Today’s Poptimist column – up now at Pitchfork – is the last one: a decision entirely taken by me, quite a while ago. Being able to give up a paying gig is an outrageous privilege, but so was the whole column – I filed copy on whatever took my fancy and I can’t think of a single time when I was editorially interfered with (1 of the 45 columns – numerological significance ahoy – came about from a Scott Plagenhoef suggestion, and a very good suggestion it was too.) I was handed the largest audience of music fans I will ever write for on a platter and I hope I occasionally served up something interesting in return.
So to celebrate five years of indulgence here is one last monstrous one: links and brief annotations for all 45 columns, spread over three posts.
1. Sing This All Together: The column was initially going to be called Sentimentalist, and I think I partly wanted to write about stuff which was too naff or emo or corny for usual Pitchfork coverage. I started off with Music Hall, having read one book about it (this would become a theme), and the Beatles, and the idea that what was lost when music became what we know of now as pop was a sense of participatory risk, loss of control of the message and the audience. Obviously I was thinking about the Internet as a return of these things, but for whatever reason I didn’t say so.
2. Spoiler Spice: A recurring trope in Poptimist was of the “uselessness of criticism” – said uselessness both an idea hanging in the virtual aether (criticism having been rendered ‘pointless’ by people’s ability to listen at once to songs) and something whose possibilities could be explored. This is a fancy way of saying that most of the second column – about whether pop could have “spoilers” and how critics dealt with that – is meta-criticism. It’s also the first one where I talk about the web a lot, and where it starts to become obvious that “Poptimist” doesn’t mean “into pop” but more “the changes in the ways we listen to pop are worth celebrating as well as lamenting”. Which is unfortunately less catchy.
3. Before The Giant Scorpions: “Can I write something mostly about comics?” I asked. “Sure”, Scott replied. I decided to allow myself one column a year which wouldn’t really be about music, probably thinking of the way Doctor Who has a “Doctor-lite” episode every year. Doctor Who was one of the things I never did a Poptimist column on. Another was The Moomins. But I was – amazingly – permitted to write a huge piece in an American music website about the British comic 2000AD and its aesthetics in the late 70s. This one is where I presented the semi-formed concept of “thrill-power” (basically a kind of condensate of awesomeness created by exploiting talent to the point where it can’t second-guess itself: from a labour relations point of view, this is bad news). From memory, the material about pop at the end is a bit of a fig-leaf.
4. What Do I Look For In Music Writing?: Slightly embarassing to realise I was repeating myself already – the paraphrase of Ian MacDonald here shows up in the first column too. This is more death-of-the-critic stuff, tackled head-on by offering a guide to what music writing does when it’s doing things well. As a defense of music criticism it’s pretty good: it was also a tacit admission I was never going to write descriptions of actual music as amazing as the ones I read. (The LJ post mentioned at the end – oh, the days of LJ – was by Hazel Robinson, who now writes for FT).
5. The History Book On The Shelf: The first of two Poptimist columns to be anthologised in a Da Capo Best Music Writing book, this one with a baffled mention in the forward where Nelson George made it clear he’d picked me for being an internet crazy who took ABBA seriously. I do take ABBA seriously, of course. This piece is about taking ABBA seriously. The problem with writing anything about ABBA is that you’re (well, I’m) under the shadow of Taylor Parkes’ magnificent essay on The Visitors (referenced in this piece) – the angle I wanted to come from here is the solid, rueful grown-up-ness of ABBA. It should be so blazingly obvious this essay is also about my feelings around being a “grown-up” that it goes without saying. Also: bonus Radiohead diss.
6. Are The Smiths Funny?: Having taken the radical step of actually doing some music criticism in the column I acquired a taste for it – this one is trying to tease out the complexities of fandom and what fans value in a band by thinking about The Smiths, and then suggesting that an awful lot of music conversation might be an attempt to bypass or post-rationalise our emotional connections to it. NEUROSCIENCE agrees with me on this, or so I’m told.
7. Bury The Past, Empty The Shelf: This was the first piece I got an angry blog post about, though I got a lot of positive reaction to it as well. Another recurring concept here: the non-hardwired, socially determined nature of taste, always ready to be played with, rebooted, or turned into a game. This was probably the first column I wrote with a greater awareness of who my readers actually were, which explains the very direct “addressing” of them, and also the attempt to gently troll them, asking them politely to take their record collection outside and have it shot.
