Dec 11

What Was I Thinking? (Part 2)

FT2 comments • 642 views

Continuing the narcissistic behind-the-scenes chronicle of a monthly column on a popular music website! It’s Poptimist 16-30!

16. Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun: Another one all about comics, with what seemed like even more tangential connections to pop. This looked at the then-current Final Crisis and Secret Invasion series, and at how a ubiquitous mass artform had become a weird inward-looking sect. Perhaps not so tangential, then. Beneath the ephemera are some good ideas, I think – speculation and annotation as modes of distributed web-era criticism, for instance. Also features a rare cameo from Isabel, my wife, who a poster on a comics forum promptly accused me of inventing.

17. No Weak Men In The Books At Home: The column as pitch – a proposal for a history of pop music which would leave out the actual music. In a sense every Poptimist column is me trying not to write about actual music, as I got less and less convinced that what I (or anyone else) thought about it was remotely important. I would still love to read this book.

18. 45 Things I Love About Pop: First attempt at the column as a megamix of unwritten other columns, it failed to inspire any imitations. It also failed in its secret primary purpose, of being a really easy column to write in between gaps in an increasingly brutal work schedule: this one took AGES though was a lot of fun. Massive apologies to the Pitchfork subs, too, for making them track down so many obscure records. But my goodness there are some brilliant tracks here. And a Keane record.

19. Fated To Pretend: In the month between that column and this one I started a new job and had what probably amounts to a breakdown. This piece was ground out over train journeys and sleepless nights and my memories of writing it are basically ghastly. I don’t think the final result is exactly lucid either – it’s one of the driest, most abstract Poptimist pieces, about networks and how “influencers” are really triangulation points.

20. Even An Android Can Cry: A tour of performers pretending to be robots, from Kraftwerk to Kanye – probably the most straightforward Poptimist column ever! This felt like a knock-off when I was writing it, and now reads (I think) really well.

21. Don’t Think You Knew You Were In This Song: A game of two halves – a light, music-centric tour round some of my favourite answer records, and then a big slugging chunk of borrowed THEORY exploring the idea that all records are answer records, and using fanfic to explore the idea of musicians transforming each others work. The two bits mix rather uneasily, unfortunately. The more I started bringing my outside work into Poptimist, the more this became a risk.

22. Around The World In 84 Tweets: This stood in as 2009’s “column not actually about music”, an attempt to talk about and explain Twitter in – formalism alert! – a series of Tweets. I was going to do 140 tweets (140 x 140) but realised there was no way I had that much to say. The music bit is OUTRAGEOUSLY shoehorned in this time. Otherwise I think this is a good column, the first time I’d successfully managed to write about the web I reckon.

23. Chartopia: Quickly followed by the second time! This is the halfway mark of Poptimist – it offers one definition of “poptimism”, then goes on to explore another, talking about pop as a thing to have arguments in, and how to chase the energy of serendipity around the web. A lot of the columns from this point on are long, dense, multi-partite: I don’t think many of them work as well as this, which I’m still very proud of even if some of its closing examples are a little weak.

24. We’ll Take A Bit Of This And That: Written in an American hotel room on a business trip, this was about “baggy”, but really it was about taste imprinting – the idea that the music you encounter at an impressionable age becomes a favourite even if it ‘turns out’ later on to be crappy and unremarkable. Baggy was my “break glass in case of emergency” topic – the thing I knew I could write a column on in my sleep (which was, thanks to jetlag, almost literally the case) if I was in danger of completely botching a deadline. Like the Kanye one, I was suspicious of the ease of writing but I shouldn’t have been.

25. Pop As Art: This is the only one I didn’t title – it was given a functional title by the editors when a format change required one. “Pop Vs Art” would be closer to it I guess. Or “Column As Missed Opportunity”. This was one I’d kicked around in my head for ages – it stewed too long, unfortunately. The central idea was a kind of reactionary approach to pop, wanting to explore the notion that the acceptance of pop music as “art” was actually a disaster for pop (and maybe art), narrowing the range of things expected of it, focusing on one particular use at the expense of a lot of others. This central idea goes unexplored and unexpressed in the actual column, which bounces around between a few texts and doesn’t get its shit together. Sorry!

26. Shiny Shiny: Answer piece to a great bit of journalism by Marc Hogan on the cassette revival, and an attempt at futurology. Exhaustive footnotes available elsewhere on Freaky Trigger. Bits of this suggest why I have never tried to write fiction, but overall I think it worked and I bet it all comes true sooner than I said it would.

27. Captured By The Game: My first attempt at writing about gamification, seen here in its olde English spelling w/an extra e. This is another column where two ideas which seemed to knit together in my brain – gamification and behavioural economics – didn’t really do so on paper. Partly because my understanding of the latter was very basic. The game stuff is good, though: people who are into gamification tend to think of it as people doing things the designers want, which makes you think that people who are into gamification really play very few games.

28. This Is A Gift: It Comes With A Price: 2010’s “music-lite” instalment isn’t really music-lite – it’s an essay on Phonogram, a comic all about music. A strange one to write in that it’s the only time I was 100% sure the creator of what I was talking about would read the piece. The idea here was one about literary style as magic: just as you read the dialogue in a modern Marvel comic and often find yourself thinking of particular TV shows (or screenwriters), the dialogue in Phonogram called particular British music writers to mind. What I wondered was how much these heuristics of style and critical thought created the fictional (and real) world. Did much of that come out in the column? Did it heck. Fun to write though.

29. Imperial: Another one of the column’s “hits” in terms of people referring back to the idea and (embarassingly) crediting me for it, not Neil Tennant. I wanted for ages to do a proper column on the PSBs but I did this instead, about “Imperial Phases” in pop. Re-reading it I was probably also thinking of that bit in Civilization where you get “YOUR CIVILIZATION IS IN A GOLDEN AGE” and you can discover everything really quickly. That is basically how they work.

30. Feed The Troll: A simple and hopeful message – don’t be a cock about people based on the music you imagine they like, take a chance and talk to them instead – spun out into a leisurely thousand or so words. The genesis of this was a feeling I should write about “extreme” music, but I realised I didn’t have anything useful to say about it.

In part 3! The column’s own imperial phase (well, ‘extension of the municipal boundary’ phase, at any rate)


  1. 1
    marc h. on 9 Dec 2011 #

    Thanks for the mention, Tom! I keep thinking fondly of your piece, despite my befuddled initial reaction, because in addition to being clever and well-written it also really does feel potentially prescient — I keep talking to aging hipsters who say how they never foresee a comeback for the CD, which is EXACTLY what people used to say about cassettes obviously, so I always just laugh and occasionally mention your article (the Northwestern professor I quoted in a recent Salon piece had actually mentioned a Guardian column of yours earlier, unaware we knew each other online).

  2. 2
    Alan not logged in on 9 Dec 2011 #

    re 29, I’m sure you’ve not forgotten the tweet link this garnered from an official PSB source (Neil or Neil’s twitter PA)

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