Critical Backlash: Where Have All The Icons Gone?

Photo by David Greenwald

Matthew Fluxblog and Amanda Perpetua touched upon an interesting topic in the final bit of their five-post (read: four more page views for Fluxy) conversation last Friday: The absence of larger-than-life figures in the endless flatlands of Internet-era musical discussion and fandom.

“Things have moved towards appreciating styles, and embracing things that conform to certain expectations for whatever genre, and genius figures have been devalued or discouraged somewhat,” Matthew wrote. “I think the ’90s was really focused on genius figures, this whole pantheon of larger than life icons.”

Amanda agrees, citing a conversation about the Silver Jews’ David Berman about the dearth of new heroes, and the two go on to note that they’re absent from hip-hop as well as indie rock — Lil Wayne being the only guy who’s really reaching for the brass ring. The characters are arguable (dudes, Kanye), but it’s a good point — where are today’s heroes? [Continue reading…]

Pop music has always been disposable, to an extent — otherwise acts like the Beatles and the Supremes wouldn’t have birthed new singles faster than Sarah Palin — but never more obviously than it is today. It’s reflected both in sales numbers and on the even more revealing charts, and it stretches from divas to noise-rock. The giants of pop music can barely score one hit single before the album drops off the charts, and blog bands are washed up before they can even finish their debut albums.

As a folk afficionado, I can name a number of artists with vast catalogs trailing behind them like troops following their general to war. Bill Callahan, formerly Smog; Lambchop; Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy; Sun Kil Moon; Destroyer. Phil Elverum of the Microphones and Mount Eerie. Heroes one and all. …And all ’90s leftovers.

Matthew and Amanda argue that the Internet has helped ruin the music scene for geniuses, and to a point that’s true, and not just for geniuses — new bands simply get less mileage and make less of an impact now, partially because of the increased competition and accessibility and partially because many of the ones who stumble to the front of the line simply aren’t good enough. As a CD purchaser in the ’90s before indie rock was the soundtrack to teenage soap operas, the stakes were a lot higher — if you discovered a band you loved, you were almost forced into loyalty because it was so much harder to find more of them. And then there’s the mystique. It’s hard to be a mysterious rock star when 20 identical Q&As with you show up in RSS readers every time you put out a record or go on tour.

However, the twilight of heroes, as Alan Moore once termed a never-to-be-seen comic book epic, is also the fault of changing times. In the ’80s and ’90s, musicians railed against pop culture and offered middle fingers to corporations; now, they hawk their songs on every TV commercial and soundtrack opportunity they can find. I’m not against this; the music industry and yes, peg-legged, swashbuckling fans, has failed the musicians. I don’t care who subsidizes art as long as they’re relatively hands off — and honestly, a TV show or a car company might be a better partner than a record label, whose needs tend to be the opposite of envelop-pushing. The prevailing mindset of today is “Fuck art, let’s dance” — or worse, fuck Bob Dylan, let’s pout and sing about being from Sweden. There were a number of would-be heroes at the turn of the decade, but they’ve been lost in the blogwash (and would you want to still be a Hives fan?).

There are bands, of course, who stand taller than the rest — more than any ’00s act, Animal Collective has probably made the biggest impact in influence and relevance. Broken Social Scene would be another, though they’ve begun disappearing into critical irrelevance, and it won’t surprise me if the Arcade Fire go down the same path. By the terms of Matthew and Amanda’s discussion, a “hero” can’t just be a flash in the pan — they have to be able to release album after album. To inspire a following. To be great, continuously. By this logic, of course, we’re left with Coldplay as the decade’s preeminent new band as Radiohead remains the world’s best band, which would be about the same thing as 50 Cent showing up in a movie with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and scoring an Oscar nod. (Stranger things have happened.)

So Panda Bear might really be all we’ve got, a boon for stoners and a bane for anyone who misses Malkmus’ or Moore’s glory days. There are a number of bands I believe in who are planted firmly in the modern age: To name three, The National, Grizzly Bear and Of Montreal — a ’90s act that’s thoroughly reinvented itself for the online era. Only Kevin Barnes, who Matthew mentions, has enough charisma and madness to be a genius for our times, which he most certainly is. Then there’s Ryan Adams, who’s my hero — and in complete seriousness, a contender for artist of the decade — but us Ryan fans are a pretty lonely 150,000. And King Sufjan seems to have abandoned his crown. But then, so did Dylan.

I think we’ll find that heroes come in cycles; while people may not hold today’s damaged frontmen to their hearts as dearly as Malkmus and Pavement or Berman and the Silver Jews or Isaac Brock and Modest Mouse, it’s easy to forget that ’90s indie rock is littered with the broken promo copies of bands who never made out alive. It’s probably for the best — if anyone could be a hero, we wouldn’t need them anymore.

Silver Jews – “Smith & Jones Forever”: mp3
Animal Collective – “The Purple Bottle (Stevie Wonder version): mp3
Of Montreal – “Every Day Feels Like Sunday”: mp3


Critical Backlash is a column where I complain about things.