"At the time, it was very cool to know about obscure music."
Oh really? In Alexandra Molotkow's recent Riff column for The New York Times she so describes the early 2000s - apparently it was very cool to know about obscure music way back in "2004". Interesting, right? Sound like the decades preceding and subsequent to that date? That's only the first odious suggestion in her piece; surprisingly, it isn't even the first obnoxious piece of writing from Molotkow. Last year in a piece for Toronto Life she used the subtitle "By 13, I was an expert at chat room sex, spotting cyber-pervs and hiding my secret life from my parents". Clearly someone's been thinking too hard on their shtick - essays like this seem tailor made to further a professional aesthetic. That is to say, it seems like Molotkow is less interested in the conclusions her article draws than in how it seems to orient her professionally. Last month, she wrote an article in the Toronto Standard called "Tips For Picking Up Women in Bars" with the equally unpleasant subtitle "The second safest sex you can have is with a guy who just got a clean bill of health from the clinic and had it made into a T-shirt". This is who The New York Times asked to sum up the state of music? As much as it says about Molotkow, it says even more about the incredible decline in standards at the New York paper, which is otherwise notable for publicly musing over whether or not it should correct politicians even when the "truth" is potentially a single factoid of public record.
"My friend Lily and I met in 2004 at a showcase for a record label that bartered cassette tapes in exchange for things like drawings and telling jokes. I was there to perform some songs I had recorded on my dad’s four-track using chopsticks for drumsticks; Lily was there to support her boyfriend, who was playing in a band led by our mutual friend’s 13-year-old brother. We hit it off, and after that we often went together to see bands play in local out-of-the-way venues, like the dilapidated shack down an alleyway or the basement nightclub that was perpetually flooded with toilet water. The bands were often lousy, but that didn’t matter to us. What mattered to us was that no one else knew anything about them."
Molotkow continues with an anecdote from her past, presumably to emphasize to us that she "really was hanging out with the cool kids in 2004" and that if she can reject her artsy past, way back when she made that sweet music with them "chopsticks" and her "dad's four track", then she's certainly trustworthy enough for all of us to stop pretending that the "obscure" is significant for a variety of reasons and thank God it's of universal interest. If a bunch of enterprising hipsters weren't around to mine the cultural "other", than how would we have incredible groups like Awesome Tapes From Africa? I mean, why do we need to hear obscure music anyway? After all, "Populism is the new model of cool". Right? Or did you forget frantically voting on what was going to be cool this year during the dying days of December 2011?
In any event, Gawker sets her straight...
". . . she accepts the idea that 'it was very cool to know about obscure music' not as a relic of shitheaded, skewed teenage priorities, but as the way things actually were. Egocentrically, she conflates cultural change with her own taste development, and what's worse is that she hasn't really changed at all."Interestingly, Molotkow also seems to have, perhaps inadvertently aligned her making eccentric music with knowing about obscure music, which I should think plenty of musicians, collectors, and snobs could easily take issue with - the overlap is no where near common enough to presume. In fact, the association makes her look suspiciously like a post-graduate scenester, networking in a new environment where her vacuous faux-intellectual "look how we all grew up" is happily taken up, as if Alexandra Molotkow's habits were something all of us older hipsters can relate to. She concedes later in the essay that her pride comes from playing music she likes but knows nothing about, rather than music she knows a lot about but thinks is "lousy". She describes her Eleusinian mysteries...
". . . we often went together to see bands play in local out-of-the-way venues, like the dilapidated shack down an alleyway or the basement nightclub that was perpetually flooded with toilet water. The bands were often lousy, but that didn’t matter to us. What mattered to us was that no one else knew anything about them."
The emphasis on the shabby appearance underscores the significance of their shared consciousness. She almost sounds disparaging when she describes the premise of a label she worked with; "[it] bartered cassette tapes in exchange for things like drawings and telling jokes", dropping a reference to the sacred rites in the first sentence of her essay. "Trust me," she seems to say".Nevertheless, Molotkow eventually focuses in on populism, indicating that...
"There are now artists who sell out concerts while rarely getting played on commercial radio (the Weeknd or Tori Amos, for instance), and there are commercial radio artists whom no one in most people’s hipper circles has ever heard of because they listen exclusively to the Internet (Lady Antebellum, Jake Owen — pretty much all of so-called new country)."
Imagine that guys - though our respective music niches have already voted on their champions last year, there are still demographics in America that because of their favored medium, will hear and know different things. Her conclusion that follows tenuously from this is the article at its most obnoxious.
"My quarrel here isn’t with the idea that cool people don’t know as much about stuff as they used to. If you really want to drill deep into your interests, you still have that option. You just have to accept that most of your findings will have no social value."
She presumes that no one listens to obscure music because they actually like it and that people that do listen to obscure music are doing it to impress their friends. This conclusion completely disregards the reality of finding new music for many people. I've recently been on a small folk music kick, listening to John Jacob Niles' classic anthology My Precarious Life in the Public Domain (recommended to me by Future Islands here). Niles has incredible range and his voice roves all over, from very low to very very high, in a way that most male singers can't manage without a surgical aid. It's incredible, and it's inspired some interest on my part in the Scottish folk ballads that he often sang or was inspired by. Thank God Niles didn't take Molotkow seriously - he himself collected rare instances of the genre for preservation more than five decades before obscure shit became cool in 2004. Molotkow seems to have the impression that, time was, I could walk into any bar around, spout off what I just wrote, and be showered with beer and advertising revenue. Spare me. Experiences like my ongoing encounter with Niles are how people deepen their personal lives - we've all talked about ourselves so much on facebook, we're starting to forget that although our perspective on the past changes with new experiences, talking to others at parties is not always just an evolutionary strategy.
Unfortunately, even though the crux of her conclusion has passed, Molotkow gets worse.
"The old way was guided by perverted logic (the fewer people who like something, the more valuable it is), while the new way is guided by a sounder reasoning (the more people who like something, the more valuable it is)."Seriously? That's where you've taken us?
Before I forget, if you want to find out about the label that Molotkow bad-talks in her opener, check out this nice piece over at Exclaim.