But I digress. What's really fascinating about The Dude's retort is how dramatically its sense is changed by reversing the sentence structure: "You're an asshole, but you're not wrong." It's no longer a statement of bare tolerance of some dunderhead's invective; it's grudging acquiescence to the fact that someone thoroughly unlikeable has made an incontestable argument. It's a less-condescending version of the old "broken clock" saw, and - to me - not a bad rhetorical position to be in at all.
Steve Albini is a man whose whole public persona hinges on being this asshole-who's-not-wrong. He's clearly unconcerned with whether or not people "like" him, though he's rarely been prone to the kind of cartoonish abuse Tesco Vee used to heap upon the world at large. So it should come as no surprise that I woke up today to find see the following headlines around the interwebs:
- Steve Albini Goes Off on Sonic Youth
- Steve Albini adds Sonic Youth to the list of things he's pissed off about today
There's already been some considerable discussion here about Sonic Youth's "curatorial" stance, and ultimately I think they played that role well. Other bands who crossed over (e.g. Nirvana) made token gestures towards their underground peers by wearing T-shirts or name-dropping in interviews, but few were as urgent in championing music's margins as Sonic Youth. Had they not signed to Geffen, some other band would've torn a wormhole between the under- and above-ground; the commercial incursion into indie music would happen sooner or later. I think Sonic Youth understood this and worked to foster a more faithful relationship between the audience and underground music, a relationship that could've easily been superficial, fickle, and fleeting. As I wrote before:
The problem, then, is not of revolutionary intent or lack thereof, but of what if the revolution succeeds? As pure as it may be then to wipe one's hands, declare the job done, and ride off into the sunset, this leaves the freshly razed ground at the mercy of tyrants & thugs - be it Stalin or the Universal Music Group. Not to forfeit what was fought for requires the victors to become stewards of the movement - in artistic terms, curators. Though this role is frequently disdained for plasticising new forms and jealously protecting legacies, good curators use their seniority to support & shepherd younger artists flush with potential. Even if popular taste swings away, a safe haven for bold thinkers & iconoclasts will have been carved out, with nothing ceded for the sake of fame or money.Where I think Albini is absolutely right in his criticism is that Sonic Youth "[took] a lot of people who didn't have aspirations or ambitions and encouraged them to be part of the mainstream music industry." In the sleeve photos for Goo (SY's first album for Geffen) and the video for "Kool Thing", the band adopted the glam-trash strut and Ray Ban-shaded thousand-yard stare of marquee-topping Rock Stars. It was clearly an ironic goof, laughing at the hilarity that a band once described as "pigfucker rock" were being ushered into the megawatt glare of mainstream success. But Albini identified the dangerous ambiguity of this stance in an interview last year:
If you see it as somewhat of an irony that someone from your background would be in the mainstream, you’re more inclined to participate in it. My experience has been that the more comfortable that outsiders get saying and doing stupid shit, the more the ironic distance narrows. And the ironic distance eventually narrows to a point of nothing. Then you have this sort of ascendancy where something from the underground, by ironically adopting the mannerisms of the mainstream, becomes the mainstream.The immediate rebuttal that pretty much everyone has slung at Albini is that he engineered some of "alternative" rock's major-backed breakthrough albums, both good (PJ Harvey's Rid of Me) and bad (Bush's Razorblade Suitcase). Pitchfork writer Ryan Dombal snickers, "Perhaps he never cashed those checks?" But this cuts right to the heart of why Albini qualifies himself as an engineer, not a producer. Whereas a producer coaxes & sculpt the music to elicit a desired emotional response, an engineer must simply document a band with maximum fidelity. Any engineer worth their fee will have a workmanlike, time-to-make-the-donuts approach, because they are a technician, not an artist. Whether or not the band is any good (let alone "cool") is not Albini's problem. He isn't there to fuss over lyrics, make the chorus "pop", or tighten the drummer up with Beat Detective; he's there to capture a band's performance as transparently & truthfully as possible. If the chorus ain't catchy, if the tempo wobbles a few b.p.m., if the guitarist's tone is like an electric baloney sandwich pumped through a 10" thrift-store Squire amp, that's on the band, not Albini.
And there’s an ironic defense that people use who want to maintain some perspective on themselves of being outside of mainstream culture that allows them to do crass, gross, grasping things with the idea that “it’s O.K. because it’s me doing it because I’m doing it for all the right reasons. I’m doing it for our team” as it were. That’s the point when the ironic distance narrows and the person becomes the thing he was previously a parody of.