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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Things Music Critics Hate: Foster the People, Cage the Elephant, Young the Giant, Portugal. The Man, Etc.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 16, 2011 at 11:32 AM

click to enlarge Foster the People: Not bad. But also not that good.
  • Foster the People: Not bad. But also not that good.

Music criticism is as much an affliction as an occupation -- especially these days, it's far more reliable as a sickness than a paycheck. Things Music Critics Hate is an occasional series that will attempt to diagnose and explain the broadly shared beliefs and biases that shape the landscape of music criticism -- and also to discover what qualities (if any) professional observers generally agree make music good.

See also: Things Music Critics Hate: Coldplay

Let's call this group of bands "gateway indie rock with bad band names": The big dog here is obviously Foster the People, but fellow entry-level party-rockers Young the Giant, Cage the Elephant, and Portugal. The Man are all basically doing the same thing: Derivative, anthemic guitar rock built on optimistic melodies and pop-friendly arrangements. In the case of Foster the People, there's a healthy smidgen of synth-pop thrown in there for danceability points. But since you probably can't keep all these bands perfectly straight in your mind, here's a cheat sheet:

Cage the Elephant: Arctic Pixies.

Foster the People: A Maroon 5 for the flannel-and-wayfarers set.

Young the Giant: "My first indie rock band."

Portugal. The Man: Worst name, probably the best music of this group.

Critical views on these bands vary, from grudging admiration of their hooks to vicious derision of their desire to tepidly please. But even when critics acknowledge, say, the catchiness of Foster the People's blockbuster "Pumped Up Kicks," it comes with telling qualifications. The LA Times noted that "much of Torches doesn't aim much higher than being a fizzy soundtrack for windows-down elbow tans." Rolling Stone cited MGMT as a "super obvious" influence on Foster the People, and chided the band's debut album for being derivative. "As empty-headed as it is ebullient," was the UK Guardian's description of the same record.

One has to go into reviews of the other bands to uncover the really raw bile -- like Pitchfork's relentlessly scathing dismissal of Young the Giant's debut. "You almost hope Young the Giant acquiesced to some music executives' request to compromise their style, because nothing else sufficiently explains a debut so devoid of personality," went Ian Cohen's take. The website treated Portugal. The Man nicely, but couldn't help calling out its major-label debut as "generic." And while many reviewers have praised Cage the Elephant's sophomore album, Thank You Happy Birthday, it's probably not by accident that Pitchfork -- the definitive source of opinion about American indie rock -- apparently has not written a single word about this Kentucky band.

Obviously, we're dealing with a more subtle and particular brand of critical hate here than with, say, Coldplay. Few writers want to come out and blast a young band still getting its footing. And dismissing a group like Young the Giant or Foster the People risks making the professional music writer look like a grouchy oldster refusing to give the kids any credit. It's easier to simply ignore them and hope they go away.

But make no mistake: behind all those half-hearted endorsements and 2.5-out-of-four-star reviews, these bands represent a classic target of critics. Call them Champions of Vanilla -- their music is successful, decent, and sometimes surprisingly effective, and yet nearly all of it is utterly generic. Devoid of personality. Anonymous.

Up next: Why critics are different from casual fans, and equating Foster the People with masturbation.

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Ian S. Port


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