November 20, 2004



Originally relased on MAY 21, 2004.

Remember earlier this week, when we were trying to figure out the new Times policy on guest critiques of popular music? My guesses were far too specific. The idea turns out to be very simple and easily applied: Find well-known people who are unable to hear music as it exists and operates now, and then ask them to write about it. And if you're looking for someone who can't confront or discern the present moment, there is no greater spokesbaldy than Nick "Mojo Magazine Invented Me In a Diabolical Laboratory And Now They Can't Kill Me" Hornby. Please, follow the newest and most astonishingly serpentine path of doo-doo butter. So many goodies!

We begin with a perfectly OK scene-setting: Springstonian Splenda merchants Marah are living the dream in north London, soldiering away without a drummer, rolling ‘round on the carpet. Nick did not imagine that people would once again do these things! We learn about the band—opened for Bruce this year, are liked personally by the actual Bruce—and Hornby ends the non-retarded portion of his piece with a good line: “How many people have passed around the hat in the same year that they appeared at Giants Stadium?” Not many, brah, not many. We are with you.

Then the poop does flow:

“Thirty years ago, almost to the day, Jon Landau published his influential, exciting, career-changing, and subsequently much derided and parodied article”

TRANSLATION: High Fidelity! By Nick Hornby!

“about Bruce Springsteen in The Real Paper, an alternative weekly — the article that included the line "I saw rock 'n' roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen."’

TRANSLATION: Right, right, that. Not my book. OK.

“I had never read the rest of it until recently, and it remains a lovely piece of writing. It begins, heartbreakingly: "It's four in the morning and raining. I'm 27 today, feeling old, listening to my records and remembering that things were different a decade ago."

Is that heartbreaking? It's a little lonesome, but the heart remains intact.

“I'm only guessing here, but I can imagine there are a number of you reading this who can remember what it was like to feel old at 27, and how it bears no resemblance to feeling old at 37, or 47. And you probably miss records almost as much as you miss being 27.”

We have reached Hornby’s passion: holding little mini-funerals for his youth, that magical time when there was a new Elvis Costello album every few months and the stars aligned with a few well-anchored pieces of critical furniture. No, wait—not his youth. He doesn’t like actual youth.

“I’m not talking about the accouterments of youth: the unlined faces, the washboard stomachs, the hair. The young are welcome to all that — what would we do with it anyway?”

Something about youth was worth saving, but apparently it was not fucking.

“I’m talking about the energy, the wistful yearning, the inexplicable exhilaration, the sporadic sense of invincibility, the hope that stings like chlorine.”

Who doesn’t want exhilaration, invincibility or hope? Great. Now he's got the [thing] he wants to lay at our feet, but he starts to pull back immediately:

“Who doesn’t need exhilaration and a sense of invincibility, even if it's only now and again?"

“Now and again”? Why is it irregular? Why can’t we have this feeling most of the time? Why is he already afraid of his own idea? Maybe this little three-card monte will tell us:

“When I say that I have found these feelings harder and harder to detect these last few years, I understand that I run the risk of being seen as yet another nostalgic old codger complaining about the state of contemporary music. And though it's true that I'm an old codger, and that I'm complaining about the state of contemporary music,"

TRANSLATION: By acknowledging the wack thing I am doing, I prove that I am an honest, down-to-earth guy. I know my limitations, and I am being paid to flaunt them. I can now say the thing I was going to say without making you mad because I have apologized in advance for saying it. See? I do not even have the courage of my own dreary convictions, but you still like me! [Toe in sand, toe in sand].

“I hope that I can wriggle out of the hole I'm digging for myself by moaning that, to me, contemporary rock music no longer sounds young — or at least, not young in that kind of joyous, uninhibited way.”

We have now replaced exhilaration and invincibility with “uninhibited joy,” which sounds perilously like Nick is trying to stop any flow of blood to the head.

“In some ways, it became way too grown-up and full of itself. You can find plenty that's angry, or weird, or perverse, or melancholy and world-weary; but that loud, sometimes dumb celebration of being alive has got lost somewhere along the way.”

There we go—“sometimes dumb.” The anti-intellectual crossbow has been loaded, and we are gonna eat some pop tonight. But look at what they’re having at the kids’ table: “Angry, weird, perverse, melancholy.” Those are pretty odd things to take off your menu if you’re eating at the Pop Mart.

