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The Popdose Podcast: Part One of My Interview with David Lifton, Jeff Giles and Jason Hare

May 6, 2011

In previous posts, I’ve referenced the significance of my discovery of Pitchfork and the Onion AV Club in 2001-2002 – a dark time for the once-great music press, which tossed aside musical curiosity to crap out multi-page advertorials for “artists” like Papa Roach, Crazy Town and Limp Bizkit. There were an amazing array of musical acts hovering outside the Clear Channel radio monopoly, and thanks to these two sites, I was offered the chance to learn of their existence, and – with help from Napster and WinMX – to hear them. The amateurish lean of many of the reviews, most notably their lambasting of the Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka, which featured the following paragraph from the infamous Jason Josephes…

“And talk about not connecting with your fanbase! Have you ever seen a Flaming Lips fan? They spend all their cash on inhalants and detox. They don’t have the money for four CD players and, if they did, they’d spend it all on– you guessed it– inhalants and detox. And then retox. But not three more CD players.”

…was a much-needed roundhouse to the fading supernovae of music journalism. In addition, it was ridiculous fun to throw oneself into the 1500-word ramblings permitted by the web’s lack of physical limitations. Soon, both Pitchfork and the AV Club polished their reviewing chops, and became the pre-eminent bastions of music criticism. Unfortunately, the move towards 800-word efficiency meant that certain elements had to get the Kirk Cameron treatment. However, I was not quite able to elucidate exactly what was missing, but by 2004, I started to seek other sources for new music.

I had recently relocated to Minneapolis, where an enterprising music aficionado named Rich Horton decided that the Twin Cities needed a local publication, so he created Rift Magazine. I volunteered to write features and review records, and for a few months, I actually made a few deadlines and produced several pieces. Every few weeks, I’d receive a package of CDs of wildly-diverging styles, all from local artists. Sadly, most of the music – including an album accompanied by a hand-drawn fold-out depiction of an illustrated narrative that would make Alan Moore blush – did not appeal to me in any way, which left me in the odd situation of crushing someone’s dreams in a public entity. So instead, I skipped them, and only reviewed the records I liked. But even then, something felt a little fraudulent. I’ve heard that Frank Zappa once said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (it might be someone else that uttered those words, but if I have to search the web for verification of the source for a quote I’ve been carrying for a decade, then what’s the point?), and I was beginning to agree. My engagement with these albums was solely based around their submission for my reviews, not because they actually mattered to me. There was no 1:00 AM bourbon-soaked rendezvous with close friends, amped about returning home from the record store to crowd the couch and listen to these albums for the first time, as a shared experience. Hell, most of these bands were unknown to me, and would likely remain that way. That’s when I realized that a music review is far more powerful when the author can describe not only the record itself, but what exactly this record means to him or her, and why they give enough of a shite to convey their thoughts to the world. As seen in Michelangelo Matos’ entry in the 33 1/3 series about Sign ‘O’ the Times, and Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, there’s something enthralling about that personal connection to the words on the page. Enter Popdose, and their highly-entertaining podcast.

In late 2006, I found an article describing the Billboard Top 10 from September of 1984. Thanks to the presence of older sisters (and their associated pals), and the social currency that resulted from music knowledge (especially for a young geek-in-training), I spent the mid-1980s obsessed with the pop charts. I remember getting nervous as Casey Kasem neared the Top 10, fearful that a song I “rooted for” was going to exit the sacred territory, or worse – a song I despised would be the instigator of said event. A partly-sarcastic yet partly-revelatory examination of the Top 10 from September ’84? Count me in! For some reason, I neglected to remember the author’s name at the time of the first read, nor where I found the piece.

Four years later, I’m spending several hours each day searching for employment. I was crafting and remixing Cover Letters to the point where I decided to name them (the Aphex Twin, where the opening paragraph is wildly different in tone than the rest of the letter, as if it was pasted on top; the Nellee Hooper Edit, where the positive statements are more subtle within the narrative; the Richard X Remix, which slowly builds to a fireworks-display of accomplishments; and the Ladytron Softcore Jukebox, which is cranked to 11 out of the gate, and makes Patrick Bateman look modest).  Eventually I had to duck away from this fascinatingly depression-inducing world to – of course – find out if anyone else noticed how much Player’s “Baby Come Back” echoes Daryl Hall & John Oates’ “She’s Gone”. Other than “How will Colorado’s redistricting efforts unpack Denver’s suburbs to impact multiple districts”, these are the serious issues that keep me awake at night.

