August 18th, 2010 1:00am
Interview with Rob Sheffield, Part Three
My interview with Rob Sheffield, author of the new book Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, continues here. In this part of our conversation, we discuss the “First-Week One-Listen Piffle” school of music criticism, buying albums on the day of release, and the way drugs ruined the rock stars of the ’90s.
Rob Sheffield: One thing about albums in the 80s and 90s is they stayed around for a while. You kept listening, if you were at all intrigued, and picked out things that fully revealed themselves months later. It wasn’t like the current “one week and it’s over” hype cycle.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, it’s such a bummer. I feel like I’m just boring people when I feel compelled to go back to a record from six months ago.
Rob Sheffield: That’s why I loved how you wrote about Joanna Newsom LAST WEEK!
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, if there was ever a record to slowly pick apart over years, that’s the one. That album is like this elaborate mansion and there’s rooms I barely remember being in.
Rob Sheffield: I love how people like LCD Soundystem and Joanna Newsom are putting out these records that simply refuse to be absorbed in a week. Yet people still just write about them in the first week, then they feel afraid to go back and write about how these records sound different months later, like it would seem corny or out-of-touch to listen to a record you like for 6 months and hear something new in it.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, actually a lot of the really great albums now are like that. The artists are revolting! “You’re going to pay attention or fuck off!”
Rob Sheffield: Yeah! See, I still haven’t heard that Joanna Newsom record because I had trouble getting the last one — loved the first — and so I thought, I’ll let my friends who are big fans, and critics who are big fans, sort this one out, tell me how to get into this record, where to start, what to keep in mind. So I thought, I’ll wait to listen and see what people are saying a few weeks from now, and what happened is, a few weeks later, nobody was writing about that album any more. So I want to read something like “Okay, I’ve been listening to this record for 6 months, and here’s what I think.” But all the reviews of that record? Late February, and they’re all based on a week of speed-listening.
Matthew Perpetua: Right. But that album is so dense, you might be waiting a while longer to get the big thoughtful response. Liz Colville wrote some extended posts about some of the individual tracks.
Rob Sheffield: It’s the FWOLP school of criticism– First-Week One-Listen Piffle. Every record now gets its FWOLP cycle.
Matthew Perpetua: Some great albums can thrive in that, like Sleigh Bells. That’s a totally modern album in a way that it will eventually sound super-dated. But I love it to bits.
Rob Sheffield: I got the last Mojo magazine in the mail, and they had a Joanna Newsom feature, and I was like, oh yeah, she put out a triple album a few months ago. People wrote FWOLP reviews, and I found them useless, so I figured I’d wait for some thoughtful commentary on it, but 5 months went by and now it’s like people forget the album even happened! Whereas Liz Phair makes her record specifically geared to the FWOLP cycle.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, and doesn’t it seem like Vampire Weekend’s second album came out two years ago instead of January?
Rob Sheffield: Perfect example! Or the Spoon record.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah. In October it’ll be like “Wait, did Arcade Fire come out this year?”
Rob Sheffield: It’s sad to say, but the first week one-listen response to a record is very often the least interesting response. It’s funny because pop fans now have longer attention spans than rock fans, and longer memories! Pop fans are still getting into the Gaga and Ke$ha songs from a year ago. and pop fans have legacy artists, whether it’s Rihanna or Beyonce. But rock fans seem to be stuck in this opening-week-bonanza mindset, and that has nothing to do with how music is meant to be heard and lived with.
Matthew Perpetua: I think a lot of the internet is chasing after the new shiny thing, and I get that totally, but it’s making people lazy and fickle and I hate that. The thing that aggravates me is how it seems like some people don’t even want artists to be consistent, and to keep putting out good, interesting work. They want them to make one classic, and then go away because there’s something new now. For some reason, a lot of people have a hard time finding it amazing that Spoon has made six excellent albums in a row. It’s more exciting that some kid made a demo, and you can get slightly ahead of the curve on it. I like new stuff obviously, but I strongly value consistency and development and catalog.
Rob Sheffield: A few years ago somebody in Pazz & Jop wrote “When will artists understand nobody cares about them after their first record?” Now it’s gotten to, “When will artists understand nobody cares about the record AFTER it comes out?” It’s like the day an album is released, people feel like there’s something dirty or improper about talking about it, or admitting they’re finding new things in it they missed the first time around.
Matthew Perpetua: It’s hubris to think that you just got everything going on on a few listens. That you’re so much smarter than the artist. When an artist is really good I’m always going to assume they know something I don’t. I don’t think people respect artists and writers and musicians as much as we used to. I think it’s all been devalued economically and culturally. Everything seems to be worth less now.
Rob Sheffield: I wonder why. But music is connected to memory after all… it’s meant to be lived it, and absorbed. Don’t get me wrong, I like how there are now all these “sneak preview” advance reviews, but those are almost always the least interesting reviews. The LCD Soundsystem record got all its FWOLP insta-reviews, most of them pretty positive, but after living with that album for six months — and loving it from the first listen — I’m just starting to really get how sad it is, how hurtful it is, how angry it is.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah. “I Can Change” totally opened up for me a few weeks ago. It went from being this song I love a lot to being this song that resonated with my experience.
