RIP (old) Idolator

A few days ago Maura, one of the sharpest writers of the Internet age, delivered her farewell message at Idolator, which I had been visiting regularly since it began a few years back. She was the sole writer to have made it since the start, starting as the junior editor under Brian Raftery and taking over the main spot after his departure, and lasting through the site’s switch from being hosted on Gawker to being hosted via Buzznet, who are still in charge of the site. Two new writers have been brought on board following Maura’s departure.

I make no bones about the fact that I find this change to be for the worse, and neither will I hide the fact that I’m friends or professional acquaintances of nearly all the writers who had appeared regularly or semi-regularly on the site beforehand. I threw in tips here and there and was a constant — some might say all too constant — commenter on the site, but while I’ll allow for the fact that there’s a first time for everyone, the initial work that’s appeared on the site since Maura’s departure hasn’t compelled me to return, being little more than the dull restatement of received wisdom and wretched humor that trades in moronic stereotypes. And that’s a damn shame.

Allowing for the fact that I’m speaking of strictly Anglophonic publications for the rest of my piece: it’s been a little depressing to write RIPs for a number of publications that I contributed to over time — already done that for Stylus and Plan B in the life of my own blog, I should have done that for Metal Edge, and now I’m doing it here, even if things are going to continue at Idolator in a rather different way than before. Inasmuch as the message is that nothing is permanent, fine, inasmuch as it is that times being what they are means there’s less regular spaces to contribute thoughtful discussion and news on a formal (and, let’s not forget, paid) basis, it’s no surprise that the profile of those remaining spaces — such as Pitchfork, the Village Voice/New Times chain, the AMG — will increase by default. Meanwhile as long as sites like Freaky Trigger and The Singles Jukebox and similar ones exist (and yes, I’ll include ILM in that still), labors of love that measure their return in how they’re enjoyed and participated in rather than in ad revenue, the crackle of energy is far from dead. At the same time, especially with regard to Stylus and Plan B and now Idolator, one finds a slow limiting of a burst of spirit that had had a good decade-long run, of balancing out the passion of writing and thoughtful debate via the vehicle of music — and quite often the subjects under discussion reached far beyond the notes heard and the lyrics comprehended — with an appreciation for the here and now, that engaged with music that was six seconds old as much as it was six decades, and sought to do so beyond the realm of simple yeas or nays or presumptions of one particular style of music ruling over all else.

Perspective is perhaps all — all of those sites or journals’ writers and readers were perfectly cognizant that many other fora exist for these kind of debates, and that not every listener would wish to engage in music news and discussion in this fashion. What for some is a gripping, total engagement is for most others merely a very slight indulgence. But even knowing these all too obvious points it remains the case that to lose these places of focus, where much can be brought in under a wider umbrella, is to risk dispersement and lack of inspiration, or else demonstrable consolidation as writers find homes in fewer and fewer sites (no surprise perhaps that most of Stylus’s writers ended up at Pitchfork, for instance). It’s not come to this yet and hopefully never well but if an engaged — and, importantly, youthful — listener is confronted with an Internet of ‘music discussion’ that for the most part consists of seemingly little but random YouTube insults, pure gossip and snark for snark’s sake, set against increasingly dry as dust, decades-old approaches for ever more outmoded consensi (the Rolling Stone aesthetic seems ever more attenuated now), then one wonders what the impact will be.

Admittedly melodramatic as a vision, and perhaps simply reflective of what writer friend has terms the shifting of cultural capital away from music in general in this century. Yet the loss of Idolator — at least in its proudly thoughtful form under Maura’s guidance, where the obscure and the famous in music easily coexisted, where the insightful study of sexual roles and general stereotyping was constant, and where humor provided both the necessary slash of satire and the impact of a simply good laugh — shuts down an alternative, another spot to go to find more and learn more. That some enterprises are unsustainable is life, that so many seem to be going in these last couple of years is still depressing, that the latest should be one where so many good folks worked and contributed beyond the bounds of the basic brief, well, that just plain sucks.

Maura herself is regularly posting via her Tumblr site so check in for updates. Meantime, a number of regular commenters on Idolator have started a new joint blog, Chain of Knives, to send along stories and thoughts that fit into the spirit of the old site. I’ll be posting there myself as I can. And we shall see what the future brings.

Where and when to test the comfort zone?

A cryptic title for this post, perhaps, but one that best sums up the combined welter of thoughts resulting from an excellent one-two combination of posts today on Idolator.

First, Dan Gibson had an obituary up for Larry Norman, one of those musical figures I’d irregularly heard about over the years but hadn’t really pursued much. There was, frankly, a specific reason — he was, as Gibson notes, legendary for being the ‘Father of Christian Rock,’ and any time I hear that phrase (or CCM, short for ‘contemporary Christian music’), I heave a mental sigh and move on. I’m not offering any excuse for that, it’s as much an ingrained, kneejerk position as any one I’ve heard over the years saying that, say, rap isn’t music or country all sounds the same or whatever have you. I find those attitudes close-minded and mine on these bands, ultimately, is no less so.

