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Musings: Echo Chamber

By ; July 23, 2009 at 3:40 PM 

McCain Veckatimest

Those who follow politics – and those who follow those who follow politics – are familiar with the term the concept of an “echo chamber.” When pompous political pundits – or greasy good-for-nothing blogger hippies – talk about the echo chamber, more often than not, they’re referring to Washington, D.C., and the city’s unfortunate habit of talking directly and exclusively to itself.

For example: Senator John McCain “suspends” his campaign during the opening salvo of the economic crisis back in the fall of 2008; Pundit A says, “This is a brilliant political move by the McCain campaign, showcasing the candidate’s essential Maverickness.” Pundit B realizing that he has no fucking idea what to say about the move – his gut may tell him it’s gimmicky and stupid, but what if he’s wrong, and worse still, what if all the other pundits disagree? – he skims some more and finds Pundit A’s assertion that the move, if nothing else, showcases Johnny Mac’s Maverick haunches, glistening in the sun, and says to himself, “Yeah – horsies!” So then Pundit B goes and writes up an ode to McCain’s moxy before quickly returning to his Business Casual rewrite of A Modest Proposal. Cut to Pundit C…etc. Pretty soon all of the pundits are on-board that McCain’s move was absolutely the smartest thing anyone’s ever done. The only problem – neglecting to actually consult anyone outside of the echo chamber, they’re all caught off guard when it turns out that the country (at least for the moment) isn’t quite as cynical and stupid as they are or as they thought, and McCain’s move is an unmitigated flop.

I bring all of this up (laboriously, it would seem) in order to make this point: I’m concerned that as the internet has changed everything else about the world of popular music, so too is it changing how we plugged-in music fans talk to one another. I’m afraid that we’re walking into an echo chamber of our own, and we may not even know it. And while the consequences of the political echo chamber are certainly more destructive than they could possibly be for music – I can’t imagine a scenario wherein everyone’s overrating of the new Arcade Fire record leads to thousands of dead Iraqis – it’s still a move we should be wary to make.

Exhibit A in my presentation would undoubtedly have to be Pitchfork’s recent review of the much-hyped (and not-so-much listened to by me) Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear. So as to not make the same mistake the reviewer made, I won’t assume you’ve read the piece, but as is often the case with online zine’s reviews, there’s not much worth quoting, much less at-length. Suffice to say that although the record receives a very high score – a 9.0, which generally guarantees the record will end up around the top 10 for the site’s influential end of the year list – instances of the scribe making the case for such a high score are few and far between.

True – there’s references to the record’s very early, very low-quality leak, and there’s references to the twitter feed of one of Grizzly Bear’s two primary singers; further, there are times when the review seems to implicitly push back against criticisms against the record. Yeah, it’s a bit studied, he says. And, yes, it’s also, perhaps, boring but…he continues. So you know there’s another way of viewing that 9.0 (hey, y’know, if you flip it upside down and give it a little spin, you might even get a 6.0) but you don’t really know how that argument would be made, or where it would come from. Reading the review is like hearing only one half of a conversation – in all likelihood you’ll be able to follow along, but you won’t get enough information to form your own opinion.

And that’s because the review was seemingly written only for people like me (and most likely you); people who at least considered grabbing that initial, shitty leak; people who then went on messageboards and saw the deluge of praise, followed by the inevitable backlash, and then the bloodless internecine warfare that is inevitable when people feel they must either love or hate a record; people who watched Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion become the album of the decade before it even leaked etc.
I understand why this is happening and in many ways it’s only logical. But that doesn’t mean it’s good. For one thing, it’s going to lead to shitty writing. Although we should always be wary whenever someone says, “Something is ____” authoritatively, bear with me here for a second: Writing isn’t about communicating with those who you’re already on the same page as. At least good writing isn’t. Good writing should be somewhat transcendent of those barriers between niches (barriers that are calcifying to an unprecedented degree in the blog era); Lester Bangs was writing to a select audience of music die-hards, sure – but he wasn’t calling up his friends’ and frienemies following Metal Machine Music’s release, seeing what the “consensus” was. Fuck the consensus – he listened to it, and wrote a rambling, self-indulgent (like this article) poem to what he thought was a glorious piece of music.

We should not be content to watch what remains of music journalism descend into a dank cesspool where the most anticipated records of the year are reviewed on the most popular webzines and the result is little more than a cut-and-paste collage of blog and board comments. That may be good enough for those that make decisions impacting billions worldwide in Washington, D.C. but the new Spoon release deserves much, much more.

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