Rob Sheffield: Right on. I loved that song from the very start, but I feel like it’s gotten deeper and scarier for me over time. I can’t imagine going back and reading anything anybody wrote about it in May, based on the first couple listens. It’s almost like rock fans are embarrassed to admit to the emotional entanglement involved. They’re afraid to commit emotionally to an album for a few months, whereas pop fans don’t have those hang-ups at all. So it’s really reversed in a way. Z-100 will still play “Telephone,” but indie bloggers won’t touch Joanna Newsom with a bargepole.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, specific to “I Can Change” I kinda regret writing about it back then because I think I probably have more to say now. I’ll come back to it in the future. I usually use December as a time to get back to things that stuck with me for a while.
Rob Sheffield: There’s nothing wrong with a “first impression” response to music, but it doesn’t end there, unless the music is too mediocre to hold up.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, I rarely write up stuff now unless I’ve known it for a little bit. The exceptions are usually good but sorta minor songs, when I’m low on material. I think I lost a lot of audience when I stopped caring if people got to things first. When I started caring about having things posted around release date because I wanted people to buy a record.
Rob Sheffield: One of the funny things about the 80s was when you’d go to the record store the day the album came out, and hope they’d be playing it in the store. I remember when David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album came out, being in a Strawberries on Newbury Street with a bunch of people casually flipping through LPs, and we’re all hearing the song “Modern Love” for the first time, and people start nodding and doing double takes and making inappropriate eye contact like “Hey, um, are you hearing what I’m hearing? Is it just me? This song is really happening right now, right?” You assumed you weren’t going to use up the album in a couple of plays, and if you did, you felt like you’d wasted your money buying it.
Matthew Perpetua: I think I got in on the last legs of that experience in the mid 90s.
Rob Sheffield: I lined up outside a record store at midnight to buy Guns N Roses’ Use Your Illusion in 1991. I mean, it was a Monday night in Charlottesville. What else did we have to do?
Then we took it home and played the living fuck out of it for months. Sorting the good songs from the bad ones, that was part of the fun!
Matthew Perpetua: I have memories of begging people to drive me to the mall to get a new album on the day of release.
Rob Sheffield: What records did you get the day they came out?
Matthew Perpetua: Oh man, a lot, too much to remember. I distinctly remember getting Wowee Zowee the day it came out. I have a strong memory of being at this mall that was just starting to fold, and getting Boys For Pele and my friend going through the album art in his car.
Rob Sheffield: Boys for Pele — excellent album art! It’s funny, the finished album of Wowee Zowee was very different from the advance tape. Different mixes, different sequencing, just a totally different album. That’s part of why it got such indifferent reviews. The advance-tape dilemma was the advance-leak dilemma of the 90s!
Matthew Perpetua: I remember being 13 or so and totally desperate to get Pearl Jam’s Vs. on the first day.
Rob Sheffield: Vs., now that was a real release-day event.
Matthew Perpetua: I don’t think a lot of people now remember or know how huge Pearl Jam was back then. Rock bands simply don’t get that popular these days.
Rob Sheffield: True. Vs. and Vitalogy have a lot of that “Psychic Hearts” mood, too.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, this was truly the era when even macho rock gods were earnestly trying to write feminist songs. I wanted to do a 33 1/3 book on Vitalogy and a lot of it was going to be trying to figure out why all of this liberalism in popular rock music abruptly fell out of favor in 1995/1996.
Rob Sheffield: Even Stone Temple Pilots had to drop the word “feminism” into their interviews, out of sheer commercial self-preservation. That’s one of the things about 90s pop culture that receded badly in the early 2000s. People got extremely uptight about gender roles. Especially in pop music, where these rules had been tested and debated and taken apart over the previous few years.
Matthew Perpetua: If you look at what was going on politically, it’s not such a mystery. Newt Gingrich and the Republican control of the House and Congress, the Telecom act deregulating radio so that conservative corporations could lock everything down.
Rob Sheffield: Well, but also, so many of these great 90s bands, who were exploring all these interesting ideas about music and sexuality in public and they fell apart because of drugs. It’s really heartbreaking how many of that moment’s great bands fell apart for the same reason, because they had the same taste in drugs as Motley Crue. Urtkay Obainkay, and the Breeders, and the Meat Puppets, and Elastica, and Pulp, and Blur, and Suede, and even the fucking Stone Temple Pilots. We could go on and on. And once those bands fell apart drug-wise, nobody stepped up to replace them on that level. So the idea of rock songs as something that happened in public, rock songs as ways for huge groups of people to have mass conversations about the stuff that really mattered in their lives, that fell apart too. But trading Kurt Cobain for Eminem, like trading Clinton for Bush — it happened so suddenly, and to a large extent pop culture is still reeling from the shock of that.