Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The Pernicious Influence of Hype

So it was exciting to have Simon Reynolds give the Stylus comeback a shout-out in his latest Guardian decade round-up yesterday. Also, he's participating, which was a surprise. I know he did an article for Stylus when it first opened, but he wasn't a regular contributor, unlike one or two of the regular writers who I believe can't take part. Anyway, one of the things Reynolds talked about was ex-Styluser Ian Cohen's Funeral blurb on Pitchfork's Decade list, which posited that Funeral was "the last of its kind", a unifying consensus-builder whose reception was so positive that it gave birth to a cynicism and contrarian-impulse in today's blogosphere that makes such unifying "event" records near-impossible now.

But cynicism and contrarianism have been a plasma through the internet's venous system since it came to life. Was Funeral's reception really cynicism-free? I liked Reynolds' phrasing that the blogosphere's "greatest liability" was that "there's no cool or ego-burnishing value to be generated from agreeing with other people". He's right: saying "I agree" doesn't impress anyone. Saying "no, you're wrong, and here's why..." is potentially very impressive. It's how you prove how smart you are, how different you are, how you tend to be right whilst everyone else is fooled by a variation of the same mysterious osmosis which fools the idiot public into believing the Black Eyed Peas are amazing. Look how smart I am, I see through it all. But that all depends on the "and here's why..." explanation being convincing.

Third gratuitous Stylus reference: the still-going Singles Jukebox last week caused a minor music blog kerfuffle by being very critical of the Animal Collective song "My Girls", being retrospectively analysed as it was missed on initial release. Of course, no record in the world could be loved universally, and there are surely lots of very good reasons to be unimpressed by Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillion and "My Girls". But they weren't articulated well here; instead we got nit-picking rants, generalisations, assumptions and a lot of imagination. It looked less like genuine musical distaste and more like personal rep building. It wasn't "this is what I think of the music" it was "this is how uniquely I think".

It seems to me that a person's mode of reacting to music can be placed on a spectrum. At the far left, there are people who are very tolerant of and receptive to hype, who convince themselves that whatever their own most credible source says about a record is how they feel too; positive, negative or indifferent. These people rarely admit to being so influenced but to them, the canon is self-evidently accurate. At the other end, there are people who are very intolerant of and suspicious of hype. They convince themselves that the conventional wisdom on a record is dead wrong. If a record is well-hyped, it's probably shit, because other people get excited about rubbish things. People rarely confess to this position either (though Frank in my office does - which is maddening, but refreshing). To these people, the canon is self-evidently boring.

[Unfortunately, it's not quite so simple as this (so help me refine this if you can), because we have to work out what counts as "hype", a "credible source" and a "canon", because none of these things are the same for everyone. Also, I suspect a lot of people react differently, left-or-right, based on many different factors.]

Well, any critic who wants to be better at his job should strive to sit in the middle of that spectrum. The ideal is that no review should be influenced by other, prior reviews. I know I've been guilty of that in the past (and I probably don't know that I have, too), but people who put themselves forward as reviewers should at least attempt to adopt that mindset: of being equally as skeptical of hype as of dismissal. I don't think Ian Cohen is right that Funeral was the last of its kind, because I've read convincing rebuttals of that album's status, whilst the only Merriweather Post Pavillion backlash I've read has been straw-clutching and self-serving.

I admit it: I love Merriweather Post Pavillion; I don't care if you think I'm just another bee in the hivemind. I love Funeral too. So mock me.

Finally: to go further, the ideal is that no review should be influenced by any external factors at all. This reviewer must live in a cave with only a record player and a selection of fine headphones for company. Is Amy Winehouse's second album actually one of the best of the decade, as OMM and The Times have claimed? I always avoided it because I suspected she was mostly famous for being a fuck-up. Is it humanly possible to listen to that album without her tabloid persona influencing your reaction?

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