In Defense of Midlake, Blogs, and Rock

Critic Dick Sullivan may have given their last record a lukewarm review, but he thinks Midlake deserves better than footnote status.

Yesterday, Steven Hyden spent 2,000 words on the subject of “blog rock” and none of them were devoted to the locally celebrated Midlake. Hyden couldn’t even give the band a proper main-body backhand, but did manage a dismissive swipe in a footnote, one of Grantland’s staple formulas. The flippancy of this exposed something problematic in current music criticism, which is a dumb, wordy way of saying it touched off one of my rants. Here is the footnote:

“Other blog-rock bands, in no particular order: the Faint, Louis XIV, the Go! Team, the Rapture, Gang Gang Dance, Ponytail, Vivian Girls, the Morning Benders, the Unicorns, Islands, Bishop Allen, Midlake, and Rogue Wave.”

Apparently, Midlake got caught up in the tornado of Hyden’s own rant about “blog rock,” which he loosely describes as “young, mostly urban, predominantly white, ostensibly underground rock bands that were closely associated with Internet culture.” Take note of the adverb “closely.” That’s what makes the definition so pinpoint specific.

It is so obviously straw-man that it should be above Hyden, who writes frequent, brilliant things about the troubled state of music criticism. Here he falls ill to his own diagnoses.  And I might have let him off the hook if I hadn’t taken the Midlake thing so personally. It’s not that I was ever head-over-heels for Midlake. I wrote my own lukewarm review of Antiphon back in November. It was actually Hyden that gave it the glowing review, calling it “probably the best LP Midlake has ever made.” It makes his motivation for including Midlake’s name among other “blog rock” castoffs all the more puzzling.

I keep writing “blog rock” in quotes because I’m still a little amazed that anyone, Hyden included, could consider it a real noun. And it’s probably what actually set me off in the first place. Hyden uses the term almost exclusively in the pejorative to point to a time he considers archaic, when both blogs and rock were considered vital. Both, the logic follows, have outlived their usefulness and so too the bands that bore the moniker.

Here’s my problem with that. There are still blogs. There is still rock music. And none of the bands you mentioned willingly called themselves “blog rock.” To worsen the argument, Hyden starts the piece by mentioning an upcoming album by Clap Your Hands and later throws Midlake under the bus when he gave their new album a thumb up just six months prior. As he sees it, Clap Your Hands has slid into the category of “datedness” because NPR last sang their praises ALL the way back in 2009. Yet both groups are, by the most objective criteria, current.

I really think Hyden wrote the piece just because he hated the name Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. And I won’t cast stones there. But the piece is also symptomatic of the misplaced iconoclasm of music criticism’s new elite, the shrapnel of which just happen to catch our own Midlake and wound my sensibilities. For any number of reasons, this new elite needs to bury bands like Midlake and Clap Your Hands and rock and roll and the guitar and other things we used to cherish. It’s some kind of attachment disorder that is beyond my realm of expertise to treat.

Music criticism is stupid. That has been its enduring quality and the secret of its perseverance. It is one person giving his or her incredibly subjective view of a subjective art and using the best of unjustified hyperbole to do it. The practice is marked by argument, excitement and a comical lack of consensus. It’s stupid and fun as hell. Hyden’s piece loses that wonderful stupidity. It rings more authoritative, the oligarchy come to exile all remnants of the “old way.”

On one hand, Hyden’s point is simple: there used to be some bands that got us excited and they really didn’t have much steam.  But he belabors the point to imply that any artist still making music after a point of relevancy is violating some sort of flimsy ethic. But I’m glad certain bands are still making music that I think is shitty. I’m glad bands like Midlake are still making music that I think is ok. And I’m trying to enjoy the current decade of music while also appreciating the bright spots from the last one. It’s not a real difficult balancing act, Steve. Give it a try.

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