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Conrad: Year One, A First Year Retrospective

By Conrad Amenta | 18 December 2006

This time last year I was shooting off my application to The Glow, excited and curious and generally not having any idea why I wanted to write music criticism. I knew then, and thankfully still do, that I enjoy writing a great deal. I also knew that music was something about which I could sometimes argue with some limited effectiveness. Those two assumptions remain relatively unshaken. It's everything else that I go back and forth about. So here, for that great, fluid bitch that is the annals of web-based opinion, let me commit to record a few of the places over the last year that caused me to take pause, to observe with raised eyebrows, to shave my head in shame, or to generally hit the scotch hard between moments with hands thrown up in the air.

The Pitchfork Complex: It's an upper-case Relationship one develops with the teat from which they do so enthusiastically suck. Readers should know that, despite this hobby of writing we have in common with Pitchfork, I've come to suspect that the majority of music webzine writers in general must have the same sound-and-the-fury beef with the big PF that everyone else does. We share no writerly fraternity by virtue of our mutually opinionated stances. I, like many, surf merrily upon this backlash against the big dog in this vein of music criticism, uttering universal summations like "used to be better," or "they just seem really dickish," tags just as easily applied to the material PF and CMG deign to evaluate as to each other.

To criticize Pitchfork is sometimes understandable, but always predictable. They are a sort of center to which I orient my writing -- comparing my scores with PF's scores, hoping they align and thus further justify my opinion, and so on. This Relationship, twisted and difficult, was no better magnified for me than over this past year: Pitchfork put on the second of what will hopefully be a long-running annual festival, one that yielded the longest CMG collaborative article ever and allowed many of this site's far flung writers an opportunity to meet one another; their review of Jet's Shine On catalyzed debate across an epic landscape of message boards, causing possibly thousands of people to think hard about the responsibility of the music critic and whether it truly does extend farther than wanting to be found entertaining; Wired Magazine ran an article in which it asked, in a burning spotlight of a question, how websites like Pitchfork can earn their influence without the benefit of backgrounds and educations in journalism; and Pitchfork interviewed artists simply beyond the reach of most music webzines and blogs, such as Tom Waits, Thom Yorke, and Steve Reich.

I can say with some pride that I sometimes receive mail comparing my writing to some Pitchfork writers. And I can say with the same pride that in complimenting my writing, PF is sometimes vilified by CMG readers. It is simultaneously a compliment and an insult to have one's thoughts in the market of opinion equated with a leader's, and this is the crux of the thorny Pitchfork Complex. The contradiction is unlikely to become any less pronounced in my second year, but I am finally ready to admit that having this Relationship at all is probably tantamount to begrudging appreciation.

The Mew Review: My review of Danish group Mew's And the Glass Handed Kites was not only one of my earliest, but also by far the one for which I received the most, and most specific, hate mail. Little did I know when I took mild and middling (though admittedly snide) offense to Mew's sophomore album, a forced epic of nonsensical lyrics and claustrophobic arrangements, what national treasures they and their music are to the Danes. Even less did I expect the wounds my presumably ineffectual, presumably funny little review had apparently inflicted upon a few of the band's many dedicated fans. So unexpected was the mixture of vitriol and vulnerability I was e-mailed, oscillating between snarling bulldog and huge-eyed kitten responses, that I seriously questioned my right to have offered an opinion at all. I even overpaid for beers at one of Mew's shows in an effort to uncover the appeal, with little success.

That reader response definitely helped refine my position on music criticism. Those who took the time to suggest that I may in fact be the worst writer in the world helped me to better understand what should be the perpetual, unending question of whether it's fair for a writer to have a role and responsibility to anyone other than him or herself. I've subscribed to the latent subjectivity of most things for some time, allowing my academic studies a broad influence, but it was only after being forced to confront the raw hatred that comes with telling someone you think their favorite band is terrible that I came to a more pragmatic conclusion, one I think readers may find useful to keep in mind: I'm just an opinionated guy who loves to write about music. I don't have scans of a musicology degree available for online perusal; I don't feel my opinions are worth more than anyone else's. I, like musicians, should constantly be trying to improve, but my efforts can be assessed relative to their individual merits. In other words, I don't care whether or not anyone likes Mew. But I'll at least put my opinion out there on the line, and welcome what responses may come.

The Sellout Article: Who knew that defending an artist's right to re-appropriate the meanings of their own songs and then point them in the direction of a Dodge Durango would make people so uncomfortable? Writing an opinion about an album is one thing, and I routinely had those opinions shaken by the responses of the CMG readers who took the time to write in (something I appreciated). But this subject is one about which I remain pig-headedly adamant, though I received, by far, the most hate mail in the week or so immediately following the essay than I had ever before or hope to in the future.

