I said flippantly the other day that I have fonder memories of the so-called “Paris Wars,” in which a few rock critic types defended the Paris Hilton 2006 album Paris as a pretty awesome dance- and club-pop album. This in turn revealed a lot of strange behavior from detractors — particularly detractors in conversation with the defenders — that has been explored in various places (see, for instance, Frank Kogan’s "Paris Is Our Vietnam," about how shitty behavior from detractors leads to an impulse — but not necessarily action taken — to defend the person with rocks being thrown at them.)
Here were some of the arguments that I seemed to find floating around during the Paris Wars:
(1) The agency paradox: Paris Hilton lazily and without much genuine input created a vanity project for herself. She was simultaneously entirely responsible for and entirely absent from the production process.
(2) Victim-blaming: The source of Paris Hilton’s fame was regularly, casually, and snarkily attributed (as was the style at the time, as Grandpa Simpson would say) to her “infamous sex tape,” which was distributed without her consent, making it a sex crime that was the subject of litigation (they settled out of court for about half a million bucks).
(3) Representation: The Paris we understand from real life and the tabloids must be connected to the persona she has on record.
(4) “Privilege”: Celebrities should not be able to bankroll their own vanity projects, and/or people born with power they didn’t earn still need to “pay their dues” — it is an affront to the listening public when they flout the rules of the system.
I was pretty clear on all of these points. The agency paradox makes no sense, and though I’m glad that some critics of Lana Del Rey have pointed out that the paradox continues to make no sense in less perceived-to-be-egregious situations, it’s too bad that we can’t use this opportunity to have a broader discussion about why everyone should try to ease the grip this fantasy has on their perception of the “pop music system.” (Jessica Hopper reminds us that there is a circuit for getting label representation, and Lana was on it — she wasn’t trying to sign to an indie.) Even when there are seemingly armies of writers, producers, engineers, label suits, whatever, we can’t know what “work” was done in the studio unless we have documented evidence of it. The product doesn’t always tell us very much about the process (though it rarely tells us nothing about the process).
I wonder why there is a tendency for people to create complex systems of production when no such systems seem to genuinely exist in the realm of music. It’s just not that hard to figure out who did what in making a piece of music — there aren’t that many decision-makers who have a meaningful input on the creative process. Committees don’t sit around in the studio with Dr. Luke and Max Martin and take notes on the synth presets they’re using. Ashlee Simpson doesn’t go to a focus group with her lyrics and see how they’ll play in the Midwest before she records them. And if she did, we would probably know about it — there wouldn’t be a vast conspiracy, in part because of all the people it would take to keep such a conspiracy under wraps (and why on earth would it be so important to keep it under wraps?). By contrast, the ways in which television shows for children, say, are focus-grouped, examined by so-called experts, etc., and shaped or revised accordingly are pretty well documented.
This graspable sense of a more individual agency in production seems pretty clear in the case of Lana Del Rey, who, like it or lump it, seems to have a lot of control over her lyrics, production, persona, etc. But it’s also true for Paris Hilton (who was the executive producer on her own intentionally self-parody television program first), and it’s also true for [insert artist]. The Man is the accumulation of smaller systems into social norms — it’s not located in a cabal of professionals we can off-load our discomfort or ignorance on. If it was that easy, then all we’d need to do is find the Lana or Paris cabal, hold them responsible, and call it a day.
Point 2 was what really got me interested in the Paris debates in the first place. It was a subject on which even social justice or feminist-leaning thinkers could participate in dismissing the possible realities of a sex crime to indulge in some celebrity schadenfreude. Paris served as what Barthes calls the “inoculation,” the extreme example that serves as a lightning rod to suck attention from smaller evils that go unnoticed or un-engaged with in our everyday lives. The “sex tape” trope was more widespread, but there was a similar sense of righteous justice in her jail stint for parole violation after her DUI, the kind of technicality that usually leads to injustice and incarceration time for miniscule offenses. (See also: the "feet on the seats jail time" article in NYT. If this happened to an annoying rich person, many would likely celebrate. But again we would be favoring our short-term schadenfreude over a major institutional injustice.)
Point 3 becomes far more complicated with Lana Del Rey, because we actually know very little about her outside of her persona. This is perhaps a particular feature of the indiestry bubble — we (I say “we” having participated in the “indie tabloid system” myself) still want to dig up dirt, fundamentally, but also to do it in a way that codes as enlightened or intellectually provocative. We claim that discovering something about the personal life of an artist somehow explains what we like or dislike about his or her music — is in fact crucial to the process of discovering new artists. In some cases this might be true, but in most cases we’re doing it indiscriminately, whether it’s appropriate or not. An example: Toward the end of my Pitchfork stint, I was asked to review a “Christmas album” by the Arcade Fire. This so-called album was, it turned out, a joke the band had done with friends several years prior. A few of the lead members of the group weren’t even on it. My review panned the thing, and afterward I received an email letting me know that I’d basically just made a bunch of shit up after listening to an amateur recording at a Christmas party. The timeline in which this all happened was so fast that I failed to even think of researching, verifying, or questioning the relevance of the story, or asking whether anyone would or should actually care about it.