“Of course we want to hear songs about Iraq, and child prostitution, and heroin addiction.”


TRANSLATION: I don’t want to hear songs about Iraq, and child prostitution, and heroin addiction and, honestly, neither do you.

There is another familiar pong here. Think of all the times someone—in print or in person (people love to make this move as they begin a presentation, to win over the room)— has described feminism or “PC” as a huge, powerful wave that swallowed the academy and prevented people from getting to the grocery store or ever being happy again. It's like these songs about "child prostitution" Hornby implies he's stepping around. Didn't happen, doesn't happen, not in such significant iterations. The fact that such a wave never came does not prevent one group of people from trying to convince another group of people that it did happen and that vigilance is necessary lest it happen again.

More to the point, other than NOFX and Paris and Bad Religion and that one line in “Beware Of The Boys,” I can’t think of any current pop artists putting out songs that fit on Hornby’s snarky triangulation. Who is he thinking of? Who is putting out political songs that might even get near to falling through the mainstream window? Did he find that whole Dixie Chicks thing so overwhelming? Does his local play Crass all day long?

“And if bands see the need to use electric drills instead of guitars in order to give vent to their rage, well, bring it on.”

TRANSLATION: Please do not bring it on.

“But is there any chance we could have the Righteous Brothers' "Little Latin Lupe Lu" — or, better still, a modern-day equivalent — for an encore?”

We started with hope and catharsis and now we’re down to "Little Latin Lupe Lu." Did it not matter to Hornby’s editor that he handed in the pop-phobic version of The Bald Soprano? “Rock is hope and hope is passion. And by this, I mean fly-fishing. Which is also like Marah which is like a cone. And by that I mean also exploding and purple. Therefore, I conclude, Marah is an elbow.” There is no explanation of how the “Latin Lupe” song fits in. By context, we can guess that it may be an example of one of the three different kinds of goodness Hornby touches on. Or not. And we move on, because writing is easy!

“In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of "David Copperfield," the novelist David Gates talks about literature hitting "that high-low fork in the road, leading on the one hand toward `Ulysses' and on the other toward `Gone With The Wind,' " and maybe rock music has experienced its own version. You can either chase the Britney dollar, or choose the high-minded cult-rock route that leads to great reviews and commercial oblivion.”

We learn here that Hornby likes old music and old books—he’s even got a column in The Believer about books, where he was able to get paid yet again for reading Dickens, which is awfully environmentally-minded of him. He is about to maybe sort of consider taking a coherent position, and it looks like he’ll be advocating the middle path. (We've moved from invincibility to the middle path in a few endless paragraphs.) Britney, of course, is the whipping girl we are explicitly implicitly never listening to, aw haw haw, oy oy oy. Funny thing, Nick, is that if I understand your hideous whinging, and I am not sure that I do, “Toxic” and “Boom Boom” are tailor-made to illustrate several of your descriptors: “exhilarated,” “invincible,” maybe even “sometimes dumb.” Leaving aside the particular qualities “Latin Lupe” is supposed to manifest, if we believe in the lacuna Hornby is asking the world to fill, doesn’t Britney’s recent work do the trick? Or pick someone else, if you like. Hornby is the one who picked Britney, and she is a straw woman who will not light.

“I buy that arty stuff all the time, and a lot of it is great."

Brah, it is. It so is.

"But part of the point of it is that its creators don't want to engage with the mainstream, or no longer think that it's possible to do so, and as a consequence cult status is preordained rather than accidental.”

Is Hornby not engaged, before our eyes, in NOT engaging the mainstream?

“In this sense, the squeaks and bleeps scattered all over the lovely songs on the last Wilco album sound less like experimentation, and more like a despairing audio suicide note.”

In what sense? If we accept this “cult” category, why do we believe that Wilco is there, or that its one of those "killing yourself" cults? Hornby references the yin and yang of “squeaks and bleeps” and “lovely songs,” but does this somehow explain anything? And he couldn’t get someone to send him A Ghost Is Born? I mean, hate on Wilco, please, but actually do it, man, if you're going to hint at it.

