Commentary

Hype machine creates an uneasy feeling

Updated: September 29, 2009, 8:12 AM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

While ogling hipsters in Williamsburg, N.Y., I was startled to notice, on a telephone pole in front of me, a bill promoting a now-past concert that included a friend from another life. I first saw Andrew Katz on a grainy tape sent from New York. He was auditioning for the part of the young, foreign player named Oggie in our television pilot, "The 12th Man." I was watching the tape with the show's director and executive producer. Later, Katz tested for -- and won -- the role in front of heads of the comedy department at Fox.

Courtesy of Young TurksHear and see more about The xx.

Had our pilot been made slightly funnier by us, or had we stopped it from being mangled by those same department heads, Katz would have had his big break: a major supporting role in a network sitcom. Even if that role hadn't led to screen stardom, he would have made a significant amount of money. Not that money or fame was what made Katz tick. When we called to tell him that he'd gotten the role, we caught him in the middle of "Walden" in a New York park.

Picking Katz was certainly not arbitrary; he was miles better than most of the actors who auditioned. But any of several other young men probably would have done the job as well. And not because Andrew Katz isn't talented. He is. But any margin between him and the next-best candidate was thin, if it existed at all. Had our sitcom launched him to superstardom, I would have been happy for him, but I would have wondered about what might have been for the actors who didn't get the part.

I ponder the same when I listen to two bands that have recently burst onto the indie scene through consistent hype on music blogs and Web sites.

The xx (pronounced "the xx," as opposed to "the double x") are an English band whose debut album was released in the United States in August. Its hallmark is the breathless call and response style of singer-guitarist Romy Madley Croft and singer-bassist Oliver Sim. Most of the songs are best described as sparse; listening to the album front-to-back makes me think of a deserted downtown in a big city on an overcast Sunday afternoon. For the more indie-familiar reader, I would say that The xx sound like The Kills after 12 days on tranquilizers.

I think The xx's first album, which, of course, carries the same name as the band, is good. But I'm not sure it deserves the runaway praise it has gotten -- the notoriously curmudgeonly writers at Pitchfork gave it an 8.7 out of 10. My problem doesn't lie with The xx or with Pitchfork. The xx make basic music that could only barely be described as rock and is probably best described by an acronym I'm about to create: BGFOSE, for Boy/Girl Folk Over Slow Electronica. So, while their name suggests something much more aggressive, theirs is not music that will go on most people's workout mix.

While I like The xx, I would feel strange in heaping too many accolades on their music. I have a hunch plenty of music like this is available and wonder why The xx have been selected as the chosen representative of the genre I've awkwardly named. Of course, that's not to say there is plenty of good BGFOSE available. But, the simplicity of their music suggests that other musicians could probably pull off a similar sound.

I've had the same reaction to another buzzworthy band-slash-collective-slash-artist. The Very Best is a collaboration between the Malawi-reared Esau Mwamwaya and the British producing duo Radioclit. The group, which is how I will refer to them for the remainder of this piece because the act of calling something a collaboration in multiple sentences seems like it would get annoying, released a mix tape that involved artists such as MIA and Santigold in 2008. The critical response was overwhelmingly positive, a fact I learned only this summer, when I was sent their debut full-length and did some research. I am not so plugged in that I know of every Malawian tribal chant record immediately after its release.

I like The Very Best's "Warm Heart of Africa." The album makes me happy and it's not quite like anything else I've heard lately. But I'm afraid to get into it too much. It seems lemminglike to write that I suddenly found an intense love for African music in my musical soul. African music has been around for a long time and, while I have absolutely no personal experience to back up the following statement, it would seem that I could find a plethora of it if I made the effort. Why then, was this group selected as the gateway drug -- the Jackie Robinson, if you will -- for this style of music? Is it because The Very Best is that good? Or was it that someone happened to be in the right place at the right time? Did a Mwamwaya demo fall out of a car into the street, only to land in the hands of the boys from Radioclit as they came out of the theater, having just watched "The Last King of Scotland" and with Africa on their minds?

Courtesy of Green Owl RecordsHear and see more about The Very Best.

It's folly to begrudge someone that they were in the proverbial right place at the equally proverbial right time. And again, I like The xx and The Very Best. But, just as I wonder what might have become of Andrew Katz's runners-up, I wonder who else is out there in the genres The xx and The Very Best appear to be leading.

If I were to make that statement to most people, they might say, "Why don't you find out?" It would be the correct thing to say. But I already know that I don't generally love BGFOSE. And I already know that I don't go gaga for African music. I like both occasionally, but I'm not going to fill my iPod with Mates of State or with Fela Kuti. I'm not opposed to allowing them to take up residence on the hard drive, but if I were forced to choose between them and Interpol, Paul Banks and his friends would get to stay.

Those same people -- if my query about what else exists in various genres were posed to them -- might also ask why they should listen to me. Am I not attempting to perform the same taste-making function? That, too, would be a fair and appropriate question. My hope is that I'll have made it clear that my opinions, while potentially interesting, aren't the only subject of these columns. My goal is to express how I react to the music I hear, and to the music I've heard.

My reaction won't always be the same as yours, but by explaining the process of my reaction, it is my hope that you will be better able to understand your own.

Plus, I know I'm wrong at least 30 percent of the time. I just like a good argument.

When I consider genre invasions, Outkast comes to mind. I like Outkast and own a few of their albums. But to me, it seemed disingenuous when alternative radio suddenly deemed their music to be the "safe" or "indie" rap music. When I'd hear them introduced, I registered an uneasy feeling. Not uneasy like "I'm afraid of death" or uneasy like "I might have just pooped my pants." Uneasy like, "It feels like someone is making decisions for me."

I don't think I was wrong to feel uneasy. There are other rap acts that could have made the jump to alternative radio. Common, A Tribe Called Quest,and Atmosphere come to mind. And in some places, those artists did make that jump. But the initiation of the Outkast jump was a striking one. To me, that is.

My paranoia is probably merely a manifestation of my own weirdness, and I wouldn't recommend overanalyzing it. Nonetheless, I can't help but worry a little when it feels like someone else is pulling the strings on the marionette that is music consumption.

Now, it's time for your part. Have a listen. Tell me if I'm thinking too much. (Probably.) Tell me the timelessness of The xx's music outweighs its plainness. (Maybe.) Tell me to put on The Very Best and then to, in the words of Aerosmith, shut up and dance. (Definitely.) Or don't tell me anything. (Acceptably.)

For The xx on lala.com, find the song "Crystallized" here.

For The Very Best, I recommend "Chalo" here.

Enjoy.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.

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