Why, of course there was – within a few seconds, I struck (mellow) gold. This time, I actually made a note of author Jason Hare. Due to the crappy speed of my “wi-fi” (which involves a Smith-Corona taped to a tin-can telephone, it seems), none of the pictures would load, making it appear that Mr. Hare was referencing photographs that did not exist. So when I read a statement such as “Player at the 1977 San Bernardino Wigmakers Convention”, especially during Brown Tweed’s Steampunk Phase, where we eschewed photographs and “talkies”, I was mad that I didn’t think of the idea. (But then again , the third man in the photo is something that has to be seen, so Technology 1, Ludditism 0). By reading the comments and occasional guest-posts in the series entitled “Adventures Through the Mines of Mellow Gold”, and the aforementioned “Chart Attack!”, I encountered the work of “Jefito”, which I assumed was another example of the shockingly-sizable contingent of Americans that still respond to nicknames offered them during the OJ Simpson trial. (Kid you not – I’ve met dudes whom to this day still go by “Cato” and “Oaj”, so what the hell, right?) Well, I was wrong on that one. “Jefito” is Jeff Giles, whose clever writings appeared on a site called Popdose, which I’d seen before, thanks to my good friend (and Tweedster) Paul The Geek. I later discovered that both Hare and Giles have sizable back-catalogues of reviews and articles on their new home, including the damn-why-I-didn’t-I-think-of-that brilliance where Jeff examines bizarre musical comebacks ( “You Again?”).

Around the same time (summer ’09), I was searching for podcasts with interviews of Paul Westerberg, and discovered Wings for Wheels, which also contained episodes with “rival” Bob Mould and All Over But the Shouting author Jim Walsh. Like one of those “Three’s Company”-level coincidences, host Dave Lifton also had an episode titled “Chart Attack!”, which featured the two jokesters joining him to deify/ridicule a pop chart from 1985 (like the Gervais show a few years prior, my personal laziness stopped me from listening to this episode until quite a while later).

In late 2009, prior to another lengthy excursion to Kentucky and Ohio to commit random acts of mischief with several of the people on this here site, I obtained a few episodes of the freshly-minted Popdose Podcast. Thankfully, the combination of the three principals is more Voltron than MegaZord. I was not exactly sure if I’d be cool with the “three guys talking” style, as I was far more familiar with the radio-show dynamics of the Ricky Gervais Podcast. Yet, a holiday episode featuring Jason Hare explaining how ET scared the crap out of him as a youngster (no arguments here), and how the rest of the world seemed relentless in its push to remind him of the film (the same thing happened to me with counterfeit Cabbage Patch Kids), and I knew it was time to queue up that Chart Attack! episode of Wings for Wheels.

As mentioned above, Jason, Jeff and Dave reconnoiter via the information superhighway for a back-and-forth about music, films, politics, and moms. While hardly innovative, there aren’t many podcasts (or actual discussions) that feature this level of knowledge of arcana such as album liner notes, which studio musician appeared where, and random facts about rock videos. Most importantly, they all understand the importance of their personal connection with the music of which they write. Despite my residence within one of the most musically-aware cities this side of the Inner Oort Cloud, I’m a sucker for dialogue that offers a reminder of the Kentucky days where my friend Ryan and I bantered about our simultaneous leap into the Parliament-Funkadelic catalogue, or the conversation resulting with Paul and Lloyd after the first Gomez record blunted our living room stereo, or when it appeared that everyone I know was cranking Old 97s Satellite Rides, or when Adam, Hannah & I were nervously passing time before Death From Above 1979 drank too much DayQuil.  Fear not, though – it’s not about “nostalgia”, rather the understanding that musical conversations allow a shared experience of how significant a song or an artist can be, at least in this life. So I had to ask these guys a few questions about their relationship with music journalism.  Here is Part One (questions 1 and 3), with Part Two (2,4, & 5) in a few weeks:

The Brown Tweed Society: The single greatest feature of the revolution in media availability is the elimination of having to countenance pop culture you dislike. Personalized radio stations, online television episodes with minimal advertising, That Popular Internet Movie Rental Service, Twitter, etc, all insure that one’s pop culture consumption is dependent upon their personal choice, rather than what media conglomerates allow.  However, there is a massive side-effect to this: you can completely tune out anything that falls outside of your personal preference. What awaits us as a society when everyone fully embraces the ability to ignore music, television, or political ideas that challenge our sensibilities (outside of audiences greeting future “Chart Attack!” entries with ten shoulder-shrugs of “Who?”), and how do you fight this in your own life?

