Thursday, March 18, 2010

Publish, damn, and be damned: Hyperdub, Woebot, and the death of negative criticism


[Ikonika by bildungsr0man]

This is a tale of two blog posts.

Part one: Ikonika and Confused Uncle Syndrome

Music blogging legend Woebot jumped back into the pool recently after some time away. Heralding his return was a piece on Ikonika’s debut LP ‘Contact, Love, Want, Have’, which started with this delightful paragraph:
To that from a Dubstep release by, not a white bloke, but a black girl. Am I being unnecessarily controversial by suggesting that Hyperdub is practicing reverse sexism with this and the Cooly G records? Shouldn’t race and sex be irrelevant? Do these releases prove or disprove that? Does anyone care?
Now, contrarianism - that ol' chestnut, provoking debate - that's one thing. But this is just bafflingly lost. Some of Woebot’s peers from the blogosphere's old guard now paper over the cracks in their knowledge (and interest) in club music with confused, confusing dismissals of these 'ere new-fangled sounds. Simon Reynolds' dismissal of Jam City and Joy Orbison was a particularly laughable example of Confused Uncle Syndrome: out-of-touch bloggers briefly looking up from their post-punk reissue packs, like retired army generals aroused from slumber by the sudden arrival of a hyperactive child in the members' lounge.
I’m going to take that paragraph one bit at a time:
a Dubstep release
Barely. I just wrote a 1,000-word review of Ikonika’s album yesterday, so you’ll forgive me not repeating it here – but 'Contact’ spreads its wings far, far beyond what we know as dubstep. The sparse stoner half-step of 2005 is one of many audible influences on her sound - but so is UK garage, house, emo/hardcore, r'n'b, hip-hop, and, er, Madonna. The mid-range wobblers of 2008-10 that have come to define the genre render the term 'dubstep' reductive at best - it's a useful starting point for discussing Hyperdub releases, but no more.
by, not a white bloke, but a black girl
Wow. If it matters, Ikonika’s parentage is half-Filipino, half-Egyptian. This isn't difficult to find out.
Am I being unnecessarily controversial by suggesting that Hyperdub is practicing reverse sexism with this and the Cooly G records?
Well, yes. And not an interesting way, not in a thought-provoking way. Crying "reverse sexism" at Hyperdub over these two producers is both baffling and offensive. Since 2008’s ‘Please’ Ikonika has been widely regarded as one of the brightest new producers to emerge from the dubstep scene (which she did - though her ship has since sailed far from those bassy shores), and the hype around Cooly G last year was extraordinary – on the UK funky scene, among denizens of Dissensus and FACT magazine, jaded dubstep fans – even in the broadsheets. Hear ‘Love Dub’ in a club in the right, er, narco-sonic mood at 2am and it’s not hard to see why. Subjectively, Kode9 signing albums by Cooly and Ikonika fits perfectly with his  irrepressible enthusiasm for producers pushing at the genre-boundaries of UK club music. Objectively, it just makes good business sense, since everyone's all over them.
Shouldn’t race and sex be irrelevant?
They should be irrelevant to the criteria on which artists' music is judged, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be discussed at all, when there's something to say about them. The next hack to ask Ikonika 'how does it feel to be a female producer in a boy's world?' is - quite rightly - going to get a slap from her though. So I hear.
Do these releases prove or disprove that?
They don’t prove anything.
Does anyone care?
I doubt it. This is the blogosphere, remember.


[screenshot of Pitchfork's Hyperdub-girl confusion, yesterday: using a pic of Cooly G to illustrate an (excellent) piece on Ikonika. Full interview by Blackdown.]

Part two: 'No one says anything bad about anything'

