Kill Your Darlings
It feels like a week doesn’t go by lately when I don’t see or hear something about Beach House. They’ve released a new single, they’ve announced new tour dates, they’re reissuing their debut LP, they’re prepping new music for release, or they’re just generally being profiled as a capital-I Important band of the moment. I confess that sometimes it all starts to feel like a bit much – not that the band doesn’t deserve a certain level of attention by any means, but that perhaps the specific magnitude of the attention being afforded is not necessarily commensurate with their artistic output.
For the record, I am a casual fan of the Baltimore duo who strongly believes every collection needs one Beach House album (I own, and love, Teen Dream), and I don't want anyone out there thinking I'm merely instigating as means to get my Pitchfork-Travistan moment. I pick on them not because I dislike their music, but because coverage of them seems to exemplify a symptom of a modern one-way media discourse, a sense of counterintuitive monoculturalism that bucks against the self-evident truths of a world becoming more connected and diffusing more ideas across more people more rapidly than it ever has before. If we are able to reach billions of people with the click of a button, why would we allow ourselves, as fans, to get hung up on a just a few artists?
The rock journalism infrastructure has leaned hard on this band as one that is indicative of the time or one that deserves high levels of praise for their commitment to their vision, a vision that is almost undeniably a pleasurable one. And one could do worse than Beach House for their ability to capture the imagination of teenage and twentysomething music fans: their work trades in dreamy pop sounds that can pass for the younger sister of properly heavy and distorted shoegaze guitar-based rock; they are a co-ed duo, seemingly best friends, musical soulmates who seem to speak the same language and complement each other perfectly in the service of their songs; they have a low-key DIY spark that speaks to the ethos of different genres of music from all over the spectrum. And last but not least, their songwriting, musically and lyrically, is very often nothing short of breathtakingly beautiful.
And while all that is certainly a lot, by any measure, it’s also kind of…all there is. Beach House consistently makes top-shelf music, but the music rarely sounds much different than it has for the past ten years. My take on this is that the band not only captures the imagination, but has somehow been latched onto as a champion or standard-bearer for the indie-pop scene writ large. That’s not to say that they are the only example (Arcade Fire, Spoon, Grizzly Bear, and dozens of others could probably be thought of in the same way), but arguably they are one of a group of newly-iconic acts that has done the least amount to distinguish their sound across albums or themselves from synth-heavy slow-core music in general. Even so, there is an inherent question in that observation about why they are seen as a standard-bearer but not much inherently in the way of doubting that they are seen that way. I can’t reasonably argue that they shouldn’t be the champions they are - rather, my question would be: do we need champions?
With a smorgasbord of music accessible all across the internet and easily discoverable in brick-and-mortar stores, the possibilities are practically unlimited for individual music fans to broaden their horizons. Across Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, and other streaming juggernauts, entire days could be spent listening to music and potentially never hearing the same artist twice. The era of the rock star is seemingly coming to its gradual end, and with it so is the era of rock-n-roll’s supremacy in the more politically-motivated conversations of culture and identity. Albums are rarely ever even physically produced in the millions anymore, let alone sold in those quantities – any Platinum sales for new projects are resultant from streams and downloads as opposed to physical sales. With all these things being as they are, why distill anything down to common denominators?
In the 20th century, it was much more necessary for a relatively few amount of artists to be in the limelight at any one time. This was both a function of rock music’s relative newness and the fact that there simply weren’t hundreds of thousands of artists to easily investigate (or a way to do such a thing). Now that this is no longer strictly necessary, is it time to examine changing the paradigm? Instead of investing inflated levels of importance into any one act, might it be better for the rock media corps to be constantly exposing and arguing for the widespread relevance of new acts who they have culled from the ranks of anonymous musicians from all over the internet? Experimenters instead of standard-bearers...heroes as opposed to champions.
I don’t want to conflate the subject with the object here: Beach House is an object of this phenomenon, and (again) I’m only using them as an example because doing so illustrates the point well. I will allow that my limited exposure to their discography on the whole is potentially prohibiting me from seeing some things that other fans are more inclined or able to see. In no way should this be construed as someone who thinks they know all the pertinent details and has all the answers.
But I know how I feel, and it feels like the standard of music journalism should be shifted in some way that allows for news cycles to only be dominated by established acts when it makes sense for that to be the case. For example: if Beach House made a record of Country-Western music, I think that would be news – it would show the band taking a risk it never has, and it would be worth the conversations it would probably put in to motion. Or, if Grizzly Bear dropped their next LP exclusively on Soundcloud as a free-for-all streaming experience, the egalitarian ripple effects of that would be massive whether or not the experiment worked.
In lieu of that, it would be nice to read more news in the mainstream indie press about bands that I don’t know, albums that I’ve never heard of, situations that are truly novel. The idea of bands operating from on top of a proverbial pedestal is no longer one that is needed for them to achieve or maintain at least some level of success. In today’s climate it means more, in an artistic if not a commercial sense, for artists to conduct their day-to-day creative lives in some level of obscurity and then to dominate the conversation only when they’ve taken a step that warrants it. Our need, as writers, to repeat the same news items and fuel the same dramatic narratives over years and years is getting tired. Given that our entertainment options are unlimited, our ideas and story hooks should, by rights, reflect a level of originality that correlates to the diversity of the music world we are privileged to be living in, one which happens to be an embarrassment of riches.
The saying in writing is that you should “kill your darlings” – this is a way of saying that your favorite passages in a work may not serve the overall narrative or tone and should be excised when that is the case. What I’m suggesting is far less drastic but may prove to be more difficult. I’m suggesting we amplify the unknowns to accurately showcase and broadcast diversity while muting our media darlings ever so slightly, a concerted effort to clear some bandwidth and serve a more expansive story than we've yet to even conceptualize.
We've had anointed "champions" in indie music for too long. Let’s let the heroes be the champions.