Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Music Industry

Radio Digs Its Own Grave As Cultural Currents Shift
(By Bob Lefsetz, Variety, 21 June 2013)

The major music business, the “new music” business, is built upon radio, it depends upon it.   There’s a fiction that we still live in a monoculture. This concept has been blown apart on television, where there are five hundred channels available, but the Luddites in radio still believe the Internet didn’t happen, that we’re all prisoners of the dial, where there are few stations and little innovation.  There are radio alternatives (i.e., Pandora and the forthcoming iTunes Radio). Please don’t confuse Spotify and Rdio and Deezer and MOG/Daisy with radio, they’re nothing of the sort. Oh, they might have a Pandora or iTunes Radio component, but these streaming services are retail replacements, lending libraries wherein for 10 bucks a month you can go into the store and borrow anything you want, as long as you return it. Also, you’re not limited to one album at a time.

The radio alternatives represent market fragmentation. Because Internet in the car is not yet here on a widespread basis, they’ve had little impact on car listening. … Then again, we’ve experienced tapes in the car, CDs and iPod hookups. Terrestrial radio listenership is not close to what it once was. Radio used to dominate; it’s still the biggest player, but its market share has receded dramatically.
Sirius XM benefits from its automobile deals. That was the essence, even more than the programming. At this point, 10 years past launch, almost all cars are satellite-ready. Not everybody pays, but subscriptions exceed 20 million.  When Wi-Fi hits the car, or whatever type of cheap Internet access deploys in automobiles, Sirius XM will be challenged too. Right now, Sirius XM’s Internet play is laughable.  Most people under age 20 have never experienced good radio. So when baby boomers and Gen X’ers start waxing rhapsodically about their old-time favorites, wanting them to come back, it’s the equivalent of wishing that musicvideos would come back to MTV.  Insiders believe that there’s no revolution in terrestrial radio because the owners know it’s headed into the dumper. They’re just milking it for all they can before it falls off a cliff. So if you’re waiting for format innovation and fewer commercials … you’ll be waiting forever.

The challenge of Spotify/Rdio/etc. is … to tell their subscribers what to listen to. That’s what traditional radio has done best. So far, these services have not succeeded because they’re run by techies, and curation is all about human effort, not algorithms, otherwise we’d all be in relationships determined by computers.  Terrestrial radio sells records and builds careers. Just not as well as before. The reason we see so few diamond-sellers isn’t because of piracy so much as the fragmentation of the audience. In the old days of the walled garden, of radio and MTV dominance, if something got airplay, it went nuclear; now radio just plays to its niche.  There’s very little innovation in the music played on alternative and active rock stations. Hip-hop killed rock and roll, but rather than innovating, rock and roll stayed the same. And now electronic music is killing hip-hop. Sure, kids want something different from their parents, but even more, they want to own the scene, they don’t want to be dictated to, they want something that’s testing the limits!
Look at trends. Ten years ago the major labels said no record ever broke on the Internet. Look at Psy’s “Gangnam Style”! Radio is dying and YouTube and other alternatives are growing.  We, as a culture, want to feel included. That’s what the radio of yore was all about. To grow mass, you’ve got to make us feel included. In other words, it’s all about culture. Talk radio has culture. As does public radio. After that, it’s a vast wasteland of sold-out stations with the same fl aw of network TV. … Trying for broad-based appeal, they appeal to no one, and cede their market to excellence. HBO and the cable outlets killed networks with quality. … If you don’t think new services will kill terrestrial radio, you must like inane commercials, you must like me-too music, you must think airplay on one of these outlets will sell millions of albums, but that almost never happens anymore.


The Reality Of The Music Business Today: 1 Million Plays = $16.89
(By Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, 25 June 2013)


"My Song Got Played On Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89" is the eye-catching headline by David Lowery, a musician who wrote "Low," which is earning him just over a thousandth of a cent per Internet radio play.  Which is the law. The Library of Congress Copyright Royalty Board decides how much Internet radio companies like Pandora must pay artists like Lowery. And even that microscopic number is high enough that Pandora, which earns 80 percent of its revenue from digital advertising, has lost money in five of the last six quarters.


"Pandora is barely giving anything of worth for using the songwriters and artists' music," Gizmodo writer Casey Chan points out. Which is true. But ironic, since it was just four years ago that Gizmodo writer Sean Fallon pointed out, also correctly, that "excessive royalty rates were the main reason sites like Pandora hovered near the brink of collapse [in 2008]."  We all want our favorite musicians to be rich and also would prefer to pay nothing to listen to them over the Internet. When we hear that our musicians aren't rich, we feel indignant. When our Internet music sites threaten to close down because of "excessive royalty rates," we feel indignant.  The solution is to abandon all hope ye who enter the Internet as a means of making a million dollars with streaming music. Even if Pandora quadrupled the royalty rates paid to Lowery, it'd barely pay for three days rent. If you want to pay a musician, there is an easy fix. Go to a concert. 

Streaming Services Really Are Saving The Music Industry, Global Sales Prove
(By Kyle McGovern , Spin Magazine, 27 February 2013)
Here's something you don't read every day (and certainly not in the last 13 years): The music industry's global revenue increased in 2012. According to a study released earlier this week by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, global sales rose 0.3 percent last year, the first sign of industry growth since 1999 (via the New York Times).  Last year's total revenue amounted to $16.5 billion. That's nowhere near the industry's more-than-a-decade-ago peak of $38 billion, but it's something.  “It’s clear that 2012 saw the global recording industry moving onto the road to recovery,” Frances Moore, chief executive of the IFPI, told the Times. “There’s a palpable buzz in the air that I haven’t felt for a long time.”

On the whole, things are looking a little less apocalyptic for the music industry. Nielsen SoundScan's year-end 2012 report revealed that if you don't distinguish between format (album or track) or delivery method (physical or digital), then last year, Americans actually bought more music than ever before. Factor in that piracy is on the decline, streaming services such as Pandora are on an upswing, and iTunes has sold more than 25 billion songs, and suddenly the sky isn't falling quite so hard.
Of course, the biggest issue with streaming services comes with the awfully low payout for the artists. As our own Marc Hogan pointed out last month, "While the average musician might earn 7 to 10 cents on an iTunes download, artists receive a fraction of a fraction of a cent each time their songs are played on streaming services." So while someone like Psy earned $8 million on his 1.2 billion views for "Gangnam Style," cellist Zoe Keating received less than $1,700 for the more than 1.5 million plays that she racked up on Pandora in six months.  “At the beginning of the digital revolution it was common to say that digital was killing music,” Edgar Berger, chief executive of Sony Music Entertainment's international division, said to the Times. On the contrary, Berger added, it could be argued "that digital is saving music." Not something you'd expect to hear back in 2000, so it's understandable that industry bigwigs would be excited.

As the Hollywood Reporter notes, digital income did indeed bolster the growth. Revenue from downloading and subscription-driven outlets jumped nine percent in 2012, generating a total of $5.6 billion.  The IFPI also found that subscription-based streaming services — including Spotify and Rdio, among others — fattened in 2012. Last year, the number of subscribers to said services ballooned by 44 percent, amounting to a total of 20 million users.  Meanwhile, another study, this one from the NPD Group, estimates that file-sharing declined "significantly" last year (via THR). NPD Group reports that 11 percent of Internet users ages 13 and older used a P2P service to download music in 2012, down from 13 percent in 2011 and 20 percent in 2006.  Overall, NPD claims that last year saw a 26 percent decline in illegally downloaded music.  Looks like the industry really does rely on streaming services for support. Well, streaming services and Adele. The Oscar winner's diamond-certified 21 ranked as the best-selling album of 2012, with 8.3 million units sold. That EGOT can't be far off.


Music Industry Sales Rise, And Digital Revenue Gets The Credit
(By Eric Pfanner, New York Times, February 26, 2013)

The music industry, the first media business to be consumed by the digital revolution, said on Tuesday that its global sales rose last year for the first time since 1999, raising hopes that a long-sought recovery might have begun.  The increase, of 0.3 percent, was tiny, and the total revenue, $16.5 billion, was a far cry from the $38 billion that the industry took in at its peak more than a decade ago. Still, even if it is not time for the record companies to party like it’s 1999, the figures, reported Tuesday by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, provide significant encouragement.  “It’s clear that 2012 saw the global recording industry moving onto the road to recovery,” said Frances Moore, chief executive of the federation, which is based in London. “There’s a palpable buzz in the air that I haven’t felt for a long time.”
For years, the music industry’s decline looked terminal, with the record companies seemingly unable to come up with digital business models that could compete with the lure of online piracy. Last year, however, digital sales and other new sources of revenue grew significantly enough to offset the continuing decline in CD sales.   “At the beginning of the digital revolution it was common to say that digital was killing music,” said Edgar Berger, chief executive of the international arm of Sony Music Entertainment. Now, he added, it could be said “that digital is saving music.”
Digital revenue comes in a variety of forms. Sales of downloaded singles and albums, from services like Apple’s iTunes, continue to grow. More promising for the industry, however, are subscription-based offerings, including Spotify, Rhapsody and Muve Music. The number of subscribers to services like these grew by 44 percent last year, to 20 million, the federation said.  Several new entrants are expected soon, including subscription services from Apple and Google, promising additional subscriber fees and licensing revenue for the record companies. Other sources of revenue, including royalties from musical performances and marketing uses of music, have also been growing.

The industry’s state of health remains highly uneven around the world. Over all, eight of the 20 biggest music markets showed growth last year, but in some countries that the industry classifies as “emerging,” like Russia and China, piracy remains endemic and legitimate digital services struggle.  There are also worrying signs in some more developed markets that had previously been relatively robust, like Britain. There, the recent bankruptcy of the leading retail music chain, HMV, has prompted fears about an acceleration of the decline in CD sales.  In the United States, sales slipped slightly last year. But Enders Analysis, a research firm in London, predicted in a separate report published Tuesday that a turnaround there would begin this year, with revenue rising to $5.35 billion from $5.32 billion. Alice Enders, a senior analyst at the firm, said growth in the coming years was likely to remain slow as CD sales continued to plunge. Still, given that industry executives had grown accustomed to more than a decade of falling revenue, the performance last year was encouraging.  “It’s huge,” she said. “It’s a milestone.”
Even if the music business never bounces back to anything near its former size, it could still return to robust profitability in coming years, Ms. Enders said. That is because the shift to digital delivery of music lowered the record companies’ costs.  Record companies were initially reluctant to embrace digital methods of distribution, seeing only the threat from online piracy, rather than the opportunities of new business models. Over time, digital business models that were initially dismissed — free, advertising-supported music like one of Spotify’s services, for example- were brought back in from the cold.  By last year, according to the industry federation, the music business generated 34 percent of its revenue from digital sources, putting music substantially ahead of other media. In several countries, including the United States, India, Norway and Sweden, digital sales already make up more than half of music revenue.

Now music executives, having been written off as dinosaurs, are finding their skills and knowledge back in demand.   Book publishers in London and New York, for example, have been hiring digital experts away from record companies, analysts say, as they seek to build up their e-book businesses.  Had the music industry been more open to change in 1999, some analysts say they believe, it might not have taken more than a decade to get to this stage.  “If there is a lesson to take away, it is probably that the earlier you can embrace new business models and services, the better,” said Paul Brindley, chief executive of Music Ally, a consulting firm in London. “Whether this is signaling a turnaround that will lead to inexorable growth, who knows? But it does at least signal a bottoming out, with room for growth.”

My Song Got Played On Pandora 1 Million Times And All I Got Was $16.89
(By David Lowery,, 24 June 2013)


As a songwriter Pandora paid me $16.89* for 1,159,000 plays of “Low” last quarter.  Less than I make from a single T-shirt sale.  Okay that’s a slight exaggeration.  That’s only the premium multi-color long sleeve shirts and that’s only at venues that don’t take commission.  But still.  Soon you will be hearing from Pandora how they need Congress to change the way royalties are calculated so that they can pay much much less to songwriters and performers. For you civilians webcasting rates are “compulsory” rates. They are set by the government (crazy, right?). Further since they are compulsory royalties, artists can not “opt out” of a service like Pandora even if they think Pandora doesn’t pay them enough. The majority of songwriters have their rates set by the government, too, in the form of the ASCAP and BMI rate courts–a single judge gets to decide the fate of songwriters (technically not a “compulsory” but may as well be).  This is already a government mandated subsidy from songwriters and artists to Silicon Valley.  Pandora wants to make it even worse.  (Yet another reason the government needs to get out of the business of setting webcasting rates and let the market sort it out.)
Here’s an idea. Why doesn’t Pandora get off the couch and get an actual business model instead of asking for a handout from congress and artists? For instance: Right now Pandora plays one minute of commercials an hour on their free service. Here’s an idea!  Play two minutes of commercials and double your revenue! (Sirius XM often plays 13 minutes and charges a subscription).  I urge all songwriters to post their royalty statements and show the world  just how terrible webcasting rates are for songwriters.  The revolution will not be webcast.

* I only own 40% of the song, the rest of the band owns the other 60% so actually amount paid to songwriters multiply by 2.5 or $42.25)
**  I am also paid a seperate royalty for being the performer of the song.   It’s higher but also what I would regard as unsustainable.   I’ll post that later this week.

