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Do We Have To Fight About Music?

Osita Nwanevu
7 min read
Do We Have To Fight About Music?
Photo by Joshua Olson on Unsplash

Hey all,

Sorry about the tardiness here. Most of the past week has been much more hectic ⁠— writing and otherwise ⁠— than I expected. This will be this week & weekend’s post; I’ll see if I can do an extra make-up post later this month. Also, remember to send in questions for Mail Time if you’ve got any:

Let’s hop to it.

Recent Work

I wrote a long review of No Time To Die and the Bond series as a whole ⁠—- my first piece of film criticism, I think ⁠— for Gawker. Major spoilers abound, but not in this bit:

No Time To Die doesn’t dwell on the existence of a British biological weapons program for more than a moment or two. Voices are raised, brows are furrowed, and the narrative moves on⁠ — hardly a surprise for a series whose last celebrated entry spent a portion of its runtime criticizing civilian oversight of intelligence agencies. The argument Dench’s M makes for an unshackled MI6 and agents like Bond in Skyfall is revived paraphrased by Fiennes’ M in No Time To Die’s trailer. “We used to be able to get into a room with the enemy,” he says. “And now, they’re just floating in the ether.”
The line doesn’t really work for this film and its plot⁠ — Safin and Blofeld are old-fashioned Bond villains — but it does illustrate something remarkable about the state of the series: the Bond franchise is arguably more ensconced in the post-9/11 mindset today than it was in 2002. And that’s a shame given the latently subversive premise of most of the series’ films: there exists a hidden world of luxury and ease populated by wealthy megalomaniacs so delusional and dangerous that the only just remedy is their assassination by the state.
At the outset, this was a narrative copout, a way to downplay the material and ideological conflicts at the heart of the Cold War and exonerate the great powers as the hapless dupes of shrewd manipulators. But as reductive as that basic conceit remains, the Bond universe has never seemed quite as plausible as it does today. The first two films of Craig’s tenure, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, were widely praised for offering a more “realistic” pair of villains in Le Chiffre and Dominic Green⁠, subdued financiers quietly controlling the purse strings of international politics and terror from behind the scenes. As refreshing as those films were, they were works of understatement, the kind of realism they sought belied the extent to which inequality can be, and has become, an engine of eccentric excess and extremity.
There’s a vaguely Bondian headline in the press every other month now. Peter Thiel’s designs on the blood of the young. Ex-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn escaping trial in a box smuggled out of Japan by ex-Special Forces operatives. Jeff Bezos, aspiring space colonist, hollowing out a mountain to build a 10,000-year clock that will chime once a millennium. Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to inaugurate “a new way of life from birth to death” with “genetic mutations” in a pollution-free city that’ll be built in a single straight line across 100 miles of desert. Jeffrey Epstein’s plan, as reported by The New York Times, “to seed the human race with his DNA” by having “20 women at a time impregnated at his 33,000-square-foot Zorro Ranch” property in New Mexico. Laugh off space lasers and volcano lairs all you’d like, but understand this: We are entering an age of supervillainy. There’s no shortage of people around with more money and technology than sense and scruples; at their sociopolitical best, the Bond films encourage us to wonder what else they might be getting up to.


At The Atlantic, Jack Hamilton’s written a review of Kelefa Sanneh’s new book Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres. It’s a memoiristic history of the last several decades in popular music and one that makes an argument⁠—reductively, that we don’t fight about music as often as we should anymore:

