Wherein I rail against a specific podcast in order to make some bigger points about music, criticism, gatekeeping, and cultural bullying.
- A TALE OF TWO PODCASTS
I am an enthusiastic person. I get excited about cultural objects (books, musicians, painters, movies, you name it) and then go on recommendation sprees. If you are even casually acquainted with me, I have probably breathlessly tried to convince you to watch or read something at some point (if I breathlessly recommended Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest to you, I am sorry; it started out a lot better than it ended).
In late 2017, I went on a recommendation spree for Tyler Mahan Coe’s podcast about the history of country music, Cocaine and Rhinestones. It had sprung up out of nowhere as this fully-formed, beautiful thing. At the moment I became aware of the show, the most current episode was a close read of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” wherein Coe went deep on both the lyrical content and Haggard’s wider biography and public statements to determine just how literally the song was intended to be taken (a subject near and dear to me, since the a fight over the sincerity level of Hag’s culture-war songs once nearly broke up a band I was in). I love (older) country music and well-researched cultural history; the whole thing could have been cooked up in a lab by scientists working from extensive notes on how to craft the most enticing possible podcast for me.
There are several specific things about Coe’s approach to Cocaine and Rhinestones that I admire and enjoy. One of them is his methodology; every episode features direct engagement with primary sources (the music itself, public statements by the artists and their families, police records, and so on), along with an admirably up-front assessment of the reliability of given sources (not all of Charlie Louvin’s stories hang together).
More than that, though, the show is built around a fantastic generosity of spirit. When the country music industry has been shitty to people on gender or ethnic lines, Coe calls the industry out. When a received story about a person has unfairly gained currency, Coe pushes back- for instance, his careful arguments against the idea that Buck Owens habitually screwed people over in business dealings, or that Wynnona Judd was a talentless puppet of producers. The podcast succeeds because, over and over, Coe meets artists where they are, taking their work in the spirit it was offered up. One of the defining features of country music is gatekeeping over the issue of authenticity, which Coe dynamites as a bullshit excuse to marginalize artists for no real reason. The very agreeable impression one gets from the show is of a very knowledgeable, passionate guy who loves music with an open mind and wants to tell you about it; when Coe announced a Patreon program to support the show because he wanted to make it his life’s work, it was a pretty easy sell. What music lover wouldn’t want to support this work?
I want to make this plain: in light of everything I’m about to say, I remain an all-in fan of Cocaine and Rhinestones. But it turns out that Coe has another podcast. The other one is a joint project with a guy named Mark Mosley; the show is called Your Favorite Band Sucks. The format is pretty much what you’d expect: each episode, the two of them pick a band and rail for 45 minutes or so about how and why the band sucks. Episode one was the Beatles. Episode two was the Rolling Stones. At this writing, they’ve just dropped one attacking the Beastie Boys. Previous targets have included U2, the Police, Sublime, Nirvana, Steely Dan, and Radiohead.
Before I go further into this, I want to be clear that I’m not speaking as a wounded fan. I like a few of the bands that they’ve gone after, but I dislike more of them (I’ve been an on-the-record Radiohead hater since the Clinton administration). I’m as bone-tired of the Boomer Cult of the Beatles as a lot of other people are; I like the Stones, but there are about thirty asterisks attached to that statement and I’m not about to argue that there isn’t a very large pile of ugly things about the history, behavior, and work of the Rolling Stones that have to be acknowledged, nor that the Boomer Cult of the Stones isn’t as omnipresent and obnoxious as that of the Beatles. But as I listened through to a selection of Your Favorite Band Sucks episodes, it was very much the case that I disliked the show as much when I agreed with them as it was when I disagreed with them.
Some of my beef was with formatting. Coe is an excellent researcher and sharp thinker, so he brings arguments and evidence; what value the show has comes from his side (for instance, in the U2 episode, in the midst of all the vitriol—and again, I agree with the basic premise that Bono is a jackass—there’s a really fascinating chunk where Coe digs into the broader marketing plan that was behind U2’s ridiculous now-you-own-our-new-album-whether-you-like-it-or-not stunt). Mosley, on the other hand, comes off at least in the context of this podcast as a lazy sycophant, the guy on a morning radio show who’s there just to laugh at the main host’s jokes. In the Beatles episode, his contribution exists almost solely of repeating that the Beatles “are like fucking Kidz Bop, man” and that culturally “they added nothing.” In a later episode, he distinguishes himself by railing against the Spin Doctors and then incorrectly telling Coe that no, “Two Princes” isn’t a Spin Doctors song.
