34 Thoughts on LCD Soundsystem, Music Writing, and the Changing of the Guard

34 Thoughts on LCD Soundsystem, Music Writing, and the Changing of the Guard
  1. As time becomes an ever-increasing blur blah blah, a decent way to mark  "where we're at" has been through pop cultural occurrences that line up with unfortunate neatness alongside stages of the pandemic. It's impossible to separate the opening days of COVID-19 in the U.S. with Tom Hanks and the NBA, and more than any self-serving references to the "media variant" or "gorgeous gorgeous girls are showing symptoms" memes, I'll likely come to associate the rise of Omicron with LCD Soundsystem.
  2. I'm not going to go as far as saying that I feel bad for James Murphy specifically, but the situation as it arose does seem a little pitiable. In the middle of the band's massive Brooklyn Steel residency—something booked with clear symbolic intent as a "return to normal," despite shows having more or less gone on for at least six months previous to its kickoff—the latest and greatest (in terms of general transmissible spread, anyway) variant started burning through New York City, with the five boroughs' initial spike coinciding most rather unfortunately with the back end of LCD's residency dates. What's a band to do?
  3. As the government's total lack of support and the ensuing societal confusion has proven, it's harder than ever to "make the right decision" based on any specific guidance. Personal responsibility and one's own responsibility to society are intertwined more than ever, and every decision made seems like some greater test as to one's own selfishness and (lack of) consideration.
  4. If this doesn't seem fair, well, it's not. Just like everything else, the situation sucks these days, and one of the only tools in the belt to help mitigate all the potential finger-pointing is a sense of empathy for the occasional slip-up or waver in judgment (I'm talking on the level of "Should I keep this dinner reservation?" and not necessarily on the level of "I still think the vaccine is secretly a tracking device").
  5. Given all of this, LCD's own handling of the Brooklyn Steel debacle was, I suppose and in their own words, "the best we can come up with." In their official statement, the band essentially asked for a show of hands as to how many people still wanted to see the rest of the gigs happen. Thought processes were detailed, with one particular sentence standing out the most: "[U]s playing the show is in no way an indicator that it's safe to attend." The remainder of the residency was eventually canceled, which obviously makes sense.
  6. We've all become more prone to finger-pointing than ever, especially as The Powers That Be spew on about how this is "the pandemic of the unvaccinated" while mostly refusing to take care of anyone at all. Sneering at anti-vaxxers, people with masks around their chins, and generally anyone who makes a decision that you personally would not have made has become a sociopolitical stance, effectively replacing Trump as a catchall locus point of rage. And a lot of those people are pretty goddamn dumb, it's true. But it's hard not to feel like the authoritative forces have us right where we want us, too—constantly turning the gun on each other instead of asking the more pertinent question of who brought a gun into the room in the first place.
  7. So I'm hesitant to get too irate at LCD Soundsystem for any of this, beyond stating my personal belief that they probably should've just canceled the shows instead of delaying the inevitable by way of a long and personal statement crafted to preserve a false sense of intimacy between performer and listener (which was not dissimilar to Murphy's response to the scalping fiasco that engulfed LCD's supposed "final" shows in 2011).
  8. The LCD shows weren't the only game in town when it came to gatherings, either; bars were and have still been open, other concerts were going down, holiday parties were in full swing. The residency's collapse might've been an occurrence that (for me, anyway) incidentally marked a new chapter in the pandemic, but should it be treated with the same magnitude as, say, the NBA shutting down mid-game?
  9. According to Consequence of Sound, the answer is "Yes." A few days after the residency's shuttering, the culture website ran something resembling what people might think an investigative report looks like, accordingly titled "COVID-19 Is Playing At My House: How LCD Soundsystem and Their Fans Gambled and Lost." The piece (reported by two writers) featured anonymous(?) accounts of the residency's shows itself, tons of useless hypothesizing, repeated reminders that it's nearly impossible to determine how many people actually contracted COVID-19 at the shows, and the reasonably true but no less absurd-seeming phrase "[James] Murphy is not an epidemiologist." By and large, it was a mess, a failed attempt to reframe a limited run of shows as a pandemic-themed Altamont that we stand to "learn from."
