I remember a teacher once pointing out that the most pretentious thing you could do when writing an essay is to start out with a definition that then frames your argument. Well, I technically started this piece by talking about what a teacher once said, so…
Pre.ten.tious: Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.
I’m not sure when it began exactly, but over the last few years music writers have thrown out the word "pretentious" as a cover-all, usually without digging any deeper - just a one word slam before moving on. The biggest head-scratcher is how so many writers manage to ignore perhaps the most important word in the definition when they consider describing an album or track as pretentious. That word, by the way, is "impress." The entire idea of being pretentious is to pretend, to fool, to attempt to impress.
The word pretentious is certainly a word Matthew Friedberger knows all too well, as most of his solo work always seems to get slapped with the P-word somewhere in the review. As a fan of both his solo work and his work with The Fiery Furnaces, I tend to use a different word to describe Friedberger's work: "ambitious." So when did ambitious become pretentious, and is there a difference in the world of music criticism today?
The mistreatment, or better yet, the laziness of music writers projecting pretentiousness onto Matthew Friedberger started almost immediately. With the release of The Fiery Furnaces’ debut LP, Gallowsbird’s Bark, music writers began comparing the band to The White Stripes, but if you listen to the two bands, the only connections exist outside of the music. First, both bands had two main members and secondly, the Furnaces were brother and sister… and, well, people thought The White Stripes were either brother/sister or married or divorced. Eleanor Friedberger was routinely compared to Patti Smith, despite their vastly different vocal stylings, but hey, they both had bangs and both were women… easy enough.
Then came massive (as massive as indie blogging can bestow) success with their sophmore album “Blueberry Boat” and a well-received LP that was cleverly titled EP. What followed was the most illuminating point in Friedberger’s career. Riding high on critical reception, like many before him, he could have continued to pump out similar sounding records to appease his growing fanbase, as well as the elites who had exalted him. But Friedberger, in a move that would quickly grow into a trend, decided to take on an ambitious project of creating a narrative record that would use magical realism to capture the life of his grandmother (who would also play the role of narrator) through decades stretching from the 1920s to the early 2000s. The tracks from Rehearsing My Choir bounce from decade to decade, going forward and back, with Eleanor singing as the grandmother in years past. It’s easily my favorite Furnaces album, but it wasn’t well-received. In fact, a lot of folks called it "pretentious."
This is where I began noticing the mistreatment Friedberger was receiving at the hands of lazy music writers. First off, the album is one of those pieces of art that is impossible to comment on with just a few critical spins. Imagine reading the spark notes of War and Peace, then writing a review; that’s how most of the reviews read. It’s very important to point out that I’m not arguing that Rehearsing My Choir is factually a great record - music, as we all know, is subjective. I’m fine with any critic or listener panning anything as long as the justifications come in the form of arguments based off of personal reactions, not when they consist of subjective thoughts passed off as universal truths. What writers forget is that we can only speak to our personal experiences with a piece of art. When a word like "pretentious" is thrown around without any backing justifications, it becomes a "truth" and not an opinion. These "truths" are therefore lies.
And the lies grew. The most atrocious moment of “journalism” surrounding Friedberger occurred when he made a quip about Radiohead that was clearly sarcastic. He was joking around about the similarities between the name Harry Patch (A WWI veteran who Radiohead wrote a song about) and Harry Partch (the experimental musician). If you read his original AOL Spinner interview where he made the comment, it’s clear he’s using self-deprecating sarcasm, basically bolding his statement of fake confusion. Such subtle playfulness was lost and Pitchfork decided to falsely run two articles fueling an absolutely fake feud. A fake fued that included hit grabbing titles like: “Fiery Furnaces’ Matthew Friedberger Continues Radiohead Fight”. The only people who deemed this to be a fight and the only people who extended it were the irresponsible journalists. The fake fight received so much attention that Friedberger had to issue a statement riddled with classic Friedberger humor analyzing the irresponsibility of journalism. Thus, he created a fictional statement to match a fictional fight.
From this point on, the one-time “indie darling” who made that Blueberry Boat album everyone seemed to adore suddenly became open to a barrage of unfair one liners and underdeveloped reviews. With the release of his brilliant Solos project (eight albums, each focused on highlighting a different instrument/form of instrumentation), Friedberger was matched up against his sister Eleanor's debut solo album, Last Summer. Both projects were fantastic but had two very different goals, and entirely different approaches to the making of an album. Even with the only connection being their family ties and that they shared a band, somehow a large amount of reviews mentioned how Matthew could learn restraint from Eleanor. Which is hilarious since his project was all about restraint.
