By Arye Dworken
In the past year, there’s been a palpable tension between rock critics and â€œregular people.â€ In fact, based on the vocal support for Christopher R. Weingarten‘s tirade at the Twitter-centric 140 Conference, most of the snoberatti believe that, yes, â€œthe people [do] have awful tasteâ€ (citing Fleet Foxes’ popularity as a specific example).
â€œ[It’s] boring, bland, white people guitar music,â€ explains the Brooklyn-based freelancer. â€œIt fucking sucks and I hate it.â€
This burgeoning resentment towards blogs has led critics to champion divisive bands (Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, Wavves) in mainstream publications, sparking a movement away from accessibility, as if to say “my ear buds are more developed than yours.” In my 10 years as a critic, I have never felt so caught in the middle. I understand the aforementioned artists and their brainy appeal but listening to Veckatimest all the way through feels like doing the Times‘ Sunday crossword puzzle–satisfying, frustrating and, ultimately, exhausting. On the other hand, the recent championing of pop acts like Phoenix (who’s sudden popularity, four albums in, is perplexing to say the least) and Little Boots hint that global warming has even frightened musicians into recycling ideas.
Passion Pit, the object of my initial resistance to all of the above, is nothing new. Nor is it, as Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen cloyingly declares, even remotely cool. â€œTheir approach to danceable rock music is more Friday night than year-end-list,â€ Cohen writes in his Manners review. â€œIt’s also distinctly, for a lack of a better term, American. It’s extroverted, brash, and unconcerned with nuance, each synthesizer used for maximum melodic impact instead of texture.â€ Other positive Passion Pit pieces have also featured back-handed jabs, including reviews in Filter (“I can already sense the love-it-or-leave-it polarization for listeners”) and Entertainment Weekly (“while the midtempo tunes often venture into cheesy ’80s-pop territory, the album’s dense sound rewards repeat listens”).
My initial problem with Passion Pit was simple: frontman Michael Angelakos sounds like Doug Marsch covering the Bee Gees over Hot Chip outtakes. Meanwhile, his backing band looks like extras from Freaks and Geeks–more at home in an Apple store uniform than the role of a “rock star.” Or as Jon Caramanica said in a New York Times review of Passion Pit’s recent Bowery Ballroom performance, â€œThe show, like the record, suggested that even though Mr. Angelakos’ mood had morphed, his skill set and that of his band had not.”
I witnessed the same show as Caramanica, and have to admit that there’s something inherently charming in seeing Passion Pit live, in feeling the Bowery Ballroom floor expand and contract from the audience’s collective jumping. So much so, that it made me finally appreciate Passion Pit’s album. (I’m still not sure why Caramanica had been so unimpressed; maybe he prefers being surrounded by teenage girls.) At numerous points throughout the night, it was difficult to discern what were backing vocals and what were enthusiastic fans simply singing along, like during the deceivingly sweet “Little Secrets.”
Simply put, Saturday night boasted a genuine/saccharine atmosphere that would make Sunn O))) fans suffer from diabetic shock. It felt strange witnessing a buzz-worthy act without the latter half of the venue whining about how bored they were. And while it would be difficult to imagine Angelakos maintaning his heliumed voice throughout a 50-minute set, he made it through unstrained. This alone is commendable–I just wonder how many years he’ll be able to maintain it without resorting to castration.
Cohen’s P-fork remark (â€œTheir approach to danceable rock music is more Friday night than year-end-listâ€) irritated me after the show as I thought about the widening gap between his two distinctions. “Friday night” presumably means fun, accessible, amenable, and comfortable, while, again, presumably, “year-end list” means critical, challenging, and arduous (like Panda Bear’s Person Pitch or the Knife’s Silent Shout, two records that scream â€œI get it.â€). Why can’t our year-end lists include every day of the week? Blogging, or being a critic, isn’t always about calling it first. It’s about simply enjoying music and sharing it with others. And since music discovery has developed from a third-world dictatorship (You will like Japandroids! You will like Woods!) into a democracy, I can’t help but think that critics resent this fossilization, that they’re intentionally taking all the enjoyment out of music by preemptively dismissing the tastes of the masses. That’s like a Starbucks barista serving coffee while dismissing the customer’s skinny triple shot latte.