Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for March 2009

Metacritic, Pandora and the Internet guide to becoming a music snob

2008 was the year I decided to become a music snob.

Specifically, I decided to tap into the variety of music provided by online music services and see if the critics of the world had anything to teach me.

A lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction against critics. It’s become fashionable to automatically reject anything a critic says, simply because he’s a critic, as if it was some kind of declaration of independence.

But blindly reacting against critics is just as silly as blindly following them. In the old days, we had to take our critics one at a time. But now the Internet has simplified the process.

I started my journey into snobbery at Metacritic.com, a site that aggregates critical reviews of movies, music, television and video games. Metacritic uses a complex formula to assign a numerical score to each review, then it averages the scores and comes up with a percentile figure that represents the critical zeitgeist.

Right now the “Watchmen” movie has a Metascore of 56 out of 100, with the reaction evenly split between critics who loved it and critics who hated it.

You can browse the left rail of a section and find out just how bad your taste is. My taste in movies would be described as “hopelessly mainstream.” I don’t waste time on B-movie dogs, but I’m not seeing a lot of Oscar winners either.

I wasn’t ready to surrender my movie watching to the equivalent of a computer dating service, but I was so desperate to find good music I decided to take a leap of faith.

I called up the Metacritic Top 30 albums of 2008 and started making Last.fm and Pandora playlists based on artists I’d never heard of.

The Metacritic list didn’t just change my musical taste; it changed the way I approach music. All my life I’d employed a ruthless 30-second cutoff rule. If a song didn’t grab me in 30 seconds, I figured it probably wasn’t worth my time.

When it comes to music I’m a horrible channel flipper – never staying with one track, one album or one radio station for any appreciable length of time.

With the Metacritic tracks, I decided to wait it out. These tracks don’t reach out and grab you the way mainstream pop does. I didn’t take to them immediately the way I did with Kelly Clarkson, P!nk or the All-American Rejects.

This was a different kind of music and it deserved a different kind of attention. I set my Metacritic stations on random and let the music play, forcing myself to sit still and keep my hand off the skip button.

Nothing really grabbed me on the first pass. But as time went on, I found myself returning to certain tracks. I could not have predicted the results.

Styles that I dismissed as “not my thing” grew on me until I was wildly outside my comfort zone.

A few big surprises

Critics are crazy for a band called Fleet Foxes. Their music has a kind of dreamy, dramatic quality that makes the album sound like a fantasy soundtrack from another world. I was entranced by “White Winter Hymnal” and eventually grew to like the whole album.

The biggest surprise was a Swedish pop star named Robyn. Her self-titled release is a peculiar mashup of electronica and white girl hip-hop. In my old life, I wouldn’t be caught dead listening to stuff like this, but Robyn’s lyrics have an absurd ironic quality to them – American street slang wielded by a voice that sounds wrong for it. The result is oddly beautiful and irresistibly cute. Robyn lays down classic hip-hop attitude with a playful European style. The album took a bit to win me over, but now I can’t get enough.

The other surprise was my introduction to alt country. Don’t ask me about the difference between country and alt country, please. I don’t know, and no one can tell me. Even the experts can’t decide on the difference.

Whatever you call them, I’m blown away by the Drive-By Truckers. Critics call it alt country but I’d call it dark country. There is a depth and poignancy here that propels them beyond your usual pull the heart strings, point-and-shoot country fare, a darkness that puts these tracks beyond the reach of mainstream twang.

I enjoyed Bon Iver and TV On the Radio in a pleasant, general way. Good music, but nothing that really grabbed me.

I fell in love with Sam Phillips but I’m not smart enough to describe her. I’ll just put her down as the musical equivalent of a good cigar – slow and smoky with a nice aftertaste.

Neil Young and Randy Newman were both terrible disappointments. Their reputations led me to expect great things, but I’m too Southern to forgive Neil, and I gave up on Randy Newman’s shtick about 10 minutes into “Toy Story.”

Metacritic also introduced me to some world music. “London Zoo” by The Bug is full of something called “underground dubstep,” a genre of music inspired by Jamaican beats and South London grime. I won’t claim to understand what’s happening on this album, but it’s genuinely compelling. This is the kind of album that made my journey worthwhile. Play it for a while and you can actually feel doors opening in your brain.

Experiments like this are not for everyone. I don’t want to claim any kind of superiority here, and I don’t want to confer any special anointment on critics, but I think this adventure is a testament to the power of the Internet – the power of information – filtered, aggregated and turned into music.

It taught me a lesson about the banality of prejudice and the good things that can happen when we let it go.

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 27, 2009 at 18:28

Posted in Columns, Music

Twitter, Facebook and the Internet hype machine

Don’t feel bad if you don’t understand Twitter.

Most of the people hyping it now don’t get it either. Twitter has been picked to be the Next Big Thing. It’s a legitimate phenomenon, but after a while buzz turns the corner into hype and the media beats it to death.

These Web sites start out as hip, cool communities that attract early adopters. College students and young professionals join. Links to the service are passed around the blogosphere and the first news stories start to appear.

News coverage builds for a couple months and some producer decides to put it on CNN. The service gets a flood of 30- and 40-something users and (more often than not) suffers catastrophic failure due to high traffic.

The service buys better hardware and the hype machine kicks into high gear. Cable networks devote longer segments to the service and technology columnists start writing “how to” pieces, making sure to remind readers about the “scoop” they wrote about the service six months ago.

The demographic profile of the service starts to shift as bored GenXers and net-savvy Boomers start playing with it at work. Bloggers see their parents and their shift managers sign up for the service and start writing “Is Facebook over?” posts.

Cutting-edge bloggers notice the backlash and immediately cancel their accounts, telling everyone that they’re just “too busy” to keep up with MySpace/Facebook/Twitter right now.

