Anti-Poptimist Pep Talk for Songwriters

I picked Coke in the Pepsi Challenge

You don’t have to like pop music. You don’t have to respect it or care that other people like it. You can even enjoy it and not respect it or care about it.

You’re a songwriter. You probably have strong opinions about songs. Those opinions are important. If you cultivate them, they will help you write the songs you want to write. Those opinions will let you listen to your own songs in progress and be critical of them. They will let you listen to songs that intrigue and challenge you and learn from them.

Chances are that you find certain types of songs most interesting. There might even be songs that inspired you to write songs in the first place, and other songs that inspired you to keep writing. These are the best songs. It doesn’t matter if other songs are more popular. The songs that you love are the best ones. Stick to your guns! If you think Townes Van Zandt is a better writer than Bob Dylan (like Steve Earle does) cultivate that. If everyone had the same opinions about songs, we would all end up writing the same songs.

There is a lot of pressure at this moment for musicians and critics to take top 40 pop music seriously. Don’t. It’s not serious. It’s big business, and celebrity, spectacle but, at least as songwriting, it’s not serious. It’s not ambitious. It’s not interesting. There is ambitious songwriting in pop, but I don’t hear it very often in celebrity-driven top 40.

The impulse to take chart-topping music seriously is political. It provides thin comfort in a world where the influence of corporate culture is more and more absolute. Instead of resisting that influence, even in tiny ways, music criticism argues that corporate culture can be good enough, and that, in fact, corporate pop music is the model and standard that other forms of music, either overtly or secretly, aspire to follow.

But you’re not a critic. You’re a songwriter. A mildly comforting theory won’t get the job done, and feeling bad about the modern world might be part of your schtick, anyways. You need a car that runs, a dog that will actually hunt. You need your own aesthetic, one that reflects the stories you want to tell and the ideas that you want to suss out. Unless you’re actually writing for a top 40 record, the focus group is not arriving to help you decide which version of that verse works better. You are going to have to have an opinion.

Structural issues matter. Value judgements aside, there is a simple and observable difference between a person or two sitting down to write a song and a major label production team assembling to accomplish the same task. There is a difference in the process and a corresponding, observable difference in the product. The music you make is not a lesser version of corporate pop – it is a different thing entirely.

To me, one reason that music is important because it’s a forum where eccentric, diverse, individual voices can actually make themselves heard once in a blue moon. Poptimist criticism claims to advocate for diversity, but instead it reinforces the ubiquity of corporate pop, at the expense of individual voices.

Your music is weird and awesome. It is difficult and risky. It is offensive and beautiful. It is comforting to people who exist only in your imagination. Your friends’ moms like it better than your friends do, maybe. It is more powerful than you feel. It is hard to record, or hard to play live, or both, maybe. It is struggling to exist in the world. Music critics think they have heard it before, but they are wrong. Like your life, it is a thing that you have that is actually yours.

Noise folk – is it a thing?

Sometimes I think of the music I want to do as noise folk, but is that even a thing?  I spent a little time today listening to the noise folk tag on band camp, just to see if other people think it’s the same thing I do.  There’s some intense stuff there, but I wanted to draw what little attention I can to two records that are pretty great, and have a real connection to what I think noise folk might be.

Red Wasp by Victor Florence is sweet and easy, with an edge that feels unforced.  The songs walk the line between worn-in and familiar, and the production style is forceful without being abrasive.  Florence has some other records that push harder against traditional forms and feel more collaged, and those are worth checking out as well.

Tucker Theodore’s To Make the Sun Hurt manages to be more noisy and more folk at the same time. Released as a cassette by Antiquated Future, the record oscillates between lo-if and destroyed, with feedback threatening to overwhelm the sound of acoustic guitar and vocals. Really strong finger-style guitar manages to push through the mix. Field recordings are an obvious point of reference, but the record doesn’t devolve into a genre exercise. Like finding a letter from your great-grandfather under the hood of your car.

Grab bag reviews: Fairweather Currents

So I’m going to try something new: record reviews!  Starting with something I’m going to call grab bag reviews.  Once a week or so, I’m going to go look at the new records from Boston in Bandcamp, find one or more thing that I like, and do some kind of review.  I’m going to write out my ground rules here, since this is the internet and that seems to be the kind of thing people do:

  • Positive reviews (why write about things that aren’t good?)
  • Focus on genres I care most about: home recording, singer-songwriter, hip hop, maybe some experimental or electronic stuff if I’m in the mood
  • Local!  Extra points if there are songs are about Boston, because that will make me like them.
  • Obscurity.  If it feels like no one else will review the record, that is a good reason to review it.

Five wordy, hushed, self-conscious, charming, home recorded songs.  The narrative that emerges is of one more college student new to Boston, trying to make sense of a new environment,  The cover is the Huntington Avenue Y.

Dylan Citron sings in a voice so gentle it can seem androgynous and strums on a dry, thin, acoustic guitar.  Crowd noise from parties, distorted drum machines, vocal samples, and slow, melodic piano lines all take their place in arrangements that are familiar but not stale or derivative.

