If you’ve been alive in the United States and anything but slightly comatose these past few years, you’ve probably noticed how the state of corporate governance in this country is, to put it mildly, fucked. We all know the buzzwords, the proper nouns and names that now stand in for large, dizzyingly complex (to the average schmuck) and nefarious schemes that transformed overnight into heinous scandals: ENRON, WORLDCOM, TYCO, HEALTHSOUTH, AIG, etc., etc. The figures — both “good” and “bad” — that have played roles in the schemes, scandals, and their eventual (I hope) censures and convictions are all-too-familiar as well: Ken Lay, Andy Fastow, Sherri Watkins, Richard Scrushy, Eliot Spitzer, Harvey Pitt, George W. Bush, Bernie Ebbers, Dennis Kozlowski, etc. ad nauseum (I’m not counting Martha Stewart because 1. what she did was personal impropriety that really didn’t have any bearing on her company and 2. who cares anyway? insider trading isn’t nearly as bad a crime (tho still a crime) as defrauding billions of dollars from investors)).
If you follow the twisted, self-serving logic of the market-boosters, privatization-jingoists, and our current “administration,” these scandals are all mere aberrations, tiny harmless pimples on the overall white pasty ass that is the American body business. It’ll pass, they say. Trust us, they say. The stock market gives consistent returns over time, they say. The markets are rational, they say. And so on and so forth.
Like many Americans, I am simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by what passes for ethical “business” these days. I find myself watching a hell of a lot of CNBC — almost in equal doses with whatever baseball’s on and the occasional VH1 clip show (that I’ve seen a million times), the Weather Channel, and any policy briefing or committee hearing on C-SPANs 1 and 2. I suspect that unlike a lot of CNBC viewers, I don’t have that much of a personal stake in what’s being broadcast because, hey, I’m broke, but still there’s something oddly compelling in whatever’s roiling the markets on whichever minute I tune in. The business of America being business, after all, as one of our more notably dumb presidents once proclaimed.
A good scandal has always drawn more viewers throughout history than any success story: just ask Shakespeare, whose tragedies are far better known than his comedies (c’mon, don’t disagree — more people quote Hamlet than As You Like It). The late 1990s are behind us, and the talking heads that once cheered on the markets with such rah-rah notions as “the new economy” and “just-in-time” and “synergies” are now gleefully delighting in watching their once-touted captains fall into “early retirement,” as they’re replaced by (fingers crossed) more “capable” stewards of industry. And that’s fine, that’s only human, after all.
One of the things that I find so funny, or maybe so poignant, or maybe just finally a good idea, is now the talking heads — when chatting up some investment bank analyst or some fund portfolio manager about the investment du jour — disclose the stakes. So yeah, I can really find out whether Richard Pinstripes III of Morgan Stanley’s wife and kids have holdings in SleazeCo., as if that’s gonna change much of his analysis (“BUY!” “SELL!” “HOLD!” — oh wait, they’re using more neutral language now, and not yelling any more).
So what the fuck does this have to do with your dumb music blog and the ridiculously-insular musiccrit world in general, you say? Admittedly, not a whole lot. The stakes are low. Perhaps you could call it defrauding if a bunch of people buy whatever crappy album some blog is peddling, but at most we’re only talking a few thousand bucks, not trillions of dollars erased overnight.
And yet, there’s something about the unbridled enthusiasm in “our” tiny little insignificant fiefdom that still rankles. Even with the advent of downloading (full disclosure: this “analyst” could give a fuck about listening to music on a computer, just about the worst mediums possible for listening aside from the interiors of steam plant turbines), do we really need to hear and endorse everything we’re hearing and endorsing? Is all of it really so “great?” What happens when the next big thing turns out to not, say, deliver in a different setting (ie. album vs. live)?
Ultimately, there’s not a whole lot you can do. In the 1990s, there were a few voices in the wilderness, on the sidelines (Gretchen Morgenstern and Thomas Frank come to mind) pointing out that the referees had fallen asleep, the coaches were moving the chains, the players were helping each other cheat, and the crowd was still cheering wildly. And those few voices — the ones with, hey! a sense of fairness and propriety, maybe — were just dismissed as humbugs. Like I said, the stakes are much smaller for what this particular unread and dusty corner of the internet touches on, and I’ve been pegged as a humbug long long ago anyway, but I can’t dismiss the nagging feeling that today’s music bloggers are yesterday’s Henry Blodgets.
So here it is, full disclosure: I only write about shit I like. I hardly, if ever, receive promos from anybody, unless I ask for them, which is also rare. I don’t post mp3s — nothing against people who do, but I don’t see much point, plus if what I write really compels you to hear something (yeah, right), you can spend the bucks on it yourself. What I write about is made by people (yes, people) who may or may not need your help/money/time/attention/whatever. I dunno. I’m not sure that I do, myself, but I’m still writing anyways. I have never taken, nor asked, nor been offered any cash in exchange for a review (though many of the few crappy promos I’ve received over time have been exchanged for minimal amounts of cash or records I’m more interested in hearing). Don’t get me wrong, though: it’s not some uncompromising ethical stand I’m shooting for here. I’d be willing to sell out, if only there was anybody buying.