[ed. note -- my sense of humor being what it was, I oversimplified Wilmoth's argument a bit (just a smidge! uh huh!) and he responded in the comments. Since I am unused to people actually reading this site, I usually just say what comes into my head and in this case Wilmoth came by and called me out, and he was right. So besides noting that point 4 is meant purely for humorous purposes of satire, I encourage you to read the comments and see what Wilmoth says in defense of himself.]
So… Feist, huh? Heard about it enough, right? Let me come at it from another angle. Consider a post from June, at Pretty Goes With Pretty, entitled “Just Gimme Indie Wha??.” Scott Tennent semi-lampoons the Dusted review of Feist by Charlie Wilmoth, which pegs Ms. F in a category Wilmoth likes to call “Adult Alternative.” Oh dear, says Wilmoth, the lo-fi cracks have all been erased in big indie artists and all we’re left with is smooth contemporary pap. His biggest critique of Feist is that it’s not messy enough, and “what you see is what you get.” So Tennent then asks, “Have we been snookered? How can I read Pitchfork every morning and enjoy an album so palatable my mother-in-law might even like it?”
Tennent’s response is, “ultimately … so what?… overcoming oneâ€™s inner college rock snob is a personal battle.” TouchÃ©! Well said, and I applauded silently. Here are my responses to the conundrum:
1) I won that battle a long time ago, back when I was dancing in my room to my dad’s ABBA cds. In fact, I grew up listening to my parents’ music, and had no real musical taste of my own until much later. I was as at-home with the Carpenters as I was with Nirvana, and happy to make a mix tape with Mary Chapin Carpenter alongside Depeche Mode. I never read a rock magazine; sifted through radio play and finally abandoned it altogether; relied on my friends and my folks. I came out liking just about everything.
2) Oh, the Golden Age of Indie ! How wonderful everything was then! I really, really, REALLY hate comparisons based on nostalgia. Tennent skewers that pretty well, so I won’t go too far with it, but suffice it to say that 10 years ago, someone was probably talking about how the Cure was getting so smooth, and how they missed the old days, when Robert Smith hadn’t sold out his image to Kodak. It’s the oldest critique in the book, and therefore is always a failure.
3) Wilmoth avers that art “struggles. It makes messes.” Not always true. I am almost all the way through reading “Warhol: 365 Takes,” put out by the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh. Though Warhol had his messy moments, I was struck by this quote from his book From A to B and back again: “You see, I think every painting should be the same size and the same color so they’re all interchangeable and nobody thinks they have a better painting or a worse painting…. Besides, even when the subject is different, people always paint the same painting” (283).1 Consider that for a minute; if Feist and Norah Jones sound interchangeable, then are they simply fulfilling their Warholian purpose? Or can we simply say that Art is not confined to the Messy box or the Smooth box, but can be found in many styles and sounds, some of which sound quite similar?
4) Or is Wilmoth just angry because Norah Jones is a hiss and a byword in indie culture, and now he’s afraid that if he puts Feist on the car stereo, someone might say, “Hey, I didn’t know Norah Jones had a new album!”. My stars and garters! He might be taken for one of those … those people that like Adult Contemporary! His life will be ruined!
5) My mother-in-law listens to everything, from opera on down. Musically, I aspire to be like my mother-in-law. So there :D
All this is to say, yeah, Feist is smooth. She’s no CTFPA, that’s for sure, but in a genre that embraces Sharon Jones, can we have no niche for adult alternative? And are we Not Allowed to like it because it has flow? Dude, I’m tired of listening to crappy albums that everyone genuflects in front of. I don’t want everything to be Art. I want to hear something that’s smooth, that I like and that I can talk about to people that have never heard of Joanna freaking Newsom. So what if it’s popular? So what if, oh my gosh, my mother-in-law would like it? I like what I like, be it Art or cornerless consumerist treacle.
Therefore, let me say: “The Reminder” is chock full of stellarly smooth songs. “Honey Honey” and “1 2 3 4,” with their choral backgrounds; the clappy, poppy cover of Nina Simone’s “See-Line Woman” (just as poppy, by the way, as the original); “The Water,” which is jazzy and tinkly and does indeed sound like something that could be sung in the background at a restaurant. I don’t call this the best album of the year, and I don’t call it particularly influential or Artistic. I do call it something I enjoyed very much this year; something that is beautiful for its own sake and not because it has to be compared to every foremother it had. Here ends the diatribe. Give Feist a listen.
1: Andy Warhol: 365 Takes. ed. Deborah Aaronson. New York: HN Abrams Inc, 2004.