Because it’s obviously not been discussed enough on music blogs and message boards and in the press, let’s try to break down rockism and popism again, shall we? Here, I’ll do it super fast:
Voting for an album or single in Pazz & Jop = popist
Voting for an artist in Pazz & Jop = rockist
Of course that’s stupidly formulaic; so is the entire argument. But it’s one Simon is pushing re: M.I.A. and P&J, so I’ll play along. He argues that anyone convinced that Arular went to no. 2 in the albums poll on its plastic-fun merits is kidding themselves--obviously she’s up there because people find her Meaningful. Given what the company the album is in, what I want to know is who in their right mind actually thinks she won on plastic-fun points. Answer: No one I know and probably no one Simon knows, either, except the strawman he keeps erecting in order to bitch about M.I.A. some more since it’s gotten more obvious that the “she’ll be gone in a year” talk he helped speed along ended up not actually coming true. Now she’ll be gone in two. Or five, or ten, or whatever--the point is, she’ll be gone, damn it, at some future date, and then he can have the last laugh, preferably to the strains of In Memoriam Gilles Deleuze, which I'm sure he still plays all the time.
He can have that last laugh if he wants--given how much I respect, like, and have learned from the guy, I’d hardly begrudge Simon his fun. He might even be right, though the fact that I first heard “Galang,” what do you know, two years ago now and my affection for it and her are essentially unabated does make me wonder. Nevertheless, a few things stand out in Simon’s formulation that seem pretty wrong to me.
For starters, the Arrested Development comparison. Not only does Arular slam where AD glided, M.I.A.’s source material--there’s very little melodic instrumentation on Arular; the beats and bass do much of the non-vocal work--is hardly reassuringly familiar to mom-and-dad types the way 3 Years’ folk and old-soul swipes were. He may well be right about soft-left/middlebrow consensus, but although I haven’t bothered with 3 Years since it bored me stiff 14 years ago, I honestly don’t remember Speech advocating terrorism, however ambivalently. And yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty big difference.
The idea that Los Lobos’ How Will the Wolf Survive? and Elvis Costello’s King of America “didn’t mean diddly outside the crit-bubbleworld” should be rephrased: They didn’t mean diddly inside Simon’s crit-bubbleworld, coming soon to a Dissensus thread near you. I don’t expect Simon to know jack shit about the music No Depression covers anymore than I expect a scene feature on grime in fRoots, but “it’s not my thing at all” does not now and never has translated into “it’s nobody’s thing at all.”
I enjoyed and largely agree with his framework for the poll’s rockist leanings, though it feels closer to the mid-’80s than the early ’70s in terms of deja vu, maybe because most of the singer-songwriters are in bands rather than solo-with-studio-backup. (As far as lit-rock goes, I feel almost churlish bringing this up, but that’s what people have been calling the Decemberists for a couple years now. Damn it, another neologism already claimed!)
If Arular has a precedent in P&J it isn’t any of the albums Simon claims (and before I forget, he’s absolutely right about Graham Parker’s third album, as much a curio today as Arrested Development), it’s Moby’s Everything Is Wrong, No. 3 in 1995. On that album, an auteur-type bedroom recordist crafted a shortish pop-formatted guide through versions of a bunch of strains of club-oriented music that a lot of aging critics (not old, per se, but late-20s on--old enough to go clubbing less often, at least) sort of liked but couldn’t quite get a handle on. He wasn’t shy about doing interviews, either. And he preceded his big move with a couple of underground club hits memorable enough to land on critics’ polls before the album dropped. Moby went on to a pretty lucrative career; M.I.A. might or might not. But strictly in album terms, that’s how Arular strikes me. Whether this means whatever comes next will receive guaranteed set-aside votes remains to be seen. When the White Stripes and the New Pornographers land in the top ten with their least interesting albums, what do you blame, old-favorites syndrome or a shitty year? Probably both, but still.
Arular making the top of my own list has relatively little to do with my weariness with the arguments she’s engendered. For one thing, I don’t care whether she’s Important or not; she can make 50 lousy follow-ups and that album is still going to sound great to me. (So maybe the point of comparison is actually Tricky, by whom I never need hear anything again that isn’t on Maxinquaye, aside from “Poems”--Woebot got that so, so right.) For another, how ironic is it that a whole lot of the people who agree with the Simon brigade about M.I.A. tend to be the kind of Guided by Voices fan-addicts who rise to the bait everytime I offer it on ILM? Now there’s a bipartisan committee. (For some reason, M.I.A.’s lack of sales keeps being brought up by members of both parties. Just like the Ghost Box and Fading Captain catalogues, right? How is this even an issue?)
It’s interesting, too, how much the anti-M.I.A. argument resembles that of another female artist a lot of people were absolutely positively certain would be gone from the public consciousness in a year, or two, or five, or however long: Britney Spears. I am horrible at predicting these things, but I think it’s pretty safe to say M.I.A. will never be that famous--she doesn’t seem like she wants to, for one thing, and ever at her poppiest her appeal is basically aesthetic. Whether she becomes actually-famous or not on any level is something I have no way of predicting, but then again, that’s not my problem. It’s a strawman’s.