BBelle & Sebastian aren’t exactly the kind of band you’d expect to cause controversy. The lithe, pretty, melodic lines that support clever, sometimes heartwrenching lyrics seem more likely to serve as lullabies to the hipster set, not material for rabid contention.
But for the intense emotional attachment their first two albums created in a fanbase of music aficionados set the stage for a little controversy. For their last two albums, the band has moved in a poppier, brighter direction – what some fans, bereft of the music they thought was theirs, might even call “commercial.”
In a recent interview with Under the Radar, frontman Stuart Murdoch commented on the phenomenon: “There is absolutely no point in pandering to anybody, no matter if it’s your loyalest fan . We try to please ourselves.”
He has a point. Fans and artists have always contended over shifts in direction, changes in a group’s lineup, but listeners’ dissatisfaction would be mostly reflected in record sales. Hitting musicians in the pocketbook, whether they stand to make thousands or millions, sends a quiet, yet direct message.
But now, anyone with a LiveJournal can slash to ribbons the year’s work of an artist. As listeners, of course, we’re going to form opinions about what we hear – and if we hate something, we don’t just shrug and add the disc to our coaster collection. We dissect condemned songs, albums and even whole catalogues, separating the sublime from the trash, the great from everything else. And no matter how much material tips the scales in favor of the artists’ ideas, media, construction or overall sound, we’ll vilify them for the missteps they’ve made, no matter how few.
I’m not saying that listeners, especially critics, shouldn’t be, y’know, critical. But at the same time, pop-music connoisseurs – those who, by definition, are followers of not only the best and brightest, but the weirdest, worst, most extreme and laughable recorded music – all have to battle our inner demons.
Inside every critic, published or armchair, is a two-faced, ego-driven, ravenous force, both spectator and analyst, enthusiastic acolyte and an artist’s worst nightmare. This force sparks our love of music, creates our constant need for new albums to consume, drives the search for new imports and provides the motivation to take eight-hour road trips to see Bob Dylan live when you already know he’s coming to your town a few weeks later. You want it now. Admit it: Inside, you’re part smarmy teenager whose fragile ego is bolstered by the size, scope and rigorously maintained quality of her record collection and part hopeful naif who crumbles with sentimentality at the thought of ever again basking in the revelatory glow she got the first time she heard Revolver or Bikini Kill’s singles.
In short, we derive pleasure from exulting in and detracting from the work of our favorite musicians – not just in consuming their product, which is the reason we tend to come back for more even when The Green Album robs our pathetic lives of a precious 28 minutes or when Prince just kind of decides to start sucking.
And there’s nothing wrong with trash-talking when a Yoko infiltrates your favorite band or a great songwriter sounds like he’s taking way too few mind-altering substances. But the notion that we – listeners, critics, consumers – are owed a goddamn thing by the artists whose work we purchase and enjoy is simply false. We pay for the album; they provide us with the music of thousands of listens, recommendations, makeout sessions, car trips, emotional breakdowns. Brian Wilson’s magnum opus Smile was put off for 35 years because the other Beach Boys (and eventually Wilson himself) thought it wouldn’t be well received. Of course, there’s another side to this: Weezer, guilty of one of the most egregious fan betrayals of the past decade, lost a million sensitive geek-rockers and gained 10 million listeners who didn’t give a fuck that what the band was producing, suddenly, was shit.
We have to make responsible decisions as critics. While the intensity that a visceral but innately immature reaction to music we feel we have a stake in might make us feel powerful, or make us feel connected to something greater, we should fairly appraise the work of the artists we respect enough to shell out a paltry $13.99 to hear. They make art; we criticize art – and art demands more than a visceral reaction. If anything, we owe them a few more spins to fairly evaluate their work.
– Jones promises never to say “sell out” again. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.