Perhaps precisely because musical tribalism may be going out of fashion, Sanneh wants to defend a spirit that he challenged back in its long period of dominance: the avid listening—and identity-defining arguments—that these fierce devotions can inspire and sustain.
Sanneh steps back to nod briefly at the future that such tamping-down of music-driven passions might portend, in which listening to popular music ceases to be a way to construct identity and becomes “merely a pastime, like watching movies,” or a pursuit (like video games) that plenty of people simply choose not to engage in. I wonder if we’re already there. Consider how many of Spotify’s most popular playlists are structured not around genres but rather around activities. The service offers whole categories of playlists designed for, say, working out, gaming, cooking, studying, even sleeping: in other words, music to be listened to while you’re involved in something that’s presumably more important to you than listening to music.
The auditory nature of music lends itself to this as no other art does. With the exception of instructional videos and maybe pornography, I can’t think of much film that’s explicitly marketed as something to be watched while you’re otherwise occupied. Reading, too, doesn’t leave room for multitasking. Spotify certainly didn’t invent the idea of background music, but at least record companies didn’t tend to sell you music on the explicit premise that you didn’t need to pay attention to it.
[...] Arguing about genres and our rival musical tastes is a way of investing in music itself. Such debates are forms of engagement with art and with one another, exhortations to pay attention—and to refuse to allow music to be something that happens while we’re doing other things. The punk hard-liner and the rap snob and the rockist may have all been insufferable, but no one ever accused them of indifference. Music and the people who make it need to be cared about—stridently, not gently.

The mode of engagement Sanneh and Hamilton describe and defend is obviously cherished by many people who care deeply about music. But it feels alien to me, at least now. I’ve never been more partisan and judgemental about music than I was in elementary and middle school; I hadn’t the foggiest idea what I was talking about.

I feel like I still don’t, as broad my tastes have become. And, really, it’s listening to more and learning about more that’s made me tentative. I don’t know what a good song or a good album is; trying to make even basic comparisons of work across genres often feels futile to me. All I can do is try to suss out whether an artist seems to be accomplishing what they set out to accomplish or whether they seem to be making novel and difficult choices. Whether I actually like the music is something else entirely ⁠— I don’t really think it’s fair to judge an artist on the basis of whether their music trips the right set of arbitrary switches in my brain. There are chords and melodies and sounds that are just going to sound neat to me ⁠— even if they’re embedded in something not especially impressive or interesting ⁠—  and others that won’t.

Hamilton and Sanneh are great, broad-minded critics, ⁠but I do feel like a lot of the allegiances people develop with popular music are built upon eliding that distinction ⁠— something might not be your cup of tea for reasons outside your control, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks value and isn’t worth engaging with. I also don’t worry terribly about passive listening or think there’s actually been much of a rise in it. Playlist culture is new, but one of the primary ways popular music has been consumed over the last 60-70 years has been as an accompaniment to driving.

In general, I think there’s a disconnect here between how critics and the kind of people who read music criticism engage with music and the ways most people ⁠— including most people who I think really do feel deeply about music ⁠— generally do. People were throwing on records while they cooked and did other things well before streaming and the internet. Top 40 radio is an amalgamation of different genres and styles chosen for assumed mass appeal. Few in the millions who listen would want to get into an extended argument with you about their faves, but if the mom who starts belting out or crying about Adele’s “Hello” whenever it happens to come on her mix radio station during her commute doesn’t really “care” about music, then almost no one ever really has. Doesn’t really seem like the right way to think about things.

Sanneh’s comparison with cinema usefully complicates things further  ⁠— is film “merely” a pastime or a medium people do, in fact, argue about intensely? And aren’t the people who argue the most about film ⁠— the kind who compile top 100 lists on Letterboxd and such ⁠— the likeliest to engage with different genres? There are superfans within genres who defend canons and conventions, of course, but the fans of horror films and rom-coms and period dramas and science fiction haven’t really been at war with each other the way we like to tell ourselves hip-hop and rock listeners are. I do think people are developing tight allegiances and identifying with particular genres and franchises more and more. But have the sensibilities of the Marvel fandom been a boon for cinema? Are they improving critical discourse or working to smother it?

Anyway, those invested in the importance of genres should have a look at Pitchfork’s list of the 25 small ones that have “defined the last 25 years” in music. Anyone who wants to try crafting an identity around aquacrunk can have at it, as far as I’m concerned. But the increasing complexity, diversity, and hyperspecificity of these niches suggests that we shouldn’t expect all that we socioculturally used to from genre designations to begin with. And they’re probably going to be harder to talk about lucidly without some technical command of how music works, something I’ve argued for before. That’s the stuff I’d really like to learn, talk, and maybe even fight a bit about at some point. Until then, I’ll just be over here vibing.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

"Genghis Khan" – Miike Snow (2016)

Good night.