I suppose, what with the Arcade Fire winning a Grammy for Best Album (and a hearty whatevs to all y'all contrarian-types who claim this isn't important or "important" or Important -- have you looked at the history of previous best album Grammy winners lately?), I should resume my long-gestating, unsatisfying 2004 recap so I can move on with my life (to 2005).
I wrote a sarcastic acrostic to Mike Barthel in response to the Grammy news: "No, I'm Not Even Pontificating On It. Not Totally Surprised. Engages Vanity -- Ever the Narcissist!" But actually, my reaction, in skimming the history of the Grammys, is just to note without further elaboration that the one-two punch of Taylor Swift in 2010 and the Arcade Fire in 2011 does seem to mean something to me in a way that the last 10 years worth of Grammy wins haven't, regardless of whether or not I liked them. Compare to the hoary and/or polite picks of the previous decade -- Alison Krauss joining forces with Robert Plant, Herbie Hancock honoring Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles and the Superfriends. Dixie Chicks, Outkast, and U2 honored too late for just-OK albums (U2 won for Joshua Tree anyway, so really it just signals that U2 is closer to Robert Plant than...y'know, Dixie Chicks or Outkast). And then there's boomery Steely Dan and Santana, and something like neo-boomer wins for the O Brother soundtrack and Norah Jones. What a boring list for an exciting decade! The last relevant win was Lauryn Hill all the way back in 1999 -- and I don't mean "relevant for my small little circle of internet cultural commentary," I mean relevant, the kind of thing that makes you, whoever you are, wanna say something about something, even if it's just "WHO IS [INSERT BAND]?"
You know my development through the early 00's -- spark of curiosity begets obsession, obsession begets deeper obsession, deeper obsession begets a few poses I hadn't tried out yet (I was posing and a poseur, but one wasn't necessarily synonymous with the other). For the most part I was having fun, not really making "my story" fit to any particular zeitgeist or Narrative of Now -- I was working out the Narrative of Then, c. 1950-2000.
2004 was the year that, in hindsight, everything sort of "happened" for me in a way that does have an impact on the current moment (mine, anyway). The most significant thing about it was the narrative that it established for me, one that would repeat itself, in some variation, several times over, year after year, and as we speak has followed me into a new career path (I'm disconcerted, if excited, to find myself at square one all over again). The narrative starts with promise and confidence, turns, usually through a combination of luck and initiative (but mostly luck) into an opportunity, gets bigger, goes slightly awry (real or imagined, sometimes imagined -- paranoid -- sometimes real -- disappointment), and I retreat, regroup, think of the next move.
To some extent this is a self-fulfilling prophecy; success itself is what leads me to suspect there's something awry -- maybe a variation on "I don't want to be part of any club that would have me as a member," but really more like "I don't want to assume that a club's having me as a member means it's a club worth being in [the problem is the world], or that my involvement in a club necessarily improves it [the problem is me]."
So it's January 2004, I'm in my second semester as a sophomore in college. I've just gotten through a difficult first semester in which my isolation was starting to drive me nuts -- so I move on, get a roommate (my friend Ian, who was in this period like Nic Cage in Bringing Out the Dead, suffering pretentious innernet-music-speak and frightening diabetic episodes) surround myself with friends, start writing about music on a small blog a few friends read occasionally, start lurking on message boards. Emily and I are long distance and at the beginning of our relationship; I talk to her just about every day but we're both going through our own separate issues, figuring out how to console and compromise over the phone (which is a bad way to console or compromise). I'm taking a Marxist-bent film class in which the primary text is a Foucault reader; I'm doing some personal and documentary film work that seems to be an improvement from the adolescent stylistic exercises that I was disappointed with (but had a blast making) so far. I'm immersed in politics in the run up to the 2004 election and have an unorthodox teaching assistant job for a few intro politics classes, a fringe benefit of being on the Model United Nations team (whut).
By the spring of 2004, I've endeared and cajoled and otherwise forced my way into some campus writing gigs -- expanding on the school alternative magazine's entertainment section, I start Basshead Media, a sticks-and-twine website where my friends and I have more space to write about music, hence can get more promos out of my growing list of record label contacts. My first promo was Iron & Wine's Our Endless Numbered Days, which, as was the style at the time, I predicted would get an 8.4 on Pitchfork. (It got an 8.6.)
At some point a friend of mine posts to the I Love Music message board a rant I have about dance-punk, in reaction to a middling review on Pitchfork of the second !!! album (which my friends and I love). I'm totally mortified and respond (I think) -- luckily the thread's big enough that any involvement I have in it is quickly swallowed. I don't venture back there for a while. But it's enough for Dominique Leone to leave a comment (since eaten by blogspot) on the post, and we have a two- or three-post back and forth.
