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A Year in Music: Emilie Friedlander

Summing up a year listening to music is kind of like trying to talk about all the times you tied your shoelaces. Still, six editors at the FADER tried. Read what senior editor Emilie Friedlander had to say about 2012 below.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm once wrote that “The fundamental experience of everyone who has lived through much of this century is error and surprise.” He was speaking of the 20th century, but I’m glad that I became acquainted with that idea when I was still in journalism school, because when I look back on this year in music, I think the things that stick out the most are the ones that nobody ever saw coming. While riling the authorities was exactly what they wanted to do, I would be surprised if the five young women who videotaped themselves performing a mock punk concert in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior this past February had any idea that they’d be categorized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International before Spring was out, or spawn hundreds of photos of young women around the world wearing candy-colored balaclavas. In a less politically explosive vein, I can definitely remember a period, back in 2011, when a lot of people I know were writing about Claire Boucher’s music pretty consistently, but I don’t think any of us could have imagined that we were blindly paving the road for the day when we’d walk down Driggs toward the Bedford L in Brooklyn and behold the word GRIMES on the kind of promotional wall mural that was reserved for artists like Cake when we were teens.

The truth is, there is probably an unlimited number of artists with the potential to become heroes out there at any given time, and while most of us music writers cover several new artists every week, there’s always the morally complicated feeling of having absolutely no control over how things will shake out for them, while also being 100% complicit in the narrative. My good friend Ric, who definitely likes a lot of things that aren’t very marketable at all, would say that if an artist has the legs to climb out of the underground, it’s probably because they’ve got something really special about them. Considering even something so small as the way she layers an arpeggio on top of a drum beat, I think that’s true about Grimes, but I can’t help noticing that there are a lot of very insipid or derivative musicians out there with “legs” too, and that all too often, artists seem to grow into the heroes that we wish them to be only after the world has fallen in love with them. Critics are experts at coming up with rational-sounding, qualitative distinctions to justify preferences that are often as mysterious to us as our habitual choice of a certain kind of mate. After that, I think, we’re all just trying to fulfill the basic journalistic tenant of writing about the things our readers want to hear, whether or not we played some role in creating that demand in the first place.

Sometimes, the conversation gets so confusing, it can provoke a crisis of musical faith. It happened to me. This spring, somewhere between April and June, there was a solid month or so where I stopped listening to music. It was a first for me, and it had nothing to do with not physically being in the proximity of music. I still went out to shows, and played certain albums as many times as I needed to in order to be able articulate an opinion on them, but for some reason, actually sitting down and listening to anything that was coming out was absolutely the last thing that I wanted to do with my time.

Looking back, I think it had a lot to do with the fact that life can follow the logic of that Hobsbaum quote just as much as music or politics can. During the block in question, I hit upon one of those bewildering, deep-twenties transitional periods where everything that once felt certain in your life seems to be coming to an end, and everything that isn’t coming to an end feels very much uncertain. I had just finished a two-year stint in journalism school, only to learn I could make a better living waiting tables than I could freelance writing for most places. Still reeling from the demise of the publication I had been working on for the past year and a half, my former co-editor and I had launched a month-long Kickstarter campaign to continue the work we had been doing there, banking on the hope that somehow, everything would work out alright for us, even though we had no plans to take any of that money for ourselves. To top everything off, I had just come out on the other side of a pretty bad breakup; the fallout, of course, was mostly of an emotional nature, but it set off a chain of geographical upheavals that involved moving to three different Brooklyn neighborhoods in the course of a few months.

I had a rough time, and I was pretty convinced for a moment that fate had pulled one of those numbers on me where it makes everything in your life come crashing down at once. Half a year later, admittedly from the much happier vantage point of having settled into a solid place to live, and landing what is essentially my dream job here at The FADER, I’m more inclined to recognize something of my own agency in whatever happens in my life, good or bad. Still, at the time, I sort of bottomed out on the feeling that while we can put endless amounts of effort into making things work out the way we want them to, there’s a number of factors out there that we absolutely cannot control. As a meta-space where we can process and indulge in the feelings that come up around the difficulties of life, music is usually the thing that I turn to first when times get weird. This time though, music—especially new music—began to feel like just another example of fate being fickle, increasingly inseparable from the endlessly spinning wheel of discovery and speculation that being a music journalist entails in 2012.

The late aughts, when I started my first blog Visitation Rites, were rife with examples of artists blowing up over night, but 2012 was a year where I really noticed the pace picking up, to the point where history seemed to be coughing up new musical heroes every week. At countless, half-remembered shows at Glasslands and 285 Kent, I watched as the careers of young artists who were barely ready to play live were cemented by the presence of the right labels and publicists and media people from the first New York gig, probably greatly for the reason that they all saw each other there. (Proof of this self-fulfilling prophecy being that most of them, myself included, were probably talking over the music anyway, because with the exception of Angel Olsen’s November performance at Glasslands, I can’t remember too many artists that actually made the room fall silent). On the other side of this stockmarket scenario, I saw artists who had experienced much the same treatment during one album cycle find themselves essentially out of a career plan in the next, when writers decided that they were tired of the particular style they happened to play in, criticizing them for very same jangling guitars or arpeggiated synths they had lauded them for in the first place. I don’t think that today’s critical hivemind is necessarily right or wrong in the choices it makes—at the end the day, taste is relative—but I think that pop music history is written by our changing passions and hopeful investments much more than we’d really like to admit. That’s why it’s so disconcerting when you temporarily burn out on the whole thing; you lose all the pleasure and heartbreak of falling in and out of love.

