Our Culture Needs More Contrarians


This week, Defector has turned itself over to a guest editor. Brandy Jensen, former editor at Gawker (RIP) and The Outline (RIP), and writer of the Ask A Fuck Up advice column (subscribe here!), has curated a selection of posts around the theme of Irrational Attachments. Enjoy!


Fans of country music will be relieved to learn that Beyoncé has “revived [the] dying genre” with her “instantly timeless” new album, according to the New York Post. Her cover of the Dolly Parton hit “Jolene,” the Post writes, “pours gasoline on its already fiery lyrics, with menacing changes including, ‘I can easily understand why you’re attracted to my man / But you don’t want this smoke, so shoot your shot for someone else.’” 

This praise may confuse listeners who have heard the song. “I can easily understand why you’re attracted to my man” sounds more like an email from HR than the heart’s cry of country music, and the line about not wanting the smoke and shooting her shot is two clichés stuck together. While Beyoncé continues to sing with thrilling skill, her version of “Jolene” is so inert and corny as to parody girlboss pop. The original is about the awful power of sex appeal: Parton loves a man just dumb enough to throw it all away for Jolene, who would get a quick ego boost in exchange for wrecking the life they made. Beyoncé’s version is about how when you have a boyfriend, the two of you are TOGETHER. 

I would read 800 words about what the new “Jolene” says about our culture’s fear of vulnerability, but for the most part, critics are not interested in unpacking the aesthetics of pop music. They are interested in celebrating its popularity. The music writers of 2024 have achieved a remarkable synchrony with consumers, such that, for the first time in living memory, the most popular musicians in the world also happen to be making the best music. Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Bad Bunny: we all agree that these chart-topping millionaires are just as good as everyone says they are. And this consensus is doing bad things to the psychology of the otherwise intensely normal people who love them—people who always wanted to be part of something big, but are now part of something so big that it risks becoming nothing, like wearing socks or drinking coffee.

The shift in critical attitudes toward pop music over the last decade started out as a valuable correction. From approximately 1967 (first issue of Rolling Stone) through 2014 (Pitchfork declines to review Taylor Swift’s 1989), music critics focused disproportionately on rock, often at the expense of more interesting music in other genres. There were a lot of reasons for this problem, many of them related in ugly ways to race and gender, but the upshot was that, for example, reams of coverage went to “alternative” rock in the 1990s, at a time when, in retrospect, hip-hop was having a golden age. The correction to critics’ failure to take pop music seriously is known as poptimism: the belief that pop music is just as worthy of critical consideration as genres like rock, rap or, god forbid, jazz. In my opinion, this correction was basically good. It’s fun and interesting to think seriously about music that is meant to be heard on the radio or danced to in clubs, the same way it is fun and interesting to think about crime novels or graphic design. For the critic, maybe more than for anyone else, it is important to remember that while a lot of great stuff is not popular, popular stuff can be great, too.

This formulation of poptimism was a good idea, but just as everyone in the movie Us has a psychotic zombie version of themself eating rodents in an underground laboratory, every good idea has a dumber version of itself on the internet. The dumb version of poptimism is the belief that anything sufficiently popular must be good. This idea is supported by certain structural forces, particularly the ability, through digitization, to count streams, pageviews, clicks, and other metrics so exactly that every artist and the music they release can be assigned a numerical value representing their popularity relative to everything else. The answer to the question “What do people like?” is right there on a chart, down to the ones digit, conclusively proving that, for example, Drake (74,706,786,894 lead streams) is more popular than The Weeknd (56,220,309,818 lead streams) on Spotify. 

The question “What is good?” remains a matter of disagreement, but in the face of such precise numbers, how could you argue that the Weeknd was better? You would have to appeal to subjective aesthetic assessments (e.g. Drake’s combination of brand-checking and self-pity recreates neurasthenic consumer culture without transcending it) or socioeconomic context (e.g. Drake is a former child actor who raps about street life for listeners who want to romanticize black poverty without hearing from anyone actually affected by it, plus he’s Canadian) in a way that would ultimately just be your opinion. And who needs one jerk’s opinion when democracy is right there in the numbers?