Summertime -- things are going well with Emily now that we can see each other more frequently. I've got an internship on a PBS documentary and am living in New York. I'm still getting promos and I'm going out to some shows and otherwise soaking in a summer in the city. Pitchfork is hiring, so I apply for the second time (the first was in January with a "sample review" in which I mindlessly snark at John Mayer -- opinion since revised). I link a couple of college reviews and Pfork contacts me saying that they "know" me from the mild spat with Leone back in the spring. I get a five-review trial, at which point they'll decide whether or not I'm fit to join the staff.
At this point in their history, Pitchfork was rapidly getting their shit together. When I joined them in August of 2004, they were in the process of getting some real advertising money and remodeling the website -- they didn't yet have a particularly regular way of paying anyone. Trial reviewers were unpaid until they'd written for six months, which was a practice they stopped soon after I left; the turnover rate in 2004 was insane and they were getting by on an odd patchwork of regular contributors and newbies like myself, also Marc Hogan and a few others I can't remember now. When I left, I think they were already planning for their first festival, another big business leap forward.
So I got in somewhat under the radar, through basically the same systems people had gotten gigs there since c. 2000 -- relatively informal ones. Ryan Schreiber liked my reviews, though I thought I was trying too hard, and I was reacting with acute paranoia to any and all hate mail. I fed trolls and shut down constructive criticism. School started back up and I made writing reviews a priority over my work; I stayed up too late and missed classes and started off the semester poorly even considering I'd consciously lightened my course load for junior year. I was having interminably long, simpering conversations with Emily on the phone in which I'd express my paranoia and second-guess my qualifications for the job, to which she'd eventually reply, exasperated and past the point of feeling listened to (she wasn't being listened to) "why don't you just quit then?" (this was impossible, for reasons I did not fully understand except that it felt like...admitting defeat?). I followed quasi-religiously the worst (and often dumbest) criticism of the site online -- of which there was a ton, several sites devoted exclusively to tearing apart daily reviews. I googled myself constantly looking for the next take-down. And through it all I kept writing reviews, some bad, some inconsequential, some actually pretty good (I tended to write better about albums no one was likely to care or read about).
Around the time I began reviewing, and upon returning to school, my friend Steve asked me whether or not I'd heard the new Arcade Fire album. The name didn't inspire confidence and knowing Steve's taste I figured it was some math-rock band I wouldn't like much. So I requested the promo from Merge and received it in a small cardboard sleeve, no artwork or liner notes, with a press sheet that compared the band to a bunch of animals but provided no particularly useful information. Exclaim magazine had done an extensive profile on the band that for some reason I didn't read, or didn't read carefully enough. Which is also to say, I was a guy who liked writing about music and didn't fact-check my shit -- a recurrent problem that I'm constantly re-confronting. This, incidentally, is how I got the band's "hometown" wrong (months later it was quietly edited to say "adopted hometown" at my repeated, embarrassed insistence) and made more than one leap of the imagination into ascribing intentions to the band out of a sense of needing to either buy in to or spin an appropriately sobering origin story. (I don't regret that impulse; mythologizing is fun and occasionally useful -- see The Social Network, also a 2004 origin story. I just regret what it looked like in practice.)
I'm surprised in hindsight that I even got the review, but I pretty much begged for it, and Pitchfork then (and presumably now) basically worked on a "dibs" system. There was steam building for the album on the editorial end -- as I recall at the start of September the editorial favorites were Arcade Fire, Annie, and the Go! Team. I was assigned the review very late, the Thursday or Friday before the Monday the review was slated to run (a day prior to the album's release). I can sort of remember writing it over the course of two late nights, biting my nails and chugging diet soda and playing the record over and over and over again. Ten times, twenty times. And yet I had no lyrics sheet and was totally winging the background. I didn't know where to get the stuff -- they had album art in Chicago but I had a piece of cardboard. I felt it was my duty to somehow find everything I needed from the music alone, including biographies. I got lyrics wrong, I got facts wrong.
I think I had an idea from reading the site for a year or so of what a Big Review That Is Published on Pitchfork is supposed to read like, what emotions it's supposed to trigger: a sense of importance, of wiping the slate blank and starting boldly again. A sense of weight, a sense of capital-M meaning to a particular audience, a particular "we," which I used liberally despite being forbidden to do so in my academic writing. A sense of innovation -- which I wasn't finding in the music, mind (damn that music was hard to describe -- most music is, but I wasn't finding the right RIYLs. I do maintain that I was one of the few people who correctly identified their mallet instrument as a glockenspiel (metal) and not a xylophone (wood) -- small consolation, I guess). A sense of breathlessness.