For frame of reference  compare Sirius XM paid me $181.00

Terrestrial (FM/AM) radio US paid me $1,522.00


Who’s On Top In Music? It’s Gotten Hard To Say
(By Chris Richards, Washington Post, July 25, 2011)
In pop music, being No. 1 doesn’t always mean you’re on top.  Earlier this year, the Oregon rock band the Decemberists reached the summit of the Billboard 200 albums chart with “The King Is Dead.” By selling a measly 94,000 copies of the album in its first week, the band snatched the top spot from the veteran California band Cake, whose “Showroom of Compassion” had sold an even measlier 44,000 copies the week before.  If seeing these two bands atop the Billboard 200 gave you the impression that they were the biggest names in music, you got the wrong impression.
In an era of iTunes and Amazon, Spotify and Pandora, album sales don’t tell you what they used to. With so many routes to our eardrums, how do we measure the actual popularity of pop music? It’s something various companies are scrambling to figure out.  “Album sales as representative of the success of artists is a failing metric,” says Eric Garland, chief executive of Big Champagne, a media marketing company that has aimed to track music’s popularity in the digital age for more than a decade. “It no longer adequately explains or offers real insight into the market dynamics.”
And those dynamics are still important. Even if albums aren’t selling, an artist’s popularity can still be monetized. With sponsorship opportunities and licensing deals on the line, managers need to know how much their acts are worth. Concert promoters need to know what venues an artist can fill and how much to charge for tickets. Labels need to know whether the money they’ve spent on marketing and promotion has been effective.  For the rest of us, the charts mean something else. “A chart provides a venue for fans to talk about who’s winning,” says Jeff Leeds, editor in chief of Buzzmedia Music, which runs a network of music blogs that include Stereogum and Idolator. “It’s not that different from the way polls in politics provide a venue for pundits and talking heads to talk about who’s winning or losing and why. . . . But like a poll, a chart is merely a snapshot, and is only as accurate as the methodology behind it allows.”
Last July, Big Champagne launched the Ultimate Chart in hopes of tracking the popularity of songs and artists across an array of platforms. Next Big Sound, a Colorado-based company founded in 2008, ranks popularity in the digital realm with two charts that are geared toward the industry. We Are Hunted, a Web site launched in Australia in 2009, aims to measure fan engagement by ranking the 99 most popular songs on Earth based on global impressions online and the “enthusiasm and sentiment” behind them.  The charts are free for all to see, but the data that drive them come at a price. Big Champagne and Next Big Sound make money by selling the data to managers, companies, promoters and record labels.
Rich Westover, vice president for promotion research and information systems at Island/Def Jam records, says he uses Big Champagne’s data to see whether the label’s artists are resonating with fans across demographic and geographic boundaries.  “When people ask us in a meeting, ‘What’s going on with these records?’ I know that I’m going to be using more of the Ultimate Chart information to really give the most accurate gauge I can give on how these songs and how our artists are performing,” Westover says. He says the data can help land an artist a sponsorship or a booking on Letterman.
Rishi Mirchandani, vice president of marketing and operations at RCA/Jive records, uses Next Big Sound’s data to help shape his company’s marketing approach. “What we’re using Next Big Sound to do is to evaluate the growth and the engagement of an artist’s online community and fan base,” he says. “The goal is to really translate those metrics into actually marketing insights that can inform our decision making.”  The future of these emerging charts may hinge on whether they can draw a meaningful line between buzz and commerce. “It’s really difficult today because there’s a significant gap between Internet fame and Internet commercial success,” says Leeds of Buzzmedia Music. “We’re still in pursuit of the perfect chart.” 
Billboard might not be perfect, but it isn’t ready to cede its dominance. “Billboard is a 116-year-old brand, and we’ve been innovating for most of that time,” says Bill Werde, editorial director at Billboard Magazine. “If you look at what we’ve charted and how we’ve charted over the past 50 years, it’s a study in the changes that have gone on in the music business.”  Billboard hasn’t faced many challengers over the years. Competing trade magazines published charts, but in the ’80s they either lost clout (Cash Box magazine) or went out of business (Record World magazine). Now, as weak album sales bring the Billboard 200 closer to obsolescence, Werde touts the Hot 100 singles chart as Billboard’s signature and most enduring chart.  “Singles culture has come and gone and come and gone. And it’s come again now,” he says of the Hot 100, which ranks the popularity of songs based on sales, radio airplay, and online streams on certain platforms.
Billboard began ranking songs in 1940 and began tracking album sales in 1945. Its albums chart was branded the Billboard 200 in 1992 and has since served as the last word on what’s popular. A chart-topping album still makes more headlines than a chart-topping single.  But when Amos Lee — a singer who straddles folk and jazz — topped the Billboard 200 in February, the headlines weren’t favorable. His “Mission Bell” album moved just 40,000 units, making it the lowest-selling No. 1 album since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales and supplying data to Billboard in 1991.
That same week, Lee was only at No. 6 on Big Champagne’s Ultimate Chart, trailing bigger names: Pink, Bruno Mars and Katy Perry. During Cake’s stay at the top of the Billboard 200 in January, the group stood at No. 25 on the Ultimate Chart, lagging behind Britney Spears, Eminem, Lil Wayne and the Black Eyed Peas.  The Ultimate Chart tracks how music is shared, streamed and purchased across more than 100 different platforms, with each outlet weighted by its perceived importance. Sales matter the most. Buying a full album on iTunes or in physical form affects the Ultimate Chart much more dramatically than streaming a song on Pandora.  That means the Billboard 200 chart and the the Ultimate Chart’s artist rankings can sometimes look similar. Beyonce has topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks this month with the lowest-selling album of her career. But it was still enough for her to land on the top of this week’s Ultimate Chart, too.
Split between offices in Los Angeles and Atlanta, Big Champagne’s staff of 25 generates revenue through subscriptions and syndication, providing data to industry professionals, trade organizations, radio networks, retailers, online music companies and others.  Garland says one of the chart’s goals is to feel authoritative in an popscape overcrowded with charts: College Music Journal, better known as CMJ, has tracked the most popular acts on college and public radio since 1978; the Hype Machine, a popular MP3 blog aggregator, ranks songs and artists based on blog activity; iTunes offers various sales charts that constantly churn in real time; and Billboard maintains more than 50 individual charts, measuring artists, albums and songs by genre and format.  “No one has a way of absolutely tracking every time a song hits an eardrum,” says Werde at Billboard. “But are we constantly looking at the different ways that music is hitting eardrums and deciding if it’s worth putting a Billboard chart behind?  Absolutely.”
We Are Hunted’s 10-person staff measures the excitement of music fans by tracking “blog posts, news articles, comments, likes, tweets, shouts” and other online fan activity, general manager Richard Slatter said via e-mail. He said the company generates revenue by licensing technology and providing media marketing and development services to various companies in Australia and the United States.
Next Big Sound’s Social50 chart measures activity across major social networking sites — Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, MySpace, about 10 in all — and tallies a weekly weighted total of plays, views and fan activity. The company’s 10-person staff also produces another chart, the NBS25, which monitors which artists are creating the most online activity the fastest.
Billboard liked Next Big Sound’s two charts so much, it decided to license them late last year. Big Champagne, meantime, says that We Are Hunted’s rankings factor into the algorithm of the Ultimate Chart.  There’s a lot of data out there. Is it possible to surface meaning from it?  “That’s what’s cleverly referred to as ‘analysis paralysis,’ ” says Garland. “There’s too much data, unless you have good curators who are helping you make sense of the data and make it manageable.”  The popularity contest — and the race to accurately measure, analyze and monetize that popularity — continues.

Concert, Recorded Music Sales Crashed In 2010
(By Christopher Morris)
The U.S. music business closes 2010 in an atmosphere of continuing uncertainty and decline, as the events of the last 12 months evince more questions than answers about the industry's future.  All four major music firms find themselves in transition as the year closes, but the longest shadow hangs over EMI Music.  Purchased in 2007 by U.K.-based Terra Firma Equity Partners, the company has been staggering under its crushing bank debt ever since. In what many saw as a desperate maneuver, Terra Firma sued its principal creditor, Citigroup, late last year, alleging the lender fraudulently inflated the sale price of EMI.
A federal jury rejected Terra Firma's claim last month, and EMI -- helmed by a succession of three CEOs over the past year, with publishing chief Roger Faxon taking the reins in June -- must now brace for the possible sale of its label and publishing assets if Terra Firma defaults and Citigroup takes control.  All three of EMI's competitors, meanwhile, have witnessed or will soon see major changes in their executive suites.  In January, former Universal Music Group chairman-CEO Lucian Grainge, who has served as co-CEO of UMG with Doug Morris since his February elevation, will take solo control amid predictions of layoffs at the long-running industry leader.
It is rumored that the 72-year-old Morris may move to Sony Music Entertainment, where CEO Rolf Schmidt-Holtz is expected to exit when his contract expires next year. A top Sony creative exec, RCA/Jive Label Group chairman-CEO Barry Weiss, ankled the division for a job at UMG.  At Warner Music Group, Tom Whalley was swept out as chairman-CEO of flagship Warner Bros. Records after almost a decade, succeeded by an exec team led by new chairman Rob Cavallo, WMG's former chief creative officer and a top producer.

The latest round of musical chairs comes as recorded music sales continued a plunge that began in 2004. Moving into the fourth quarter of 2010, album sales were down 13%, according to Nielsen SoundScan; if holiday purchases don't generate an uptick, this year's drop could beat the 12.7% downturn of 2009.  The bottom fell out of the CD market years ago, but digital downloads, a growth market in recent years, began to stall in 2010. Total track sales are virtually flat to date this year vs. a gain of 12% last year, according to figures recently published by Billboard.  Piracy continues to plague the industry despite action like the court-ordered shutdown of LimeWire's peer-to-peer service in November. As torrent sites proliferate, an illegal download of virtually any hit track is still just a mouse click away.  In terms of music's valuation, it was a case of "how low can you go" this year, as's Daily Deal pricing of hot new albums at $3.99 lofted some titles like Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" to the top of the charts.  In one case, online availability of one prominent catalog thrust CD prices into the basement: After the Beatles' music was finally offered digitally via an Apple iTunes exclusive, Amazon offered remastered CDs of the group's titles -- launched in September 2009 at a full price of $18.98 -- for just $7.99.
The concert business, which boomed in 2009 despite the country's ongoing economic instability, was looked upon as the one area of the music sector that would be recession-proof in 2010.  It was amid a confident afterglow that the long-pending merger of concert promotion, venue and management giant Live Nation and ticketing behemoth Ticketmaster was completed in January.  Within months of the formation of the new Live Nation Entertainment entity, the touring market collapsed, as major treks by acts including U2, Christina Aguilera and the Eagles were either postponed or scaled back.  Year-end figures cited by Billboard's live music editor Ray Waddell tracked a 26% decline in North American concert grosses and a 12% decrease in attendance.  At one point in July, Live Nation's stock, which reached a 52-week high of almost $17, had fallen below $9.
Could anything be counted on as a sure thing in a business filled with disarray? Yes, if it had the word "Glee" attached to it.  Fox's top-rated musical comedy series proved the most reliable sales in 2010. On last week's domestic album chart, "Glee" titles took two slots in the top 10 and seven in the top 200; two of those sets had been on the chart for more than a year.  Otherwise, the landscape was dominated by a mixture of rap, country and pop. Eminem had the biggest album of the year with a strong comeback, "Recovery" (3.1 million sold to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan). Country trio Lady Antebellum logged the second-biggest seller with its sophomore release "Need You Now" (2.9 million), while teen dream Justin Bieber's second collection "My World 2.0" shifted 2.1 million.
The end of 2010 is playing out like a rerun of 2009, as Susan Boyle's Christmas album "The Gift" dueled with Taylor Swift's "Speak Now" at the apex of the chart.  The matronly, TV-bred Scottish singer's "I Dreamed a Dream" and the young country-pop vocalist's "Fearless" faced off during the last holiday shopping season.  Possibly the most troubling symptom at year's end was the quick burnout of releases by acts with platinum track records.  By their fourth week in stores, fresh titles by Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts and Kid Rock -- all megamovers in years past -- were delivering weekly totals hovering just above the mid-five-figure range. Coming off one of the biggest albums of last year, the Black Eyed Peas found themselves in similar straits.
Pop (and its hyphenate relation country-pop) ruled the charts. There were no new rock acts to speak of with any significant sales. Television was the dominant medium for the exposure of new music (with a big assist from its Internet-based relatives Vevo and YouTube).  And, as it was before Elvis Presley and the Beatles took the stage, the professional songwriter -- in a new-millennium incarnation as songwriter-producer -- dominated as a commercial force.  Listeners snapped up songs by Katy Perry, Ke$ha, B.o.B., Lady Gaga, Cee Lo Green and Mike Posner, but Dr. Luke, Red-One and Bruno Mars were the true powers behind these musical thrones. 

U.S. Album Sales Dropped In 2009
(Reuters, January 10, 2010)
U.S. album sales tumbled for the eighth time in nine years as the rate of growth in legal digital downloads slid in a turnaround from recent years, according to industry figures issued last week.  Total album sales fell 12.7 percent to 373.9 million units during the 52-week period ended Jan. 3, according to retail data collected by tracking firm Nielsen SoundScan. Late pop star Michael Jackson was the top-selling artist, and Taylor Swift had the No. 1 album, followed by Susan Boyle. The decline in total sales follows a 14 percent drop in 2008, and it sets a new low since Nielsen SoundScan began publishing point-of-sales data in 1991. Sales have plummeted 52 percent from the industry's high-water mark of 785.1 million units in 2000, largely because of Internet piracy and competition from other forms of entertainment such as video games.
While recession-weary consumers spent more money on movies and live concerts in 2009 than they did the year before, they drew the line at music purchases. Liquidations of the Virgin Megastore and Circuit City retail chains did not help, nor did the reduction in display space at retail outlets such as Borders.  On the other hand, the death of Jackson in June provided a boost. The pop singer was the best-selling artist of the year, accounting for 8.3 million units. Neither he nor the next two artists, country star Swift and the Beatles, released new albums last year.  Swift was a distant second with 4.6 million units, mostly for her second album, "Fearless," the biggest seller of 2009 and the No. 3 seller of 2008; 3.3 million units of the Beatles' newly remastered catalogue sold.

Downloads through online retailers such as iTunes have taken on greater importance to the industry, but the impressive growth of recent years is waning. Digital track sales rose 8.3 percent to a record 1.16 billion in 2009, but that was proportionally far less than a 27 percent increase in 2008 and a 45 percent leap in 2007.  Digital album sales rose 16.1 percent to 76.4 million units, also a record, after jumps of 32 percent in 2008 and 53 percent in 2007.  After Swift, the No. 2 album of 2009 was Scottish singer Boyle's debut release, "I Dreamed a Dream," which sold 3.1 million copies after six chart-topping weeks in stores. Jackson's 2003 hits package, "Number Ones," was No. 3 with 2.4 million copies sold.

If Spotify and Pandora Are the Future, Do Artists Have One?
(By Spin magazine, January 29 2013)

The music industry, which 10 years ago finally shifted to online sales via iTunes, is now in the midst of another massive change. But the transition to digital streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube brings with it a dramatically different way of paying artists' royalties. The companies that offer streaming services are now multi-billion-dollar concerns. The artists whose music they stream, not so much.  As the Times reports, the comparatively teensy amount artists earn from streaming services has caused concern throughout the industry.

While the average musician might earn 7 to 10 cents on an iTunes download, artists receive a fraction of a fraction of a cent each time their songs are played on streaming services. That's not terrible if you're Psy, who a Google executive recently said had earned $8 million on the 1.2 billion views for "Gangnam Style," a rate of roughly 0.6 cents per view. It's less good if you're Zoe Keating, a self-described "avant cello" musician who late last year revealed that despite getting more than 1.5 million plays on Pandora in a six-month span, she received less than $1,700. Spotify was a bit kinder: Her 131,000 plays last year yielded almost $550.
Pandora, for one, lobbied last year for permission to lower its royalty rates, which unlike Spotify's are set by law. A wide range of artists, from Brian Wilson to Rihanna, opposed the leigslation, the so-called Internet Radio Fairness Act. So did the American Association of Independent Music, which represents many prominent indie labels. Billboard reports that the legislation isn't completely dead and is "just hibernating."

