Given Donald Trump’s fake news-abetted presidential swindle, it was unsurprising that artists would use their work this year to address the relationship between the public and the press. What was surprising was how badly some smart acts flubbed it, almost getting swallowed by the thing they sought to satirize. Father John Misty, aka Josh Tillman, is an exquisite troll with a nonpareil understanding of how to play the news cycle — recall the 2016 saga where he claimed to have stolen a cherished rose quartz crystal from ludicrous Los Angeles wellness parlor Moon Juice, then capitalized on the wheeze by selling “Moon Juice Crystal” earrings through his website. He continued in a similar vein this year — two sample 2017 headlines include Father John Misty “Sings About James Comey While Eating Pizza,” and “Says Goodbye to Chuck E. Cheese’s Animatronic House Bands.”
But even his outsized intellect got tangled in his ambition to run rhetorical rings around the media. This March, at the height of the promo campaign for his third album, Pure Comedy, Tillman delivered a louche, startling performance on Saturday Night Live. He later admitted that he was on acid, and recently told Britain’s Uncut that the show coincided with him feeling destabilized by the Misty reputation that marauded through the headlines. “This perception of me is really getting out of control, and it’s really hard to live with,” he had explained to a Sub Pop A&R. (Coincidentally, it was also in March that Tillman, who knows I am no fan, emailed me suggesting that I might like to be his “antagonist pen pal.” I declined.)
He continued, explaining his reactionary relationship to the press: “When I feel unsafe or threatened I get incredibly defensive, and I start thinking that discourse or whatever is going to fail me. Then the ego explodes and I’m thinking fast, I’m seeing a hundred steps further than you are, and there’s no point in even talking to you, because I’m going to insult you, and it’s going to be ugly.”
Antagonism between musicians and the media is nothing new, and the critical disagreement and rampant dueling egos that characterized the prolonged contretemps between, say, Lou Reed and Lester Bangs still exist. But today, a new mutual sickness has emerged from the music news industrial complex, which musicians feed and journalists digest as both attempt to stay afloat in digital spheres weighted against them. There is little more genuine music news happening now than there was before websites started rehashing press releases, ego burnouts, and interpersonal spats. But social media currency and Facebook’s upheaval of traditional publishing models mean that sites like Pitchfork, Stereogum, NME, and Consequence of Sound and dozens more besides are forced to keep the machine pumping, lest a lapse in content distract attentions. Throwaway quotes are turned into headlines, making musicians scrupulously guarded.
It’s frustrating for everyone. The model is broken, but there’s little choice but to perpetuate it. As nauseatingly smug as Arcade Fire’s “Infinite Content” branding was, it contained uncomfortable truths about the game that artists are now forced into playing. They turned the release of fifth album Everything Now into an interminable art project, creating fake news stories that they would later deny, and fake critical takedowns of their unfortunately real record. (My hopes that the campaign would culminate with Everything Now being revealed as the decoy for a decent record went unfulfilled.) But they understood that what Win Butler described to Vulture as the “meat grinder” of today’s music media makes the period pre-release as crucial to an album’s prospects as the Friday morning when fans get to hear it. As Butler said, “there’s not really a story in Band Is Really Amazing at Music and Plays a Live Show and People Cry Because It’s So Beautiful,” so they had to provide a different narrative. They just spectacularly misjudged it. By pre-empting a backlash, a once critically beloved band revealed paranoia over their status, and contempt for the faithful. It seems like some law of physics: The more you try to control something, the more it slips from your grasp.
A white-knuckled narrative grip was similarly visible on 2017 releases by Taylor Swift and St. Vincent. With sixth album reputation, Swift positioned herself as a vengeful victim of bad-faith media. Having entered a new echelon of visibility thanks to some high-profile relationships, Annie Clark satirized celebrity culture by staging neon-hued press conferences to unveil fifth album MASSEDUCTION. Her riffs on the inanity of promotion were funny, her newly haughty demeanor a rejection of the idea that female musicians have to be likeable, or that a woman’s confidence is contingent on external praise. Almost the opposite of Arcade Fire’s promotional flood, she maintained a clipped, hard line in interviews, refusing to humor constructs and inquiries that she thought demeaned her work. But the pose crumbled slightly during an interview with Britain’s New Statesman, undertaken in the middle of a UK tour that proved divisive for its lack of live band and singular focus on Clark. Mistakenly assuming that the writer also hated the show, Clark treated her with contempt, only to apologize the next day. “You carry it with you, you know?” Clark DM’d of the impact of receiving dozens of negative tweets about her show, denting her invincible veneer.