Jason Hare: It was my understanding that there would be no math.

Dave Lifton: Come on, Todd. You’ve listened to the podcast. You should have known better than to start off by asking Jason to analyze something!

I’m not really sure what awaits us as a culture as this continues. If I did, I’d look for a way to profit from knowing. The only thing I can predict is that, whatever happens, Bob Lefsetz is going to say it was so much better in the 60s and 70s.

Jeff Giles: I think about this all the time, and I’m sort of torn on it. On the one hand, I think our loss of shared culture has triggered some pretty awful changes in the way we relate to one another; on the other hand, I definitely do not miss the days when “La Isla Bonita” was playing on my clock radio every goddamn morning when the alarm went off.

Sometimes I want to watch Fox News, just to see how the other half lives. But I’m not sure the rise in my blood pressure would be worth the differing viewpoint. I think a lot of this goes back to the Fairness Doctrine being abolished while Reagan was in office — once the government stopped mandating equal time for opposing viewpoints, nobody had to worry about making an argument anymore; all they had to do was argue, period. So we don’t really have opposing viewpoints anymore, as much as we have a lot of opinions, expressed at high volume and without nuance. If I watch MSNBC instead of Fox, I’m not avoiding the other point of view, I’m just cocooning myself in bloviating that annoys me less than the stuff I’d find on the other side of the dial.

I think that extends to TV and music, too — there’s been a lot of downward pressure on the mainstream over the last 25 years, and intelligent/interesting/challenging/compelling art that would have had to fight for a share of the spotlight before has been blown out to the ever-expanding fringes. It makes that stuff easier to find, but it also relieves the major outlets of a lot of cultural responsibility. You wouldn’t have been able to watch Breaking Bad under the old paradigm, but we also wouldn’t have had 10 hours of programming chewed up by American Idol/Dancing with the Stars/The Biggest Loser. I don’t have any concept of what the long-term effects of all this might be, but I worry.

Dave: Worry about what? Because of the segmentation, most of the good stuff can now find a home where it will not only find an audience that can sustain it, but also keep it free from a need to water it down to appeal to huge audiences. As I see it, we’ve had a silent overthrow of corporate America in much of the entertainment industry because these twits got too big at a time when technology allowed for things to get small. It’s a wonderful time for a pop culture obsessive to be alive.

Jeff: Yes, but most people aren’t that proactive. The mainstream choices we had as children were watered down, but I think they were still more robust than what’s being offered now, and I wonder what kind of culture they’ll produce.
Dave: True, but people are growing up now understanding that we have so many options now. And I don’t just mean for TV, but to not even need TV as the primary source of daily entertainment the way it was when we were growing up.

Jeff: You act as if we aren’t living in a world where Jay Leno is the king of late night.

The Brown Tweed Society: At different times, each of you have referenced The Worst Rock ‘n Roll Records of All Time by Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell. Although I’ve read that damn book about 30 times, I keep returning because of the subtle jokes, like the resale shop’s price tags on most of album photos (don’t tell Garth Brooks); or how one record’s highest chart position is simply described as “Are you kidding?” Since that work hit the shelves, there’s a whole generation of records that need to join their ranks. If you were rewriting the book, what album (or albums) need to be removed, and what should replace them?

Jeff: That’s a great question, and although I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, I’m not sure I have a solid answer — I agree with most of what I can remember from the book, even the stuff they said about artists I grew up loving (Billy Joel) or albums I actually paid to own (*cough*Living Years*cough*).

I think if any of those essays haven’t aged well, it might be their scornful dismissal of Phil Collins. Everything he did after that book came out was even worse than the stuff Guterman and O’Donnell railed against, but his earlier work has improved with age — I think it was really his ubiquity we loathed, and Phil was the only person we could blame.

