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July 18, 2009

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When Poptimism Meets Pessimism

One of my favorite “pop music meets pop culture” writers is Tom Ewing, who writes the “Poptimist” column for Pitchfork. Ewing’s posts have a way of generally filtering into the cultural conversation without him necessarily getting a lot of direct credit - for example, he beat Paul Constant to the punch back in May by writing an essay on Twitter in 140-character paragraphs.

Ewing’s newest column smartly juxtaposes the decline of the relevance of the Top 40 (particularly in the UK) with a certain strand of newspaper pessimism. I particularly like his definition of pop music as “a fragmented cross-section of popular culture squeezed into a tiny space, and the act of squeezing— when things were working— filled that space with energy and fizz.”

Well worth reading the whole thing - here’s a relevant sample:

Far more people worry about the decline of newspapers than the decline of the British pop charts, but their plight is comparable. Both packaged worlds of content into small things and let the different elements fight for attention. Both also enjoyed audiences who had to consume a whole to get at the parts they liked. Okay, a newspaper reader could skip over the sections they didn’t care about more easily than a radio listener could, but still a good headline might turn that half-second flicker of disinterest into attention. And in that half-second chance lived serendipity and argument.

For serendipity to happen you have to be able to give people what they don’t want— or don’t think they want— as well as what they do.

Maybe that’s a utopian conception of the newspaper as well as the Top 40 — but it seems like all we do is trade in utopian conceptions. Let’s kick this one around for a while.

Posted July 18, 2009 at 10:48 | Comments (5) | Permasnark
File under: Journalism, Music


"Crowdsourcing killed punk rock," said Weingarten: It has little room for the contrarian, the uncomfortable or the troubling."

That's what really all boils down to. Ewing wrote something in that same vein a while back in "Fated to Pretend". I wrote some thoughts about it trying to explain, justify, and understand why I think we still need music criticism.

Some interesting ideas in this piece, and I agree, the way he frames 'pop' is wonderful.

But argh!

And in that half-second chance lived serendipity and argument.

I can only believe that people who make the "alas, lost serendipity" argument, in any context, simply haven't learned how to really use the internet yet. Because as many people have pointed out -- Matt Thompson foremost among them -- the web is actually the most powerful serendipity engine we have yet devised.

I mean, has Tom Ewing visited Hype Machine? It's awesome in some ways, insufficient in others -- but one thing it's /not/ is a slavish regurgitator of familiar.

Or Pandora. Even though Pandora is ostensibly about recommendations based on your pre-existing preferences, I'd venture to say more people have discovered more crazy, unexpected musical delights on Pandora than via any other chart, list, station, or service, ever.

There's an interesting conversation to be had about the cool, culture-crystallizing role of true pop music. But to my mind, there is /not/ a conversation to be had about the internet, serendipity & argument. The internet /is/ serendipity and argument.

Gosh, I just read him completely differently from you, Robin. The idea is that what may have looked like pop music monoculture was actually a conflicted and contested public space - and that we have to look to new tools that actually capitalize on the conflict and contestation of the internet rather than shut it off.

It's an inversion of the "we used to have a happy monoculture where everyone consumed the same things and now everything's fragmented" idea. It was always fragmented. Fragmentation was the virtue. It's the virtue of the new, too.

Ha ha. You know what? I started the piece w/ your blockquote in my head, and then /stopped/ at the end of section II, b/c it was all so like "ughhh another writer who doesn't get how the internet actually works."

But then in part III (which I just went back and read now, for the first time) Ewing spins it around.

You're totally right. I never got to this:

So one place to look is in the new social tools that-- sometimes unintentionally-- encourage conflict as well as collaboration.

Or this:

But the serendipity and argument the charts once engendered are as important as ever, and now found in a thousand vanishing places all at once: There is still a great deal to be poptimistic about.

I read it as Ewing's nostalgia leading him to believe that the charts were a contested space and obscuring the true restrictions. "Giving people what they don't want" is a great euphemism that litters discussions about newspapers & media reform. It probably comes from Habermas's public sphere, but my knowledge of political philosophy is thin here.

I'm with Robin, Matt, and Ewing in the end - the Web is serendipity, especially for the curious & skeptical. That's a utopian conception, too.

Also, "seems like all we do is trade in utopian conceptions. Let’s kick this one around for a while" is begging to be the caption of a New Yorker cartoon.

Posted by: Jake on July 19, 2009 at 03:36 PM
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