Notebook: Kanye, Deafheaven and the myth of universal acclaim

G.O.O.D Music

By Jake Offenhartz, For the Daily
Published September 10, 2013

I’m beginning to have my doubts about this whole music criticism thing and, in turn, have begun to question everything about myself as a music fan. This concerns me greatly — as I’m sure it does you, empathetic reader — and so let us now dive into the catalyst of my distress.

Kanye West’s Yeezus and Deafheaven’s Sunbather are my two favorite albums of 2013. As you probably already know, the former is the sixth LP from one of pop music’s most divisive and enduring figures. As you may not know, the latter is the sophomore release from a previously (mostly) unheard of San Francisco-based black metal outfit. Superficially, these albums share nothing in common. Upon closer examination however, the two records of disparate genres are not only related, but can together illuminate a greater truth about the current state of music criticism.

According to Metacritic, a website that weighs averages from mainstream critics and assigns normalized grades on a 100-point scale, Yeezus scored an 85, while Sunbather earned a whopping 92 — making it the year’s best-reviewed new release.

So what’s the issue here? My two favorite albums this year are nearly unanimously adored by people who, like myself, write about music. According to Metacritic standards, both Yeezus and Sunbather are “universally acclaimed.” I should be comforted in the warmth of collective appreciation, and normally I would, if not for one minor technicality: It’s complete and utter bullshit.

Yeezus is less universally agreed upon than a Syrian ground invasion. My 17-year-old sister likes it, a couple of my indie-blog-reading friends like it, but for the most part, everyone I know who listens to rap thinks it’s either awful or OK. Even the devout Kanye fans I know are largely ambivalent, many of them given pause by the album’s minimalist, industrial overcoat. And yet, it’s Pitchfork’s highest-rated album this year.

Sunbather — deemed “one of the best albums of the year, thus far” by both Spin and NPR — exists in a similarly befuddling domain. Amid hissed vocals, streaking walls of melodic guitar, and intermittent blast beats, the seven-track masterpiece employs a shoegaze ambiance and emotional lyricism that subverts the framework of black metal. This, along with the album art’s lack of inverted crosses, has effectively alienated the band from the insular black metal community in which it would presumably belong. Essentially, Sunbather is a black metal album for people who don’t like black metal while still being heavy enough to alienate a vast majority of people who find metal unlistenable.

So why the misleading consensus among music critics about these two albums? For one, both are innovative, risk-taking efforts from enigmatic artists who refuse to be shelved within one single genre. In the eyes of the critics, the supposed tastemakers, the fact that Yeezus is not a rap album and Sunbather is not a black metal album is the very quality that makes each so spectacular.

It’s also the same reason that each LP has attracted so much scorn within its respective genre. And while I agree with the critics that both albums are, in fact, spectacular, it’s worth considering that this critical disconnect might be more harmful than it seems. That embracing the palatable elements of black metal — which is anti-mainstream by its very nature — as the newest trend to hop on, might be doing a disservice to those who actually listen to the subgenre. That a nearly unanimous critical response to Yeezus might not be entirely indicative of the album’s quality, but could possibly reflect an undiversified stock of mainstream music critics. To that end, it’s worth questioning if pop music critics, hungry for the next crossover hit, could play a role in destroying the authentic and vibrant communities that make independent scenes so great.

Once upon a time, hip hop was the counter-culture, the “fuck you” to status quo pop and homogeneous rock. At the recent VMAs, Macklemore — who embodies our current culture more than he counters it — took home best hip-hop video of the year, while Miley Cyrus’s twerking and Justin Timberlake’s gyrating hammered home the point that hip hop is as gentrified as Williamsburg.

For the black metal traditionalist, there is no bigger fear. And though Disney tweens likely won’t be burning crosses anytime soon, there’s no reason to think that the fringe spirit of black metal can’t go the way of hip hop: hijacked by people who wear flannel shirts and cross their arms at shows where, historically, people do not wear flannel shirts and cross their arms. Co-opted by people who think it’s acceptable to invent a new genre by throwing the word “post” in front of it. By people who grew tired of boilerplate indie rock and have since set their sights on new cultures to appropriate. By people who think Yeezus and Sunbather are the best albums of the year.