Somewhere in a Cupertino basement, three friends with a laptop invent a replacement for the current hot service, adding one or two new features and clearing all the useless junk off the home page. In the dead of night, they launch and send an e-mail to 20 friends.

Your Mom signs up for Facebook and starts sending you pieces of flair.

Facebook burst its hype bubble last year and is now on a slow downward slide. The replacement for Facebook is sitting on a developer’s laptop somewhere, waiting for its big break. Facebook has been taken over by boring old people (like me) who use it to waste time at work. Their status feeds are clogged with cooking advice and pictures of their kids. The 20-somethings are ready to leave but have nowhere else to go.

Here’s the basic rule of Internet hype: When your product appears on the Today Show, it’s over.

Twitter is at the apex of its hype bubble now. Everybody’s heard of it but normal people don’t really know what it is. The old people have invaded Twitterspace but they haven’t quite ruined it yet.

None of this is inevitable, but Facebook has stumbled over privacy issues twice now and the application gimmicks are starting to crowd out the core functionality of the site. There’s no serious competition for Twitter yet, but it won’t be hard to copy their core idea and merge it with something else.

Twitter is “buzzword of the month” right now, the word everyone in the business world is dropping to convince people they’re hip. “And of course our strategy includes Twitter.”

But the Twitter backlash is picking up steam. I saw my first anti-Twitter video yesterday. Critics are trying to dismiss Twitter streams as a bunch of narcissistic yammering. Normal people hear about the 140-character limit on messages and can’t imagine anything substantial being passed along like that.

But 140 characters is plenty of room to post a Web link or a photograph, or to announce an event. It’s also the perfect size for snappy comebacks and one-line jokes. My favorite quote this week comes from comic book writer Warren Ellis.

He wrote, “Things comics writers don’t get to do: Earn money. Gain respect. Experience dignity. Have friends. Have sex. Stop crying.”

That quote swept through the Twitterverse yesterday. The humor of Twitter posts comes as much from who is writing them as it does from what they say.

Here’s Newt Gingrich yesterday: “I got to hold a penguin at the Omaha zoo, its desert tropical (sic) and nocturnal buildings are world class.”

Not world-shattering news by any means, but a cute image to have skitter across your desktop on a lazy afternoon.

My Twitter feed is a stream-of-consciousness Bob Newhart impression. Yesterday I pitched an idea for Watchmen 2 and asked a poster named @practicalwitch about the availability of heavy duty raincoats.

I won’t be headlining a comedy act at UCB any time soon, but the Internet provides a home for people like me. If you’re funny and photogenic you can post your stuff on YouTube and become an Internet video star. But what about the rest of us? The class clowns. The almost-funny. The Frank Stallones of comedy?

Less than .01 percent of the U.S. population appreciates my sense of humor, but now those people can find me and enjoy my ramblings throughout the day. I can’t actually hear them laughing, but I can imagine them laughing. And if Twittering sucks up 15 or 20 minutes of my productive time, at least I’m not running across the office anymore, testing this stuff on guys at work.

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 20, 2009 at 18:29

Posted in Columns, Facebook, Twitter

My Rex Sorgatz fame clock

I can’t believe I missed this, the Spencer Morgan puff piece about Rex Sorgatz.

I latched onto Rex last year as a kind of reluctant champion for oversharing. I stuck with him because I see his progression as a kind of pseudo-underdog story.

Internet whiz kid who’s not really a kid anymore. Reconstructed nerd and unlikely ladies’ man tromping in from some godawful village in the Midwest? A self-confessed overshare addict with a history of self-indulgent blog posts?

New York should hate this man. New York should destroy this man. New York should chew this man up and leave nothing but hipster bones and a pair of black frames.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

March 12, 2009 at 13:27

Posted in Gossip

Swedish government busts Pirate Bay file source

Last Friday, Swedish police confiscated 65 TB (that’s terabytes) of files connected to one of the world’s largest pirate sites.

The site is called The Pirate Bay — an infamous group of media pirates who, until recently, were protected by a loophole in Swedish law. The Pirate Bay is famous for writing sarcastic replies to legal threats and mocking lawyers who demand the removal of copyrighted work.

Most firms issuing these citations either don’t know or don’t care about the laws in Sweden, so they write as if every country in the world is subject to U.S. law.

This makes them objects of ridicule at The Pirate Bay. Here’s one example, written in reply to a 2004 demand by Electronic Arts:

“Hello and thank you for contacting us. We have shut down the website in question. Oh wait, just kidding. We haven’t, since the site in question is fully legal. Unlike certain other countries, such as the one you’re in, we have sane copyright laws here. But we also have polar bears roaming the streets and attacking people.”

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Written by Michael B. Duff

March 12, 2009 at 05:15

Posted in Movies

38 Candles with Sarah Vowell

I decided to spend my birthday with Sarah Vowell on Tuesday.

Specifically I went to the Allen Theater and got her to scribble “Happy Birthday” on an issue of GO!

A Sarah Vowell reading in Lubbock turned out to be a great choice on my birthday. The crowd made me feel young. Average age was below 40 but definitely above 35. Grad students in jeans, professors in bow ties, soccer-moms in shoulder pads with sharp Southern cheekbones and one gray-haired man with a pony tail. I think I dropped his English class, many years ago. Or maybe that was the one I passed.

This was not a typical Lubbock crowd. This was like a band of expatriates, huddled together in a foreign land. In Lubbock, Sarah Vowell’s name is a litmus test. Most natives won’t know who she is, but one in five people who hear her name will nod and wink.

These are the NPR people — a dot of blue in a sea of red. We’re working on a handshake.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

March 3, 2009 at 23:48

Posted in Best Of, Books