Tokenism: This Joyless Endeavor
or the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Tokenism.
I signed up for this piece more or less reflexively. After a couple days’ thought, I was delighted to be clutching the shortest straw of my personal array of musical peeves. For the purposes of this article, tokenism is defined as listening to the work of just one or two artists in a given stylistic field. Certainly, tokenism can merge with ageism, too; one can easily be snow-blinded by the glut of new releases. But we’re in a golden era of reissues, not to mention artists that ex- and implicitly pointing back (cough) to their antecedents.
So the focus is on tokenism as a cursory gesture, either from disinterest, or intent to promote oneself as open-minded. “O! Yes, I love pop music: M.I.A. and Annie, mostly.” “Opeth is the only decent metal out there.” “The River is the only tape-loop album I’ll ever need.” Wait, that last one’s me. But you get the idea. Now, tokenism is not the same thing as unfamiliarity, but that’s the next paragraph. As a denizen of the used-CD racks, I was never one for stockpiling a certain artist or style; my collection was (and still is, to a large degree) dictated by a rubric of availability, price, and critical opinion. Oh, and blind hunches based on album covers. Never underestimate those. Rather than shut up, I’ll put up, for better or worse, before moving on...
All this may mean that, because my collection tends toward breadth rather than depth, I actually own more token picks than most. DJ Shadow, Stars of the Lid, Lightning Bolt… I make no pretense of the omniscience of a John Peel or Xgau or John Darnielle; I only aspire to their omnibenevolence. What distinguishes a tokenist and an inexperienced listener is curiosity. A dimly-dawning conviction that the rock-era canon is rapidly aging, and the indie anti-canon isn’t much better, and some sort of wide-net canon-in-between, not neglecting the corners, might be the answer. In fewer words, a blind hunch that there’s transcendent things in unlikely forms. As scions of, and witnesses to, the basement-rock revolution of the 80s and 90s, this is more or less doctrine for most of the people reading and writing for this website. But in my experience, indie open-mindedness too often translates to a Cliffs-Notes version of the cool; admittedly, the Cliffs Notes yields a number of treasures. No contention there. Yet, if Nevermore released one of the best albums, let alone metal albums, of 2005 – and a lot of folks are giving them good odds – hopefully more than a few angelheaded musicologists at least investigate what the fuss is about.
But here’s why this cannot be my stupid sales pitch: tokenism, if it is to be fought, ought to be fought willingly, and within the listener’s framework. As we master the dark art of sussing out and synthesizing the gamut of online/printed critical opinions (an assumption you’ll need to allow me), it’s easy to make genres and proper names the sole reference points: the former because they’re familiar and often appear in the initial paragraph, the latter because they are capitalized. And so even if a reviewer hated Groovie Ghoulies’ Monster Club (I know what I said about the sales pitch, but do not associate with such a man), if he mentions the Queers & you like the Queers, you’re bound to give the Ghoulies a hearing. Fair enough. But soon we find ourselves in a closed loop, in which the same names slide past each other, each Next Big Thing pitched atop a mound of the usual, albeit possibly stellar, suspects.
The trick to combating tokenism may be twofold, and I’m winging it here… the first, I think, is to identify the emotional timbre of the music one normally enjoys. Most of the tokenist folks I know are so bombarded with inputs that they’ve slowly become passive, sound receptacles. They know what they like—as a man knows the buoyancy and grip of his life raft—and only a large effort (PR hype, insistent friends) will hew into their established tastes. Ask ‘em why they like a certain artist, and well-meaning inanity may be the response. Their iPods pump in so much aural wallpaper, and that’s unequivocally fine unless you and you alone decide it’s not. Do you listen to Bobby “Blue” Bland because you love a classic R&B; melody, or because “Lead Me On” strikes a weighty note of dependence? Did Ulver’s Blood Inside keep on the wrong side of catharsis, or were you drawn to the gauzy textures of inverted black metal? No answer is wrong! This is music criticism at its heart: dissemble the component parts of a work, figure out which you respond to, and why. You may find it’s not that far a step from M.I.A. to Eazy-E, or from Godspeed to Gavin Bryars.
This sounds rather pedantic. Thankfully, the second approach is the simplest of stuff, and very fun to boot: listen to everything. Find a good hip-hop blog or metal zine or experimental cassette/CD-R label or turn on Country Music Television and poke around. As is the case for every style, roughly 80 percent is garbage; stick with it, and having a new band or genre earn your trust can be as sick a high as your favorite song, phosphenically translated. It’s cashing in an expert’s badge for headphones, large as life. No one’s selling you an alternate list of albums to check out. There’s no overlooked genre that touches everyone for whom it plays. There’s just a world of sound.
By: Brad Shoup
Published on: 2005-12-21