Having read the blog post, I registered my consternation on Twitter, which was echoed by various DJs, bloggers, and fans (of Woebot and Ikonika alike). Then the Ikonika post disappeared completely, even from the internet archive, and this post cropped up instead. It’s clearly about the Ikonika post and the backlash, a lament for the death of negative criticism:
Nowadays it seems that there is no such thing as bad press. No one says anything bad about anything. They either say nothing or they say it’s great. Certainly it’s a lot easier that way for all parties – no need for journalists to be hunted down in a fatwa, no need for label bosses and artists to be confronted with depressing copy. However what it does mean is that Music Journalism in the press (and now online) is a sea of empty platitudes and that writers (and consequently artists) are completely ghettoised, ring-fenced in by a cabal of sympathetic organisations.
And the thing is, I completely agree with this. Well, almost completely; ‘empty platitudes’ is reductive and unfair: there’s a lot of great music criticism being written. But presently, very little of it is negative; it may be analytical, gushing, musicological, theoretical, indulgent, silly, serious or sociological - but it's rarely negative. Behind this is the dramatic drop in the number of staff writers at music magazines since the 1990s - because there are only about two of the fuckers left to work at. It's simply that journalists are never called upon to write about music they dislike - and they're unlikely to actively seek out such a task, even if the opportunity were there. As a freelancer I fall into this category: with limited time and money, I pitch articles about the music I’m interested in, i.e. the music I like. And while me and Alex Sushon used to do a bit of this on Lower End Spasm, I simply don’t have time in the day to be blogging negative criticism of music anymore. It's genuinely frustrating, there’s a lot to hate out there... (check out Alex Macpherson's great invective against Animal Collective). Ironically, my angst tends to come out on Dissensus, the forum Woebot runs.

But it is a problem for music journalism. And there’s a problem with Hyperdub in particular: the discourse around 2010’s most interesting producers, UK garage’s nameless musical heirs, suffers a bit from the culture of relentless critical positivity about the label. This will sound like sycophancy in itself, but Kode9’s discoveries have been so consistently good that a chorus of hype upon a new Hyperdub release feels almost inevitable now. I'm aware I’ve written a lot of very positive things about acts on the label (on Burial, Darkstar, Kode9 himself, and soon, Ikonika), so here, for what it’s worth, are my five least favourite Hyperdub releases:

Flying Lotus - Disco Balls Like purple wow if it was plodding, colour-blind, and didn't make you say 'wow'.
Samiyam - Rollerskates 'Off-kilter' really, really shouldn't be regarded as a compliment as often as it is.
Zomby - Gloop See above. At his best Zomby is incredible - but 7/8ths of this double EP leaves me cold, bored and itchy.
Cooly G - Weekend Fly A UK funky riddim that barely even starts, let alone makes you want to dance. Irritating vocal too.
DVA - Natty An uninspired, aimless track by a normally inspiring, focused producer.

As off-the-mark as it was, I’m disappointed Woebot’s deleted the first post discussed here (I had to ask a Power-Googler friend to track it down for me). The problem with it was not that he was refusing to join in the critical circle-jerk about the internet's favourite record label, not at all. It wasn't a question of the positivists launching a witch-hunt against a dissenter – it was that he seemed to have entirely misunderstood Ikonika, and dubstep, and Hyperdub, and was using provocation as a substitute for insight; I was worried he'd caught whatever it is Reynolds and K-Punk have been suffering from. I speak as someone who used to love the old Woebot blog – and on the basis of his other posts, he’s still well worth reading. Another little excerpt here:
In the old days when I used to read NME and Melody Maker one would come across bad press quite often. It was always amusing and edifying to read. When you read bad press you would also put considerably more faith in good press.
True enough, of course. Although, in the old days, writing in a physical magazine, Woebot wouldn’t have been able to delete the blog post so many people complained about.

Publish, damn, and be damned.

14 Comments:

Blogger Noz said...

Can we seriously get over this 'zomg she has a vagina' bullshit?

I see 1000 mediocre digital releases and nobody goes zomg penis privelage!

Talk about the music, not the doo-dads.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Robin Howells said...

hey dan,

in the spirit of friendly discussion (yeah?) i feel like weighing in (super-bantam) on the woebot/hollowearth/cybore side. (i'm not sure anyone else will.)

if i'm going to be honest, i have to say: your first half fed my sense of what a bizarre this episode is. i know matt's the greatest music blogger ever (tm) but i'm sure in the days of woebot for instance, he would have had to lay more on the table than a few hastily posted bum notes in order to score the attention.

i think my general feeling is that otherwise trustworthy writers (including reynolds and k-punk) are sometimes treated in a way that's a bit... totalitarian. just because it's a conveniently close example, isn't your 'confused uncle' idea a kind of ad hominem attack, with a logical effect if any that would seek to negate a person entirely? just because reynolds is very out of touch, i don't think he should be denied commentary. i kind of love joy orbison and play his records, but i don't think reynolds is an idiot for observing (with an element of truth) that his music is very polite, or for failing to subjectively understand the appeal in the face of great popularity.

matt's review: by his standards and those of what others have written about ikonika, yes, i thought it was pretty rubbish. but -- and this does worry me because it makes me feel a bit like a junior clarkson -- i have to profess not to understand where the offence lies.