The closest thing to any sort of explanation grows out of a few sources — my own disinterest in religious belief, my emphasis on music and sound rather than lyrics when it comes to musical appreciation, a lingering belief that nearly every overtly Christian rock/CCM identified group essentially seem to only offer a cloning of a popular (or alternately, formerly popular) style but with different lyrics and nothing new brought to the table.

It didn’t help that the audience for such music has always seemed rather…self-limited, to perhaps unfairly say. For a while in the mid-nineties I lurked a touch on a Usenet board dedicated to CCM, partially at the instigation of friends who regularly winnowed wheat from chaff in trying to find good bands out there in the field, but I grew tired of the attitude of fans there who would regularly say things like “Is there a band out that sounds like [band x, singer y, whatever], but Christian?” This ended up annoying me because it seemed very shallow — to turn it around, I really don’t have any problem in the slightest with the Christian symbolism prevalent in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, say, and while Philip Pullman’s work in creating an alternate children’s fantasy with His Dark Materials is lovely stuff, I didn’t go around asking “Is there a young adult fantasy series that reads like Narnia, but agnostic or atheist?” Frankly, I’m still surprised at the idea — which I’ve encountered more than once, in many guises — that to read/listen/watch something not specifically identified as ‘Christian’ is an attack upon your mental and spiritual integrity, which presumably fed into the worries on the message board noted above, with people desperate to enjoy a sound but only if the lyrics were not simply palatable, but explicitly focused on something to the exclusion of anything else.

The irony of course is that attitude can go many different directions — turn it around and you get people complaining “Love the way that band sounds but I wish they wouldn’t be so preachy,” and not simply in terms of religion. So rather than it being a case of one group locking themselves away from broader possibilities, it’s more like an overwhelming layer of biases, where knowing what works best for an individual means more automatic conclusions on what would be worse than should be made. Gibson notes this in his piece, prefacing a sharp, angry condemnation of the fly-by-night financial practices of supposedly godly independent record labels that regularly ripped off Norman and many others — a good warning sign for anyone who thinks that a fish symbol automatically means financial probity, or probity in general — with this pithy observation:

if someone had been this influential to a more popular genre of music (say, Lou Reed), they’d be lionized with an extensively reissued catalog, allowed to put out whatever their whims brought forth, coasting on whatever brilliant moment flickered once in the past. Instead, Norman’s obituary contained a thanks for “prayer and finance” in the past and a mention of likely future financial difficulties for his survivors.

Intriguingly, this question of audience acceptance and expectation unconsciously dovetails with the other excellent Idolator piece this morning, Michelangelo Matos’s latest entry in the Project X series of posts he’s made for the site. This one is a discussion of the legacy of John Peel, the rightly famed British DJ who was an icon for anybody who had hopes their radio show could somehow change the listening world, as well as for general music obsessives. Matos’s article is in part a response to another from Tom Ewing at Pitchfork, also worth the reading (as Matos notes, Ewing, who is from the UK, has a handle on Peel’s role that’s much closer to home and more knowing by default), and both talk about a quality that distinguished Peel and (sadly) still does in comparison to many DJs and people his age and younger — his sheer breadth of musical enthusiasm and interest in listening to all kinds of music from all over the world, from obscure African highlife to murky-as-hell grindcore and back again. Ewing himself sounds an appropriately aware, cautionary note that this reputation is as much image-making as anything else, but at the same time it’s very much part of the historical record.

Matos captures the spirit of this enthusiasm — and why it is important — perfectly:

His integrity had little to do with specific musical tastes and everything to do with being open to possibility. A good critic, as much as a good broadcaster, aspires to communicating the pleasures to be had beyond that which she encounters regularly, be it singer-songwriters or teen-pop or horrible noise, and that pleasure leads to knowledge, or at least more pleasure.

To fully discuss this in the detail it deserves will take much more time than I have to hand right now — maybe even ever, because it’s been both my own lodestone and problem as listener over the years. Problem because at a certain point a few years back I had to get out of the mindset of trying to keep up with everything at once, to fully explore as I ought, because the sheer volume of available music out there — formerly the type of thing that was an issue faced by a few people like Peel, who had labels and bands worldwide sending him huge streams of physical product on a daily basis — had fully exploded via the Net and mp3s. The adjustment I went through is something I’ve mentioned here and there on the blog and elsewhere and was a fairly internally violent rethink — melodramatic perhaps, but I had to realize (and, I hope, did) that life in the hothouse of music and cultural overload was untenable given all my other interests, and especially given whatever creative endeavours I wanted to pursue, however fitfully.

