Welcome to Slate. Here’s your sneer.

by Ted on July 16, 2004

In my previous life, I was a member of an active mailing list for fans of ska music. (In tribute, I’ve just created a ska name generator.) Every few months, members would talk about the music that they listened to, outside of ska. It quickly degenerated into a uniquely annoying form of indie one-upsmanship. Popular, marginal, and largely unknown bands were dismissed with contempt (“You’re still listening to Big Black?”). The discussion quickly disappeared down the indie rabbit hole, as members professed their love for vinyl-only releases from obscure foreign noise bands.

My friend Mark managed to shut them up. He wrote a long email about how everyone else was a sellout, and how he had gotten into the most obscure music ever. He would go to the local maternity ward with a stethoscope and listen to a particular fetus’s heartbeat.

Skagroup may be gone (or it might not), but the spirit lives on at the home of sloppy, reflexive contrarianism: Slate.

Wilco is one of the most critically successful groups of the last few years, so it should go without saying that they’re a bunch of sell-out phonies. Now, some people aren’t crazy about Wilco, and I wouldn’t argue with them about a question of taste. What really bugs me is this passage by Stephen Metcalf:

To a listener accustomed to Hootie and the Blowfish, Wilco sounds like the Minutemen—daring, allusive, funky, weird, and yet so right. To a listener accustomed to the Minutemen, Wilco sounds like Hootie and the Blowfish: classic rock for frat boys.

All those other critics who have praised Wilco? They’ve been cuddling their copies of Cracked Rear View since 1994. Stephen Metcalf isn’t a sheep like them. He’s a pure, delicate flower, raised on post-punk and spring water. He can see through the illusions that Wilco has cast. Wilco is not post-punk, people! Don’t try to enjoy them on any other level!




peter ramus 07.16.04 at 7:49 pm

Next from Slate:

The void? Now that’s one-upmanship.


Ted Barlow 07.16.04 at 7:51 pm

Note to self: finish post, then publish.


peter ramus 07.16.04 at 8:18 pm

Note to self: confine snark to unredacted material only.


Tom 07.16.04 at 8:21 pm

Didn’t like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that much.

Now, the two “Mermaid Avenue” Woody-Guthrie albums Wilco did with Billy Bragg, they’re great.


Ginger Stampley 07.16.04 at 8:32 pm

When I read that article, all I could think of was how uncool I am because I can only vaguely identify some of the people he talks about. Wilco? Aren’t they those guys who did some albums with Billy Bragg?

Contrariansim for its own sake is as sheeplike as following the crowd. Truly independent thinkers don’t need to give a damn about what the rest of the critics say–popular stuff can be good too.

One of the reasons why I love one of the MP3 blogs I read is its “top 30 of the first half of 2004” included a Britney Spears and an Avril Lavigne as well as indie stuff. That’s real independence.


Ted Barlow 07.16.04 at 8:40 pm

Which MP3 blog was it, Ginger?


Matt McGrattan 07.16.04 at 8:54 pm

Re: Ginger’s comment…

Yeah, Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ was a genuinely innovative piece of dance-pop with great production.

The thing that gets me about the whole more-indie-than-thou thing is the bands these people profess to like are almost inevitably not on the cutting edge of music.

Cutting edge stuff sometimes becomes popular and these guys (and it’s always guys) couldn’t take the risk of catching ‘popular-cooties’.

The stuff they like is inevitably white, male and uptight too… 3rd rate Gang of Four rip-offs only without the Marxism, or the funk.

And it all seems so bloody joy-less too…


Mary 07.16.04 at 9:06 pm

I finally broke down and bought an iPod a couple of years ago because I heard Summerteeth playing in a restaurant and realized that I really missed the chance to carry my favourite music around with me everywhere.

[insert dire tale of several hundreds of dollars sent on cassette tape walkment and equivalents over 10 years, wherein said walkmen died, revived, died again, ate tapes, and ran away from home]

So even though Wilco, like Radiohead, have entered a slightly self-indulgent phase in their career, I still love ’em.

And you’re right — as disposable as Britney is as a singer, Toxic was an awesomely great production.

(For extra credit: defend Clay Aiken. I dare ya.)


Autsin Train 07.16.04 at 9:19 pm

Why does the ska generator return “Veronica” for any version of the name John (Jon, Jonathan)? Someone’s idea of a joke? I suppose now you’re telling me the Two Johns have a “secret”….


Austin Train 07.16.04 at 9:19 pm

Why does the ska generator return “Veronica” for any version of the name John (Jon, Jonathan)? Someone’s idea of a joke? I suppose now you’re telling me the Two Johns have a “secret”….


Richard Bellamy 07.16.04 at 9:19 pm

Ever since I read how to fake being an indie rock expert, I have lost my desire to listen to music, let alone be an expert. For me, the only true music now is 6.5 hours of Bill Clinton narrative his own book-on-tape.


Austin Train 07.16.04 at 9:21 pm

SO sorry for the double-post! I thought I had cancelled that first one. Doh!


yabonn 07.16.04 at 9:31 pm

“Fatty Bombtrack”

Just letting you know :)


Ted Barlow 07.16.04 at 9:39 pm


You’re telling it that you’re female. Change the box above your name to “male”.


Kieran Healy 07.16.04 at 11:21 pm

Reminds me of the complaint from a jazz musician whose name I can’t remember: “The problem with Jazz is that if more than nine people like you, you’re mainstream.”


