Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at email@example.com.
Steven, could you go off at length about Jon Caramanica’s take on albums? — Lou from Warwick, R.I.
Hey Lou, Happy New Year! I was hoping that someone would ask me this, as I would like to expound on my rather tersely worded tweet on the subject.
For those who don’t know what we’re talking about: Last week, the New York Times published an article in which the paper’s pop critic, Jon Caramanica, expounded on “the utility of the album.” In Caramanica’s estimation, streaming services and social media platforms like TikTok have rendered the album obsolete for modern audiences.
“As awful as it sounds, an album is simply a data dump now,” Caramanica said. “That doesn’t mean that some artists won’t continue to aim to be auteurs of the form — say, Taylor Swift or Adele — but the minute albums hit streaming services, they are sliced and diced and the songs are relegated to playlist slots, and everything after that is a crap shoot. The truth is that albums worked as a medium only because everyone was a captive. When you look back at your favorite older albums now, I’m sure you see the weak spots that you’d happily have programmed out if you had the technology then.”
Now, some of what Caramanica says here is undeniably true. When an album goes up on Spotify or Apple Music, many listeners don’t listen them front to back, they do indeed “slice and dice” them into playlists or simply skip around among their choice cuts. But the part about how albums worked “only” because audiences had no other way to hear music — meaning that 21st-century technology has finally freed listeners from this so-called LP prison — not only rubs me the wrong way philosophically, it’s also just flat-out factually incorrect.
Back when I was a tween in the late 1980s, I would frequently tape my favorite songs off the radio on my crappy little boombox. Or I would borrow a cassette or CD from a friend and “dub” my own copy, often singling out my favorite tracks and excising the rest. This technology is primitive compared to what we have now, of course, but it accomplished the same ends. In fact, it was an easy and entirely effective way to “slice and dice” albums into the individual tracks I loved. (This is doubly true of the iTunes era of the mid-aughts, which made buying individual songs possible, to say nothing of the millions who simply pirated music at the time.)
Now, I’m sure there were music critics at the time who mused that home taping (or iTunes or online pirating) meant the end of the album. Actually, I know there were, because I’ve been hearing about “the end of the album” for pretty much as long as I’ve been listening to them. And yet albums continue to be made and heard and loved and debated over. Why?
What bothered me most about the Times article is that it frames art purely in terms of how it is received in the marketplace, without at all taking into account the intention of artists. The simple fact is that albums still exist because artists want to make them. I’m not just talking about critically adored indie darlings here. (Please don’t position this as another round in the endless and lame rockism vs. poptimism war.) As even Caramanica concedes, many of the most popular artists in the world — Taylor Swift, Adele, Beyonce, Billie Eilish, Kendrick Lamar, I could go on — consciously craft albums as complete statements. Even when they know full well that many or even most listeners might not digest their music that way, they make albums anyway. Just like filmmakers continue to make movies that are intended to be seen in cinemas, all while knowing that many viewers will be content to watch them on their phones. Artists do this because they care about the art form first, no matter the realities of the commercial world, as they should.
Now, I think it’s clear that I love albums, probably much more than Caramanica. I respect his perspective, and acknowledge that millions of people more or less share it. But the assertion that albums “only” work when people have no other options — or that even classic albums would be improved by getting rid of the “weak spots” — is only true for those who never had much use for the format to begin with. (One person’s “data dump” is another person’s “potentially life-changing work of art.”) For now, I’ll leave it at that. Nobody needs to hear a “deep listening over time can transform those so-called weak spots into your favorite songs!” lecture for the umpteenth time.
I just want to push against this notion of caring only about the corporate middlemen who run streaming services and social media platforms when evaluating the relevance of albums. Don’t the intentions and wishes of artists also matter? I would argue they do at least as much, if not far more. (Or they should, anyway, for music critics.) I don’t doubt that platforms like TikTok will change (or have already changed) how music is made and packaged, and I’m curious to see how that affects the experience of listening. But if technology was going to kill the album altogether, it would have already done so a long time ago. Besides, does everything have to be a binary? Can’t playlists and decontextualized TikTok videos coexist with the old-fashioned album? Isn’t it likely that all of these things, and more, already coexist in many listening diets?
When I was a home-taping tween more than 30 years ago, I still listened to albums because even at that age I understood that they offered a different experience from just listening to random songs I liked. For me, that experience was often deeper and more profound. Fortunately, there are still many of us — listeners and artists alike — who derive a lot of pleasure and fulfillment out of the format, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
What are your thoughts on the current state of rock documentaries? A working-class band today will release a 15-minute mini-doc on YouTube and a major artist like Taylor Swift will do a big glossy Netflix documentary – both types feel more like promotions than actual films. Will there ever be a version of The Last Waltz or DIG! or I Am Trying to Break Your Heart for today’s artists? — Matt from Chicago
Hey Matt, you hit upon the issue I have with many of the rock documentaries I see these days. For instance, I really enjoyed HBO’s recent rock doc, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in that band or just music films in general. However, as you say, it does feel like a promotion at times, particularly when the film fails to even mention the single biggest debacle of the band’s career, the 1978 film adaptation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There is no narrative reason to do this — it’s a super interesting part of their story! — and leaving it out actually distorts the band’s history. If all you know about The Bee Gees is from this movie, you would think that there was a backlash against them in the late ’70s solely because racist yahoos from the middle of the country were blowing up disco records. While that’s certainly part of the story, it’s also true that The Bee Gees were hurt by their own bad choices and hubris. Excising that stuff hurts the movie both as entertainment — again, Sgt. Pepper is a fascinating and unintentionally hilarious failure — and as journalism.
The impulse to whitewash the bad or embarrassing chapters out of a band or artist’s narrative is the single biggest weakness of most music documentaries I’ve seen in the past decade or so. It’s worth noting that the rock films that people remember — like the ones you mentioned, or Alison Ellwood’s highly rewatchable The History Of The Eagles — are usually the most candid. And that frankness actually makes the subjects more likable, even a band as hateable as The Eagles.
The Boygenius EP is one of my favorite records of the last few years. I like all three musicians’ solo work too, but that EP holds a special place in my heart, probably because I’ve always loved Crosby, Stills and Nash. And Boygenius was pretty overt in the way they invited comparisons to CSN. Now, I have no idea if there’ll be any more music from Boygenius as a collective, but if there is, my question for you is: Do they continue the bit and get themselves a Neil Young figure? — Ben from Philadephia
So, I’m going to break my answer into two parts. First, if they decided to, as you say, “get themselves a Neil Young figure,” I feel like there is one obvious choice. Like Neil, she’s an iconoclast. She’s independently minded. And she doesn’t really belong in a group, as she tends to overshadow anyone who comes into her orbit. I could see her drifting in and out of Boygenius, to the occasional delight and frequent consternation of her bandmates.
The choice here is Mitski.
Now, here’s the other part of my answer, which is whether they should get a Neil Young figure. And my answer to that is “no.” I actually prefer CSN without the Y. That’s not a judgment on Neil Young, who is obviously the best overall artist in the collective. It’s just that CSN guys complement each other really well, while Neil acts as a chaos agent in that band. That’s because Neil doesn’t need to be in that band like the other guys do. I feel like Neil actually screws up the dynamic for that reason. And I wonder if Mitski would do the same in Boygenius. So … forget I said anything.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.