So while I still hold that Matos’s point about being open to possibility is crucial, I don’t regularly practice it as I could — indeed, we’ve all come to a point now where the accumulation created by decades’ worth of favorite styles and genres, increasingly broad and deep, means it’s easy to dwell in there. Arguably I experiment more these days with food — a recipe or foodstuff is suggested and I go to town with it, seeing what can be done — but I don’t find that a loss, if anything it’s a major gain, in part because it does give an outlet to that creative impulse I mentioned earlier. But the larger point to be had is that this is a natural consequence of finding a new balance in one’s life, as interests and obsessions shift, and as new matters of importance rise.

Matos himself touches on the idea of split decisions and differing priorities at the end of his piece with his irritation at a ‘typical’ Peel fan Festive 50 tempered by his own acknowledgement of his love of classic film noir, wryly noting “There’s a thin line between a lost cause and emergent classicism.” And in a way this ties back in obliquely with Gibson’s point, with his passionate take on a ‘lost cause’ — that of trying to establish the place of Norman in wider musical discussion, in a canon that is now simultaneously hardened into the most sclerotic of forms (look to the Grammy Awards a couple of weeks back if you dare, how all sorts of obvious signifiers and past-worship were piled on to create a formal history of music for the mass market) and fraying at the edges more and more.

More really can and should be said about all this — I’ve only just read these pieces and these are initial thoughts touching on a variety of questions. If nothing else it shows that the question of importance of music (of art, really — even, if you like, of what and how we spend our time in our lives with, a life which as Norman would have argued is only transitional anyway in preparation for something more, thus the title of his early seventies album that Gibson rightly cites as a logical obit meme, Just Visiting This Planet) still holds a prime place in my head and those of others in this time of political uncertainty and future concern. And given that it does, no surprise also, perhaps, that I’m content with a certain comfort zone still — something to rely on in a gathering swirl that might yet be a storm.

Singling out an Idolator 2007 Poll essay here…

This is actually for one of the mix discs created by various folks asked to do so, in this case writer Rich Juzwiak. It’s a celebration of the 4/4 beat’s resurgence in r’n’b, and as someone who still always feels that something about that perfectly-on-point beat suggests the future, even now, this was a joy to read (and the selection of tracks is stellar):

The mix picks up as it enters the realm of unquestionable dance music, though note the overall lack of high-hats and pronounced polyrhythms, even on something like Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music,” a song so housey, it might as well come with its own gay-pride float. I find that the more unadorned the percussion is, the more hypnotic that 4/4 becomes. Who needs trance when you can actually enter one?

Read the whole thing! And check out the rest of the mix essays as well — more will be posted tomorrow.

[EDIT — and to make things even better, Rich has posted the mix via his own site. Check it out!]

The 2007 Idolator Pop Critics Poll — and my own best-of music list along with it — is now live

So a few people keep asking me when I was going to post a top-ten list for 2007 musically. I kept saying, “I’m just waiting on the Idolator poll results to get published.”

And they are! So go check it out — it will be further updating throughout the week, and I’m already looking forward to the mix disc features that are going to be published, with contributions from such excellent writers as Mairead Case, Tim Finney, Andy Kellman, Tom Ewing, Douglas Wolk and Mike McGonigal among many others. It’ll be a great collection of individualized snapshots of the year and you’d do well to check them all out and give a listen to what captures your interest.

Meantime, here’s my ballot and therefore my own best-of/top-ten lists, with its accompanying essay. To quote part of it:

This was a hard ballot to draw up. Not because I was weighing the merits of a huge list and trying to narrow it down and encapsulate a full year and so forth. If anything, this was…not the reverse per se, but perhaps the converse: this was me looking at everything that can now be heard, could be heard all over the place, at any time, and realizing how divorced I am from the effort of ranking in general, accelerating a long-held tendency. I heard more music from all over the place this year than ever before and most of it I only heard once before moving on to the next album or song or mix. The big hit singles hit me not with repetition but with generalized and often anonymous osmosis, from being out and about and getting a snatch of a song here and there [and often that was enough — like hooks have been so relentlessly perfected that one or two listens are all that’s needed], rather than trying to actively pursue them or to subject myself to the kind of reigns of aural tyranny that made things like that OneRepublic song omnipresent in recent months. To create a list out of all that seems increasingly close to futile (and if I solely listened to music via my computer, last.fm would have done all the work for me).

But of course I drew a ballot up anyway.

Enjoy, and explore! There’ll be a lot to consider.

This…this is a busy Wednesday, this is

It is. Hopefully another blog post tonight about stuff and things. But! I’ll take this opportunity to refer you all to the glorious Idolator Worst Album Cover of the Year Tournament, whose first round candidates have now all been offered up for inspection. Join us. Because I refuse to suffer in solitude. (This has been an ugly UGLY year for album art.)