Thursday, February 17, 2011

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

"I read pages and pages of people shouting in all caps "I'VE NEVER HEARD OF THEM!" as if that's a valid musical critique, as if that's anything but a braying declaration of proud ignorance. As if somehow the prefab pop royalty whose handlers dropped the most money on promotion are promised a Grammy as a kind of birthright, the way that Will Smith's kids are guaranteed hit singles and blockbusters if they want them; the way that Gwyneth Paltrow is apparently allowed to show up anywhere at any time and sing, whether or not we want to hear her. I've never heard Esperaza Spalding either, but now I'm excited to."
- Will Sheff

By now you'll be aware of the fallout from the Grammys, for our purposes the late-catch-up crowning of The Suburbs as album of the year. As expected on the ever rotating hype cycle, the hipster-than-thou declared it a hollow so-called victory for the corporate stadium-succour concensus middlebrow mainstream... only to be stopped in their tracks by proof that actually, most people don't know who they are. Moreover, those people aren't prepared in this Web 2.0 age to give any time to finding out who they are, but they have the gift of aimless rage into the void and by god they're going to use it. Or at best assuming they're typical Grammy fare. Even given time to think it through and research Female First, responsible for 2010's lamest end of year journalism (that's "the last twelve months of 2010", and Belle & Sebastian posited as "an experimental band" "sending shockwaves through the industry"), had a shot with the deathlessly memorable summation "I don’t want to sound politically incorrect, but they didn't seem 'all there' really did they?"

While The Suburbs winning was a surprise, what seems more unlikely is a band who followed a number two album with a number one, have played Saturday Night Live and all the talk shows and have sold out Madison Square Garden twice could be so far off so many pop fans' radar. But then think about the size of America, the subcultures of east and west coasts, the lack of a unifying national radio presence and the very idea of safety first Top 40 and Classic Rock radio being king. Arcade Fire's music in essence isn't immediate, so it would confuse the youth of middle America. But still, as Win artfully responded on Tuesday night: "We're called Arcade Fire - check it out on Google".

Oh yeah, Tuesday night, the Brits. After Best Female had provoked the focused ire of Cheryl Cole fans (christ, look at that most recent one), the night built up to one award apex, and when it happened...

Mumford an what? Who are ya'll
- @LilyTyley

Okay.. So I have never heard of mumford and sons, laura marling or arcade fire yet they still win an award! What a load of shit!
- @lozmeff

So I need to start listening to capital fm again, cause who are Mumford n sons are they an insurance company
- @Djmessiahpro

I am the only one who has never heard of Arcade Fire, Manford & Sons and Plan B
- @kevinrafferty1

OK, this might sound dumb to you but I didn't know who Mumford & Sons was till tonight...
- @JustGot2Belieb

haha nd don't blame no ones heard of en x but they are pretty good x
- @Charlie__xxx responding to the above


Mumford & Sons. More than 800,000 albums sold (a lot these days, we assure you) with 71 weeks on the album chart at time of writing, and given the post-Brits bounce likely to be back in the top five or so this weekend. Seventh most played on Radio 1 (The Cave fourth most played song), fifth most played artist of 2010 on Absolute (Roll Away Your Stone number one). Their radio play stats take in as much local commercial radio as XFM and 6 Music. All over the festival coverage. All over all press, so much so that mocking and sneering reference points/straw man building is now the industry standard among journos ("If that's the best we can muster, the feeling is that the industry really is broken"). Hell, they won an award for the album of 2010 for a record released in 2009. And yet the above was not just the odd few responses seen on Twitter search, but quite prevalent lack of opinion except in themselves. A lot of people, bemused adults as much as illiterate kids, plain haven't heard of artists who've sold a shitload of records and been all over daytime populist national radio with a sound that at its very core puts them distinctively aside to the casual listener from mainstream pop contemporaries.

I've never heard of this. Ergo, it cannot be worthwhile. Therefore, everyone else is wrong and I have the only sane voice. HOW AM I EVER SUPPOSED TO KNOW ABOUT THIS BAND (THAT WAS DEEMED WORTHY OF EVEN BEING NOMINATED FOR THE MOST PRESTIGIOUS PRIZES IN BRITISH MUSIC). The idea that 'I don't know them, it must be shit' is dispiriting and simultaneously fascinating as as examination of self-belief driven insularity and the desire to never learn anything for yourself when it can be spoonfed by language instead. At its extremes you get Isle Of Wight Festival announcing Neil Young as a headliner a couple of years ago and a popular petition being run among attendees urging the festival to cancel his booking as he wasn't a young student-indie-populist choice. Those people, of course, would more than likely share the opposite but no more laudable view: people have heard of it, or is it pop, thus it is shit. That's why poptimism, for all its flaws (no, Since U Been Gone was no good and let's hear no more about it), was something that had to sandpaper down the nascent blogosphere's walls before it got ideas above its station.

It does also shine a spotlight on the idea that a lot of people's exposure to music seems to be narrowing. You could argue this was long flagged up by the paucity against popularity of local commercial radio and the reductivism to entirely pre-programmed daytime stock, but also see how the tabloids on Wednesday all led with Rihanna and Cheryl - glam girls for the photos, of course, but also what they see as two of the only points of crossover with the mass market that runs on US megastars, one-off club bangers and Cowellites. Outside the box would be fallacy. That's something Tinie Tempah is only just managing, while someone like Bruno Mars, with three number one singles and a number one album, is still practically invisible to the majority of people.

Maybe it turns out in the fallout that we're living in parallel bubbles all along - the one blogs like this represent, where Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons aren't worth discussing any more, the youth middle ground of fashion spreads and Pendulum, and the mainstream set, where they're radical challengers from out of leftfield. whoisarcadefire and the Mumford anti-effect are not really about laughing at the deliberately ignorant, they're the moment when one bubble is exposed to the other, and everyone reading this must have had moments when they've given up trying to explain their taste to others when faced with blank faces, and we realise that none of these stances is typical or, in lasting crossover terms, workable.

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