A few weeks ago, Slate’s Culture Gabfest turned its considerable attention to the new Lorde album, Melodrama. The podcast is the finest of its kind, in which several talking heads (each well stocked with opinions) stake out a position on some cultural product or occasion. The Gabfest’s three critics, led by Stephen Metcalf, have wandered the Whitney Museum, marked the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and leaned into the swerves in philosopher Robert Nozick’s thinking.
The discussion of a twenty-year-old’s pop album should’ve been par for the podcast. Still, it was hard not to feel that my favourite pundits, who had been joined by Slate’s music critic Carl Wilson, were overanalyzing the text at hand. When Dana Stevens, an otherwise thoughtful film reviewer, sincerely wondered, “How does [Melodrama] fall in the pantheon of breakup albums, or would you deny that it is one?”, the music critic took pains to deny. “I think it’s kind of a heartbreak album,” he said, with a slight note of hesitance, as if this was rich, unsettled turf to tussle over. Perhaps the “breakup” and “heartbreak” binary is as consequential a distinction in pop criticism as “ode” and “elegy” in poetry. Perhaps these very smart adults needed finer hairs to split.
Let me hasten to add: I’ve been consulting the Culture Gabfest religiously since it began a decade ago. I love the spectacle of pop culture critics being brainy—provided they top up their thoughts with a foamy dollop of wit and style.
But the trend these days is to tread heavily; increasingly, pop culture critics are bringing more brains to bear upon their modest subjects than seems required. The result often reads like a parody of criticism, freighted with gravity as if filed from Krypton. Here’s the New York Times’s Jon Caramanica on boy-band alumnus Harry Styles:
And so the self-titled solo debut of Harry Styles, one of [One Direction’s] two breakout stars—the other being Zayn Malik—is both an answer to his past and a template for his future. Mr. Malik, who makes mildly sludgy pop-R&B, got to market first, and also seems at least tangentially interested in the market. Mr. Styles would like to be excluded from that narrative.
So goes this sometimes great, sometimes foggy album, which is almost bold in its resistance to contemporary pop music aesthetics.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d assume Caramanica was talking about John Coltrane seizing control of the “narrative” by parting ways with the Miles Davis Quintet. So seriously does he take his aspiring man-boy—fomenting a “resistance” to “aesthetics,” no less—you can practically hear his highbrow furrowing. Even when he means to wink, Caramanica comes on dry and grave. “First post-boy-band albums,” he explains, “are also where symbols of maturity are dangled: Mr. Styles would like you to know he has been debauched, or something like it.”
Perhaps this is what Northrop Frye sounded like when faced with having to close read yet another post-boy-band, symbol-rich resurrection myth. In any case, Mr. Caramanica would like you to know he has been critical, or something like it.
There’s a long history of first-rate minds taking the seemingly second rate very seriously. Roland Barthes’s classic monograph Mythologies (1957) was one of the first attempts to flush out into the open the meaning of such ephemera as soap, detergent, and wrestling. Later, Pauline Kael threw her byline behind lurid Brian De Palma thrillers. Greil Marcus detected great depths in Elvis’s performances, and duly dragged them. I worshipped Elvis and, for a time, Marcus’s 1975 book Mystery Train, which contains passages like this one:
Elvis has survived the contradictions of his career, perhaps because there is so much room and so much mystery in Herman Melville’s most telling comment on this country: “The Declaration of Independence makes a difference.”
That would’ve struck me as pretty cool when I was younger—not for what it revealed about Elvis, which was not very much, but for the sheer moxie of muscling the King of Rock and Roll and the author of Moby Dick into the same weighty sentence. That was a move on par with a lip curl.
In time, however, I came to prefer the froth-fine touch of writers like Clive James, Troy Patterson, Fran Lebowitz, and Anthony Lane. Here’s the latter on Wonder Woman’s digs:
The name of the island is true to myth, which suggests that someone at DC Comics has been knuckling down to Herodotus and the Greek tragedians. In “Prometheus Bound,” written in the fifth century B.C., we are told that Themiscyra is the home of the Amazons, “who loathe all men.” In the movie, directed by Patty Jenkins, the islanders don’t get much of a chance to work on their loathing, because men are blissfully absent and, by definition, superfluous. The women are thus free to practice their homely skills, such as leaning sideways from the saddle of a galloping horse until their heads are on a level with their stirrups and then, from this comfortable position, loosing off an arrow at the target.