A point by point debate with the content of this show isn’t really what I’m out to do here, but Mosley’s repeated statement that the Beatles added nothing to the culture is eye-opening. I don’t like the Beatles. I listen to a lot of music and I pretty much never sit down and put the Beatles on. But I like Jimi Hendrix; Hendrix famously was so amazed by Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band when it came out that he closeted himself away with the album for a few days, learned to play the whole thing, and started performing it in its entirety. And I adore Husker Du, and Bob Mould spoke at great length on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast about the Beatles being central, primary influence for Husker Du. If the Beatles had done nothing at all more than inspiring Bob Mould to pick up a guitar, that would be a tremendous cultural gift to us. But they’re like fuckin’ Kidz Bop, man, and they added nothing.
There are lots of other individual points I’d like to push back against; in the U2 episode, they point out that U2 sucks because Daniel Lanois had to walk the band through a chart of “Where the Streets Have No Name’s” different parts as the band recorded the song, not mentioning how this has any effect on the experience of listening to the final product (also, I have bad news for them about how orchestra concerts work). Among other, more valid, criticism in the Stones episode, the band gets pilloried for being old, and for inspiring boring dads to start bands. The Police’s Stewart Copeland is accused of thinking he’s a good drummer when he’s not even as good as the random dude whaling on the drums in any given Guitar Center (now there’s a standard we want to elevate).
But like I said, my purpose here isn’t really to get into a point by point debate about what they say on the show. Instead, there’s a bigger thing I want to talk about, one that pervades Your Favorite Band Sucks and is crystallized by a thing they say in the Beatles show (I believe something similar recurs almost word for word on the Stones episode), a bit where they say that if someone tells you their favorite band is the Beatles, you know that person doesn’t really like music. This sort of implication hangs over every episode, and even over the premise of the show itself: if you like this sucky band, your taste stinks and you do, too.
Earlier, I praised Coe for his pushback against gatekeeping in country music. This thing about people who say the Beatles are their favorite band is gatekeeping every bit as bad, shitty, and pernicious as the type he railed against on his other, better, show. Suddenly, the Patreon support for the guy who calls bullshit on gatekeeping in country music feels a lot more queasy.
- SO LET’S TALK ABOUT GATEKEEPING
Let’s hit pause on the music discussion for a second and wade into the weeds of some other subcultures. Depending on how Extremely Online you are, and where you spend your time on the internet, you may or may not be aware of the fever-swamp misogyny of the internet’s comics, video games, and “nerd culture” spaces. This is a huge topic, way too large to really do justice here; but if you doubt me, google “gamergate” and soak up the bile. The big-picture version is this: all of those areas (which of course function as a kind of Venn diagram with lots of large areas of overlap) were traditionally male-dominated spaces, and have become less so in the past decade(-ish) as women in increasing numbers get involved in these hobbies and content creators in these spaces in turn try to make their work less sausage-festy to embrace the new, more balanced demographics of their audiences, all of which then prompted revanchist backlashes, ranging from the pathetically hilarious to the frighteningly violent, from pissy manbabies who feel threatened (again, simplifying a complex topic here; just search twitter for the phrase “SJW” if you want to see what I’m talking about in action).
Anyway: in all of these backlashes, one of the defining features has been gatekeeping. The first large, semiorganized backlash to happen in a space I was familiar with was in the world of comics. And one of the major forms of this backlash was a cry from the manbabies about the menace of the “fake geek girl,” a horrible creature who went to comic conventions with some kind of undefined ulterior motive (to tease True Nerds? For vanity boosts? It’s hard to figure out what kind of awful things they were supposed to be doing, since they were an imaginary creation) without doing “the homework.” The argument, I guess was that these awful women said that they loved comics but couldn’t tell you which branch of the British military Batman’s butler had served in when he was young.
Which is bullshit of the rankest order. There’s no prescribed way to like comics, and no qualifications that one needs to like them. If you have read a comic and liked it, you’re more than OK calling yourself a comics fan. Pretending that there’s some level of knowledge needed to be one of the initiated is clearly a maneuver that exists just to create an us-vs.-them dynamic, since any level of knowledge or standard of behavior would be completely arbitrary, and would (and did, and does) serve as a set of goal posts mounted on wheels so that they can be easily moved whenever the situation calls for new boundary lines. The concept of the Fake Geek Girl is a transparent ploy on the part of sour, sad men to hang a NO GIRLZ ALLOWED sign on the front of a clubhouse. It is a breathtakingly pure example of gatekeeping.