Artists might dream of penny royalties, but streaming service providers are swimming in big bucks. Pandora is publicly traded, with a share price that values it at nearly $2 billion. Spotify isn't public, but its investors have reportedly pegged its value at $3 billion. To put that into perspective, the entire music industry saw revenues of roughly $7 billion in 2011, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.  Streaming service companies might be worth a lot on paper, but they're not contributing much to the record business just yet. Pandora had $202 million in "content acquisition costs" in its last four reported quarters, and Spotify recently said it had made $500 million in royalty payments, the Times notes. That pales in comparison to music downloads' $2.6 billion in 2011 sales.
The article doesn't come out and say so, but for music fans a major worry is whether the streaming services are, to put it in agricultural terms, eating their seed corn. A top executive at a music rights management company told the Times that only artists with serious live income will be able to carry on as full-time professional musicians. Still, a top music lawyer is quoted as saying royalties for streaming will probably rise sooner or later. (That's despite signs, such as the Internet Radio Fairness Act, that streaming service providers would actually prefer to pay artists less, not more.)

Then there's Sean Parker, the former Facebook president who helped Shawn Fanning launch Napster and is now a Spotify board member. "I believe that Spotify is the company that will make it succeed,” he's quoted as saying. “It’s the right model if you want to build the pot of money back up to where it was in the late '90s, when the industry was at its peak. This is the only model that’s going to get you there.”  Or Justin Timberlake, who famously played Parker in The Social Network, could finally put out an alb — oh wait. Industry's saved, everybody, we can go home.


Rihanna, Brian Wilson, Everyone Suddenly Mad at Pandora
Internet Radio Fairness Act would "gut" royalties, according to letter signed by more than 100 artists
(By Spin magazine, November 15 2012)
A bill introduced in Congress in September that would cut the royalty rates that Internet radio providers must pay to artists has led to some unusual bedfellows. Rihanna, Katy Perry, Brian Wilson, Stevie Nicks, Nas, T.I., Blondie, Billy Joel, and more than 100 other artists have signed an open letter opposing the so-called Internet Radio Fairness Act. They say the legislation would unnecessarily slash payments depended on by musicians.

“Pandora’s principal asset is the music,” says the letter, whose signers also include Robert Plant, Common, Sheryl Crow, Cee Lo Green, George Clinton, Duff McKagan, Missy Elliott, John Fogerty, and Janelle Monáe. “Why is the company asking Congress once again to step in and gut the royalties that thousands of musicians rely upon? That’s not fair and that’s now how partners work together.” The letter, which will appear in Billboard, was first published by groups SoundExchange and the musicFIRST Coalition, which argue the bill could reduce royalties to musicians by 85 percent.
As the New York Times explains, Internet radio provider Pandora Media is a champion of the bill, joined by Clear Channel Communications and a range of technology groups. Supporters of the legislation say it would end an unfair discrepancy between Internet radio royalty requirements and the lower royalties paid by satellite radio services and other digital providers. Pandora pays 4 percent of its revenues in royalties, compared with 1.7 percent for broadcast radio stations, which also enjoy special deductions.  Pandora founder Tim Westergren was not deterred by musicians' opposition. In a statement quoted by the Times, he indicated the Internet radio industry would collapse without a "permanent fix" to keep royalty rates from rising. Pandora successfully obtained a temporary reduction on rates set by a panel of judges in 2007, but the discount ends in 2015. Westergren argues lower rates for Internet radio companies like his will create jobs and lead to more money for musicians.

You know how those "job creators" can be, though. Damon Krukowski of the bands Galaxie 500 and Damon and Naomi, who has made his groups' music available for free on Bandcamp sites, recently wrote on Pitchfork that his royalties from Pandora and Spotify basically amount to pocket change. "Pressing 1,000 singles in 1988 gave us the earning potential of more than 13 million streams in 2012," he noted, after providing the numbers to support such a stark statement. He also noted that while these companies continue to lose money, their executives are profiting through stock sales.
To a certain extent, as with the debate early this year over the so-called Stop Online Piracy Act, sorting out the argument over this law means recognizing a corporate generational shift. We're accustomed to complaining about the big, bad record labels, but technology companies have a fiduciariy duty to look out for their own bottom lines, too.  This disconnect between old media companies and new is hilariously illustrated by comments that one of the bill's sponsors, Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, made recently at the Future of Music Coalition Summit. After some harsh words for the major labels, Wyden said the following, as quoted by Digital Music News: "Now, if it weren't for the disruptive independent record labels — I'm talking about people like I.R.S. and Sub Pop and Tim/Kerr — we might never have known much about bands like R.E.M., and Nirvana and the Replacements ... I sure want us to remember their enduring influence on not just rock music, but on their contributions to our culture and an entire generation."

There's only one problem with Wyden's professed support for indie labels. The American Association of Independent Music, which represents many well-known indie labels, including Sub Pop (Tim/Kerr is defunct, and I.R.S. is now part of a major label), has come out against his legislation. In a letter to Congress dated October 1, the organization writes, "We urge you to reject misleading titles of 'fairness' and claims of 'parity' and oppose this bill." Kurt Cobain could not be reached for comment.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Klosterman Selections

I usually enjoy reading articles by Chuck Klosterman.  In fact he was a big reason why I read Spin magazine for a while.  He has started writing books now, instead of collecting his previously published essays in book form like he has in the past, so it is much harder to find articles written between books.  I’ve found a few that were new to me or that I found particularly interesting and I’ve compiled them here for your enjoyment since Klosterman is too busy being a “novelist” to write articles and essays anymore.  (Although I have enjoyed the books, for the most part.)

Give Me Centrism or Give Me Death!
(By Chuck Klosterman, Spin Magazine)
If you are the kind of person who talks about music too much, there are two words that undoubtedly play an integral role in your workaday lexicon: “overrated” and “underrated.” This is because those two sentiments pop up in 90 percent of all musical discussions.  What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that no one uses the same criteria when applying either of those terms. For example, bands can be overrated because certain rock critics like them too much (Sonic Youth, Wilco, Yo La Tengo), or underrated if they sell a lot of records but aren’t widely regarded as brilliant (Thin Lizzy, Duran Duran), or underrated because barely anyone seems to know who they are (Tortoise, Sloan, Lifter Puller). Bands can be overrated because they’re good-looking (the Lemonheads in 1992), or they can be underrated because they’re good-looking (the Lemonheads in 1994). Some groups can be overrated and underrated at the same time (Radiohead). Some groups seem overrated on purpose (Oasis). Some groups seem eternally underrated because—no matter how hard they try—they’re just not as interesting as groups who are overrated on purpose (Blur). It is very easy to be underrated, because all you need to do is nothing. Everyone wants to be underrated. It’s harder to become overrated, because that means people had to think you were awesome before they thought you sucked. Nobody wants to be overrated, except for people who like to live in big houses.  However, I am not interested in overrated and underrated bands.  It’s too easy, and all it means is that somebody else was wrong. I’m obsessed with bands that are rated as accurately as possible—in other words, nobody thinks they’re better than they are, and nobody thinks they’re worse. They have the acceptable level of popularity, they have attained the critical acclaim their artistry merits, and no one is confused about their cultural significance. They are, in fact...


10. The Black Crowes: Their first album sold more than five million copies, which is precisely the right number. Stoned people like this band, drunk people think they’re okay, and sober people hate the overwhelming majority of their catalog. This all makes perfect sense.

9. Madness: This is one of only two ska bands admired by people who hate ska (the other being the Specials, who are somewhat overrated). No one disputes this admiration. “Our House” was a pretty great single, but it’s nobody’s favorite song. Nobody seems to dispute that assertion, either.

8. Triumph: Always associated with Rush and/or the nation of Canada, but not as good as either.

7. Tone Loc: Nobody really takes Tone Loc seriously, except for frivolous pop historians who like to credit him for making suburban white kids listen to rap music that was made by black people (as opposed to the Beastie Boys, who made white suburban kids listen to rap music that was made by other white people). This lukewarm historical significance strikes me as sensible. Neither of Mr. Loc’s hits are timeless, although “Wild Thing” samples Van Halen’s “Jamie’s Cryin’” (which I like to imagine is about M*A*S*H star Jamie Farr, had Corporal Klinger pursued sexual--reassignment surgery in an attempt to get a Section 8) and “Funky Cold Medina” samples “Christine Sixteen” (at a time when Kiss were making records like Hot in the Shade and nobody in America thought they were cool except for me and Rivers Cuomo). Those two songs were actually cowritten with Young MC, whose single “Bust a Move” is con-fusing for the following reason: Its last verse states, “Your best friend Harry / Has a brother Larry / In five days from now he’s gonna marry / He’s hopin’ you can make it there if you can / Cuz in the ceremony you’ll be the best man.” Now, why would anybody possibly be the best man in a wedding where the groom is their best friend’s brother? Why isn’t your best friend the best man in this ceremony? And who asks someone to be their best man a scant five days before they get married? This song is flawed. And while I realize the incongruities of “Bust a Move” have absolutely nothing to do with Tone Loc, the song somehow seems more central to Tone Loc’s iconography than his role in the movie Posse, which was the best movie about black cowboys I saw during the grunge era.

6. My Bloody Valentine: On the surface, My Bloody Valentine should be underrated, but they’re not; everyone who aggressively cares about alt guitar music considers Loveless to be a modern classic, and everyone who is wont to mention “swirling guitars” during casual conversation always references this specific album. Loveless sold about 200,000 copies. This is the correct number of people on earth who should be invested in the concept of swirling guitars.

5. Matthew Sweet: Every Matthew Sweet album has only one good song, and this good song is inevitably the first single, and this single is always utterly perfect (“Sick of Myself” off 100% Fun, “Where You Get Love” off Blue Sky on Mars, “Girlfriend” off Girlfriend, etc.). He sells enough albums to live comfortably, and that seems reasonable.

4. The Beatles: The Beatles are generally seen as the single most important rock band of all time, because they wrote all the best songs. Since both of these facts are true, the Beatles are rated properly.

3. Blue Öyster Cult: The BÖC song everyone pays attention to is the suicide anthem “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” However, that song is stupid and doesn’t use enough cowbell. The BÖC song almost no one pays attention to is the pro-monster plod-athon “Godzilla,” and that song is spine- crushingly great. So, in the final analysis, Blue Öyster Cult is accurately rated—by accident. This happens on occasion; look at Scottie Pippen.

2. New Radicals: There are only five facts publicly known about this entity. The first is that 1998’s “You Get What You Give” is an almost flawless Todd Rundgren–like masterwork that makes any right-thinking American want to run through a Wal-Mart semi-naked. The second is that nobody can remember the singer’s name. The third is that the singer often wore a profoundly idiotic hat. The fourth is that if this anonymous, poorly hatted singer had made a follow-up album, it would have somehow made his first record seem worse. The fifth is that his album didn’t quite deserve to go gold, and it didn’t.

1. Van Halen: This band should have been the biggest arena act of the early 1980s, and they were. They had the greatest guitar player of the 1980s, and everyone (except possibly Yngwie Malmsteen) seems to agree. They switched singers and became semi-crappy, and nobody aggressively disputes that fact. They also recorded the most average song in rock history: “And the Cradle Will Rock.” What this means is that any song better than “And the Cradle Will Rock” is good, and any song worse than “And the Cradle Will Rock” is bad. If we were to rank every rock song (in sequential order) from best to worst, “And the Cradle Will Rock” would be right in the fucking middle.  And that is exactly what I want.


The Rock Lexicon
(By Chuck Klosterman, Spin Magazine)

Difficult-to-define musical genres explained in a concise and accessible way for the curious yet inexpert listener.   “I don’t read your magazine anymore,” says my 36-year-old sister as we ride in a rental car. “I don’t read it because all you guys ever write about is emo, and I don’t get it.”  Now, for a moment, I find myself very interested in what my sister is saying. I absolutely cannot fathom what she could possibly hate about emo, and (I suspect) this subject might create an interesting ten minutes of rental-car discussion. Does she find emo too phallocentric? Do the simplistic chord progressions strike her as derivative? Why can’t she relate to emo? I ask her these questions, and I await her answer. But her answer is not what I expect.  “No, no,” she says. “When I say I don’t get emo, I mean I literally don’t know what it is. The word may as well be Latin. But I keep seeing jokes about emo in your magazine, and they’re never funny, because I have no idea what’s supposed to be funny about something I’ve never heard of.”  This, of course, leads to a spirited dialogue in which I say things like “‘Emo’ is short for emotional,” and she says things like “But all pop music is about emotions,” and I respond by saying, “It’s technically a style of punk rock, but it’s actually more of a personal, introspective attitude,” and she counters with “That sounds boring,” and then I mention Andy Greenwald (author of Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, & Emo), and she asks, “Wasn’t he a defensive end for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the late ’70s?” and I say, “No, that was L.C. Greenwood, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know any of the members of Senses Fail.”  But anyway, I learned something important from this discussion: that reading rock magazines must be very confusing to people who only listen to rock music casually. Whenever journalists write about music, we always operate under the assumption that certain genres are self-evident and that placing a given band into one of those categories serves an expository purpose. Just as often, an artist will be described as a synthesis of two equally obscure subgenres, and we’re all supposed to do the sonic math ourselves.  How-ever, this only helps the informed; that kind of description is useful to those who have already conquered the rock lexicon. What we need is a glossary of terms so we can all share an equal playing field.  I will do my best.

DISCO METAL: This is up-tempo, semi-heavy guitar rock that someone (usually a stripper) could feasibly dance to. White Zombie made a lot of songs in this style. Weirdly, it does not seem to apply to straightforward metal bands (Kiss, Van Halen) who overtly write disco songs (“I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” “Dance the Night Away”). No one knows why.

SHOEGAZE:Music by artists who stare at their feet while performing—presumably because they are ashamed to be playing such shambolic music to an audience of weirdos.

POST-ROCK: This is when a group of rock musicians employ traditional rock instrumentation to perform music for people who traditionally listen to rock—except these musicians don’t play rock and the songs don’t have any vocals. I don’t get it either. The premier band of this genre is Tortoise, and the kind of people who like post-rock are the same kind of people who think it’s a good idea to name a band Tortoise.

PSYCH: (as in “psychedelic”) The modifier psychhas only recently come back in vogue, which is interesting. You have possibly heard the terms “psych folk” (sometimes applied to artists in the vein of Devendra Banhart) or “psych country” (which is vaguely similar to what used to be called “outlaw country”) or “psych rock” (which is what Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols calls his band’s sound in the documentary DIG!). I’ve made a great effort to try to find the unifying principle among these permutations of psych music, and the answer is probably what’d you expect: This is music for drug addicts, made by drug addicts. If you are in a Tejano quartet and all four of you start taking mescaline (and if all the kids who come to your shows drop acid in the parking lot before entering the venue), you now play “psych Tejano.” That’s the whole equation.

GRIME: Almost two years ago, I asked two learned people at Spinto explain to me what grime is. They both said, “Don’t worry about it. You will never need to know. It’s completely unnecessary knowledge.” Then, over the next few weeks, grime came up in conversation on three separate occasions. And it would always come up in the same manner: Someone would mention either Dizzee Rascal or the Streets, refer to them as grim artists, and immediately be told, “Those aren’t real grime artists. That’s not real grime.” As such, this is all I know about grime—it’s British rap (but not really) that is kind of “like garage and 2-step” (but the word garage is pronounced like marriage), and it’s supposedly a reflection of life in lower-class London neighborhoods like Brixton. If anyone out there knows what grime is, e-mail me at But make sure you write “This is about grime” in the subject line so I will know to ignore it completely.

