Music Critic of the Year: @Discographies

A puckering wit and more than 20,000 followers - those are the only facts we know about the Twitter account @Discographies, where the author summarizes the entire catalogue of a renowned singer or band in 140 characters or fewer. Enlivening a less than stellar era of music criticism, @Discographies has devised a new structure that combines the Internet hallmark of snark with the pre-Internet prerequisite of expertise.

@Discographies' prolific Tweets -- diagnoses of Paul McCartney, Beck, Captain Beefheart, Bright Eyes, My Chemical Romance, Eagles, and Green Day, all in the month of December - tend to follow a three-act arc, with comeuppance coming just before curtain. Sometimes comeuppance can't wait; @Discographies has no tolerance for the revisionist embrace of Journey's rock-radio magnitude or the romanticization of Joanna Newsom's harp experiments.

Because @Discographies has been one of the highlights of 2010 (the account became active in July), we've ended the year by interviewing the author via email. Our topics included Web site comments sections, BitTorrent, Larry King, anonymity, John Barth, and, of course, social-media performance artist Kanye West.

The obvious first question is "Who are you?" But I'll save that for later, to make sure people read the whole interview.

A wise choice.

Do you think @discographies proves the viability of music criticism on Twitter?

The viability of music criticism on Twitter--at least in a populist sense--was proven the very first time someone wrote: "OMG! I <3 Justin SO MUCH!!!" Music criticism is part of the lifeblood of Twitter: every second of every day, people are out there psychoanalyzing Kanye or raving about Cee-Lo or going to a show and tweeting "jeez, Malkmus looks bored tonight." 

If you mean "music criticism on Twitter" in the sense of "writing about music by professionals who already do this stuff for (something that resembles) a living"...well, apart from Chris Weingarten, that field is still pretty much wide open. There are lots of music journalists on Twitter, but very few who are providing much more than advertisements for their paying gigs elsewhere.



But, see, I'm a Twitter positivist. I think Twitter is a new kind of vessel for delivering content; maybe even a transformative one. And one of the nice things about it is its neutrality: it's as well suited to music criticism as it is to sharing recipes or storytelling or the (allegedly) funny remarks that were (supposedly) uttered by someone's dad. So everything is "viable," although some people have a better grasp of the form than others. I've said elsewhere that "140 characters is not a limit; it's a shape," and @Discographies is an attempt at demonstrating how to use that shape. 



What kind of transformative force do you imagine Twitter having?

Twitter may be the first mass communications system that also functions as a meritocracy: it actively promotes good ideas and good content, regardless of where they come from. Twitter is also incredibly good at bringing people together. In my non-@Discographies life on Twitter, I've met people that I never would have encountered any other way, who are now actual real-world friends. Skeptics might think that the brevity of 140 characters would foster a kind of surface-y and impersonal interaction, but I think it does exactly the opposite: it forces you to communicate in a way that's more signal than noise. Those are two really powerful functions--spreading ideas and connecting people--embedded in one convenient place. And I think we're just beginning to discover what the combination of those things might yield. I'm not a starry-eyed futurist, really; I'm just someone using technology to find newer, better ways of expressing my ancient disdain for Alanis Morissette.



You're finding positives in the "weak-tie" relationships of social media, which Malcolm Gladwell derided in the New Yorker earlier this year, and I agree with you. But I'm skeptical about the idea of Twitter as a meritocracy. As I write this, Ivanka Trump has 844,000 followers; Larry King has 1,727,000. Both are easy, cheap targets -- my versions of Alanis Morissette -- but doesn't their popularity contradict your theory of a meritocracy?

No, because it's irrelevant to what I'm talking about. People with pre-existing name recognition are going to get a certain default number of followers just by showing up. C'est la vie; if you're famous, you will always have certain advantages of access. But access doesn't equal influence or impact. The people that you mention are both incredibly bad Twitter users. Their feeds are content-less junk. Have you read Anil Dash's "Nobody Has A Million Twitter Followers" article? I tend to agree with his suggestion that most of the people who are "following" Larry or Ivanka are ignoring their tweets in the same way that I ignore take-out menus from lousy Thai restaurants, or the email I get that's purportedly from Barack Obama. All that stuff is just noise, not signal.

The important thing to understand about Twitter-as-meritocracy is that it's not a zero-sum game. Larry King--or the intern who's writing his tweets for him--can have a zillion followers, but his existence won't prevent anyone from following me. When I began writing as @Discographies, no one knew who or what @Discographies was. It was an unknown thing. But people discovered it and then recommended it to others by retweeting. Result: I built a substantial audience in less than four months, completely from scratch, and it continues to grow organically. Why? Because I'm providing (I hope) something that people might find interesting, or funny, or snarky, or thoughtful, or even educational. And those are five adjectives that no one is ever going to apply to Ivanka Trump.

So, what's your psychoanalysis of Kanye?

