much taller and handsomer and kinder and so on, but at that time I was in most awe how confident he seemed as a critic. Not that he knew where he stood on everything, so much as he wasn't afraid to admit his ignorance. In a car full of critics, in the company of our driver boss and his iPod on shuffle, Mark was the one who asked the names of the songs he didn't know, while the rest of us tried to catch the chorus so we could google afterwards. It was some song by Jim O'Rourke. Was this part of the Pitchfork canon that we all were just supposed to know? Was this some kind of pop quiz? I'll speak for the back seat: The relief was palpable.
So the review runs. MPP had leaked a few weeks prior, a lot of us in New York had heard it much earlier too, and the consensus was: This was easily Animal Collective's best album. So many of the beautiful melodies and rhythms they hinted at in those early Spirit They've Vanished and Dance Manatee albums--the band had figured out a way to get them out of their heads and bodies and instruments and really shape them up nicely. They got the guy who engineered Gnarls Barkley to produce the album, and he murdered the low-end and worked wonders on the vocal mix. Avey Tare has a compelling but difficult voice, and all the good qualities remain and all the physically uncomfortable ones are gone. The three members have gotten better with their gear, and on this psychic level, they've proven to themselves that they're more than "just a band." People know they're experimental musicians. There's very little burden on Animal Collective to prove that anymore. When you're young and in you're in New York, it's like, time to blow some motherfucking minds here. Tommy's Tavern, here I come. I'm going to do a show on my knees, ass up, and when I turn around, you all better be gone.
But they don't seem to feel that way anymore--partly because they're sure that anything they make now will go through this weird "gateway" of weirdness, therefore ensuring some requisite amount of weirdness in their music, because their brains are just programmed to think like that, to respond to certain weirdnesses. It's awesome and beautiful. It's how mediocre artists become awesome artists. At some point they figured out they were artists, maybe since Sung Tongs, and since then they've concentrated on their craft. It's been hit or miss for me with them, but mostly hits.
But I was really inspired by Merriweather Post Pavilion. These guys are only a few years older than I am, and the urgency of striking it big when you’re young is super intense, especially in New York. Yet they were patient. They knew they were onto something, but... They knew they would only get to this point if they worked hard. I echo every fawning praise for this album, which aims to re-imagine popular music, and the way it can sound, and the structures it might take, and the games it might play.
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.
A little after the Pitchfork review and the gigabytes of praise heaped on the album on blogs and message boards, HRO posted "Animal Collective is a Band Created By/For/On the Internet." You'll notice Carles breaks character a bit in this post. The sentences are more periodical, heavier with abstract nouns. He even dabbles in some litotes ("you can't really deny that they grew at a healthy rate..." etc). Carles the Serious Thinker wants us to take him seriously. Or is that the character Carles is playing wants to be taken seriously? It's an ass-to-ass situation we've got here. Who's fucking whom? Who's the old guy throwing money on their backs? Who's the double-sided dildo? Are you the double-sided dildo?
Whoever wrote it, one basic question of the piece is:
"Where does Animal Collective realistically sit in this hierarchy of critical acclaim vs. pop appeal vs. actually selling albums?"
This is where Carles makes the observation that internet popularity does not translate to financial success or "actual" popularity. He also observes that, if you are an indie music fan, you are small subset of "culturally relevant society." This subset is vocal within its boundaries, so something like Animal Collective can seem bigger than they actually are.
(Ladies and gentlemen, have you heard that the internet has allowed for niche interest groups to thrive and proliferate? That the primary movers of culture--the Big Media companies like Viacom and Time Warner and so on--dictate less than they used to? Paul Revere, throw some motherfucking Ds on this guy!)
But Animal Collective, he insists, are "an important band because they are one of the first 'transcendent' independent bands to gather most of their acclaim on the internet." He credits the band for controlling its rise on the internet, unlike Black Kids. "Much of their 'acclaim' has come in the post-p4k era," he says.
What does this mean exactly? Especially when almost every recent successful independent band has seen their acclaim, with or without scare quotes, come directly from or helped along by Pitchfork Media. It means nothing. And look. I've told you how Mark is. And as much as I think Ryan and Scott have misfired with a few Best New Musics, and as many times as Ryan and Scott have fired me and rehired me only to fire me again, I can tell you they take their job seriously. They know the site doesn't exist in a vacuum. They are extremely cautious of their own influence. They err on the side of second-guessing their writers, if anything. And they don't want to fuck everything up by seeing whether they can "trick" everyone into liking a band--not now anymore, not when people are already so skeptical of the site to begin with--reading it, liking their picks, but skeptical nonetheless, because by now the site has normalized itself. There are no more "Pitchfork bands." But surely Carles knows this. Dude’s just making jokes!
"There is nothing more annoying than Conceptual Artists/Bands who have allegedly garnered mainstream praise," Carles goes on. "I think the main gimmick behind these bands is convincing yourself that their 'product' stands for something more than music."
