Showing posts with label talking heads. Show all posts
Showing posts with label talking heads. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

album review: 'modern vampires of the city' by vampire weekend

Let's talk about hype.

Yeah, I know it's crass and populist and it's the sort of thing most established critics won't deign to discuss, but I think it's important to at least talk about, particularly considering we critics are often responsible for it. As much as trailers and news and media buzz will get seats in the theaters and records off the shelves, critical praise can be instrumental in moving product, particularly when it comes to the independent music scene, or acts that never achieved mainstream acceptance. 

For an example, I published my review of Now What?! by Deep Purple on April 29th, and I gave it a very positive review (because it deserves it, that album was awesome). And since then, I've noticed my review of that album has been linked on a couple music blogs and forums. And while I'm extremely grateful for those hits and those links, it also cast into sharp relief the fact that people will spread the opinions of critics they like, and thus the critic has a certain responsibility to manage expectations. And as a critic who has a reputation for analyzing material likely more than many consider it is worth, I can definitely understand why some cynical types would denigrate my reviews as contributing to the 'hype' machine, convincing the gullible that there is some greater meaning in the music. 

And while I consider that opinion disingenuous and a little insulting, I can't deny that critical opinions have weight in the popular context. Sure, you'll have your fair arsenal of skeptics who will want to be convinced and they'll ignore the critics, to say nothing of fans who'll buy everything certain acts put out regardless of substance, but people look to critics because they want to make intelligent purchasing decisions with regards to their entertainment. And that's one of the reasons the critic's voice does have some weight in popular culture - when they have access to the entertainment before most, they can contribute to the hype machine in both positive and negative ways. Positive hype can spin a lot of money for an act by convincing undecided buyers, while negative hype can be absolutely poisonous. And while larger properties are less likely to be shifted by hype, one way or another, a smaller act can be crushed by bad hype or elevated beyond their wildest dreams by critical praise.

And incidentally, this raises yet another problem I have with Pitchfork, namely because the site has had a publicized desire to push the indie and hip-hop culture landscape towards whatever might be deemed 'the next big thing' in the underground scene, and given that their album rankings have demonstrable power to increase sales, they have had some success in trying to define the sound of the indie and hip-hop scene. Take, for instance, the massive success of Channel ORANGE, an excellent album that would have likely been overlooked without the critical praise showered by every critic, including Pitchfork, and it's no surprise that the muted PBR&B sound that Frank Ocean created on that album has become prevalent in the modern R&B scene. 

But with that being the case, there's a very real problem that comes with hype generation, and that's the rationality behind the hype. Too often it feels like Pitchfork is seeking to jump on new trends not because they hold depth or interesting new sounds or because they represent provocative artistic direction, but because they're simply the next new thing. It's the consumerist desire to be trendy and 'in', and while this attitude has taken root in hipster culture, it has come at the loss of sincerity. Yeah, I really like Channel ORANGE, but I don't love it in the same way I love The Zac Brown Band's Uncaged or Ke$ha's Warrior (both I consider to be 'better' albums, by the way), and it gets more than a little irritating when it's held up as some great transcendent album. This was similar to one of the many issues I had with Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and while I've warmed to it a bit more two and a half years later, I'm still very conscious of the fact that it didn't come close to earning the avalanche of critical praise it got. 

And look, I like liking things. I like being able to agree with the rest of the critics and saying that an album is as good or as bad as it really is. I like being able to say something is awesome and showing as many people as I can. But I like to explain why I like or dislike something, and I feel that too often the hype machine shuts down this critical discourse. And sure, most people won't care to justify why they like something, but the job of a critic is to explain why they think something works or doesn't work, and when they become part of the hype machine, the problem is exacerbated. 

And with all of that, let's talk about Vampire Weekend, one of the most hyped acts indie rock has seen in a long time.