Besides providing the opportunity to be called by one such respondent, "a genuine threat to music" (I've never gotten to be a genuine anything to anything, other than maybe asshole or cynic to close friends), I'm still proud of the essay for articulating my position on what must be one of the longest and most stagnant turning points in indie rock -- from the prerogative of the purists and protectionists towards a time during which bands and fans alike will be able to consider the commercial process (both in the sense of 'commercialism' and 'television commercial') one in which they can participate. Power is to be found in participation, and right now the artistic community and its fans are allowing the control to remain in the hands of some very, very undiscerning marketers.

I'm also proud of CMG for putting the essay up. It wasn't a revolutionary, or even very challenging essay, but it was certainly unpopular. It would have perhaps been more beneficial to the site had I written an essay condemning rather than praising some bands for taking hesitant steps in the direction of improving television commercials (which also happens to support their nasty habit of making music for a living). Perhaps to adopt a more conservative stance could have been more communal. Hats off to Herr Reid and the CMG gang for sticking by the essay, and by me, though I know not all, or even a majority, must have agreed with what I was trying to say. I owe all of us some ad revenue.

The Googling of One's Own Name: An interesting and fun thing to do at the office while killing some time, if only to peruse in wonder some of the awful writing I committed to posterity years ago and didn't know was still flotsam out in the internet's ocean of detritus. But if any of you are thinking of writing music criticism, be warned that you'll never be able to do this again. There are a lot of blogs out there, and they all violently disagree with what every other blog has to say. How is it possible that everyone, including myself, is completely wrong about everything all of the time? I don't know, but it really is.

The "Protest" Records: The Democrats prepared to take back both congress and the senate, the political tenor of the country seemed to swing ever-so-slightly in a liberal direction (at least to the degree that artists can be reassured their CDs won't be run over with a steamroller at a hint of sedition for the benefit of radio station contests), and there's still plenty to be pissed about. If there was a year I thought baby crib-made for a genuine, angry, honest, mad-as-hell-and-I'm-not-going-to-take-it-anymore, engaged protest record, this was it.

But what we got instead was a Neil Young's Living With War, an album more akin to genre-play than specificity or an articulate counter-point to pro-war sentiment. Tool's 10,000 Days, during which the band continued its perpetual lament for the soul rather than the brain of Los Angeles; Sean Lennon's Friendly Fire, which equated having one's arms and legs blown off with being so totally dumped; the Decemberists' Crane Wife, playful in a cul-de-sac of its own pedantic historical citation (though this did make it a wonderful Decemberists album, and it probably wasn't meant to be a protest record as such anyway); and Green Day and U2 joined forces to imagine a world in which the most inefficient and expensive New Orleans relief effort in history is soundtracked by pure machismo. What we got was the gesture and simulation of protest, a well-memorized reenactment bereft of engagedness, and actions that hoped at being recognizable enough to be praised for "courage" while also being calculated enough to increase the war exhaustion of Americans everywhere. We deserved introspection, analysis, subtlety, and informed opinion. In 2006, we deserved better from our musicians.

The Thom Yorke: If there was a record about which I felt the most disappointed it couldn't have been any other. Though I can't articulate the disappointment with the same frankness and sincerity that can be found over at Clayton's excellent review, I can only imagine the look of skepticism on the faces of everyone who's used Reason or Cubase software before when they spun "Black Swan" for the first time. "Haven't I heard this characteristic fuzz effect before? Why is he reusing sounds from "The Gloaming"? Is it possible that the Radiohead member with the searing vision and purpose that propelled their last few studio efforts to the stratospheric heights of everlasting worship status is in fact Johnny?"

Put Greenwood's Bodysong (2003) and The Eraser next to one another and compare their purposes: one a soundtrack for a documentary, the other sprung on us and packaged with Yorke's insistence that we not even utter the words "solo album" in connection to it. It's easy to see that Bodysong had a raison d'etre independent of Radiohead, in fact couldn't have been anything other than a Johnny Greenwood album. The same can't be said for The Eraser and, what's worse, it will always be compared, not with other Radiohead albums, but with the Radiohead album it could have been should it have been submitted for the band's collaborative consideration.

The Scenecast: It's ironic that in the year I was finally able to compile a love song to my home town of Ottawa -- a Scenecastfeaturing local bands, some I know personally and all of whom I respect, who (for me) epitomize the sense and tone of the city's still-developing indie scene -- that it was the same year I moved away. Exploring Vancouver, and putting so much of an emphasis on travel, I was also trying to find in new cities what it was that made me want to celebrate (maybe, should I never return, memorialize) Ottawa bands in the first place.

Now a few months later, it should have been obvious to me that I wouldn't find Ottawa anywhere else. Though the Vancouver scenecast is starting to shape up nicely, it's nice to know that bands like the HILOTRONS, the Acorn, and My Dad Vs. Yours are still playing those four or five clubs that stubbornly refuse to go down victims to a difficult club scene, are still playing to the obdurate turnout while it howls at minus forty outside, are still holding my town together with their bare hands.