FASHION ROCK: The concept of fashion rock revolves around (a) appearing to be impoverished while (b) spending whatever little money you possess on stylish clothing (and possibly cocaine). In short, fashion rockers aspire to look like superfancy hobos, which is obviously nothing new (this look was called “gutter glam” by L.A. hair bands in the 1980s and “mod” by British goofballs in the late 1960s). What’s curious, however, is that fashion rock—though defined by clothing—does seem to have an identifiable sound, which is a kind of self-conscious sloppiness that translates as a British version of the Strokes (this is best illustrated by the Libertines, but even more successfully by the Killers, possibly because they are not even British).

RAWK:  This is how people who start bands in order to meet porn stars spell rock. It is also applied to long-haired guitar players who can’t play solos.

PROG: There was a time when “progressive rock” was easy to define, and everybody knew who played it—Jethro Tull, ELP, Yes, and other peculiar, bombastic men who owned an inordinate number of Moog synthesizers during the mid-1970s. This was an extremely amusing era for rock; the single best example from the period was King Crimson’s 1969 song “21st Century Schizoid Man,” a track built on a spooky two-pronged premise: What would it be like to encounter a fellow who was not only from the distant future, but also suffering from an untreated mental illness? At the time, “21st Century Schizoid Man” was the definition of progginess. However, just about anything qualifies as prog in 2005. An artist can be referred to as “kind of proggy” if he or she does at least two of the following things: writes long songs, writes songs with solos, writes songs about mythical creatures, writes songs that girls hate, grows a beard, consistently declines interview requests, mentions Dream Theater as an influence, claims to be working on a double album, claims to be working on a rock opera, claims to have already released a rock opera, appears to be making heavy metal for people who don’t like heavy metal, refuses to appear in his or her own videos, makes trippy music without the use of drugs, uses laser technology in any capacity, knows who Dream Theater is.

MUSK OX ROCK: Combining woolly ’90s grunge with the ephemeral elasticity of Icelandic artists like Björk and Sigur Rós, so-called oxenheads deliver thick, nurturing power riffs that replicate the experience of melting glaciers, troll attacks, and political alienation. The genre includes bands like Switchfoot, Radiohead, and Bettie Serveert.

IDM:  This is an acronym for “Intelligent Dance Music.” Really. No, really. I’m serious. This is what they call it.  Really.


Chuck Klosterman Repeats The Beatles
(By Chuck Klosterman, A.V. Club website, September 8, 2009)

Like most people, I was initially confused by EMI’s decision to release remastered versions of all 13 albums by the Liverpool pop group Beatles, a 1960s band so obscure that their music is not even available on iTunes. The entire proposition seems like a boondoggle. I mean, who is interested in old music? And who would want to listen to anything so inconveniently delivered on massive four-inch metal discs with sharp, dangerous edges? The answer: no one. When the box arrived in the mail, I briefly considered smashing the entire unopened collection with a ball-peen hammer and throwing it into the mouth of a lion. But then, against my better judgment, I arbitrarily decided to give this hippie shit an informal listen. And I gotta admit—I’m impressed. This band was mad prolific.

It is not easy to categorize the Beatles’ music; more than any other group, their sound can be described as “Beatlesque.” It’s akin to a combination of Badfinger, Oasis, Corner Shop, and every other rock band that’s ever existed. The clandestine power derived from the autonomy of the group’s composition—each Beatle has his own distinct persona, even though their given names are almost impossible to remember. There was John Lennon (the mean one), Paul Stereo version McCartney (the hummus eater), George Harrison (the best dancer), and drummer Ringo Starr (The Cat). Even the most casual consumers will be overwhelmed by the level of invention and the degree of change displayed over their scant eight-year recording career, a span complicated by McCartney’s tragic 1966 death and the 1968 addition of Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono, a woman so beloved by the band that they requested her physical presence in the studio during the making of Let It Be.

There are 217 songs on this anthology, many of which seem like snippets of conversation between teenagers who spend an inordinate amount of time at the post office. The Beatles’ “long play” debut, Please Please Me, came in 1963, opening with a few rudimentary remarks from Mr. McCartney: “Well, she was just 17 / If you know what I mean.” If this is supposed to indicate that the female in question was born in 1946, then yes, we know exactly what you mean, Paul. If it means something else, I remain in the dark. These young, sensitive, genteel-yet-stalkerish Beatles sure did spend a lot of time thinking about girls. Virtually every song they wrote during this period focuses on the establishment and recognition of consensual romance, often through paper and quill (“P.S. I Love You”), sometimes by means of monosyllabic nonsense (“Love Me Do”), and occasionally through oral sex (“Please Please Me”). The intensely private Mr. Harrison asks a few coquettish questions two-thirds of the way through the opus (“Do You Want To Know A Secret”) before Mr. Lennon obliterates the back door with the greatest rock voice of all time, accidentally inventing Matthew Broderick’s career. There are a few bricks hither and yon (thanks for wasting 123 seconds of my precious life, Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow) but on balance, I have to give Please Please Me an A, despite the fact that it doesn’t really have a proper single.

Things get more interesting on With The Beatles, particularly for audiences who feel the hi-hat should be the dominant musical instrument on all musical recordings. Only one track lasts longer than three minutes, but structurally, it would appear that the Beatles were more musical than any songwriters who had ever come before them, even when performing material that had been conceived for The Music Man. It’s hard to understand why the rock press wasn’t covering the Beatles during this stretch of their career; one can only assume that the band members’ lack of charisma and uneasy rapport made them unappealing to the mainstream media. Still, the music itself has verve - With The Beatles earns another A.

A Hard Day’s Night provided the soundtrack for a 1964 British movie of the same name, a film mostly remembered for its subtle advocacy of euthanasia. The album initiates like the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man,” and never gets any worse. These Beatles were doomed to a career in the cut-out bin of record stores, but they were clearly learning lessons about life: Though they’d covered “Money (That’s What I Want)” just one year before, they had now reached the conclusion (Mono version) that money cannot purchase love. It was a period of inner growth and introspection—they wanted to know why people cry and why people lie, and they embraced the impermanent pleasure of dance. They also experimented with the harmonica, but that turned out okay. I was originally going to give Hard Day’s Night an A-, but then I heard the middle eighth from “You Can’t Do That” (“Ev’rybody’s greeeeeen / ’Cause I’m the one who won your love”), so I’m changing my grade to A. I assume the accompanying movie is on hulu or something, but I don’t feel like searching for it.

The Beatles get darker and (I guess) cheaper on Beatles For Sale, now fixating on their insecurities (“I’m A Loser”) and how difficult it is to waltz a girl into bed when her ex is a corpse (“Baby’s In Black”). There are a bunch of unexpected covers on this album, so it’s kind of like Van Halen’s Diver Down. It only warrants a B, despite the tear-generating mondo-pleasure of “I’ll Follow The Sun.” More importantly, Beatles For Sale nicely sets the supper table for Help!, a mesmerizing combination of who the Beatles used to be and who they were about to become. The signature track is “Yesterday” (the last song Mr. McCartney recorded before his death in an early-morning car accident), but the best cut is “You’re Going To Lose That Girl,” a song that oozes with moral ambiguity. Is “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” an example of Mr. McCartney’s fresh-faced enlightenment (in that he threatens to punish some dude for being an unresponsive boyfriend), or an illustration of Mr. Lennon’s quiet misogyny (in that he views women as empty, non-specific possessions that can be pillaged from male rivals)? Each possibility seems both plausible and impossible. What makes Beatles lyrics so wonderful is not that they can be interpreted to mean whatever the listener wants; what makes them wonderful is the way they seamlessly adopt contradictory (yet equally valid) interpretations as the listener matures. It’s unfathomable how a couple of going-nowhere guys in their early 20s could be this emotively sophisticated, but that’s why the little-known Help! gets an A.

After Mr. McCartney was buried near Beaconsfield Road in Liverpool, Beatles bass-playing duties were secretly assigned to William Campbell, a McCartney sound-alike and an NBA-caliber smokehound. This lineup change resulted in the companion albums Rubber Soul and Revolver, both of which are okay. Despite its commercial failure, Rubber Soul allegedly caused half-deaf Brian Wilson to make Pet Sounds. (I assume this is also why EMI released a mono version of the catalogue—it allows consumers to experience this album the same way Wilson did.) If you like harmonies or guitar overdubs or the sun or Norwegian lesbians or taking drugs during funerals, you will probably sleep with these records on the first date. Rubber Soul gets an A- because I don’t speak French. Revolver gets an A+, mostly because of “She Said She Said” and “For No One,” but partially because I hate filing my taxes.

1967 proved to be a turning point for the Beatles—the overwhelming lack of public interest made touring a fiscal impossibility, subsequently forcing them to focus exclusively on studio recordings. Spearheaded by the increasingly mustachioed Fake Paul, the four Beatles donned comedic Technicolor dreamcoats, consumed 700 sheets of mediocre acid on the roof of the studio, and proceeded to make Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a groundbreaking album no one actually likes. A concept album about finding a halfway decent song for Ringo, Sgt. Pepper has a few satisfactory moments (“Lovely Rita” totally nails the experience of almost having sex with a city employee), but this is only B+ work. It mostly seems like a slightly superior incarnation of The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, a record that (ironically) came out seven months after this one. Pop archivists might be intrigued by this strange parallel between the Beatles and the Stones catalogue—it often seems as if every interesting thing The Rolling Stones ever did was directly preceded by something the Beatles had already accomplished, and it almost feels like the Stones completely stopped evolving once the Beatles broke up in 1970. But this, of course, is simply a coincidence. I mean, what kind of bozo would compare the Beatles to The Rolling Stones?

After the humiliating public failure of Pepper, the Beatles returned to form with Magical Mystery Tour, an unsubtle compilation of the trippiest (“Blue Jay Way”) and kid-friendliest (“Your Mother Should Know”) material they ever made. “I Am The Walrus” seems like sarcasm, but “Penny Lane” makes me want to purchase a digital camera and apply to barber college. Will history ultimately validate Magical Mystery Tour as the band’s signature work? Only time will tell. A. Now hitting on all 16 cylinders, the Beatles bolted back to the woodshed for The Beatles, a blandly designed masterwork that could inspire any reasonable citizen of California to launch a race war. To this day, we don’t know much about the four men who comprised the Beatles, but listening to this exceedingly non-black album makes one detail totally clear—these guys truly loved each other. How else could they make such wonderful music? In fact, they adored and trusted each other so much that they didn’t even feel the need to perform some of the songs together. It must have been a great era to be in this band. Amazingly, they even wrangled a cameo from noted blues musician Eric Clapton (still best known for his contributions to John Mayhall’s Bluesbreakers). The Beatles is almost beyond an A+; in retrospect, they probably should have made this a triple album. If nothing else, they could have simply included the five Pepper-y songs from Yellow Submarine (C-), which I think might have been a Halloween record.

Let It Be comes next (or last, depending on how you view the universe), and it’s a wholly confusing project—it’s often difficult to tell who is playing lead guitar, and many of the songs could either be about having sex or dropping out of society, which might be the same thing. Fake Paul’s beard looks tremendous, and his (increasingly less-lilting) songs are still beautiful, but his focus feels askew; he seems like a guy who wants to make a record with his wife (which is what Mr. Lennon was already doing, although for totally different reasons). “I’ve Got A Feeling” is my preferred track, but it’s also the first time I really don’t believe what these fellows are trying to tell me. I give Let It Be a B-, although The Replacements get an A and the cast of Sesame Street gets an B+.

Though the artwork for Abbey Road seems eerily familiar (that’s actually my car in the photo’s background), the music it symbolizes is vaguely alien—I don’t know why they wrote a song about a Clue character, but that’s par for the course for these lovemaking, chain-smoking longhairs. The opener sucks (seems as crappy as mid-period Aerosmith), but Mr. Harrison follows with a wedding song that effortlessly proves why people who try to quantify visceral emotion should just stop trying. The entire band seems oddly unserious on this endeavor, but in the best possible way—for the first time in a long time, they sound as free as they look. That said, the audio quality is especially heavy and detailed; one suspects most of the arduous lifting on Abbey Road fell on the shoulders of unheralded Jeff Beck producer George Martin. Everything ends with “The End,” but then Fake Paul decided to add a superfluous 24-second mini-song that wipes away any historical closure Abbey Road might have otherwise achieved. The real Mr. McCartney would have never even considered such frivolity. I give Abbey Road an A, but begrudgingly.

I’ve noticed that this EMI box also includes the gratuitously titled singles collection Past Masters, but I’m not even going to play it. How could a song called “Rain” not be boring? I feel like I’ve already heard enough. These are nice little albums, but I can’t imagine anyone actually shelling out $260 to buy these discs. There’s just too much great free music on the Internet, you know? You might find the instructional, third-person perspective of “Sie Leibt Dich” charming and snappy (particularly if you’re trying to learn German the hard way), but first check out “,” a popular website with a forward-thinking musical flavor. That, my rockers, is the future. That, and videogames.

Chuck Klosterman is the author of six books, including the 2008 novel Downtown Owl and the forthcoming collection Eating The Dinosaur.


Beck's "Loser" Defines the '90s
(By Chuck Klosterman, April 16, 2010)

Here's what really happened when MTV played Beck's "Loser" for the first time, in 1994: The culture inverted itself, weirdness was instantaneously mainstreamed, everyone stopped combing their hair, people slept more and purchased broken turn­­tables at stoop sales, dirtbags began using the word art in casual conversation, Michael Cera entered kindergarten.  Here's what nobody said when MTV played "Loser" for the first time: "Well, I guess this is what we're doing now." Here's what everybody realized when MTV played "Loser" for the first time: Well, I guess this is what we're doing now. 
When a collective history of the 1990s is written (or, more likely, tweeted) in some distant future, all of the pop historians will mention the impact of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." That song will become the linchpin for whatever supposedly happened in that chasm between Gordon Gekko and Mohamed Atta. Someday, filmmakers will use the opening riff of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to signify the '90s in the same way we use "The Entertainer" as shorthand for the '20s.

In a hundred years, it might be the only song from the '90s the average American will recognize; the title and the artist will be lost, but its abstract sound will be emblematic of a bygone era. Its caricature grungeness will survive, and all those future humans who think about the not-so-distant past will care about that. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was overproduced and impenetrable, but its impact was organic and interpretative -- it was an unanticipated watershed whose meaning changed over time. And that makes it completely unlike "Loser," a song that galvanized how 1994 felt in a most unnatural way.

When you listen to "Loser" now (or, even better, if you watch the video), it seems like an engaging, strange song. Not a truly strange song, but a conventionally strange song. The lyrics are faux-Dylan surreal, the music is primitive, and the hook is immediate. The images from the video are like a 16-millimeter art-school project: stock cars from the '60s, a musician dragging a casket to nowhere, unsexy cheerleaders, a super-rad Rastaman getting high. The experience of watching this in 2010 is like watching Slacker on VHS -- the aesthetic has now been duplicated so often it's impossible to remember how different it once seemed.