He's been thrilling to watch on Twitter, hasn't he? It's like one of those science fiction stories where you get to watch an unformed consciousness evolve at hyperspeed into a super-brain that takes over the universe. At this point, I think he knows exactly what he's doing in a whatever-I-do-defines-the-vital-center-of-pop-culture-in-2010-whether-you-like-it-or-not way. He's at the top of his game, he knows it, and he knows you know it, too. He's the anti-Larry King.



I've been asked several times, including less than an hour ago, if I write @Discographies. Would you like to either confirm or deny that I'm you?

I'm pretty sure that "Would You Like To Either Confirm Or Deny That I'm You?" was the title of a 1968 Incredible String Band song, right? 
You really want me to answer that? Because if I confirm that I'm you, then I'm either telling the truth--in which case this entire conversation is going to seem more than a little bit self-serving--or I'm lying--which both you and I will know for certain, but nobody else will. If I deny that I'm you, then I'm either telling the truth--which both you and I will know for certain, but nobody else will--or I'm lying--in which case this entire conversation is going to seem more than a little bit self-serving. Either way, we're into some super-duper-postmodern self-reflexive John Barth territory here. Are you sure you wouldn't rather just hang out and listen to "Jugband Blues"?

That's how I know you're not me - I would have referenced Philip Roth rather than John Barth.

What do you tell people when they ask you if you write @Discographies?



I used to say, "That's flattering, but no, I don't write @Discographies." Invariably, people replied, "A-ha, that's exactly what the person who writes @Discographies would say." So now I don't say anything. I guess this means I enjoy participating in the mystery of what you created, and I shouldn't ask who you are because an answer could sully the appeal of what you're writing.

It's perfectly okay for you to ask, but the odds of your getting a non-obfuscatory answer are low, at least for now. There's something about anonymity that seems to resonate for people, and there's also a sort of (ascribed, even if not actual) authority that comes from writing as an institution, rather than as an individual. I think that's why I've always loved reading retractions in the New York Times: "The Times regrets the error" is such a great sentence. I could be writing @Discographies under my own name--and I probably will, one of these days--but the sense of mystery (and the illusion of omniscience) has been a big help in getting the project started. Like you, I also get asked whether I write @Discographies. My response is to say lie and say no ("...but that's really flattering!") and then briefly muse aloud about who it might actually be; I'm sure you'll be delighted to learn that I've invoked you as a possible suspect once or twice. All of which makes me feel a) guilty and b) kind of like my life is turning into an episode of Dexter.

Which @Discographies Tweet generated the largest response, and why?

I get a lot of retweets, but since the median age of a Twitter user is 31, discographies for artists who began their careers before 1990 or so tend to resonate less strongly in the Twitterverse (i.e. fewer retweets) than those for more contemporary acts. So entries for groups such as Coldplay or Weezer will generate a lot more heat than, say, the Kinks. On the other hand, the largest amount of hate mail I've received was for Tom Waits. Go figure.

I'm pretty sure that "Resonate Less Strongly in the Twitterverse" will soon be the title of a Sonic Youth song.

Or a posthumous Stereolab EP.

While we're discussing anonymity, I was reminded of the 1999 tempest that followed the anonymous rating of rock critics by one of our own, dubbed Jo-Jo Dancer. In your case, anonymity directs attention away from authorship and onto the project; no one's going to unfollow you, or (worse) not RT you, just because they don't like you or hate the periodical where you publish. It's an anti-internecine strategy.

I remember the hubbub over that Jo-Jo Dancer thing, which seemed, at the time, like something torn from the pages of a lesser Sweet Valley High novel. I'd never actually bothered to read it until I went googling for it five minutes ago. Yeesh. From a ten-years-after perspective, it reads like a foretaste of all the Brooklyn Vegan and Onion AV Club comment-writers yet to come, but with an added sense of someone grinding a series of professional axes. That kind of writing is the polar opposite of anything I'm doing.

From the start, I've written @Discographies knowing that at some point in the future--perhaps by choice, perhaps not--my real name would be attached to it. So I've chosen my words carefully because I know I'll be living with them for a long time. There are a couple of not-entirely-flattering discographies about folks that I'm lightly acquainted with, so I may have a few uncomfortable dinner party encounters ahead of me. On the plus side: no one's ever going to make the mistake of inviting me out for a refreshing glass of kombucha with Alanis Morissette. Anonymity has been good for @Discographies, but when anonymity ends, both @Discographies and I will still be here.

So was any of the pro-Tom Waits hate mail amusing?

It was about equally divided between "How dare you!" and women who were big Don Van Vliet fans who objected--not at all unreasonably--to the bit about Swordfishtrombones et al being "Captain Beefheart for girls." I agonized over whether or not to use that phrase because I knew I'd get flack for it. In the end I decided that it had the dual virtue of being both funny and true, so I went with it.