I don’t think the insularity of the indiestry is any different in character or motivation than the professional gossip industry — it’s just underfunded and maybe more unthinking than it is actively cynical (not that I would know how unthinking or cynical anyone in the professional or non- gossip industry actually is). Generally speaking, churning out too much content with too little to say leads to lots of speculation.
Paris was a more interesting figure, though. Lots of people did know quite a lot about her personal life, her career trajectory, her family, her bank account. And it was precisely what they knew about this stuff that made it impossible for them to think any differently of the album. Whatever Paris is in real life (as they see it) must be on the record, so now let’s go find it. But this isn’t true — this is arguably the whole point of performance in the first place, to shape and modify lived experience through creativity.
Point 4. Oh, point 4. I’m not a big fan of the word “privilege” — for one thing, it means a lot of different stuff (things you feel entitled to, things you are free not to notice about the way the world may operates and your culpability in it, stuff you were born with, material wealth, social power with or without material wealth, socially powerful characteristics that may or may not be powerful in a given circumstance), all of which needs a lot of context to figure out its relevance to the conversation. But beyond the word itself, there’s a scale problem. Paris Hilton’s album, in the scheme of the entertainment industry, neither cost nor brought in very much money. It was a modest flop. I imagine the same will be true of Born to Die.
So we need to ask whether it’s that, on principle, the rich shouldn’t be able to fund vanity projects, or if this is an ad hoc justification we use when we feel uncomfortable about a particular product. Increasing wealth disparity means that more and more projects, whether they’re albums, artists, movies, non-profit organizations, or after-school programs, are going to be financed by the very rich. Perhaps the rich will act through foundations, or will create organizations (record labels, say) that filter the money. But it’s all coming from the hyper-rich. Again, the inoculation against a Paris-like “album of privilege” blinds us to the inequalities in all systems through which music is made. But there isn’t some magical threshold that tells us that Paris Hilton’s role in that system is bad and Bon Iver’s role in that system is good — nor does it mean, as David Shapiro claims in his misguided Village Voice Pazz and Jop comment, that Beyonce supporters somehow hold Beyonce and a genuinely independent artist to the same standards of production. (Another problem with that comment is that it assumes that a billion dollars went into how Beyonce sounds, as opposed to how Beyonce reaches people in the world. The former simply isn’t true, and the latter is complicated, and only partially related to the money that went into the production of her music. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for an independent’s music to sound, professionally, like Beyonce’s, but it would be unreasonable for me to think that she [the independent artist] could have the same influence without an industry behind her.)
That’s the Lana problem, as I see it — most of the discussions about her role in the world read as ad hoc justifications that engage with most of the above Paris Problems while claiming to be an analysis of what she’s done. What it is she’s done is up for reasonable differences in interpretation. But Lana Del Rey, as opposed to Paris Hilton, is far more annoying to me personally because the stakes of being right or wrong in the argument seem so low. Understanding how I could have been wrong about Paris Hilton changed something about the way I thought about, talked about, and even listened to music generally, regardless of whether this had an impact on the Paris album itself (oddly, it didn’t — that album I continue to appreciate as a masterful exercise in hooks, economy, and the inventiveness of vocal treatment, relatively impersonal qualities that I nonetheless have a personal fondness for). Maybe the conversations about LDR have changed the way people think about the criteria they use to judge music in a general sense, but I think there’s a veneer of exceptionalism in a more insular context — even when we’re gossiping, it’s better than when “they” gossip, which is to say that we don’t have to question our own motivations in talking about LDR, but can merely point to a them problem.
I don’t seem to be gaining or losing anything watching the conversations around Lana — but maybe it’s just me. Maybe the “bottle” is of my own making — maybe I should be paying more attention to fans who might conceivably come from outside the particular bottle (the oft-Tumblr-based, alt-weekly-leaning critical community). Or maybe it’s because the music isn’t connecting, and I’m losing my visceral motivations to care. There have been some good reflections on it inside the bottle, particularly this one by Michelle. But the widely-lauded Rob Harvilla review reminds me a bit of the sophisticated takes on the Paris Hilton album that were still subject to some of the same essential problems, like Kalefa Sanneh’s provocative but misguided dichotomy between “carefree” and “grimly professional” pop stars. As for me, I just can’t think of anything interesting to say about this that I haven’t said before, about a figure with more relevance in my life and (seemingly) in others’ lives, someone for whom coming to their defense had some profound implications for me, too. I felt like I learned something about myself, and about others, and about music, and about whatever. Has the LDR zeitgeist been useful to anyone else?