It arrived in the pre-Internet era, so deducing what Beck was saying in the chorus was borderline impossible (many thought the Spanish phrase "soy un perdedor" was actually "slide open the door," which made even less sense). People wanted to figure out what "Smells Likes Teen Spirit" was supposed to mean, but nobody tried that with "Loser." The first time you heard it, you knew it was about nothing. Beck paradoxically fulfilled his destiny: He sounded like an artist who was lazy on purpose. And this would not have been important if "Loser" had merely been a novelty hit. But that's not what it was.

The first time I heard "Loser" was also the first time I ever heard of Beck, which isn't unusual. Before it debuted on MTV's Alternative Nation in January 1994, the network's flannel-clad VJs were promoting the shit out of "Loser," no differently than if it had been the newest release from a band that was already mega-famous. This is partly because "Loser" was already (technically) old -- it had been released as an indie single on Bong Load Records in March 1993 (Bong Load pressed only 500 vinyl copies, and college radio stations played it immediately). Hipster kids were already aware of who Beck was.

But most of the world is not hip, so we found out on MTV. That alone seemed meaningful. People had been accusing MTV of dictating public taste for years, but now it really was happening: An unknown single by a person we'd never heard of was already famous enough to open an episode of Alternative Nation, the less-edgy offspring of 120 Minutes. It was like waking up the morning after a coup and discovering the new president was a hobo in a scarf.
People like to compare "Loser" to Radiohead's "Creep," but that relationship is bogus. There's a narrative to "Creep," and the protagonist's self-loathing is supposed to be an authen­tic feeling -- when Beck asked people to kill him, only a fool would think he was serious. The Smashing Pumpkins followed "Loser" with the metalesque "Zero," but that was self-loathing as bandwagon chic -- by the fall of '95, this was simply the sentiment alt-gods were supposed to have. And "Loser" made that happen, it was lifestyle branding. It made a vision of unspecific, apolitical apathy appear charming and desirable. Overnight, it was so much easier for white people to be cool. All you had to do was look weird and act weirder.

Remember those John Hughes movies from the '80s, where guys like Andrew McCarthy and his overachieving rich friends inevitably ran the high school? Nobody buys that anymore. It's a distant reality that seems completely unreal. Ever since MTV decided "Loser" was the future of middle-of-the-road coolness, the under­class has become the overclass. The counterculture has become a product that's available to everybody. And this didn't happen naturally; it happened because somebody made that choice and we didn't know any better. Which, on balance, is probably the greatest thing MTV ever did for anyone.


(By Chuck Klosterman, from The Believer website, 2008)

What’s the difference between a road movie and a movie that just happens to have roads in it?  I drove a car across the country once. It took three weeks and was financed by a rock magazine. Two years after the trip, a handful of people from California with exceptionally comfortable office chairs considered making a movie out of my experience. It was a very confusing process. Enthusiastic strangers with German eyeglasses kept asking me how I imagined this film would look, which I found difficult to elucidate; I assumed it would look like the video for Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is a Highway,” partially because of the lyrical content but mostly because I (sort of) looked Canadian before I grew a beard. That was not the answer they were anticipating. I was given a strong impression they were hoping I would say it would be a lot like Trainspotting, although maybe they were just trying to figure out if I could put them in contact with local drug dealers. They also wanted me to sign a 780-page contract that would give time control over my “life rights,” which meant they would have been able to make me an ancillary character in You, Me and Dupree. 

My theoretical Road Movie would not have been interesting and does not exist, although those two points are not necessarily related. I have no doubt that it would have followed the conventional Road Movie trajectory, which has remained intact since before The Wizard of Oz. This trajectory is as follows: 1) A character experiences abstract loss and attempts an exodus from normal life, 2) The character reinvents his or her self-identity while traveling, 3) Along the way, the character encounters iconic individuals who (usually) illustrate authenticity and desolation, 4) Upon the recognition of seemingly self-evident realizations, the character desires to return to the point of origin.

I assume the hypothetical Road Movie I was not involved with would have been built on the most elementary of Road Movie clichés: where you’re going doesn’t matter as much as how you get there. But that philosophy raises at least three questions, some of which are equally cliché but all of which are hard to answer: What is a Road Movie, really? Why do so many directors (from so many different eras) long to make them? And what makes movement any more inherently interesting than—or even all that different from—staying in one place?

The defining domestic road narrative is Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road, a novel that readers either take much too seriously (at least in the opinion of dead author Truman Capote, who didn’t even classify the prose as writing) or not seriously enough (if you happen to be non-dead author John Leland, who just published a book titled Why Kerouac Matters). A film adaptation of On the Road has been percolating for years; the movie is slated to be produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by Walter Salles, a Brazilian-born filmmaker already known for crafting semi-epic road pictures (most notably 2004’s Motorcycle Diaries, but also 1996’s Foreign Land and 1998’s Central Station). It was my intention to interview Salles for this piece, but he’s currently in South America and unwilling to chat. He did, however, email me a two-thousand-word essay[1] he wrote for a Greek film festival, which is akin to getting an extremely long answer to a question that was never technically asked.

The essay is (rather straightforwardly) titled “About Road Movies.” Salles suggests that all of this starts with The Odyssey of Homer and reflects a specific kind of human discovery. Here are a few of his core thoughts, mostly unedited: The early road movies were about the discovery of a new geography or about the expansion of frontiers, like Westerns in North American cinema. They were films about a national identity in construction. In more recent decades, road movies started to accomplish a different task: they began to register national identities in transformation. 

This first point addresses something almost everyone who talks about Road Movies inevitably feels obligated to reference: the idea of moving west across the country is such a deeply American tradition that virtually all Road Movies borrow on this motif. This is even true when a movie consciously embraces the opposing philosophy. In 1969’s Easy Rider, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper start in California and travel east. They’re part of the counterculture, so they move in the opposite direction of manifest destiny. When Jack Nicholson’s character says things like “This used to be a hell of a good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it,” he is essentially suggesting a discovery of America in reverse.  In terms of architecture, road movies cannot be circumscribed to the traditional three-act structure that defines the screenplays of so many mainstream films. Road movies are rarely guided by external conflicts; the conflict that afflicts its characters is basically an internal one.  I have the impression that the most interesting road movies are those in which the identity crises of its main characters mirror the identity crisis of the culture these characters originate from, or are going through. 

Salles’s second point is interesting because- though true- it often represents the easiest criticism of any movie focused on characters who seem obsessed with movement for the sake of movement alone. For example, there really is no conflict in Smokey and the Bandit (it’s actually easier to understand the plot by listening to the three-minute Jerry Reed song “Westbound and Down” than by watching the movie). However, Smokey and the Bandit becomes far more compelling if viewed from the perspective that Burt Reynolds is the idealized embodiment of how a masculine, semi-blue-collar Southern male would think about the world in 1977 (i.e., not taking it seriously and not giving a shit about anything including things he knows he should give a shit about such as the pugnacious optimism of Sally Field).

Because of the necessity of accompanying the internal transformation of its characters, road movies are not about what can be verbalized, but about what can be felt. About the invisible that complements the visible. In this sense, road movies contrast dramatically with the present mainstream films, in which new actions are created every five minutes to grab the attention of the spectator. In road movies, a moment of silence is generally more important than the most dramatic action. 

Salles’s third point is more debatable. It speaks to the divide between people who claim they like “films” and those who willfully insist they prefer “movies.” The true question becomes this: are movies more interesting when something is happening, or are movies more interesting when nothing is happening? In the case of Vincent Gallo’s sublimely gratuitous The Brown Bunny (2003), the latter argument feels more accurate; what makes that film hypnotizing is its ability to replicate the focused boredom of authentic highway driving. But this is usually the exception. There are cataclysmic, melodramatic deaths at the end of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and 1991’s Thelma and Louise. My assumption is that Salles would argue that those specific events were less important than the (mostly) unspoken agreement of the characters’ decision to die together. But that’s not how it seems when the movies are actively consumed, which indicates one of two things: either Salles’s description of Road Movies is imperfect, or those two examples aren’t Road Movies at all. Maybe they’re just movies that happen to have roads in them.

“Going from point A to point B is kind of the obvious criteria here.” This is Gus Van Sant, talking via telephone. He is speaking very cautiously; the questions I’ve asked him are so vague and abstract that I think he suspects I’m trying to trick him into saying something he doesn’t believe. “In a movie like Gerry, the characters are looking for a road, which really isn’t the same thing as a Road Movie. All of this probably comes from our own history—wagon trains and literal trains and exploring the West. But by the time we got to the 1960s, it didn’t really matter which direction you were going. Ken Kesey had business on the East Coast, so that required a reversal.”  The reason I am interviewing Van Sant is two-pronged, although it appears neither of my prongs are particularly sharp. The first reason is that I was under the impression that he’s agreed to direct an upcoming version of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction account of the aforementioned Kesey’s LSD-fueled 1964 bus trip across the United States. As it turns out, Van Sant has yet to officially sign on to this project (he said he was still in the midst of negotiating the deal and writing the script). My second reason for calling is that I closely associate Van Sant with the Road Movie genre, which (in retrospect) is totally specious. A lot of his films are Road Movies in my memory, but they weren’t when I re-watched them. As Van Sant noted, Gerry doesn’t have a road. My Own Private Idaho starts on a highway and ends in Rome (where all roads are said to lead), but everything in the middle seems detached from movement. In Drugstore Cowboy (1989), the characters stay in motion and actively take a road trip, but it’s still not a Road Movie.  That said, there is something about Van Sant’s work that (perhaps inadvertently) inhabits the relationship between travel and life experience. His interest in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is not surprising: besides holding a career-long cinematic interest in drug use, Van Sant claims to have crossed the country by car at least twenty times in his life and still drives from his home in Oregon to Los Angeles on a regular basis.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever shot a physical landscape through the window of a moving car, but I’ve always thought the idea of road stories on film was the central metaphor of a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he says, slightly challenging Salles’s notion that Road Movies don’t operate like traditional three-act plays. “The trip creates a natural progression through the middle of a film. I think a story like On the Road, for example, will actually be more effective as a film than as a book. Going from point A to point B is not what really holds a novel together. But movement can hold a movie together.”  In the hopes of finding clarity, I ask Van Sant what he thinks a Road Movie is. Somewhat predictably, his response makes things more confusing (and also seems to contradict something he already said about one of his own films).  “Well, if Duel isn’t a road movie, then such a thing as Road Movies doesn’t exist,” he says. “But does there even have to be a road at all? Is 2001: A Space Odyssey a road movie? I think that you could argue that it was.”  This, I suppose, is true. You could argue that 2001 was a Road Movie, just as you could argue that My Dinner with Andre is a Road Movie of the Mind. But that kind of argument leads nowhere. The more telling detail is Van Sant’s mention of Duel, Steven Spielberg’s 1971 made-for-TV movie about an unassuming businessman—a person literally named “David Mann”—in a Plymouth Valiant who finds himself in an inexplicable personal war with a flammable tank truck driven by a faceless stranger who wants to kill him. Duel eliminates the idea of a road trip as some sort of spiritual quest. Instead, it exclusively ties its story to the most fundamental elements of the genre: people, vehicles, and the nonmetaphorical physicality of the earth itself.

The six types of narrative conflict are usually described in the following manner: Man v. Himself, Man v. Man, Man v. Society, Man v. Nature, Man v. Machine, and Man v. God. In his essay, Salles writes that Road Movies are usually internal conflicts, so he’d probably see Duel as Man v. Himself; if consumed completely devoid of subtext, the screenplay for Duel seems like an obvious Man v. Man scenario. But those would both be attempts at simplifying what a Road Movie is about, and I’m not sure if it’s that simple. To me, Road Movies often seem to adhere to this equation:

What this means is that Road Movies often focus on amoral humans in cars, racing against the structure of society and the limitations of the natural world, filtered through the perception of the characters’ life experience. For some reason, this seemed especially common in 1971. Along with Duel, that year also saw the release of Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop, companion films that romanticize driving to a degree that now seems almost absurd.  Made with a budget of $1.3 million, Vanishing Point is about a 1970 Dodge Challenger, driven by Kowalski, a stoic portrayed by an actor named Barry Newman, who spends a lot of time looking like Elliott Gould and acting like Dustin Hoffman. (Interestingly, the director wanted the role to go to Gene Hackman.) In order to win a meaningless bet with a Benzedrine dealer, Kowalski attempts to drive the white Challenger from Boulder, Colorado, to San Francisco in fifteen hours. As the trip progresses, the Challenger evolves into a sort of memory machine that allows Kowalski to mentally replay past episodes from his life. That’s pretty much the whole movie. Two-Lane Blacktop was made more cheaply (for an estimated $850,000) and managed to be even more plotless: two drag-racing slackabouts (musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson) get into a cross-country Route 66 road race against a drifter in a GTO (Warren Oates). This turns into a three-way sexual competition for an extremely annoying hippie (Laurie Bird). The story is generally incomprehensible, partially because untrained actors Taylor and Wilson tend to oscillate between acting unnaturally stiff and supernaturally high.

Still, there are two things that make Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop compelling, regardless of how underwritten they feel in the present tense. The first is that both films are relentlessly auto-centric. The audience is constantly shown images inside the rearview mirror or over the top of the hood. The sound of the vehicle engines is extremely high in the audio mix. You get used to seeing people gripping a steering wheel while cocking their skull slightly to one side. “I’m gonna make the car the star,” claimed Vanishing Point director Richard C. Sarafian, but that’s not really what happens; in both movies, the process of driving is the star. The other (more obvious) link between Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop is how they conclude. In the former, Kowalski drives his Dodge into a pair of bulldozers and explodes. Man and Car die together, and there’s no explanation as to why. Two-Lane Blacktop ends even more abruptly: while the characters are racing in Tennessee, the movie’s sound drops out and the celluloid film itself burns up.  If you like either or both of these movies, you almost certainly love these particular endings and find them “existential.” If you dislike these movies, you probably find these finales meaningless (and not in a good way). Yet Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop seem to solve the Road Movie Equation I mentioned a few paragraphs earlier. It’s no longer a question of “versus.” Now the equation reads more like this:


What all this boils down to is that there are two idioms of Road Movies, and the only thing that truly connects them is the presence of asphalt. Films in the vein of Vanishing Point are external, aggressive, mechanically oriented abstractions where the characters remain static (this genus also include movies like The Cannonball Run, The Road Warrior, and the recent Quentin Tarantino project Death Proof). In contrast, a movie like Wong Kar-wai’s recent My Blueberry Nights (or Two for the Road, or Little Miss Sunshine) is supposed to be meandering, personal, and transformative. Essentially, you are either (a) going nowhere fast or (b) going somewhere slow. The fact that we all unconsciously understand those paradigms is how Road Movies succeed.