Dave: I can’t find my copy of that book, so I’d need list to determine what I’d change from that book, but I think Jeff’s point about Phil Collins is great. I’m not a huge Collins fan, but if you’ve ever heard the episode of This American Life where a girl has a difficult break up and realizes that everything she’s thinking is a lyric from “Against All Odds,” you get a really good idea of why his songs worked. Now compare that to Dan Kennedy’s book Rock On: An Office Power Ballad, where he takes a condescending attitude towards having to write copy for a compilation of his ballads when working for Atlantic. One explains his ubiquity and the other pisses all over it just to be hip.

Jason: I’m probably not a good person to ask. I have always had a soft spot for the underdog artists, the ones that seem to get pissed on by everyone. Actually, I think Starland Vocal Band is a great example. I don’t think there’s a single person that has mocked them that has heard one song of theirs other than “Afternoon Delight.” So when an artist gets piled on, I really have to think about whether they’re legitimately doing so because it’s deserved, or because it’s cool. People will come back around to Phil Collins, by the way, as soon as “You’ll Be in My Heart” (which I own on CD-single!) gets removed from all Lite-FM playlists. Duran Duran is on that list too, but people seem to be forgetting how much they hated them a while back.

The Brown Tweed Society: Allow me to adopt the tone of “Barry” from High Fidelity:

Sub-question – what should qualify as a “worst” record: a disappointing album by a band you love, or “the latest garbage installment from a hack”, if said hack is (or was) so ubiquitous that you were basically forced to become well-acquainted with their release (a la Nickelback or Limp Bizkit in 1999-2001)?

Jeff: Well, there’s no question that the Venn overlap between ubiquity and suck can be pretty painful, but I’d have to go with the disappointing album by a band I love. I never want to listen to another Nickelback song for as long as I live, but I still bear the psychic scars of listening to, say, Daryl Hall’s Soul Alone for the first time. Maybe this is why I don’t love as many bands as I used to.

Dave: I agree. Bashing Nickelback is pointless (unless you’re Jack Feerick). They don’t register enough emotion for me to hate them. Every decade needs its Three Dog Night. But when somebody that I’ve invested time and money on releases a stinker? Then I’m mad.

It’s even more true now that we can pretty much avoid garbage entirely. Even if we can’t, it’s not around long enough to have the same impact as it once did. Think of how Rebecca Black dominated the conversation back in March, and how two weeks later it was if she never existed. Remember how long “Macarena” was on the charts 15 years ago?

Jason: I agree with Dave here. It’s not being shoved down our throats anymore, so for me, it just doesn’t exist. I’m trying to remember the last truly disappointing album by a band I love. Here’s an obscure one that will be met with shrugs: Crosby Loggins. Yes, Kenny’s son. I really loved his debut independent release We All Go Home. He won top honors on MTV’s Rock the Cradle, and as his prize signed with Jive, a label he really had no business recording with. It’s clear a million people had their hands in that record, because it’s completely stripped of anything individual to Crosby.

The Brown Tweed Society: Sub-sub question: While several artists get the sword of Guterman and O’Donnell, they reserve most of their barbs for David Crosby (perhaps the namesake for Loggins?). Is it wrong to find joy in reading a well-written thrashing of an artist that you really love?

Jeff: Not at all. I’d liken it to the way family members come up with the best insults for each other — when a good critic identifies an artist’s flaws with humor and style, I think an honest fan has to appreciate it on a deeper level than a casual reader. The only negative reviews I’ve ever gotten upset about were ones that didn’t actually say anything about the music, because I know how hard it is to analyze music, and I know that kind of ad hominem attack is just the last resort of a lazy writer. I find joy in reading just about anything well-written. It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like.

Dave: One of my favorite things about Jeff’s “You Again?” column is that, while he’s not above taking an easy shot at someone (and calling Stephan Jenkins a “doot-doot-douchebag” was a stroke of genius), when he gets down to the review, it’s as serious and honest as anything else. He might still hate it, but his reasons will be on the music.

Jason: I have nothing original to say here. Jeff nailed it. I don’t care if you bash one of my favorites, just make sure you’re backing it up, or…I don’t know. I guess I’ll shake my fist at the screen and ultimately do nothing about it.

Part Two will hit the web on May 20.

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