Well I’m a mite put out that Arular didn’t win P&J cos I had a whole rant-riff all mentally prepared (will be looked back on in years-to-come as Arrested Development/3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . level debacle of soft-leftist/middlebrow consensus; “neither a stroke of genius nor a stroke of scenius”, etc etc) but, well, all that’s kinda beside the point, given that the record's placing means it much more on the level of a Los Lobos How Will the Wolf Survive? or Graham Parker’s third lp or King of America i.e. something that don't mean diddly outside the crit-bubbleworld and even that standing was clearly waning well before last year was out, the defenders getting distinctly less strident and fervent...
Scanning P&J, though, it does seem really quite remarkable the extent to which rockism is as entrenched as ever, in this, the year (meaning 2005) in which its foes had allegedly discredited it and driven it into righteous retreat. Not talking about the merits of the artists in question or even really their mindset/modus operandi, so much as the framework of values and assumptions that conditions how and to whom esteem is bestowed; and which, despite Pop-ism's efforts to unlock our mental chains, exerts as much of a hegemonic strangehold on the profession as ever. Like, Kanye West: clearly now being maneuvered into the place of a rock-approved Black Auteur/Statesman previously occupied by such as Stevie Wonder or Prince (especially with the added “real” musicality supplied by that Fiona Apple guy) plus there is so palpably a gesture-of-solidarity/approval/pat-on-the-back thing going on vis-a-viz the KW Speaks Truth To Power Moment (wittily foregrounded in Greil Marcus’ “singles” ballot
where #1 is Kanye West Featuring Mike Meyers “George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People” [NBC Chartbusters]). Then Arular: seriously, if you think the “plastic fun” angle of appreciation is anything but a minority strand in the support, you’re kidding yourself, it’s pure rockist-middlebrow--“at last a voice with something to say”, 3rd world cred/vicarious solidarity-with-the-subaltern etc. And then the rest: Sufjan Stevens with his dastardly triple-whammy combo of conceptualism, proggoid musicality, and singer-songwriterism; Hold Steady as nu-Replacements; Fiona Apple as nu-Joni/nu-Sinead/nu-slightly-deranged-female-auteur (talking of which Kate Bush appears surprisingly high with an album that is nothing but an incitement to rockism, it simply cannot be appreciated in any other fashion... and nowt wrong with that) … Sleater-Kinney… and so it goes... And as I say, not talking here about the merits or demerits of these works (few of which I’ve actually heard), just purely about the value scheme that enfolds them. It's rockist rockist rockist to the core: auteurism, authenticity, substance, durability; long-form Works that take effort and perseverance and time to unlock their depth and detail; artists-who-keep-getting-better-we-firmly-believe-that-and-we-stick-to-them-loyally-unlike-those-fickle-pop-fans; singer-songwriter torn-from-heart gut-grit; Concepts and confession and “character studies”; Opuses and Oeuvres. None of which I'm rejecting totally, they can be engines of intensity, but it is a little weird how we're almost back in the early Seventies, when (apart from the then heterical minority of Bangsian types) the prevailing model of meaningfulness and artistic validity was people like Randy Newman, Jackson Brown, Lowell George, Warren Zevon, The Band.... sophistication, sensitivity, song-as-short-story.. etc etc etc (although in truth, perhaps that model never really went away, but was refurbished and, augmented with a little New Wave spite, endured into the Eighties and beyond with such “new-old” figures as Costello, surviving very successfully the irruptions of punk, of rap, of techno, et al). Looking at the grand decades-spanning scheme of American critical consensus, there’s a sense in which even art-rock is marginalized (the relatively low presence and this year and every year of instrumental or mostly-intrumental abstraction--prog, fusion, ambient, industrial and the more abstract forms of postpunk, post-rock, experimental electronics; the abiding suspicion of artifice in re. glam or New Pop). See, rather than art-rock, what the critically esteemed stuff really is, most of it, it's lit-rock: music as dramatic backdrop to words. Stuff that is purely, sheerly sonic is still felt to be de trop, suspect because self-indulgent, decadent, music for music's sake, mere ear candy with no "improving" aspect. And stuff where there are words but they're "inane" or incidental is completely marginalized (look at the almost-utter non-presence of functional dance music, the near-absence of non-auteurist, non-socially redeeming hip hop).
Why, it’s almost enough to make one cry out: come back Popists, your work is not done! Truce! Let’s join hands and join forces! (Nu-rockism, see, involves including and assimilating all the stuff ngelected and undervalued by old-rockism, wherever the rejected stuff serves as an intensifier. Not a lot of people get that though). In terms of acts of resistance, this ballot by Tom Ewing, which reverses the old-fogey-crit syndrome of not bothering to vote for singles (too trivial) but just listing albums, seems a more effective and truer Popist intervention (even if it wasn’t a sly gesture of protest at all and he simply didn’t like or remember any albums from ‘05) than this rant by Joshua Clover about the racism structurally encoded in P&J (as if non-white people never had any truck with ideas of art or expression or long-form work or looking to posterity!), which, while right about the singer-songwriter/story-teller/statement-maker model, does itself relapse almost immediately into auteurism of the most Andrew Sarris-like sort, i.e. tracking of every last release by one Jazze Pha, just like all the other reborn beat-raptured nerds in recent years who've have hunted down every last production by Timbaland or Lenky or whoever. Not that there's anything wrong with that but, surely, that is rockism if anything is, … following the Auteur Signature through works major and minor…..
My #1 album: Worn Copy, in like a bullet at #205!