But sometimes it’s how they fail.  The themes we all understand are not always true.  One of the best Road Movies from recent years is Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, a minimalist indie project set in the Pacific Northwest. The movie is about two old friends (Will Oldham and Daniel London) who have grown apart over time but decide to take a road trip together. Were this a conventional Road Movie, that experience would foster rediscovery—the two friends would address their differences and bind a new friendship. But this does not happen. They do not argue, evolve, or suddenly recall why they originally liked each other. It’s a slow, hyperpersonal movie that offers no transformation whatsoever.[2] The characters have nothing profound to say to each other, and that is disenchanting. But because they are in a car together, they can still talk. When two people are sitting in a car, they don’t have to look at each other. They don’t have to be interesting or funny or even themselves, because they’re not there for entertainment; they are there to get somewhere else. That’s what makes movement more interesting than staying in place: Road Trips exist outside of reality. Cars are not just memory machines. Cars are avoidance machines. And we will always watch anything that keeps us from being here, regardless of where that is (or isn’t). 


1. When I initially received this essay from Salles, it had not been published anywhere. However, it ended up running in the November 11, 2007, issue of the New York Times Magazine.

2. My editor disagrees with me on this point, arguing that “something” transformative happens when the two characters go to an outdoor bathhouse. I still think that nothing happens, which is supposed to be the point (i.e., the audience is tricked into anticipating that this episode is going to be transformative, because movie grammar teaches us to traditionally interpret these kinds of scenes as metaphorically significant). I suppose this kind of disagreement is inevitable whenever somebody makes a movie without much dialogue.

Chuck Klosterman writes for various media outlets and is the author of four nonfiction books. His first novel, Downtown Owl, will be released by Scribner in September. 


Remember: The White Stripes By Chuck Klosterman
(By Chuck Klosterman, Spin Magazine, 02 February 2011)

[EDITOR'S NOTE, February 2, 2010: Because the White Stripes announced today that they are officially disbanding, we are republishing Chuck Klosterman's first interview with the band, which originally appeared in SPIN's October 2002 issue.]

Jack White flicks his cigarette ash into a glass of water. He and Meg White are sitting on a couch in an überswanky hotel room in downtown Chicago, trying to explain how it feels to be a punkish underground band -- with modest sales and an antimedia aesthetic -- that has somehow become America's most frothed-over rock group.  "We're in a weird spot right now," Jack says. "To be honest, I have a hard time finding a reason to be on the cover of SPIN. It was like being on the MTV Movie Awards [where they performed their recent single 'Fell in Love With a Girl']. You start asking yourself, 'What are we getting from this? What are we destroying by doing this? Does it mean anything?' So you try it. You wonder if you'll end up being any different than everyone else, and usually, the answer is no."

Actually, the answer is yes. The White Stripes are different. If you ignored their songs, you'd assume they were a novelty act: They wear only matching red, white, and black clothing, they have no bassist, and they've built their public persona around a fabricated relationship (they claim to be siblings, but they're actually an ex-couple whose divorce was finalized in 2000; see sidebar). But there is no punch line. Mixing junk punk and tangled roots music, singing some of the most complex love songs since Liz Phair's heyday, the White Stripes have done what great rock bands are supposed to do -- they've reinvented the blues with contemporary instincts. They represent a sound (postmodern garage rock) from a specific place (downtown Detroit), and it's a fascinating mix of sonic realness and media boondoggle.

As we talk, guitarist Jack speaks in full, articulate paragraphs. Drummer Meg mostly hugs a pillow and curls her legs underneath her body, hiding feet covered by rainbow-colored socks that resemble Fruit Stripe gum's zebra mascot. The night before, the duo played the Metro club near Wrigley Field, and it was an acceptable 90-minute show. However, tonight they'll play a blistering set at the Metro that won't start until 12:55 A.M., and it will annihilate the molecules of Illinois' air: They will do an extended version of a new song ("Ball and Biscuit") that makes references to being a seventh son and includes a grinding guitar solo that's shredded over the beat from Queen's "We Will Rock You." They'll cover the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun."  Everything is raw and unrehearsed and imperfect. And that's why it's so fucking good. "We have to go back," Jack insists. "The last twenty years have been filled with digital, technological crap that's taken the soul out of music. The technological metronome of the United States is obsessed with progress, so now you have all these gearheads who want to lay down three thousand tracks in their living room. That wasn't the point.  "The point," says Meg, "is being a live band."

Perhaps Meg is right. However, classifying the White Stripes as two kids in a stellar live band in no way describes their curious career arc and often contradictory aesthetic. Supposedly formed on Bastille Day in 1997, they got some attention for being bass-less and dressing like pieces of candy. After they'd released two albums (1999's eponymous debut and 2000's De Stijl, named after a Dutch art movement that emphasized primal abstraction) and toured with Pavement and Sleater-Kinney, there was a growing suspicion that Jack and Meg were succeeding where Jon Spencer and his cheeky Blues Explosion had failed -- there is no irony to what the Stripes create. "We wanted things to be as childish as possible, but with no sense of humor," Jack explains, "because that's how children think." Children also fib, conflating truth and fiction, real and fake, for the mere fun of it.

Like Pavement in '92, the Stripes brought romance and mystery to an indie underground devoid of rock'n'roll fantasy. By the release of White Blood Cells in the summer of 2001, they'd evolved into a cultural phenomenon. Eventually, they signed a lucrative deal with V2 (which has since rereleased their earlier albums), had their own Lego-centric MTV hit, and were embraced by modern-rock radio programmers looking for a post-Bizkit hangover cure.  V2 President Andy Gershon, who reportedly signed the band for $15 million, was reluctant at first. "Your conventional wisdom is that they're a two-piece, they need a bass player, they've got this red-and-white gimmick, and the songs are fantastic, but they're recorded very is this going to be on radio?" he says. "But for me, it was like, the record's amazing."

Along with the Strokes and the Hives, the White Stripes are part of a back-to-basics real-rock revival awkwardly termed "neo-garage." With roots in the '60s stomp of teenage bands responding to the British invasion, "garage rock" is all about simple, direct catharsis. For years, the music was the province of aging coolsters, but neo-garage infuses that old sound with glammy magic. The White Stripes are from Southwest Detroit, more specifically from a lower-middle-class Hispanic section uncomfortably referred to as Mexicantown. They claim to be the youngest offspring in a family of ten children. They claim to have formed one day when Meg wandered into their parents' attic and began playing Jack's drum kit. This is certainly not true. This much is true: Mexicantown is where Jack White grew up and operated an upholstery shop, and Meg is from the same ZIP code; she once worked as a bartender at a blues bar in the trendy northern Detroit suburb of Royal Oak. Jack is 26. Meg is 27. The White Stripes are "Detroit people," and they are the most visible band in the Detroit garage-rock scene, a conglomeration of pals extending far beyond the Stripes themselves. Detroit is full of underproduced, wonderfully primitive rock bands, all playing the same bar circuit. You could waste a weekend trying to name every band in the 313 area code (a lot of them are on the Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit compilation, which Jack White recorded in his living room). There are the Von Bondies, a sloppy, MC5-ish rave-up quartet, and the Clone Defects, an arty, quasi-metal band. Slumber Party are borderline shoegazers; the Come Ons play trad '60s-ish pop. The Dirtbombs bridge the gap between glam, Detroit's Motown past, and the blues-rock future. The Piranhas are a destructo-punk band, already local legends for their "Rat Show" at a now-defunct club called the Gold Dollar in 1999 (their singer performed with a bloody, freshly executed rat duct-taped to his naked torso). The Detroit Cobras are the hottest band of the moment (supposedly ignoring an avalanche of major labels trying to sign them).

But the White Stripes are the conflicted media darlings. Unlike most of their blue-collar peers, they have a well-cultivated look, an artistic sensibility, and a mythology, which makes the Stripes an idea as much as a band (almost like a garage-rock Kiss). But the real reason they're the biggest little rock group since Sonic Youth is impossible to quantify: Audiences hear something in their music that's so fundamental, it almost feels alien.  According to Jack, what they're hearing is truth.  "We grew up in the late '80s and '90s, and what was good in rock'n'roll for those 20 years? Nothing, really. I guess I liked Nirvana," White says. "And sometimes when you grow up around all these people who only listen to hip-hop, something inside of you just doesn't connect with that. Some people will just kind of fall into that culture -- you know, white people pretending to be black people or whatever -- because they're involved in an environment where they want to fit in and they want to have friends, so they decide to like what everyone else likes and to dress how everyone else dresses. Meg and I never went along with it."  I try to get Meg to comment; she defers to Jack, smiles, and looks away. Meg seems really, really nice and really, really bored. She and Jack laugh at each other's jokes, but they mostly behave like coworkers. I ask her how she feels about the way people have portrayed her -- like when reporters infer profound metaphorical insight from her unwillingness to chat. 

Wendy Case is less shy than Meg White. In fact, Wendy Case is less shy than David Lee Roth. She is the 38-year-old lead singer/guitarist for the Paybacks, a band Case describes as "hard pop." Her hair is blonde on top and brown underneath, she laughs like a '73 Plymouth Scamp that refuses to turn over, and she can probably outdrink 90 percent of the men in Michigan. We are riding in her black Cherokee down Detroit's Cass Corridor.  "If you're gonna look for one unifying force [in the Detroit scene], the thing is that we all still drink," Case says. "You get together and you drink beer, and you listen to music. That's pretty much the nucleus of every social situation."  The Cass Corridor is a strip of urban wretchedness jammed between the north shadow of Detroit's skyline and Wayne State University. It's basically a slum, filled with dive bars and homeless people who spend afternoons having animated conversations with the heavens. This is where Detroit's garage rock has flourished, so it's no surprise that most of this town's bands are no-nonsense buzz saws. But the depth and intensity of their musical knowledge is surprising. The recent Dirtbombs album, Ultraglide in Black, is mostly covers (Stevie Wonder, Phil Lynott), and the Detroit Cobras' Life, Love and Leaving is all covers.  "We'll all sit around and listen to an old Supremes record or a Martha Reeves and the Vandellas record and marvel at the production level, especially considering how cheaply it was done," says Eddie Harsch, a guy who used to play keyboards with the Black Crowes and currently plays bass for the Cobras. "People in Detroit know their records."
This is true for the Stripes, who pepper shows with Dolly Parton's "Jolene," Meg's rendition of Loretta Lynn's "Rated X," and the menacing, tommy-gun riff of Link Wray's "Jack the Ripper."  Explains Jack: "We've never covered a song simply because it would be cool or because we'd seem really obscure for doing so. Certain circles of musicians will all get involved with the same record at the same time and suddenly it will be cool to like the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society for a month. But why didn't people feel that way three years ago? I've always hated the whole idea of record collectors who are obsessed with how obscure something is. Usually when somebody brings up something obscure, I assume it's not very good, because -- if it was -- I would have heard it already. Record collectors are collecting. They're not really listening to music."

We talk a little longer. Then Jack does something odd. He reaches behind his waist and rips the tag off his black pants. It's the type of weird moment that makes the Stripes so baffling and compelling. In and of itself, it's not mind-blowing that a guy ripped the tag off his pants. But this small, theatrical gesture punctuates Jack's quote better than words ever could. It looks rehearsed, even though that's impossible (it's hard to imagine Jack buys a new pair of trousers for every interview). Yet everything the White Stripes do raises a question. How can two media-savvy kids posing as brother and sister, wearing Dr. Seuss clothes, represent blood-and-bones Detroit, a city whose greatest resource is asphalt?  "One time I was joking around with Jack," recalls Detroit Cobras guitarist Maribel Restrepo, who lives ten minutes from where Jack resides in southwest Detroit. "And I said, 'If you tell little white lies, they'll only lead to more lies.' And he goes, You can't even do that, because the minute you say anything, that's all people will talk about. It gets to where you don't want to say anything.'  It's not that less is more; it's that less is everything. When Meg White hugs her pillow and tells me that people put more thought into shyness than necessary, I want to play along with her -- even though she's totally lying. It's as if we don't want to know the truth about the White Stripes. The lies are so much fun.




Chuck Klosterman reviews Chinese Democracy
(by Chuck Klosterman, A.V. Club website, 2008)
Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It's more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom? I've been thinking about this record for 15 years; during that span, I've thought about this record more than I've thought about China, and maybe as much as I've thought about the principles of democracy. This is a little like when that grizzly bear finally ate Timothy Treadwell [in the movie “Grizzly Man”]: Intellectually, he always knew it was coming. He had to. His very existence was built around that conclusion. But you still can't psychologically prepare for the bear who eats you alive, particularly if the bear wears cornrows.  Here are the simple things about Chinese Democracy: Three of the songs are astonishing. Four or five others are very good. The vocals are brilliantly recorded, and the guitar playing is (generally) more interesting than the guitar playing on the Use Your Illusion albums. Axl Rose made some curious (and absolutely unnecessary) decisions throughout the assembly of this project, but that works to his advantage as often as it detracts from the larger experience. So: Chinese Democracy is good. Under any halfway normal circumstance, I would give it an A.  But nothing about these circumstances is normal.

For one thing, Chinese Democracy is (pretty much) the last Old Media album we'll ever contemplate in this context—it's the last album that will be marketed as a collection of autonomous-but-connected songs, the last album that will be absorbed as a static manifestation of who the band supposedly is, and the last album that will matter more as a physical object than as an Internet sound file. This is the end of that. But the more meaningful reason Chinese Democracy is abnormal is because of a) the motives of its maker, and b) how those motives embargoed what the definitive product eventually became. The explanation as to why Chinese Democracy took so long to complete is not simply because Axl Rose is an insecure perfectionist; it's because Axl Rose self-identifies as a serious, unnatural artist. He can't stop himself from anticipating every possible reaction and interpretation of his work. I suspect he cares less about the degree to which people like his music, and more about how it is taken, regardless of the listener's ultimate judgment. This is why he was so paralyzed by the construction of Chinese Democracy—he can't write or record anything without obsessing over how it will be received, both by a) the people who think he's an unadulterated genius, and b) the people who think he's little more than a richer, red-haired Stephen Pearcy. All of those disparate opinions have identical value to him. So I will take Chinese Democracy as seriously as Axl Rose would hope, and that makes it significantly less simple. At this juncture in history, rocking is not enough.

The weirdest (yet more predictable) aspect of Chinese Democracy is the way 60 percent of the lyrics seem to actively comment on the process of making the album itself. The rest of the vocal material tends to suggest some kind of abstract regret over an undefined romantic relationship punctuated by betrayal, but that might just be the way all hard-rock songs seem when the singer plays a lot of piano and only uses pronouns. The craziest track, "Sorry," resembles spooky Pink Floyd and is probably directed toward former GNR drummer Steven Adler, although I suppose it might be about Slash or Stephanie Seymour or David Geffen. It could even be about Jon Pareles, for all I fucking know—Axl's enemy list is pretty Nixonian at this point. The most uplifting songs are "Street Of Dreams" (a leaked song previously titled "The Blues") and the exceptionally satisfying "Catcher In The Rye" (a softer, more sophisticated re-working of "Yesterdays" that occupies a conceptual self-awareness in the vein of Elton John or mid-period Queen). The fragile ballad "This I Love" is sad, melodramatic, and pleasurably traditional. There are many moments where it's impossible to tell who Axl is talking to, so it feels like he's talking to himself (and inevitably about himself). There's not much cogent storytelling, but it's linear and compelling. The best description of the overall literary quality of the lyrics would probably be "effectively narcissistic."