  10. The piece is something that reasonably shouldn't exist, considering that its general and possibly only takeaway—"Hey, if you're going to shows these days, there's a risk!"—is well-trodden ground at this point. Something that could've slightly improved it, quite possibly and not guaranteed, would've been an account from someone hired to cover one of these shows specifically for CoS, to reasonably and soberly assess the situation at hand.
  11. I also understand why most writers would not have wanted to cover it (as a side note, I also wonder how much CoS would've paid one of those said writers to do so), but when I think of a band like LCD Soundsystem and their live aura, I think of a convivial and inebriated setting in which one's definition of "vibe" can differ depending on what they've ingested. When I read someone's quasi-anonymous observation that “They were clearly very conflicted and uncomfortable and scared of their own audience,” I can't help but wonder whether that was actually the case.
  12. It's possible to do "coverage like this" correctly, as the New York Times' own survey of the deadly Astroworld disaster proves. In contrast, there currently exists no original Astroworld reporting on Consequence of Sound, beyond a podcast episode that also promises "Brad, Barry, and Lord Taco [making] some early Bonnaroo 2022 predictions" in a very "Plus, the 2005 NBA Redraftables With Ryen Russillo" way. This, despite the CoS co-founder's recent claim that the publication is "still a live music publication at the end of the day," accompanied by a GIF of what looks like a massive crowd angrily converging into mayhem at an event.
  13. With the caveat that I am probably thinking about all of this more than the site's team has, as well as an acknowledgment of the relative resources that both the NYT and CoS possess, I do think there's a correlation between CoS' lack of Astroworld reporting and the overall tone of their LCD piece. The latter largely places responsibility on individuals without examining too closely the cravenness of the live music industry—the absolute positioning of profit above all else, general safety be damned—or the corporations and industry institutions that unwittingly create these unsafe environments as a result of their own neglect or apathy.
  14. CoS also prides itself on breaking news when it comes to festival lineup rumors, a racket that requires insider connections in the live music industry willing to leak unconfirmed tidbits to publications. (If you go to CoS' Wiki page, you'll find their breaking news of the initial LCD Soundsystem reunion listed as one of the site's top achievements.) They undoubtedly have a relationship with forces in the live music industry that benefit them, and it's entirely possible that examining what led to an Astroworld—or even a multi-date residency that went on longer than it probably should've—could burn those relationships with some level of permanence. The prioritization is clear, if extremely unfortunate.
  15. (RXKNephew voice) Let's get back to LCD Soundsystem. I will do a cards-on-the-table critical position before we go any further: At the age of 34, I don't find myself reaching for or listening to them very often, but they were a huge part of my late-teens-early-20s adolescence. Like many white men, I at one point considered James Murphy an aspirational figure (we'll examine this in depth a little later). Sound of Silver was and still is a classic, I loved This Is Happening, and as a suburban kid from New Jersey, LCD and DFA in general were huge gateways for me in terms of discovering and getting deeper into dance music.
  16. I saw them live multiple times, and I was at the "final" MSG show too, which I initially purchased tickets for but was able to sell those tickets in exchange for better seats through a ticket block given to Pitchfork as part of a deal involving the site's livestreaming of the gig itself. (CoS: Not the only site with a complicated relationship to the live music industry!) The eventual reunion news was unremarkable itself, but the line-in-the-sand rage that it drew from many an online commenter was a sign that the band's position in "indie" had shifted. I think American Dream was OK at best, and I was mostly drawn to the depressing songs where James Murphy was being honest about who he was and his fears regarding how the people in his life perceive him. I haven't listened to it once since writing this thing about it back in the day, and reading it back it's clear I'm in a different headspace now than I was then.
  17. 2009 is often thought of as the point in which "indie" broke big—Merriweather Post Pavilion, Bitte Orca, Veckatimest, Jay-Z's quote about the "indie rock community"—but it all really started in 2007, off the strength of it being a year packed with incredible achievements in indie and beyond. Along with Sound of Silver, you had M.I.A.'s titanic Kala, The National's elegiac breakthrough Boxer, Arcade Fire's long-awaited blast of catharsis Neon Bible, Menomena's brainy Friend and Foe, Deerhoof's career-best Friend Opportunity, of Montreal's spiraling odyssey Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, the pure rush of Dan Deacon's Spiderman of the Rings, Spoon's still-reigning Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Les Savy Fav's punchy and urgent Let's Stay Friends, and the heart-tugging Jonathan Richman-isms of Jens Lekman's masterwork Night Falls in Kortedala.
