The Kids Are Coming Up from Behind
Drew Millard considers our musical blind spots and how the internet has changed the way we talk about music.
Art by Robesman
Welcome to The Age of Information, Drew Millard's new column about hip-hop, dance music, and the internet. In the first edition, he examines how the internet has changed the way we tackle our "blind spots" as listeners.
"Even though we in space we hate ourselves / The age of information is hell."
In a past life, I worked at a publication about video games called Kill Screen, where I started as an intern and eventually worked my way up to Associate Editor. When I did an interview with the magazine’s Editor-In-Chief in the fall of 2011, I admitted to him that I knew maybe—maybe—a slightly-above-average amount about video games, and didn’t even own a console. I expected him to tell me to get out, or at least dismiss the idea that I could work for him. Instead, without missing a beat, he said, “That’s fine; that’s why Wikipedia exists.” I ended up working there for over a year.
I never admitted to knowing next to nothing about games, and Kill Screen’s readers and commenters never questioned my lack of expertise. Eventually, I even won an award for something I wrote, which, in addition to being completely baffling, was a testament to the fact that expertise is more about context and assuredness than actual knowledge: If you say you know what you’re talking about, and it’s presented in a way that projects authority, people will generally take what you have to say at face value. But what if a critic has no idea what they're talking about?
Among music writers and readers of music writing, there’s this idea that “good” critics need to have listened to certain records, read certain writings, and have a certain knowledge of cultural contexts in order to accurately comment upon the music they’re listening to. This is a closed-minded perspective. That mindset treats music writing as a consumer service: The music writer filters the good shit from the bullshit, tells you more information about the artist—either through reported features, interviews, or even “thinkpieces”—so that the reader may fully develop their feelings on an artist, and make an informed decision as to whether that artist, scene, or genre, is worth their time. In a world where the limitless information the internet holds is at your fingertips, the pillars of authority have been eroded, and now sit somewhere closer to Earth.
The internet changes the way we talk about music, in small but distinct ways. If I’m writing a review of, say, the recent FKA Twigs album and compare her to Sade and link to one of her songs in my write-up, then the person reading it can click the link, listen to the song, and despite potentially having never listened to Sade before, know exactly what I’m talking about. This would have been impossible 20 years ago. I would have had to describe the textures of the Sade song, the very specific feelings she evoked, and then gone on to explain exactly how I also found these elements in the music of FKA Twigs. That’s not a gripe—as someone who writes about music all day, being able to use links as shorthand makes my life infinitely easier—but it does reinforce the idea that popular music is nothing more than a vast web of references and influences, and that to be a conscientious music listener is to understand and track that web.
It does little to acknowledge that listening to music—or consuming any piece of art for that matter—is an intensely personal experience. A normal person’s immediate reaction to RiFF RAFF is not to immediately say, “Oh hey, this dude sounds like Yungstar from Screwed Up Click,” it’s going to be to marvel at the thoughts coming out of this dude’s head. A 14-year-old girl isn’t going to listen to Ariana Grande’s new, Cashmere Cat-produced “Be My Baby” and question whether or not it’s problematic that there’s a Norwegian guy who co-opted the very specific sound of the club music scene in Newark, New Jersey—who, by producing for a gigantic pop star, is becoming the subgenre’s de facto face; they’re going to groove to it, and probably think about whichever boy they’re crushing on.
No one person’s experience with a piece of art is more or less valid than another’s, and there is no “correct” way to listen to music. Certainly, having a wealth of information and context about a piece of music is going to frame what you think about as you listen to it, and potentially your reaction to it—knowing that there is indeed a father to RiFF RAFF’s style deflates his wizardry a bit; it’s hard to listen to Wagner the same way once you consider his anti-Semitism and potential proto-Nazism; and Yeezus loses some of its power if you don’t take it as a critique of the fucked-up America that produced it. Still, just because someone has access to all of this information doesn’t create an obligation to look it up every time they press play on a song. That would be maddening, and would take all of the fun out of listening to music. But the fact that every fact is simply a Google search away means something.
Here’s a secret: Most people who write about music full time didn’t grow up intending it to be their job. Most of them were simply fans who happened to enjoy writing, and, after a lot of hard work and a lucky break or two, ended up getting full time gigs. Which is to say: All critics have blind spots, some gaping, some minute. There isn’t a checklist of canonical albums for young critics to listen to; there’s no qualifying exam to take before you file your first thinkpiece. There are no trials, no tests of physical endurance, no hot coals of molten Smiths vinyl that you have to run across before you can interview Merchandise. And yet most critics write from a point of authority.
In the olden days, when music writing was printed out on paper and bundled in newspapers, magazines, and zine-zines, this authority was a bit more freely given—it cost money to print that article, and therefore, as if by magic, the person writing that article definitely knew what they were talking about (the fact that, often, writers knew exactly what they were talking about helped this too). Publishing to the web democratized that. Now we’re all writers in a sense, our bodies of work appearing in the form of tweets, Facebook posts, text messages, blog posts, and e-mails. We innately understand that writing is often bullshit, because we ourselves are often bullshitting.
Because we’re all potential writers and potential experts on everything, experiences have become valued over raw knowledge. Connection to time and place cannot be researched or faked, so we put a premium on authenticity, rendering personal experience the last valid form of critical authority. This tension between people who were around to witness history firsthand and those who can only reflect upon it in hindsight is exactly what James Murphy expressed in LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge." He bitches about how he was there at the first Can Show and how he coached Suicide on how to tune their organs, but he's lost his footing in the scene to the "internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978" and the "art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties." As the song has aged, its message—that it's patently silly to fetishize the past just because you were there and feel like knowledge is superior just because you know it—has only become more resonant.
Literally every day, legions of music fans get into an artist they could have potentially grown up with, or bands who existed before they were born. This has always happened, and the internet has made it even easier to mainline discographies—whole histories—in a manner of hours, all while basking in the dull glow of a computer monitor. As soon as the mysterious Aphex Twin blimp flew over London, I realized I had gone 25 years without listening to a single Aphex Twin song. So, I started diving into his music, and a week later I have some vaguely developed opinions about him and his new record. I'm sure I'm not alone in playing this game of catch-up, and filling in these blind spots is part of the great adventure that is being a music fan. Though I might have not gotten to see Aphex Twin play a sweaty London rave in 1993 or watch the terrifying "Windowlicker" video when it first debuted on MTV, by reconstructing his history for myself, I'm creating a new experience with his music that's mine and mine alone, just as valuable to me as someone's firsthand experience with him is to them.
To listen to music, in its own way, is to be a student of history. Recent history, sure, but history nonetheless. And history is a living, breathing thing—it's about connecting the dots that have been left behind in order to get a sense of people's lives as they lived them. Looking back on Aphex Twin yields a trove of material. But what does a jumble of interviews, songs, and music videos add up to? In the case of Aphex Twin, many things—his career can be read as a reaction to British rave culture in the 90s, a case study in the ways we use new technologies, a story of how fame is often weird and not fun, or any number of other narratives, each as potentially true as the next. The experience of exploring an artist's music, giving it your own context, and deciding what it's about for yourself remains one of the greatest rewards you can reap as a music fan. Classic artists lend themselves to rediscovery over and over again, and each person who listens to them gets to give their music their own meaning. And in its own way, that's just as valid as having been there—by virtue of appreciating something as an object of the past, you're creating new experiences, experiences that are yours and yours alone. There might be someone out there who knows more than you, but they’ll never be able to Google your soul.
Drew Millard will be writing his Age of Information column once a month, or whenever he feels like it. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard