Two White Male Indie Darlings Just Released a Great Record—Do We Care in 2016?

Junior Boys’ 'Big Black Coat' and evolutions in music criticism

unnamed

Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus, a.k.a. Junior Boys. (Photo: Tom Weatherill.)

It’s 2016 and White Men Are Doomed. Not literally doomed, though many might prefer it, but “doomed” to play fair, wrestle with privilege, and, yes, maybe take a back seat for awhile.

That’s especially true for straight white men, if such a group truly exists, and encompasses not only white men who strive to write for The Awl, but blue-collar white men struggling in Bible Belt and flyover states. Which is great, if not functionally for every straight white male then at least symbolically for mankind: Though we have much further to go, reason, empathy, and fairness are finally beginning to more deeply influence social policy, hiring and pay practices, entertainment, and cultural mores, and SWMs (like myself) will either adapt or be left behind.

People are beginning to ask if straight white men should stop writing altogether—an extreme notion, sure, but one not without merit.

Equality’s one thing. In publishing, however, people are beginning to ask if straight white men should stop writing altogether—an extreme notion, sure, but one not without merit. Raising the question, even if hypothetically, forces us to consider why it should be asked at all.

The query’s received nuanced responses. At Electric Literature, the answer was essentially: Yes, but do everything you can to ensure the SWM perspective isn’t getting more exposure than it deserves, and while you’re at it read more books by women, POC, and LGBTQ authors. Amen.

At The Awl: Yes, well no, but yes, if you think writing is a good idea, be the best version of you.

The Awl writer wisely punted on race, linking to Saeed Jones and encouraging reader/inquisitor King of the Patriarchy (really) to “listen to the experience of people of color in the industry (and outside of it).” Again, Amen.

The problem, among other things, is one of access, power and historical imbalance. As Jones notes, white employees comprised 89 percent of payroll in publishing houses as late as 2014. A similar problem haunts journalism, and has since forever. Hence the idea should SWMs write at all? begins gaining steam as an avatar for long-overdue awareness-raising vis-a-vis questions of access, power and historical imbalance.

In 2016, we write more about the socio-political-economic nature of music and musicians than music itself.

You’d have to be a gnarly human not to root for corrections to these problems, and I do, though please put me to pasture if I ever enter, as Rembert Browne denotes so eloquently at Vulture, so woke territory. Likewise I almost welcome my coming irrelevance in culture media, if not as a U.S. voter—that implies change is afoot.

I wonder, though, if there’s a certain point at which our cynicism at the mere mention of the Straight White Male in the more liberal quarters of the web begins generating the very dehumanizing inertia that progressive thought purports to eschew. Surely the eye roll that accompanies nearly every SWM mention on Twitter filters, even if subtly, into, say, how we critique music by SWMs. Which, if true, strikes me as an unintended side effect of an otherwise noble and just sentiment.

This has nagged at me since receiving an advance of Junior Boys’ fantastic new album Big Black Coat, released last Friday.

Publishing fiction and reportage is different than releasing dance music, sure, but current critical discourse is so deeply concerned with race, identity and gender politics that my first instinct wasn’t to meditate on the Canadian duo’s career arc or the myriad eras that Big Black Coat references, as I might’ve done when writing about 2009’s Begone Dull Care. My first thought was: We no longer live in a world in which two indie-ish white men[1] with apolitical instincts (on record) matter in critical dialogue—regardless of the quality of their output or previous acclaim. And I’ve wrestled with whether that’s fantastic or terrible or even true ever since.

The instinct isn’t entirely unfounded, if the minimal media coverage of Big Black Coat is any indication. I also detected very little excitement for the album from critics on Twitter, despite Junior Boys receiving lavish praise in the mid-aughts. Is that because it’s simply not good? No, at least not according to The Atlantic and NPR. Is it just that tastes have evolved? Possibly, but we live in a time when it’s both easy and chic to like music of all styles and commercial appeal (or lack thereof), and Big Black Coat is hardly avant garde.

Maybe social media plays a role, fixating our attention on new Kanye drama to the obsolescence of Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus, who’ve navigated their 17-year career controversy-free. Maybe no one has a chance to make a dent when Beyoncé drops an instantly timeless, gravity-shifting bomb like “Formation,” and maybe that’s exactly how it should be. Or perhaps it’s not either/or, and there really is something to the heat around the idea that we’re just sort of tired of white-guy artists right now, especially if they’re not making overt, narrative-friendly political statements.

Ten years ago, Pitchfork, which then like now served as the bellwether of indie taste, hailed Junior Boys’ second album So This is Goodbye as “among the best records you’ll hear all year.”

The competition, as such, were records like Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House, The Knife’s Silent Shout and Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead, among many other collections that still hold up today. (2006 was to aughts indie as 1984 was to ’80s pop, etc.) That a majority of Pitchfork’s Top 50 albums that year were made by white men surely had nothing to do with racial biases, rather the site tended to have a narrower focus than it does today. No doubt Pitchfork has consistently been liberal in its coverage of scenes and personalities since its founding in 1996, but only in recent years has the site interrogated the socio-political aspects of music so consistently and thoroughly.

I can’t know whether that explains why the site deemed Big Black Coat “one of the highlights of Junior Boys’ discography,” yet saddled the record with one of its confounding best-new-not-Best New 8.0 ratings. My guess is the calculus behind granting Best New Music status—lay readers: this is a big deal—has changed since Pitchfork readily gave Junior Boys’ first two albums that designation, helping assure their ascent. But I feel comfortable speculating that shifts in the way we talk and write about music since 2006 influence why a record that received nothing but praise from Pitchfork would not be worthy of Best New status. Or why, say, The FADER, one of the most prominent voices on electronic music, wouldn’t cover Big Black Coat at all, so far as I can find online, yet featured Junior Boys protege Jessy Lanza the moment she announced a new album. Is that simply a matter of taste?

More likely it’s a reflection of the times, which essentially demand that publishers give deference to artists who ensure clicks and never-ending content. It’s also a matter of narrative and think piece-worthiness: This is unscientific, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, in 2016, we write more about the socio-political-economic nature of music and musicians than music itself. Perhaps that’s because it’s notoriously difficult to write about music itself, and also because we’ve learned in the Twitter/Poptimist/Take-driven milieu that criticism serves a different purpose today than it did in the last two decades.

Readers hardly need music writers to tell them what’s new or what’s good in the era of streaming and YouTube, but there will always be value in more deeply understanding music news and the personalities that drive it. That Jessy Lanza, beyond being very good at what she does, is an ascendent female songwriter/producer in a largely male-dominated space inherently makes her more newsworthy than Junior Boys in 2016.

This critical role more closely resembles the one played by Amiri Baraka, Ellen Willis, Lester Bangs and others writing about jazz, pop, and rock before the web ushered in a criticism more focused on recommendation than identity, gender, and race politics. Pitchfork, for its part, didn’t take long to begin running great commentary, and its section The Pitch is now a go-to repository for polemic, but the site hardly started there. In 2016, one can’t thrive as a music critic without participating in the Music Think Piece Industrial Complex, and that invariably influences not just how we cover music, but who, in increasingly limited quantities, gets covered.

“Writing about pop culture inevitably influences how you process pop culture,” wrote Steven Hyden in 2013. “You wind up thinking in terms of story lines, and how otherwise unrelated phenomena fit into those story lines. And often those story lines shape opinions. For instance, I think one reason why critics seem to like Yeezus more than the general public does is that it slots easily into a number of critic-friendly narratives, whether it’s the one about the ‘provocative and challenging loner genius pushing an art form forward’ or the one about ‘how an album can still form the nucleus of culture.’ As good as Yeezus is musically, the record’s primary attribute (among critics, anyway) is that it’s interesting fodder to think (and then write) about.”

My hope is that we’ll take this opportunity to experiment with a more honest, varied criticism, one that’s less predictable.

