Aug 26, 2013

Last Friday was a particularly

Awful day.  Not only did I have to close at work, but the time I spent on the computer in the morning and afternoon hours before I went to work was one of the most soul crushing experiences I had had in ages.  It was my own fault in a way, I suppose.  I mean, I should have just got off the bloody computer and read the NYT, or read a book, or watched a Godard film, or a foreign film, or a documentary; anything other than let my laziness overwhelm me and drag me down a flipping nightmare rabbit hole of the intertubes, and be confronted yet again with what seemingly stands in place for good criticism these days.  Or, be reminded just how debased our standards for art are.

It started out innocently enough.  I read AO Scott's review of The World's End (in print.)  He loved it, of course.  Just about everybody loves it, and deservedly so.  I love it.  The Wife loves it. (More on this later.)  Scott did hint at one quibble toward the end of his review, that perhaps the film could have been a bit more cynical, or tougher.  Well, that completely misses the point of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's entire oeuvre dating back to their television series Spaced; Wright and Pegg are notoriously of a good natured disposition.  Not to say that they do not deal with serious issues, or have some fine acting performances of a dramatic nature in their films -- The World's End deals with alcoholism and the soul crushing deadening power of technology, just for starters -- but their generally upbeat and non cynical take on modern life is one of the best and most refreshing things about them.  It is their essence.  The future, to them, is not broken.  And, we desperately need artists like that right now.

Anyroad, then I settled in with a cup of Mariage Freres tea and switched on the computer.  At first I just read reviews of The World's End on Rotten Tomatoes (90 per cent!) I had half expected the internets to blow up about The World's End alone.  It had not.  (It has probably exploded on Tumblr, though I never look at Tumblr anymore.  Any case any one cares, I have essentially moved my Tumblr blog to Pinterest.)  After seeing a New York Magazine World's End review published on Vulture, a culture webzine, I saw a link and video re MGMT's performance on David Letterman's show the night before.  That is where it all went wrong.

I watched the video.  I like the song.  I like the performance.  I like the giant cowbell.  I like the giant sunglasses and hippie outfit.  I like the group.  I like the other advance song from the upcoming album.  I am eagerly awaiting the new record.  And, I have pre-ordered it, and will get it in a few weeks.  Is it the second coming of the Beatles? Is it the greatest performance I have ever seen? Is it the greatest song ever? No.  On all questions asked, No.

Yet, every single mother's son of an internet jockey out there decided that it was their turn to scream bloody murder that this was the worst thing they had ever seen in their entire lives, and what a waste it all was, and how dare they do something like this, and how awful and weird MGMT are now, and why don't they make records like Kids anymore?

Seriously? What is more wasteful? A flipping rock group -- that is all they are -- doing a weird performance on a chat show, or a bunch of basement dwelling Frito-Lay addicts bitching and moaning about it on webzines and comment boards?

Right right right, I get it.  Pot meet kettle.  What the flip am I doing right now? But, my issue with their criticism was not so much their abuse of a platform but the tenor and content of their complaints, and their completely unrealistic demands on the group.  And that the platform they are using amplifies, and reveals that the global democracy of the internet lowers the standards of criticism to the point that whomever gets more "likes", or page hits, as the ultimate arbiter of worthiness as a critic.

MGMT were very canny, in a way.  They "sold out" with their very first record.  I honestly believe that they did this in a completely uncynical non greedy sort of way.  They produced a wonderful first record that captured the imagination of the times and young people all across the world.  And, the record was absolutely boffo at the box office, to boot.  They were rich and famous right out of the gate.  Bully for them.  That is what they sounded like then, but they do not sound like that now.

