The Chillwave Letters: Discussing Blog Rock, Redeeming ‘Blog Rock’ – pt. 2

Part one available here

Dan: Crude as it is, ‘blog rock’ is a good term for . . . Vampire Weekend, Neon Indian and everything in between. It paints in broad strokes, which I can get down with in a dialogue as meta as this. It also totally disregards the music itself, in opposition to the “feelings” genre hustle that is chillwave, nightbus, witch house and their blog-spawned bretheren. I like it.

Your point about the failings of the ‘new wave’ tag is as good a starting point as any. New wave was obviously built upon a way different institution than is chillwave. Chillwave is pure modern MySpace/YouTube –> HypeMachine/blog/message board DIY, while many new wave acts successfully stradled the line between the pop mainstream and the underground. More importantly, the majority of new wave bands had some source of financial/promotional support outside of themselves.

In a cash-ripe music industry, record labels could justify throwing wads of cash at young bands hoping that they’d emerge from the studio with a great record. Hence cocaine, as well as a slew of records currently collecting dust at your local Salvation Army. Because obviously your band isn’t as good as the Talking Heads, but the Talking Heads are only releasing one record a year, and the people buying records are teenagers, 20-somethings who maybe want something new every once in a while. In that environment, where labels are investing even a modest amount of your label’s fortunes in signing/developing/recording a band, if you are managing your label like a financial portfolio you HAVE to rely on broad genre labels and other obvious signifiers–album art, band names, etc.–to sell your product or you are setting yourself up for value. Do you like Devo? Well then, you’re going to love these guys, too!!

Now on the flip side, if you’re a music buyer with a modest disposable income, dropping dime on an record is always going to be a risky enterprise–the record could always suck. Still, depending on labels/aesthetics was an easy way to hedge your bets. You could further hedge your bets–and this is where this tangent becomes somewhat relevant again–by depending on music critics to steer you in the right direction. With luck you could find one with a taste as discerning as your own. When there is money at stake and a number of different places to drop it you want the best, critics earn their keep.

So bloggers are ‘giving it away,’ yeah, but they’ve bought into themselves; they think that maybe they’ve collectively conquered the stranglehold of a nefarious for-profit music industry. Bloggers mistake sharing freely for a number of other valuable things: fandom, participating in a scene/community, consumer guides, an alluring WordPress/Blogspot template to present the links as critical attitude. The result is that you have a bunch of dudes patting themselves on the back for, well, for nothing. And at the end of the day there are artists and there are distributors, and bloggers fall on the unsexy side of the divide.

Maybe where there was once a profit to be made by being the hypeman. [But] whether it’s for new wave or chill wave, those who push blog rock are motivated by social currency. It’s a hard truth to cop to, but what else could explain the need to share tens and hundreds of albums freely with strangers if not blog hits, “thanks for the cool share dude” comments, maybe a girl chats you up at a party who’s stoked youre the dude who runs your and really likes something you hosted recently. In a moneyless music world motivated by kids weaned on MySpace/Facebook/everything is public, this is maybe as good as it gets.

Greg: Even though mp3 bloggers are ‘giving it away,’ as you say, and even though one’s taste in music has been a form of cultural currency for a while now, I wonder if the Internet has commoditized pop music in a new and different way.  I’m thinking mainly of the accelerated hype-and-backlash cycle.  Like, more than before, we expect/insist that new bands allow for the same reactions (excitement about discovering the music, complaints about saturation, etc).  These reactions/critical gestures/whatever you want to call them are the stuff of mp3 blogging.  Despite variety in the content of music from band to band, there’s a certain uniformity to the way bloggers have treated the acts whose popularity has roots in the blogosphere–and the handling of these acts, the nature of the discourse, is directly related to a bloggers increasing his/her influence, the power to break/dismiss an act.
Take Wavvves by Wavves: brisk, fun garage rock–not revolutionary, but there were some good hooks and interesting lyrical motifs. It bums me out that I’ll have trouble listening to this band outside the context of its rise and fall in standing on the blogosphere (which seemed to happen over the course of, like, a month).

D: think that Wavves deal was less saturation of the actual MUSIC and more–maybe this was last summer? I don’t remember–Pitchfork et. al.’s lame coverage of that drunken Wavves meltdown at a European festival. As though he had bitten the hand that fed him by having a public blow-up at one of his first major shows.

But your point stands that mp3 bloggers are different from the casual music listener their desire to effectively OWN a bands as their own. Like, band A is a Gorilla vs. Bear band, band B is a Pitchfork band, band C is a Stereogum band. That probably doesn’t differentiate them from any band ever hyped by any media outlet, but like you said, the hype cycle is so rapid that there’s not even a sustained interest in a band’s long-term growth. Vampire Weekend was cool when it was just a blue cd-r circulating around the internet, then the band had to deal with backlash for basically being the same band they were the first go-round, just more popular. A little lame on the part of their original champions.

And even though the whole thing is pretty benign–like, there’s so little money involved, it’s mostly clean–it’s still a little icky. On one hand a lot of different bands have broken though to a popular audience that wouldn’t have otherwise, but mp3 blogging doesn’t seem like the best long-term solution for the health of music in the absence of a record industry to pay for bands. It’s too trend-based, and even though it can get a band noticed  and maybe launch a tour or two, it still hasn’t proven it can support a career. The last big alternative band seems to be Radiohead, who were kind of internet tweeners, old enough to be an established name but young enough to have profited from peer-to-peer file sharing. But there’s no Radiohead of the torrent/mediafire/radipdshare era yet.

A final thought to consider: is there a difference between music as “cultural capital” and music as “something that distinguishes you from others”? My taste in music, lame as it sounds, has formed a significant part of an image of myself–I knew in high school and beyond that i had different tastes than most, and even though I’m a little embarrassed by some of the stuff i tried to get into to further differentiate myself from the pack–I learned A LOT about myself through music, and the most important thing was that from the minute i got into independent music, it continually stoked my sense of imagination and wonder about the world, even as I was simultaneously engaged in a project of acquiring cultural capital, projecting an image, etc.

Greg: I think there’s definitely a difference between music as cultural capital and music that distinguishes you from others. I think music was valuable for me in high school much in the same way as it was for you. And a lot of the music listening I did, I did in isolation. Among my friends, I was the first person listening to Pixies, Replacements (and that could be mistaken for petty bragging, I know, but it’s relevant). Some kids were listening to some of those bands by my senior year, but for a time, this music was contributing to my self-concept, influencing the ways I contextualized experience. What the music didn’t do was affect my interactions with other people, which is where any sort of cultural currency would have come into play. If a tree falls in the woods, and no one else you know has heard of Alex Chilton, is it possible to impress anyone by listening to Big Star?

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