Here’s a weirdly personal fact about my life: I recently started an internship at a record label (fabulously unpaid, naturally). As part of my internship, which is in the publicity department, I go to the office every Tuesday and log every piece of press I can find about the label’s artists into a big database. This means that, in addition to the already pretty high volume of music writing I personally read per week, I basically spend one full day of every week reading about music. It’s a pretty sweet gig.
The thing about immersing yourself so fully in something like that is that you start to notice patterns. For instance, the press love to talk about some specific artists more than others. Lately though, I’ve noticed a trend that seems a bit more complex, and distinctly more grating in nature. This trend can be coarsely summarized thusly: a straight, white, Indie Rock Dude pens an online essay in which he criticizes the Music Industry and affirms his Artistic Integrity. To be sure, there’s some variance. Sometimes the essay is a long-ass Instagram post. Sometimes instead of writing all his thoughts down, he delivers a monologue that gets transcribed by a reporter. But he always derides the fiendishness of the music industry and he always, ALWAYS asserts his artistic primacy.
As usual, there’s a specific story that set off this train of thought. A few days ago, Will Toledo, creator/lead singer/general creative force behind the very good Car Seat Headrest took to Tumblr to answer some fan questions (SIDE NOTE: indie dudes, what’s with the Tumblr thing?? You guys are really into it, and I’m pretty sure you don’t even use it to source your free porn like everyone else I know who has one.). In the course of answering a question, Toledo went into the details of the PR strategy behind his latest album, Teens of Denial. Initially, he explains, he’d wanted the press materials to focus on how each song fit into the broader narrative arc of the album, but eventually he and his PR people decided to market the songs individually. This, he bemoans, muddied the public narrative surrounding the album and obscured his artistic intent. Then he delivers this little humdinger:
This is an idea that has always haunted me, because I don’t speak through press releases, I speak through my art. Most artists do. A press release is something designed to get people to look at art – it should, under no circumstances, be able to replace the art, to override its meaning through memetic repetition. […] You must not allow the world to convince you to consume art like this [emphasis his].
I like Car Seat Headrest a lot. I respect Toledo as an artist and a songwriter and he certainly has every right to be frustrated by the publicity process and to express that on his personal social media, but, like, come the fuck on. Could you be more sanctimonious? Please excuse me while I roll my eyes for ALL ETERNITY.
The worst part is that this isn’t even the only one of these episodes in the last few months that I can think of off the top of my head. There was Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors) and Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes) discussing whether indie music – whatever that even means anymore – had become “bad and boujee” (edgy guys!). Then there’s basically every single thing Father John Misty has said over the course of the press tour for his upcoming album. He’s called pop stars “prisoners,” he’s taken shots at music journalists, he’s done it all. And people love this stuff! This is the same bullshit fans use to try to build a case for the “authenticity” of indie music. For these guys, critiquing “the industry” is a signifier of their artistic bona fides.
On some level I enjoy all these things. I like all the music these guys make and it’s interesting to get a glimpse at their thought processes in real-time. But it’s worth interrogating these episodes because, in addition to being suuuper annoying, the bone fides conferred on straight, white dudes who question the industry and assert their artistic legitimacy aren’t granted to everyone else.
In 2013, when Solange pointed out, rightfully so, that many critics writing about R&B didn’t actually have a thorough grounding in the subject, she was lambasted. New York Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica even went so far as telling Solange (publicly, during a podcast taping for which Solange was not present) not to “bite the hand that feeds her.” Let me repeat for emphasis: in response to her criticism of the music industry’s institutional biases, a white music critic told Solange not to insult (presumably) white critics. *Record scratch* UM WUT.
Or (setting aside the divisiveness of his extra-musical activities) what about Kanye? Mr. West has repeatedly issued screeds against the politics of the music industry, and yet they’re almost never received calmly or as signs of Kanye’s “authenticity.” Or how about Frank Ocean, whose criticism of the Grammys was received with the smug suggestion that his anger stemmed from a rocky performance at a past ceremony? Or Bjork, whose account of industry sexism was derided by some as “crazy” or “emotional?” And on and on and on.
Obviously, I can’t stop straight, white, indie dudes from doing their thing. I’m sure they’re going to write their bullshit essays whether I read them or not. But what I can do is interrogate the implicit politics of these situations and encourage others to do the same. Maybe one day we’ll reach a blissful time in which these infuriating little episodes are no more, and I’ll have a whole lot less work to do at my internship.