Critical Backlash: Hype Machine? What Hype Machine?

Photo by David Greenwald

I’ve been on vacation. Dave, how was it? Pretty great, being Hawaii and all. There were volcanoes. But back on topic — while I was away, the Los Angeles Times ran a feature on so-called “Buzz Vertigo,” the craaaazy new web phenomenon that’s changing the way we find out about music! It opens with a paragraph of name-dropping, a who’s who of Bands Indie Kids Liked Or Pretended To This Year, Not Including Bands On Matador Records: “Tapes ‘N Tapes. Beirut. TV on the Radio.” So on and so forth. Somebody’s been reading Pitchfork, and apparently doesn’t think anyone else does, asking halfway down the page, “Heard half of them?” The Times audience hasn’t, no, and so if you’re going to open an article on the confused consumer, you may as well start by confusing them further. But this is not an article about that at all. In fact, I’m not sure what it’s about and I’ve read it three times.

While I’m all for the Times‘ coverage gaining an underground/indie slant in the wake of the semi-retirement of Robert Hilburn, avowed Ryan Adams fan (woo!), this is not the way to go about it. The fact is, the article — and the discourse on blogs in the old-guard press — is all this way, writing about the wrong things and kind of missing the big picture.

In short: the article talks about a lot of “buzz bands” and the modern conception of “buzz” (okay), sputters about, and then discusses how hip-hop acts need real-world cred and NPR and Starbucks are tastemakers we should respect for their old-skool curatorial style, citing Devendra Banhart (that’s the 2004 freak-folk boat over on the left, folks — you just missed it) as an example of an artist that pushes listeners a bit.

Now, this is all well and good. But the fact is, we have two incredibly contradictory concepts at work here: “cultural clutter,” the idea that the music world is full to bursting with new artists invading our iPods from MySpace, blogs, Pitchfork (the almighty user-driven Web 2.0, in the parlance of our times, or at least Time magazine) — and what the article overlooks, that while the Internet has produced more material, it has also centralized the buzz. The Hype Machine has an address. Yes, there are a billion blogs registered on Hype and, and yes, Maura, when 10 blogs post a song it hits the Hype Machine’s most popular tracks listing, but that’s about as far as it goes. In terms of real, substantial buzz (an oxymoron in itself, but that’s an essay for another time), bands like Tapes ‘N Tapes have been written about hundreds, probably thousands of times. I love Gorilla vs. Bear and all, but dude should practically be getting royalties for some of these guys. The reality is, a musician like Lily Allen gets to the top of Hype Machine and, as the buzz begins to ripple down the blogosphere like gossip in a high school locker room, everybody else posts about her and she stays at the top. Same goes for any of the artists mentioned in the article, most of whom were on Pitchfork’s year-end top 50 (and Cokemachineglow’s and Stylus’ too, for that matter) and spent 2006 on the ‘Fork’s news page all goddamn year.

(Another point here, but a relatively minor one: by opening with a roll call of bands the writer assumes the reader hasn’t heard of, she also makes her later argument that the Internet is too cluttered, uh, totally irrelevant to a readership she’s presupposing doesn’t know what’s going on and doesn’t care/know about blogs/Pitchfork. At the point, the article becomes more of a “Hey look I am a music journalist and I listen to bands and this is something that I care about!” kind of piece.)

If anything, in some remarkable synergy, blogging, Pitchfork and MySpace have created a new brand of buzz, a pipeline determined by pushing (Pitchfork’s Best New Music category, knocking down “blog bands” like Birdmonster) and pulling (the blogosphere pre-empting p4k, and/or ignoring the BNM picks in backlash). It’s no wonder why I’m From Barcelona didn’t make the Pitchfork list — aside from the obvious reason that Marc Hogan is the only guy who likes it (which is fine; this is how I feel about me and the Rose Melberg record), in the face of the rest of the Internet’s rejection, trying to shove it on would’ve been embarrassing even if it had the votes. Especially for the entry-level Times reader, who is now going to go straight to Hype Machine and Pitchfork, it’s going to be pretty easy to see what the consensus picks are. Things start getting confusing when you’re a music geek/journalist/blogger and read 10-20 blogs a day, and we should be used to it after seven post-Napster years of downloading free-for-all.

It can be argued that this weird dialogue gets us to the bottom of the barrel (for me, Tapes ‘N Tapes) or more likely, up to its middle (Cold War Kids, who are great live by the way), but actually, buzz has always been kind of a gamble. This year, plenty of deserving bands rose to the top, from Grizzly Bear to TV on the Radio to Joanna Newsom, who earned praise on all of the web’s many “cluttered” fronts. Buzz can only take you so far — then the music has to do the talking.

I’m well aware of the irony of writing this kind of piece in a blog, where I’m sure my opinion will get lost in the mess of a thousand new media voices all turning rapidly more homogenous. But as new and confusing as online buzz may be for the uninitiated, it’s still a culture of people talking about music. A pop culture that, as always, can’t make one move without looking over at the next guy to see what he’s doing. One nation, under blog.


P.S. everybody, merry Christmas and everything. I saw The Holiday last night and it warmed my cold, Grinchy Jew-heart. Kind of a chick flick, though.


Critical Backlash is a column where I complain about things.