Monday, February 13, 2012

Requiem For A Popcast

In my younger days I was fond of quoting the maxim (invented by myself): "All newspapers are lies but the New York Times has the lies you need to know." While I don't feel quite the same way, perhaps that's why I continued to listen to the New York Times Music Popcast, their "weekly guide to new music," even though it was frequently unintentionally hilarious.


Now, without fanfare, and with almost as much notice, the Gray Lady has summarily cancelled production of most of their podcasts, citing financial reasons.

So here's a brief obituary of the Popcast - why I won't miss it and why I will. A little bit. When I first started listening, it was introduced by Tom Kuntz, then the Pop Music Editor. While he had a boyish enthusiasm for the idea of the podcast, he seemed to lack all feeling for music. Every time he spoke I would wonder why he was the Pop Music Editor and when he said the name Beyonce, which was distressingly often, it sounded like he was reading a phonetic translation from Swahili. Fortunately, he was only there to set up the episode before passing it on to one or another of the NYT's Pop Music critics - mainly Jon Pareles, Ben Ratliff, Nate Chinen, and Jon Caramanica. Although Kuntz soon moved on, the format basically stayed unchanged until the podcast's demise.

Now these are all intelligent guys, who have risen to the top of their profession, and who often write good articles and publish acclaimed books. Unfortunately, none of them have an especially dynamic vocal presence. Also, as the weeks went by, it became quickly clear that the content, based partially on their taste, I assume, and partially on editorial concerns (the Paper Of Record and all that), was not so much a guide to "new music," but a guide to new recordings, which is not quite the same thing.

What this meant in practice was long conversations over-analyzing music which is already highly publicized, top-selling, and, that will, I believe, prove fairly disposable - Beyonce, again, Rick Ross, Brad Paisley, Adele, L'il Wayne, etc. After a while, I had to wonder who the audience was for this. For pop culture semioticians the discourse was not deep enough and for the people who actually purchase those types of records or mp3's, it was likely far too involved. There is also the unseemly vision of grown men getting home from work and firing up the computer to play the latest from Taylor Swift. For their own enjoyment.

So why did I keep listening? Besides those "lies you need to know" there were the occasional flashes of brilliance, as when Jon Pareles introduced me to Calle 13's spectacular Residante O Visitante. While their subsequent albums have not struck the same chord with me, this was in nearly constant play in 2007 and will go down as one of the best of that year - not to mention that decade. Also, cultural critic Larry Rohter often showed up to investigate music from around the world or from older niches of America. He combined good reporting with a fan's enthusiasm to very satisfying effect. He ought to have his own podcast. Ben Ratliff occasionally had the space to display his jazz and metal chops, critically speaking, which are well known from his books.

As for Jon Caramanica, his self-satisfied belief that the most commercial stuff is on the cutting edge is one of the main reasons I won't miss the Popcast. When I like stupid stuff, I don't make great claims for it. Some things can't - or shouldn't - be explained. About the only time I've agreed with him since he joined the Times was his recent takedown of The Black Keys, Foster The People, etc., which was long overdue.

So no need to shed a tear for the Popcast. There are plenty of other podcasts to help you find new music, which I will explore in the future.




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