I’ve Got You and That’s All I Need

It’s the end of the decade, as far as music journalists are concerned. Word has it that Paste is already assembling its Best Of The Aughts list, and I’m sure that our friends in Atlanta aren’t the only ones. Mile-markers are a big deal in music, for some reason, and the only thing more exciting than an End of Year list is an End of Decade. Blame it on High Fidelity, but there’s nothing music journalists like more than making lists. We spend hours on them, sweating and grunting and agonizing over them, checking each bullet point, spellchecking words like “Devendra”, all in the name of producing something Definitive and Final. I once spent an entire weekend looking up and filling in ID3 tags on iTunes in order to easily recognize which of my CDs have been released in the last ten years.

Maybe I’m too much of a postmodernist, but I don’t know that I understand what the point is. Let’s say that each and every music outlet reaches a consensus as to the best release of the past ten years. For fun, let’s pretend that it’s My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge (that’s the one with the legit “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” on it). So, all of the mags and all of the blogs have decided that MCR put out the very best record borne of this troubled decade (as it’s sure to be called by many, many journalists).

Okay.

What now?

Does this change the listening experience of someone approaching Three Cheers for the first time? Does it change it in a positive way? Or, does it only increase the pressure to like (or hate) something you may not actually like (or hate)? The thing with overhyped records or movies or politicians is that the weight of their hype forces people to have an opinion one way or the other, and someone forced to form an opinion is bound to bounce to one of the poles in an extreme way. (This is another problem with contemporary music journalism — too short of turnaround times). And so now I can’t listen to My Chemical Romance on my own and form a more fair and balanced opinion; I’m forced to consider whether or not this is actually the greatest (or, e.g., the third-greatest, or the 23rd greatest, etc) record I’ve ever heard. And though I can hear the younger folks in the audience chuckling and saying, “You see, this is the problem with modernity–you can’t ever come to a fully objective decision and it’s a foolish thing to wish for,” I’d like to submit that there’s such a thing as making too informed a decision.

I’ll give another example from the wide world of music. I spent Mardi Gras 2008 in my hometown of Lafayette, LA, with a pair of very close friends. After a day of rabblerousing and beadmongering, we wandered to the Blue Moon Saloon, where the cover was something like ten bones and we, who had spent our grubby dollars on really really bad fried chicken, were forced to watch from the literal fence. It’s a well-known fact that any band playing on Mardi Gras day is either a) a scrapped-together Cajun band of overwhelming ability or b) an extremely glossy cover band of dubious motives. But as Liz, Emily, and I hung on to the spiked pines of the Blue Moon, we watched a mysterious group of tubthumpers sing ghastly country songs into a microphone that looked to have been stolen from WSM Nashville. One guitar, one drum, one washboard, one bass made from a wash basin and a string. These were the Pine Hill Haints, and they played Hank Williams songs in the daytime on Mardi Gras and made it seem natural and joyous. Their short frontporch set was exhilarating, and as the day ended and we headed back to paradeless Baton Rouge, the Haints sealed themselves into our memories. And then, two days ago, I click around Pitchfork and find a review of To Win Or To Lose, which is something like the Haints’ ninth release, and this one on indie stalwart K Records no less. (Just try to talk bad about K Records in an indie rock rag. See what happens.) Sure, they’re not Animal Collective or Arcade Fire, but for all their Northern Alabama weirdery, the Haints still have a website and a label with velveteen cachet.

What’s the point with the Pine Hill Haints? Aside from the fact that To Win Or To Lose is a great record, it’s that my opinion of the group was shaped entirely by the way I was introduced to them. Had I read the review or listened to the album stream on Pitchfork, it would have made very little impression upon me–even though the record is great and Pitchfork seems to agree. And so I count the Haints as something like mine, a band whose music I’ve discovered to like entirely on my own, free from the panopticanonical thrust of pop music opinion-makers (myself excluded?).

Another, shorter example. I’m currently reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer last year and has received novaic reviews from seemingly everyone. And so before I even opened the book, I was consumed with expectation for Oscar Wao, and it took almost two hundred pages for me to realize that all of my skeptical scrutinizing of whether or not this book is worth its lauds has gotten in the way of what Junot Díaz is trying to do: tell a story.

But–this essay is supposed to be about End of Decade Lists. I guess my whole point here is to say that I don’t think that music needs to be quantified, or that art needs to be quantified. As I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, I don’t have to be constantly considering whether or not it’s the best book I’ve ever read, and even if I come to the decision that it’s not, that doesn’t mean that I don’t get to enjoy it any more or less than I would otherwise. We don’t need to be constantly searching for The Best Record, The Best Book. That search literally does not end. Maybe this is something that people who don’t take pop culture as gospelic already understand, but most things really don’t need to be in competition with one another, and, perhaps more than anything, that includes the arts. As Grizzly Bear will gladly tell you, they don’t set out trying to make The Best of anything; they just want to make records that make you happy. But as soon as they become fodder for lists, and as soon as those lists are made and those opinions are put into print and thereby lend themselves a weird air of authority, records and books and all that lose their ability to delight, to frighten, to challenge. They become something we argue over, something we listen to with what we fancy to be trained ears–and while they are trained, they’re trained not to pick up on and enjoy nuance, but to pick apart what exactly makes something good/bad/whatever.

This is something like you letting your intellect teach you about phrenology.

And, yes, at the end of the year, I will probably spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what my favorite fifty records of the past ten years are, and I will try to ignore the fact that I have trouble naming fifty records that were even released this decade, and I will be furious when someone in the comments section disagrees with my choices and, most likely, I will stop listening to those records the moment that list is uploaded, because they will never ever be able to achieve that number one ranking again.

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