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 releaseBarely. 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 girlWow. 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.