'a dubstep record': it doesn't need me to point this out, but it must still elective whether people want to hem in the term to exclude anything other than wobblers. the validity of these expressions is never clear cut, as you know, so i don't think you can castigate him for that one.

'black': it's a bit outmoded maybe, but it used to be an acceptable antonym for white -- i've heard people who aren't african or caribbean in any way self-describe as such. the point is that you don't know matt is displaying ignorance about her, if that is the problem. if he didn't do any research and can't place her background by eye, that's curious on both counts, but i don't quite understand the extent of the offence taken.

that cavalier reverse-sexism joust: obviously the charge crumbles instantly; they're both evidently popular in their own right, as you say, and they both make unique music that no-one really comes near. realistically, though, wouldn't it seem hyper-sensitive if kode9 took real offence, let alone anyone else?

ironically, matt's response to all this was very interesting, as was your treatment of that in your second half. of course your observations about the mechanics of music reviewing seem very accurate. so i guess good things have come out of it.

oh, and disco balls is pretty wack, yeah. quite like the other four though ;)

robin

4:13 PM  
Blogger Robin Howells said...

p.s. for some reason the pitchfork/clash par annoys me considerably more...

6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm bemused at these accusations that negative criticism has ceased to exist. If anything it's become the dominant form of music writing these days - almost every magazine or website I come across that covers new dance music seems incapable of praising something without doing so at the expense of something else. 'Such and a such a record is great, see how much better it is than this dross?'

This kind of negativity is everywhere, and it's even more pointless and damaging than a traditionally 'bad' review - as what's being slated is not the focus of the article, the writers seem comfortable dismissing the records they feel so vehemently opposed to without qualification. There's nothing insightful about it whatsoever, it's depressing to read.

4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

both woebot and reynolds are better writers than the stuff they're writing right now, that's the real problem and woebots statements were just really stupid, it's not that he doesn't like the record, that's fine, the reverse sexism thing stunk.
This isn't a hipness competition or who was right or wrong about joy orbison, championing things is about taking risks not about gloating over successes or failures.

9:17 AM  
Blogger dan hancox said...

robin:

there are more examples of confused uncle syndrome than i care to outline from the last few years - that's not an ad hominem attack, that's an apt response to repeat offences. you can call me needlessly snarky or snide, but it's hardly like i've plucked the accusation out of thin air.

"just because reynolds is very out of touch, i don't think he should be denied commentary."

lol!! it's a pretty good reason not to revere him as a critical god though! he just wrote a post on ikonika's album entirely about the press release, without once giving an indication he'd listened to any of it. i know my post above is all metacrit bullshit too, but that's b/c i have a 1000wd review of the MUSIC (remember that, anyone?) on its way. no-one's denying him commentary, far from it - his blog is very prominent and he writes for plenty of publications with equally confused avuncular editors. lol at 'totalitarian' as well.

'black' - yep, that's offensive. both historically, and in reducing everyone who isn't white into one block: it says that you are 'white' or you are 'other'.

the reverse sexism charge 'crumbles instantly', indeed - are you even sure you want to defend woebot's post? :)

anonymous:

i don't think we're disagreeing really - what you're talking about isn't really negative criticism, i.e. full-on negative album or single reviews... (which have disappeared along with print music mags) but blithe dismissals of types of music/artists.. which i agree have flourished in the web 2.0 era.

can you find much negative criticism of anything on hyperdub? really? prancehall dissing burial is the only thing i can think of.

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the 'black' comment also refers back to this comment that dan left out
'I was really delighted by Kode 9’s statement that Ike Yard were (as quoted on this press release) “the first Dub-Step band”. It reveals not only a sensible perception about what Dubstep actually is – artful, bohemian music made by white blokes – but is a significant, generous shot in the arm for Argabright and co. Listening to “A Fact A Second” and “Night after Night” – both still available from Acute Records that strikes me as a very fair, accurate assessment. '

which kode 9 never said too - so lets be fair and put it in context - but what a weird context again.

my last comment on here was deleted.

