Eighties Eighties Eighties

Pitchfork, the music website that everybody loves to hate, has just released a list of the alleged 200 best singles of the 1980s.  Response on the internet has been, well, response on the internet:  discussion of the merits of the songs included is vastly outweighed by outrage at the absence of the songs excluded; the purpose and utility of making such a list has been subsumed to ad webinem attacks on Pitchfork itself, with the site’s defenders heaping scorn on the outdated tastes of its attackers and the site’s critics shoveling shit on the contrarian wisdom nouvelle of its writers; and any worthwhile discussion about actual music has largely been lost in a flash flood of you-forgots and how-dare-yous.  Of course, there is really no purpose in making such lists other than to start arguments, so in that sense, you might call it a raging success, but for me, it serves only as a reminder of why I absolutely hate hierarchical rankings of any kind of art or culture.

Of course, I am a critic, and any critic who claims to not enjoy making lists is lying. The only critics who don’t make lists do so merely as a reaction against the fact that pretty much all critics make them, either for their own private consumption or for public edification.  The whole struggle involves that deadly little four-letter word, “best”.  The easy way to forestall the kind of endless and unproductive sniping engendered by things like the Pitchfork list is to recognize that all experience of art is subjective, that a person who thinks that “Uptown Girl” is the best song of the 1980s is at least sincere if not brain-damaged, and that nothing like a definitive list of the best of anything can ever be assembled, and, in light of that recognition, to simply refer to your list as “200 great singles of the 1980s” or “200 of our favorite songs of the 1980s”.  It’s the reason I place every review I write in the “PERSONAL” category, a constant reminder of the fact that, however confident I feel of my opinion of a film or book or album, I can never assume my viewpoint to be universal or definitive.

But that’s not the sort of position that draws in eyeballs and triggers clicks, so here we are, left to contemplate the list as it is.  There’s plenty of room to criticize it simply on factual detail, from the definition of what, exactly, constitutes a ‘single’ to the boringly persistent truth that the decade in question goes from 1981-1990 and not 1980-1989.  Leave all that alone, however, and you’re left with the most common criticism:  that the list contains not enough of (whatever the critic in question’s preferred musical genre is) and too much (whatever the critic in question doesn’t happen to like).  There are lots of reasons why this happens, but rarely do they get discussed by the people doing the arguing, and while it won’t change the particulars of the situation, it’s something I’d like to bat around here in aid of some perspective.  Lists like this will never go away just as surely as they will never be perfect or even right, but maybe we can understand why they are what they are.

For one thing, even leaving aside the constant shift in popular taste and the fact that what is seen as marginal by one generation can be regarded as essential by the next, there is the inherent absurdity of a website that purports to be on the vanguard of popular music posting a canonical list of the “best” music of a period that is now at least 25 years behind us. There is also the fact that many, if not most, of the people who wrote the lists’ entries were either not even born in the 1980s, or were at the very least too young to have had a real sense of pop music, at least in terms of its origins, popularity, context, and commerce.  This is more important than it seems because of the major criticism labeled against the list.

The majority of people attacking the Pitchfork 200 cite its lack of representation in three major categories: country music, Americana/alternative country, and the guitar-pop mutation alternately known as alternative and college rock.  Country (and metal) we can dismiss out of hand.  Aside from occasional stabs at socializing it for an audience that couldn’t care less, Pitchfork has never cared about mainstream country, and mainstream country fans couldn’t care less about Pitchfork, which they no doubt think of as being penned by postmodernist hipsters whose streaming media is piped in straight from Beijing.  We can dismiss its absence out of hand, just as we might its complete lack of jazz, concert music, world music, and so on:  it’s just not their crowd.  The absence of alt-rock and alt-country are a little harder to explain away, however, particularly since the group that constituted Pitchfork’s core audience in its early days were hugely influenced by those musics and are the most outraged by their absence.

The most common response to this has been that alt-rock and alt-country had their day, and that day is gone; and, having gone, it has left little mark on the music of today.  There’s no arguing that this is a lie; clearly it is not. Hip-hop, electronic dance music, and indie rock are the dominant modes of the contemporary pop charts, so focusing, as Pitchfork did, on rap, house, and the strain of British post-punk that has come to influence today’s indie pop darlings (as opposed to the more raucous and earthy American post-punk, whose influence has largely waned) is clearly the way to go.  The problem with this, however, is that while it’s perfectly correct to argue that the ‘where’s R.E.M.’ crowd is viewing music through an outdated lens, it’s also correct to argue that the current Pitchfork writers are working from a perspective that’s going to fade with time as well.  Since they are interpreting the influence of the past through the eyes of the present, just as their critics are interpreting the influence of the past through the eyes of the past, their views about what is and isn’t important in pop music are likely to spoil.  They will seem as misguided to readers in the year 2035 as the alternatives proposed by their haters seem dated to readers in the year 2015, and as oblivious as the actual list would have seemed to writers and critics in the year 1990.