As for the music—well, that's actually much better than anticipated. It doesn't sound dated or faux-industrial, and the guitar shredding that made the final version (which I'm assuming is still predominantly Buckethead) is alien and perverse. A song like "Shackler's Revenge" is initially average, until you get to the solo—then it becomes the sonic equivalent of a Russian robot wrestling a reticulating python. Whenever people lament the dissolution of the original Guns N' Roses, the person they always focus on is Slash, and that makes sense. (His unrushed blues metal was the group's musical vortex.) But it's actually better that Slash is not on this album. What's cool about Chinese Democracy is that it truly does sound like a new enterprise, and I can't imagine that being the case if Slash were dictating the sonic feel of every riff. The GNR members Rose misses more are Izzy Stradlin (who effortlessly wrote or co-wrote many of the band's most memorable tunes) and Duff McKagan, the underappreciated bassist who made Appetite For Destruction so devastating. Because McKagan worked in numerous Seattle-based bands before joining Guns N' Roses, he became the de facto arranger for many of those pre-Appetite tracks, and his philosophy was always to take the path of least resistance. He pushed the songs in whatever direction felt most organic. But Rose is the complete opposite. He takes the path of most resistance. Sometimes it seems like Axl believes every single Guns N' Roses song needs to employ every single thing that Guns N' Roses has the capacity to do—there needs to be a soft part, a hard part, a falsetto stretch, some piano plinking, some R&B bullshit, a little Judas Priest, subhuman sound effects, a few Robert Plant yowls, dolphin squeaks, wind, overt sentimentality, and a caustic modernization of the blues. When he's able to temporarily balance those qualities (which happens on the title track and on "I.R.S.," the album's two strongest rock cuts), it's sprawling and entertaining and profoundly impressive. The soaring vocals crush everything. But sometimes Chinese Democracy suffers from the same inescapable problem that paralyzed proto-epics like "Estranged" and "November Rain": It's as if Axl is desperately trying to get some unmakeable dream song from inside his skull onto the CD, and the result is an overstuffed maelstrom that makes all the punk dolts scoff. His ambition is noble, yet wildly unrealistic. It's like if Jeff Lynne tried to make Out Of The Blue sound more like Fun House, except with jazz drumming and a girl singer from Motown.

Throughout Chinese Democracy, the most compelling question is never, "What was Axl doing here?" but "What did Axl think he was doing here?" The tune "If The World" sounds like it should be the theme to a Roger Moore-era James Bond movie, all the way down to the title. On "Scraped," there's a vocal bridge that sounds strikingly similar to a vocal bridge from the 1990 Extreme song "Get The Funk Out." On the aforementioned "Sorry," Rose suddenly sings an otherwise innocuous line ("But I don't want to do it") in some bizarre, quasi-Transylvanian accent, and I cannot begin to speculate as to why. I mean, one has to assume Axl thought about all of these individual choices a minimum of a thousand times over the past 15 years. Somewhere in Los Angles, there's gotta be 400 hours of DAT tape with nothing on it except multiple versions of the "Sorry" vocal. So why is this the one we finally hear? What finally made him decide, "You know, I've weighed all my options and all their potential consequences, and I'm going with the Mexican vampire accent. This is the vision I will embrace. But only on that one line! The rest of it will just be sung like a non-dead human." Often, I don't even care if his choices work or if they fail. I just want to know what Rose hoped they would do.

On "Madagascar," he samples MLK (possible restitution for "One In A Million"?) and (for the second time in his career) the movie Cool Hand Luke. Considering that the only people who will care about Rose's preoccupation with Cool Hand Luke are those already obsessed with his iconography, the doomed messianic message of that film must deeply (and predictably) resonate with his very being. But how does that contribute to "Madagascar," a meteorological metaphor about all those unnamed people who wanted to stop him from making Chinese Democracy in the insane manner he saw fit? Sometimes listening to this album feels like watching the final five minutes of the Sopranos finale. There's no acceptable answer to these types of hypotheticals.  Still, I find myself impressed by how close Chinese Democracy comes to fulfilling the absurdly impossible expectation it self-generated, and I not-so-secretly wish this had actually been a triple album. I've maintained a decent living by making easy jokes about Axl Rose for the past 10 years, but what's the final truth? The final truth is this: He makes the best songs. They sound the way I want songs to sound. A few of them seem idiotic at the beginning, but I love the way they end. Axl Rose put so much time and effort into proving that he was super-talented that the rest of humanity forgot he always had been. And that will hurt him. This record may tank commercially. Some people will slaughter Chinese Democracy, and for all the reasons you expect. But he did a good thing here.  Grade: A-


Book Excerpt: A Chapter From Chuck Klosterman's 'I Wear The Black Hat'
(By Chuck Klosterman, Entertainment Weekly, 20 June 2013)

In his new book,  I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined) out July 9, journalist and author Chuck Klosterman explores the nature of villainy, from O.J. Simpson’s “second-worst decision” to the anti-heroes created in American pop culture. Check out a full chapter of the book below, in which Klosterman deconstructs the Eagles and his other musical dislikes.  Editor’s note: Klosterman is married to EW senior writer Melissa Maerz.


Here are the opening lyrics to the song “Take It Easy” by the Eagles. It was the first cut on the Eagles’ first album; written by Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne, “Take It Easy” was released upon the world in May of 1972, one month before I was born. The words are familiar to anyone who listens to rock on the radio, a population that dwindles with every passing year . . .

Well, I’m running down the road
Tryin’ to loosen my load

I’ve got seven women on my mind
Four that wanna own me

Two that wanna stone me
One says she’s a friend of mine

I’d love to isolate the first time I heard these words, but I can’t. It predates my memory. I do, however, remember the first time I thought about these words, which didn’t happen until 2003. I was intrigued by the math: The main character (who’s technically the creation of non-Eagle Browne, since he wrote this particular verse) is fleeing from seven women. Four of these females are possessive, so he finds them unappealing; two others hate him (but don’t want to own him), which comes across as neutral; the seventh is (I think) the one he likes, but she can’t reciprocate. It’s clearly the problem of a young man, as no one over thirty-five could sustain interest in seven simultaneous relationships unless they’re biracial and amazing at golf. The four who want to own him are sympathetic; the two who want to stone him are reasonable; the one who says she’s his friend is the O. Henry twist. Now, are we supposed to like this philandering protagonist? Not necessarily, although I suspect we’re supposed to see him as a realist who’s slowly realizing he’s made his own life more complex than necessary. If we allow ourselves to project the unknown motives of the songwriter even further, perhaps we start to think the song is about the discomfort of romantic honesty; maybe we start to think the verse is really about how each of these seven women has reacted to the abrupt awareness of the other six (four increase their affection, two invert their affection, and one slips into detachment). If you conject even further, perhaps you can pretend the song is only about one woman (with seven different sides to her personality), or that this is supposed to be humor, or that we’re not supposed to think about these seven women as actual people, or that we’re not supposed to think about these lyrics at all.

However, one detail is non-negotiable: People fucking hate this song.  Which is not to say it’s unpopular or unpleasant or a failure, because those descriptions don’t apply. It went to number twelve on the Billboard charts, and only an idiot would argue that “Take It Easy” is poorly written or badly executed. When it originally hit the radio, some guy from Rolling Stone claimed it was the best-sounding song of 1972. If we use all of America as an aesthetic gauge (and particularly its Walmarts, gas stations, and retail yarn proprietors), this song is a classic. But pop music — like all subcultures — has an outside culture and an inside culture. Pop music’s exterior culture is why the Eagles are the best-selling rock band in U.S. history; its interior culture reviles the Eagles so much that almost nothing written about them can ignore that reality. Barney Hoskins’s 2005 book about the Laurel Canyon scene that spawned the band takes its title from the group’s biggest hit (“Hotel California”) but still can’t ignore how they were perceived by their peers: “For Gram Parsons, the success of the radio-friendly Eagles was galling.” To the Limit, a sympathetic (almost sycophantic) 1998 biography of the group, tries to spin their bad reviews into understated masculinity: “We’d been abused by the press, so we developed a ‘fuck you’ attitude toward them,” says drummer/vocalist Don Henley. These are established positions, understood by everyone who cares. It’s not like I’m exposing some dark secret or pushing a false controversy: The musical reputation of the Eagles is great and the social reputation of the Eagles is terrible. They are the most unpopular super-popular entity ever created by California, not counting Ronald Reagan.

I know this because everybody knows this, but also because — once — I hated the Eagles, too. After spending the first twenty-five years of my life believing they were merely boring, I suddenly decided they were the worst band that had ever existed (or could ever exist). I’d unconsciously internalized all the complaints that supposedly made them despicable: They were rich hippies. They were virtuosos in an idiom that did not require virtuosity. They were self-absorbed Hollywood liberals. They were not-so-secretly shallow. They were uncaring womanizers and the worst kind of cokeheads. They wanted to be seen as cowboys, but not the ones who actually rode horses. They never rocked, even after adding Joe Walsh for that express purpose (the first forty-five seconds of “Life in the Fast Lane” are a push). They lectured college kids about their environmental footprint while flying around in private jets. They literally called themselves “The Eagles.” It was easy to hate a band who kept telling me to take it easy when I was quite obviously trying to do so already.

And then, one day in 2003, I stopped hating them.  This is not because of anything they did or anything I did. It wasn’t due to anything except clarity. I was working at a magazine, and Warner Bros. mailed me a promotional copy of The Very Best of the Eagles. I slid the CD into the disk drive of my computer and waited for the music to start. Once again, the first track was “Take It Easy.” It sounded okay, but — then again — it had always sounded okay. I’d accidentally heard this song hundreds of times in my life, so there wasn’t going to be any big surprise. It was the same song it had always been, remastered but unchanged. The only thing that was different was how I felt about the band itself: Suddenly, I felt nothing. I did not hate them. I didn’t love them, but I certainly didn’t view their subsistence as problematic or false or socially sinister. They were just an old rock band who made music that was significant and relaxing and inevitable, and who seemed to be hated (particularly by people like myself) for reasons that were both valid and ridiculous. So I listened to “Take It Easy” and I thought about its lyrical content, and I came to a mostly positive — but highly uncomfortable — realization about who I was and how I thought about art.

I no longer possessed the capacity to hate rock bands.  I started caring about pop music as a fifth grader, but it didn’t make me lose my grip on reality until the summer before seventh grade. That was 1984. For the next twenty years, I didn’t care about anything else with as much unbridled intensity, except for women and amateur athletics and booze and (of course) all the self-made problems that accompany those specific pursuits. Because I loved music so much, I hated it even more — but my reasons for disliking music were never as valid as my reasons for enjoying it. What follows is a chronology of every artist I most despised from age twelve to age thirty-one, followed by a brief analysis of what I did not like about them at the time . . .

1984 (Bruce Springsteen): There’s never been an artist I didn’t like as much as I didn’t like Bruce Springsteen as a twelve-year-old. I hated all his songs, including the ones I’d never heard of. I hated music about roads and I hated his generic-yet-kinetic clothing and I hated whoever it was I thought he represented, which I imagined to be humorless people who wanted to vote for Gary Hart. I just thought he was so fake, which is the most backward possible reason for hating Bruce Springsteen. But — for me, at the time, having no idea who Holden Caulfield even was — my definition of fakeness was fanatically nuanced. I made extremely subtle distinctions. My favorite band was Mötley Crüe, whom I also viewed as fake — but the difference was that Mötley Crüe did not pretend they were real (or at least not in a convincing enough manner). Vince Neil never led me to believe that any element about who he pretended to be was supposed to serve any purpose beyond “the act of being the singer in Mötley Crüe.” Yet old people who read Newsweek believed Bruce was somehow different from everyone else making music, and his willingness to perpetuate that fallacy made me view his integrity as profoundly compromised. It seemed like the difference between acting in a play and lying in real life. [Obviously, time has passed and my feelings have changed. I now view Springsteen as an upright citizen who’s recorded more good songs than the vast majority of people who have ever tried to do so. I am his fan, sort of. But not completely. Any time I meet someone who thinks Springsteen is overrated or artificial, I find myself thinking, “This person is extra real.” I immediately respect that person more. And yet I do sincerely believe Springsteen is (on balance) a great guy. I don’t hate him at all. So why am I still retroactively trolling him? It’s just something I can’t get over.]

1985 (Bruce Springsteen): This was an emotional hangover from 1984. I was a grammar school red giant collapsing into a middle school white dwarf; my anti-Boss feelings grew dense and intense (super hot and extra useless). Why did he use the word speedball instead of fastball when reminiscing about high school sports? Was he trying to sound dumb on purpose? Was ESPN unavailable in New Jersey? An episode of Growing Pains was built around on Mike Seaver (Kirk Cameron) wanting to see Springsteen in concert — and so did his fictional father (Alan Thicke). I suppose Springsteen was the first major artist for which this commonality was plausible: If someone had youngish parents, it was theoretically possible for a fifteen-year-old kid to love the same singer as his father. I found this kinship alien and undesirable, although now it probably happens all the time (in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods, it’s actually an ordinance). That said, I don’t remember Bruce being popular with any of the kids at my school, even casually. The teachers seemed to like him more than the students. He used to be so much older then; he’s younger than that now. Springsteen used to be the same age as Steve Winwood, but now he’s maybe six years older than Julian Casablancas.

1986 (Van Halen): This temporary distaste for VH was solely a product of my inflexible (almost fascist) support of David Lee Roth’s solo career and my dislike of anyone who thought 5150 was better than 1984 (an opinion I deemed “unserious”). Hating Van Halen required an astronomical degree of nerfherdian gymnastics, particularly since Roth essentially destroyed a band I loved and then tried to act like he’d been unjustly fired. But I’ve always been like this; when Mötley Crüe split up in 1991, I sided with Vince. Within any group conflict, my loyalties inevitably rest with whichever person is most obviously wrong. I feel like I started appreciating 5150 around the same time Randy Moss started playing for the Minnesota Vikings, but I don’t think those two things have any relationship outside of my personal memory and the content of this specific sentence.