OK, so that’s comics. What does that have to do with music, which is what we’re supposed to be talking about? In return, I’d ask: have you ever spent more than ten minutes talking to a group of people who consider themselves punks? Punk is essentially defined by gatekeeping. Arguments about whether $BAND is punk or a bunch of shitty poseurs make up approximately 98% of the discourse of punk. One of the defining quotes about punk, that it died the day the Clash signed to CBS, was written when pretty much nobody outside of London could have even heard of the Clash.
(Are there Your Favorite Band Sucks episodes about Green Day and Social Distortion? Oh, you bet there are.)
The only difference between gatekeeping in music versus that in comics (or video games, or “nerd culture”) is that the music variety has been around and entrenched for a lot longer. Everyone hates hipsters, even if no one can agree on exactly what they are; the one thing people agree on is that hipsters are people who like to say that you probably haven’t heard of that band, they’re pretty obscure. In other words, hipsters are people who engage in musical gatekeeping. They’re cooler than you because they’ve heard of the bands you haven’t, and by the arbitrary coolness-defining measure of Having Heard of Obscure Bands, you come up short. It’s a dick move, such a dick move that “hipster” is basically a 21st-century fighting word.
Along the same lines, the presence of “oh, you like $THING- well, name three of their albums” as a persistent twitter joke format shows just how widespread a very specific notion of musical gatekeeping based on knowledge and taste has become.
Lots of things in life make more sense when you think of them in terms of power dynamics; gatekeeping is very much one of those. It’s a way for people in power—for different and culturally-specific definitions of power—to protect their base by setting up arbitrary criteria (knowing comics minutiae, having played intentionally difficult video games, having musical taste curated around countermajoritarian lists of acceptable artists) that exclude the lesser. It is, since it is built specifically around a differential in situational power dynamics. Or, more plainly: a type of bullying.
Coe and Mosley spend each episode explicitly laying out a case for why people who like a given band—always a band with a large, defined following, so that a clearly-lineated group of people can get called outsiders—are fools who don’t live up to arbitrary standards of taste. This is gatekeeping, and as such, bullying. I don’t know that this is what they’re setting out to do. But it’s what they’re doing, by the nature of the project.
The most expected defense of the podcast—one that I’ve seen Coe at least flirt with on Twitter—is that it shouldn’t be taken seriously, that it’s just halfassed trolling with no malice behind it. The argument is that the whole thing is a joke, that Coe and Mosley are putting us on, that none of this is meant to be taken seriously. Ok. They’re just pretending to be gatekeeping bullies. That’s a lot better.
- YOU SHOULD JUST LIKE THE MUSIC THAT YOU LIKE AND NOT WORRY ABOUT IT
I can’t pretend to know the psychological science behind this, but it seems clear to me that a person’s attachment to music is an intensely personal thing, tied up as much in specific memories and experiences as in any intrinsic quality of the music. Think about songs you love and how they summon immediate, specific moments. For me, Wilco’s “Pieholden Suite” inevitably means (stupidly) climbing up a waterfall in northern Minnesota in 1999, wondering if a fight with my girlfriend was going to pass or be The Big One. The Flaming Lips’ “Race for the Prize” means sitting in a grandstand on a summer night at the Minnesota State Fair, watching the clouds clear out as a thunderstorm passes and the band revs up. INXS’ “Devil Inside” means dicking around in the back of the band room in junior high, trying to work out the guitar line on an alto saxophone I could barely play. I could go on and on with these. I’m sure you have a large suite of your own. The memories are a core part of loving music, and they’re unique to you.
There are of course objective, external-to-your-head statements that you can make about music. The beat is 110 BPM. The production emphasizes the drums. The guitar uses a lot of blues scales. Wayne Coyne’s voice is really high. And these objective observations are indispensible in listening to and thinking about music. But there’s a way-too-common pitfall in music criticism and fandom where things that aren’t get objective statements get treated as such, or where value-neutral objective statements get some kind of value unfairly attached. You can objectively observe that the Edge builds a lot of his guitar parts around a note jumping up an octave; it’s a value judgment to say that this means he objectively sucks. It’s 100% fine and fair and human to say that you don’t like this; but your not liking this is an opinion, not a fact.
