Thursday, June 23, 2005

From today's New York Times: "Sometimes Snarkiness is Preferable to Sincerity"

Sometimes Snarkiness Is Preferable to Sincerity - New York Times

I'm glad the Dorothy Parker bit got singled out because it's one of my favorite parts. Mr. Sanneh quotes me accurately, though--in context--it's obvious that I'm not the posterchild for tender-hearted emo sincerity. Whatever. My first piece for The Believer is referenced in the New York Times and JR gets well-deserved props, too. Nice.

June 23, 2005
Sometimes Snarkiness Is Preferable to Sincerity

One of the funniest and meanest music-criticism blogs publishes no original music criticism at all. It's called The Shins Will Change Your Life, online at, and it compiles excerpts from breathless or fawning articles about indie-rock albums and musicians.
One writer in the site's crosshairs promises that after hearing the new album by the singer-songwriter Maria Taylor, "you'll soon be wondering how you've lived so long without having these songs in your life." Another declares that the new Art Brut album is "as clear as crystal a piece of untainted genius." And a third notes that "No Wow," by the Kills, is "a brutal record that changes you the same way prison changes a man." No extra commentary is provided, and none is necessary; the site's scathing sarcasm goes entirely unstated.

The Shins Will Change Your Life reads like a delayed reaction to the great snark debate of 2003, begun in the pages of the literary magazine The Believer and continued, for a few months, in the Snarkwatch section of the magazine's Web site, Heidi Julavits, an editor of The Believer, used the term snark to refer to the "hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt" that she often noticed in book reviews, including some that have been published in The New York Times Book Review. (The essay is online at And the Snarkwatch site did the opposite of what the Shins site does now: instead of snarkily mocking music critics for their overwritten encomiums, it took book critics to task for "needlessly unpleasant" or unfair reviews.
It makes a certain sort of sense, then, that the editors of The Believer have just given the anonymous Shins blogger a big, fat new target. The magazine's new issue is its annual music issue, featuring 88 pages of articles ("Incl. non-music essay on George Plimpton," as the cover promises, or perhaps warns) and one CD full of musicians covering songs by their peers; almost all of these cover versions are previously unreleased.

The Believer prides itself on being omnivorous, and usually for good reason. The editors love to give the essays long subtitles followed by even longer lists of the subjects discussed. In the next issue, due out later this summer, the magazine sort of promises ("Not all contents are guaranteed; replacements will be satisfying") to print an article entitled "Ignatius Donnelly, Prince of Cranks: How a nineteenth-century Minnesotan's catastrophic imagination predicted the Internet, chemical warfare and demon airships." This is a magazine that aims to show readers a bigger, weirder world.

That's why it's so puzzling to find, for the second year, that The Believer's music issue contains almost nothing outside the alt-rock world. The five musicians interviewed offer five different flavors of alternative: the post-punk singer Karen O, from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; the puckish singer Beck; the sisters, ages 11 and 13, who make up Smoosh; the singer-songwriter Aimee Mann; and the indie-rock singer John Roderick of the Long Winters.

The interviews are long and appealingly casual, and the best are full of unexpected little anecdotes and asides, as when Mr. Roderick's interviewer compares some Long Winters lyrics to Dorothy Parker's writing. The response is a half-serious warning: "Be careful not to compliment me too much, because I'm apt to say, 'Don't you think my last quip was rather like Dorothy Parker?' " But the relentless focus on alternative rock is not only strange but also slightly depressing. What fun is it to explore a musical world that seems so small?

The CD is similarly frustrating, not least because there's much to recommend it. Many music issues come with freebie sampler CD's that are little more than record-company-sponsored promotional tools. But this one has new recordings, some of them great (like Spoon's version of "Decora" by Yo La Tengo) and some not so great (like Devendra Banhart's rather graceless reading of "Fistful of Love" by Antony and the Johnsons).

Again, the problem is the limited focus. The CD is accompanied by an essay that begins, puckishly, with an ultra-condensed history of songwriting: "The oldest recorded song that we know of was etched on clay tablets in western Syria 3,400 years ago." The essay leaves readers free to imagine that the CD is a wide-ranging collection of contemporary songs, even though it's mainly devoted to the work of a small cohort of indie-rockers.

Maybe it's unfair to judge a magazine by its music issue. The style magazine Nylon just published its annual music issue, too, and it's full of stylishly disheveled bands so similar-looking that they could probably trade members without anyone's noticing. This is a small world that's small on purpose; the little details (like the hilarious and quite lovely Will Sanders photograph of the teenage Nashville punk band Be Your Own Pet, half-hidden behind a blossoming tree) more than make up for the lack of range.

If The Believer's music issue is more problematic, that's because it's also more neutral. In an effort to stamp out snark, the editors also seem to have stamped out skepticism, and so the magazine takes it for granted that indie-rockers are the most important musicians on the planet: the harpist and songwriter Joanna Newsom, for example, taps into "a deep, universal pain." (Might those words appear on a certain blog sometime soon?)

There is scarcely any mention of the kind of music left out. Mainstream pop music is mainly off-limits, although Rick Moody makes a grudging confession: "I like pop songs, too, of course, in reasonable doses." (Later, he takes a swipe at "the bland affirmations of the contemporary 'country' radio format.") And black and Latin music is almost entirely absent. At one point, Mr. Roderick claims that "indie-rock culture is the real ghetto of people who have convinced themselves that they're too sensitive to be yelled at or to yell." The interviewer responds with what might be The Believer's unofficial credo: "When it's genuine, though, it's different."

Compared with the ostentatious sincerity of The Believer's music issue, a site like Shins probably seems like an exercise in bad faith, a place where writers are pilloried for daring to be enthusiastic. But while Shins provides plenty of cheap laughs, it also hints at the prejudices that usually go unexamined in music writing, assumptions about what smart or genuine or good or life-saving music should sound like, and about who should be making it. Sure, indie-rock fans and musicians have plenty of reasons to be glad that The Believer throws such an entertaining party every year. But they - and others - might also pause to wonder who's not invited, and why.

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