Why is it that so many of the most active Tumblr music conversations happen when I have a deadline? Continually late to the party and wordy, that is me.
There’s some background for the folks who don’t intently follow musical Tumblr goings-on here, here, here, and here, among other places.
Okay, all caught up? In short, some say that Wilco/Feist/Radiohead/indie rock is/are the new adult contemporary. Others disagree. Some possibly misunderstand the original point (notably, Nitsuh Abebe, the usually-spot-on critic who started this whole thing, seems to have intended “adult contemporary” as a mere description, not a criticism) and will undoubtedly see this argument as the means to throw acts they personally don’t like under the adult contemporary bus (“Wilco sucks!”), while sparing others (“NOOO, Radiohead!!!”).
What bothers me about this is not whether classifying something as “adult contemporary” is necessarily derogatory (it might be) or an accurate acknowledgment of acceptance by an older, presumably less hip audience (it probably is), but rather that, by association with a genre that’s traditionally been aligned with comfort, passivity, maybe conservatism, it ties music to a particular way of listening.
Kind of Blue can be fine dinner music—unobtrusive, tuneful, quiet. A friend once told me that he liked how simple it was, specifically how bluesy and traditional it sounded. I don’t think it’s just the fact that Kind of Blue was, at the time of this conversation, a 50-year-old album that had informed so much that followed that its rougher edges had been filed off for my friend through cultural absorption. It’s that, despite Miles Davis’ fairly radical modal approach to improvisation on the album, I’d be surprised if it ever came across as “challenging” to the layperson. Its innovative qualities were for the people who cared to listen for them; otherwise, it’s just lovely, melodic music. Which is fine.
With rock/pop, things are just slightly different. We don’t tend to talk theory when we talk rock/pop (which is dandy by me, since I wouldn’t understand most pop music writing if we did!). This probably doesn’t always best serve artists like The National and St. Vincent, who so understatedly pull off formally complicated and outright weird moves and insert them into subtle, polite-sounding songs that some listeners probably consider them just as retrograde and comforting as Wilco, Feist, etc. (for the record, I don’t consider Wilco or Feist particularly retrograde in the context of current popular music—unlike any number of folky, bearded acts doing 70s folk rock or synth-based pop artists accurately aping the 80s, you couldn’t reasonably mistake Wilco or Feist for anything but contemporary).
But even minus the language to discuss formal innovation as one might in classical or jazz, there are still levels of listening in pop and rock. While we might not talk as much about key changes and time changes, there are lyrics, timbres, vocal tics, beats, etc.—a near-infinite number of things to consider. There are complicated nuances in delivery and lyrics that you can gloss over when you hear, say, the Mountain Goats in a coffeeshop. I use the Mountain Goats here, because unlike Wilco, John Darnielle seems to escape these sorts of complaints, despite his music being considerably less formally experimental than Wilco’s (has he ever put out a song as musically whacked out as “The Art of Almost”?). Maybe it’s simply a matter of popularity. But my point is that Darnielle’s music could just easily be considered comfortable, adult contemporary fare if you’re listening to it in a certain way. Similarly, an ostensibly “challenging” band like Fucked Up is absolute comfort food - mac’n’cheese for a particular type of punk fan who may not care a whit about David Comes to Life's narrative complexity, etc. But I suspect more people would be uncomfortable with calling the Mountain Goats “adult contemporary.” And they probably should be.
A critic calling something “adult contemporary” doesn’t force that reading on others. I’m not saying that at all. At most, it makes me wonder about the level on which that critic is listening to it. In 1959, would you want to be the guy who simply recognized Kind of Blue for its unobtrusive, dinner music-worthy qualities, or the guy who went bonkers over how goddamn listenable it is for all of its breaking from convention? The new Wilco is far from their Kind of Blue, but to associate the band or the immensely vague genre to which they belong to a term that is, itself, associated with passive listening seems like a pretty good recipe for evaluating their future work with less active ears.