Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Neckbeard Nation: On the Slow Death of Music Journalism


Neckbeard Nation
On the slow death of music journalism.

"I am not an actual album doctor. I have practiced album medicine in this space previously, but I am not a licensed practitioner." - Stephen Hyden

"I try to be not like that/ but some people really suck." - 311

Just last night I ventured out to The Independent-- a divey music venue located in San Francisco's well-gentrified Western Addition-- to check out an up-and-coming young band by the name of Parquet Courts. The group has recently been the beneficiary of much online hype in anticipation of their upcoming CD release Sunbathing Animal, receiving high profile mentions on such venerable media outlets as NPR and Pitchfork Media. However in retrospect, it may have been a 3,800+ word puff piece posted over at by their music writer Steven Hyden that finally convinced me to brave the always hellacious Bay Bridge traffic and make the treck to go see Parquet Courts.

Hyden is a journalist that has been on my radar for a few years now-- mainly stemming from his short tenure over at the middlebrow pop culture site A.V. Club. It was during his brief stopover there that he seems to have made his bones largely off of a ten part series titled Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?

Neither particularly informative nor entertaining, the series-- perhaps due to its very scope-- seems to have propelled Hyden to whatever the top tier of internet music criticism is considered to be these days. His writing has since appeared on Slate, Salon, Pitchfork, WaPo and as mentioned previously over at Grantland where he is now their main music reviewer. Practically speaking, Hyden's near-complete domination over the internet's most notable music review communities is impressive to say the least.

The question is why. Exhibiting neither the supreme analytical capabilities of Griel Marcus, the preternaturally varied prose of Nick Tosches, nor the cutting edge insight of Lester Bangs, not to mention the historical knowledge of the roots of modern day music possessed by any of the three, Hyden comes off as a third-rate scribe at best with a propensity alternately geared towards effusive, fawning praise directed at bands he happens to support (such as the aforementioned Parquet Courts) or weak, mean-spirited snark focused at those he dislikes.

A recent takedown piece he posted at over at Grantland targeting the long-running alternative band 311 lays bare many of the flagrant flaws in Hyden's writing style. Exhibiting little in the way of actual knowledge when it comes to the band or their history, he nevertheless proceeds to decimate the group for having the temerity to release a new album on an independent label. The criticisms are surface-level at best-- the type of schtick a precocious eighth grader might come up with, and about as funny. At the bottom of the column, a bearded Hyden grins mightily as if to express how exceptionally proud he is of this claptrap.

311. Nice guys; I've met 'em.

Then there is the regrettable "Album Doctor" column which is also featured over at Grantland. The conceit of this recurring bit is that the 30-something Hyden is somehow poised and qualified to issue advice to multi-millionaire rock stars such as U2, Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire and Weezer about how to better their careers.

This would of course be laughable, except for the larger issue at stake that this is what's actually right now passing for rock journalism at a high-profile (with high-brow pretentions) site such as Grantland. Sadly, Hyden's insights contained in this column if you want to call them that are no more compelling or provocative than the infamous 2006 Pitchfork review of Jet's Shine On which featured a video of a chimp drinking its own urine-- a metaphor perhaps better reserved for any of Stephen Hyden's attempted takedowns.

But what of his think pieces? Did not Hyden attain his internet overlord music reviewer status based on the strength of some sort of incredibly keen insight and perceptive analysis?

Well, in a word: no. His writing often comes off as both superficial and shallow, as well as generally lacking in nuance and at times critical distance. Witness the Parquet Courts piece I referenced at the beginning of this article. One can read the entire thing and take nothing away from it about the band themselves-- only that the author considers them to be (to pick just a few descriptive adjectives from a long list): "fantastic", "first-rate", "insightful", "fascinating" and "The Last Great New York Band?". The entire thing reads not so much as an article as it does a press release, or at least it would if it was more laconic or pithy instead of coming off as a long-winded diatribe.

Parquet Courts - The jury's still out, but they put on a fun show.

Now thinly-veiled advertising such as The Last Great New York Band? can nevertheless be effective, and as I admitted previously it likely did play a factor in getting me to check the band out last night. So were the Parquet Courts worth it?

Well overall I would say yes, I was satisfied with their performance. At times the energy they brought to the stage was palpable and made me think I was witnessing the birth of something that might be special. However there was also fifteen minutes of mid-set doldrums brought on by two droning, dragging numbers that just about stopped any audience enthusiasm dead in its tracks, before the group salvaged the show by ramping up the energy with a couple of tight punk tunes. By my estimation their set lasted about 45 minutes, and the group did not return for an encore.

So while offering a set that was by in large promising, The Parquet Courts also revealed themselves as to be not ready for prime time-- aka arena gigs of the type that artists such as U2, Weezer, Lady Gaga and 311 (the same ones Hyden clearly has no time for in his articles) can deliver on in spades-- which I consider myself qualified to say, having seen all of them in concert during various stages of their careers.

Yet while this piece might appear at first as a superficial takedown of Steven Hyden himself, I really only see the subject as representative of a larger segment of society, perhaps not great in number but one that is sufficiently ego-driven and narcissistic enough to believe that theirs is the only opinion about music that matters. Likely these are the same ones that eschew the proven songwriting ability, charisma and professionalism of acts that actually have made it in favor of still-comparatively untested bands who manage to fit a very narrow profile of what the reviewer considers acceptable for the rest of society to listen to.

In this cynical and anonymous society, the denizens of neckbeard nation have appointed themselves as the tastemakers, and predictably it seems that corporate media conglomerates are only too happy to buy into this paradigm. Sadly it seems somewhere along the way that insightful open-minded and intelligent writing got trampled over by me-too hipsterism and snark-for-snark's-sake.

However this current vacuum leaves a real opening for the return of great rock criticism. If just a handful of insightful, inspired individuals can get a minimal amount of traction going for them, the current generation of hack music journalists might just find themselves outmoded after all.


  1. I’m not following music journalism these days, but what you’re saying here matches the complaint many people have voiced in recent years about the state of political commentary and the punditocracy. In both fields, career success and media exposure come from fawning coverage of the well-connected — to whom they need continued access for their columns — rather than any sort of discernment, critical thinking, or particular skill at writing. (Every time you read a column or listen to him speak, it’s remarkable how awkward with words David Brooks actually is; naturally he’s one of the very top pundits in America. Likewise Thomas Friedman.)

    I don’t see it changing anytime soon, because the Establishment has wised up to the value of controlling the media narrative. This isn’t the Seventies anymore. Record labels have worked out that it would be a good thing for them to influence the web and social media, and that it’s worth cultivating the voices who are willing to play the game. Washington figured this out too: that’s why we have Fox News and MSNBC. (Not to mention the sickening spectacle of a 60 Minutes reporter coordinating a story in advance with a Senator from South Carolina to ensure the narrative was favorable to his party.)

    I’m not saying all this to bum you out, just to say what you’re seeing is objectively real, and it’s part of the larger capitalist news culture beyond music.

  2. "What are the Beatles if not Buddy Holly + Chuck Berry + the Everly Brothers + Phil Spector?" At least he's asking the right question. Too bad it's rhetorical.