8. Ape And Essence: A long feature on an advert which may well only have been shown in Britain – just call me “Mr Pageviews”. This is about how adverts which use music work as music criticism – I was desperate to get away from the standard piece about “music in ads” and selling out etc. I also used this as a test run for seeing if I could write about marketing and advertising and still enjoy it. (I could) (enjoy the writing, that is).
9. English Settlement: Probably the most dated of any Poptimist column, this is a postcard from the grim reign of Haircut Indie. It got approvingly quoted by Warren Ellis, probably because it confirmed his prejudices. The last paragraph seemed to confirm a lot of people’s prejudices to be honest, which is a shame because as a prediction it was way off base: the link between tasteful guitar rock and the British charts was rapidly broken and pop-grime soon ruled over all it surveyed. This is one of my worst columns – emboldened by having written quite well about one advert I dropped huge wodges of marketing theory on the readers and came across, in my opinion, as a bit smarmy.
10. Britney In The Black Lodge: or; The Blackout One. Maybe my most popular column. I’ve been asked a few times whether this was a review of Blackout which Pitchfork refused to run, and have seen this theory stated as fact on a message board. It is nonsense: I would never have pitched a review of the record because I assumed the site wouldn’t want one (I had no basis for assuming this, by the way). Blackout has become THE cult 00s pop record without any help from a “Best New Music”, anyway. It is possibly my favourite album of the last ten years, so I don’t actually want to re-read this piece and find I didn’t do it justice.
11. What You Hear Is Not A Test: I would like to thank Mark S now for the many times I’ve jumped on an idea of his and flogged it into the ground: hopefully always credited. Also in this discussion of the bullshit concept “the test of time”, an annoying trick I got fond of for a while of writing a couple of intentionally wrong paragraphs and then doubling back on them. I have no idea why I thought this was clever, since most people aren’t actually reading this stuff closely. And while we’re cataloguing mis-steps, another exciting Poptimist feature might debut in this column: the last sentence soundbite where I can’t actually work out what I mean. Those tics aside, it’s not bad.
12. The Rise And Fall Of The Festive Fifty: The second Da Capo anthologised piece, and one of my favourites too. There is a lot of nonsense written about John Peel – and carried out in his name – which bears very little relation to the experience of listening to his shows. This is a piece about polls, the relationship between audiences and DJs or critics (them again!), and ultimately failure – the failure of a tastemaker to carry an audience in a new direction more than once, which has been spun posthumously into success because of that once. (A couple of years later, Pitchforkreviewsreviews noted accurately that this essay was also about Pitchfork itself.)
13. How White My Shirts Could Be: I remembered this as being garbled – it’s not, though it’s another tilt at the windmill of fusing my “day job” and my music criticism and ends up clunky. The conclusions are a mix of stuff I’m proud to have said and stuff that now feels a bit naive.
14. Five Lost Worlds: Poptimist’s most complete failure! The idea here was to try and write a piece of criticism inspired by – pseud’s corner ahoy – Georges Perec’s A Void, which was composed without using the letter e. Punk would be my letter e, and I would write a column about punk, without mentioning it, by writing about five things that were reaching towards punk in the years leading up to it, but not pointing out the connection (the point being, erm… oh yeah! the point being to emphasise the lost-ness of the pre-punk world, the way we only make sense of it now with reference to punk, in the same way that it’s impossible to have any kind of fiction set in 1912-1913 without huge great THERE IS A WAR COMING future-ghosts hanging over it). Anyway nobody whatsoever ‘got’ this, because I wasn’t good enough to pull it off, and the piece went entirely unnoticed.
15. What’s Your Favourite Album?: Chastened by my brush with ambition I made sure this was a more accessible piece, a memoir and self-analysis of what having “favourite albums” meant and how I’d used the idea to define myself growing up. I remember it as being quick and sweet to write, and one of the times I felt like I’d felt when writing essays for Freaky Trigger years before.
In Part 2: Failed memes! Futurism! Folly!