Naturally, though, what’s interesting is subjective, and everybody’s doing it is a tenuous critical foundation, at least in the vacuum outside web metrics. And maybe that vacuum no longer exists, telling me everything I need to know about why Big Black Coat won’t be on many year-end lists in 2016. Still, the reality of bottom lines and critic-friendly narratives doesn’t excuse us from interrogating why Kanye or Drake or Grimes or name-your-favorite-headline-generator moves critics to participate so much more willingly in the publicity and consumer inertia that propels these artists into our consciousness day after day—while essentially ignoring artists like Junior Boys.

We talk about endless presidential campaigns as if foisted on us by angry gods from beyond, but rarely has a week passed since Yeezus arrived three years ago that we haven’t readily covered every shred of Kanye’s life or ego. As such, Swish or Waves or So Help Me God or whatever Ye names his new LP will demand that everything be pushed aside tomorrow, February 11, to assess God’s every whim. And that will be fun! But arguably less because we’re fans of Art and more because the writhing maw of Twitter gives us a nice reprieve from having to think very hard about, well, Kanye West. There’s only one way to respond to genius when it’s assumed.

This is the nature of hype, and it—as well as myriad issues regarding how critics participate in marketing—troubled early Village Voice critic Richard Goldstein as much as anyone. (The author Devon Powers devoted an entire chapter to this subject in her fine book Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism.) And, hell, maybe Ye’s new one will be the Great Cultural Artifact we need in 2016—it’s not that wide-spread praise of his work is unfounded, I just have a difficult time parsing honest, well-considered praise versus praise generated from the desire to belong.

In 2016, one can’t thrive as a music critic without participating in the Music Think Piece Industrial Complex, and that invariably influences not just how we cover music, but who, in increasingly limited quantities, gets covered.

The reflexive instinct runs both ways, of course, a point Chuck Klosterman dryly noted the morning King of Limbs dropped to instant droll response in 2011: “I’m sure Radiohead is depressed about these reviews, since they obviously make albums for people to listen to once at 9:20 a.m. on a laptop.” He was commenting on what NPR’s Ann Powers would later call the “ping-pong game of social media”—“We screengrab sounds, pin them down, and squeeze them into retweetable bon mots”—but, for me, Klosterman was also touching a different nerve, namely my aggravation with the trope that most of what Thom Yorke makes now is dull.

Sometimes that’s true, but many times it’s just simply not; Yorke is still innovating—it’s just no longer fashionable to say so. How someone listens to Atoms for Peace’s AMOK and calls it “instantly forgettable,” especially if you saw the record played live, implies that it may’ve never been given serious consideration in the first place. Which, if true, is troublesome considering the historical gravity of Radiohead, especially in view of how much we lionize and dissect Kanye West. Let’s say (God forbid) Thom Yorke died tomorrow: Are we really comfortable saying the guy who wrote “Talk Show Host” and “Weird Fishes” and “Let Down” suddenly chose banality in 2014?

It’s doubtful. More likely we feel as if we’re supposed to feel that way in the current critical environment. And on my more cynical days I wonder if there’s even a hint of overcompensation just beneath the surface, something like shame with respect to how formative Radiohead were for many critics of my generation and what they “represent” about white bourgeois taste—as if one of the biggest-selling bands of the past three decades doesn’t have nonwhite fans. Which, again, fine. Everybody’s Free. You do you. People change. But the instinct for honesty shouldn’t. If Kanye’s new one isn’t “one of the greatest albums” ever, critics should express no fear in saying so. I’ll be first in line to poke holes in the next Radiohead album if it’s not actually good.

I looked at the two white guys in the Junior Boys press photo and thought: ‘Does the world need another 800 words on two white male artists by a straight white male?’ because you can’t not ask that question in 2016.

“The Internet has made taste more performative than ever,” wrote Lindsay Zoladz in 2014, “but it’s always worth keeping in mind that listening to hip-hop doesn’t make you magically exempt from internalized racism, and being a feminist means something a little more than tweeting about how much you just dropped on the Sleater-Kinney box set.”

