Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

The Perils of Criticism: Arcade Fire Edition

Just sent in a B&N Review piece on the new Arcade Fire album/tour, released August 3 and commenced August 4, and not for the first time when I'm coming in late--as more rock criticism should, albums being the most reusable of all artistic entities--began by looking back at their story and checking out the collegial consensus. Often this kind of prep work is just intellectual calisthenics, and that's what happened this time--I ended up researching and thinking about a lot of stuff that was obviated by the work, especially when I started concentrating on the lyrics, which I generally put off till I've absorbed the music. So I thought I'd share with you these three notes, which are unrelated except, obviously, that they all pertain to arts journalism.

  1. Supposedly, the Arcade Fire's 2004 Funeral was the album Pitchfork made, the album that made Pitchfork, or both. In some limited sense, both. David Moore's rave, and 9.7 rating, certainly speeded up a bandwagon that was already rolling, and as Funeral began its march toward gold-level 500,000 sales (which took till this year), the magazine's underground rep as a kingmaker--especially as of editor Ryan Schreiber's rave for the much more subcultural Canadian band Broken Social Scene a year before--was duly noted in the MSM. What I always wondered was the extent to which Schreiber had ordered up the review, as was widely but not therefore credibly rumored (backbiting rumor-mongering being even more rife in the online rockmag world than in the rest of journalism). One informant guessed but didn't claim to know for sure that Schreiber softened up the then 20-year-old college student Moore and then handed him the assignment on a band he wanted to make sure was very positively reviewed. So I got hold of Moore and obtained his version. Moore told me that there was some back-and-forth with Schreiber, but via IM rather than in person--he was a student at Ithaca College at the time. For sure it was clear that Moore would write a positive review, but he felt no pressure and got no instructions. Until, that is, it came to the rating. Moore wanted to give the record a perfect 10.0 (which he knows now was a little silly--"I was young, there was a lot I didn't know"). Pitchfork--Moore doesn't remember who--told him they didn't give 10s, so he suggested a 9.7 compromise. Which as a longtime grader I'd say is still a little silly. Within a year or two Moore had lost his passion for alt-rock--his crush on Funeral was based largely on its emotional avoidance of indie irony--and now writes a blog called Cureforbedbugs that's big into girlpop. He loves Ashlee Simpson. His ideas read better when you don't know the music in question. He makes his living running an enrichment program for lower-income elementary-school kids in Philly.

  2. One of the first reviews up at Metacritic was a smart one by a guy I know and respect named David Marchese at Spin. Gave it 4 1/2 stars and concluded with this graf:

    Radiant with apocalyptic tension and grasping to sustain real bonds, The Suburbs extends hungrily outward, recalling the dystopic miasma of William Gibson's sci-fi novels and Sonic Youth's guitar odysseys. Desperate to elude its own corrosive dread, it keeps moving, asking, looking, and making the promise that hope isn't just another spiritual cul-de-sac. After all, you never know who might be coming in the next car.

    Could be better--gets a little carried away with Latinate abstractions, although note the Anglo-Saxon "real bonds" and "dread," that four-verb series, and the apparently tossed-off final sentence. But as it happens, it describes how the album works and means pretty accurately. So then I read down the comments, what was I thinking, and though many are positive and some pretty smart I came across first this one:

    This review is utter pretentious gob****e. The 'dystopic miasma of William Gibson'? What the **** are you talking about? Great album, though.

    and then this one:

    Is really no one mentioning the final paragraph of this review? May I quote:

    "Radiant with apocalyptic tension and grasping to sustain real bonds, [it] extends hungrily outward, recalling the dystopic miasma of William Gibson's sci-fi novels and Sonic Youth's guitar odysseys. Desperate to elude its own corrosive dread, it keeps moving, asking, looking, and making the promise that hope isn't just another spiritual cul-de-sac."

    Did no one notice this? "Apocalyptic tension"? "Real bonds"? "Hungrily outward"? "Dystopic miasma"? "Corrosive dread"? And, the coup de grace, "Hope isn't just another spiritual cul-de-sac."

    Is this a joke?

    Right, what was I thinking. This is why I never read my comment threads at Rolling Stone and MSN. You want me to notice what you say, spend 44 cents. Snail-mail my gastropod. Still, the aggressive stupidity of these two comments exemplifies why I have a hard time getting misty-eyed about the inherent democracy of the online world. We know there are people with these prejudices reading us. We also know we're making sense in clear and grammatical English, so fuck them. And if we're rock critics, we may even suspect--I do--that without the aggressively stupid pressuring the art we love, it might well sink into a pretension we have no use for--the Arcade Fire are a dangerously earnest band. but they know enough to put on a joyous and sometimes silly show, without which they might be fatally earnest. And nevertheless, absorbing aggressive stupidity in all its pustulating detail is disheartening in a way that does nobody any good I can see.

