A little bit of (primate) spleen
Thanks to James Lileks for the Fritz Lang Fury image
I know, I know, I KNOW I'm a fool for pausing even a moment over an NPR review of anything even remotely pop cultural, but the triumphant "Arctic Monkeys album arrives in America" segment absolutely got my goat.
Most aggravating to me was the deployment of the standard highbrow-goes-lowbrow critic crutches. I like to call these assembled techniques PAP: Poetry, Authenticity and the Popular as Art News.
1) Poetry: As in: the song has lyrics that might actually stand on their own as good poetry. I'll gladly plead guilty to this one. However, I'd be willing to bet on Cathy Irwin in a line-for-line cage-match with John Ashbery. More than likely I'd lose my money, but The Lady from Louisville could go stanza-to-stanza with the Big Man from Bard for a round or two.
2) Authenticity: Working-class boys from Sheffield use local slang, recombine familiar musical elements and "swagger" it up, revitalizing rock for their young, "hedonistic weekend" fans. Oh for Pete's sake.
3) the Popular as Art News: I'm being just a tiny bit disingenuous here as I'll cop to one's place on the charts as half-cash/half-tradewind-driving-the-zeitgeist-current and while I can't lay out the record review golden ratio of commerce to band to songs myself, the piece largely feels like an economic history with smidge of stock-market style speculation thrown in ("Can those plucky Monkeys make it in the US? With this sort of musical P/E ratio, no fuckin' problem!"). There is a story there, but it's a business story. That's cool, I can handle business writing about art, but if the primary thrust of what you've got to say among the billion things you can try (and fail with the best of intentions) to get at in writing about music has to do with the potential for reaping cash, then something is off either with you or your subject.
I have my suspicions as to what's going on. More than anything else, the piece has a deadline-racing quality to it. I don't envy the task to which the reviewer is set: Make this pop band feel relevant next to war and pestilence and global warming during drive time for the jazz after eight crowd; you've got less than five minutes; go. I'm not sure anyone could do wonderful work under those circumstances. Though, NPR-wise, I have to say that (full discloure: a former classmate of mine) Neda Ulaby tends to fill the same space as the average story but seems to preserve some delicacy (her Pinter piece in particular was excellent and that is coming from a devotee). I'd also rather listen to Alix Spiegel end a sentence than anyone else on the planet. And, just in case you don't already, start listening to On the Media immediately. Invaluable. Oh, and Sound Opinions merits a mention too.
Or are the subject, these Monkeys, the problem? While she didn't throw any stones, a mention by Amy in what I think will be the SYF post of the year didn't motivate me to check them out (see Cat Scratch Fever here) so the first I'd ever heard them was in the review itself and I thought: Eh, they're fine. I know Sheffield isn't Belfast (or Leeds or Queens or Detroit) but "working class" and the foregrounding of local slang and diction brought to mind one possible forefather:
Barbed Wire Love - Stiff Little Fingers
"Alternative Ulster" or "Suspect Device" likely would drive my point home more forcefully in terms of their relation to the Monkeys, but I love that the Fingers wrestle pop, doo-wop and punk to the ground in the space of 3:33. That, to me, is swagger.
Wait, did I just spend nine-tenths of this post talking meta about why we need to be less meta? Lemme check...Crap.