This is normally the sort of thing I’d reserve for a Carnival of Souls linkdump post, but by now I’ve put off putting one together for so long that I’m actually intimidated by the volume of stuff I’ve got bookmarked for it. Besides, I think this deserves its own showcase.
If you haven’t seen them already, I want to introduce you to Chris Ott and Shallow Rewards.
Shallow Rewards is a series of video essays, I guess you would call them, in which Ott blends music criticism, music-criticism criticism, industry talk, and pop-rock history lessons in the most seamless and engaging fashion I’ve ever seen.
Here’s the first one I really watched, independent of the he-said/he-said intercritic tussling that attracted me lookie-lou-style to the series in the first place. It’s about Bruno Mars’s surprisingly great Police pastiche “Locked Out of Heaven,” to which I was exposed in the very same way Ott was: Driving my family around in the car, listening to pop radio. This is him singlehandedly carving out the discourse the song deserves, looping in the Police, Sting, the Romantics, Gorillaz, superproducers, Mark Ronson, poptimism, nostalgia, and more, all amply illustrated with video and audio and textual support.
And this is the video that really floored me, somehow. It’s Ott in his rant mode rather than his music-history raconteur mode, explaining how the Internet’s ubiquitous access to a wide variety of music, coupled with music criticism websites’ need to drive hits by talking about the things people are talking about, has led to “peak distortion”: the canon is discussed to death while the median, with which listeners were once forced to come into contact via scarcity-bred chance, is invisible.
The first time I watched these videos — and let’s pause and reflect on the import of that statement: the first time, out of several, I’ve voluntarily watched the same recordings of a music critic talking into a camera — I watched them in mix-and-match fashion, gravitating toward the topics I was most interested in: the Ministry episode, the 4AD episode, the opening series of rants, the Duran Duran two-parter (!). That’s a great way to watch them.
But I think it actually does a tremendous disservice to how thoughtfully Ott arranged the arguments he made and the videos in which he made them. When you start at the beginning and work your way forward, the cumulative impact is just tremendous. There’s a cataloguing of symptoms, there’s a diagnosis, there’s a prognosis, there’s a prescription, and there’s a demonstration of what things would look like when cured.
Were I to boil it down it’d all sound like truisms: Don’t chase attention, don’t write about the same things everyone writes about, don’t willingly or unwittingly serve the interests of commerce or PR, reclaim your worth as a writer and/or musician and/or music fan by talking passionately but non-hyperbolically, originally but not obscurely, about good-to-great music wherever you find it. But laid out as Ott lays it out it’s like taking the red pill and seeing the Matrix for the first time.
Ott is a big, funny, combative personality. Boy, is he ever. His twitter feed is scabrous, and as I said, I first came across him when he did a whole video going after a review by Mark Richardson, one of my other favorite music critics in no small part because there’s not a ranty bone in his body. But this facet of Ott’s work doesn’t drive me crazy the way similar work done in comics criticism drives me crazy (literally, in some small way this year), for a few reasons. First, I’m far enough removed from the issues and industry and personalities involved that little to none of myself is invested in the outcome of the fight. I can watch it like I watch a football game my family puts on the TV during a holiday gathering.
Second, you may disagree with the contours or conclusions of Ott’s angriest arguments, I know I do from time to time (I don’t see the need to cede the discussion of Death Grips to the band’s grandiose pronouncements about themselves instead of talking about the way their music sounds, which I like a lot, for example). But they are always actual arguments, not a bunch of assumptions, ad hominems, and contrarian-conventional wisdom hastily jerryrigged into a platform upon which to perform standup insult comedy.
Last, and not necessarily not least since I believe in the inherent value of criticism independent of what else you do but not necessarily least either, he’s doing so much more than rant. He’s being the change he wants to see in the world. Moeover, he’s being the change he wanted to see in his own life and career, which is probably more important. He saw what was out there, he identified what didn’t work, and he’s fixing it, video to video. Video to well-made, thoughtful, funny, clever, sometimes charmingly self-important, always entertaining video, might I add.
(The “Crap Guitars and the Madness of Crowdsourcing” video above is the ne plus ultra of the form. Damascene-conversion insights, dishy insults, funny rock-nerdy insults (Lana Del Rey “is the reason the KLF lit a million pounds on fire”), thoughtful fuck-yeah music cues (ending a rant about the “industrial effort…like making a car” put into creating Lana Del Rey with a quick and unexplained cut to “God” by former one-time record-industry people-pleaser Y Kant Tori Read frontwoman Tori Amos), an “I know how this looks and I really don’t care” cut back to a silent shot of Ott drinking a beer and shaking his head in disgust while looking off-camera — it’s all there.)
A few weeks ago it looked like I was about to pull out of the depressive nosedive I’ve written about recently. I had a great, relaxing weekend with my wife and kid and cats. Boardwalk Empire was incredible and Homeland aired the best episode of the back half of Season Two. I was writing about all sorts of things all the time, and getting money and recognition in return. I finished a comics script I’m really excited about that said a lot of what I wanted to say at that moment. Then a few days later dozens of people I know and like got laid off and treated badly in the process and I was blown prostrate to the floor again. C’est la vie.
Anyway, the point is that perhaps more than any of the other things I just listed, discovering Shallow Rewards, watching and rewatching them, literally losing sleep staying up to watch just one more video before bed, helped me out of the tailspin. I’d become unmoored from comics criticism, the thing I’d spent a decade defining myself by doing — over unpleasant interactions, over feeling out of step with the prevailing tone, over a gradual inward transition from “writing about comics” to “writing comics,” over getting more intellectual and emotional and financial and interpersonal rewards from writing about television and music, over a lot of things. Seeing these videos made me feel like criticism can do anything it wants to do if you love the thing you’re talking about enough to want to live up to that love. If you’re angry, fine, you can do something with that. If you’re obsessed, great, you can do something with that. If you want to recreate the overall vibe of the most fascinating fact-filled chat you’ve ever had in a bar with some guy or girl who’s into something you’re interested in and just totally, totally knows their shit and communicates it to you with such effortlessly revelatory power it’s like you just learned about a 27th letter of the alphabet, awesome, you can do something with that. The point is that you can do something. If it’s possible to do with pop music, an industry that’s fallen off from its ’90s highs but still has cash and infrastructure enough to support the creation of a fleet of Star Destroyers, it’s possible to do with literally anything you’re interested in enough to talk about. Anything.
I can’t think of a work of criticism that hit me as hard as these videos did in a long, long time. I wrote a fawning fan letter because of them. To a critic. How about that?
Start your holiday break early and watch them. Maybe they’ll inspire you the way they’ve inspired me. Enjoy.