“I’m all for a more inclusive musical landscape,” she continued, “and I am truly exhilarated by the very tangible steps the pop world has taken in the past few years away from racism, sexism, and homophobia. But music criticism loses out when we fail to be honest with ourselves about the simple truth of what sounds good to us and what doesn’t. It’s O.K. to take unpopular stances and surprise even yourself. It’s O.K. to viscerally love music that offends your sensibilities and be bored by artists that share your political beliefs. Often, the best criticism carves a winding but navigable path through ambiguity.”

Ambiguity. That word doesn’t feel compatible with the current critical milieu, nor with the economics that support it. And yet music is often so ambiguous, not only to individual listeners who process sounds and symbols in wildly different ways, but occasionally to the artists who made the sounds themselves. The reason, to me anyway, that the pre-think-piece-wave early aughts were such an exciting time to be a fan was that, thanks to Napster and Pitchfork and Stereogum, etc. etc. etc., a spirit of gluttonous discovery filled the air, ensuring an environment in which Junior Boys and Lil Wayne could co-exist in the critical sphere.

“What would criticism be like if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great?” asked Carl Wilson in Let’s Talk About Love. “If it weren’t about making cases for or against things? It wouldn’t need to adopt the kind of ‘objective’ (or self-consciously hip) tone that conceals the identity and social location of the author, the better to win you over. It might be more frank about the two-sidedness of the aesthetic encounter, and offer something more like a tour of an aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir.”

“ …A more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors,” he continued, “to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare.”

Wilson echoes Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation”: “The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art—and, by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less, real to us.”

Undoubtedly there will be an enormous amount of criticism written in the coming weeks about Kanye’s new record. My hope isn’t that that’s not actually the case—I’m as intrigued as anyone to hear it—but that we’ll take this opportunity to experiment with a more honest, varied criticism, one that’s less predictable along How Kanye or Why Kanye lines or Is Kanye? lines. There are several reasons that Clover Hope’s essay on Kendrick Lamar made such an impact last year, and from my perspective, one of them is that she conveyed her personal experience so tremendously. Perhaps critics could follow her lead during this cycle.

Junior Boys.

Junior Boys.

“I still can’t remove the knot in my throat at the thought of having to consume this or the feeling that this type of music provokes,” Hope wrote. “It’s funny how much the suffocation of writing about it overlaps with the reality of experiencing it, and how Kendrick has managed to capture that: The dailyness and beauty of black. I decide that my feelings are valid because I’m not alone and because it’s so depressingly and joyously familiar to have to consider your identity over and over, in new ways. As much as the technicality of this is intricate, as music critics we tend to neglect the bodily aspect of it and get lost in descriptions.”

Big Black Coat isn’t an overtly political record, but it’s definitely bodily, like so much of Junior Boys’ work. It’s a stark, propulsive effort, reveling in nostalgia for the styles that informed Greenspan and Didemus’ youth—U.K. funky, disco-funk, Italo, proto-house, industrial, etc.—while subtly redefining what a Junior Boys record can be. The narrative, if it’s important we name one, is that despite being positioned to capitalize on electronic music and alt-R&B’s ascendance in America, a movement Junior Boys influenced, the two followed their instincts and wound up with an elegantly purist effort that will satisfy more electronic music heads than satiate mainstream audiences.

That story has its place. No doubt it contributes to a deeper understanding of Big Black Coat, and I certainly didn’t think to write it. Instead I looked at the two white guys in the Junior Boys press photo and thought: Does the world need another 800 words on two white male artists by a straight white male? because you can’t not ask that question in 2016, and rightly so. Had I followed Wilson’s advice, however, I might’ve gone forth and described what Big Black Coat feels like in headphones walking through Crown Heights on an icy Saturday night—so ready to dance, so sure that if as many people heard Big Black Coat as So This is Goodbye, they’d be ready to turn it up too, regardless what they look like.

[1]For what I hope are obvious reasons, I chose not to ask Junior Boys representatives about the sexual orientation of either member. Regardless, nailing that down would’ve only been relevant if they were notoriously known as a queer or straight act—which isn’t the case. This piece is meant to explore a vague, fluid energy in the culture more than defined bias.

Two White Male Indie Darlings Just Released a Great Record—Do We Care in 2016?