The last song, “The Times Are Never-A-Changin'” drifts slowly over a piano arpeggio, punctuated by the crunching up and down of the piano’s sustain pedal.  The lyrics suggest a young narrator grappling for his own relationship with the violence in the world around him, and the song ends with a brief sample of a gospel recording.  As the title suggests, it’s a protest song that doesn’t know quite what to say, and it’s one of the highlights of a really nice EP.

new record is new, sad record is sad

Hey!  The new record is here.  I wrote a long, self-indulgent post about it below, so now I will just announce it.  Go to the bandcamp page to stream, download for free, or even download for money.  Leave a comment (ok, that is a pain to do unless you have a bandcamp account).  Rock out to it or let it make you cry – it is entirely up to you.

Also, there is a new version of, which you can check out.  It is like this blog, but prettier.  I hope.  Not sure what else to do with that page – maybe more experiments in the future.

New record! Coming soon!

I’m almost done with a new record.  The new record is called “How it left me blind”.  It is distinctly a break up record, which won’t be surprising to people who know me.  People love break up records, so I’m hoping it will be hugely popular.  That’s a joke.
The record is more folky than the last few things I have done.  It was recorded thusly: the acoustic guitar and vocal are all live takes, with no drum machine or click track to guide them, and then the rest of the stuff was overdubbed over those takes.  More than half of the songs have backwards guitar parts.  There is a lot of electric guitar, and a fair amount of synthesizer.  And harmony vocals.
One of the joys of recording like this is the inevitable imperfection.  Imperfection is probably the wrong word, since it implies something close to actual perfection.  The inevitable chaos.  The timing is perpetually off, especially compared to the perfect symmetry we now expect on recordings.  My timing on acoustic guitar is unsteady at best, and overdubbing on those tracks feels like throwing darts from a moving car while the driver pumps the gas.  Counter-melodies shift uncomfortably to find their place in the measure, like a rider taking the last seat on the subway.  The rhythms sound right to me, after living with them, but I worry that they will sound wrong to other people, at least at first.  The decisions are arbitrary, the arrangements almost taking shape by chance. 
The backwards guitar helps – it’s a little like drawing with your eyes closed, or writing in a mirror.  Like cutting your own hair.  It’s not chance, but it is a lack of control, a disconnect between action and results.
Maybe the record doesn’t sound as chaotic as I think.  It is a folk record after all.  It’s hard to say, from where I sit, which is so close that everything blurs together.

Willis Earl Beal (The first rule of outsider art is don’t talk about outsider art)

I saw this show last summer, at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brookyln.  You can hear people laughing when Willis Earl Beal starts to sing.  His performance was both awkward and great.  He wore a cape, and at one point he brought out a whip.  The opening band was a really slick jazzy R&B outfit with a large band, but Beal mostly sang over a reel-to-teel tape deck.  He played guitar lap-style on one or two songs, in a way that suggested someone eating with the wrong end of a fork.

The Pitchfork review of Beal’s new record contains the sentence “At one point last year, he even told Time Out Chicago he wanted to be an outsider artist, somehow forgetting that one of the conditions of being an outsider artist is not knowing you’re an outsider artist.”  But is it really possible that celebrated outsider artists, the famous ones like Daniel Johnston or Thornton Dial, don’t know how they are described by the art world, that they are somehow shielded from the many portrayals of themselves and their work that have appeared in various media, or, even more outlandish, that they somehow aren’t capable of understanding those portrayals?  These are not stupid people.

We All Live Under the Same Old Flag, Thornton Dial, 2010

Maybe the rule Beal really missed is that one of the conditions of being an outsider artist is pretending you don’t know you’re an outsider artist.  The first rule of outsider art is don’t talk about outsider art.

But why would someone like Beal, blessed with a booming and versatile voice and skilled in a popular but rarely-heard-these-days vocal style, want to be an outsider artist?  What is the benefit of being an outsider when you might be able to be an insider?  He could sound like Aloe Blac if he wanted, right?  Well, one of the advantages is awkwardness.  This is a particularly powerful strategy in popular music, where being able to portray a cool person is a prerequisite.  If you don’t have to be cool and everyone else does, you can do and say a lot things other people won’t or can’t.

Of course, not all of what is considered outsider art is awkward.  Thornton Dial’s art isn’t, but Daniel Johnston’s art and music often is.  Still, the freedom to be awkward in performance may be one of the reasons Willis Earl Beal says he wants to be an outsider artist.

What happens when awkwardness becomes an aesthetic strategy?  What is the difference between a confrontational performance and an awkward one?

Elitism and Awkward Art

To not be elitist and make art: believe that everyone else who wants to should make art too.  Appreciate and enjoy awkward art projects.

To be elitist and make art: think that only some people can make art, and that making art makes you special.  Mock or deride awkward attempts at art.

Is it better to be proud or embarrassed of art?  Is it better to try to change how you feel about something or just to let it be?  What does it mean to be embarrassed of something and do it anyways?

Is believing in meritocracy a kind of elitism?  Do you need to be some kind of elitist to make great art?

I was reading Tao Lin today and thinking about this.  Resisted the urge to put “meritocry” and “great art” in quotes.  Maybe I will work on some posts about awkward art.