Pause and let the Dipset reference sink in. We've reached another ass to ass moment. There is nothing more annoying than people liking music for the wrong reasons? Not to pull a Chuck Eddy, but are there wrong reasons for listening to music? If blasting DMX out your Wrangler as you're pulling into some high school girl's driveway makes you feel awesome, makes you feel like a fucking bad-ass, is that wrong? If listening to metal makes you feel tougher, less insecure, is it my job to tell you that you are an idiot? You know when some people say "music is like a drug for me", this is what they're talking about: the simple act of listening to music makes them feel good. Imagine someone saying "You're enjoying heroin for all the wrong reasons." Are there right reasons? Is ‘empirical knowledge as to the effects heroin has on my body’ the right reason? I don't think so! Regardless of the myriad horrible reasons that might lead them to it, people probably do heroin because it makes them feel good.
I have this relationship with music. There is this cold and dizzy feeling that overtakes me sometimes, when a song or a passage of a song happens to gun it to my heart. And I am addicted to this feeling--I seek it out, sludging through days upon days of music, much of it very objectively "good", for those moments capable of the cold and dizzy. There are all sorts of biochemical and culturally normative/dictated reasons for what comprises these particular moments for me--but their deconstruction doesn't take away from the fact that they still happen. Their deconstruction doesn't cheapen them, at least not for me.
So you can understand my frustration with a blog that posits everything as "just" a pose, "just" a biochemical and culturally dictated" reaction. One of us is happy, the other is angry because happiness is just a construct, there is no happiness, there is no spoon, etc. But like I don't know this already! Like I'm the lesser man for seeing what you've torn apart, but putting everything back together again.
He can't possibly think this, right? Carles is making a parody of an argument, right? That's the whole point of his blog, right, understanding why we might like certain musics, questioning those reasons, but ultimately getting back to liking those certain musics, no? I am really worried I'm wrong. This is why: A good many people think this post is The Truth About Animal Collective, and The Truth About Animal Collective Fans. One is Idolator's Maura Johnston. Maura, who has been looking for cogent reasons to express her distaste for Animal Collective, seems more than happy to have had someone do her thinking for her. I will give her the benefit of the doubt and just assume she's incapable of close reading.
Another person is SPIN editor Charles Aaron. Aaron loves the band but finds himself shaken up by Hipster Runoff's post--second-guessing his reasons for liking the band, worrying aloud that they are the next Moby, wondering to what extent such a toxic event might affect his love for the band, and so second-guessing his reasons for liking music in the first place.
The way Aaron goes about his self-evaluation is curious. Here is my favorite part:
"After several free whiskeys at the River Room, a co-worker and I were concocting plans to throw a way outer-borough warehouse party where we'd get some cool-ass young DJ (like James Murphy's current weed carrier) to spin and rewind and cut/mash up Merriweather Post Pavillion for, like, 10 hours straight (some insane Danny Tenaglia, where-we-gettin'-brunch? marathon) backed by, say, the best visual extravaganza you could finagle from a Pratt Institute Digital Arts major."
Is this self-parody? Who is James Murphy's weed carrier? Justin? Pat Mahoney? Galkin? Petunia? Insane Danny Tenaglia? Where we gettin' brunch? Come on. If you know anything about Long Island City, you know the brunch options are dire. There's that one diner by the 7, and the Quiznos across the street. The Global Underground is that way.
I've certainly written stuff that tries to sound cool. Some of them do sound cool, but I am not exactly proud of these pieces, and there are some in the Voice that three years later really make me wonder. But Charles Aaron is OG. Why is he writing like this? I read this and I think about my own divorced aunt, fatter than she thinks, incongruously fake boobs, picking up her kids at school in a pink crop top and lycra leggings. And then I wonder whether Carles reads Aaron's post and thinks to himself, "What a fucking sucker. You are exactly what I'm talking about." Because what does Aaron see in this album exactly, per this post? "I've been babbling about how wonderful and original and transcendent it is, how it single-handedly reinvents indie rock and electronic dance music, and how it makes me wish I still took E (or 2CB) or whatever designer party pill is making the clubscum rounds."
This is what a grown man who is paid to be in touch with his reasons for liking music thinks about this album. Bums me out so much, especially when MPP is struggling with growing old and out of touch and losing your ability to love music and be hit by it and want everyone in the whole goddamn world to hear it because you fundamentally believe that if everyone hears this album, maybe the world will be a better place. A silly thought, but a real one, one I imagine a young Aaron probably thought about more than a few albums when he first started listening. Instead of listening to this album though—all the answers are in this album, swear--he's reading Hipster Runoff's Animal Collective post and then writing, "It makes me wanna embrace the wonders of existence one day, and fucking off myself the next." A grown man has read this parody of an argument against Animal Collective and just wrote he wants to kill himself. But maybe he's kidding? It's just a blog post, who cares, just an expression?
Ass to ass.
Aaron’s and HRO’s shared big worry or hope or disaster-like event, without connotation, is that Animal Collective might cross over by the sheer posturing force of the internet fanbase who is purportedly too smart to pay for music. But so the Billboard results came in this week--and though these numbers can be really tricky, lo and behold, Animal Collective were #13 on the album sales charts. 25,000 or so copies. But more importantly, in the #12 spot was Andrew Bird. Andrew fucking Bird! When the hell did this happen?
