Tom Breihan provokes C-ville audience with blunt talk

It’s amazing what credentials can do. Last Tuesday, credentials proved the only way to differentiate between a lengthy diatribe on pop culture from a man on the street and a thought-provoking discussion led by famed media critic Tom Breihan at Open Grounds. Needless to say, it was a good thing they read Breihan’s resume before he started talking.

Breihan got his start writing for the Baltimore City Paper and doing freelance work, before moving on to the Village Voice as one of the first people ever to be “paid for writing a music blog,” as he put it. Eventually, Breihan got a gig at famous — or infamous — internet music criticism slaughterhouse Pitchfork Media. He eventually moved to Charlottesville, leaving Pitchfork for a senior editor position at the website Stereogum.

Throughout his hour-long talk, Breihan addressed some current trends in music, the state of the music criticism field in general, and numerous other topics which seemed to cross his mind at random.

“The two best ways to figure out what’s actually popular in music and what’s moving people are listening to car radio for an extended period of time and going to a wedding,” Breihan said, sitting nonchalantly at the front of the room sipping a paper cup of ‘whiskey.’ “And I did both of those things last weekend.”

Breihan’s central claim was that a “need for smoothness and agreeableness” has been dominant in recent pop music, citing the top hits of the summer — “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk, “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and “Mirrors” by Justin Timberlake — as evidence of “excessively smoothed out,” “chill” and “very professional” songs, a trend which has dominated the charts and crossed genres.

The “big guy in rap” isn’t Rick Ross, whose “hard street rap” is no longer mainstream-friendly, Breihan said, nor is it Jay-Z, who is old and makes “bad music,” but rather Drake, whose utter lack of street-cred doesn’t seem to be a problem in a genre where “hardness” was previously a dominant trait. He dropped a few lesser known names — HAIM, Darkside and Chvrches — as evidence that independent groups are embracing the smooth, and getting popular for it.

Breihan did, however, mention notable exceptions to this trend: Danny Brown’s “Old,” possibly his “favorite album of the year;” battle-rap duo Run the Jewels; and guitar-based bands Savages and Deafheaven. Kanye West, he said, is also a mainstream exception to the pop culture trend. His album “Yeezus” is “out of step with everything going on in pop music,” Breihan said.

The biggest exception in Breihan’s eyes, however, is child-star turned celebrity train-wreck Miley Cyrus, whose “entire persona is willfully against the grain.” Still, Breihan called Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” “the best song anybody has made in the year 2013” and said that he “will fight anybody who says otherwise,” drawing more than a few strange looks from those in the audience.

He argued that Cyrus’ fame was catapulted by television, part of an overall trend highlighting the importance of video production.

“Television has absolutely and completely superseded music as the thing that people care about and the thing that people like you want to write about,” Breihan said, advising aspiring writers to prepare for television-dominated pop culture.

The abrasive speaker didn’t get away without insulting a few in the audience — notably responding to one question about the decline of indie rock that indie bands faded away when “they started making s****y music.” Polarizing though he was, Breihan proved, as a man who spends more time surfing the internet and dissecting popular culture than most of us spend doing anything, hard to refute.

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