And, too, the list was assembled by a group of people, each of whom likely specializes in a particular kind of music.  The ones who care deeply about house and soul are dismissive of the pleas of those who care about alt-country and jangle-pop, just as the devotees of those genres would likely never have included any freestyle or new jack swing.  But before they simply scorn the olds for thinking their music is a badly dated joke whose time has passed, or pat themselves on the back for their ability to root out the sources of music that have since become of paramount importance, it must be remembered that they have the advantage of perspective; they are viewing musical developments from a distance, able to use vast resources and technologies that were not available to those who lived through it.  This historical presence should not be lightly dismissed; as important as it is from our perspective, music like Afrobeat and Detroit techno were difficult to hear for most of the 1980s.  They had little to no radio airplay, their recordings failed to penetrate most record stores, and their audiences were in the low thousands and mostly concentrated in ethnic enclaves of big cities.  The critics of the list may well have loved the music if they’d had a chance to hear it, but we’ll never know.  They were denied by fate the chance to make musical connections that are, for a 20-something writer working today, as effortless as a Wikipedia search.

None of which, of course, is to defend the list’s critics, who are often short-sighted, dismissive of unfamiliar music, and — too much — unwilling to take into account the musical accomplishments of women and minorities.  (Pitchfork also engages in their on-again, off-again romance with poptimism; there’s more than a few big hits on the list, from Prince to Hall & Oates to Whitney Houston and Phil Collins, but the new wave and synth-pop of the early ’80s, which yielded tons of big hits, is curiously underrepresented, particularly in light of the fact that it’s far more influential on today’s dance-pop than anyone there is willing to admit.)  The fact that one type of music gets ignored in favor of another is understandable and probably inevitable, and really isn’t anything to get excited about unless you start out by defining your list as canon in the first place.  But the aggression of some defenders in the ‘get over it, old white dudes’ mode marginalizes the voices of people who lived through something that seemed, at the time, just as influential and revelatory as the alternatives they’re getting yelled at for preferring.

Looking over what I’ve written here, it seems far to much like I’m standing up for an aging demographic whose time has come and gone.  That’s not my intention.  But it’s reminiscent of why these lists do more to divide than to enlighten when presented in such a definitive way, and the conventional wisdom of today is the folly of tomorrow.  The process of mapping culture is just that:  it’s a process, one that unfolds over time and takes effort.  The voices of the current generation are useful in providing a fresh perspective on the past, but the voices of those who lived through it are likewise valuable in providing context and clarity.  We can’t pretend that we know everything about a context we weren’t there to see, just like the people who were there can’t pretend that they knew everything that was going on outside their purview.  And while criticism should absolutely not be completely positive and all-embracing — quite the opposite — neither is anything to be gained by vilifying something somebody loved as unworthy.  It is possible to champion your cause without shitting on someone else’s.

Earlier this week, it was announced that Waxahatchee would be opening for Sleater-Kinney on their forthcoming reunion tour.  This is good news indeed, or so it seems to me as a fan of both bands; but the news happened to come on the same day as the 40th anniversary of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.  Someone on my Twitter feed announced to the world that it was Waxahatchee that we should all be excited about, not one more boring old white man rattling on about Springsteen.  That’s probably true; I’m very excited to see this show (though, of course, S-K themselves are a band formed 20 years ago, and scandalously Caucasian at that), and I read exactly zero reminiscences of Born to Run because I have better things to do with my time, like write incoherent 2,100-word essays with no particular point.   But if I know one thing, it’s that any criticism that is built on dismissing things that are personally meaningful to people is a criticism that has failed, and, sadly, that’s the kind of criticism that seems to be coming to the fore in the internet age.  It is useful to discuss the aesthetics, the politics, the sociology, the craft, the emotional weight, the cultural meaning, and even the commerce of art, but it is worse than futile to attack it on whether or not it should keep being important to the people it’s important to, or on the unchangeable qualities of its audience.

I get why Pitchfork posts articles like this.  They’re surefire attention-grabbers and articles that people will return to again and again.  They’re features, they’re reference works, they’re events.  The company’s marketing knew exactly what they were doing, seeding search engines with paydirt for years to come.  They’re even, as I can testify by having been involved in one or two myself, a hell of a lot of fun to write.  The problem is that they posit music criticism as a series of events, each one peaking at a certain time and providing the final word on its subject, when really, music criticism is a process, a spectrum with no poles, an ongoing conversation that never ends.  It is something driven not by an algorithm, but by the queries that generate that algorithm.  We allow them to happen, and when we do, we encourage a blurring of ‘favorite’ and ‘best’ that ultimately marginalizes everyone.


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