Ask A Music Critic: Whatever Happened to Gnarls Barkley?

Cultural Critic
04.06.18 5 Comments

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Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at steve.hyden@uproxx.com.

Do you think reading a critic’s praise of an album could ever have a detrimental affect on the listener? Like, I listened to that Amen Dunes album, but I didn’t like it as much as critics did. Would I have liked it more if I was going in with a blank slate? — Joe from Philadelphia

Let me answer the second question first: Would you have even heard about the Amen Dunes album without reading those enthusiastic reviews written by scribes like yours truly? Maybe. But maybe not. Let’s be honest: Probably not.

Amen Dunes is hardly a mainstream pop act. The only reason we’re talking about Damon McMahon’s latest album Freedom is because some critics have talked it up as one of 2018’s best indie releases. For all the talk about whether criticism still matters, there are still numerous instances every year of albums that would wither away in obscurity if not for the boosterism of music writers. Rescuing great music from the scrap heap of indifference and giving it a signal boost is the noblest part of this profession.

Whether you think the hype about Amen Dunes is justified or overblown, I like that critics are still willing to get behind a relatively obscure underground act and nudge them into a conversation that is otherwise dominated by pop artists. Also, I happen to think that record is really, really good, so I’m more than happy to add fuel to the hype fire.

Now to your first question: In a recent episode of my Celebration Rock podcast, I confessed to Pitchfork reviews editor Jeremy Larson that I often have to resist the “good is the enemy of great” trap. This is when you hear an album, think to yourself “this is pretty good,” and then decide that you hate it because everybody else is like “OMG it’s a total masterpiece.” Every year, there’s at least a couple of albums that fall into this category, and I can be slow to get past my personal baggage and appreciate those records for what they are.

So, yes, I think what you’re describing is fairly common and probably a weakness of human nature. But it’s in our best interest to get over that. In your case, I would suggest sticking with that Amen Dunes record. Put “Believe” on repeat until you see the light.

A while ago I remember you tweeted something to the effect of “Ellen Willis > Lester Bangs.” Do you actually believe this and why? — Ross from Louisville

I know I should be offended by the implication that one of my tweets might in fact be B.S. But I know deep down that I have gone off half-cocked (or full of whiskey) on occasion.

However, I really do believe that Ellen Willis is a better critic than Lester Bangs.

When I was a teenager, I looked up to Lester as all young rock-critic dudes do. And there are still pieces of his that I revere, particularly his beautiful appreciation of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, which is one of the greatest rock-crit essays ever, and his definitive Elvis Presley obituary. But the real Bangs has long since been overshadowed in the popular consciousness by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal in Almost Famous. He’s now a cuddly big brother figure to aspiring critics everywhere, a lonely teddy bear who’s always there to snuggle you when you’re in the weeds.

The fictional Bangs is a lovable genius. The real Bangs was a hit-or-miss stylist who probably couldn’t be published on most music websites now — not because of his truth bombs, but rather because a lot of his writing is riddled with purple prose and reactionary contrarianism. Bangs inarguably is the most rock ‘n’ roll rock critic ever — he’ll be an indestructible archetype for as long as rock records exist. But I’m rarely moved to read him anymore.

As for Willis, my tweet was inspired by recently revisiting the excellent 2011 posthumous essay collection Out Of The Vinyl Deeps. While Bangs’ work — even his top-shelf material — is dated to the ’70s, so much of Willis’ criticism from her time at The New Yorker reads like it could’ve been published last week. (Look no further than Molly Fischer’s tremendous essay on “the great awokening” from earlier this year that culminated with a nod to Willis’ classic 1977 piece “Beginning To See The Light,” which eerily sums up the contradictions of “problematic” music that so vexes critics in 2018.)

No music critic was better at writing about how gender and class intersect with pop music. Few critics were also as good at capturing what is fun, sexy, stupid, and thrilling about pop. Ellen Willis could think and feel simultaneously, a trick most critics never quite master. Willis died in 2006, but I’m still moved to read her to help me understand the music I’m hearing now.

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, the genre of music you primarily listened to could be a huge part of your identity. Metalheads, goths, emo kids, ravers, just to name a few. It actually said something about you, that you made an effort to listen to something outside the mainstream. It seems like that’s now lost, starting in the age of downloading and accelerating as streaming became the norm. Can music and specifically genre ever be a personal identifier again? — Matt from Jupiter, Fla.

Genre tribalism seems less prevalent now, but it will never go away completely. There will always be metalheads, and punks, and goths, and all the other groups that you mentioned, because there will be people who need to feel part of something bigger than themselves, and they will be willing to wear costumes in order to do it. Seriously, go to a high school right now, and you’ll see kids wearing the same “punk” or “goth” clothes that kids wore in the ’80s and ’90s.

I’m surprised that kids don’t look more different now. The changes in fashion that took place between 1996 (when I graduated high school) and 1976 (when the fictional kids in Dazed and Confused were in high school) seem more significant than the changes between now and 1996. A lot of the archetypes that existed then still exist now. There are still stoner kids, and preppy kids, and nerdy kids who wear long black dusters and grow stringy facial hair.

Are there also kids who love Soundcloud rap and get a face tattoo the day after they turn 18? I guess? But that’s just the most elaborate costume of all.

When The Stone Roses got back together in 2011, one of my roommates was from London and was a little older than me. We talked about how big of a deal they were when their debut came out. I explained that while I really enjoyed that album, it wasn’t life-changing or anything for me and he just kind of said, “Yeah, I think you had to be there.”

There are a few bands and albums like that for me throughout history. So I thought about what that album was for me. Is it Funeral? I revere that album but will my kids be like, “Yeah, that’s a fine album but I don’t really get all the fuss.”

This isn’t just an album that means a lot to you but might not mean a lot to others — your Recovering The Satellites or my Teen Dream. Instead, this is something regarded as a seminal or “very important” album at the time it was released and even 10 years later, but the next generation will kind of shrug at. What do you think that will be? — Mark from Nashville

This, of course, is an impossible question to answer unless you claim to be a soothsayer.

However, I don’t think Funeral will become a “you had to be there” album because that album is already almost 15 years old and it’s still a very revered record. I don’t see that changing in another 15 years. The difference with the first Stone Roses record (which I still like, for what it’s worth) is that the amalgam of retro rock and rave-friendly dance music seems very much of its time, whereas Funeral epitomizes the sort of melodramatic arena rock that never seems to go out of style for those of us who love that kind of thing.

The best way to answer your question is to look at acclaimed records that are at least 10 years old, and determine how well they’ve aged. After perusing Pazz & Jop lists from the late ’00s, the album I would nominate for “you had to be there” status is … St. Elsewhere by Gnarls Barkley.

When is the last time you heard “Crazy”? Or read someone talking about how “seminal” that song is? In 2006, you couldn’t walk 10 feet without tripping over a lengthy magazine profile of Gnarls Barkley. I went to Lollapalooza that year, and at least three different acts played “Crazy.” (Not counting Gnarls Barkley, whose set was one of that year’s most hotly anticipated.) Twelve years ago, Gnarls Barkley was probably the hottest, hippest, and most important pop-rock-soul act on the planet.

Today, St. Elsewhere is a nice record from 2006. But it’s not regarded as some era-defining masterpiece. That’s not Gnarls Barkley’s fault. It’s just how it goes sometimes.

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