Fake Context For A World That Craves It
Matthew Friedberger’s newest album, Matricidal Sons of Bitches, is a sweeping score over forty-five tracks. The basic pitch is that MSOB works in four movements and features layers upon layers of sound that slowly re-incorporate themselves in various ways. It’s an album focused on how sound can evolve and how ready-mades (samples) can be gently distorted to take on new meaning, meaning translated into interpreted emotion created only by the listener's personal reaction to how the sounds have been reconstituted. And, of course, a lot of people found this concept pretentious, rather than ambitious. At first, I simply couldn't understand the hang-up, but then I dug deeper into the reviews and something became clear. Most reviews today work in this bizarre structure of having to front and backload the analysis with context. The opening paragraph will tell you a story, and then this context will act as a frame; the middle paragraphs analyze the sounds or individual tracks before the review returns to the contextual main idea at the end, often finishing on a bold last line that hammers everything home. It’s predictable and it's easy, but we’re all guilty of doing it. No big deal, right?
Here's the problem, though. What happens when the context is a statement on the current state of context? Well, as seen in the reviews of MSOB, it confuses and goes over the heads of writers. With the announcement of his record, Friedberger wrote a humorous press-release “about” the album and gave context that basically boils down to Friedberger having his own laugh. Read it here. He pitches MSOB as a score to a Poverty Row-esque film that doesn’t exist. He then playfully uses negatives as positives and flips them again, going back and forth - if the non-existent film does not exist, does the music exist, and if not, do they both exist? And more importantly, does it matter? You see, the non-existent film is the context, it’s not there, but because he told you it is, you (music critics) made it real.
And this is the huge problem facing music journalism today. When did the context of an artist become the value? This is the question Matthew Friedberger is asking, not with his album, but with his sarcastic press release. If we didn’t mention that Tennis wrote their debut album while falling in love on a sailboat over several months, wouldn’t the music still exist? Is it important to know the back-story? And why does our generation crave - scratch that - why do we need these overblown stories to welcome an artist into our ears? We need to flip the structure and put the music back into the spotlight. This is all Friedberger was saying. Even without the film (the film that, again, doesn’t even exist) the music still stands on its own. The context is just an unnecessary crutch.
I’ll Tell You It’s Important Later
Another great fault in the current state of music journalism is that we consider every project/album to fit nicely into the same box of files. For a generation that seems to have broken down genres and explored new frontiers of sound collision, we still examine each album with the same lens. MSOB is not in the same world as the new Beach House or Grizzly Bear records. With Solos and MSOB, Friedberger should be considered in the same scope as a Jean Pierre Melville or even loosely tied with the ambient works of Brian Eno. This isn't to say that Friedberger is making similar music, just that he is making “other” music, music that lives in a different part of town.
It’s in this thought where I find most of my anger surrounding the treatment of Matthew Friedberger. Using two examples, let's analyze how two artists are treated very differently for trying to achieve similar goals of musical exploration.
Pitchfork on Brian Eno’s Discreet Music and ambient series:
“Brian Eno's ambient works received criticism similar to minimalist music of the time. About Steve Reich, a critic once sniped that listening to his pieces was like watching waves roll upon the shore-- pretty but meaningless. About Eno, guitarist Lydia Lunch once complained that all ambient did was "flow and weave," that its emotional ambiguity was oppressive and vapid. Both criticisms assumed a certain way of perceiving sound to be the only valid conceits under which to compose. But as time progresses, we find more and more artists influenced by Eno's expansion of sonic possibility, rendering earlier criticisms inherently moot. Some may find Eno's constant analysis aggrandizing, but it's that very mode of thought that allowed him to identify "ambient" as a coherent idea in the first place. He both verbalized and demonstrated a concept that perfectly fit its time and place, and that has visibly shifted the landscape of musical thought. For that, Eno gets to join the ranks of those who have accomplished such sea changes throughout history-- a shift in thought we often attribute to "genius."
And then Pitchfork on MSOB:
"At this stage of his career, Matthew Friedberger comes across like the Andy Kaufman of indie rock, though these days he's less an outlier of the field than an errant baseball thwacked miles beyond its borders. Is he more interested in the process of challenging people's expectations or sustaining a career? It's hard not to feel that he's pissing on his chips with each successive release, but the intent behind what you could term his professional self-destruction renders the piss and chips a more artisanal dish, though it's unlikely to curry much favor."
The Eno piece is open-minded, and it applauds the artist for entering new territories despite having been labeled meaningless by a critic at the time of the release. The Pitchfork review was written in 2004, thirty years after the release of Discreet Music, and enough time had passed where the general consensus of Eno’s shift was that it represented the work of a “genius.” In contrast, the Friedberger piece, written at the time of MSOB’s release, is glaringly closed-minded. Instead of the same applause for someone trying to pave new ground, Friedberger is "an errant baseball thwacked beyond its borders." At the time, Eno was the same baseball, and both Eno and Friedberger probably take such a slam as a compliment.
It’s this kind of critical irresponsibility that keeps artists in a box, smacks down ambition, and chains down anyone as bold as an Eno or Friedberger. I can only hope that in the the future artists such as these are treated with just a little more respect. After all, they're the ones who ultimately move forward - the "geniuses." But until then, since pretentious is the new ambitious and exploration is destructive, here's to hoping that Friedberger remains the most pretentious and self-destructive artist of our time.
(highly recommended vinyl purchase)