2010: The Rest Is Noise, So the Noise Must Rest

Nick Sylvester | December 22nd, 2010

1. This will be the last you hear from me for a while. I will always be grateful to Thirteen.org for letting me write this column. It’s become difficult to keep at it though. I don’t process enough new music to opine on a weekly basis. Of that new music, I haven’t been listening with anything resembling bigger picture, worthwhile copy-generating type ears. This space deserves a critic who actually made it through the Big Boi album.

2. All this became apparent to me a month ago, after the Kanye West album leaked. It was a Tuesday morning, and I had nothing to post for Wednesday. It occurred to me, maybe I should attempt to write about West’s “epic” and “ambitious” and 10.0-rated album — what so many critics considered to be not just the year’s best, but a real pop music landmark. It occurred to me I should probably have an opinion about this record.

3. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t like the Kanye West album. That I might be the only writer I know who didn’t like the Kanye West album; that I could potentially “put a bullet in” the Kanye West album, or show how the Kanye West album existed as the vessel by which Kanye West intended to collect critical praise for 2010’s Kanye West As Performance Art piece; that Kanye West could have put out anything that week, and critics would have praised it, because albums are the locus for assessing an artists’ “art”; that very few music writers have the bureaucratic acumen to place a “review” of an artist’s performance art; that as albums become the symbolic product of Music Celebrities, they become mere ciphers in themselves. The ideas shot out my fingers like lightning bolts. I had puns in spades.

4. Except I had only listened to the Kanye West album maybe eight or nine times tops. Not as much time with the record as I would have liked, but there was this issue of a deadline. (I don’t know how I wrote about music every day five years ago. Or rather, I do know. My process involved a lot of snakes and bucket hats.) I had Something To Say about Kanye West though. What mattered was that I had listened to the album enough to have Something To Say.

5. Then, for whatever reason, probably procrastination, I decided to walk around my neighborhood listening to the album one more time. It was only in motion, that ninth or tenth spin, that the record opened up for me and began making sense. I began liking it a lot. One could reasonably argue it’s the second- or third-best Kanye album of all time. Not my favorite album in 2010, but it’s quite good.

6. Despite that! Despite coming to the realization that, when I wasn’t converting sound into copy, I actually found the Kanye West album pleasurable, I attempted to write a negative piece. It was remarkably easy to write. I played the combo role of Guy Who Likes Kanye West As Performance Art 2010 and Guy Who Hates The Kanye West Album. So much of the pre-existing press about The Kanye West Album was how good it was in spite of Kanye West As Performance Art 2010. The lane was open. My internal monologue ran something like this: Even if I like the album, I still take issue with the way the album’s goodness felt like a foregone conclusion — for reviewers, the least noteworthy thing about the album. This album’s stock move is mediocrity delivered with conviction. To call it “excessive,” meanwhile, would be missing the point. It is excessive by design. This is Kanye being “ambitious.” How do we know? Because Kanye told us that’s what it was months ago. The vocoder solo at the end of “Runaway” is this album’s Rorschach test.

7. Sidenote: I am still waiting for some kind underpaid soul to make the distinction between Kanye West the excellent hip-hop producer, and Kanye West the just average writer of vocal melodies. I would attempt to write this piece myself if I knew I could be paid at a rate higher than whatever some 14-year-old makes working his first job at White Castle. This is not the reality of any music writer’s situation though. A piece like this would mostly serve Kanye West, and people who want to make music like Kanye West, and to a much smaller extent, people who are interested in the tics of West’s music. Not anyone else, at least immediately. It would start from the premise that Kanye West can, in fact, get much higher. It would start from the premise of wanting good music to be better music. Music in this piece would not serve as mere fodder for Ideas Inspired By Music. It would be technical as fuck. There would be no “takeaway.”

8. Instead you get something called “cultural criticism.” And cultural criticism on the internet is mostly a parlor game. It can’t afford to be anything else. It is entertainment for smart people with day jobs.  A lot of that entertainment? Pretty entertaining. The ideas it produces are often meaningful on their own. There are Good Guys doing good things. Most of it is noise though — digital artifacts from the conversion of sound to text.

9. But right now I feel like I’m not one of the Good Guys. I’m dangerously close to becoming another noisemaker. Another person on the internet who writes about music he hasn’t fully processed — not even “about” music but “in the vicinity of” music. I am in grave danger of being slightly more full of shit than everyone else. My best idea about music this year is to stop having ideas about music. As for Kanye, I am glad I didn’t pull that trigger.

10. No one speck of noise does an artist in; rather it’s the slow, suffocating accumulation. Apples and mangos, but cf. M.I.A.’s MAYA LP. In the spirit of year-end listmaking, many critics have attempted to give this thing a reappraisal. Great critics actually. Brandon StosuyZach BaronSean Fennessey, Rob Harvilla. These are the Good Guys. Friends whose work I take seriously. For context: If Kanye’s year was a p.r. coup, M.I.A.’s was non-stop calamity. These critics contend that her numerous p.r. catastrophes colored her album’s reception; that there existed a herd mentality among other critics, who took the opportunity of MAYA to rate M.I.A. and not her music;  that the non-stop internet coverage and counter-coverage of said p.r. catastrophes made it impossible for people to approach the album on strictly musical terms; that, as these malformed opinions proliferated, most people couldn’t even hear the album. Six months later, listening to the album with fresh ears, they only want to make one point: Maybe MAYA wasn’t as bad as we thought it was.

11. These reappraisals come from the greatest possible place — wanting to explain misunderstood music. They encourage us to reassess the musical merits, the sounds and gestures themselves — to take advantage of the fact that, six months later, the storm of noise has passed and it’s a lot easier to hear the thing itself.

12. It’s tricky though. In defending M.I.A. this past year, the Good Guys inadvertently helped propagate the noise, too. The noise is impervious to cancellation. This is also M.I.A.’s worst record by far: some great songs, but half-baked and unfocused for the most part. Which makes me worry that the worst p.r. snafu M.I.A. could suffer yet would be for us to suggest that MAYA is anything but beneath her. This is the woman who gave us Arular and Kala. She can get much higher.

13. I drag you through the best of my RSS and Twitter feeds to ask a rhetorical question: If it was going to take six months for the noise to pass, and if the album’s music could withstand the noise anyway, we probably should have just waited to weigh in. Right? We probably should have sat this one out, at least at first.

14. But that’s unfeasible. We are all working for somebody. We are in the business of creating at least a little bit of noise. To my knowledge, there is only one legitimate critic in the game who can get away with waiting six months after an album’s release before putting finger to keyboard. Bob Christgau is all signal power; tellingly, his column is buried deep in the social entertainment subdomain of msn.com.

15. Which makes a piece like this — the kind of piece I write when I don’t have anything to say — the noisiest of all the noise. Can’t condone it. The best thing I can do right now is just shut up. Hence the farewell. Public safety slogans, at least underground, suggest, “If you see something, say something.” On the internet? Maybe don’t.