“Maybe this split is inevitable in any medium where there is real money to be made: it has certainly happened in film, for example, and even literature was a form of pop culture, once upon a time. It takes big business a couple of decades to work out how best to exploit a cultural form; once that has happened, "that high-low fork in the road" is unavoidable, and the middle way begins to look impossibly daunting. It now requires more bravery than one would ever have thought necessary to try and march straight on, to choose neither the high road nor the low. Who has the nerve to pick up where Dickens or John Ford left off? In other words, who wants to make art that is committed and authentic and intelligent, but that sets out to include, rather than exclude? To do so would run the risk of seeming not only sincere and uncool — a stranger to all notions of postmodernism — but arrogant and vaultingly ambitious as well.”

But I, Nick Hornby, am not scared. Nope, the bad postmodernism that sent your uncles to the work camps and forced us all to count to eleven will be banished for all time when my new book, “Miserably Choosing Sugar Substitutes And Palling About With Gomez,” hits every market in America with a thunderous middlebrow thump! I do not feel the split! I bridge all mountains and valleys and I can hear the sound of marching feet!

“Marah may well be headed for commercial oblivion anyway, of course.”

Right, of course. I meant Marah, not me, Nick Hornby.

And wait a minute—where did postmodernism come into this? Does it in any way attach to any of the groups he’s discussing? Or is it just a large word indicating a time period, like “the 70s"? The editorial is beginning to come into focus—it's just one long concatenation of Hornby’s free-floating anxieties, handily newspegged to a band who probably wishes he'd found someone else to wave around.

‘"20,000 Streets Under the Sky" is their fourth album, and they're by no means famous yet, as the passing of the hat in the Fiddler's Elbow indicates. But what I love about them is that I can hear everything I ever loved about rock music in their recordings and in their live shows. Indeed, in the shows you can often hear their love for the rock canon uninflected — they play covers of the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait," or the Jam's "In the City," and they usually end with a riffed-up version of the O'Jays' "Love Train." They play an original called "The Catfisherman" with a great big Bo Diddley beat, and they quote the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" and the Who's "Magic Bus." And they do this not because they're a bar band and people expect cover versions, but because they are unafraid of showing where their music comes from, and unafraid of the comparisons that will ensue — just as Bruce Springsteen (who really did play "Little Latin Lupe Lu" for an encore, sometimes) was unafraid.”

Rock canon—Hornby likes the idea. Showing where your music comes from—also good. And I mentioned a little bit of black music. I have to do that. I know that now!

“It was this kind of celebration that Jon Landau had in mind when he said in his review that "I saw my rock 'n' roll past flash before my eyes." For Mr. Landau, the overbearing self-importance of rock music of the late 60's and early 70's had left him feeling jaded; for me, it's the overbearing self-consciousness of the 90's. The Darkness know that we might laugh at them, so they laugh at themselves first; the White Stripes may be a blues band, but their need to exude cool is every bit as strong as their desire to emit heat, and the calculations have been made accordingly: there's as much artfulness as there is art.”

Fearless vampire killers hoping to catch Nick sneaking around with some hot blood can just give up now. Dude isn’t even trying. The objections and approvals are just piling up in a self-canceling riot of standing waves. For instance: We hear that the act of “showing where your music comes from” is good. This is at least a part of the White Stripes’ project, yes? But The White Stripes are too “artful.” Or is artful good? The Darkness are more [the good thing] than the White Stripes, because they're funny? Are these bands examples of “self-consciousness," or antipodes to it? The Rolling Stones, who Hornby most certainly likes, were not self-conscious and artful?

“In truth, I don't care whether the music sounds new or old: I just want it to have ambition and exuberance, a lack of self-consciousness, a recognition of the redemptive power of noise, an acknowledgment that emotional intelligence is sometimes best articulated through a great chord change, rather than a furrowed brow. Outkast's brilliant "Hey Ya!," a song that for a few brief months last year united races and critics and teenagers and nostalgic geezers, had all that and more; you could hear Prince in there, and the Beatles, and yet the song belonged absolutely in and to the here and now, or at least the there and then of 2003.”

TRANSLATION: What were all the adjectives I started with? They’re all the way back at the top of the document. Pants! It was getting confusing anyway—silly Nick!—so I’ll just get some new ones.

Here is our new batch: “Ambition and exuberance, a lack of self-consciousness, a recognition of the redemptive power of noise, an acknowledgment that emotional intelligence is sometimes best articulated through a great chord change, rather than a furrowed brow.” Right. That wouldn’t be Britney. Nope. Anybody but Britney.

