Music

Wyrd days, Wyrd nights

What happens when music criticism and music festivals collide?

I used to have a problem with popularity. It is a youthful conceit to hate something because lots of people seem to like it. I wasn't popular when I was young, viewing it as vanity and the pop song as an anthem for those with genetic luck. I was into shit only dudes like: misogynistic rap music about fighting, techno and robot-themed video games. I was a fringe figure in my high school, trying to rhapsodize about Cannibal Ox to immeasurably disinterested young girls. In short, it wasn't exactly hip to be square (or into square wave synth figures) at this time. So, after years of indoctrination from the Chandlers, Paceys and Seth Cohens of yore, sarcastic (occasionally bespectacled), "weird" dude somehow became appealing for the first time since Thomas Dolby and the inevitable homogenization of nerd culture in all areas of 21st century life was in full swing.

This also applies itself to the music world. Edmonton-based Weird Canada is a successful music blog by Aaron Levin that celebrates an isolated pocket of our nation's independent music scene with zeal and love. This has spawned Wyrd Fest, which had its second iteration earlier this month at the ARTery and the Annex and has been invaluable to aggregating the local music scene. It would detract from its value to not have an assessment of the event, as I often find a lack of show coverage limits the story of a city. With acts ranging from not weird at all (Women) to weird for weirdness' sake (Myths), the festival shares a confusing middle ground with the website. What makes something weird when weird is the norm?

In the middle of this spectrum, Vancouver's Cosmetics impressed with its comparatively professional stage presence. The band lived up to its name, polished and well-rehearsed, clearly influenced by Glass Candy. The crowd's reaction to it was one of awe, but it seemed like it was due to Cosmetics being the only band that had even considered visual presentation. This is something that lo-fi bands don't do. It flies in the face of the hallmarks of this scene. There's a very thin line between acceptance (Desire, Nite Jewel, this) and repulsion (Lights, Lady Gaga). When is gloss OK?

Is it when it's from someone we feel like we know? Someone who's in the club? I recall having a heated argument about Phoenix's last album with a record store denizen. They decried the extremely high production values and unabashed pop tribute blasted out by these Parisians. I find this stance is common with purveyors of a scene that usually maligns electronic-oriented acts. But if a band that made the same album as Phoenix was called Blagdar and was from somewhere like Gibbons, they'd have instant local acclaim. So is this about being in the club or was it qualitative judgement?

Festivals associated with specific entities inevitably have to cover costs and create some purpose for the recording acts. The Pitchfork Music Fest and any SXSW or CMW blog party takes the music that it approves and then feeds it directly to you under its banner as a co-sign. This, to me, creates the effect of people making music in the hope of getting into the favour of the website and altering the creative process. Similarly, I wonder what Weird Canada can do to help bands succeed long-term. When I saw the Wicked Awesomes! at Wyrd Fest for the last time, I wondered how a community model that was more album-based could have helped the group survive.

It's pretty hard to stay outside the box, even if that is the express purpose of a service. Like that old axiom about goths, even non-conformity is a form of conformity. Once you monetize a free service that relies on taste, the opinion of the tastemaker is tainted and the choices made can appear to be in service of something other than the song. While I think Levin has done something special for Edmonton with his blog and the associated festival, there is the question of whether or not these bands will be left behind as disposable fodder for the temporary coolness of his readership.

Knowing Levin personally, I would never doubt his passion for the music or the community, but part of my beef is with the festival format itself and how it stands at odds with the ethos of his website. It can't be all peace and love anymore.

After Altamont, it became about having real security guards; after the first Wyrd Fest and the beer can in the toilet, it was about time constraints and following the rules so that everyone can have a good time. Which is cool and everything, if just a little ironic for a punk music festival.

Perhaps I have a really idealized vision of what a music blog could be. While a blog like Weird Canada is about exposing people to new music and categorizing the perceptibly unclassifiable, I think the appeal of online writing and outsider journalism is to provide entertainment without bias or opinion. The function of a fringe music website is automatically exclusionary and thus can't be completely effective. A newspaper is too deeply connected to marketing ties and anachronistic political correctness and censorship. Music blogs are inextricably linked to the desire for traffic and relevancy, no matter how noble the intentions.

Everyone has an opinion and now we have total access to all of them. But I personally don't have much interest in a rotating cast of faceless Internet personalities. When I read a book like Revolution In The Head, I read it because I am interested in the mythology of the Beatles, the members' songwriting processes and the relevance of each song to the rest of the band's canon. I don't care that some anonymous writer thinks "Flying" is a toss-off. This is why music criticism is useless: it's too personal and frequently relies on flowery prose over actually making the music come alive or enlightening the reader. It's often in service of the critic and not the song.

By the same token, purely positive tastemaking can be dangerous if it becomes too much of a vessel for a separate monetized pursuit and is monopolized by one source. So is it possible for creative music writing to exist without the burden of taste? I urge you readers to consider a world where you can read well-written music dialogue without a writer's bias or the dual-pronged conceit of promotion getting in the way. If there is a future where a media outlet can exist without the intoxication of personal opinion and of influence, I'll gladly build the time machine. V

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