1987 (Dire Straits): My reasoning here is not particularly reasonable. Basically, I (and everyone I trusted, which was maybe five other people in the entire world) misinterpreted the lyrics to the song “Money for Nothing,” which had actually been on the radio for two years before I got around to hating it. We all thought that when Mark Knopfler sang, “That little faggot with the earring and the makeup / Yeah, buddy, that’s his own hair,” he was criticizing glam bands like Cinderella and Faster Pussycat. [I now realize those lyrics were actually mimicking some random bozo who worked inside a kitchen appliance store and liked to spew opinions about MTV during his cigarette break. But these kinds of things were impossible to know in 1987.] I decided Mark Knopfler was a soft, anti-metal hypocrite, which makes only slightly less sense than believing Springsteen was a fraudulent poseur. Weirdly, I was not remotely troubled by the song’s language; being a high school sophomore, it had not yet occurred to me that the word faggot could be viewed as offensive to anyone who wasn’t literally gay. I stopped hating Dire Straits around the same time I started defending H. Ross Perot, but neither entity truly migrated into my mental universe. The fact that I insist on always referring to Mark Knopfler as “Mark Knopfler” is probably proof: our relationship remains formal. I dig “Sultans of Swing,” but if someone said, “Hey Chuck — Warner Brothers has just released a DVD with some amazing footage from the Brothers in Arms tour,” I would probably avoid watching it by pretending I’d already seen it.

1988 (R.E.M.): I didn’t relate to the kind of person who related to R.E.M. and I didn’t like textured, nonheavy songs that made me feel like some dour weirdo was telling me I was living my life wrong. Over the next twenty years, R.E.M. would become one of my favorite bands of all time, which means a) the sixteen-year-old version of me would have hated the thirty-six-year-old version of me, and b) I probably was living my life wrong.

1989 (Fine Young Cannibals): Though I could not name one member of the group or one fact about their history, I didn’t like them as people (and was annoyed that “She Drives Me Crazy” was so obviously not terrible). Their fan base had progressive haircuts and trendy clothes, qualities I considered unpatriotic. Everything turned around when I found out they selected their band name by randomly opening Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. Now I think they’re a bunch of geniuses.

1990 (R.E.M.): The use of “Stand” in the opening credits of Get a Life galvanized my fear that I was losing an undeclared war against reality. How could Chris Elliott support this? I decided to stop rooting for the Georgia Bulldogs.

1991 (The Red Hot Chili Peppers): They seemed like all the idiots at my college who were constantly starting terrible bands and failing organic chemistry, except these idiots were famous and never wore shirts.

1992 (The Red Hot Chili Peppers): In the video for the proto-pussy smack ballad “Under the Bridge,” Anthony Kiedis runs along the Los Angeles River in slow motion. His arms cross his body; he had terrible running form. I also recall adamantly disagreeing with the assertion that Flea’s bass playing was (in any way) comparable to that of Les Claypool from Primus. My 1992 concerns were oblique. I purchased a kerosene lamp in order to impress strangers who wandered into my dorm room in order to tell me I was playing Primus too loud. It was the style of the time.

1993 (Mr. Bungle): I knew an interesting person who believed this self-indulgent side project was way more interesting than it actually was, thereby serving as my real-world introduction to The Problem of Overrated Ideas. The group’s singer was improvisational and gross, musically and otherwise. He once told a story on MTV News about how — for his own amusement — he used to eat huge portions of instant mashed potatoes, chased with an entire bottle of schnapps. He would then stroll into a local laundromat, open washers and dryers at random, and vomit onto strangers’ clothes. I could not identify with this behavior, although I don’t suppose that was his intention. Couldn’t he have just taken the L7 route and chucked bloody tampons at teenagers? At least that sustained the cycle of life. I found greater comfort with the singer’s other band, a more “conventionally alternative” collective with a spattering of mainstream popularity and some unanticipated insights into smoking angel dust and competitive pumpkin farming.

1994 (Pink Floyd): I was driving through suburban Minneapolis at dusk when something off The Wall came on the radio, prompting me to conclude that I was being intellectually crucified by an army of forty-year-old library patrons who couldn’t accept that cannabis was still illegal. I could never feel this way now, except in unconditional reverse. But I was twenty-two, an age where the commercial past always seems to be wrecking the limitless future; I was open- and close-minded at the same time. The Moody Blues were another band I hated that summer — they seemed like dead people I was supposed to learn about on PBS. Oh well. We all eventually become whatever we pretend to hate.

1995 (Ted Nugent): This one is tricky. I’m not sure if I decided to hate Ted Nugent because I was really into Tori Amos (which I was) or if I was just trying to sleep with a woman who worked at a candle shop and was really, really into Tori Amos (mixed results on this strategy). Maybe I just thought Ted was childish and uncool, qualities I intermittently worried about when not listening to KISS records. This aforementioned candle clerk came over to my apartment on Halloween and we played Double Live Gonzo, just to make condescending comments about its vagina-obsessed lyrics and retrograde aesthetic (although I still wonder why she wasn’t more skeptical of the fact that I owned four albums by an artist I supposedly hated). Further complicating matters was my parallel obsession with the Replacements’ Let It Be, which suggested (at least on “Gary’s Got a Boner”) that Bob Stinson thought the Nuge was a sonic mastermind who should have been elected governor of Michigan.

1996 (Blur): The Oasis vs. Blur feud had actually transpired the year before, but I was living in pre-Internet North Dakota and received my culture news roughly nine months after the fact (which was preferable, though I did not know this at the time). The notion of Blur pretending it had a “rivalry” with Oasis still strikes me as comically obscene; it would be no different than RC Cola trying to start a war with Coke. But my larger issue was a perceived differential in class: Every time I met someone who thought Blur was better than Oasis, it inevitably meant they thought like a rich person (so either they were rich, or they were raised with upper-middle-class sensibilities in a lower-class world). Blur was Britpop for American kids who wore neckties on campus and turtlenecks to keg parties; it was Britpop for American kids who could actually afford to spend a semester in Britain. I’ll concede that Blur has a handful of better than decent songs — I’d estimate around nine, plus the semi-ironic one that always gets blasted at hockey games — but it’s hard to imagine a snootier collective. Equally troubling was Damon Albarn’s well-publicized sex life with the striking lead singer from Elastica, an accomplishment that made me suspect he was taunting the proletariat with his semen.

1997 (Phish): ’Twas the apex of my deeply unoriginal I-hate-hippies phase, which some people do not grow out of. Of course, I was also into Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix (and Ben Harper!) at the time, so what the fuck did I know about hippies? Did I not realize hippies could be black?

1998 (The Eagles): Here was a turning point. Many things were happening simultaneously. One was that I had started to erroneously believe subjective criticism was more important than objective reporting; another was that I saw The Big Lebowski and decided the main character should become the model for all human thought. Electronica was on MTV, so music videos were mostly just Asian teenagers playing Ping-Pong and time-elapse photography of melting plastic cubes. Seinfeld was going off the air, so even grandmas were temporary postmodernists. Aspirant Urban Outfitter employees were excited about technology and really into Neutral Milk Hotel. It was the logical time to believe Glenn Frey was Pol Pot.

1999 (The Eagles): The Big Lebowski became available on VHS.

2000 (U2): I borrowed the documentary Rattle and Hum from the Akron Public Library, which would have been fine if I hadn’t subsequently watched it. I can only assume this movie makes U2 hate U2: The band is so consumed with their sincere adoration of southern black culture that they somehow seem marginally racist.

2001 (Coldplay): I wrote a book in 2001 where I claim, “Coldplay is the shittiest fucking band I’ve ever heard in my entire fucking life.” This is possibly the most memorable thing I’ve ever written, and arguably the stupidest. My intention (at the time) was to illustrate how people use popular culture to explain their own lives to themselves, and that I was hating Coldplay in order to avoid hating myself. But (of course) almost no one who purchased this book made that inference, which (of course) is nobody’s fault but mine. I still meet teenagers who attempt to ingratiate themselves by telling me how much they hate Coldplay. And while I did hate the tenor of their music (and still can’t bear listening to it, even when I’m shopping for trousers), I regret being so profane. It was cheap. It feels like I threw a rock at Gwyneth Paltrow’s gazebo.

2002 (Blur): I’d just moved to New York and discovered that people were still arguing about this, except Oasis was now a 7½-point underdog. Even poor people in New York think like rich people.

2003 (Yeah Yeah Yeahs): Nobody seemed willing to admit that this band (and particularly the guitarist) were postpunk joker zombies who sang power ballads about cartography. I don’t enjoy music that sounds broken on purpose; that’s supposed to happen by accident. In later years, I would grow to appreciate the singer’s solo attempt at “Immigrant Song” during the opening credits of that fourteen-hour movie about the Swedish tattoo artist who murders somebody with a Xerox machine, but the YYYs will always be fake art. They put way too much effort into acting like they were pretending to work hard at casual brilliance. Now that I think about it, they are the opposite of the Eagles.

There are fifteen artists on this list. Seven are already in the (admittedly meaningless) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and two others will get there eventually. Twelve of them have recorded at least one song I love. They’ve all been hugely or marginally successful, except for maybe Mr. Bungle. But I hated them all, at least provisionally. And it wasn’t just that I didn’t like hearing the music or seeing their faces on MTV — it had something to do with viewing them as representations of what I wanted to be against. I didn’t see the artists I loved as heroic, but I saw the artists I hated as villainous. And that is a feeling I can no longer feel. Somewhere in 2003, my ability to hate the Eagles (or Coldplay, or Dave Matthews, or Mumford and Sons, or whoever) just evaporated. I could no longer construct antipathy for random musicians, even if they deserved it. My personality had calcified and emancipated itself from taste. I still cared about music, but not enough to feel emotionally distraught over its nonmusical expansion into celebrity and society. And this was a real problem. Being emotionally fragile is an important part of being a successful critic; it’s an integral element to being engaged with mainstream art, assuming you aspire to write about it in public. If you hate everything, you’re a banal asshole . . . but if you don’t hate anything, you’re boring. You’re useless. And you end up writing about why you can no longer generate fake feelings that other people digest as real.

There needs to be more awareness about the cultural impact of reverse engineering, particularly as it applies to fandom and revulsion. It’s the most important part of describing the day-to-day import of art, which is ultimately what criticism is supposed to do. But there are no critics who can admit to their own reverse engineering without seeming underinformed. It’s like arguing that the greatest Russian novel ever written happens to be the only one you ever finished.

Still, there are examples of this everywhere.  Take someone like Taylor Swift, a one-woman “Hotel California”: When Swift’s second album came out (2008’s Fearless), she was a regionally famous Nashville artist that most casual pop fans had never thought much about. But Fearless crossed over, and she was suddenly being noticed by people who traditionally ignored mainstream country. Because her songs were excellent (and because any genre slightly different from rock feels initially fresh to rockist ears), everyone decided that Fearless was great — and not only great, but culturally important. Mere appreciation of the music was not enough. This necessitated the unconscious construction of a reality where Swift herself could be taken seriously. So how could this be accomplished? The first step was to always mention her age as proof of unprecedented maturity: She was sixteen when she released her first album and eighteen for Fearless, but she seemed to handle her notoriety with unusual deftness and professionalism (Kanye West stormed onstage while she was accepting a trophy at the MTV Music Awards, but Swift’s response was measured and polite). She was an adult woman inside a teenage girl, and that validated the highbrow appreciation of a song like “You Belong with Me.” (Her fictional depictions of teen anguish were consumed as suburban realness.)

The quality of her songs caused people to value her as a concept. But this worked too well. Swift became so abstractly imperative that she turned into a celebrity in the US Weekly sense: She became famous to people who’d never heard her music. All the qualities her previous audience had once used to justify her success as a pop star felt annoying to those who were caring about her for the first time. To the casual observer, she seemed unconvincingly shocked by her own success and obsessed with her market share. Instead of coming across as mature, it scanned as calculating. And this preexisting assumption is what new audiences injected into her third album, 2010’s Speak Now. The record was massive, but Swift got hammered for her self-absorption and a propensity for nostalgic oversharing (two qualities singer-songwriters are supposed to possess — but not, apparently, the young female ones). When she wrote about a failed relationship with John Mayer (“Dear John”), it seemed fake and exploitive, even though the love affair had actually happened. When she made a video for a song about the cruelty of critics (“Mean”), she literally tied herself to the railroad tracks and tried to convince capricious fans that she still self-identified as a marginalized victim. But that only worked on people who had never questioned her pose to begin with.

Now, the easy explanation for this shift in perception is “backlash.” But that’s only how it looks from the outside. What really happened is this: People who liked Taylor Swift’s music reverse-engineered a scenario in which they could appreciate her for nonmusical reasons; two years later, different people who loathed that construction had to find a way to preexplain why they weren’t going to enjoy her material (so they infused their prefab distaste of her persona back into her work). When Swift cowrote “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” with Swedish hit machine Max Martin, critics could not deny that it was catchy and practical, so now they had to pretend it was an empowering takedown of Donnie Darko. [The reason behind everything always has to be something else entirely.]

How this principle applies to the Eagles is straightforward: They seemed like counterculture figures who were against the values of the counterculture (and it’s always the counterculture who gets to decide the long-term likability of any rock artist). They aspired to (and achieved) commercial hugeness; nothing about their magnitude was accidental. Soft-spoken replacement bassist Timothy B. Schmit was the only Eagle born in the state of California, yet they effortlessly represented what people do not like about Malibu. They were the antithesis of The Rockford Files. While many of their arena-rock peers were misogynist for how they physically interacted with groupies, the Eagles directed their distaste toward the secret interior motives all hot women allegedly possessed (“Witchy Woman” being the easiest example, “Lyin’ Eyes” being the most direct). Basically, they just seemed mean-spirited and wealthy. They were annoying to the type of person who is susceptible to annoyance. Which is how many people (including myself) choose to hear their songs. What do you make of a band that writes a disco track about how disco is insidious? I still don’t know. I know what words I’m supposed to throw around — “cynical,” “self-reflexive,” “clinical” — but I wonder if I’d use those words if I didn’t know Don Henley was the man who’d written the song. I fear I’m just describing him with those words, even though I do hear those qualities when I listen to “The Disco Strangler.”

But here’s what changed, inside my skull: Those qualities no longer make me hate Henley or his band. Instead, they make me appreciate the song itself with a complexity I cannot pretend to understand. They make me realize that I cannot be trusted about anything, and that I can’t even trust myself.

I appreciate “The Disco Strangler” because I now realize (and cannot unrealize) that this entire process is a closed circuit, happening inside my false consciousness. The only outside element is the sound wave containing the sonic signature — everything about its latent meaning and its larger merit is being imagined and manipulated by my brain’s unwillingness to hold an unexplained opinion. If I like a song (or if I dislike a song), I have to explain — to myself — why that feeling exists. If I’m writing about the song in a public forum, I have to explain it to other people. But my explanation is never accurate unless I flatly declare, “I like this and I don’t know why” or “I dislike this for reasons that can’t be quantified.” Every other response is the process of taking an abstract feeling and figuring out how I can fit it into a lexicon that matches whatever I already want to believe. My mind is not my own. And once that realization calcifies internally, there is no going back. Once you realize you can’t control how you feel, it’s impossible to believe any of your own opinions. As a result, I can’t hate the Eagles. It feels impossible. It feels stupid. The Eagles are real, but they don’t exist; they only exist as a way to think about “the Eagles.”  So often does it happen that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know there is no key.