And who is this pop performer with “a lack of self-consciousness”? Is Hornby managing a robot with a big rave smile on its face and this is his crafty pre-single promo campaign? Hornby Presents Robo Dummy, the Least Conflicted But Most Exhilarated MP3 Delivery Service Known To Man! Now with twice as much Teenage Fanclub! What the fuck is this article about?

“Hey Ya!” united the races! Not like all those Tupac records the white people bought. Not like Sade and Hall and Oates. Nope, that was different. It didn’t sound like white people’s music. In short, “Hey Ya!” united me, Nick Hornby, with a black person on a record. And I mentioned the Beatles. One must.

“Both "Hey Ya!" and Marah's new album are roots records, not in the sense that they were made by men with beards who play the fiddle and sing with a finger in an ear, but in the sense that they have recognizable influences — influences that are not only embedded in pop history, but that have been properly digested. In the suffocatingly airless contemporary pop-culture climate, you can usually trace influences back only as far as Radiohead, or Boyz II Men, or the Farrelly Brothers, and regurgitation rather than digestion would be the more accurate gastric metaphor.”

So, it is better when music does actually sound old. Embedded (interesting word, Nick) in pop history? You mean, like, old. But also digested. The proposition is that Marah digested Springsteen rather than regurgitating him. Like many of Hornby’s metaphors, this sounds like thinking but is not thinking. Marah digested Bruce the way the Rolling Stones digested Muddy Waters? The way Bruce digested Dylan? The way The Beatles digested Chuck Berry? Or do we just assert that the bands we like aren’t regurgitators? I don’t know that I could distinguish digested aesthetics from regurgitated aesthetics, unless we are working with purely essentialist tropes. Prince, by many indicators, keeps regurgitating James Brown but we don’t mind this because A) we don’t care about originality; and B) if we do care about that kind of thing, Prince does so many other things that contextualize his regurgitating we decide it’s OK. But I reckon it’s still regurgitated. And since we find out only that people are regurgitating “Radiohead, or Boyz II Men, or the Farrelly Brothers,” but not who these people are, it is sort of impossible even to figure out who is being pointed at. Except that we know Hornby is not pointing at Marah, who have apparently digested Springsteen. I like Marah just fine, but there is much Bruce juice upon their discs. This wouldn’t mean anything to me, except Hornby is pumping everyone’s stomach. Or failing to.

“The pop music critic of The Guardian recently reviewed a British band that reminded him — pleasantly, I should add — of "the hammering drum machine and guitar of controversial 80's trio Big Black and the murky noise of early Throbbing Gristle." I have no doubt whatsoever that the band he was writing about (a band with a name too confrontational and cutting-edge to be repeated here) will prove to be one of the most significant cultural forces of the decade, nor that it will produce music that forces us to confront the evil and horror that resides within us all.”

The band is called Selfish Cunt, and their first single was “Britain Is Shit / Fuck The Poor.” (The writer, Alexis Petridis, is right to compare them to Big Black, though I can’t find the CD right now.) In pat dismissal #3, Hornby implies both that “evil and horror” are non-required topics, and that if Selfish Cunt do or do not address them, Hornby won’t be sticking around to find out.

“However, there is still a part of me that persists in thinking that rock music, and indeed all art, has an occasional role to play in the increasingly tricky art of making us glad we're alive. I'm not sure that Throbbing Gristle and its descendants will ever pull that off, but the members of Marah do, often. I hope they won't be passing around the hat by the end of this year, but if they are, please give generously.”

End of piece.

Big Black made me feel very alive and exhilarated and full of chlorine and hope during the mid-80s. (That is the cue for another, different regurgitation.) And if Throbbing Gristle helped Big Black, God bless them. But I’m just reading all the words, not just some of them, which seems to be Hornby’s hope. We’re obviously not supposed to take away anything more acute than “I sure like Marah,” and let the larger ideology soak in like mosquito repellent.

Why didn’t Hornby just write a simple mash note? Why did he mount yet another attack on the present and the past, campaigning for as conservative a conception of rock as one could imagine? (Don’t you guess that the members of Marah have better taste than Hornby?) Hornby’s piece boils down to defining a clump of qualities as somehow vital and singular to rock music even thought these qualities are easily found all over the pop landscape. Jay-Z, for instance, certainly conveys invincibility more effectively than Marah. It’s quite a trick, describing and celebrating qualities without actually looking for them.

Posted by Sasha at November 20, 2004 06:19 PM | TrackBack