Imagine Hipster Runoff logic being applied to Andrew Bird. "People want to like Andrew Bird because he uses big words and sounds sophisticated, and people want their music to be smart, because then it reflects their own intelligence. And also there is among the yuppie class a worry that liking pop music constitutes some kind of mental deficiency--like their brains can't handle the intricacies of classical music, or they don't have the patience. But how to differentiate yourself from the masses of people who like pop music, without actually having to listen to complicated music? Well I guess I will like Andrew Bird, who uses big words and has violins and plays Carnegie Hall, a place where Important Adult Music happens on a nightly basis, Jethro Tull, throw some Ds on me."
Then imagine the Charles Aaron response post to this: "Oh man! That Hipster Runoff guy just totally shook me up with this post on Andrew Bird. Here I am, listening to the new album way back in 2008. And then there's a party in the Regis Hotel, where they are playing the record, and I'm like, this isn't the kind of party I want to throw. I want to have this party in a fancy Fifth Avenue apartment, and have Andrea Bocelli's weed carrier sing interpretations of Mr. Bird's music in his native tongue. But now I realize that maybe I am just posturing. Maybe I want people to think I am sophisticated, on account of editing a magazine whose target audience is in the 13 to 18 demographic, and I don't want people to think I have a short attention span, so I better get my Andrew Bird on, you know? Or off? I don't even know anymore. I better just throw on my best Joseph Banks suit and get to work on this post. What will I listen to if everyone starts liking Andrew Bird? Max Richter, Ds please"
This is a stupid game to play—there is a great deal of Charles Aaron in all of us, as there should be, as there necessarily is. Mostly because everyone is constructing an identity at all times, whether or not they even realize it. Mostly because you can sweat almost anything down to this basic biological truth: Culture is a mating ritual. We are looking for ways to differentiate ourselves so as to attract one another. That is the deep dark secret of everything we do. It might be that black and white.
But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the nuances of these rituals--the etiquettes of modern dating, the long ten-minute build before the drums ever come in, the hundreds of pages of exposition before the plot moves forward. These things are great. I love these things. I live for these things. Mark Richardson lives for these things. Animal Collective live for these things. So many people who like this band clearly live for these things. So many people believe that music still has some ability to be "more than music."
But this is subtle and hopeful and vulnerable stuff--it doesn't cut to the quick and dark truth. That's the power and allure of Hipster Runoff--he knows there's a little Charles Aaron in us all too--but ultimately that's his blog's deep and ugly flaw, something that not only bores me with its bluntness, but one that I also find morally reprehensible the softer his targets become, the more virulent his nihilism.
Recall the Joker from the Dark Knight. There was something so seductive about this man whose only m.o. was "shake things up." Whose position in any situation was "how I can show that everyone else secretly doesn't know what their positions are." Whose goal is to say "Everyone is a phony. No one really likes anything. Everyone is a little too secure and righteous—but I know they’re all really insecure."
I don't mean to paint things in binary but there are two basic poles here, with all of us probably falling in between them. You can be open, and vulnerable, and ignorant, and admit to your ignorance, and try to understand your own wiring and ignorance, and come to terms with the fact that you are one complex motherfucker with complex and not exactly logical or objective reasons for liking and loving what you do, but nevertheless still liking and loving the things that you do, or you can be the person who points out that everyone is pretty fucking ignorant, nobody ever has a clue what they're really doing on this earth, everybody's reasons are all so screwy, and do so on a daily basis, as a way of masking your own ignorance and insignificance and vulnerability. You can try to know, and own the fact that there are things you do not know, or you can be knowing, and hide your own ignorance with sideways shots of been-there done-that familiarity. You can understand that shit happens and try your best to keep things together and accomplish something against all odds--YOU CAN DANCE, as this album begins--or you can blow up the hospital just to show everyone that at any moment anywhere, a hospital can blow up for no fucking reason whatsoever.
In the Hipster Runoff universe, the only acceptable worldview is blowing up the hospital. HRO needs rugs, and people to stand on them, so that it can pull it out from them and show how stupid they were for thinking they were safe, for “pretending” they knew who they were. Just like Gawker, HRO won't stop until we're all too afraid to do anything, to step on the rug and take a fucking chance, to give a shit. Until we're all crippled by self-consciousness, and the worry of making a mistake. The targets will get younger and softer until we're laughing at thirteen year olds and ten year olds and five year olds, how stupid they are, how they embarrass themselves, how they believe they can do things it's so obvious to the rest of us they just can't do--so fucking obvious because we know so fucking much.
Don't you know how important it is to be able to make mistakes? To fuck up with impunity? Why won't you let my kids be kids? They will be the better for it. And you were too--and I'm so sad you don't see that. I'm so sad you don't remember how fucking hard it is, being that age, not knowing fuck-all how anything or anybody works, let alone yourself.
You can't justify nihilism. There is no justification. Personal opinion. But go ahead hater, bring it. I know you won't though. Because the second you wash off all the face paint, we'll all know who you really are: a "failed creative type" just like the rest of us, who gets off pointing out how we're all failed creative types just so you don't have to confront your own lack of vision.