Bryan 07.17.04 at 12:57 am

In the penis name generator, I put in “Dog Rocket”. It told me my penis’s name should be “Hot Dog, the Red Hot Rocket”.
That reminds me way too much of the artificially flavored spiced jerky you can get in truck stops. My penis is almost never wrapped in packaging plastic and humungous truckers don’t eat it.


will 07.17.04 at 1:06 am

Ha! As I own _Double Nickels on the Dime_, I must have some street cred.

>The stuff they like is inevitably white, male and uptight too… 3rd rate Gang of Four rip-offs only without the Marxism, or the funk.< The funk-inflected dance-punk/new new wave/whatever is a welcome trend, I think. Check out the single streaming from Radio 4‘s webpage, or some of the mp3s made available by The Faint. At least it’s a welcome relief from that other indie trend, the twee emo group.


will 07.17.04 at 1:18 am

Might I note that as a listener accustomed to the Minutemen, I still rather like Wilco.

I run no risk of having my pet genre, IDM, becoming popular.


bza 07.17.04 at 1:47 am

Will, you might want to start psychologically preparing yourself for that eventuality, as I’m starting to hear Aphex Twin in the background of commercials and movies. That’s the opening wedge.


seth edenbaum 07.17.04 at 4:51 am

The Minutemen aren’t obscure to me at least.
Or is it that they weren’t obscure 20 years ago.
Double Nickels on the Dime.
Great stuff.
And anything having to do with Natalie Merchant makes me reach for a baseball bat.
I’ve smashed two stereo systems as a result of her god damn voice.
Look at me, I’m channeling Lester Bangs.


se 07.17.04 at 5:01 am

the state, the church, the plans, the vote
what’s the verb behind it all?


Matt McGrattan 07.17.04 at 10:12 am

Will, yeah, the new new wave of funky guitar-driven pop is most welcome.

Franz Ferdinand have recently become huge in the UK making this kind of music. Huge not just in some narrow indie enclave but genuinely massive – huge audiences at rock festivals, songs everywhere on the radio and TV, etc.

Their stuff owes a big debt to all the post-punk stuff — all those bands like Gang of Four that were influenced by the Sex Pistols and Chic — and is pretty good too!


mc 07.17.04 at 10:36 am

I don’t get the point of the article. I don’t get why when something relatively popular also happens to be good it has to be knocked down for not being amazing enough. It’s stupid.

And are they that popular in the US anyway? I wasn’t aware they were the new Guns’n’Roses. I must have missed all those Wilco videos they play on MTV every twenty minutes…

The cheapest thing has to be the comparisons with Radiohead. Like, why? what’s in common there? what’s all this “deconstructionist” bollocks? Wilco don’t sound like Radiohead and Radiohead don’t sound like Wilco, so what on earth is he on about?

I don’t like Wilco’s music very much. They’re ni carne, ni pesce, as the Italians say.

He could have cut down the article to that sentence, because that’s the only thing that makes sense.

(And btw, it’s “né carne né pesce”. “ni” is French, and Spanish, not Italian. Nyah nyah nyah.)


ian 07.17.04 at 6:04 pm

Who are Wilco?

Setting that aside, the whole debate seems to be like that in the 50s and early 60’s with the Trad boom and again when Dylan went electric – in other words it is an inevitable consequence of music as lifestyle rather than music as music.


eirepol 07.17.04 at 6:30 pm

When I saw the words ‘Slate’ and ‘sneer’ in the title of this post I thought Ted was going to take a baseball bat to Christopher Hitchens.


godoggo 07.18.04 at 4:48 am

I’ve never heard’em, ’cause I’m too old for that sort of thing (and I’ve always despised popular culture until it’s not popular anymore), but I noticed on Nels Cline’s website that he’s touring with them, so I figure they must be all right. Nels played on 2 (both?) of Mike Watt’s albums, incidentally, although I think that’s about the least exciting thing Mr Cline has ever done. You can see him for free with Vinny Golia at LACMA on the 30th, by the way, if you’re in LA.

Me I saw the Minutemen 12 times -1st when I was 17 at Godzilla’s right after the Punchline came out and last at Cal State Long Beach, wherein I didn’t have to pay ’cause I carried their stuff, not long before D. died. I also once peed on a dumpster with D. And I don’t feel cool at all.


Ginger Stampley 07.18.04 at 10:03 pm

Ted: I had to look it up, but it was Said the Gramophone.


Teaflax 07.19.04 at 2:44 am

Wilco: yet another rawk band, gussied up to seem interesting, but with nary a new idea to present (see: White Stripes).

Rock’s orthodoxy is such a strait jacket that what qualifies as “good music” among critics and “indie” cognoscenti is only really sonically different from what they’ve been touting since the early sixties.

It’s still three chords in 4/4 time, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle8-chorus, blues/rock harmonies and progressions, all clocking in under five minutes.

Break any one of those rules, and you’re pretentious, difficult or too cerebral.

Sad, really.


Brey 07.20.04 at 12:19 am

Actually, the problem with Wilco is they peaked two albums ago. But, they’re still good.

They’re a bit like Radiohead in that they both play with sound just in different genres.

And, just because new music is structurally the same as old dosen’t mean it sucks. It’s the life breathed into it that makes it good or bad.

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