9:35 AM  
Blogger dan hancox said...

sorry i wasn't aware of this extra 'context' about the 'dubstep band' - maybe woebot deleted that post too? if not could you link to it? it's news to me, i'm not deliberately omitting stuff here.

re deleting comments, i don't know what you mean? i haven't deleted any comments on this post; i don't make a habit of deleting comments generally, unless i'm in a bad mood ;)

and hey at least i allow comments at all - more of which are -ve than +ve generally - more than you can say for woebot or SR

3:44 PM  
Blogger Robin Howells said...

>you can call me needlessly snarky or snide, but it's hardly like i've plucked the accusation out of thin air.

i don't think you're snide, it seems more like a rare effort to add a bit of colour to 'metacriticism'. the metaphor just strikes me as one that's apt to write off someone full stop -- whereas i've got plenty of respect for some of these writers and if they stumble it doesn't bug me a lot.

>"just because reynolds is very out of touch, i don't think he should be denied commentary."
>lol!! it's a pretty good reason not to revere him as a critical god though!

i think i kind of do, though! he has some towering achievements if you ask me, and his experience can turn out to count for something still. of course i thought the infamous 'wonky' piece had laughable aspects, but i can't think of similarly egregious examples. i didn't mean to say he was out of touch in a pejorative sense, necessarily -- it was more an observation based on the fact that he's a 40-something resident of New York.

>lol at 'totalitarian' as well.
i think i was going for a bit of a lol ;)

>'black' - yep, that's offensive. both historically, and in reducing everyone who isn't white into one block: it says that you are 'white' or you are 'other'.

true enough, i imagine it's a terminology originating from a nasty form of colonial ignorance. nonetheless i still find the error more unfortunate than offensive.

>the reverse sexism charge 'crumbles instantly', indeed - are you even sure you want to defend woebot's post? :)

mmm... no, not really! but in a world where 95% of music journalism is rubbish, he's one of those people i've always loved to read. i just feel that if he's going to be rebuffed, someone should argue the qualifications!

5:13 PM  
Blogger Robin Howells said...

oh, and for the record, i recently reviewed the album too, very positively cos it's dead good.

i could understand feeling uncomfortable with the seemingly unimpeachable status of, say, hyperdub. but there are a few consistently good labels around right now, clearly run with a lot of integrity. i'm stating the obvious, but it would be sad to see reviewers looking at releases in an unfairly harsh light just to dissimulate the appearance of bias.

personally i just can't think of much hyperdub at all i've felt negative about, apart from burial.

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey - just to say I agree with about some things but think it's a bit rich to call people who aren't into some of the new stuff out for having 'confused uncle ' syndrome....think it's more a case of some people having 'excitable nephew' syndrome

anyway this whole incest blogging about blogs from other bloggers thing is really a snake eating it's own arse isn't it, no matter how much accusations of sexism, reverse or otherwise, are there to spice it up

8:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has a section of this blog been edited? I recall the opening gambit was about the extraordinary lengths Hancox went to to locate Woebot's 'deleted' blog. Publish and be damned indeed.

4:53 PM  
Blogger dan hancox said...

hahaha. dear trolling mentalist:

no, it hasn't been edited, and it always started like that. well done for having the courage to sign your name.

if you read the post (again?) properly, i have mentioned how difficult it was to find the deleted post:

"As off-the-mark as it was, I’m disappointed Woebot’s deleted the first post discussed here (I had to ask a Power-Googler friend to track it down for me)."

^that's the same as it always was.

***

robin, cheers and fair play - i too love a bit of crying 'totalitarian' for lolz. and i'm still enjoying woebot's blog too.

11:18 PM  
Anonymous Tammy said...

Such a great article it was The sparse stoner half-step of 2005 is one of many audible influences on her sound - but so is UK garage, house, emo/hardcore, r'n'b, hip-hop, and, er, Madonna. The mid-range wobblers of 2008-10 that have come to define the genre render the term 'dubstep' reductive at best - it's a useful starting point for discussing Hyperdub releases, but no more. Thanks for sharing this article it was.

12:19 PM  

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