Mazarin And My Indie Conscience

Hands plunged in pockets to keep the cold out; a rueful smile and a toss of the hair; a tumble of drums and a clotted voice –

Hold on! Why not just get to the point. Tom? It’s yet another bloody indie record about unrequited love and/or getting binned. If you like them you’ll like it: if not, stay away. End of review.”

What? Who is this?

“I’m your motherfuckin’ conscience!”

That’s nonsense!

“Now that’s more like it. Seriously though, why are you bothering to review this – who is it – Mazarin single? You’ve already written acres this year about Belle And Sebastian. You’ve written about your Morrissey-ridden boyhood. You wrote about the Field Mice twice last Winter, and we won’t even touch the Spearmint review. You said yourself the other day it’s painful to re-read some of this stuff: basically you write about indie records because you’re too self-conscious to keep a diary.”

OK, there’s a lot of truth in that – I write some record reviews as a kind of private emotional valve. But that’s only because I listen to those records for some kind of emotional release – it would be wrong of me not to mention them, because they take up so much of my eartime, and it would be wrong to mention them without some kind of acknowledgement of why I’m listening.

“But it’s not a ‘release’ so much as it’s voyeurism. You’re twenty-seven, in a long-term relationship, but here you are listening to all these songs about loss and infatuation and hopelessness. Isn’t that just the tinest bit unhealthy?”

I honestly don’t know: I think songs as pretty as Mazarin’s “Wheats” idealise heartbreak in the same way as pop songs are supposed to idealise love. There is a risk that they make romantic loss, or the idea of it, safe in some way, just like action films make violence safe for susceptible or dim viewers. But on the other hand we live in a culture where almost everything is idealising something – it’s unfair to accuse me of being a voyeur for wallowing in sensitive indie songs when I don’t watch any soaps, for example.

“Hmph. But what about your readers? You started Freaky Trigger as a place to write about shameless pop music and promote intelligent pop writing, right? And here you are trying your best to turn it into a 1986 shambling ‘zine!”

That’s not true. I started Freaky Trigger to indulge my ego without the fear of rejection, which is exactly why anyone who starts an independent website does it: there are no ‘failures’ in the world of personal sites, which is why most of them are so bad, obviously. And indulging your ego without the fear of rejection is the very definition of infatuation, too. Which may at a stretch explain why so many persites burble on about their crushes and why ‘internet diarist’ and ‘indie fan’ are coterminous.

“Very enlightening, I’m sure, but you’re ducking the question. Deep down you know you should be pushing yourself a bit more, trying to get a handle on something other than sorrowful white boys with guitars. Aren’t you too old for that sort of thing?”

Well, I am trying to write about hip-hop more, for example. In fact one of the things that makes playa-ethos hip-hop so appealing is the way it first off admits it’s all about ego, and then pegs that ego to something absolutely concrete, namely the personal wealth of the rappers. It’s repugnant but it’s honest. It’s actually a much better reflection of the ‘adult’ world, particularly nowadays, than any other music I can think of. Why more top businessmen aren’t bumpin’ Master P I don’t know.

“I think you do know. And anyway, you can’t fool me. You get off on the beats and the swearing!”

The point is that when we dismiss indie music as sad and adolescent, constant temptation though it is, what are we proposing to talk about instead? Most music that gets sold as adult is either bloodless or horribly world-weary and bitter, like that last Dylan album, which just screamed the message that being Bob Dylan is an unbearably awful thing.

Pop still hasn’t evolved a credible language to talk about ageing – it’s evolved something which draws on cliches about getting older, which will do in a pinch if you’re a Mojo hack on a deadline but is otherwise inadequate. The Pet Shop Boys for instance have been writing about getting older for four or five albums now but they’re never talked about in those terms because if you’re old you have to make portentious acoustic guitar records.

“But rejecting indie adolescence needn’t mean embracing Steve Earle! Why not write about jazz, or electronica, or modern composition?”

I think all of those things should be written about a lot more. The truth is that I don’t feel technically confident to write about jazz, say, when in six years of listening I’ve not grasped what ‘modal’ means. I’d also say that the kind of explicit, personal, exploratory writing that happens a lot in songwriter-pop – not just indie – is in its way as experimental and ‘difficult’ as anything instrumental. It just happens to be the dominant mode of pop in critical terms.

“Sigh. All right, all right! But even so, this “Wheats” record is surely utterly generic? Why review it? What do you see in it?”

Well, first of all I like it because it was a recommendation (thanks!), and I love people telling me to listen to things – me on a personal level, that is. I’m not nearly so affected by public enthusiasm. This sort of ties in with what I said on the forum a while ago about how critics shouldn’t be gatekeepers or filters: I think filtration only works when there’s a personal connection between the critic and reader, otherwise it just comes off as arrogant. The best pop writers make you feel you know their taste and so you feel that connection even though you are as the lowly ant to them.*

“So it is completely generic?”

No! Actually the reason “Wheats” is such a good single is because of the way it wins its poignancy through laughs – when the singer does his whole stopping himself, “oh yeah, I’m sorry” routine he sounds so spaced it’s funny. Very funny. But at the same time it’s bitter.

“I suppose you’re going to say it’s like the Magnetic Fields….”

No again. Almost the reverse – the Magnetic Fields are about treating romance very cynically, as a system or set of building blocks, and then discovering that you believe it despite yourself. Whereas the Mazarin record is more straightforward, about discovering that the trappings of romance are meaningless, and then finding out that said discovery is itself meaningless, in terms of not changing a damn thing.

“Hmph. Well, all right, write about it this once and I won’t kick up the fuss. What kind of a name for a single is “Wheats”, anyway?”

Oh. Well, it seems to be a, uh, girl’s name or nickane or…you know…

“Ha! Told you so!”