Profiles in Coverage: The A.V. Club
Welcome to a new series, Profiles in Coverage. Each column, I'll be taking a close look at some of the more popular online venues for music criticism and breaking down what makes them special and especially shitty! Worth reading? Maybe. Definitely better than actually reading any of the Web sites that I'll be discussing, though!
For anyone who doesn't know, The A.V. Club is a branch of the joke newspaper The Onion, except instead of nerds making jokes, it's nerds earnestly discussing what they watched on TV the night before, or what CDs came in the mail a couple weeks ago. Obviously, it's not nearly as entertaining as The Onion proper, but surprisingly, it's also not as informative, unless you think a list of quotes from 30 Rock counts as information. The A.V. Club is pretty comprehensive, covering TV, film, music, and books, but I'll be focusing on the music aspects, mostly because that's what this column is about. Thankfully, there's plenty of terrible to discuss even with such a limited scope.
The Inventory isn't technically a music-only column - it just as often deals with film, or TV, or even general "pop culture" - but music appears often enough that it gets included on this list. Here's how the Inventory works: You take an absurdly mundane trope -- say, "Songs About Transportation" -- and you think up as many songs that fit that trope as you can. Write a quick summary of each song, throw some darts at a bulletin board covered in descriptors like "haunting," "breathtakingly surreal," and "Tim Burton-esque," and gather as many YouTube videos as you can find. Boom, there you go, that's a column right there! Now your readers can show off their pop-culture knowledge by connecting Red Hot Chili Peppers ("Aeroplane") with Split Enz ("Six Months in a Leaky Boat"). They'll be so thrilled with you for doing all the heavy lifting that you'll literally be able to repackage it all in a book and they'll buy that, too.
Take a Mediocre Idea, Run It into the Ground
The A.V. Club's writers are clearly not satisfied with writing standard reviews. The Inventory proves that. But not every forced, 'quirky' gimmick gets its own book. Some falter, doomed to the miserable middle ground of being popular enough to draw ad revenue but not popular enough to be printed without a significant monetary loss. Now, bear in mind, by no means do these articles have to be clever or interesting, they just have to be something to keep readers coming back between Inventories. Take, for example, Nathan Rabin's unbearable and horribly named "Then That's What They Called Music" series, in which he waxes philosophical about the pop-music scene based on past installments of Now! That's What I Call Music. By "waxes philosophical," I mean he comes up with a lot of adjectives:
"When Kanye leaped onstage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards to agitate on behalf of a plucky up-and-coming artist named Beyoncé Knowles in a deliciously irrelevant, tardy gesture, he unwittingly catapulted himself and Swift straight into the middle of our society's raging cultural divide."
I'm sure you remember the Kanye thing happening, because everyone remembers it. But see, now, you remember it through the magical lens of Rabin-esque realism, a lens through which everything is described far, far too much.
But Rabin isn't the only A.V. Club staff member guilty of writing boring, tainted-perspective recollections on music. Steven Hyden's "Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation" is a surprisingly long assessment of the decline of one of the recording industry's most successful deceptions. The arc of the column seems to be this: "Hey, in the early '90s, we had this alternative, counter-culture music scene going on, and then in the late '90s it stopped, what happened?"
What happened is obvious: For a little while, record companies realized that there was a lot of money to be made by marketing alternative bands, and, despite the protests of Ian MacKaye and countless others, there were bands willing to fall for it. Don't get me wrong, it still happens. It has happened for a long time, actually. That's how rock 'n' roll worked, how punk worked, how all of these things worked. The big difference, of course, is that The A.V. Club's demographic lived through this deception. These people grew up listening to Smashing Pumpkins before they started shaking their heads to Limp Bizkit. And so Hyden panders, making his readers feel like they experienced something unique to them and their generation, something much more meaningful than just another industry cycle.
Nathan Rabin is a writer for the A.V Club. I know that seems obvious, but I want to make it very clear that he is not the A.V. Club's editor. Despite this, he has somehow made the A.V. Club the place where he (and as far as I can tell, only he) gets to experiment with maudlin, pseudo-intellectual columns that will run for a goddamn year before (you guessed it!) being published as a book. Whether it's nostalgically looking back on his past music favorites and pondering their place in his development as a person (The Big Rewind), examining unsuccessful movies and creating a vague thesis about what they say about "cinema" "culture" in general (My Year of Flops), or the self-congratulatory "musical journey" (Nashville or Bust), this guy is a fucking ace in the hole when you need to convince your friends that watching Just Friends for the tenth time is essential to the evolution of your identity.
The puzzling aspect for me is why I'm supposed to find any of this at all worth reading. He's a compact version of Chuck Klosterman, all the cloy "pop-culture introspection" packed into blog entries instead of books*, complete with winking approvals of "low" forms of music and way more than you ever wanted to know about a guy just getting thrown out there. (* As noted above, Rabin's blog entries eventually get compiled and printed on paper anyway.)
It's impossible to discuss the A.V. Club without discussing the comments - it's a prominent feature that the writers like to reference as an integral part of the site, not only providing feedback on the quality of articles but also introducing new and interesting discussion topics that the writers might have missed (this only partially counts as having your readership do the work for you). And while there are probably a few people who see an opportunity to post on the Internet and wait to engage it until they actually have something to say, most people just get on with the hyperventilating and end up submitting something like what "COOL STORY BRO" here just had to get off his chest:
It would be dishonest to say that open commenting doesn't almost inevitably lead to such idiocy on any well known site, but fuck, the A.V. Club revels in this kind of shit. There's a sort of comic irony here: As well versed in "smart" pop culture as the A.V. Club purports itself to be (they actually have a patronizing weekly feature where they watch popular-but-shitty shows and "try to figure out the appeal"), as soon as they open the floodgates, the public seems more than eager to reveal itself as crass, insulting, and overall dumb as goddamn rocks. That's a pretty Sisyphean task, to try to bring enlightenment to the masses who mostly just want to participate on your site because they really need somewhere to shit.
So there you have it, one dull, pedantic pop-culture website dispatched, a million more to go! Have a suggestion for a music site that deserves the Profiles in Coverage treatment? Drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org!