Earlier this year, on my Twitter feed, I said something to the effect of “I can think of no argument against Demi Lovato’s music career.” It was a statement I thought twice about making publicly, and honestly, if I had been standing in a room full of music critics, I’m not sure I would have said it, at least not without an open bar. You see, even though a lot of the stereotypes about us writer types aren’t true — we don’t all look like Elvis Costello, and we aren’t all bitter, failed musicians — you’ll probably always be able to make at least one sadly broad generalization about rock critics: A lot of us worry far too much about how we’re perceived by our peers and readers. As has been pointed out countless times (usually by people who are pissed off that their favorite band gets shitty reviews), there’s an absurd level of groupthink among music critics, and there always has been — and the Internet has, if anything, made it worse, because now, instead of having to type out and mail a letter to Rolling Stone or a local newspaper, all it takes to grind your axe is typing out an anonymous comment.
Anyway, back to young Miss Lovato. I have the good fortune of being too old to worry much about my hipness quotient — and when I was younger, I was dumb enough to think writing four-star reviews of Toto and Bruce Willis records was the epitome of brave iconoclasm — but I’m still aware of the rock-crit parameters: There are acts that have cred, and those that don’t, and never the twain shall meet. I can’t pretend this hasn’t colored my outlook at least a little, and I think any writer who denies the same is either a liar or delusional; this is why, when we hear that one of the designated uncool bands has a new album coming out, we know it’s okay to mock it without hearing it. This isn’t what we’re supposed to do — it flies in the face of a discipline grounded in the idea that art can be appraised at least semi-objectively — but deep in the heart of most critics is a scrawny middle school kid who desperately wants to be cool, and stepping out of line is not what we do best.
I suppose the above paragraphs make it sound like I’m presenting myself as a brave exception to the rule, but I’m not. If I do step out of line, it’s because I’m not Chuck Klosterman or Rob Sheffield, and I don’t have much cred to damage; I’ve been fortunate enough to build a certain level of mild renown on the Web, but not enough to have to worry about scores of negative comments from people who think my work sucks — and perhaps more importantly, my livelihood doesn’t hinge on creating the impression that I have cutting-edge taste. If paying my bills meant acting like a big Menomena fan, then I have to be honest — that’s probably what I’d do, even though I’d suck at it and hate myself, and — here’s where I get to the point of this whole post — I would certainly never admit to not being able to come up with an argument against the Fray’s self-titled sophomore effort.
In all honesty, I approached The Fray with an acceptable level of that unprofessional sarcasm I was talking about; I had dodged most of the band’s debut, with the obvious exception of “Cable Car,” a song that always reminded me of Grey’s Anatomy even though I’ve never seen an episode of the show. I wanted to hear The Fray for the same reason I own the collected works of Asia and Kansas — and the same reason I got into this racket in the first place, really: I love hearing stuff, even if only once, and even if it sucks real bad. (Sometimes especially if it sucks real bad, but that’s another story.) But the more I listened to the album, the more I…well, not liked it, exactly, but I certainly started to appreciate its glossy, monolithic competence.
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid hearing the Fray for the last four years, I’ll try to describe their sound for you here. You know how when Coldplay came out with its first album, people made fun of them for taking the most easily marketable aspects of Radiohead’s sound and turning them into midtempo music for secretaries and asshole college freshmen? Well, imagine a band that takes the most easily marketable aspects of Coldplay‘s sound, crosses them with Mike & the Mechanics’ greatest hits, and sprinkles two scoops of melodrama over the whole mealy mess. It’s pop by numbers, for people who can’t count higher than three.
Except here’s the thing: Even though I know I’m supposed to, I don’t hate it. I’m not even indifferent to it. In fact, I find it sort of comforting, even if I’m not really sure why. My friend and co-worker Mike Farley thinks it’s because I’ve written songs of my own, and I know how difficult it is to write something that sounds so easy, but I’m not so sure — partly because I’m secure in the knowledge that I was barely a songwriter, and partly because I don’t respond to the Fray’s songs on an intellectual level. No, it’s worse: I can actually feel a few of their songs pulling my emotional levers. I see what the band is up to, but it doesn’t matter — when I hear the new album’s strongest track, “Ungodly Hour” (download), I feel pretty much the way they want me to feel. (Specifically: melodramatically morose for no good reason whatsoever.)
True story: I was halfway through writing this piece when I flew out to Arizona to be a part of my younger brother’s wedding. Imagine my surprise when the bride and groom danced their first dance to a Fray song (“Look After You” [download]). At first, I wasn’t even thinking about my editorial; I was too overcome with surprise that someone who shares my DNA would decide to kick off his wedded life with something by a C+ pop outfit like this one. And then all of a sudden I fucking got choked up and I finally, totally understood the peculiar genius inherent in this type of music: It’s designed to make you feel like your whole life is a wedding reception, or a funeral, or anything more meaningful than whatever it is you’re doing in your cubicle right now. We heap scorn on this stuff because it tries so hard and so obviously, but really, pop music has been suffering a pretty severe earnestness drought since the early ’90s. Oh, you can still find it — in fact, you can damn near kill yourself on it, providing you’re a fan of adult contemporary or country — but the salty tidal wave of irony and anger that swept over Top 40 radio 15 years ago still hasn’t dried up completely; these days, if someone scores a hit with his heart on his sleeve, it’s the exception (Alicia Keys’ “No One”) instead of the rule (BeyoncÁƒ©’s “Single Ladies”).
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all, and I think it’s important to remember that it needed to happen — by the end of the ’80s, your average Top 40 listener’s only source of musical humor came from Phil Collins videos, and millions of people were perfectly willing to accept that Richard Marx meant every word he said — but it’s just as important to remember that music is supposed to make us feel something, and even if groups like the Fray are frequently embarrassing in their attempts to take us to that special place, I can at least understand their appeal to someone who’s surrounded by Lady Gaga and Flo Rida. When you’ve numbed yourself to anodized lab creations like “My Humps” and the Pussycat Dolls, even an awkward attempt to trigger honest emotion feels refreshing, doesn’t it?
Of course, it’s easy to make the argument that people whose musical diet consists of whatever the radio or television happens to feed them don’t deserve to hear anything worth listening to, but that’s just snobby — which brings us back to the beginning of this piece, and to Popdose’s reason for being, really: the idea that popular culture is its own reward, and our shared experience of it would be richer if it weren’t colored by fear. And what’s more, “pop culture” encompasses a deeper, broader spectrum than we tend to think. This is esoteric stuff, I admit, and I sort of hate each member of the Fray for inspiring me to type it, but on the other hand, I have to admit it’s kind of perfect. Now, would I admit this to a room full of bitter, failed musicians who look like Elvis Costello? Probably not. But I’m working on it.