Encoding your opinions as fact winds up being the basis for a lot of music criticism (and movie, and book, and so on). It’s an easy and natural thing to do; everyone has opinions, everyone thinks their taste is the result of nonstop constant thought, and so it’s the easiest thing in the world to think that judgments based on this taste are scientific truth. But they’re not: they’re opinion. And even very informed opinion is just an opinion, not an objective fact. We might all agree on some value statement (“Husker Du fucking rules!”), but even that’s a consensus, not an objective fact.
Universalizing personal opinion and assigning value judgments to objective statements is the core of prescriptive criticism, criticism rooted in the idea that there’s a correct way for music (or whatever) to be. Prescriptive: working from a prescribed idea of what a thing should be. Way too much criticism works this way; it’s pernicious and bad (yes, I suppose I am being somewhat prescriptive about prescriptive criticism. Welcome to the self-referential web of postmodernism). Prescriptive criticism reveals limits in the thinking of the critic and teaches readers to have the same limited thinking. Prescriptive criticism puts you into a mode where anything new, different and surprising has to be bad, because it exists outside of your known criteria for goodness. Prescriptive criticism is how you get stereotypical old dudes who think that AC/DC is the only proper model for music and therefore think rap is scary and has no value and should therefore be the subject of endless “more like crap music” witticisms.
The hidden joke of the priceless Rock, Rot, and Rule bit is that Ronald Thomas Clontle has about as much authority as any other critic working in the prescriptive mode.
I’m not arguing against music criticism, or even music criticism rooted in strong opinion. I think it should exist! I love reading it! Some of my favorite writers are opinionated music writers! But I think a good music critic (and music fan) needs make it clear either explicitly or just between the lines that they’re writing about their opinion. They’re telling you about their subjective experience listening to the music, not making ex cathedra statements of infallible truth. You might agree, you might disagree, but any disagreement is between equals, not a matter of a less-developed being not living up to the refined standards of the evolved one. Any statement from on high that a band is objectively garbage is a suspect statement; any statement that the band’s fans suck just for being fans of that band is a jerkass statement.
So what I’m getting at is that your feelings about music are personal, and tied up in your own head. And that’s fine. What’s going on in other people’s heads shouldn’t matter to you. Like what you like, and don’t feel bad about it. Revel in it. Tell gatekeepers to go pound sand. If there are critics (or friends) who express opinions that seem to line up with your own tastes, great! That’s how we share and talk about culture. But don’t ever let anyone make you feel bad about liking a band or a song. What you like doesn’t affect anyone else. I hate Radiohead and a lot of my friends like them; but them liking Radiohead costs me nothing, and my love for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys costs my friends nothing, unless they’re trapped in a car with me for long stretches.
(Oh, quick digression for a mea culpa here: I have been 1000% guilty of prescriptive criticism, sometimes pretty mean-spirited prescriptive criticism edging on gatekeeping, when I was younger and dumber. I’m also painfully aware that there was a big, nasty element of unexamined misogyny encoded into my musical taste for a long time, until it became a thing I intentionally pushed back against. I’m sure I still fall into prescriptivism here and there, and I’m sure I have some bad, unexamined biases still in play. All any of us can do is accept that we’ve been shitty in the past and strive to be a little less shitty going forward. If I sound axe-grindy in all of this, a lot of that axe is aimed at Younger Me).
As music fans, we probably should draw lines around situations like R. Kelly or Chris Brown; honest fandom shouldn’t deny things like the bad parts of the Stones’ or Led Zeppelin’s histories (if some of the stories about Zeppelin are true, they’re probably well across the R. Kelly line). But one of the overwhelming truths of art is that there’s room—there has to be room—to acknowledge bad things about an artist while still getting something out of their work. “Problematic fave” is a phrase that pays.
In the end, music is a source of pleasure in a world that’s all too willing to inflict pain on people. To tell someone that a song they like sucks and implying that they, therefore, suck (music is deeply tied up in identity in our culture; if it wasn’t, punks wouldn’t be so worried about delineating exactly who is punk enough) is to intentionally deprive them of pleasure just to feel better about the objective truth of your own opinions. And that is a massive dick move. Don’t be a dick.