This thing was a 10! The editor said so, my friends were saying so, my gut was saying so. The review was saying so. Some time later someone wrote a blog post, I can't find it now (the site may have been deleted) that compared my prose to "religious oratory." That was appropriate -- there was a hint of church in the thing. I was quoted sarcastically, random internet people (RIP?) claimed the band hated the review, the score -- a 9.7 -- became its own punchline. I was told stories about audiences chanting the score before the band took the stage. A few months later, as my diabetes control spiraled to its worst in my life, my doctor informed me my A1C level was a 9.7 (bad enough for him to threaten that I wasn't exhibiting enough control on my insulin pump, which I gave up voluntarily three years later anyway), and I laughed and laughed. My explanation garnered a quizzical look ("who is the Arcade Fire?") and then we changed the subject.
Toward the end of the year, NPR called and arranged an interview about the band; they wanted a quote from me. So I took a cab to a dinky recording studio in Ithaca and spilled my guts to a complete stranger, half therapy and half interview. I told him about Canadian collectives and the science behind numerical values, but what's in a numerical value, life's not a numerical value, is it? He pulled the one even-handed thing I said; in the end I thankfully didn't sound like that much of a self-obsessed idiot. I was convinced that everyone was out to make fun of me (even though I was also convinced that no one knew or cared who I was).
I was given the review of the second Interpol album, and I managed my oddest metaphor in print to date -- at the end the band takes a dive from a great height and lands gently several stories below. Because that happens.
I went to a sold-out Arcade Fire show a month or so later at Cornell, set to do an interview with the band for the school paper (or something), paranoid and uncomfortable as my friends teased me about the review. After the show I went backstage to find Richard Perry in his underwear ("turn around for a sec") and we awkwardly exchanged hellos. I'd brought a digital video camera with me, my only recording equipment, and I'd forgotten somehow that the thing hadn't worked in about two years. But the band didn't have time for the interview anyway. I seem to recall briefly trying to help them find a place to sleep that night but they made other plans. I saw them at an after party at Cornell -- they came into the house stomping in unison, marching through the crowd to the back. I had a nervous conversation with Win Butler about topics I've forgotten.
Three months or so later at Christmas an old recording by the band surfaced, a collection of Christmas novelties they'd recorded as a joke. I was asked to "review" it, and I did. The band posted a response that basically noted that it was a joke (and that the band members were incorrectly identified), and we had a brief but not unpleasant email back and forth. And that was the last contact I ever really had with them; it was pretty much the last contact I had with any musicians, or regular music reviewing, ever -- just before the new year.
Recalling this story gives me a certain fondness for the smallness of it all, and noticing (again) what an obvious blip it was on whatever radar screen it appeared on. My part of it was mostly coincidental, and if I hadn't written what I'd written, I imagine some other review in its place would have accomplished the same thing (though it probably wouldn't have reached my level of religious oratory -- but other reviews were about as fawning, and as strange, in other venues). As I write this, 2004 is receding from the intense scrutiny of Taylor Time goggles and I can laugh about how absurd it was to go from having no writing experience whatsoever to being part of the hype cycle (from sermon to tabloid-blogging) that, I guess, culminated with a Grammy.
But I think it's more accurate to say that 2011 isn't exactly a culmination of what was happening in 2004 -- what happened that year was its own culmination, the emergence of a certain kind of institution and a certain kind of music as having power in a certain kind of space. In the next three or four years, the ground continued shifting remarkably quickly in industry, in distribution, in internet culture -- so that whatever the Arcade Fire represents in 2011 isn't exactly what they meant in 2004; the institutions and spaces mutated and don't really resemble what they did (to me, at least) then. At some point the band and the site uprooted from the zeitgeist that launched both of them, to some extent yoked together, from a smaller corner of the world to a bigger corner, and the story of the next zeitgeist -- one that has no easy personal entry point and no "corners," or all corners, depending on your point of view -- is the one that I'm more interested in talking about.
EDIT: I posted a few other random observations from the year here. A few months ago Robert Christgau interviewed me briefly for some context re: a piece he was writing about The Suburbs; that appeared here. As I told him at the time, I forget whose actual final decision it was to go with 9.7, but I supplied the compromise, i.e. it wasn't "rated for me" by the editors, nor did they prime me to review the album. In fact, I recently found on a presumed-dead hard drive the I.M. chat from 2004 in which I was assigned the review. I can pull one sentence to illustrate/indulge some decimal-point nerdery: "10's need to be reserved for retrospective analysis in my book. Even conservatively it could make a 9.2 or a 9.3. I would knock it up to 9.5...9.4 is the standard "essential of the year" rating. A notch above means something a bit loftier." So there you have it -- loft.