All through my musical confusion, I had been dreading the date when I would set off across the country on a 17-date tour with my band La Big Vic, and be locked into an existence that revolved exclusively around playing and listening to music. Actually, it was more like an endless repetition of music and car rides and food stops and bathroom breaks, but the sheer simplicity of life on tour was, I think, what finally got me wanting to listen to records again. That’s because it also simplified the idea of making and sharing music. On tour, all you’ve got to do is get to the show and play; there’s this sense of easy industry that takes over, your days divided into a sequence of small challenges that, unlike a blogger’s inbox in the morning, you will always get through unless something goes terribly wrong (thankfully, nothing did). We drove through the cornbelt to Wisconsin, then down to Texas and back East through the South, noticing a direct correlation between fluctuations in the landscape and variations on the standard American accent. We played the same songs so many times that we didn’t even have to think about the notes anymore, and realized that they could be vehicles for moods and attitudes that they weren’t meant to express when we wrote them.

We were touring in support of Moonface, one of the many solo aliases of Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krug, and while it’s not something I might ordinarily listen to, the Heartbreaking Bravery album he recorded with Finnish kraut group Siinai was the first piece of new music that I really got to know since my little crisis. He didn’t directly admit it, but I can’t imagine that Spencer was too happy playing rooms about a fourth the size of the rooms he used to play in his Wolf Parade days, though I guess that’s what happens when you start off your career playing before hundreds of people. His brand of rock music was poetry-based and thespian in a way that was markedly of another era (coincidentally, with an earlier phase in buzzy Montreal music), and I think my affection for it, which grew over time, had very much to do with the fact that it sounded a bit dated to me.

Spencer, who was no stranger to the art of musical seduction, was still going strong after all of these years, and you could tell from the way that he tucked his hair behind his ears and beat a tambourine against his chest that he was willing to work hard for his audience. Siinai was, too, and I think my favorite part about listening to Heartbreaking Bravery, night after night, was anticipating a particular guitar wail or drum fill at a particular moment in a song, and then hearing them nail it, but in a different way each time. Idioms come in and out of fashion, but Moonface and Sinaii reminded me of the power of music that is simply very well done. In a larger sense, it reminded me that while us listeners can have a pretty short attention span these days, most albums worth listening to are the product of persistence and careful effort, and they continue to yield rewards for as long as we persist in listening to them.

As part of his bag of onstage tricks, Spencer had this slightly cheesy book routine that he would do during the climax of “Headed For The Door,” a song that described the dissolution of a relationship through the repetition of the words in the title and a lot of very Wagnerian swells and cymbal crashes. Toward the end of the number, the band would get quiet, and Spencer would pull out a heavy-looking tome, hold the book aloft, and launch into a long, spoken monologue that seemed to consist in the reading aloud of a love letter. His words were too low in the mix to discern, so whatever he was reading would take on this special importance, as though it somehow held the secrets to the enigma of his person. It was a classic example of the way that mystery and deprivation function just as well in rock and roll as they do in courtship, but I think I realized after a while that its effectiveness depended just as much on us as it did on him.

Spencer was doing most of the work, but by projecting our private longings and unanswered questions onto the stream of unintelligible words, we were co-creating the magic of the moment, co-creating the sense that Spencer had some secret knowledge that would make life feel a little more meaningful if we were actually able to hear it. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, a tiny college town where the arrival of a touring band was significant enough a local event to attract what felt like pretty much the entire town into the darkened bowls of a beer bar called the Smoke & Barrel, I remember looking out the window during this part of the performance and seeing a line of young boys struggling to catch a glimpse of Spencer, their cheeks pressed up the glass. Admittedly, I haven’t listened that much to the songs on Heartbreaking Bravery since being on tour, but whenever I get overwhelmed by the randomness of life and music, I think of that night, and how more than the sounds themselves, it’s the very basic, psychic exchange between artist and audience that really matters in music. The falling in love part’s the best part, and though it may sound paradoxical, I think reconnecting with the heart is really the only safeguard against the disillusion that arises when everyone around us seems to be falling in and out of love a little too quickly. Sometimes our passions will be fickle, sometimes they will be steadfast, but paying attention to how we select our musical heroes can enrich our experience of music, and also our experience of getting to know ourselves.

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Read more:
  • Matthew Schnipper on accessible rock and romantic comedies.

  • Amber Bravo on female musicians, emphasis on the musicians.

  • Naomi Zeicher In defense of falling apart in public.

  • Duncan Cooper on Taylor Swift, Lil B and loving Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

  • Alex Frank calls Rihanna his woman of the year, for better or worse
  • A Year in Music: Emilie Friedlander