Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Dissent? Nah." Indie Rock's Troubling Herd Mentality

By Evan Rytlewski
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Now I'm not saying I dislike the Dirty Projectors' lauded new album Bitte Orca. But I will say that halfway through the album, the group's chirping, incessant backing singers hit a note so shrill that I literally ripped off my headphones on impulse. I've heard fire alarms with more grace.

So why won't I just come out and say I dislike the new Dirty Projectors album when, well, I clearly do?

Because I don't have the energy.

Indie music this year has been defined by several universally heralded albums that, while bold and ambitious, should by their very nature annoy the living shit out of at least a good chunk of listeners, yet dissenting opinions about these albums are virtually impossible to come by. You'd expect that the Internet, as a haven for anonymous commentary, would facilitate counterpoints on some of the year's most hyped records, yet it appears to have had the exact opposite effect. In fact, the herd effect has become so pronounced that it's become virtually impossible to criticize some of these records without positioning yourself as a grumpy, attention-seeking contrarian—and thus a lightning rod for every rabid fan on the Internet.

Take Animal Collective's landmark Merriweather Post Pavilion. It's an album that begs to be hated almost as much as it longs to be loved—Pitchfork's astute review says as much in its lead sentence—yet the record has only provoked  one borderline negative review on MetaCritic, a cold but level-headed two-and-a-half stars out of five from the Austin Chronicle. Now look at the responses writer Doug Freeman garnered and you'll begin to get a sense of why other writers don't echo him, even though plenty share his opinion:

* "your ears, and heart, and brain don't work correctly."
* "You're one of the biggest fools to walk the planet."
* "What a blatant publicity grab ... I guess Doug missed that part when skimming through a biography to grab some album names to namedrop into his review so that it could be perceived that he knew what he was talking about. Good try Freeman."
* "Someone fire this guy."

Part of this comes with the territory.  As a music writer, you put your opinion out there, and others return the favor.  Some escalate. It's part of the job, and sometimes part of the fun. "Next time you think about writing a review on something, just shoot yourself instead," one angry Conor Oberst fan instructed me after I gave Oberst's latest record a cold review. Another reader derided me as a Nickelback fan.

That type of feedback is easy to take when you're more or less in the critical majority—as I believe I was with that uneven Oberst record. But imagine having to be the lone straw man for a record everyone and their mother professes to love. It's really not worth the fight. That's why, like a lot of music writers these days, I'm learning it's easier to shut my mouth than to dissent.


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