Pazz and Jop 2009: Indie-Rock Hegemony and "Music Racism"

Jan. 20, 2010
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The Village Voice posted its annual New York Pazz and Jop poll yesterday, and while the annual survey of the country’s top music critics has lost some of its relevance in recent years—it doesn’t help that this year was released a full month after the last of the 2009 best of lists were unveiled—it’s worth checking out for some of the fantastic essays accompanying the poll.

Three in particular are must-reads.

Chuck Eddy addresses, with some alarm, the obvious elephant in the room: The poll’s winners—Animal Collective, Phoenix, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Dirty Projectors, Neko Case, The xx, The Flaming Lips and Girls, in that order—skew heavily to the indie-rock demographic. In fact, a full eight of the poll's top 10 albums also topped Pitchfork’s top 10. Eddy has some theories about that unprecedented consensus, and observes the irony that the demographic that once prided itself on its outsider tastes has now become more predictable than the middle-brow Bruce Springsteen/Bob Dylan traditionalists. "When it's mainly the old farts who seem to have minds of their own, I start to wonder," he writes.

The irony is that while divisions between indie-approved albums and albums without the indie stamp of approval grew greater than ever in 2009, music itself was crossbreeding. For instance, two of the year's most acclaimed indie bands, Dirty Projectors and The xx, borrowed from the fruitful world of contemporary R&B. So that's a good thing, right? A sign, perhaps, that the indie faithful have become more open to outside influences?

Well, no, sadly. Two Village Voice essays explore how indie-minded critics paid lip service to re-appropriated R&B, yet very few paid attention to the real thing. In a piece about "music racism"—a term borrowed from Jay-Z to describe the artificial and sometimes arbitrary segregation of music by genre—Maura Johnston examines why critics rallied so enthusiastically behind the Dirty Projectors' R&B-laced single "Stillness Is The Move":

"Stillness" was the highest-regarded R&B-informed song of the year, at least among those disinclined to trifle themselves with Maxwell's electric comeback album BLACKsummers'night (which nearly went platinum) or The-Dream's sometimes jaw-dropping Love vs. Money, both packing songs that wiped the floor with "Stillness." (Try "Bad Habits," Maxwell's slow-burning ode to sexual addiction, for starters.) How did such a stylistically fluid and wildly praised crossover move emerge from a band whose last major project was an elaborate homage to hardcore pioneers Black Flag? Was hailing the Projectors as R&B innovators a way to break free of the Dirty Grizzly Collective of Girls indie-rock hegemony that seemed to dominate 2009, which apparently had its Album of the Year debate settled on Christmas Day of 2008, when Merriweather Post Pavilion leaked?

With more overt frustration, Mikael Wood examines the same phenomenon in a piece about The-Dream, whose album thrilled a cultishly devoted subset of critics, but barely made any noise in indie-rock circles:

Despite the fact that it failed to seduce Pazz & Jop's sizable Animal Collective contingent ... Love vs. Money received the most points of any album per ballot "by a wide margin," according to the Voice's statistics guru. Those who liked it really liked it; those who voted for it really voted for it. In other words, R&B devotees grasped the significance of what the dude has done, even if "Trapped in the Closet" tourists didn't.

Is that a disappointment? Sure—but for an evolving Pazz & Jop constituency whose indie-rock chauvinism continues to deepen, it's certainly no shock. That said, even someone resigned to the genre's rock-crit marginalization (a thousand Wurlitzers swoon) has to scoff when "Stillness Is the Move"—the perfectly lovely Dirty Projectors number that earned an affectionate redo by Beyoncé sis Solange Knowles—is celebrated as the year's finest R&B song, with more than twice as many votes as "Pretty Wings," Maxwell's diaphanous comeback jam. No disrespect to The xx, whose sleek goth-groove debut finished seven spots ahead of Maxwell's BLACKsummers'night, but is our need for baby-making music really now being met by a group of sickly looking Brits?

So what's the take away message from these three pieces? It's not that listeners are close-minded or "music racists." I think they're just being under served by music critics. Pitchfork does a fantastic (and very responsible) job covering their niche (and advocating for whatever catches their fancy), but too many lazy critics are letting that site—and a handful of less influential alternatives—dictate their coverage for them. Music criticism, sadly, is a reactive field, and in the rush to keep up to Pitchfork's Best New Music recommendations, other publications fail to make the case for their own. As a result, one Web site is given inordinate power and influence. If Pitchfork doesn't cover an album, most other critics don't cover that album, either.

That's why critics deemed "Stillness Is The Move" their consensus favorite R&B song of 2009. It was one of the only R&B songs they heard, because it was one of the only R&B songs Pitchfork covered.

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