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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

April 18, 2011 at 3:12 PM

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Pitchfork pans The Head and the Heart: what does it mean?

Posted by Andrew Matson

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Target display; photo by me

In a review published this morning, tastemaking music website Pitchfork panned Seattle indie-folk group The Head and the Heart's self-titled debut album, out now on local label Sub Pop.

Beloved in Seattle, the band is currently breaking outside the city, and scheduled to perform on Conan O'Brien's TV show "Conan" on TBS at 11 PM this Thursday.

The deflating look by Pitchfork and writer Stephen M. Deusner initially seems damning for the band and educational for the site's audience. But it's not so simple, because The Head and the Heart doesn't necessarily need the critical affirmation — the band is a fan favorite that connects directly with audiences on an emotional level, where taste doesn't factor in.

Local rapper and fellow rising sentimental-pop star Macklemore explains, in The Seattle Times last February:

"These days, there's two different ways bands blow up," or get big, he says. "One of those, is they make a piece of work that the critics jump on right away ... and that takes it to the next level very quickly."

"And then there's another way, which is organically, spreading amongst the youth. To the point where those tastemakers can't help but notice, 'Hey, he's selling out shows all over the place. Something's happening here.' "

The latter is the case with The Head and the Heart, whose album sold a reported 10,000 copies before Sub Pop got involved and re-released it last January.

Would it be nice if it had a critically approved stamp? Sure. But maybe the group will press onward to greater sales and fame without critical adulation.

Not to say The Head and the Heart and Macklemore are critic-proof. But they connect with a rising "heartland" theme in popular music that's close to critic-proof.

The Seattle artists' vibes and business models closely follow Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa's: he conquered pop charts last year independently and this year on a major label with frat-boy-friendly rap music about marijuana, cars, and not much else. Like The Head and the Heart and Macklemore, Khalifa's music is more than music. It's a character-driven advertisement for instantly graspable, relatable, idyllic, anesthetizing, middle-class, nostalgic-in-real-time America.

An important distinction: Wiz pushes hundreds of thousands of units, and The Head and the Heart and Macklemore don't. They are big sellers on an indie level: tens of thousands. But still, with Khalifa, critical consideration seems not to have factored in. He crossed over to big, mainstream-sized sales because his songs were picked up by mainstream radio, particularly "Black and Yellow," which sweeps listeners away on a vaguely sports, muscle cars and joints-themed good-time energy wave. If The Head and the Heart and Macklemore had a song that radio picked up on like that — perhaps "Rivers and Roads," Head/Heart's railroad fantasy, or "Wings," where Macklemore remembers his young-person's sneaker lust for Jordans — they'd explode.

We see this whisk-away momentum everywhere. Look at the current season of "American Idol," where 17-year-olds channel 50-year-old country stars. Look at Trader Joe's, which sells an in-house beer called "Simpler Times."

Look even at current pop stars commonly seen as rebels to traditional American culture — aren't Katy Perry and Ke$ha's trashy party songs reminiscent of fun-fun-fun '80s rock?

Pro-Gay though she might intend them to be, don't Lady Gaga's stand-your-ground anthems reiterate core heartland values?

How about Kanye West's closing song last night at the Coachella music festival in Indio, California? He probably had his own reasons for performing "Dear Mama," the tribute to his late mother, but from a marketing standpoint, what better song to resonate with hundreds of thousands of audience members, what more unifying, family-values focused final note?

I mean, have you been to Target lately? Do you remember when The Eagles released an album there a few years back, exclusively, and it almost went platinum in a week?

In advertisements for clothes, Target asks "Don't you wanna Americana?" and inside that question is the statement these artists are making, that America is in love with American culture right now, especially the rapidly-dying, family-focused middle class version. In love with itself. Old fuzzy feelings. Thinkin' about grandpa. Playing catch with dad. Being high and young and on the prowl. We are in a Bob Seger moment, constantly taking a moment to be great, in our minds.

Discussions of whether or not it all makes for good style or good art — let's save those for Seattle's indie-folk main attraction Fleet Foxes, a band that works for all that marketing activity, but also makes some of the most CRITICALLY IMPORTANT MUSIC (sorry for yelling) of this generation.

Stay tuned for a feature about Fleet Foxes and also a review of its sophomore album "Helplessness Blues," out May 3 on Sub Pop.

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