  18. Animal Collective struck gold twice, sort of: Once with their stretched-out guitar rock opus Strawberry Jam and also with Panda Bear's epochal, massively influential Person Pitch. Band of Horses followed up their instant classic Everything All the Time with the lovely and understated Cease to Begin, St. Vincent modestly entered the fray with Marry Me, Modest Mouse and the Shins made their own big swings towards greater fame with reasonable amounts of success.
  19. The Tough Alliance released what would be their final album, A New Chance, which still stands as one of the most mind-blowing pop works of the century; Justice ushered in a bawdy, aggro post-Homework hedonism with Cross, setting the stage for several years of bloghouse to come and several months ahead of Daft Punk's era-defining live document Alive 2007. Then there's Burial's Untrue, an album that literally changed everything it touched and introduced one of the most fascinating musicians of the last 15 years.
  20. 2007 was just an incredible music for year in general, if I may zoom out for a moment to focus beyond the "indie" side of things: Radiohead put out what I consider to be their best album In Rainbows, PJ Harvey came back with the stunning and understated White Chalk (an album that's still undervalued in an incredible discography), Kanye West broke through the high-concept fabric of his previous two albums and ascended to pop royalty with Graduation. Even Jay-Z—who flopped as hard as one could just two years previous with Kingdom Come—returned regally with the stately and formalist American Gangster, which can only be faulted for sounding particularly spotless in design.
  21. You could also point to 2007 as a time in which blogs and internet tastemakers like Pitchfork were seeing their curatorial influence have real, material impact on music consumption at large. Many of the just-mentioned bands experienced a great deal of success as a result of the exposure that internet coverage provided, and you could go as far to say that the effect of the exposure is what defined the 2007-2009 period of indie as a whole. It was easier than ever to "get into" music like this, and I'm not sure a band like, say, Deerhunter would've ever found their audience without the support system of coverage that was established during that time.
  22. In 2022, LCD's audience goes far beyond people who read about music online; the band's aforementioned statement regarding the Brooklyn Steel shows notes that a sizable amount (50%!) of the ticket purchaces were out-of-towners traveling in a very jam-band-like fashion to see one of their favorite bands. As documented in Lizzy Goodman's mostly interesting, sometimes-not NYC 2000s indie rock document Meet Me in the Bathroom, the creation of LCD, DFA, and so many other NYC-focused acts around that time essentially rose from the restless sadness that hung over the city post-9/11—an urge to build something new out of literal ashes, to have a good time (often, too much of a good time) in the wake of world-leveling tragedy.
  23. LCD's rise to prominence, however, was pretty closely aligned with music coverage. It would be unfair to say that their success was a creation of Pitchfork, but it's also hard to think of a similar larger-than-a-blog publication at the time that was as devoted to championing them from the beginning. To wit: On the eve of the "final" MSG show, the site published a massive five-page compendium talking about every LCD song in existence at the time. (I was working there at the time but was not asked to contribute.)
  24. What drives an entire staff to devote themselves to such a project, let alone one that feels outdated by design eleven years later? I mentioned earlier that, as a white man prone to white T-shirt wearing and varying levels of unkempt facial hair, there was something about James Murphy in my late teens-early 20s that made me think, "Hey, that could be me, maybe." That sounds stupid, and it is stupid, but I was far from alone in that aspirational belief. (Anecdotally, I heard other white male critics say the same around the time, nothing accurately quotable though.)
  25. It's no secret that a lot of Pitchfork's early years—we're talking everything leading up to 2012 basically—were a haven for white men as critics, and so went the general makeup of prominent music critics across the industry until a specter of a meaningful shift occurred around 2013 or so. Beyond the music (which was often quite good!), I do believe that the allure of being an LCD "fan" in a critical context was seeing someone who looks or could look vaguely like you, being a total music nerd and parlaying that into a party-hardy but still very critically respected artisté.
