Life Inside the Hivemind
guess it started at the end of last year, as I was assembling my best-of-2005 lists and became suddenly self-conscious: "Jesus, this is a real Stylus list, isn't it?" Or "Ho ho, I bet they can tell I read ILM." From Amerie to Isolee, everything I liked seemed like the same stuff that everyone else was going gonzo over as well. And why wouldn't it have? With a lot of songs and albums, I'd chased them down only after reading the considerable buzz on blogs, message boards, and sites like this. This realization was, on the whole, rather dispiriting. I felt like my taste was merely the result of leeching off others' (possibly superior) tastes and the lists bereft of any real surprises. Lo and behold, when the critical alignment ratings for the annual Pazz and Jop poll came out, I was in the 26th percentile, meaning only about a quarter of voters were closer to the overall consensus than I was. I was up about a hundred places from the year before.
The ironic part is that, despite the fact that I listen to a greater volume and variety of music now than ever before, I probably felt more idiosyncratic five to ten years ago. Among the acts I fell in love with in college were deadpan indie-boogie band King Kong, whom I'd heard on a late-night radio program; literate lounge-pop duo the Aluminum Group, whom I only discovered through interning at their original record label, Minty Fresh; and fragile, opaque singer-songwriter Tara Jane O'Neil, whose song "Another Sunday" I downloaded as a free mp3 from Insound.com in early 2000. In all of these cases, I knew not a single soul who'd even heard of these acts; the only people who shared my enthusiasm for them were friends I turned onto the records on my own.
The easiest way to explain what's changed is that my tastes themselves are different. I used to be far more preoccupied with defining my identity based on a small segment of music I deemed okay to like, which more often than not fell under the general banner of indie rock. These days, I'm no longer embarrassed to embrace the populism of the mainstream, and obviously, it's hard to feel unique about championing someone like Kelly Clarkson when she's near the top of the Billboard singles chart. But I also take more of a dilettantish approach toward music in general, and when I dip into an unfamiliar genre, I often take my cues from what's already been pre-approved. This is probably most apparent in my relationship to electronic dance music, much of which I like but don't always have the patience to sort through. When I download something like Lindstrøm's "I Feel Space," I'm relying on a consensus among genre experts that it's one of the top electrohouse tracks of last year and thus worth my time. (Likewise, in the world of country, Brad Paisley's rousingly clever "Alcohol.")
But this doesn't tell the whole story. In fact, a good part of why my tastes have changed, aside from merely outgrowing adolescence, is that over the past few years I've become immersed in several music-oriented communities, especially online. For one, encountering a whole network of music geeks has the immediate effect of making one question one's definition of obscure. I was once mocked on ILM for talking up Tara Jane O'Neil as a "discovery." For me, she appeared out of nowhere, and so my fandom felt isolated and special—but for the dude who grew up in the thick of the Louisville indie scene, took guitar lessons from Dave Pajo, and owned half the Touch and Go catalogue, there was nothing particularly private about the woman or her music.
More significant, though, I began treating these communities (of which, it must be said, there's considerable overlap, as certain message boards, blogs, and webzines all intersect and bleed into one another) as my primary source of recommendations for new music. This made sense for a couple of reasons. First, as I got to know other community members, I felt like I could trust their opinions more so than those of random critics I hadn't had the opportunity to interact with. Second, what initially drew me to these communities had less to do with shared taste and more to do with the frequently sparkling discourse that took place within them, and so I sometimes acquired albums in large part to be able to participate in the conversation. (Though I'd never paid much attention to Basement Jaxx beforehand, I bought Kish Kash to follow a particularly rhapsodic ILM thread.) As time went on, listening to the same music and then talking about it also became a way for me to reinforce my solidarity with the community, regardless of how smart the discussion actually was.
It's worth noting as well that the Internet has made a lot of these affinities possible, and not just in the sense of being able to speak with like-minded folks from around the world. After all, it wasn't that long ago that you could read about a relatively obscure record and have no idea how you'd ever hear it. But in the age of filesharing and other disseminating tools (like YSI), a critical mass can develop more rapidly than ever. The fact that the Pitchfork 2005 singles list contained no fewer than four mixtape or white-label tracks is as much a testament to the activity on the site's staff message board as to the genius of the songs themselves.
So in short, yeah, I plead guilty to joining in the so-called hivemind. I like being able to engage with others, and I've found a lot of fantastic music as a result of it. What's easy for me to forget, though, especially when I'm doubting myself, is that these communities are still a fairly small subset of music fans in general. This was put into relief for me when I made an offhanded comment the other day about "that new Booka Shade album everyone loves," and my friend Matt (who books clubs in Chicago and owns several thousand CDs) said "Booka who?" Right. While it's true that the Aluminum Group still isn't that well known, neither, for God's sake, is someone like Kelley Polar; I just happen to know a good number of his fans. (Incidentally, Polar's #135 finish on Pazz and Jop was largely on the strength of the Stylus vote: three of its seven votes came from our staff.) Additionally, it's possible that following recommendations from magazine critics when I was younger only seemed less sheeplike because they were older and supposedly experts; it was received wisdom, not just getting in line behind your peers. But at the end of the day, it's all the same thing, really. (Especially in my case, when the distinction between professional criticism and friends' opinions has become increasingly amorphous.)
I do feel like I should clarify, though: I'm not using the hivemind as a substitute for my own taste. I can still be discerning. For instance, I don't love the Mountain Goats or the Streets nearly as much as some other writers I respect do. And there's still the occasional record I discover outside the usual hypemongering circles: primal pop-jazz pianist Azita and indie-country chanteuse Edith Frost, both known nationally but best in Chicago, have each narrowly missed recent top tens of mine. But to be perfectly honest, I just don't have time to scout out and take chances on rarities that no one else cares about, even if there's the sporadic hidden gem. For lots of serious music fans, this is surely half the fun, as evidenced by the rise of mp3 blogs and podcasts that have the implicit effect of announcing how hip and unique their proprietors' collections are. Critics, too, looking to assert their individuality, routinely brag about how low on the P&J; critical alignment chart they finish. But this constant bending over backwards to be the first on the block into a certain artist sometimes strikes me as so much misplaced energy, even if I do understand the satisfaction of being able to introduce a friend to an song she winds up loving. It's probably harder for me to impress my fellow Stylus-ites with my iconoclasm (which is one reason I've been hesitant to throw my hat into the Stycast ring) —but when there's already so much good music to go around (and conversation fodder along with it), bragging rights don't seem all that crucial, anyway.