The scholarspeak cut by the colloquial (“knuckling down to Herodotus”); the light way with a logician’s weighty turn (“thus”); the eye for unexposed clichés (that tendency of action heroes to go horizontal to horse); the stylist’s apt, unimpeachable phrasing (“loosing off an arrow”). Lane is too serious about what he’s doing to take his subject too seriously. Compared to this, Marcus, peering solemnly down the decades at Melville, has lost perspective.
And yet, after the Culture Wars of the 1980s—which razed the Western Canon and blew out the dimensions that defined where a critic could roam—it made for a good career move to lose perspective. By the 2000s, critics were engaged in an escalating arms race to make the most explosive claim on behalf of unfissionable material like Limp Bizkit or Star Wars prequels. What’s notable about these essays is their tendency to apply more smarts and style than seems warranted by the source material; to over-analyze and out-write.
Consider how Jonah Weiner, in his spirited defence of Limp Bizkit, takes note of frontman Fred Durst’s “infelicities on the mic,” or “the knuckle sandwich [that] is his emotional lingua franca,” or the “critique” that “bubbles up between his lines.” Jesse Hassenger, defending the Star Wars prequels, also overreaches. “This could turn into what fiction writers might call an imitative fallacy,” he writes, “where the prequel trilogy is made intentionally (and unproductively) boring to depict its less immediately exciting subject matter.”
But like most things overdone, the trick of overanalyzing isn’t hard to master, and can be applied to virtually anything. Because there isn’t a knot of allusions to undo in a Carly Rae Jepsen song, the contemporary critic (Barthes’s knowing heir) tends to pore over the object’s sociological aspects and ideological missteps—how it’s handling gender, say. But why the earnest focus on Carly Rae Jepsen? Because, well, it’s easy! It’s easy to write about things that don’t have a ton of depth to them. It’s much harder to scale a Daryl Hine poem than look down upon Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell—which is why many writers have forsworn criticism for culture writing.
Culture writing caricatures the outward trappings of criticism (the seriousness, the lingo) but largely waves off aesthetic judgment, and doubles down on the sociology. The result is funhouse prose that warps its subject out of all proportion. Consider the opening of a recent New Yorker essay, in which a new Chinese boy band is said to “renovate the form.” Renovate the form! That’s a small phrase, but a conspicuous one, meant to confer the gravitas that attaches to heroic couplets and wonder cabinets, I suppose.
Or consider, again, Caramanica who elevates a Taylor Swift song about her love life with the word “metanarrative,” and describes Swift herself as a “transgressor.” Or Jody Rosen’s 4400-word defense of schlock, in which he insists that “schlock is too important a tradition not to take seriously and that taking it seriously means making astute judgments about that tradition.”
You can plot all this on a curve, beginning with figures like Marcus, that founding Freud of pop overanalysis—pop culture criticism has reached peak seriousness.
None of this, I should point out, is meant to advance some silly value system pitting high art against pop culture; I’ll take the John Travolta vehicle Blow Out over Antonioni’s Blow Up any day. The point is to judge the critic, not the cultural product. Perhaps there’s someone out there capable of making an album by that “transgressor” Swift sound as subversive and lyrically substantial as Patti Smith’s Horses. But a critic like Caramanica or Rosen probably won’t be the one to do it. You just don’t trust them to know the difference. They treat every pop album the same way—as automatically worthy of scholarly scrutiny.
That said, if what you’re working with is the Carly Rae Jepsen Songbook, aren’t your critical responses going to be somewhat limited, even predetermined? Aren’t you likely to either inflate the object’s worth, grabbing for all the gravitas you can, or put a pin to it? And if it’s the latter, aren’t you apt to conclude, as some killjoy at The New Republic recently did, that Jepsen’s music “reduces the experience of teenage girls to fantasy instead of taking them on their own terms as actors in this world”? (What was the critic expecting from the co-author of the delightful “Call Me Maybe”? A Kathy Acker cut-up?) Moreover, if the assigned text is an exploitative dating show like The Bachelorette, you’re apt to discover, as a critic at The Atlantic recently did, that The Bachelorette is, well, an exploitative dating show!
It’s not that these pundits are off base in taking shots at teen pop and reality TV; their critiques are accurate enough. It’s that they’ve brought their phonebook-thick Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism to a pillow fight. And if a critic can’t tell that their ambitions are disproportionate to their airy subjects, then they have no business toying with trifles.