This attitude is how you get criticism like “Why Normal Music Reviews No Longer Make Sense for Taylor Swift,” which cites streaming data (The Tortured Poets Department’s 314.5 million release-day streams versus Cowboy Carter’s 76.6 million) to argue that Swift is better understood not as a singer-songwriter but as an area of brand activity, along the lines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars. “The tepid music reviews often miss the fact that ‘music’ is something that Swift stopped selling long ago,” New Yorker contributor Sinéad O’Sullivan writes. “Instead, she has spent two decades building the foundation of a fan universe, filled with complex, in-sequence narratives that have been contextualized through multiple perspectives across eleven blockbuster installments. She is not creating standalone albums but, rather, a musical franchise.”

Say what you will about this perspective—for example, that few brides walk down the aisle to their favorite scene from Star Wars—it does relieve the critic of two difficult aspects of doing criticism: thinking about how a work of art functions on its own terms, and pissing people off.

That second part is particularly appealing, because it obviates the critic’s persistent (and inevitably correct) fear of losing touch. The numbers-first approach to criticism aligns the critic with the fandom. On its surface, that seems like a service to the fans, who no longer have to put up with some snob/indie bro/boomer telling them the artist they love is the musical equivalent of TGI Fridays. But I submit that fans need antagonists to make their fandom meaningful, and their much-publicized enforcer behavior on social media is a consequence of the pro-popularity turn in music criticism. 

When Swiftoids send DMs urging people who didn’t like The Tortured Poets Department to kill themselves, it’s not because they’ve lost perspective; it’s because their sense of perspective is all too sharp. Fans of the most popular musicians in the world know that, in the absence of critics who look down on them, loving a pop star is like loving Hanes T-shirts. The moment that everyone agrees the No. 1 song is the best song is the moment they stop being fans and become customers, the people who buy the product that commands the largest market share. That’s why they fixate on anyone who publicly says the music they love is not good: such people prove that music is a matter of taste and not just economic force.

The importance of having antagonists to the experience of loving a particular artist can be seen in music fandoms that are legitimately misunderstood, such as Juggalos or people who listen to Phish. While different in their aesthetics, these two groups are both made stronger by the ridicule they get from people who do not—and I deploy these scare quotes as hard as I physically can, at the risk of finger cramping—“get it.” The fact that most cognitively normal adults regard these bands as children’s music is what makes their fan bases not just ticket-buyers but subcultures. If you put on an Insane Clown Posse track or any Phish song besides “Sample in a Jar” at a party, almost everyone will yell at you, but on average 1.5 people will become your new friends. The power of the antagonist-subculture dynamic was realized by major record labels in the early 1990s, when the most popular music in America was called “alternative.”

Providing an antagonist for the millions of Americans who love the music they hear at Target is one of the most valuable services the critic can provide, but the music writers of 2024 have largely abdicated this role. That’s a terrible thing to do to the hardcore normies who are extremely into being into Taylor Swift. They already have to see themselves coming and going, in their Sambas and slim-fit khakis, their Stanley cups knocking together as they pass. Let them define themselves against something, for once. Let them feel, individually, like one of the few people able to see past the hipsters and realize the most popular artist in the world is really good. The haters are gonna hate, hate, etc., so be the hater they need.

There has been a lot of discussion about what music criticism is for since streaming reduced the cost of listening to new songs to basically zero. The conceit is that before everything was free, the function of criticism was to tell listeners which albums to buy, but I don’t think that was ever it. The function of criticism is and has always been to complicate our sense of beauty. Good criticism of music we love—or, occasionally, really hate—increases the dimensions and therefore the volume of feeling. It exercises that part of ourselves which responds to art, making it stronger. 

That is the function of the music critic for the person who is into music, anyway. For the person who is not into music—the person who just happens to be rapturously committed to the artists whose music you hear everywhere whether you want to or not, whose new albums are like iPhone releases and whose shows are like Disneyland—the critic is a foil. They are the stand-in for all those joyless pricks who insist, without evidence, that if you love the same thing as everybody else, your love is not real. The Swiftoids and the Worker Beys need that foil. They need that unprovable argument to push back against. The numbers are on their side, after all.



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