April 9, 2012

The Obskure Muzaks

A Response to Molotkow's Riff on the Obscure
"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.


  1. Nice piece, cheers,especially the final paragraph.... will do my best to avoid that writer, unless I feel like being irritated. I like pretty obscure stuff, not because it's obscure, that just makes it harder n' time consuming to find. Most mainstream stuff to me (generalising terribly)has been over produced to death, it trys too hard to make money somehow.I tend to keep my tastes to myself from friends, never thought it was 'cool'...almost more a dirty secret! Your part about personal lives is correct.

    1. I know what you mean - a lot of us grew up with one set of behaviors and people, then found the internet, and the difference between those social circles becomes a funky thing you have to reconcile in your head. The "dirty secret" feeling is definitely one I recognize :)

    2. It was a tight piece. I despised her use of "cool people" throughout the article. Painful. But as much as I agree with a lot of what you wrote here (especially John Jacob Niles talent, thank you Future Islands), I feel you went overboard with your quick disdain for Molotkow and missed the point she was reaching fur.

      "I like pretty obscure stuff, not because it's obscure..." - who's ever going to admit they like obscure stuff BECAUSE it's obscure? I mean come on. I'm sure the majority of people who read her piece or this piece were of a young age in 2004, and for me personally, I can remember people (usually girls) who went out of they're way to name drop obscure bands in the name of looking cool. What I don't know is if these types still exist in highschool hallways, or if they've in fact become extinct.

      And yes, I also knew many people (usually guys) who genuinely like many obscure bands. Relax.

    3. Joe, I'm not really sure what your point is.

      "who's ever going to admit they like obscure stuff BECAUSE it's obscure?" - the answer is Molotkow and our response was disparaging because your sentiment here - "I also knew many people (usually guys) who genuinely like many obscure bands. Relax." - isn't good enough for people that write for the New York Times, which still purports to be a really good newspaper. You or I am not particularly hurt by Molotkow's piece, but sentiments like hers represent a significant risk to the quality of discourse in society, which is not there just for you and me.

    4. Joe --

      Not to jump to conclusions, but your comment comes across as pretty sexist. To state that it's "usually girls" who "name drop obscure bands in the name of looking cool", while it's "usually guys" who "genuinely like many obscure bands" is to make a large assumption about both genders. I'd like to point out that I'm a woman and I've always genuinely enjoyed the music I listen to, whether it's considered "obscure" or not. While Molotkow is female and she mentions a female friend of hers going to shows with her, her snotty view of the subject is not representative of all women.

      Also, you might want to go back and read her article, because she does in fact say that she used to listen to obscure music just to appear cool, so that should answer your question of "who's ever going to admit they like obscure stuff BECAUSE it's obscure?".

  2. Dwight,

    Apologies for the sloppy writing - I can barely string a sentence together.

    Can you explain a little further? Her opinion/sentiments rep a (significant) risk to the quality of discourse in society, because she's labeling people who like obscure music as "uncool" now? You don't feel people are more lax towards others musical tastes now than say, 10 years ago?

    (And Liz P, you're right.)

    1. Our concern is not so much with what people perceive as cool and who they perceive as cool, as it is with the quality of publications like the New York Times and the way in which writers today interact with their milieu. Molotkow's heaping a lot of stupid sentiment on top of a thought-pile that today already kind of amounts to anti-intellectualism. How people enjoy music is part of a holistic experience of living, whereas Molotkow talks about it as if music - obscure or not - was a credit card that people like us can use to constantly reassert our relevance. That she sees the era of obscure muzak loving as being succeeded now by an era of democratically electing the coolest hipster, blogger, musician, artist, whatever, suggests that she's too caught up in her own ability to network to the top - she snagged the opportunity to write for the New York Times and bit off way more than she could chew by writing a "big" article with "big" implications.

      Having said that, I think a particularly damning reality to her argument is that everywhere but the most rarefied circles people are in fact more lax towards other musical tastes, but not because - as she suggests - we're all being honest with ourselves and copping to how much we really do like the same things as whatever nearby crowd can be conveniently pointed to. People are becoming acclimatized to relating over music in different ways - less the "thank God no one else has found out about John Jacob Niles" or something and more "I'm glad someone else likes music as much as me". Our "hobby" is being reinforced by experience, which is a process that Molotkow's milieu tends to hyper-accelerate - that is to say, it's probably very easy to live in NY and think the party you went to last night has national implications.

      Does that clarify our thoughts at all?


  3. Alex is a stunt queen. End of story. I've been "friends" with Alex for many years, and... in real life she is just as juvenile as her writing style. It is true though, she used to roam the music scene obsessively.
    She used to hang out at shows a lot, especially Wavelength at Sneaky Dees. However, she didn't attend for the music but mainly to stalk the musician boys she had crushes on. Alex had a crush on just about everybody and if any of these guys took an interest in anyone other than Alex, she would make the poor girl her public enemy no.1. It was very Single White Female of her. One summer, Alex spread a rumor about a friend of ours who was asked out on a date by this guy whom Alex wanted for herself. So, what did Alex do?... Other than stalking the girl Alex decided to tell everyone that this girl had AIDS. I am not even kidding. This is what I meant when I referred to Alex as a stunt queen. She loves attention regardless of whether it's positive or negative; she will do just about anything to ensure you give it to her. And here we are giving her what she craves. So her writing, juvenile as it may be, is mainly composed to garner attention & it's been successful yet again.

    1. Unfortunately, Alex merits a response in this instance because for some reason The New York Times saw fit to certify her competent. Although we wanted to set her own drivel straight for sheer joy at pointing out its stupidity, our primary beef is with the New York Times for rubber stamping a blindingly ignorant scenester.

    2. Thanks for confirming suspicions, though :)

  4. Dwight I completely agree with you. I only meant to add some background into Alex's character/credibility to explain why she writes the way she writes. Although this is not universally applicable... In this case, you can relate style directly to character. If her writing comes across as incredibly flaky, ignorant and pathological that is because she is all that. Trust me, I (unfortunately) knew her for almost a decade.

    The worst part about the aforementioned incident is that the girl Alex was jealous of did not have AIDS or any STD for that matter. Alex made it all up to mar this poor girls image. It was the most disgusting thing I had ever witnessed someone do to another human being. Sad thing is, it's not the worst thing Alex has done.

    It's fair to say that everything about her and her writing is not quite fiction, but augmented reality. And if you attack her writing she will always fallback on the same excuse, she will say it was meant to be satire.

  5. "...it was meant to be satire" - haha, we'd probably end up writing something even longer if we heard that claimed! Either way, thanks for giving some extra context.