Critic Bait

Those last two words rolled through my mind when I first read about Perfect Pussy. Well, no, when I first heard the name – I could feel the nervous titillations pulsing through the Internet music community (no one remembers Nashville Pussy?). In fact, “pussy” seems to be the new “bear,” which is the new “wolf,” which is the new “crystal” when it comes to Brooklyn buzz band names. We’re thinking about renaming ourselves “Crystal Bear Wolf Pussy” – it’s like search engine optimization for music critics.

Do I have anything against Perfect Pussy? Well, after ravings about them overtook the sites various music cognoscenti vomit all over, I was thoroughly underwhelmed when I listened to their EP. It’s a good thing they didn’t give the songs real titles (just roman numerals), because I couldn’t tell any of them apart. Basically, it’s driving post-hardcore with a female screamer, awash in ultra lo-fi. Streaming the “full-length” (which is 23 minutes… That’s ridiculous, this isn’t 1963), there’s more differentiation in the songs and the production on the guitars and drums is better, but the singer is still incomprehensible and monotone. Apparently her lyrics are very revelatory, but I can’t understand them because they’re slathered in distortion. I imagined their live shows were energetic, but I’ve read some tepid reviews.

When I read the vinyl would have drops of the singer’s blood, I nearly laughed aloud. In the digital age of click-hunting, these guys are critic bait to the T. But at the same time, I find the antics dull, the same way I found Lady GaGa’s schtick to be an echo of Marilyn Manson. To his credit, I thought he took the theatrics of Alice Cooper and David Bowie to a darker place with biting social commentary. (The critics’ harsh turn on GaGa stems from a possible subconscious realization that they were hoodwinked – average songwriter with good voice and high-budget production values passed herself off as something more. They bought into it, but somehow ARTPOP lifted the veil that I could always see through…) With PP and some other “riotous” hip bands of late, I feel The Butthole Surfers in the 80s, except the current round of shockers don’t have anything on the insanity Gibby Haynes and crew brought to the table 30 years prior.

Granted I’m old and boring; I don’t feel the need for chaos and havoc that fueled 80s punk and art rock. During a milquetoast social period, that was a perfect escape from a world where even the outlandish seems commoditized (i.e., commercial new wave). That may sound like a decent analog for the state of American culture 2014 (on commoditization: replace new wave with “hipster” or or even the over-the-top persona of Kanye West – I do believe he has a fashion line or two), but what’s different in the Great Recession is the lack of stability. In the 80s, the middle class was strong and upward mobility seemed achievable, even ordinary. Punk anger at Reagan and society stemmed a great deal from the conformity and blind acceptance of the masses – if they were doing well, why ask too many questions?

Enter 2014, where anxiety and uncertainty run rampant, the middle class is being squeezed out of existence, drowning in debt is an overwhelming threat and the social safety net seems chock full of holes. Our government is basically being held hostage by a small faction of radicals, and when it does do something good, incompetence mucks up the works. One response would be anger and yelling, but it doesn’t seem right here. Punk was a reaction to willful ignorant bliss in the 80s, but we’re definitely not blissful now. Instead, we’re trying to rid our minds of the fear, helplessness and insecurity that haunts us with every step. Of the fact the future looks grim, and it’s not clear what any of us can do about it when we’re scrambling year to year.

Music of an era becomes poignant when imbued with the underlying societal emotion of the time and place – this made sense with the anger of punk and hardcore in the 80s, with the disillusionment of grunge in the 90s. You could argue the 00s celebrated the democratization of media via the Internet, which is why a great deal of indie was positive and carried a theme of unity. But now is the time of anxiety. Not pithy, self-anxiety, but enormous, overwhelming anxiety.

But I don’t think our current batch of self-anointed critics care, because they too are caught up in the anxiety and unable to see past it. No, the critics and their publications are struggling to bring in funding via advertising, desperate for clicks and audience. Where does that leave Perfect Pussy? Well, they have a “shocking” name and a sound that calls back to another age. It’s a watered down version of something that was powerful and even scary in the past (some of the Butthole Surfers antics still freak me out). The simplest way to garner clicks? Equal parts shock value and nostalgia – I do believe that’s the Buzzfeed mantra.

Earlier this year there was a contentious Daily Beast article claiming that music writing has turned into lifestyle reporting; I agreed with a lot of it. Especially in the mainstream, music is advertised and sold as an accessory because artists are products with extensive lines in different areas. But the “indie” world (whatever that means now) is not immune to this. To pick on the most notable punching bag (even though I believe its influence has waned), I see Pitchfork reviews as the equivalent of J. Peterman catalog descriptions. There’s little music, but lifestyle accessories – it goes along well with these other items already in your wardrobe.

What’s frustrating is Perfect Pussy is sold to us as an alternative band, but they feel like focus-group-tested, press-approved, cookie-cutter alternative – retro post-hardcore with added “shock” value. Already labeled, easy to file. It feels as manufactured as pop music – it’s a lifestyle accessory for the early-20-something “rebel.”

I’m actually sorry to pick on one band in particular. Perfect Pussy seems like it has talent, but it’s been caught up in the lame machinery of the contemporary music industry – the critics are basically PR flacks now. Was the band consciously trying to be critic bait? To some extent, aren’t we all trying to lure in critics with our marketing? Perhaps I’m just jealous because they did a better job baiting the hook. At the same time, their buzz has quickly calmed down following the release of their album (though I bet it will jump up later this year when music writers throw it on their “100 best albums of 2014” lists). I’d like to take that as a sign of the growing irrelevance of critics.

Unfortunately, that irrelevance has kind of made record labels the curators of music – more on that some other time. I guess we celebrated the democratization of media a little early…

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One thought on “Critic Bait

  1. Pingback: The (Further) Decline of MySpace, Homogeneity of Music Sites and Return of Record Labels as Curators | Libel

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