When their second album came out was when the internet carping (carving?) began.  Though, the mainstream press loved the record, the internets did not.  The sales also took a dive, and complaints started being hurled at the group for their weird live performances.  What the group had done was hook up with Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3 -- he produced the record -- and make an album, that though stylistically sounded startlingly close to their first record did not contain dance-y rave-y anthemic tracks, and included a thirteen minute long omnibus song, an all acoustic single, and name checked a couple of recording artists that many of the group's fans had never heard of, and might not care about. Personally, I think Congratulations is one of the best records of the new century, which is not saying much since "albums" are pretty much a dead letter in our new digital age, and there are so few great albums now.  Or, does it say a lot, since there are artists still out there who care enough about the "album" concept to make great albums?

(That is how different things are now, kids.  A "Concept Album" today requires no "concept", just the ability to put more four or more good songs on a record.)

And, that is a long winding road toward to the thrust of my first point:  It is no good criticizing a group (or any type of art, for that matter) for not being what you want it to be.  Moreover, it is the worst sort of criticism.  It is lazy and selfish.  The art on hand should be judged on its own merits. You like it or you don't.  You can say, It is not as good as this other piece of work.  You can even say, I wish it was more like what they used to do in the past.  But what you can not say is, Blue Jasmine sucks because it is not Annie Hall.  Guernica is awful because it is not Le Rêve. Strawberry Fields Forever blows because it is not I Want to Hold Your Hand.

This type of lazy criticism has been going on ever since the notion of art was invented.  It will always be there.  The problem is that one of the worst side-effects of the internets is that everyone has a public platform now, and feels entitled to share their uninformed opinion on all things IN ALL CAPS, as if that proves they must be right.  


Graham Lewis of Wire, on why the group reformed after a six year hiatus, "We were bored with what we were seeing live, actually."


I have mentioned this personal story before in this space, but I am going to mention it again, as it is relevant to today's discussion.

I had a work friend at the Berkeley Food Hole, who was very hep to indie music, and shared a lot of common music interests with myself.  He liked Stereolab, Belle and Sebastian, Neu, JSBX, etc, ... He also liked the High Llamas.  Many of you prob have no idea who the High Llamas are. The High Llamas are an English rock group that had a brief spell of moderate "indie" fame in the mid to late Nineties.  They are a wonderful group, and I highly recommend them to you, and I will give you a video here, as well.  (Also, this will take the edge off my rage at the ALL CAPS BRIGADE.)

Anyhoo, the High Llamas whole aesthetic was that of the Luddite.  (They did use synthesizers, but they were analogue ones.) They pined for a pastoral, agrarian English village society free from new technology (see why I like them so much) and urban life.  They even actually did do an honest to gosh anti-colonialist Concept (double) Album called Hawaii.  Their biggest influence was Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys.  Although they were never as sentimental as The Beach Boys, and a good deal more cynical, you could nearly neatly fit their personal mission alongside The Beach Boys, replacing pastoral village life for The Beach Boys surf and sun and high school days. The High Llamas are famous for three part harmonies, jaunty bouncy tunes, and a lot of banjo.

I had already seen the group a number of times before my friend had.  When he did finally see them he reported back to me how disappointed he was.  He said, All they did was stand there and play their instruments.

I was dumbstruck.  What did he expect them to do? Jump up and down on the stage like they were The Clash? How are they expected to produce the type of music that he already loved, doing three part harmonies, and delicate lovely tuneful arrangements by acting like Rage Against the Machine on stage? When did we stop listening to music, even if it is a live performance?

And, that was another big deal for me last Friday.  The ALL CAPS BRIGADE were also incensed that MGMT were not muscular or energetic enough for their performance.  Absurd! Many who had seen the performance had prob already heard the song.  The song is basically a two minute chorus, with the same repeating refrain.  There are no solos.  There are no time changes.  There is no bluster despite dripping with attitude.  There are no histrionics.  It is what it is, and it in no way lends itself to a careening shambolic mind blowing phantasmagoriac costume changing axe wielding performance.  The group seem supremely aware of this by substituting irony and attitude for bombast.  (The more I write and think about this MGMT performance on Letterman, the more I appreciate it.) Moreover, unlike as many of the ALL CAPS BRIGADE suggest, the band does not appear listless, or uncaring, or bored, or even drugged.  They are doing service to the song as it is written.  Is not that the job of a musician?