Protracted stories and grabby incidents are a new kind of product — maybe even more important than singles — required to keep an album afloat in the months before its release. In an interview with The Guardian, Swift’s reputation collaborator Jack Antonoff recalled the intent behind “Look What You Made Me Do,” her controversial comeback song: “I remember saying: this is going to make thinkpieces on thinkpieces on thinkpieces!” The journalist asked if Swift minded the ensuing personal scrutiny, considering, y’know, that she seemed to hate that sort of thing. “That was what it was designed for,” he said, baffled. “That was the whole point of that song.” This spirit-sapping enmity prolongs a record’s potential in a market where the release date usually spells the end of its moment in the sun, rather than the start of it. While Taylor Swift’s continued place in the Top 10 is guaranteed at least for a while (even if her singles are bombing), for artists like Father John Misty, Arcade Fire, and St. Vincent — who still code as “indie,” regardless of their deals or sound — one potential week in the Top 10 foreshadows a swift plummet down the charts.
When the President of the United States moans about and threatens the freedom of the press, watching successful artists huff about their treatment by comparatively trivial music news outlets can be distasteful. And these are successful artists — if Swift represents music’s one percent, Father John Misty, St. Vincent, and Arcade Fire are at least upper middle class. “The value of sweating the small stuff, it turns out, depends quite a lot on how much power you have to affect the big stuff,” the New York Times’ Amanda Hess wrote in her recent essay, “Who Doesn’t Love to Be ‘Petty’?” (This bore out in August, when Portland band the Domestics tried to leverage coverage for their new record by sending out packages purporting to be the “Trump/Comey reportings,” with return addresses linked to KKK and Westboro Baptist Church locations. They were dropped by their publicists, parted ways with their label, and spent the next few months apologizing.)
Arcade Fire claimed that the fake news campaign around Everything Now was a partial response to Trump’s election. “It would have been hard for us to just be like, ‘So this is our new record!’” Butler told Vulture. “I wouldn’t know how to not try and address what’s going on in the world.” Still, in purporting to make a self-interested commentary in the real world, Arcade Fire forgot how to make a good song. (Plus, the ugliness of Trump hardly needed filtering through the perspective of a predominantly Canadian rock band.)
Mocking the music news ecosystem is classic pettiness, “a way to make yourself large, staking your claim to a plane of existence far above such irrelevant nonsense,” as Hess writes. It suggests that an artist’s authenticity cannot be contained within the news churn, and insists that fans recognize that we’re being played for mugs, too. In Arcade Fire’s case, you can decipher a strain of resentment there, too: Not only did websites like Pitchfork undeniably stoke their early success, they’re no longer at the center of the site’s agenda. When social media funnels artists into fandom-only lanes, it’s understandable that they think they’re playing to the gallery with this stuff.
But the more absurd aspects of their protests also highlight the new hierarchy of creativity that has emerged, where it’s not necessarily the best stuff that gets through, but the most outlandish. As Antonoff implied, the artists who are the most outraged by this ecosystem are the ones who end up benefitting from it because their distaste for it is so clearly expressed. If there’s a plus side, their provocations ensure that fans remain conscious critical observers rather than passive listeners, a position encouraged by placatory streaming services. These artists are the woke scientists being labeled troublesome cranks; the frog warning his friends that, no, this is not a nice warm bath.
There’s never going to be a peace summit between artists and media to come up with a way to cover this stuff that doesn’t make both parties want to die — particularly because it’s us, as fans, who are driving this dynamic. A story about Father John Misty doing something ridiculous or Arcade Fire being obnoxious will always outrank Great New Song By Little Known Producer, and beget more of the same. Still, it’s worth asking why we’re so compelled by these car crashes. These artists are taking a stand over feeling minimized by a trivial system, and who hasn’t felt a sense of injustice at not being taken seriously? Their chaotic campaigns reflect 2017’s general sense of cultural chaos and shifting power structures, and it’s easy to recognize and fear our own worst impulses in them. I love Swift’s critically maligned “Look What You Made Me Do” because I, too, am a rhythmically challenged 28-year-old woman who works hard to conceal my vindictive side, but does not always succeed.
At the end of the first full year of Trump’s presidency, and its cavalcade of assaults and feeble apologies, I’m surprised to find myself most captivated by the artists who dare to reveal their naked self-interest, their intense desire to control their public perception. At least this unsympathetic theater of the absurd denies the now obviously untenable charade that everyone operates from a baseline level of virtue. Saying that, I’m aware that nobody in their right mind could take another draining year of meta album rollouts. When every record right now is a healthy fish born into a toxic lake, both artists and media have it in their best interests to drain the swamp.