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Suspicious of the cool kids' pop

Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar's critics whether there are any reviews they regret. Last in a series.ON SECOND THOUGHT

September 02, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

Teeny-boppers and fan boys: These dialectical opposites push pop ever forward into the next big thing. I started my music-loving life as one and have spent most of my career sparring with the other.

Geeky machismo defines musical hipsterism at its highest levels, and ever since I hauled my teeny-bopper heart into the fan boy arena, I've been torn between questioning it as a central value and trying to live up to it. What girl wouldn't want the secret knowledge the boys owned? But how could you access it? You couldn't even start if you didn't know the code.

Fan boys -- and I'd include some particularly determined and resilient girls in that group -- impress each other with the secret shows they've attended, the limited-edition vinyl they've collected, the mix tapes they bought on the street, the downloads they nabbed before the link went dead. It's all about getting there first and making good judgments, or at least falling in line with other cool kids' tastes.

I started writing professionally as a teen who'd barely moved past Andy Gibb toward the Clash; at 17, the whole concept of hipsterism freaked me out. Shopping for albums in Seattle's University District, I'd hand the clerk at the indie shop whatever new wave fluff I was buying that day, and I could see the edges of his mouth curling into a smirk.

My taste has broadened and deepened exponentially in many years of loving and writing about pop, but in my bones, I'll always be that new wave girl at the party who doesn't recognize the classic album her punk rock host just put on the stereo, and then asks if he has any Human League in his collection. And every year (especially since the Internet's Big Bang) there's been more music out there, fragmenting into more specialized scenes, easier to access but harder to sort out.

Over the years, I think, I've learned the difference between genuine grass-roots enthusiasm and hype generated by PR flacks and fashionistas. But I still can be mistrustful of those fan boys. When I was young, a genuine lack of knowledge often tripped me up; now, a lingering suspiciousness about what the cool kids like is more likely to cause me to miss something.

In pop, there's always a new chance to miss the boat. Reflecting this reality, here's a portrait of my life in shades of regret.

Shows I didn't see because I was young, and too scared, or too clueless to get in: The legendary David Bowie/Iggy Pop/Blondie tour of 1977 (I was only 14, but still); the B-52's on campus at the University of Washington, supporting their first album; the Pretenders with the original lineup, before bassist Pete Farndon and guitarist James Honeyman-Scott both died; U2's first club show in Seattle, because I just couldn't figure out how to score a fake ID.

Artists I avoided due to silly youthful prejudices: Camper Van Beethoven (stinky hippies, I thought); Pearl Jam (horrible first album cover, the singer was a surfer); the Replacements (unbearably drunk and sloppy when I saw them in the mid-1980s); Morrissey (my boyfriend at the time thought he was ridiculous); most early rappers (their music seemed so distant from my suburban white-girl experience).

Shows I should be able to brag about, but somehow flubbed: Queen at the Seattle Coliseum in 1980 (the girl seated next to me was on hallucinogens and she kept singeing my hair with a match); Bruce Springsteen, same year, same venue (I jumped around so much, the pendant I was wearing flipped up and hit me in the eye, knocking out my contact lens); reggae legends Black Uhuru, Wolfgang's in North Beach, 1985 (that weed was way too strong); Metallica at the Keystone in the mid-1980s (I'm pretty sure I saw them, but it was hard for me to distinguish one bunch of leather-clad headbangers from another back then).

Artists I initially dismissed as over-hyped: Jeff Buckley (my most regretted oversight; he seemed so full of himself when I saw him in 1993, but it turned out he deserved to be); Radiohead (I've always been skeptical of rock messiahs); the White Stripes (when I first saw the band in 2001, Jack White's histrionics overshadowed his brilliance); Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst, what a brat); Sleater-Kinney (it took Janet Weiss taking over on drums to make me realize this trio was the greatest feminist rock band ever); Rage Against the Machine (I couldn't take Zack de la Rocha's keening shout); Gillian Welch (I dismissed the classy country artist as a fake); Danger Mouse (I thought he had more gimmicks than skills); No Age (I wondered, does the world need to be saved by punk rock again?).

And finally, artists I need to pay more attention to right now: English hip-hop soul queen Estelle; Wisconsin's rural auteur Bon Iver; new wave New Zealander Ladyhawke; Midwestern hip-hop outfit Atmosphere. Who else? You tell me.

Until then, I'll just keep living with the knowledge that somewhere right now, a great new artist is playing to a roomful of fan boys and girls who've cracked the code, and I'm missing it.


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