MTV is the culprit here, and YouTube.  Michael Jackson and Madonna.  Hip hop and Lady Gaga. For the ALL CAPS BRIGADE there must be dancers; women in lingerie and bikinis; multiple costume changes; oblique elliptical "messages" of a sexual political nature; sweat; blood; controversy; heart rending personal passion, etc, ... (Of course, our nation has never been great with irony.  And, recognizing irony is still one of the best tests for true intelligence around.)

The artist writes the song.  And, not every song fits slimly in to the model of what is popular these days.  Or at least doing service to the song, which as I mentioned is a musician's job.  The ALL CAPS BRIGADE seem infuriated that MGMT did not do an insane pyrotechnic version of a song which did not require it.  Or -- and this is what I think -- they wished they had played Time to Pretend instead.

Which brings me to my last point.  The other big complaint was that MGMT had wasted their opportunity before such a large audience on a nationally televised program.  Wasted it how? Have you talked to the group? Was there some body language that you picked up on that I did not? And, who are you to judge on wasted opportunities less than thirteen hours after it had happened? Where is the context of which you speak?

Is not it possible that the ''waste" that you speak of has way more to do with your personal displeasure at watching a group many of you "profess" to love not behaving the way you would prefer them to? Is not this really a Your Problem issue, and not the group's?

Frankly, I imagine MGMT were quite pleased with their performance, and are eagerly looking forward to playing here in San Francisco at the Warfield on Wednesday.  What are you doing Wednesday? I am not in supine adoration of MGMT but I think they are very fine.  And I know there are millions of others that would agree with me.

But, ultimately, I think the issue with MGMT's performance on Letterman really gets down to the fact they do not like the song, and are afraid to admit it because the song hits too close to home. I have buried the lede, folks.  The song is called Your Life is a Lie.  Personally, I am taking the view that the song is like Bill Hick's observation that life is, "It's just a ride." That we'll never flipping know all the answers, and we should treasure the experience while we are here, and not get so hung up about the Supreme Importance of Homo Sapiens, as so many folks do, leaning on crutches like religion or addiction or self-importance.  "It's just a ride."

But, of course the music and singing definitely add whole other layers to it.  It could be heard as a poke in the eye to the music industry, Capitalism, or even be heard as a diatribe to a past lover or friend.  That is the beauty of art.  Eventually, it all belongs to us, and not the artist.

All I am asking is, My gosh, have some fucking self-respect, and some standards, and some rules if you are going to criticize art on a public forum.  Is that too much to ask? And, one of the best cures for this blight so many suffer from is easy.  Get away from the computer and go to a museum.  Read a book.  Read a print newspaper or city weekly.  See a film in a theater.  Go to a park and draw or write about what you see.  Listen intently to conversations with your friends.  Get a second opinion before you write.  Keep a journal that is not a blog.  Stop taking pictures of every frickin event in your life, and regale your friends with long stories of your life that will never see the light of day in digital ink.  Go to the opera.  See a ballet.  Go see a band, stand at the back, and close your eyes.  See the symphony.  Watch a film through someone else's eyes.  I do it all the time.  Same with music.  Hear it like your friend would.  Quit watching Mad Men.  Skip the blockbusters, and see something you might never have ever thought about watching, like an Iranian or Romanian film.  That kind of cure.  It is easy.  Stretch and bend.  Elasticity.  Also, never judge something until it is over and you have had suitable time to think about it.  And, never judge an artist unless you are supremely familiar with all of their works.

Here is the performance (if the video is still up:)

Here is the authorized video version of the song:

And, here are some linkies to the interweb outrage!:  here, here, and here.

Although, some people liked it.  (Did not check out the comment boards, though.)

All my hugs and kisses, I love you all!

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