  3. My favorite horrible stupid thing any critic had to say about The Suburbs responded to that album's several disparaging remarks about the snobbishness and one-ups-man-ship of indie-rock culture and "modern kids" in general. Here's a brief comment from a critic you can Google later at Sputnikmusic:

    And so one must ask what did all this frustration achieve? Even if Butler's right, that kids today do suck, who wants to listen to that?

    And who's gonna read it either? Tell me what I want to hear. I have infinite options.


By marc h. on August 12, 2010 12:59 PM

This could easily be a horrible stupid thing to say, but I basically liked this album a lot--sounds great, doesn't it?--until I listened in a setting where I could notice the lyrics and, yes, the "disparaging remarks about the snobbishness and one-ups-man-ship of indie-rock culture." What's odd to me is Arcade Fire are, if the myth about their online rise to prominence is to be believed, just as much a part of this culture as anyone else--except now they need to expand their market, don't they, and so it happens to be in their interests to disparage that culture. I remember shortly after I moved to New York, I saw someone walking down Avenue A wearing a "Die Hipster Die" T-shirt. Couldn't Arcade Fire's disparaging remarks about the type of "kids" who helped build them up be considered a musical equivalent? (Only someone whom someone else might call a "hipster," after all, knows enough about the subject to hate other so-called hipsters.) In short: Isn't there a way to break out of this cycle of endless one-ups-man-ship without, as I feel The Suburbs still does despite its own protestations, churlishly participating in it? Help!

By Ann Powers on August 14, 2010 12:01 AM

Maybe I don't listen hard enough to lyrics, but it seems to me that what Win's getting at in regards to indie-rock culture is very close to what Kurt Cobain was reaching for with "Teen Spirit": how music simultaneously creates community and comes between individuals. I know there's more to "The Suburbs" than one theme, but what most interests me is the way these songs comment upon the very experience of getting swept up in them. It's very self-reflexive, but/and very potent in a live setting, when Win is basically narrating what's happening to the crowd.

By Jones on August 14, 2010 8:11 PM

So many assholes have ignorant shit like this down in discussion threads they created themselves. But I've noticed this is the second guy to actually come to you. Why? How far can a reactionary hatred of criticism extend? (It's criticism they despise in general, as far as I can tell. You, Robert Christgau, are merely an extremely efficient target).

By Jones on August 14, 2010 8:17 PM

On second thought, perhaps Jerry is a devoted reader, has followed "The Perils of Criticism . . ." closely and now generously wishes to prove a point on your behalf.

Not bloody likely.

By SB on August 14, 2010 11:15 PM

Hmmm . . . Jerry, you seem like an intelligent man. I'm guessing you spend most of your time stoned on the couch?

By Tom Benton on August 15, 2010 6:24 PM

Well, Jerry's obviously a lot more enjoyable when he has Ben at his side. Mr. Christgau, I recognize the bit you're quoting from Sputnikmusik. The man responsible is Adam Downer, as you know. I came across his piece on "The Suburbs" after reading an excerpt on Wikipedia. It was so frigging stupid I couldn't help writing a little blog piece on it. Not just are the bulk of his thoughts ridiculous and offered without supporting evidence, but his writing is atrocious. You must be in a good mood, because you went real easy on Mr. Downer. His piece was terrible.

By GMort on August 16, 2010 7:47 PM

Jerry: Glad you finally surfaced. Your PO was doing interviews in Delta wing yesterday and said you'd failed to report two months running. And if you boged again this month you'd be facing an Abscond roll up. But no prob, bro. We'll save the bunk for you around the corner back by the shower. Just dont't squeal so much next time. You nearly picked up a new beef for the five of us. Your pop, Stroke.

By Robert Christgau on August 31, 2010 5:54 AM

Noodling around the web recently I discovered that the matter of how Pitchfork grades had been addressed by a Jon Caramanica piece I'd missed in the Times. Caramanica's research is considerably more up-to-date than mine. As others have noted, doing links in these comments is either hard or impossible, but Google (or Bing) caramanica pitchfork times and it'll be on top.

By Adam Downer on September 2, 2010 10:01 PM

While my opinion towards the album has changed, please, email me. I'd like to defend my work.

By Rubin Safaya on September 3, 2010 9:33 AM

While people are falling over themselves to attack Marchese's pedestrian thesaurus abuse, there's a more serious criticism to be made:

"The Suburbs extends hungrily outward, recalling the dystopic miasma of William Gibson's sci-fi novels and Sonic Youth's guitar odysseys."

Recalling short stories they were too young to have read at first publication, and music that lost its relevancy before they were old enough to know? Are you kidding me?

Anyone who falls for this kind of criticism deserves to be ridiculed for their pretense of independence beset by the irony of a brand consciousness worse than preppies, yuppies, hippies, yippies and status whores combined.

These are the same poor souls who naively think that LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge" is celebrating rather than mocking them.