Has an editor ever pinged you to say, "I like what you're doing, want to write for us?" How would you handle that?

With enthusiasm, especially if it involved something longer than 140 characters. I've been approached a few times, but nothing serious has come of it yet. I intend to keep doing the individual discographies on Twitter, although there's also a @Discographies book in the works. Who do you think should play me in the sitcom?

Since we're coming up on the year's end, please tell me your three favorite albums of 2010 -- yes, albums, no matter how vestigial that concern might be -- and name the worst record you heard in 2010.

The album may not be quite as central a content delivery system as it once was, but I don't think it's a vestigial concern yet. It's still quite useful as a structure that allows us to be able to receive and discuss and interpret (and maybe even, for a little while longer, sell) a specific kind of information--just like a novel or a limerick or, y'know, a tweet. Even if we reach a point where an album is an entirely virtual construct with no physical manifestation, the idea of the album will still be important, just as a way for artists to draw a line in the sand and say "Okay, this is what separates this batch of material from that batch of material." I've been a sufficiently lonely champion of my Top Two of 2010 that I'd be outing myself to people who've heard me rant about them if I told you what they were, but my Top 3-5 are probably LCD Soundsystem's This Is Happening, Das Racist's Shut Up, Dude--an album which doesn't even exist in physical form--and James Blackshaw's All Is Falling. Not far behind: Ted Leo, Janelle Monae, Cate Le Bon, Big Boi. Still making up my mind about the Kanye.
Worst record I heard in 2010 that I actually paid money for? The Orb/David Gilmour album. I blame myself for having had stupidly high expectations for this.
Worst record of 2010 that I had to listen to as part of writing @Discographies? The new Kings-Of-fucking-Leon, hands down. 



So you were ROFL at KOFL. More vitriol, please; what did you hate about Kings of Leon?

Really, the tweet kind of says it all. They're plodding, focus-group-friendly nonentities. Like their spiritual predecessors, Soul Asylum and Engelbert Humperdinck, they're of no consequence whatsoever: lite-rock for a demographic too young for Counting Crows and too supposedly-hip for Nickelback. The best-case scenario for them is that if they stick around for 20 years they'll acquire that veneer of Mellencampian gravitas invariably bestowed upon mediocrities who refuse to go away and stop bothering people. (Rolling Stone, March 2043: "As the group prepares for its 40th anniversary 'Age and Old Manhood' tour--Caleb Followill reveals the secret of the Kings' longevity: 'We're survivors.'") But hey: KOFL weren't the first band like this and they won't be the last. But as someone with a lifelong predisposition towards music that feels in some way new--as opposed to a mishmash of arena-rock signifiers that only a Brown semiotics major would enjoy unpacking--they don't have much to offer me. I've got better stuff to listen to, which is why my experience with Come Around Sundown was so irksome: the primary opportunity cost of listening to a bad record is that it prevents you from listening to a good one. 



Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to the whole point of @Discographies. It's become a cliché that nowadays the dominant mode of music consumption is not the album but the song. And maybe that's true if you're still in the business of trying to sell people songs. But I'd argue that for a lot of people the dominant mode of music consumption is neither the album or the song but the discography. In 2011, if you're 15 years old and you want to hear the Beatles, there's no need to agonize over whether or not you should buy Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road first because you're just going to type "beatles" and "discography" into Google and five minutes later you'll have every note the group ever recorded on your hard drive. (Is that legal? No. Is that reality? Yes.)

Since we're now at a point where it costs virtually nothing to acquire and store someone's life work the one truly valuable commodity that still surrounds music consumption is the expenditure of time necessary to hear all the stuff you've downloaded. If our hypothetical 15 year old has just BitTorrented Neil Young's entire corpus of work onto her computer, she'll probably be a lot happier if the first album she plays isn't Old Ways, but who's going to tell her that? That's where I see @Discographies as having real utility above and beyond whatever entertainment value it may possess. If I can steer just one person away from This Note's For You and towards Tonight's The Night, it will all have been worthwhile.

Our exchange has persuaded me not to ask who you are. But we both like the mystery of @Discographies, and a few personal details would promote speculation, like the first 45 minutes of "Law & Order: SVU." Will you offer three hints as to your identity? (I think I've sussed that you're British.)

I tried to think of a few legitimate hints for you, but--apart from the fact that I'm not British--I couldn't come up with anything that hit the sweet spot between uninteresting and incriminating. I can, however, reveal that my turn-ons include puppies and kitties, candlelight dinners, long walks on the beach and Christgau's review of The Mekons Rock 'N' Roll. My turn-offs: anyone at a gig who shouts out a request for an obscure B-side that the band on stage has no intention of playing, anything that has ever been described as "screamo," and people who casually refer to Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as "Pepper."

Failing that, would you like to announce your identity? That way, I can helpfully suggest who should play you in the sitcom.

I'd like to. I really would. But: no.

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