  26. This is also why younger generations since have been known to shrug their shoulders when faced with LCD's overall reputation. The idea of what a successful "indie" musician looks like has changed drastically since the release of This Is Happening, and the same goes for who gets to write about music beyond personal blogs and such. It's entirely reasonable—expected, even—for a young person who's come of age in the last eight years and has been raised on today's "indie" to look at James Murphy and ask, "Why?"
  27. Here's a passage from that Pitchfork compendium, written by Scott Plagenhoef (a great writer who I still consider a good acquaintance), that stands out to me: "A lot of indie music these days is about not having a position, not having something to say, not poking your head up and trying to articulate something specific about yourself, or the world, or how you feel." He was gesturing towards chillwave and leading up to the perspectives that Murphy expresses throughout "Pow Pow," but I have found myself wondering in recent times what, exactly, LCD Soundsystem stands for.
  28. There's reason for this. The Brooklyn Steel Omicron kerfluffle wasn't the only time that LCD found themselves in the news in the last several months for something other than, say, a new album (which I have to assume is coming this year, if not 2023). The band recorded an Amazon holiday special that was released just before Christmas on the conglomerate's Amazon Prime Video service; it featured an audience-less concert performed in some Brooklyn space along with a fake sitcom written and directed by Eric Wareheim of Tim & Eric fame, comedians of varying repute as stand-ins for the real LCD during the sitcom segments.
  29. The performance footage is thoroughly inessential unless you're a super fan, or if you've been really hungering for more stay-at-home concert stuff that no one was all that excited about at the beginning of the pandemic to begin with. The sitcom portion can be generously described as what you get when you take the "Tim" out of Tim & Eric—a series of goofy, unfunny mannerisms and intentionally stilted dialogue meant to pad out empty space.
  30. The so-called comedy bits feel artless and hollow—the exact opposite of how I'd describe Tim & Eric's Awesome Show and Tom Goes to the Mayor-era work, which felt chaotic and slightly transgressive the same way that Tim Heidecker's ongoing On Cinema universe feels now. Wareheim, in general, seems to have become a great cultural disappointment over the last several years—going from genuine comedy trailblazer (there's been so much bad T&E ripoff content out there in the last decade, and I'm not just talking about Million Dollar Extreme) to just another white male bon vivant, releasing cookbooks and wine lines and passing off vacations to Italy as taking part in prestige TV. What a boring way to turn out.
  31. Overall, the entire endeavor leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Amazon is, among other things, a very bad company, and every successive artist that aligns with them for profit—including but certainly not limited to James Murphy—deserves to be treated with suspicion as to where their systems of belief begin and end. It's not dissimilar to the skepticism raised by Arcade Fire's recent return to the stage in the form of (six thousand groans commence) a concert for a crypto company.
  32. When I pointed out some of this stuff online a few weeks back, I got a few "They need to make money, too!" replies. And, I get it—between LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire, both bands have approximately six thousand members between them or something, that's a lot of mouths to feed, the music industry is impossible to make money in at this point unless you're one of ten or twenty anointed people, blah blah blah blah blah. We also don't know if Win Butler and/or James Murphy, like, donated their profits to charity or something. Maybe we'll find out when it doesn't really matter anymore. Maybe it never did.
  33. Still, there is something perversely fascinating about two of the biggest bands in "indie" coming back in the middle of a devastating pandemic, not to mention a lot of societal upheaval and uncertainty brought on by said pandemic, only to align themselves with forces seen as anything but "good." No one needs either band to do "the right thing," and our expectation of them to do so is just another way in which the last decade-plus of celebrity worship—from Obama to Beyoncé and everyone in between—has totally rotted our brain.
  34. But the expectation exists regardless, and the landscape they're ostensibly returning to is decidedly more hostile (if still phenomenally fickle) towards unfortunate decision-making or perceived societal apathy. Their fanbases will remain massive, undoubtedly, but when it comes to "the conversation" they're returning to a place that's quite different from where they last left it, and time will tell as to whether either will exhibit any awareness of that at all.

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Jamie Larson