By Robert Christgau on September 3, 2010 9:42 AM

I have something to say about each of the last comments and will collapse them into one. Adam Downer, if you would like to argue in your own behalf, do so in the public forum where two participants criticized you. Rubin Safaya, your understanding of the word "recall" is very different from mine and I presume Marchese's. That any artistic expression can recall something else in no way indicates that such was the intention or belief of the artist. Marchese was reminded by AF's suburbs metaphor of Gibson and Sonic Youth. I wasn't, and neither were you. But the connection is hardly outlandish enough to render someone else who makes it a phony or a fool.

By Rubin Safaya on September 3, 2010 10:16 AM

You make a good point, which also occurred to me for a moment after I clicked "submit."

I'm quick to judge perhaps because that idea, that affection for everything retro that one wasn't there to experience, has become such a cliché. What bothers me about it is not that, as a person born in the 70's, I lay a sovereign claim to 80's culture, or what have you. What bothers me is the sentiment the writer was pandering to, whether intentionally or not: We live entirely in the past now: Re-makes, re-boots, sequels, franchises, Tarantino's nonstop homages (read: borderline plagiarism/video rental nerd trivia) that should have large quotation marks (or VH1 Pop-Up Video bubbles) around the first and last frame, recursive Pixar fantasies about getting tired of big city/business . . . This abject laziness has permeated every genre, every class, every facet of our society.

There's even an entire movement against intellectual property predicated upon the belief that they should be free to copy the work of others simply because it's been published. There's a culture of laziness, of unoriginality . . . and it reminds me, either humorously or frighteningly, of Mary Harron's take on Ellis' Patrick Bateman, who created a personality from observing others because he has none to speak of.

The argument goes something like this: Everything's been thought of already. Everyone gets their ideas about culture from everyone else. But I'm not talking about the natural selection of cultural ideas. I'm talking about the artificial selection of a whole image.

Maybe you're right. Perhaps Marchese was using the word "recalls" in the sense of "hearken" rather than "reminisce" even though I find it a little challenging to believe that a writer who so deliberately thumbs Roget's for twenty dollar words with ten cent meanings isn't aware of the pretense he's pandering to. But wouldn't it be a wonderful world if audiences "recalled" art for its own sake, rather than merely as a badge of phony credibility for their sleeve?

By Keith Harris on September 3, 2010 1:34 PM

"Recall" does not mean "reminisce." It just doesn't. It means "brings to mind."

And no, I don't see what's so "wonderful" about enjoying art "for its own sake" rather than in connection with other works of art, other experiences, other ideas. I've always thought one major responsibility of a critic was to draw those connections.

By rhett [surname] on September 9, 2010 1:24 AM

Rubin, I think the reviewer may have been focusing heavily on Arcade Fire's* two songs entitled "Sprawl." Upon noticing that title, I immediately thought of (recalled! yes!) the third track on Daydream Nation. Which is, speak of the devil, inspired by a Gibson trilogy. I do think there's a comparison worth making there. Sonic Youth's track is a nasty downer ("buy some more and more...") that surveys the wasteland and fades into a jam. On the other hand, "Mountains Beyond Mountains" insists there's something to live for and soars resolutely toward the finish line. Given the role AF's "Sprawl I" and "Sprawl II" play within the album, and the message of the album as a whole, I took the specific phrase 'the sprawl' as an allusion. It's not crucial. But I think it's there.

Now, is The Suburbs as a whole reminiscent of Sonic Youth, as the review suggests? I would say that's a leap. Structurally maybe, soundwise not so much. Maybe you could say it's odd that the reviewer threw out those two comparisons for the whole album without being specific about what (I assume) motivated them.

*Arcade Fire's? The Arcade Fire's? Is there a general rule to follow in cases like these?

By JapanAlex on October 25, 2010 5:24 AM

I like 'The Suburbs'--I can imagine it either being in the top twenties or bottom twenties of your Pazz and Jop 2010 (there better goddamn be one). Whenever I read reviews from Pitchfork or any of these other hipster sites I laugh because firstly they have so many critics you never get a fair reading and secondly they always give albums ratings like 9.7 which mean absolutely dip shit. I think Win Butler is in a very difficult position because he is irritated by many things that go along with the band (hipsters) but can't (or at least shouldn't) talk about them. Or, at least, doesn't realise that it doesn't really matter. Yes, Ann, Kurt Cobain wrote lyrics similar to Butler's but it was his whole being - the athestic of the band - right down to the music. Yes, it's cliche to say that - but Nirvana did it better than the Arcade Fire. I guess going round in circles of thought and or emotion can be interesting - but I think songs about getting to the point are better - who cares what some idiots think about you? It reminds me of Kanye West (and his ego) and 'Last Call' but again that song uplifted you and made you smile (it was funny and smarter). I guess what I am trying to say is I don't really give a shit - only if it messes with the tracks. Arcade fire have built there whole albums around inner emotion so I guess it hasn't affected it at all. I just wish they weren't so wimpy about it. Oh, and shit, has anyone heard when the new West album is coming out?! At first, I thought the 'Power' song was a bit pants - but it may be like an interlude song which he's used as PR? I hoped he's grown up enough to make another great record. Oh, and shit 2, Robert a four-part documentary of you is up on Youtube now ;p

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